The college football season is officially underway, and with it comes the return of our annual college prospect preview.
Much will change between now and the end of the regular season, but there are a handful of college players who have shown that they can be legitimate NFL talents in the near future.
Cream of the crop
Jacob: Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma (6-foot-1, 200 pounds)
Each of Oklahoma’s last three starting quarterbacks have become starters in the NFL. Expect that trend to continue when Spencer Rattler enters the league.
The consensus top quarterback in the 2019 recruiting class, Rattler showcased in the 2021 season why he was rated so highly coming out of high school. Despite a rocky start during which the Sooners went 1-2, Rattler picked things up down the stretch and led his team to eight straight wins to close out the year, including four wins over ranked teams. He finished the game with 3,031 yards, 28 touchdowns and 7 interceptions in 11 games, with four of those picks coming in the first three games.
Rattler fits the arm talent criterion that has seen the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Kyler Murray and Zach Wilson get selected highly in recent years. He simply has a crazy arm, showcasing zip and velocity regardless of his footwork or the arm angle at which he throws. He has a natural flick of the wrist motion that allows him to seamlessly stretch the field and hit throws that most collegiate quarterbacks could only dream of making. The redshirt sophomore does a very good job of anticipating his receivers open, and the flashes of deep-ball accuracy he displays on tape are simply remarkable.
Though far from a run-first quarterback, Rattler is a very good athlete at the position and uses his quickness well. He has above-average lateral mobility and is able to use his elusiveness to make defenders miss both in and out of the pocket. He prefers to get the ball off when on the move, but he has proven capable of taking off and breaking away for nice gains with his breakaway speed. Said athletic ability allows him to extend plays and require defensive spies, thus making it easier for his offense to be efficient.
The arm talent Rattler has is obvious, but it can sometimes come as a detriment in that he trusts his arm a bit too much. He has a true gunslinger’s mentality, proving to not be afraid of stretching the field and making risky throws. That can see him deliver passes into tight windows or double coverage too often, thus increasing the probability of turnovers. He’s also on the smaller side for a quarterback, but that’s a minor gripe in his profile.
Overall, Rattler is an extremely talented quarterback with some kinks to iron out in his game but a very high ceiling at the next level. Depending on which team has the No. 1 overall pick, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see him be the first player off the board in the 2022 NFL draft.
ECD: Nik Bonitto, EDGE, Oklahoma (6-foot-3, 240 pounds)
Here’s a guy that, while he needs serious work in parts of his game, has the potential to be a demon on any defense for the team lucky enough to land him. Nik Bonitto is a classic “boom or bust” prospect coming from the kings of the Big 12 at Norman, OK. In this league, if you can rush the passer at a high success rate, you’re getting a higher draft grade.
Nik Bonitto might be the best pass rusher in this draft class. In 2020 alone he was credited with 49 pressures on 186 pass rush attempts, per PFF. If you glance at his bio with OU, you’ll see some more ludacris numbers. In addition to his (49) pressures, he registered (8) sacks (10.5) TFLs, a team-high (10) hurries, and had PFF’s top pressure rate in the country. This was all during a fairly short season. The amount of bend he has while turning the corner and the angles he takes to the ball carrier are the best I’ve seen so far from this class.
What makes Bonitto so dangerous is how quick his movements are when setting himself up to rush the passer. Once he accelerates downhill, unless the OT engaging him is perfect in their protection, he’s gone. Given his size, he’s naturally able to play at such a low pad level. Bonitto’s speed rush is second to none. His speed rush is fueled by an endless motor.
Again, as I’ve said earlier for different prospects we’ve already reviewed, I’m not super concerned with Nik Bonitto’s size. Instead, it’s his overall negative grade against the run that draws my ire. On the rare occasions he does enter the club against a certified NFL-caliber bouncer, he gets stuck. Sometimes Bonito will play too fast and overpursue, which can kill any gap exchange. He’ll need to show he can shed off big nasties and contain the run to propel himself higher in this deep class of edge players.
It’ll take a good deal of patience and reps to get Nik Bonitto in a position to dominate at the next level. He’s a blur when coming off the edge that will win most of his reps with speed alone. Once he rounds out his game, if he can round out his game, consider his future bright.
Top Bears target
Jacob: Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, CB, TCU (5-foot-9, 177 pounds)
The nephew of Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson, Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson has NFL football in his blood.
