Every year, we take a close look at the NFL Draft to stay up to date on trends at each position. Inspection of what top draft picks looked like as high school prospects proves highly instructive to honing in on critical factors among players who end up as the best in college football.
The 2020 cycle proved to be one of the more deep and talented groups of recruits we’ve seen in recent years. With these incoming freshmen set to hit campus en masse in the coming weeks, I thought it would be both fun and useful to take a look at some of the prospects who fit favorably into the trends at their respective positions. It is worth noting that we’ve been tracking many of these critical factors for some time and many were used in our rankings process. Much of this group emerged as senior risers over the course of the process.
For the sake of this piece, we’re going to focus primarily on prospects who weren’t five-stars for 247Sports. Most of those elite prospects are going to be no-brainer prototypes.
Most of the factors at quarterback, like senior year production are well-established at this point. The three five-stars from the 2020 cycle – Bryce Young, DJ Uiagalelei and CJ Stroud — stack up well in that regard. Uiagalelei (baseball) and Stroud (basketball) also fit the multi-sport profile. By now, most of the highly productive and skilled signal callers aren’t going to fly under the radar. But here are two guys who could use a little more attention …
Ethan Garbers, Washington – Garbers rose in the final rankings after posting one of the more gaudy senior seasons we’ve seen in a while. How about this … he completed 70% of his passes for over 5,000 yards and 71 touchdowns against six interceptions. Garbers also showed good mobility with 573 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground.
Mason Garcia, East Carolina – I got to see most of the top quarterbacks in the 2020 cycle throw in person at one point or another. After Uiagalelei, Garcia was perhaps the next most impressive passer from a pure arm talent perspective. The ball flies out Garcia’s hand. At 6-foot-4, 218 pounds, he’s a big, strapping athlete and was heavily employed as a run threat throughout his high school career. Garcia is a bit raw and doesn’t have the pure production of some other top quarterbacks, but he has shown steady improvement and led a non-power high school to a state semi-final as a senior. Garcia’s pure physical ceiling will make him a prospect worth monitoring should he continue to progress at East Carolina.
The running back position is in a weird place. We haven’t seen a back taken in the first half of the first round in the last two drafts. Teams picking towards the end of the first round might draft off of fit as opposed to taking the consensus top back – like we saw this year with the Chiefs taking Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who is an ideal match for their pass-happy scheme. Regardless, the vast majority of top running back draft picks in recent years have a few things in common: long speed (sub 11.0 second 100m times) and the ability to rip off long runs with consistency (high yards per carry). Highly-ranked backs like Bijan Robinson, Demarkcus Bowman and Zachary Evans hit most of the markers. Here’s a few more who stack up favorably.
Jo’Quavious Marks, Mississippi State- Mike Leach doesn’t use the running back in a conventional sense, with his backs nearly catching as many passes as they have rush attempts. That said, Marks fits the profile of a traditional top running back prospect. How’s this for production: he ran for 6,685 yards and 59 touchdowns while averaging a gaudy 10.9 yards per carry for his career at Atlanta (Ga.) Carver. Marks ran for 11.2 yards per carry and averaged over 200 yards per game as a senior. He also has a strong speed resume on the track with multiple 11.1 second 100 meter times as an underclassman (no 2020 track season) and a best of 22.16 seconds in the 200 meters.
Israel Abanikanda, Pittsburgh- Abanikanda was one of the more athletic backs in the 2020 cycle. He posted outstanding testing numbers at The Opening regional with a 4.50 second 40-yard dash, 4.28 second shuttle and 39.1 inch vertical at 5-foot-11, 197 pounds. He was also one of the top sprinters in New York with a 10.69 second best in the 100 meters. It all came together for Abanikanda as a senior, as he ran for 1,350 yards (9.9 yards per carry) and 20 touchdowns in addition to playing defense. He was named New York’s Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior.
Frank Brown, Arizona- The Houston (Texas) Sterling product proved to be one of the more versatile offensive players in the Lone Star State as a senior. Brown averaged 13.7 yards per carry and scored on 15 of his 82 rush attempts. He also racked up 1,104 yards and 15 touchdowns as a receiver. His track speed (10.99 100 meter, 21.86 200 meter) showed up on the field as he easily pulled away from defenses.
Receiver is a skill-based position. Athleticism still matters, but we don’t see as many prospects who are multi-positional or physical projections hit. It’s pretty simple. Often the most skilled and developed receivers at an early stage are the ones who end up as the best in college and ultimately as high draft picks. Every wideout in the top 100 picks of the 2020 draft was primarily a wide receiver coming out of high school. The majority of the group had over 10 touchdown catches as seniors. I came away from this draft feeling even better about or top two receivers in the 2020 cycle, Julian Fleming and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, both who signed with Ohio State. They were each highly productive and showed some nuanced and developed skills. Smith-Njigba in particular is highly advanced as a route-runner.
