With conferences starting their seasons on different dates last year, we missed out on the full College Football opening weekend experience. However, it’s back this year and that means Las Vegas Raiders fans have some football to tune into on Saturday. It’s never too early to start tracking NFL Draft prospects, so I’ll get you started with a few that will be in action.
#1 Alabama @ #14 Miami
I’m aware that I’m not breaking any news to you that a game between two top-15 teams and two historic programs is a game to watch.
I figure this is the game almost everyone watching during the noon kickoffs and since it’s the first week of the season, I think it’d be more beneficial to highlight a few players that could be on Las Vegas’ radar. That way you can jot these players down, especially the Bama ones, and keep tabs on them throughout the year.
In recent years, Alabama has produced a bunch of quality defensive tackles and they have another one this year in Phidarian Mathis. He’s is a stout run defender who plays with low pad level and has the strength to consistently get off blocks.
While Mathis has shown promise with his bull rush as a pass rusher, he lacks a secondary move and isn’t the most nimble at 317 pounds. However, he did improve as a rusher this past season, going from three pressures on 145 pass snaps in 2019 to 18 on 206 in 2020, per Pro Football Focus. Continuing to grow in that area will help the redshirt senior improve on the consensus fourth-round grade NFL Mock Draft Database currently has him slated in.
In the Crimson Tide’s secondary is Josh Jobe, who will likely emerge as the team’s top cornerback with Partick Surtain II now in the pros. Jobe is a physical corner who excels in press coverage and can help in the run game, something Jon Gruden covets in defensive backs.
However, he’ll be a 24-year-old rookie, is a little tight in the hips and his physicality has led to quite a few pass interference penalties in the past. Taking on and thriving in a bigger role and cleaning up those miscues could help catapult Jobe into the first round, as he’s currently looking at a late second-round grade.
While tight end is hardly a need for Las Vegas, it’s hard to ignore what Jahleel Billingsley brings to the table. As a potential early Day Two pick, Billingsley has the vertical to high-point balls and be a red zone threat, and he can make defenders miss in the open field to create yards after the catch. He’ll need to improve on his route running and potentially bulk up to help his run-blocking at the next level, but there aren’t many flaws to his game.
Tasked with matching up with Billingsley will be Miami safety, Bubba Bolden. The Hurricane is an athletic and physical player with great size - listed at 6’3” and 204 pounds - who is probably best as a strong or box safety in the NFL. He has some questionable ball skills and doesn’t take the best angles when playing deep, but Bolden should go somewhere in the late second to the early third-round range.
On the other side of the ball is quarterback D’Eriq King, a projected sixth-round pick. King is a dynamic playmaker who does a lot of things well but nothing great. He’s accurate in the short to intermediate areas, has decent arm strength and is a threat with his feet, but it’s hard to overcome the short quarterback stigma without at least a few elite traits. Carving out a Taysom Hill-esque role could be his ceiling.
Protecting King is a potential late first-round pick in Zion Nelson. At 6’5” and 315 pounds, Nelson is an impressive athlete for his size who is a top-tier pass protector and would be a great zone run blocker at the next level. The biggest knock on him is his balance as defenders can manipulate his frame and he struggles to stay upright.
#5 Georgia @ #3 Clemson
Again, the title of the story is a little misleading this week and I’m sure you’re all aware of the marquee matchup of the week. But here are some players to keep an eye on.
On Thursday, I released a list of 12 prospects to watch throughout the season and included Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis. The link above provides a quick snapshot into his skillset so to avoid redundancy, I figured I just share a few of his stats, courtesy of PFF, instead.
Those who caught the article mentioned above know that Davis’ is much more of a run defender than he is a pass rusher and the numbers dramatically support that. He recorded four pressures on 125 pass-rush snaps last year and three of those came in the bowl game against Cincinnati. Meanwhile, the massive 6’6” and 340-pound defender racked up eight run stops on 105 opportunities with an average depth of tackle of 1.5 yards.
