Now a month into the 2022 college football season, I decided it was time to rank the five best players for each position at this very moment. For clarification, these lists are based on where these young men are today as college players. I’m in the business of projecting forward and evaluating them as draft prospects, but for this exercise I tried to isolate them from their team and purely judge them on who could help me win games at the CFB level right now.
Here’s the list:
1. Bryce Young, Alabama
2. C.J. Stroud, Ohio State
3. Caleb Williams, USC
4. Hendon Hooker, Tennessee
T-5. Anthony Richardson, Florida
T-5. Will Levis, Kentucky
This was really a toss-up for number one, because with how good Alabama and Ohio State are and how well their quarterbacks are playing yet again, Young and Stroud will likely be the ones sweating it out for the Heisman in New York. I ultimately went with the reigning award winner, because I believe his receiving corp and O-line aren’t quite as impressive and he’s already had one of those Heisman moments, when Alabama was legitimately outplayed by the Texas, but he led his team down the field for a game-winning field goal with just 84 seconds and no timeouts left. Obviously, Bryce offers a lightning quick release, consistently leads his receivers to open grass and is willing to attack all areas of the field, depending on what defense he faces/what the progressions dictate. However, what makes him so special to me is his composure in high-leverage moments and natural play-making skills, being slippery to corral and somehow finding the open target.
Stroud comes in as a close second, even though his numbers are actually even better and yet again dictating an absurd pace – 70.5% completion percentage, over 300 yards per game and 16 touchdowns versus just one interception – despite only having a likely top-ten pick at receiver in Jaxon Smith-Njigba for basically just one game so far. He’s more of your prototypical pocket-passer, in terms of being willing to hang in the pocket and reading the field high-to-low, as one of the elite vertical throwers in college. Having elite protection and play-makers – who the quarterback regularly hits right out of their breaks on timing-based patterns – along with the play-designs of Ryan Day make this is a difficult offense to defend, but what makes them great is the confidence with which Stroud throws the ball outside the numbers and how he doesn’t allow defenses to cheat in coverage at all.
You can argue here at number three, because as we saw last weekend against Oregon State, Williams is still a very young player as just a true sophomore and his body-language wasn’t great as the USC offense finally got slowed down by somebody, but then he had that incredible fourth-down scramble, where he allowed his O-line to push him past the marker, before hitting a beautiful honey-hole shot to Jordan Addison against cover-two, for the game-winning score against the Beavers. The former Pitt receiver coming over along with Lincoln Riley bringing Williams along from Oklahoma, where he unseated Spencer Rattler, has been a beautiful marriage. Before being held to just 17 points this past Saturday night, the Trojans had combined for 152 against Rice, Stanford and Fresno State. Williams himself looks very comfortable operating the quick game as they spread defenses out and he throws one of the most beautiful deep balls you will ever see. The component he brings to the table that not many can is having the power to run over linebackers, but also the speed to take it the distance – which we saw on 66- and 74-yard TDs against Texas and Iowa State last season.
After talking about a couple of true juniors and even a sophomore, now let’s get to a sixth-year senior in Hendon Hooker. We already know being 25 years old come next April will be a huge deal for NFL evaluators, but he’s playing the quarterback position as well as anybody outside of Alabama and not named Joe Burrow as I’ve seen in the SEC for a long time. Coming over from Virginia Tech ahead of the 2021 season, all Hooker has done is complete 68.9 percent of his passes for well over 4000 yards and 38 touchdowns compared to only three INTs, along with another 800 yards and eight TDs on the ground. His ability to process information pre- and post-snap to dictate where to go with the ball and his ability to manipulate safeties is very advanced. He offers a great combination of being able to let it fly down the field and still taking care of the ball, not forcing it into tight windows. Sometimes I’d like him to stick a little bit longer inside the pocket, but he’s really elusive as a runner and has picked up several key first downs for the Vols when needed most.
Finally, I couldn’t quite decide between two other SEC signal-callers, who don’t have the experience of Hooker, but are currently battling for QB3 in next year’s draft most likely. Levis certainly has put up better numbers (10-to-4 TD-to-INT ratio) than Richardson, who currently sits at two touchdowns versus five interceptions, with a miniscule completion percentage of 53.7% – and the former beat the latter in their direct matchup – but my god, the talent is just surreal. You can’t separate the Florida QB’s 196 yards and five TDs on the ground, where he constantly bails out his offense with crucial scrambles on third and fourth downs, along with the rocket attached to his right shoulder to teleport the ball to any part of the field. Levis doesn’t have to back in terms of arm talent to basically else however, being able to drive the ball with velocity, heave it over the head of defenders and shorten his release when necessary, plus he’s an excellent on-the-move thrower. Both have some decision-making issues at times, but they more than make up with individual skills.
