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2021 NFL Draft: Biggest risers since start of regular season

The college football season has always produced breakout stars, and these eight draft prospects fit that bill.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Tennessee Knoxville News Sentinel-USA TODAY Sports

If the 2020 NFL Draft taught us anything, it’s that top prospects can come from out of nowhere.

Joe Burrow was widely seen as a Day 3 pick heading into the 2019 season, but a historic season that resulted in an undefeated championship season with LSU saw him jump to the first overall pick. Now, he’s looking like the long-term savior of the Bengals’ franchise, even if their team isn’t winning too many games this year.

One of the most fun things about college football is seeing which under-the-radar players break out of near obscurity and become household names across the country. It happens every year, and the Bears have plucked some of those breakout stars and turned them into draft picks. While Mitchell Trubisky and Kevin White stand out as disappointing examples, other players like Kyle Fuller and Kyle Long both broke out in their final collegiate seasons and are turning and had turned out Pro Bowl seasons for the Bears.

The 2020 season—despite its unparalleled circumstances—is no different. There have been several players who have boosted their stock for the 2021 NFL Draft, but a handful of prospects have risen to the top and have made themselves a lot of money with how they’ve improved this year.

Here are eight draft prospects who have risen up draft boards the most since the start of the 2020 season.

Zach Wilson, QB, BYU

No player in the 2021 draft class has improved their stock more than Zach Wilson.

BYU’s 8-0 start and their rise to No. 8 in the AP Top 25 poll has been one of the biggest talking points of the college football world. The red-hot play of Wilson and their offense has the Cougars in playoff contention, despite being an independent team. The junior quarterback is averaging roughly 314 yards per game and completing 75.0 percent of his passes with an incredible 21:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. His 2,512 passing yards are second in the nation as of this writing. He is also tied for the most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in the nation with eight, solidifying his dual-threat status.

Wilson is a talented prospect who has a strong arm that can deliver accurate throws from nearly platform and any throwing angle. He throws with great accuracy and can stretch the field with great timing on his intermediate and deep balls. He has a quick release, and he brings above-average agility in moving around in the pocket and scrambling to pick up yardage. The BYU star also does a good job of scanning the field and finding the open man past his first read.

Sure, he isn’t the biggest quarterback out there, and his footwork could still use some work, but in the grand scheme of things, Wilson checks most, if not all of the boxes a team could hope for at the quarterback position. After an injury-plagued 2019, his improved accuracy and arm strength has him not only in the first-round conversation, but it could see him go as high as the top five.

Kyle Trask, QB, Florida

Last year, Kyle Trask was a big-bodied quarterback who showed promise after taking the starting quarterback job from Feleipe Franks. Now, Trask is looking like much more than that.

Florida is currently ranked fifth in the AP Top 25, and their explosive offense has been a big reason why. In the five games he has played, Trask is averaged 363 yards per game, has completed 68.7 of his passing attempts and has scored a whopping 22 passing touchdowns to just three interceptions. For reference, he threw 25 touchdowns in 10 starts in 2019. That’s a major step-up from a production standpoint.

Trask is a well-built quarterback at 6-foot-5 and 239 pounds, and he complements that frame with toughness in the pocket. He has gotten better at staying calm under pressure in 2020, and he is able to maneuver the pocket with precise footwork while still being able to scan the field. He has a solid arm and does a very good job of hitting his targets in stride. Trask’s accuracy has exponentially improved since he first stepped onto the field as the Gators’ starter, and his consistent growth is cause for optimism for his long-term prospects.

A lack of great athleticism and good-but-not-great arm strength could prevent him from breaking into that upper echelon of quarterback prospects, but Trask is legit. He could go Round 1 when it’s all said and done.

Mac Jones, QB, Alabama

This list isn’t going to be all quarterbacks, I promise.

Being the predecessor to Tua Tagovailoa means that one would have very big shoes to fill, but Mac Jones has done an incredible job of doing just that, and he has garnered strong Heisman buzz for his 2020 campaign. Through six games, the Crimson Tide are undefeated and atop the AP Top 25 rankings, and Jones has been a big reason why. He is averaging 366 passing yards per game with a 78.5 completion percentage with just two interceptions to 16 touchdowns. With 2,196 passing yards, he is fourth in the nation in passing yards.

Jones is an accurate and poised thrower of the football who delivers as pretty of a deep ball as just about anyone in the class. He does a good job of leading his receivers open and his able to time his throws so he hits them in stride. He is a mechanically-sound passer and can read the field better than most collegiate quarterbacks. His poise in the pocket has improved since he saw the field after Tagovailoa got hurt in 2019, and his timing on the deep ball has also gotten a lot better.

While not the biggest, most athletic or strong-armed quarterback, he is a polished player who has propelled himself into top-50 conversation and could potentially sneak into the first round.

Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech

If you’re looking to draft an offensive tackle with physical tools and a high ceiling but don’t want to pay a high-end price for him, Christian Darrisaw could be your guy.

