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: Kayvon Thibodeaux, EDGE, Oregon (6-foot-5, 258 pounds)
Ever since he exploded for 9 sacks and 14 tackles for a loss as a true freshman in 2019, Kayvon Thibodeaux has been a favorite to be the top pick in the 2022 NFL draft.
A lengthy edge rusher with elite physical upside and an already-polished game, Thibodeaux might be the closest thing there is could be to a “sure thing” in this upcoming class. He has impressive athletic ability, showcasing tremendous quickness off the snap and the closing speed needed to blow up plays in the backfield on a consistent basis. His fantastic flexibility in his lower half allows him to turn the corner efficiently and beat offensive tackles with speed to the outside. That athleticism and flexibility also shows up in space, where he displays above-average fluidity and direction-changing skill for his position.
Sure, Thibodeaux has elite athletic tools, but it’s his ability to maximize said tools with a high motor and good technique. He consistently plays at a high effort level, working to keep his legs churning or his hands active in stringing moves together at the point of attack. He generally does a good job of locating his strikes, and he brings quickness in his finesse-oriented pass-rushing moves that make it difficult for opposing offensive linemen to lock him up.
Thibodeaux did suffered a lower-leg injury over the weekend against Fresno State, and the true severity of the injury is unknown as of this writing. On the field, he can stand to add a little more power in his anchor when he works to set the edge in the run game. However, there are genuinely few weaknesses in his game, which should see him drafted quite early should he declare for next year’s draft.
ECD: Kayvon Thibodeaux, EDGE, Oregon (6-foot-5, 258 pounds)
You’ll get no argument from me as to who’s the best prospect in the Pac-12 this year. As Jacob wrote above and elsewhere, Kayvon Thibodeaux is the top overall edge prospect by a considerable margin. The only two players I believe will come close to challenging for the title are DeMarvin Leal (Texas A&M) and Adam Anderson (UGA).
The combination size, speed while turning the corner, and amount of bend Thibodeaux has is incredible. If I had any gripe about this prospect, it’s that the angles he takes when coming after the passer can get better. Even then, that complaint is if we’re being stingy with his grading.
I would bet a good sum of money we shall see this Oregon Duck picked within the first five picks of the 2022 NFL Draft class.
Top Bears target
Jacob: Sean Rhyan, OT, UCLA (6-foot-5, 320 pounds)
The hype surrounding Sean Rhyan picked up significantly near the end of the summer, and as the 2021 season picks up, he is firmly in early Day 2 discussion.
Rhyan is a player I have quickly come to be intrigued by in my pre-draft preparation. A three-year starter by the time this season comes to an end, he is one of very few freshmen in UCLA history to start a season-opener at offensive tackle. His sheer strength at the point of attack allows him to match up physically against just about any defender in the Pac-12. As a well-proportioned athlete with raw power in his upper and lower body, Rhyan combines sheer force in his jabs with the anchor strength needed to fight against speed-to-power rushes with ease. He keeps his legs churning when locked up with an edge rusher, fighting hard to either drive them backwards or into the dirt.
His power is a calling card of his game, but Rhyan is also more than capable athletically. He is a high-quality jump-set pass protector, as he is quick off the snap and thrives when he gets his hands on defenders quickly. An above-average athlete in terms of acceleration to the second level, his quickness in a vacuum is encouraging for his long-term development. He has shown some promise in regards to his ability to change direction in pass protection and take precise angles as a down blocker.
For his solid athleticism, Rhyan can work on his lower-half flexibility a bit more. He has a tendency to pop upright coming out of his stance at times, giving him suboptimal pad level. The timing behind his strikes can stand to be more consistent, too. From a physical perspective, though, Rhyan is the perfect blend of power, size and speed, making him an offensive line prospect the Bears would be wise to do their homework on.
ECD: Greg Dulcich, TE, UCLA (6-foot-4, 250 pounds)
Now hold on here, folks. This isn’t a case of recency bias shortly after Greg Dulcich’s epic performance against the #16 ranked LSU Tigers that featured several All-American players in their defense. Rather, that was just another example as to how good of a player this Bruin tight end from UCLA can be.
The sheer amount of growth Dulcich has made in his transition from receiver to tight end is admirable, to say the least. He came into UCLA weighing just over 200 pounds. Now, he’s at a steel-solid 250 pounds. All that gain in muscle mass is evident in his frame, which still has plenty of room for more if he wants to continue bulking up. He also doesn’t need to gain any more strength, either.