Honorable mentions: Drake Maye (North Carolina), Michael Penix Jr. (Washington), Sam Hartmann (Wake Forest), Jaren Hall (BYU), Will Rogers (Mississippi State), Dillon Gabriel (Oklahoma), K.J. Jefferson (Arkansas), Grayson McCall (Coastal Carolina) & D.J. Uiagelelei (Clemson)
1. Bijan Robinson, Texas
2. Sean Tucker, Syracuse
3. Blake Corum, Michigan
4. Mohamed Ibrahim, Minnesota
5. Deuce Vaughn, Kansas State
Our second position group might not be as star-studded and recognized by the general NFL fans as the quarterbacks, but there’s one truly special talent and some really good depth beyond that. Robinson easily takes that top spot, because to me he’s the most spectacular player at that position since Saquon Barkley was at Penn State. He has the complete package – good size at six foot and 215 pounds, power, balance, crazy elusiveness and break-away speed. His ability to string together moves in the open field with some dramatic head- and foot-fakes is second to none, he can create big plays in space as a pass-catcher and he forced 87 missed tackles on 221 touches this past season. After racking up over 1400 yards and 15 TDs on those, he’s currently at 568 yards and eight scores on 75 touches, increasing his per number to 7.6 yards.
I think the debate for number two here might be where you’d hear the most names thrown out, but I believe Sean Tucker is absolutely worthy of that title right now. Syracuse quarterback Garrett Shrader has made some big plays for the 4-0 Orange, but their running back has been the driving force for this team since the start of the 2021 season. He had 1750 yards and 14 touchdowns on 6.1 yards last year and while his per-carry number is all the way down to 3.6 due to his team being ahead in games and opponents focusing on him, but he’s only three receptions away from matching his total from a year ago (17 versus 20). There is very little wasted movement for Tucker, displays natural tempo and excellent vision between the tackles, quickly processing information. Plus, then he has the burst to get out to the edges and the long-speed to rip off huge plays – which I’m sure are on their way.
Michigan fans loved what Hassan Haskins did for this team last season, especially down the stretch, as they beat Ohio State for the first time in a decade and made the College Football Playoff. However, while you the pure strength and pass-protection skills were top-tier with Haskins, people quickly realized that Corum is the greater talent. Already as a first-year player, I thought his vision, feet and body-control were all pretty darn impressive. He shows great feel for setting up his blockers and leading second-level defenders to the wrong spots, while being able to cut down his stride length and use sudden bursts to slice through creases. Corum can really set up defenders in the open field for a variety of moves, and if he can’t anymore, he makes sure to consistently fall forward. In 2021, he forced 49 missed tackles on 144 rushing attempts (34% of carries) and finished with 944 yards. And he’s already up to nearly 500 and nine TDs on 7.5 yards per carry.
Ibrahim is one of my favorite stories in college football. He’s been one of the best pure runners in the nation since he was a 19-year-old true freshman back in 2018. Already with a couple of 1000-yard rushing seasons in the books, Ibrahim was off to a phenomenal start this past season, racking up 163 yards and two TDs on 30 carries in the opener against Ohio State, before tearing his ACL and being lost for the year. He’s 100% back to that form is seems like, with 600 yards and eight TDs on 93 touches through four weeks already. This guy is built low to the ground and consistently runs with his pads over his knees, allowing him to bounce off defenders frequently. In terms of pacing and understanding angles, he’s a very efficient runner, along with recognizing the leverage of defenders as he gets to the second level. Along with the age and injuries, a lack of top-end speed and receiving production may not make him as attractive to pro scouts, but he’s a phenomenal college back.
And finally, having talked about more of a bruiser, Deuce Vaughn is probably the most fun guy to watch of the group not named Bijan Robinson. It’s hard to not make the comparison to another former K-State standout in Darren Sproles with this 5’6” running back, but Deuce has been such a dynamic all-purpose weapon, with nearly 3500 yards and 34 touchdowns on 531 touches across 27 career games. He certainly has the speed to get around the corner on wide zone concepts and can hide behind that big O-line, but for a small back, he understands how to give his blockers a little bit of extra time and then explode through a crease. Then once he gets to the open field, his start-stop quickness and ability to beat pursuit defenders when he hits the jets, have made him one of the toughest guys to corral.
Honorable mentions: Jahmyr Gibbs (Alabama), TreVeyon Henderson (Ohio State), Tank Bigsby (Auburn), Zach Charbonnet (UCLA), Devon Achane (Texas A&M), Mohamed Ibrahim (Minnesota), Braelon Allen (Wisconsin), Raheim Sanders (Arkansas) & Travis Dye (USC)
1. Jordan Addison, USC
2. Xavier Hutchinson, Iowa State
3. Marvin Mims, Oklahoma
4. Josh Downs, North Carolina
T-5. Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio State
T-5. Kayshon Boutte, LSU
Similar to running back, judging wide receivers based on stats is typically not easy, but when I took production, level of competition and what I see on tape into account, the choice for number one was a pretty easy one. In 2021, Addison won the Biletnikoff award for the best receiver in the nation, with 1650 yards and 18 touchdowns on 107 touches. After transferring over from Pitt, to join Lincoln Riley’s explosive offense, where he’s now up to 21 catches for 337 yards and six scores – and he could have a couple of other big ones in the Oregon State game this past Saturday night, as Caleb Williams just didn’t see him. This guy smoothly gets off the line and quickly gets up to top speed. He can really challenge safeties with the way he beat them across their face or split two-high looks, but when he’s in man-coverage, he can also freeze defenders at the break point and consistently create separation. Drops and playing through contact were areas of improvements for Addison last season, but they haven’t ben issues for him so far this year.