Hodges-Tomlinson was a shut-down cornerback for the Horned Frogs in 2020; in addition to his 13 pass deflections, he allowed completions on just 32.7 percent of passes thrown his way. His ball production last year does a good job of painting a picture of his high football IQ and his scrappiness in coverage. He is quick to diagnose route concepts in coverage, and he excels at keeping his pads squared in his backpedal as to not give up leverage through a receiver’s stems. Once he acts upon his reads, he is quick to act upon them by charging downhill or making a break on a route. He is also proficient at tracking down the deep ball and adjusting himself at the catch point to make a play on the ball.
In addition to his heightened instincts, Hodges-Tomlinson is also an above-average athlete at cornerback who puts his fluidity and burst to good use. He has loose hips and can change direction easily, showing off chops in working across his body to mirror the movements of the opposition. He accelerates well upfield coming out of his breaks, and his ability to burst downhill allows him to jump on sharp-breaking routes with ease. He is a scheme-versatile defender who can play close to the line of scrimmage if need be, but he also excels in off-man and in deep zone coverage.
As made obvious by his listed height and weight, Hodges-Tomlinson is small for a cornerback. He plays primarily as a field-side cornerback at TCU, but his lack of length and significant bulk could see him moved inside at the next level. A smaller catch radius can make it easier for wide receivers to box him out at the catch point sometimes. He could stand to improve his pad level as a downhill tackler, too.
How high Hodges-Tomlinson goes depends on how much of a detriment the NFL views his size to be. An educated guess would see him fall to Day 2, but with how good his 2020 tape was, it would be surprising if he fell much further than that. He would be a welcomed addition to a Bears secondary that currently lacks in firepower.
ECD: DeMarvion Overshown, LB, Texas (6-foot-4, 217 pounds)
“Why would the Bears target an ILB?” This particular position is projected to be an underrated need heading into 2022. Roquan Smith, without question, is one of the game’s top linebackers at the NFL level. The guy(s) next to him? That’s questionable. Alec Ogletree is a free agent next year, and Danny Trevathan has aged to the point he’s strictly a two-down player. Trevathan may even be a roster casualty in the near future. A starter job may become available and there aren’t many good options available.
Enter DeMarvion Overshown, a safety-turned-ILB who would be both a great pickup in the second round value-wise, and would fill a need on defense. Just look at his listed size - he is a giant with exceptional athleticism and a real nose for the ball. Yet, for such a big backer, he has insane burst and smoothness when changing direction and following the flow of the play. It was common to see this guy knife through the line of scrimmage and hogtie ball carriers deep in their own backfield. DeMarvion is the embodiment of the 21st century linebacker.
Overshown has shown out in pass coverage, where he ranks towards the top amongst linebackers slated to declare for the 2022 NFL Draft. He looks and runs like a charging bull when closing in on the ball carrier. DeMarvion might be the most forceful hitter to be had, as he regularly drops his target to the turf like a bag of bricks. He can certainly add on as a weapon to deploy on any blitz as well.
He’s also, still, learning the position. On occasion he will be too eager to lay a big hit instead of securing the ball carrier. As we know, just hitting someone won’t get the job done all the time. His football IQ is solid, rather, his positional IQ is still raw. He’ll need to continue to learn how to read the field as a LB as opposed to being at safety. Those speedbumps include biting on play-action fakes a little too soon, and questioning himself from time to time on where to flow to the ball. His instincts will grow as he continues getting reps at ILB.
Essentially, DeMarvion Overshown is the perfect player to pair with Roquan Smith. He’s bigger, faster, and would give Sean Desai the option of keeping two ILBs on the field at all times, if he so chooses. Regardless, Overshown is the kind of ILB coaches crave to fill in on their defense. Even if it means a need for continuous development at the position.
Hoping they slide
Jacob: Austin Stogner, TE, Oklahoma (6-foot-6, 251 pounds)
If the Bears move on from Jimmy Graham next offseason, they could be in the market for a ‘U’ tight end at the right price.
Like the aforementioned Graham in his prime, Austin Stogner is a lengthy and well-built tight end who brings impressive coordination and fluidity to the table. Granted, that’s a massive bar for the Oklahoma standout to reach at the next level, but there are some glimpses of the former All-Pro in his game. He accelerates well off the snap, whether he be playing in an in-line role, in the slot or out wide. He has demonstrated intriguing flashes of burst coming in and out of his breaks, displaying such moves like a single-move speed release to the inside against press coverage on tape. Being a coordinated athlete, he does a great job of high-pointing the ball in contested-catch situations and contorting himself to take the best angle of attack at the catch point.
