NFL Draft News & Analysis

From national champion to top-40 draft prospect: Why Mike Sainristil checks all the boxes for teams in need of a 'football player'

Picture this: It’s Jan. 8, 2024. It’s the fourth quarter of the College Football Playoff National Championship. There are just under five minutes left on the clock, and Michigan is up by 14. Washington has the ball and is driving down the field. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. drops back on Fourth-and-23 and heaves the ball up the middle, only for it to be picked off by Wolverines cornerback Mike Sainristil, securing a national championship victory for the Maize and Blue.

It was a game-sealing pick that capped a season filled with big plays and put a bow on a glistening college career.

But as special as the achievement was, its attainment was almost improbable. From Sainristil's early years, such a storybook conclusion to a collegiate sports journey seemed beyond the realm of possibility. He wasn’t even allowed to play football at first, as his mother worried for her son’s safety due to his smaller frame and preferred that he stick with soccer or lacrosse.

Yet, here he stands, on the brink of hearing his name called in the 2024 NFL Draft.

The path to becoming a Michigan man

Sainristil's path to becoming a key cog in Michigan's defense wasn't straightforward.

Billed as a three-star recruit from Everett High School in Massachusetts, he first committed to the Virginia Tech Hokies after receiving an offer during his junior year. It was an offer he accepted quickly, without even informing his parents.

But as time passed, he started to feel like that was a premature decision and chose to keep his options open. After committing to the Hokies as a wide receiver/cornerback in February of 2018, he made an official visit to Michigan four months later and flipped his pledge to the Wolverines in November.

“Everything about Michigan felt right. I took a visit. The players were cool, and the staff was cool. It just felt like family right off the bat. So, you know, flipping wasn't really that much of a hard decision for me. I'm glad I made that decision to come to Michigan.” Sainristil told PFF in an exclusive interview.

The turning point came when he discovered how much defensive coordinator Don Brown and head coach Jim Harbaugh cared about him and his family. Sainristil recalled Brown frequently visiting him and his mother, which proved how much the program would value him not only as a player but as a person.

“When he [Brown] would come in the area, he'd always stop by to say hi to my mom, whether he was seeing me or not… And to me, I enjoyed seeing that… it means they're going to take care of me when I'm there, you know what I mean?”

Mike Sainristil: PFF grades and rank among qualifying Big Ten players
Season Position Snaps PFF grade PFF grade rank
2023 CB 684 81.4 6th of 48
2022 CB 689 83.3 6th of 51
2021 WR 433 60.0 n/a
2020 WR 193 53.8 n/a
2019 WR 173 64.1 n/a

While Brown initially recruited Sainristil to play defense, he spent the first three years in Ann Arbor as a wide receiver and didn't play a single snap on the defensive side of the ball.

From 2019 to 2021, the Everett, Mass., native ran 458 routes, catching 37 of his 69 targets for 541 yards, 18 first downs and five touchdowns.

Three of those five scores came on passes thrown 10-plus yards downfield, all wildly impressive plays that showcase exactly what he brings to the table now as a defensive back. His diving catch through contact against Wisconsin showed his ball skills and determination at the catch point. His one-handed snag against Maryland showed his top-tier athleticism.

But the one touchdown that particularly stands out is his first, an 8-yard slant route he took another 18 yards after the catch for the score, breaking two tackles along the way. It's a play that epitomizes exactly what teams will be getting with him: a fiery, physical competitor with quick footwork, control and balance. A football player.

Sainristil's average draft position in the PFF mock draft simulator.

Shortly before the start of the 2022 campaign, Sainristil started taking more reps on the defensive side of the ball, and it soon became clear that he'd need to dust off the skills that made him such a coveted high school recruit.

He entered the season as the starting cornerback, a move that could not have gone better. He found his groove on defense, raising his overall PFF grade from the low 60s to the mid-80s.

The redshirt junior not only made an immediate impact in coverage, but he also helped as a pass-rusher and run-stopper. His 88.9 run-defense grade ranked ninth among all cornerbacks that year, while his 26 run stops ranked fifth. He gave up 43 catches and 446 yards from 66 targets, allowing just one touchdown. And while it may have taken the best part of a season for him to catch his first interception, it certainly came at the right time — in the College Football Playoff Semifinal vs. TCU.

This was the only game the Wolverines lost in that 2022 season, a game that proved to be the motivating factor for Michigan’s 2023 success.

The 2023 College Football Playoff Run

The Michigan Wolverines certainly did not lack motivation after that playoff loss. And part of what made the 2023 roster so special was the sheer number of NFL prospects who returned to compete one more time for the national championship.

“For the most part, it was just us getting ourselves to recommit to the basics, falling back to the little details and falling in love with the little details,” Sainristil said. “Because we knew we had the talent, the coaching. The extra step for us was just making sure that we were clean. And that's off the field, in the locker room, on the field, in our playbooks — you name it.”

After breaking out as a junior in 2022, Sainristil knew he had to step up as a leader for the Michigan secondary in his final year. In staff meetings, he made it a point to thoroughly familiarize himself with the game plan so that he could effectively bring the rest of the defensive backs up to speed.

“I felt that it was very beneficial to do that, just to get it from the coach's point of view and understand why we're calling certain things, certain situations, certain down and distances, different things like that,” he said, looking back on his game-week preparation.

The galvanization of that defense was clear to anyone who turned on a Michigan game last season, and Sainristil was at the forefront.