Once again, the battle for number two here was a tough one to figure out, but Xavier Hutchinson has been a highly consistent receiver for the Cyclones and he’s off to the best start of his career. After touching the ball 85 times for 1005 yards and five touchdowns last year, he’s already matched that TD total and is up to 403 yards on 36 grabs in 2022. At 6’3”, 210 pounds, Hutchinson may not be somebody who’ll just blow by the coverage, but he’s surprisingly sudden off the line and can really sink his hips, in and out of breaks. He can vary his approach off the line to set up routes and shows an awareness for ancillary coverage, plus when the ball is in the air, his long arms and leaping ability give him a large catch-radius. In my notes, I also marked “smart and invested” blocker, as he helped spring Breece Hall loose on multiple occasions the two prior seasons.
Not getting to play with two top-ten recruits at the quarterback position and arguably the best offensive play-designer in college football would lead to major regression for most receivers, but the opposite is actually true for Mims. After combining for 69 catches worth 1315 yards and 14 touchdowns the prior 24 games combined, he’s already just three yards short of the 400-mark and has scored three times on 18 grabs, giving him a stupendous average of 22.1 yards per grab. Primarily operating out of the slot, his speed has really opened up room underneath by pushing down the seams, yet if safeties decide to play flat-footed, he’ll quickly blow past them or run away from them on corner routes. However, he also understands when to pace himself and be ready for the ball as he enters soft spots in zone coverage and while his size won’t allow him to overpower guys at the catch-point, he shows great focus tracking the ball when contacted. He made a couple of acrobatic grabs against Texas in 2021, to pull off the late comeback in the Red River Rivalry.
This brings us to number four, with what I believe is a very similar type of player in Josh Downs. After hauling in 101 passes for 1335 yards and eight touchdowns from Sam Howell this past season, he has already missed two of four contests, yet still has caught 14 passes for 110 yards and four TDs. Yet again, the way he can threaten the deep coverage is a huge asset for the Tarheel offense, plus if given too much room, he’ll stick his foot in the ground and becomes a dangerous target on dig routes. UNC also made him sit down a bunch of hook routes once defenses had to respect the speed, to take advantage of his skills with the ball in his hands, as he averaged 7.5 yards after the catch last season, displaying excellent spatial awareness in that regard. The reason I have him just below Mims is that his size limits him slightly more I believe.
And finally, I couldn’t put a list together, without at least mentioning who I believe were the top two receivers in the country heading into the year. Smith-Njigba hasn’t really done anything to be pushed off the podium, even if Jordan Addison may have made him move down a spot – he’s just only played basically one full game, as he was forced to leave the season-opener against Notre Dame with a hamstring injury and then gave it a go for limited time against Toledo. I mean this guy led Ohio State – who had two top-twelve picks from this past April in Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave – with just over 1600 yards and nine touchdowns on 95 grabs last season. His combination of speed, ball-tracking and ability to instantly turn upfield once the catch is secured is still special. And so is Boutte I believe, who may have a tougher job, primarily lining up outside and beating some of the top corners in the SEC, but he had a rough season-opener against Florida State, then famously deleted all LSU-related stuff from his social media channels and has less than 100 receiving yards through three games. I really like the way he attacks blind-spots of defenders, his elite ball-skills and the juice to take a slant to the house. But I need to see him turn his season around.
Honorable mentions: Charlie Jones (Purdue), Nathaniel “Tank” Dell (Houston), Marvin Harrison Jr. (Ohio State), Quentin Johnston (TCU), Xavier Worthy (Texas), Zakhari Franklin (UTSA), Rashee Rice (SMU) & Jacob Cowing (Arizona)
1. Brock Bowers, Georgia
2. Michael Mayer, Notre Dame
3. Dalton Kincaid, Utah
4. Darnell Washington, Georgia
5. Brandon Kuithe, Utah
This is the first position group for this piece, where the name at the top unfortunately isn’t actually draft-eligible in 2023. However, I couldn’t put anybody up there other than Brock Bowers. This dude is just ridiculous. I’ll get to one of his teammates in a second here, who primarily is being lined up as the de-facto Y, but Bowers is a legit blocker, mostly from H-back and wing alignments, where his leg-drive to take defenders out of the picture relentless. With that being said, it’s what he does as a receiver that really has been mind-blowing. He has a first-team All-American in 2021 already, when he touched the ball 60 times for 938 yards and 14 touchdowns. A month into this season, he’s already up to 358 yards and five TDs on only 18 touches. He can blow by linebackers, has really strong hands in traffic and the speed to run away from a lot of safeties even. That’s why we’ve seen Georgia hand him the ball on jet sweeps and end-arounds too.
It almost hurts to “only” put Mayer second here, because he could very well ultimately end up as a top-ten overall prospects on my big board for next April. He looks and plays like your prototypical Y tight-end, but also carries those 250 pounds very easily, with no clunky movement to speak of. You see him quickly eat up ground with those long strides and use that big frame to lean into and push off defenders, to create separation out of his breaks. Then he’s very consistent with the way he approaches the football and doesn’t waste any time to tuck and get vertical, where he becomes a load to bring to the ground. He’s already well above 1000 yards and has double-digit TDs across the 16 games from week one of 2021 on. As a blocker, he’s naturally strong and displays high effort to cave in the backside, but I love the way he can ride smaller defenders out of the picture, when they let him get out in space on fly sweeps and end-arounds.