Stogner has strong hands and is able to come down with most passes that come his way, regardless of how tight coverage is against him. The raw power in his frame makes it tougher for opposing defenders to enter his frame and pry the ball loose from his hands at the catch point. He has also shown some promise as a blocker, as said strength can also see him lock out edge rushers in the run game and overwhelm smaller defenders with a high motor. He does a pretty solid job of keeping his pads low at the point of attack, too.
Though Stogner brings a lot of intriguing tools to the table, he still has a bit to prove at the collegiate level. He hasn’t showcased that he can be a high-volume pass-catcher yet, as his career-high season reception total is 26 and his touchdown total just 3. He suffered a staph infection after a leg injury which saw him struggle with weight fluctuation in 2020, so he will have to prove to teams that said injury is no longer an issue. The junior could also stand to be a bit more consistent in his sharpness coming in and out of his breaks.
With what should be an explosive Oklahoma offense this year, Stogner should have plenty of opportunities to make plays in Big 12 competition. His physical upside and ball skills could make him a player worth Day 2 consideration, and if the Bears are willing to draft a tight end that high again, he could form a great duo with Cole Kmet going forward.
ECD: Obinna Eze, OT, TCU (6-foot-6, 329 pounds)
This class certainly has a bunch of big nasties at the OT positions. And I absolutely love it - I like ‘em big, I like ‘em nasty. Few are as big as Obinna Eze, formerly of Memphis University and now a TCU Horned Frog. TCU has recently developed an assembly line of jumbo sized linemen who’ve made names for themselves as pros.
For the 2021 season it appears Eze will man the LT spot. It will be interesting to observe just how well he’ll transition through the sheer jump in competition from Memphis to TCU. On film he displays quick and violent hands at the end of such a long frame and body that is built like a tank. Don’t even think about trying to power through - attacking half a man on most tackles is more like attacking a quarter of a man against Eze. You can coach fundamentals, you can’t coach size.
The fundamentals are where the focus of Obinna’s development should be placed. It’s not that he doesn’t have the mobility to play LT. Instead, his hips look a little stiff — most jumbo linemen struggle with this — and he doesn’t have great hand-to-eye coordination when sealing off the edge. If he can get better with maintaining his balance against the more athletic edge defenders, Eze can develop into an unmovable wall on the O-line. The amount of room available for improvement is quite large.
Marcus Cannon, another Horned Frog who I was a big fan of, was picked by the New England Patriots during the 5th round in 2011. I feel that Eze possesses a little more upside, and a team could gamble on him in the late 3rd round. The 4th round or later is what I’m hoping to see Eze fall into. Gimme all the big nasty linemen available.
Later round hopefuls
Jacob: Greg Eisworth II, S, Iowa State (6-foot, 205 pounds)
Expected by some to enter the 2021 draft, Greg Eisworth II heads back to Iowa State for his redshirt senior year and looks to help lead the Cyclones to a Big 12 title.
A three-time first-team All-Big 12 defender who has won the award every year he has played in the starting lineup, Eisworth is an experienced defensive back who has just about seen it all at the collegiate level. That resumé is apparent in his football IQ, as he is a smart processor who is quick to read the progressions of quarterbacks and act upon his reads to put himself in the best possible position to make a play. He charges downhill with a high playing speed, going all-out to either make a tackle or break up a pass. His high motor makes it easy for him to join in on just about any play.
Eisworth is a well-built safety, and that build translates to his physicality as a defender. He is a willing and capable tackler who does a good job of breaking down in space and squaring his pads to the ball-carrier. He also brings very good physicality at the point of contact when he wraps up. In addition to his chops in the run game, he has also shown the ability to change direction well in two-high shells and accelerate coming out of his breaks.
I do proceed carefully with Eisworth, because he fits the stereotype of smart, physical safeties I come to love in the pre-draft process who don’t blossom into full-time starters in the NFL because of a lack of top-tier athleticism (see Amani Hooker). Though coordinated, his lack of long speed can make him a liability in man coverage at times. He doesn’t seem to have the centerfielder style of play that can see him reliably guard in a single-high role, either. He can also be a bit too aggressive as a tackler, causing him to blow pursuit angles from time to time.