Jalen McMillan, Washington- He was highly-rated (No. 38 in the Top247) but an argument could be made that McMillan has the profile of a five-star receiver. He hits all the marks. Production? McMillan averaged over 1,600 yards (20+ yards per catch) and 17 touchdowns in his last three seasons of high school football. He was one of the very best route-runners over the course of the All-American Bowl week and flashed his top end speed (10.67 in 100 meters) in the game, pulling away from the defense on a long catch and run touchdown.
Loic Fouonji, Texas Tech- Fouonji exploded as a senior, and was one of the more productive receivers in the state of Texas, totaling 1,473 yards and 22 touchdowns on 73 receptions. The 6-foot-4, 194-pounder has one of the better size/speed combinations in the cycle. He has the ability to blow by several opposing defensive backs (including some who were national prospects) with top-end long speed (21.42 200 meter time) and showed improvements as a route runner.
Jaylon Barden, Pittsburgh- Barden was a senior riser in the state of Georgia as a senior. The Macon (Ga.) Westside standout had a phenomenal final campaign with 68 catches for 1,234 yards and 15 touchdowns. He’s both athletic (4.51 second 40) and technically skilled as a route-runner.
This offensive line draft featured the youngest, heaviest and longest group of offensive tackles in recent memory. All five first-rounders were early entries and had over 34 inch arms. Four of the five were well above average athletes at the position, as well.
Jalen Rivers, Miami- Rivers is one that we were actually lower than the industry-generated Composite for. He was a little heavier (327 pounds) and wasn’t among the best from a pure quickness standpoint. With that said, Rivers has the profile of an offensive lineman who could outplay his ranking (No. 221 overall in the Top247). The upside is there. Rivers has two factors that matter – length and explosive power. He was a state champion in the shot put as a junior with a personal best toss of over 54 feet. Rivers might need some time to develop, but the 2020 draft has me feeling better about his long term prospects.
Luke Kandra, Louisville- Kandra flew under the radar for much of his recruitment, but was a late four-star bump and one I’m high on entering his freshman year. The 6-foot-4, 290-pounder played his best football as a senior for a top program at Cincinnati (Ohio) Elder. He is a top athlete at the position and elite as a thrower in the shot put and discus. Louisville offensive coordinator and o-line coach Dwayne Ledford has churned out some top picks in recent years and Kandra could be the next in line. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on the field relatively early in his career as a Cardinal.
Yahya Black, Iowa- Few programs do a better job of developing raw, high upside prospects into top draft picks than Iowa. Tristan Wirfs and Noah Fant are two recent Hawkeyes who entered with physical upside and came out as some of the best athletes at their respective positions in years. Black fits the mold, especially if he lands along the offensive line. The Minnesota native has a big frame and is a strong athlete (50 foot shot put). He could develop into a monster after a few years in Chris Doyle’s strength program.
Pass rushers can come in different shapes and sizes, but we’ve seen a few trends emerge recently. Recent top draft picks at the position averaged 6-foot-4, 220 pounds as high school seniors. They also averaged double-digit sacks with over half being basketball players – many at a high level.
Jared Ivey, Georgia Tech- Ivey was a big senior riser for 247Sports and with good reason. He tripled his production in his final season at Suwannee (Ga.) North Gwinnett and was dominant against some of the best competition in the country. The 6-foot-6, 225-pounder was dynamic off the edge and showed some high end athletic ability en route to tallying 32.5 tackles for loss and 20 sacks. Ivey is very long and functionally athletic with the ability to bend the edge as a pass rusher and track down plays in pursuit. He’s also a bouncy basketball player who had college offers on the hardwood as well.
Jonathan Horton, Virginia- Horton is similar to Ivey in many ways, but was even lesser known. He picked up football again as a senior after previously focusing on basketball. The Scotlandville (La.) product was an instant revelation. He was both highly disruptive and physical (particularly for a first-year player), racking up 22 tackles for loss, 14 sacks and five forced fumbles. The 6-foot-5, 215-pounder is a twitched up athlete and was a standout on one of the best high school basketball teams in Louisiana, helping his team reach a national ranking as a senior.
The defensive line is all about the pass rush nowadays. The ability to create pressure from the interior is highly valued. Recent top picks at the position averaged 6-foot-3.2, 284 pounds as high school seniors with over 20 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in their final prep season. The defensive tackle group in the 2020 cycle was perhaps the deepest position at the top. Five-star prospects like Bryan Bresee, Gervon Dexter, Jalen Carter, Jordan Burch, Timothy Smith and Alfred Collins hit most of, if not all, of the marks. I would expect most of that group to turn into high picks based on these trends and what we saw from them as high school prospects.
McKinnley Jackson, Texas A&M- Jackson doesn’t quite fit the ideal physical dimensions as he measured under 6-foot-2, but he showed to be one of the more disruptive interior pass rushers in the class. The Lucedale (Miss.) George County product showed one of the better first steps in the 2020 cycle. He was unblockable at times in all-star settings and turned in a dominant performance at the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star game in addition to some strong moments at the All-American Bowl practices, as well. Jackson backed that skill set up as a high school player, with 107 TFL and 31.5 sacks in his final three prep seasons.