You could argue for either Utah tight-end earning that number three spot, but considering their pro outlook and just who has made a little more out of his opportunities this season, Kincaid ended up here. After turning 36 catches into 510 yards and eight touchdowns last season (13 games), he’s already reached the end-zone half as many times and just less than half the yardage just four contests in. He can really eat up ground and force safeties to back up when he stems vertically, but he can also plant and break inside to present an attractive target over the middle, as well as use that speed on crossing routes. Kincaid displays the play strength to fight through contact, when defenders are leveraged towards where he wants to go, and it also shows up with the ball in his hands, where he can use that momentum he’s built up, to shrug off tacklers.
However, as crazy as it may seem, Utah has another outstanding tight-end, who quarterback Cam Rising may actually trust more. Brandon Kuithe doesn’t have the explosiveness or power of Kincaid, but his ability to manipulate defenders and sets up his breaks with body-language is highly advanced for the collegiate level. He quickly realizes when the initial route is dead and has a naturally feel for how to work himself open, to create an angle for the quarterback to deliver the ball into. You don’t nearly see the same kind of power or just utilization as a blocker inside the box, but this guy has been almost automatic in terms of moving the chains on third downs, he’s very shifty with the ball in his hands and he is a very good stalk-blocker, to give his fellow receivers space to work in the screen game.
And finally, we complete our other duo of teammates, with the “other” Georgia TE Darnell Washington. As I already mentioned, he’s actually more of your prototypical hand-in-the-dirt guy at the hip of the offensive tackle and does a lot of the dirty work for the Bulldogs’ tremendous rushing attack. The way he can widen the C-gap on off-tackle aiming points and use torque to get defenders out of lanes, to give all those backs for UGA room to burst through is rare these days for a position that is largely evolving into an oversized receiver. However, don’t mistake him for a third tackle on the field, because while he’s only caught 24 passes in his career, he’s averaged 18.3 yards per grab. And he had an unreal play in this year’s season-opener against Oregon, where he tanked his near-270 pounds through defenders before hurdling another guy at the sideline at the tail-end of it, to show off his athleticism.
Honorable mentions: Sam LaPorta (Iowa), Griffin Hebert (Louisiana Tech), Joel Wilson (Central Michigan), Brevyn Spann-Ford (Minnesota) & Will Mallory (Miami)
1. Peter Skoronski, Northwestern
2. Cooper Beebe, Kansas State
3. Jarrett Patterson, Notre Dame
4. Broderick Jones, Georgia
5. John Michael Schmitz, Minnesota
Once again, this is not a draft ranking, but rather my take on where these players are as of right now. That’s why Skoronski had to be at the top of the list for me – his technique is already pretty flawless. His aiming points and angles, whilst operating from a wide base and with good leg-drive, to create running lanes, along with good enough grip on defenders to create that little bit of extra movement at the end. In pass-protection, his weight distribution and hand-usage are super-consistent, and he clearly shows an understanding for the depth of the pocket. The best compliment I can give Skoronski is that his tape can be almost boring at times, because every rep is clean and there’s not much to note. As tremendous as Rashawn Slater was for the Wildcats, there really hasn’t been much of a drop-off since this guy replacement him two years ago.
Talking about boring guys on tape (because of how good they are), I felt nothing like that watching Beebe’s tape. In particular, I posted a clip from the Iowa State game last season, in which he was putting a lot of guys I really liked defensively on rollerblades all day long in the run game. The way he explosive upwards through contact to create that initial momentum and his finishing mindset are a pleasure to watch. Looking at his pass-sets, he stays low and wide with his lower half, while featuring a strong punch and ability to grab guys to where they can’t get away from him. Being 6’3” with fairly short arms and just not being the lightest in terms of staying on an island at island made Beebe move inside to left guard, where he’s better suited as a pro and has been kicking ass so far this season.
Notre Dame has been one of the premiere offensive line factories in the country for a long time, particularly with position coach Harry Hiestand molding them along the way. He’s now back for his second stint with the Irish, but there wasn’t much to work on with fifth-year senior Jarrett Patterson, who has moved over from center to left guard this season, but been equally outstanding. Despite being fairly tall at 6’4”, he finds ways to create leverage and get underneath the pads of defenders, while being able to shield guys with his initial steps on the first and second level regularly. When occupied with a nose-tackle, Patterson is quick to land his hands and take control reps, yet if he’s free, his activity to scan and move laterally, to keep the A-gaps clean once he sees color flash from either side, has given Notre Dame one of the cleanest interiors of the pocket. What I love most about him however is his ability to get out in front and hustle his ass off in the screen game.
Going from a wily veteran for college standard in Patterson, the next name up is a redshirt sophomore in just his first season as a full-time starter. Jones was a top-ten recruit in 2020, but only ended up starting four games (all at left tackle) through his first two seasons, because of all the excellent linemen they’ve had at Georgia. He put his dominance as a road-grader on display to some degree down the stretch of the Bulldogs national championship run, where he can drive edge defenders out near the sideline and just blow defensive tackles off their space on angular blocks. Yet, it’s the improvement he’s shown as a pass-protector in 2022, that have really made him a top-tier tackle already at the CFB level. His ability to gain ground initially, but stay square and force rushers to work through him – which is a very tough task, considering how strong his base is – has allowed him to lock down opposing pass-rushers so far.