His footwork and strength while run blocking stands out when tasked by Chip Kelly to aid in paving roads for the running game. As we saw against LSU, and really all of 2020, he’ll drive his man past the sticks with good leverage and a strong base. You won’t see him in pass pro too much, and why would you? He’s perhaps the most dangerous receiving tight end available - should he declare. Just re-watch how badly he beat Derek Stingley and several others during the 2021 season opener as reference.
As it stands there’s a pretty long list of prospects to watch for in the tight end position group heading into April of next year. Dulcich is still learning the position as evident by some occasional misses and inconsistent hands when lined up as an in-line blocker. His athleticism is so-so in comparison to other players expected to declare. I doubt that’ll be any real cause for concern, though.
Once he finishes out his 2021 campaign, and if he decides to go pro, watch this guy skyrocket up the boards. He’s the kind of guy who would fit in perfectly at the “U” position on Matt Nagy’s offense. The more weapons the Bears can stockpile around Justin Fields, the better.
Hoping they slide
Jacob: Jaxson Kirkland, OT, Washington (6-foot-7, 310 pounds)
The Bears value versatility on their offensive line, so a four-year collegiate starter with guard and tackle experience like Jaxson Kirkland could be enticing to them.
An obvious plus in Kirkland’s profile as a draft prospect is his length: his 6-foot-7 frame brings a significant wingspan and long legs that allow him to lock out defenders upon contact easier and cover more ground in pass protection, respectively. In his previous three years as a starter, his PFF pass-protection grade has gradually improved each year. For someone as big as he is, he is an impressive athlete who changes direction well and can mirror the lateral movements of defenders off the edge. He offers polished footwork and precise angles in pass protection, particularly in vertical pass sets.
Kirkland is an effective down blocker, as his solid acceleration to the second level, coordination in his movement and long arms make it easy for him to seal off defenders in the run game. His hand placement complements said long arms, as his ability to consistently land accurate strikes inside the frame of the opposition makes it difficult for defenders to disengage from him.
As a top-heavy blocker who’s a bit lanky, Kirkland can stand to add some more weight to his frame. He doesn’t have elite lower-half strength and can get knocked back at the point of attack, and he’s still developing in terms of his processing speed as a zone blocker and as a pass protector. These concerns could see him fall out of the first round, and if he happens to be available on Day 3, he’s a name for the Bears to remember.
ECD: Trent McDuffie, CB, Washington (5-foot-11, 195 pounds)
Washington Huskies coach Jimmy Lake has plenty to be proud of with his career of developing NFL-caliber DBs. Since 2014 several Huskie DBs have gone pro, including names like Desmond Trufant, Desmond King, and Budda Baker. Depending on who you ask, Trent McDuffie might be the best out of all his previous students.
Immediately on film he’s the most explosive corner in zone coverage that I have seen yet. He’s not a fast guy who (likely) runs a faster forty. His game speed is extraordinary. Once the receiver gets into position for the ball, he’s there to meet said receiver, in an instant. If he gives up a reception, which doesn’t happen often, that target isn’t getting much YAC at all. During the four games played in 2020 he surrendered just 52 yards total when targeted in coverage.
This is going to be an extreme case of hoping any one guy slides… he’s a first round talent. Early second, at the latest. However, the 2022 draft class has perhaps the best bunch of lengthy DBs we’ve seen in years. That might play a role as teams could overlook Trent McDuffie’s talent for corners with more length like Kaiir Elam (Florida), Derek Stingley Jr. (LSU), and Ahmad Gardner (Cincy). Because of McDuffie’s size and relatively average length he has struggled at times when isolated against bigger dudes.
Size isn’t everything when it comes to playing corner in the pros - just ask Darrelle Revis that question. Even so, and with general questions about if he’s better inside as a Nickel or as a boundary corner, it’s possible McDuffie slides into the middle-to-late second round. He’s the ideal kind of player to plug into any zone coverage concept who can shut down receivers consistently.
Later round hopefuls
Jacob: Dohnovan West, OG, Arizona State (6-foot-4, 300 pounds)
Zone-heavy blocking schemes like the one the Bears run favor mobile offensive linemen, and that description fits Dohnovan West incredibly well.
In my first Bears 7-round mock draft of the 2022 draft cycle, I mocked West to Chicago in the fifth round. Without being at risk of repeating myself, here was my breakdown on the Arizona State standout:
By the time the 2021 concludes, Dohnovan West will have been a three-year starter for Arizona State. The biggest thing that stands out about his tape is his athletic ability; he has impressive lateral quickness in pass protection and tremendous fluidity as a pull blocker. He does a good job of maintaining balance and coordination when climbing to the second level, keeping his pads low and his weight distributed accordingly in the process. He also has the spatial awareness to pick up stunting edge defenders and find work, whether that be clearing out a zone in the run game or helping out with double-teams in pass protection.