He raised his coverage grade from 77.8 to 85.0, a top-25 mark among the nation's cornerbacks. He recorded six interceptions and six pass breakups and forced two more fumbles than the year prior. He allowed only 29 catches and 412 yards from 50 targets, with quarterbacks managing just a 71.8 passer rating on throws into his coverage.

His highest-graded game of the campaign came against Iowa in the Big Ten title game. He recorded one pass breakup, three pressures and one sack to finish with an 89.4 PFF grade. It was a performance that helped Michigan secure the one seed in the College Football Playoff.

Mike Sainristil: PFF coverage grades and ranks among FBS cornerbacks since 2022
Season PFF coverage grade Rank
2023 85.0 24th of 496
2022 77.8 T-70 of 519

In a testament to his leadership, dedication and competitiveness, he played a season-high 71 snaps in the national championship game. He wanted to be out there competing and helping his team win a title, which is exactly what he did with that game-sealing interception late in the fourth quarter.

The Wolverines have certainly accomplished a lot in the past few years, but Sainristil went on to name his three favorite memories during that time:

  1. Winning the National Championship over Washington in 2023.
  2. Beating Ohio State in the Horseshoe and planting a Michigan flag right in the middle of Ohio State's “O.”
  3. His first-ever interception, which he grabbed in the 2022 College Football Playoff.

The first answer comes as no surprise, especially since it was Michigan’s first title since 1997.

“It was the best feeling ever. There's really no true word to describe the emotion I was feeling.”

Now Sainristil has an NFL future on his mind. His two seasons as a starter at Michigan yielded several 80th-percentile finishes in PFF's stable metrics, including coverage grade at outside cornerback, coverage grade on quicker throws and coverage grade on passing plays from a clean pocket.

As it became clear that his consistent play wasn't waning in 2023, his draft stock soared. Sainristil slotted in at No. 137 on PFF's initial top-175 big board. With the 2024 NFL Draft just days away, he sits at No. 34 in the final top-320 rankings.

Mike Sainristil's percentile ranks in the most stable metrics of cornerback play.

The Road to the 2024 NFL Draft

Michigan’s eventual championship-winning roster was destined to be torn apart by the 2024 NFL Draft, from quarterback J.J. McCarthy to Sainristil himself. McCarthy was Sainristil’s foe in practice and the team’s leader on game days. They sharpened each other's skills, and their names are now etched into College Football Playoff history. And soon they’ll be called during the draft.

“[McCarthy is] a complete football player, a guy who’s looking to lead, a fearless quarterback, a guy who's gonna put it all on himself to make sure that [his] guys win,” Sainristil said. “And the ultimate competitor.

It was unprecedented when Michigan produced a record 18 participants in the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. Sainristil posted elite 90th-percentile numbers in the broad jump (10 feet, 11 inches), vertical jump (40 inches) and 20-yard shuttle (4.01 seconds), and all of his drills ranked in the 50th percentile or higher.

PFF’s 2024 NFL Draft Guide is loaded with three-page draft profiles on hundreds of NFL draft prospects in the 2024 class. Click here to get your copy today!

Every player is looking to improve, though. For Sainristil, his aim is to “[become] a complete football player in all areas, continuing to just level up and increase my football IQ and just understand what techniques and stuff I'm gonna have to focus on to fit the scheme that I end up playing for.”

Michigan also recently held its pro day, where several players showed off their skill sets before parting ways ahead of the 2024 NFL Draft.

“Some of us might still have the same helmet,” Sainristil said. “But, like I said, I was just happy, and I enjoyed that last moment with my teammates.”

Click here to see Mike Sainristil's 2024 NFL Draft profile!

Sainristil's NFL outlook

Growing up in Massachusetts after fleeing with his family from his native Haiti, Sainristil became a fan of the New England Patriots but also admired the Pittsburgh Steelers. He can now see himself playing for either team, creating a “no-fly zone” with Joey Porter Jr. in Pittsburgh or bringing a Super Bowl back to his hometown team in New England. 

“But at the end of the day, whoever is willing to give me an opportunity, that's all that matters,” Sainristil said.

Sainristil is fully aware of how challenging the jump to the NFL will be, especially as a defensive back. But he feels ready after facing some of the best wide receivers in college football over the past two years, including Marvin Harrison Jr and Rome Odunze

“I definitely believe playing those guys 100% helps someone like me be prepared for what I'm gonna see pretty soon,” he said. 

Most of Sainristil’s playing time has, and will, come in the slot, and he says he’s modeled his game after similar defensive backs, like Mike Hilton, Kenny Moore II and Taron Johnson.

“Now I'm going to be on the stage where I can compete with those guys, and I have my name in the same conversation of who's the best nickel in the league, and those are the guys I'm chasing after,” Sainristil said.

Even at his smaller size, Sainristil is a fearless player. He is not afraid to lower his shoulder and make a tackle. During his college career, he recorded 78 tackles and only 14 misses.

He is currently the sixth-ranked cornerback and the 34th overall prospect on PFF’s big board. His instincts, fearlessness and leadership ability stand out as his top traits on film. The intangibles can be just as important, though, and that’s at the core of Sainristil’s pitch to NFL teams.

“You're getting somebody who cares about football, who's passionate about football, who loves and studies the game at a very high level,” Sainristil said. “And someone who knows what it takes to win.”

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