This was a tough choice, because there were multiple worthy candidates for that fifth spot. Texas A&M’s Layden Robinson in particular is one of my favorite guard prospects ahead of next year’s draft. However, I ultimately settled on Minnesota’s John Michael Schmitz, who doesn’t get the shine he deserves. Just outside the top-1000 overall recruits back in 2017, Schmitz has started 23 games since the start of the 2020 COVID-shortened season has and been one of the most consistent centers in college football, earning multiple All-Big Ten accolades. He’s one of the most physical run-blockers in the nation, with great urgency out of his stance, bringing 320 pounds to the fight and having impeccable grip strength. He consistently makes sure the down-linemen is secured by either scooping up D-tackles or climbing up and bodying linebackers himself. He does a great job of slowly giving ground and re-positioning his base to against power rushers when matched one-on-one, but is looking for work and quick to help out his guards when unoccupied. He’s a huge reason for the success of Mohamed Ibrahim.
Honorable mentions: Layden Robinson (Texas A&M), Jaelyn Duncan (Maryland), Emil Ekiyor Jr. (Alabama), Andrew Vorhees (USC), Paris Johnson & Luke Wypler (Ohio State), Anton Harrison (Oklahoma), Blake Freeland (BYU) & O’Cyrus Torrence (Florida)
1. Will Anderson Jr. Alabama
2. Myles Murphy, Clemson
3. Andre Carter II, Army
4. Tyree Wilson, Texas Tech
5. Isaiah Foskey, Notre Dame
I’m actually pretty excited for this group of edge defenders and would not be surprised if all four of five of these names will end up being drafted in the first round in next year’s draft, but for now, there’s not much debate about who’s the apex predator of this group. Listening to Will Anderson’s mentality already tell you he’s a dog and the tape tells you he’s an absolute game-wrecker. He has a ton of power in his lower body and consistently plays with great leverage in the run game, along with the speed to chase down ball-carriers from the backside. Rushing the passer, with his get-off and hand-usage, he can really stress the corner, but then he also is quick to take advantage of tackles getting too tall in their sets and driving through them. He’s a special talent, but what makes him a great player at this level already is the urgency and energy he plays with. Last season he racked up an absurd 31 tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks, which he’s pretty much right on track for yet again, while already having added a pick-six to his resume.
As much as I just praised Anderson being in his own category, I still look at Murphy as a legit top-ten prospects for 2023. He doesn’t nearly have the same kind of production in terms of negative plays created, but the top-ten overall recruit for Clemson has been in a system that doesn’t lend itself to rack up those kinds of numbers. Myles Murphy is a phenomenal edge-setter, who will get his base turned at the point of attack, to squeeze down plays and funnel everything inside. And in the pass game, there are a lot of control rushes, read-and-react stuff. However, he packs a nasty long-arm and incorporates some very effective push-pull maneuvers, while continuing to work, to ultimately get home. If not for Anderson setting an absurd standard here, Murphy’s 14 TFLs and eight sacks would be looked at as much more impressive, while he also added five forced fumbles over his first two seasons combined.
At number three, we’re going to a program, that is not nearly as much on the national radar from a football perspective, even though the name may be more widely recognized generally. Carter has a very good chance of becoming the first Army player to be drafted in the first round since 1947(!). Last season, he was borderline, as he recorded 17 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks, an interception and a 93.4 PFF pass-rushing grade. This guy plays with his hair on fire and pursues the ball over the field. Army put him a ton of really wide alignment from a tilted stance, to take advantage of his explosion off the ball and he pairs that with highly effective club- and chop-rip combos, where he makes sure to pull that inside arm all the way through and has some room for error thanks to his freakishly long arms at 6’7”. Off that, he can hit a sudden spin move once tackles over the outside rush. He only has a pair of sacks through three games, but he’s been banged up as well.
In terms of the players I wasn’t keenly aware of before this summer and familiarized myself with, Wilson is one of those names I was just blown away with. And I’m not saying he’s a perfect player or even close to a finished product, but the combination of length, natural power and flexibility is just off the charts. Standing at 6’6”, 275 pounds, you saw line up a lot as a five-technique, where he showed the ability to punch at the chest of tackles and deaden anything they tried to approach in terms of creating movement in the run game, plus his explosive makes him equally tough to handle when he crashes through a gap and rips away the hands of blockers. He’s not a very diverse pass-rusher at this point, but the force he can create on bull-rushes against anybody along the front and the balance, as he’s cornering his rushes off different games really stood out. My favorite play from 2021 was when he basically straight-up trucked Houston’s left tackle at one point. The fact that he only recorded 38 total tackles last year is pretty laughable to me, considering how many stops he actually created, but the numbers are starting to come – 27 tackles, six for loss and three sacks through four weeks.
Finally, I had another tough choice for this final spot. Auburn’s Derick Hall has taken another step and I thought of doing another tie at five, but I ultimately didn’t want to cheat the task too much here and went with Foskey. Among an Irish defense that was filled with freaky athletes over the last couple of years, this guy may be the craziest of them all. Foskey has played this hybrid OLB role for Notre Dame, where we’ve seen him line up on the edge as well as play off the ball and be rushed from different angles in obvious passing situations. In the run game he can punch and shed with very active hands, but also doesn’t away from accelerating into a pulling guard. As a pass-rusher, his burst off the ball, the loose hips and hand-usage to flatten at the top of the rush is a challenge for any tackle, but I love the way he can convert speed to power and condense the pocket with an effective long-arm. He’ll only continue to rise on the boards of pro evaluators.