Darrisaw is an athletic tackle prospect who has above-average lateral quickness and very nice agility for a 6-foot-5, 314-pound lineman. He accelerates quickly when climbing to the second level, and he has the footwork and temperance in pass protection needed to nullify the speed rush to the outside. While his athleticism was apparent on tape prior to 2020, it’s his improvements in his power game that has scouts buzzing. He packs a nice punch at the point of attack and has shown an improved nastiness in his game once engaged with defenders.

Granted, Darrisaw could still improve a bit more before entering that top tier of offensive tackle prospects. His pad level is a bit too high and his base can be too wide once he gets locked up with an edge rusher. However, he has a high ceiling on the blind side, and his tools and improvement over time could see him rise into the second round.

Terrace Marshall Jr., WR, LSU

Last year, Terrace Marshall Jr. was LSU’s third-best wide receiver and, despite 13 touchdowns, was firmly in the shadows of teammates Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson. With Chase having opted out and Jefferson now in the NFL, though, Marshall has made the most of his chance to shine.

Through five games, Marshall has 540 yards and nine touchdowns on 31 receptions, firmly solidifying himself as the Tigers’ best offensive playmaker in a down year for the defending champions. He has showcased very good physicality in contested-catch situations, using his 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame and his impressive ball skills to box out defenders and catch the ball away from his frame while locking out whoever is covering him. He has looked more explosive in 2020, showcasing improved fluidity across the middle of the field and accelerating better off the snap. He has also gotten better at reading soft spots in zone coverage and exploiting holes in defense’s schemes.

Granted, Marshall can still be a bit more sharp in his cuts as a route runner and can sink his hips for sharper-breaking route concepts. What he has, though, is a very nice combination of length, physicality and fluidity that could realistically see him make his way into the back half of the first round if he keeps up his current level of production.

Azeez Ojulari, EDGE, Georgia

In a class where there isn’t a clearcut EDGE2, Azeez Ojulari has made a strong case through the first six games of Georgia’s season.

In 11 games in 2019, Ojulari had 5.5 sacks and five tackles for a loss. In six games in 2020, though, he’s already up to 4.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for a loss. The redshirt sophomore has gotten off to a hot start to the season, and his athletic ability is a huge reason why. Ojulari fires off the ball with impressive quickness and has good closing speed as a tackler in space. He is an incredibly flexible pass-rusher who does a great job of getting low and turning the corner while taking sharp angles in pursuit and getting underneath opposing blockers. His lateral quickness and fluidity gives him upside in coverage situations, and he is able to stack and shed blocks to make tackles near the line of scrimmage in the run game.

Is Ojulari a first-round pick? His diminutive stature and a lack of true power in his game could prevent him from getting drafted that high. As an athletic, Day 2 prospect with a high ceiling and versatility for any defensive scheme, though, he could be worth an investment.

Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina

Jaycee Horn was certainly on the draft radar heading into 2020, but he was overshadowed by teammate and fellow cornerback Israel Mukuamu. Now, a strong argument could be made that Horn has not only passed up his teammate, but has firmly entered first-round territory.

Horn got off to a hot start to the new year right away, but his big coming out party came in South Carolina’s fourth game, when he shadowed future NFL draft pick Seth Williams and finished the game with two interceptions and four pass breakups. He currently has six pass breakups through six games, and his physicality and 6-foot-1, 205-pound frame have been complemented by improved instincts. Horn does a good job of recognizing route concepts and knowing when to time his jump on a route and burst to make a play on the ball. He has shown willingness as a tackler, and, of course, his calling card as an aggressive press corner who can box out the 50-50 ball and jam receivers in press coverage will have him high in demand.

Athletic limitations aren’t a major issue with Horn, but a lack of tremendous deep speed and lateral quickness could stunt his ceiling a little bit. He has just about everything else a team would want in a boundary corner, though, so he stands a strong chance of becoming a first-round pick.

Bubba Bolden, S, Miami (FL)

2020 served as Bubba Bolden’s first year as a starter at the collegiate level, and after a hot start to his redshirt junior campaign, it wouldn’t be surprising if it was his last, as the NFL could very well be in the near future for him.

Bolden has 40 tackles, one interception, three pass deflections and three forced fumbles in seven games for the Hurricanes this season. That stat-line offers some insight to his game: he is a versatile defensive back. He consistently wraps up as a tackler and is physical at the point of contact, and he is also athletic and can cover up a nice chunk of the field in single-high or two-hells shells with his hip fluidity and straight-line speed. He does a good job of reading a quarterback’s progressions and jumping routes, too. Plus, he has tremendous length at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds. Whether it be as a coverage safety up high or a safety in the box, Bolden is a well-rounded player who can just about do it all.

What hurts Bolden’s stock the most isn’t as much his on-the-field play—though he can be too aggressive in pursuit and takes rough angles from time to time—it’s his off-the-field history. He dislocated his ankle five games into the 2019 season, ending his season. He played on just 21 snaps for USC in 2017 before serving a 28-month suspension for underage drinking at an off-campus party. That particular suspension isn’t as much of a concern as his lack of playing time, which gives him a limited resumé. Regardless, Bolden’s breakout 2020 season could see him leap into Day 2 discussions.