Though Eisworth likely projects best as a special teamer with rotational defensive back upside, that’s a good investment for a team come Day 3. Should he be available when the Bears pick around Round 5, he might be a name worth keeping an eye on.
ECD: Braydon Johnson, WR/KR, Oklahoma State (5-foot-11, 193 pounds)
There are a bunch of questions surrounding the OK State Cowboys offense this year. Several wideouts from this program over the past five years have heard their names called on draft day. Where Braydon Johnson isn’t a household name, he’s a capable receiver who’s likely the top target for Mike Gundy’s gang in the passing game.
Overall, Braydon Johnson is an unproven player who has flashed high-end potential in a few spurts between his sophomore and junior seasons. Most of his production has come clustered between a handful of games, including a dominant finish to his 2019 campaign. He has good-not-great fluidity in his routes, with dependable hands and will contest for tough catches. He’s built like a modern receiver destined for a slot role due to his quickness and speed in and out of his breaks.
His upside on special teams is what I like best about Johnson. There aren’t too many clear-cut kick returners in this class as it stands. Johnson has good vision and hits the open field immediately, he doesn’t hesitate or waste time looking for a path. When drafting late you want to see if players can contribute in the 3rd phase. Braydon Johnson can develop into a contributor on offense, and he’ll likely find a role as a full time kick returner once he goes pro.
Jacob: Oklahoma vs. Iowa State (Nov. 20)
This could very well be an early preview of a repeating Big 12 championship game.
Oklahoma figures to have one of the most high-powered offenses in the nation this year. Rattler enters the season as a Heisman favorite, and he has such weapons like Stogner, and wide receivers like breakout candidate Jadon Haselwood and true sophomore Marvin Mims. Leading the pack on the ground is the two-headed monster of Kennedy Brooks and Eric Gray, both of whom currently holding top-10 spots on my running back board. The thick and stocky Tyrese Robinson stands out as an offensive lineman with tackle-guard versatility.
The Sooners have some intriguing pieces on defense, too. Erik mentioned Nik Bonitto, who could very well end up a first-round talent when it’s all said and done. Big-bodied and powerful edge rusher Isaiah Thomas features solid burst as a 5-technique, while Perrion Winfrey is an effective two-gapping interior defender with great first-step quickness up the middle. Both Brian Asomoah and DaShaun White are smaller, yet athletic linebackers with three-down upside, especially the former.
Iowa State is a well-coached team with Matt Campbell at the helm, and regardless of the raw talent on their rosters in recent years, they have been productive more often than not. Brock Purdy is the man under center for the Cyclones, and while he may lack top-notch upside at the NFL level, he is an accurate passer with good instincts and solid athletic ability. Breece Hall is an every-down running back who blends size, vision and athletic ability to project as an early-round draft pick. Keep an eye on tight end Charlie Kolar, who might not fit the modern tight end archetype but brings size and power but as a blocker and at the catch point.
In addition to the aforementioned Eisworth, Iowa State features some defensive prospects for NFL teams to keep an eye on going forward. Two who stand out in particular are edge rusher Will McDonald IV and linebacker Mike Rose. McDonald is an explosive athlete off the edge with great first-step quickness, lower-body flexibility and a high motor in pursuit who should garner looks off of his athletic tools alone. Rose is a big-bodied linebacker with surprisingly great fluidity for his size and upside in coverage at the next level.
ECD: Texas vs. Oklahoma (Oct 9. @ Dallas)
I really can’t wait until 2025 when this Red River Rivalry heads to the SEC. That being said, the 2021 matchup will be filled with plenty of pro prospects to attract scouts from all over the league. Will it be a shootout? That remains to be seen.
What we know for a fact is the illustrious history of this rivalry showcasing future NFL stars. The Oklahoma Sooners’ stud QB Spencer Rattler looks to climb his way to the top of the Heisman race as he’ll be met by DeMarvion Overshown on the Texas Longhorns defense. I see this game as a showcase for Overshowns true potential. That whole defense is stacked up with quality players like DL Keondre Coburn, DB Josh Thompson, and a good PR/KR of their own in D’shawn Jamison.
Meanwhile, my top guy Nik Bonitto should have a night of highlight reels as he comes screaming off the edge all night long. Oklahoma touts plenty of good talent around Spencer Rattler on offense, including OT Wanya Morris and a comeback story in RB Kennedy Brooks. Eric Gray could be a guy to watch pop off with explosive plays of his own.