Honorable mentions: Derick Hall (Auburn), Jacoby Windmon (Michigan State), Nick Herbig (Wisconsin), Derek Parish (Houston), B.J. Ojulari (LSU), Drew Sanders (Arkansas) & Nick Hampton (Appalachian State)
1. Jalen Carter, Georgia
2. Bryan Bresee, Clemson
3. Siaka Ika, Baylor
4. Dante Stills, West Virginia
T-5. Colby Wooden, Auburn
T-5. Jaquelin Roy, LSU
Once again, the number one spot among the interior defensive line was fairly easy to figure out. Right now, Jalen Carter is a close second in terms of my overall big board for next year’s draft, because in terms of the athletic phenom, I might actually say he’s more naturally gifted than Alabama’s Will Anderson. Georgia just had three first-round picks among the defensive line alone back in April – Carter is better than all of them. Jordan Davis had a phenomenal 2021 season and the junior may not be asked to control the interior as much at the nose, even though he’s certainly capable of it. But it’s the pure force he has, even with even pad-levels, to just drive solo-blockers into the backfield and toss them to the side, as he sees the ball-carrier approach. We saw him do so in their season-opener this year to a 330-pound senior guard for Oregon. On passing downs, he can obviously yank blockers of him as well, but his ability to torque his body, the nimble feet to work across his man’s face and how he can loop all the way across the formation just stand out.
I did not expect us to land here coming into the season, because full transparency – I was underwhelmed with Bresee’s tape. For a former number one overall recruit, I thought he wasn’t playing with great urgency, wanting to make plays, and there were way too many wasted reps rushing the passer. This year, he comes off the ball with a different attitude and is looking to create chaos. He’s obviously immensely strong and willing to do the dirty work in the run game, but he’s gotten much better at pressing off linemen and creating angles towards the ball for himself to shut down plays. When he’s lined up to the shoulder of a guard or center, the power to rip through and take guys with him as he actively shortens his path has given quarterbacks very limited room to operate between the tackles. He still only has a couple of TFLs and half a sack, but he’s been in on the action for several no gain carries and made passers land on their backside.
At number three, we have another guy, where the production simply hasn’t been there (just seven tackles, no sacks and two PBUs) and considering his role, it probably won’t really come either this year. Since Ika has transferred along with his former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda a couple of years ago, he has been the rock in the middle of Baylor’s formidable defense. In 2021, they finished top-ten in points allowed and surrended a miniscule 3.4 yards per carry. This season, they’ve even decreased that number to 2.6 yards a pop. Ika constantly demands double-teams and can actually own his space anyway by reducing his surface area and standing into crease between the two blockers, but if he’s lined up to as a shade nose, he can also knife upfield and disrupt the run. He may not be a prominent third-down contributor, but he can surprise blockers with sudden club-swim and push-pull combinations, while giving him a runway as a three-technique allows him to create serious power to push up the middle. Last season he actually earned a moves 85.7 pass-rush grade by PFF.
One of my personal favorites for a couple of seasons now – and it certainly has something to do with his brother Darius being a draft prospect two years ago, making me believe Dante has been there for such a long time – is Stills. Unlike his brother, who was more a dense three-technique, Dante features great length and with his active hand-usage, he can really create problems for blockers. He can two-gap as well as slant across gaps and routinely throws off the timing of run concepts. While I’d like to see him play under a little more control and be able to reduce his height, whether it’s bull-rush, pulling cloth to toss guys aside or the ability to corner his rushes off rip-moves, this guy has a lot of clubs in his bags, and he’s relentless with the way he continues to work in that regard.
And finally, we have another tie at number five, and if I wanted to, I could have easily made this a three-man affair here, considering how disruptive Pitt’s Calijah Kancey has been over the last couple of years. Instead, I wanted to focus on two SEC studs here. Wooden presents old-school 3-4 defensive end build at 6’5” and 278 pounds, but is being used all over the line by the Tigers. His motor is always running hot, he’s active with disengaging from blocks in the run game, and really good at clearing the chest of blockers, so can bury his hands in there and take guys for a ride in passing situations. Roy has more of a trunky build at 6’4”, 300 pounds, and more focused on holding his ground in run defense, but he showcases impressive lateral agility to mirror lateral schemes. As a pass-rusher, I thought there were there are too many wasted reps on his 2021 tape, but he does showcase cat-like quickness for that size and then can blow through one half of his man once he gets that guy to stop his feet.
Honorable mentions: Calijah Kancey (Pittsburgh), Mazi Smith (Michigan), Zacch Pickens (South Carolina), Dom Peterson (Nevada), Keion White (Georgia Tech) & Elijah Chatman (SMU)
1. Noah Sewell, Oregon
2. Henry To’o To’o, Alabama
3. Trenton Simpson, Clemson
4. Jack Campbell, Iowa
5. Demarvion Overshown, Texas
While I enjoy the process of evaluating stand-up or off-ball linebackers and think I have a solid track record in terms of NFL projections, it can also be very challenging in terms of what is being asked of guys in the pros compared to the collegiate level and just separating what makes a great college LB versus what translates to the next level. Therefore, Sewell at number one made it fairly easy for me, considering he was already a stud as the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and a first-team all-conference selection in his second season, but I also love what he offers the NFL. The brother of Lions stud offensive tackle Penei Sewell, Noah became the crown jewel of Oregon once his brother decided to sit out 2020 and then became a top-ten pick. He’s not quite there mentally, just being a step to late in his reactions at times, but he’s the full package. Sewell doesn’t shy away from blasting into blockers and can certainly blow up ball-carriers in the hole, but also has the burst and shut down toss plays out wide and is like a bear as a tackler. He flashes good instincts in coverage, but at this point it’s what he can bring as a pressure player on passing downs, with legit speed and ability to bend around the edge. His pass-rush win rate of 31.2% last season was pretty staggering.