Davin Vann, NC State- Though he plays defensive line, Vann could be the Tristan Wirfs of the 2020 cycle in that he has an extremely impressive and well-rounded athletic profile. Like Wirfs, Vann is a three-sport star as a state champion wrestler and one of the nation’s best in the shot put, in addition to his gridiron exploits. And also like Wirfs, Vann has some acrobatic skills, with the ability to turn flips at 275 pounds. This isn’t just a raw athlete, though. Vann was a great high school football player. He showed well at the Shrine Bowl in December and totaled 25 tackles for loss, 17 sacks and 7 forced fumbles as a senior.
This position is becoming increasingly athletic. We’ve seen linebacker become a landing spot for multi-positional athletes in recent years. The majority of top picks at linebacker played on both sides of the ball in high school and registered as top athletes from a speed and agility standpoint. The position is also trending smaller, with most of the recent top picks ranging from 190 to 225 pounds as high school seniors while averaging 6-foot-2 in (5’11 to 6’4 range) in height. Five-star prospects like Trenton Simpson, Drew Sanders and Curtis Jacobs fit the multi-positional and athletic/size markers. Here’s a few more who stick out.
Demouy Kennedy, Alabama- Kennedy had a strong case as a five-star prospect in what was a very deep and strong year at the position. At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, Kennedy showed high-end speed and length for the position. He also saw time on offense and scored on a high percentage of his carries on that side of the ball. Kennedy fits the mold of recent linebackers who have developed into top picks for the Crimson Tide.
Wesley Steiner, Auburn- Steiner was the top athlete in the cycle from an athletic testing perspective. He posted the top composite score at The Opening Finals after posting a 4.51 second 40-yard dash, 4.0 second shuttle and 40.2 inch vertical at 6-foot, 220 pounds. He’s a very strong, explosive athlete who can run in space and fits the mold of the modern linebacker athletically and from a skill perspective (also played running back).
Shane Whitter, Oklahoma- Whitter was perhaps the fastest linebacker in the 2020 cycle, posting multiple sub 4.5 second 40-yard dash times over the course of his recruitment. The one-time Wake Forest commit looks the part of an ideal off-ball linebacker with his speed and playmaking ability. He totaled over 120 tackles and chipped in eight touchdowns on offense as a senior.
Cedric Gray, North Carolina- A late four-star bump, Gray was seen as a receiver for much of his career before beginning to make the transition to defense as a senior. The Charlotte (N.C.) Ardrey Kell product hits most of the marks. He ran a 4.61 second 40-yard dash at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds. Gray also showed some of the best two-way versatility in the cycle with over 800 yards and 13 touchdowns as a receiver in addition to 70 tackles and three interceptions on defense.
Like linebacker, we’ve seen defensive back become a position that values athleticism and playmaking ability. Ball skills are paramount in addition to speed (especially at corner). The 2020 draft also saw height and length prioritized at cornerback. Recent top picks at defensive back average over 6-foot and around 180 pounds as high school prospects with most playing on both sides of the ball. I came away from this draft feeling even more bullish about 2020 five-stars like Kelee Ringo, Jaylon Jones and Demorie Tate. You could argue each of those three could have been ranked higher. They have above average size, athleticism and playmaking ability relative to past top picks.
Jahari Rogers, Florida- Rogers spent most of his high school career as a standout quarterback with over 3,500 total yards and 46 touchdowns as a junior. He started to make the transition to cornerback late in his tenure at Arlington (Texas) and looked like a natural at the position in national events like The Opening and the Under Armour All-America game. Rogers has a good height/length and speed combination as well, with a 10.8 second time in the 100 meters at 6-feet.
David Vincent-Okoli, West Virginia- The Maryland native hits the marks as a top athlete with ball skills. He was a standout receiver at the high school level in addition to being a state champion in the 100 (10.75) and 200 (21.78) meters. Though not the tallest corner at 5-foot-11, Vincent-Okoli is above the 5-foot-10 line of demarcation.
Ryan Watts, Ohio State- We could see Watts land at corner or safety in Ohio State’s secondary. He hits most of the factors regardless of where he ends up. For starters, Watts has very good size at 6-foot-2.5, 187 pounds. He also tested as a good athlete with a 4.58 second 40-yard dash, 4.07 second shuttle and 38 inch vertical. Watts played on both sides of the ball for his Little Elm (Texas) squad and showed ball skills while doubling as a receiver.
AJ McCarty, Baylor- Looking for a three-star prospect with a strong profile? McCarty could be your guy. The Brownwood (Texas) product has a lot going for him. McCarty played on both sides of the ball and had over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns as a receiver. He was a four-sport athlete and state champion in the triple jump, as well. He’s not the biggest at 5-foot-11, 180 pounds but still fits the bill from a size perspective.