West’s concerns stem from a lack of true physical upside. While athletic, he has okay length at 6-foot-3 and seems to have shorter arms that could prevent him from locking defenders out of his frame in the NFL. He doesn’t seem to have a true nasty edge to his game, and his play strength seems to be pretty average at this point.
I currently have West graded much higher than the fifth-round projection I had for him in my mock draft, but the national consensus doesn’t seem to feel the same way as I do right now. In due time, though, keep an eye on him as a potential target for the Bears’ interior offensive line should he declare for the 2022 draft.
ECD: Devin Lloyd, LB, Utah (6-foot-3, 235 pounds)
The 2019 Utes squad on defense was a unit filled with future NFL starters, including current Chicago Bears CB Jaylon Johnson. That was also Devin Lloyd’s debut season and he did not disappoint. The two-time All-Pac-12 defender and 2020 Butkus Award Finalist has flashed high-end potential when filling in against the run and racking up TFLs.
Currently the one big problem to Lloyd’s game is his lack of impact plays while in pass coverage. That could change easily in 2021, yet for all his efforts, he only has (2) INTs and a handful of pass deflections. It’s fair to suggest ILBs aren’t asked to do much in the Utes’ coverage concepts on defense. It’s also a mark that will peg him as a 2-down player in the NFL.
Unless he cranks up the ball production as a full-time starter, I can’t see him getting selected any sooner than the 4th. It won’t be a bad idea to pick him up for depth on defense, as the Chicago Bears could see some big changes at ILB for 2022. Who knows, if he can develop like Nick Kwiatkowski did, he’ll be a gem to uncover on the 3rd day of the draft. That’s always a gamble worth taking.
Jacob: UCLA vs. Oregon (Oct. 23)
Both Oregon and UCLA feature their fair share of intriguing pro-ready talents, and both teams could end up with top-25 rankings when the season is all said and done.
As well as the aforementioned Sean Rhyan, UCLA also features a prospective Day 3 pick in reliable and powerful center Paul Grattan up front. As Erik mentioned, tight end Greg Dulcich is an intriguing talent with underrated quickness for his size and a powerful frame as a move tight end at the next level. Big-bodied running back Zach Charbonnet is on as much of a hot streak as anyone in the nation right now, tallying 223 yards and four touchdowns on the ground on just 17 carries to start the year. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson likely isn’t much more than an undrafted target in the pros, but he is capable for the role the Bruins have him in. Defensively, safety Quentin Lake stands out as a smart and fluid defensive back who could garner late Day 3 looks.
Oregon seems to loaded more on the defensive side of the ball this year, which is somewhat of a departure from the norm. That’s not to say they don’t have offensive talent; CJ Verdell is a speedy running back with above-average receiving chops, and wide receiver Johnny Johnson III should garner late-round looks. However, the bulk of the Ducks’ 2022 draft value comes on defense. Though Kayvon Thibodeaux’s injury status is unknown as of this writing, he is arguably the best defender in the nation when healthy. Cornerback Mykael Wright is a fluid and athletic cover defender with Day 2 potential, as is rangy and intelligent safety Verone McKinley III. Keep an eye on true sophomore linebacker Noah Sewell, too, as the young brother of Penei was the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year last year.
ECD: UCLA vs. Washington (Oct. 16)
Oregon has a lion’s share of NFL prospects to watch. As this article can show, at least for Jacob and I, there’s a lot of love for the players at UCLA this season. Washington has a bunch of guys to watch for on defense as well.
I’m sure everyone has seen the kind of damage the UCLA Bruins offense inflicted on LSU. In addition to Greg Dulcich at tight end, Zach Charbonnet was electrifying in his debut for the “sissy blue” team that thoroughly embarrassed Ed Orgeron. Again, like Dulcich, Charbonnet could elect to wait until 2023. If both those players decide to declare early, along with Jacob’s target in Sean Ryhan, all three could hear their names called between rounds one through three.
Did I say Washington had a bunch of guys to watch on defense? Yes, yes I did, and it’s an assortment of players who stand out on film more than their admittedly hard to spell names on their respective jerseys. Trent McDuffie is paired with Kyler Gordon, another CB who could continue Coach Lake’s streak of DBs picked early. DE Zion Tupuola-Fetui had an almost comedic level of dominance in four games last year - he registered (7) sacks and (20) pressures while coming in as a 280-pound edge defender.
When all the evaluations are done, watch for this game to be a classic “Stud Offense vs. Stud Defense” matchup that’ll likely head into overtime.