Rarely do you see a linebacker become a day-two draft pick and you feel like the guy who lined up next to him, but decides to stay for another year, is significantly better. Christian Harris was a highly-regarded recruit for Alabama and had flashes, where he’d let that talent flourish, but I thought Henry To’o To’o cleaned up quite a few things throughout the year for him. Coming over from Jeremy Pruitt’s Tennessee offense, the linebacker was familiar with a similar defensive scheme and actually allowed Nick Saban and company to move Harris to the weak-side, with To’o To’o fitting in at MIKE. He’s light on his feet to mirror the ball and navigate around blockers, but can also flatten and cut off angles as running backs commit to a gap. However, he also does well to control the space between the hashes in zone coverage and is very active in communication in that regard, plus his closing burst is a real asset on some green-dog blitzes and wide loops, to put heat on the quarterback.
The guy most draft rankings seem to have at the top for the position however is Trenton Simpson, who was right up there with those two linebackers for Oregon in Sewell and Justin Flowe as LB3 in the 2020 recruiting class. In year two, he already filled up the stat sheet pretty well, with 65 total tackles, 12.5 of those for loss, 6.5 sacks and two passes broken up. At 6’3”, 225 pounds, he is a little bit different in terms of his usage, as Brent Venables STAR backer/hang defender, who left for a head coaching gig at Oklahoma this offseason. Simpson has continued to excel under new DC Wes Goodwin, thanks to his athletic profile and the growth in play-recognition. His short-area explosiveness to beat blockers to the spot and flat-out speed to run down plays all over the field really pops. In the pass game, he can carry slot receivers down the hashes, blitz off the slot, spy the quarterback and pretty much anything you ask of him, because of how loose he is in space.
When you think of a true standout college linebacker, who’s consistently a step early with how he sees plays happen and seems to get involved on every single tackle, Jack Campbell is a new that comes to mind. He has some good lateral agility to side-step blockers, but rarely fights through creases and stops the momentum of ball-carriers around the line of scrimmage. He may not be super rangy in coverage, but his awareness and length allow him to make it challenging to put the ball over his head carrying guys down the middle and sinking underneath crossers, where we’ve already seen him bat passes into the air and for his secondary players to dive for. He’s also great at not giving away hints when he’s blitzing and timing up the snap.
Finally, somebody who may not be as comfortable stacking and shedding blockers in a traditional sense, but is incredible as a run-and-chase player is Texas’ Demarvion Overshown. Between 2020 and ’21, he combined for 134 total tackles, 13.5 of those for loss, three sacks, nine passes broken up and two intercepted – and he’s actually on track for slightly better numbers this season. Weighing in at 220 pounds at best, Overshown may not be built to play square against blockers, but he’s more than willing to shoot through one half of the blockers and funnel the ball back inside on perimeter-oriented runs, or just hit a crease and creative negative plays when the opportunity arises. Being a highly-regard four-star safety recruit shows up with how easy his movement is in coverage, to quickly gain depth vertically, but then also redirect and shut down YAC opportunities on crossers or dump-offs in the flats. Plus, if you scheme open a lane for him, as Texas does at times for Overshown to wrap around, he’ll arrive at the passer in the hurry and knock that guy on his ass.
Honorable mentions: Troy Brown (Central Michigan), Ivan Pace Jr. (Cincinnati), Mikel Jones (Syracuse), Owen Pappoe (Auburn), Ventrell Miller (Florida) & Bumper Pool (Arkansas)
1. Cam Smith, South Carolina
2. Garrett Williams, Syracuse
3. Riley Moss, Iowa
4. Kelee Ringo, Georgia
5. Joey Porter Jr., Penn State
Coming into the year with Georgia’s Kelee Ringo, LSU-to-Alabama transfer Eli Ricks and Cam Smith as the trio at the top in terms of draft prospects for next year, I feel like the latter has really established himself as the top guy of the group, considering how well he’s played for an otherwise so-so South Carolina team. He pretty much picked up right where Jaycee Horn left off for the Gamecocks in 2021, as he picked off three passes, broke up 11 more and finished with an 89.7 PFF coverage grade. His usage is already very similar, in terms of being a true press-man boundary corner, who’ll line up on the opposing X receiver, showing great balance and physicality to deny guys to attack the edges of his frame. For a lanky outside corner, he doesn’t look uncomfortable playing off and getting in a back-pedal either though, and his range as a zone defender, makes it very tough to get the ball over him, even when he’s mid-pointing smash concepts and such as. He has the confidence to turn his head and make plays on the ball when tangles up with receiver down the field. And he’s more than willing to race up against run and screen plays, while shooting his hips through tackles, to take down guys reliably.