Next to Davis is another impressive defensive tackle prospect, Devonte Wyatt. Executive Director of the Senior Bowl Jim Naggy recently tweeted that he thinks Wyatt gets overshadowed and has an impressive get-off, upper body strength and closing burst. The Bulldog is currently projected as a seventh-rounder but could climb up draft boards if Naggy is correct.
Jamaree Salyer is on the other side of the trenches for Georgia. Salyer has experience playing both guard and tackle and graded out well as both a run and pass blocker in his first season as a full-time starter last year. In the NFL, he projects as more of a guard, and his inexperience is primarily why he has an undrafted free agent designation attached to him. A big year and that could change in a hurry, though.
However, Salyer could draw some very tough assignments if he has to square off against Clemson's defensive tackle, Tyler Davis.
Davis has the rare combination of strength and power that should suit him well as a pass rusher and run defender at the next level and is the primary reason why he’s projected to go in the second round. Staying healthy and becoming more consistent will be the two biggest things he’ll be looking to accomplish and improve upon this season.
On the outside of the Tigers’ defense is cornerback Andrew Booth, who was also featured in my 12 NFL Draft prospects column. Right now, Booth is more of a “tools prospect” than a proven commodity as this will likely be his first year as a full-time starter.
He played well in 2020, allowing a 48.3 percent completion rate for 160 receiving yards and a 59.6 passer rating when targeted, but he only started four out of 11 games. The defensive back could gain some momentum heading to the draft by maintaining that level of production with an expanded role.
After missing all of last season with a spine injury, Justyn Ross will be looking to bounce back this Saturday. The 6’4” and 205-pound wideout uses his body well and projects as a possession receiver who has some impressive and strong hands to pluck the ball out of the air. However, he’s not the greatest athlete and struggles to create separation and that’s what makes him a fringe first-round prospect instead of a sure thing.
San Jose State @ #15 USC
Finally, a game that might not be on your radar! Then again, the Raiders have a strong presence in the Bay Area and Los Angeles so maybe you all were already planning on watching. If so, I give up and just enjoy learning about draft prospects!
This will be the second week in a row San Jose State makes the list. Since they don’t have a lot of note-worthy prospects, I’ll just provide updates on the same three players to avoid redundancy. You can find more information on each player by following this link to last week’s article.
Quarterback Nick Starkel had a solid outing against Southern Utah. He completed 61.5 percent of his passes for 399 and four touchdowns to just one interception on the day. PFF credited him with three big-time throws, two turnover-worthy plays and a respectable 67.2 overall grade.
Protecting Starkel was Jack Snyder, who allowed just one pressure - a QB hit - on 28 pass-blocking snaps. He surprisingly struggled as a run blocker, though, earning a 57.2 run-blocking grade from PFF. Granted, that was only on 20 snaps so it’s a low sample size but something to keep an eye on moving forward.
As for Cade Hall, it was a disappointing season debut. He was going against Braxton Jones, who projects to be a top small-school prospect, and didn't record a single pressure so Jones clearly won that battle. In fact, the only stat Hall recorded was a missed tackle, making last week a game to forget for the reigning Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
This Saturday, Hall will be chasing after USC quarterback, Kedon Slovis.
Slovis is known for having a high football IQ and good accuracy to put the ball exactly where it needs to be to give his receiver a chance to make a play on it. That’s a big reason why he’s considered one of the top quarterbacks in this draft class and is currently projected as a second-round pick. However, the Trojan does have a late release and arm strength issues that could hold his draft stock back a bit.
Drake London will be catching passes from Slovis, and London should be easy to spot on television seeing as he measures in at about 6’5” and 210 pounds. That size helps the wideout be a legitimate threat in contested catch situations and is a big reason why he’s viewed as a potential Day Two pick. He’ll be looking to expand his role in 2021 as he currently facing the stigma of being a “slot-only” wide receiver, and he hasn’t shown much ability to win down filed on vertical routes.
On the other side of the ball for USC is another Drake, in Drake Jackson. Jackson is widely considered one the best edge rushers in this year’s class and will likely go in the first round. He’s a high-end athlete for the position and has an impressive inside stick move as a pass rusher, but he needs to get stronger at the point of attack to hold up against the run.