The other guy who has really stood out at that spot this season is Garrett Williams. Obviously with the Orange being 4-0 at this point, there’s plenty of credit to go around, but in terms of who is currently playing his position at the highest level, the standout corner has really made an impression on me. Playing a ton of soft press and cover-three bail, Williams trusts his speed as receivers push vertically. His long arms are a major asset when stabbing at the pecs of receivers to throw off their release, plus then he displays light feet and impressive fluidity for a fairly tall corner. He doesn’t panic down the field and makes some great high-point plays on the ball, but it’s is length and technique to counter back-shoulder fades that really stood out a few times on tape. He rapidly accelerates upfield against quick completions and maintains vision through blockers typically. Williams has already broken up three passes, intercepted two, forced and recovered a fumble each.
Talk about play-makers at the cornerback spot – Riley Moss has been as good at it as anybody else in the country since the start of the 2021 season. Last year, he had five PBUs and four picks, of which he returned two to the house, along with putting up three tackles for loss. He presents good size for an outside corner, but he’s at his best clicking and closing on routes in off zone-coverage and you love his play-making skills as the flat defender in cover-two, where he can sink and get his hands on passes over his head. I’ve seen him bend with receivers down the post when having to stick to them and track the ball as if he was the receiver for an interception as well. I like how actively he approaches blockers and disengages when the ball comes his way and he makes sure to somehow get the ball who carries it to the ground, where he can wrap around the knees or clutch a leg.
This is where the aforementioned Kelee Ringo finally comes up. Because he’s part of such an incredible Georgia defense, it’s tough for individual players to get their shine, but it’s hard to miss that guy in number out there. It might be jerseys or whatever, but this is the biggest corner I’ve ever seen, to where I thought he was a linebacker when I first saw him step on the field. His physical and length can really throw off receivers at the line and negate easy access to the inside, but even if he does allow some separation momentarily, his make-up burst to close down that distance is freaky. Has season he allowed a completion percentage of just 40.7% and came up with the game-sealing pick-six against Alabama in that national title game. His size also allows him to rip through the outside of tight-ends with no receivers to his size and he forcefully brings ball-carriers to the ground.
In terms of total ball-production – not just interceptions – Joey Porter Jr. is right up there at the top of the list. He has already broken up nine passes, which is more than double his total from a year ago (four), with six of those coming in Penn State’s season-opener against Purdue. I just talked about the biggest corner I’ve probably ever seen on a college field, so now it’s only appropriate to mention that this guy may be the longest. Not only are those long arms a legit make-up tool, but it also makes it so tough for receivers to hold onto the ball, as he rakes through their hands. The son of former Steelers All-Pro outside linebacker Joey Sr. can stay sticky vertically and horizontally in trail technique, but for his height, he also redirects forward as receivers break in front of him when he does play off pretty well. He’s not flying up in run support and wants to make every tackle necessary, but his pursuit speed across the field is definitely an asset.
Honorable mentions: Clark Phillips III (Utah), Tyrique Stevenson (Miami), Storm Duck (North Carolina), D’Shawn Jamison (Texas) & Steven Gilmore (Marshall)
1. Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M
2. Jordan Battle, Alabama
3. Christopher Smith, Georgia
4. J.L. Skinner, Boise State
5. Jammie Robinson, Florida State
The safety position wasn’t as easy to figure out, because the guy I wanted to place at the top here doesn’t have much of the classic production you want to see at that spot, but he’s also not playing it in a very traditional sense and deserves to be recognized for well he does his job. Johnson has played almost exclusively in the slot for the Aggies, where he has been key for that unit for work. He’s an excellent edge-setter in the run, who will funnel everything back inside and has tremendous length to keep blockers off his frame. As a coverage defender, he shows good spatial awareness in zone and is very patient in man to not overreact to head- or foot-fakes by the receiver, as well as using those lanky limbs to rip through the ball for some late break-ups. And he’s a highly dependable tackler in space, who regularly tosses receivers too the turf with very little effort it seems like.
Coming in right behind him, as the second of three straight SEC guys, I have what probably is the highest-graded safety on draft boards for most people out there. Jordan Battle could have easily entered the 2022 NFL draft and probably been a top-50 pick after the season he put together – 85 total tackles, three passes broken up and intercepted each, with two of those taken back to the house – but he decided to stick around for his senior campaign. The ball-production isn’t there yet this season (zero passes defensed), but the way he charges up the alley in run support and the versatile piece he is in coverage for Nick Saban’s troops is very valuable for that unit. He’s so good at playing in-between routes in zone coverage, can drive down in routes in two-high looks and shut down crossing routes instantly, as he buzzes down into the flats or as a robber. The one thing he’s still working on is not getting sucked up as much by play-action.
Next up, I have what I would have maybe called “the other” Georgia safety coming into this season. I was very excited for 2021 West Virginia transfer Tykee Smith to make his return from injury and would love to put his name on the list, but he simply hasn’t played enough or put up the numbers to warrant that. Chris Smith on the other hand has been really impressive, with his instincts and range as they’ve deployed him more as a center-fielding free safety, while having been a reliable last line of defense as a space tackler. He had three huge plays in this year’s season-opener at Oregon, where he flew up in run support from depth to stop the back cold, then had an awesome interception off Bo Nix and finally dislodged the ball on a deep shot, where the receiver seemed wide open originally, with him getting over there as the deep middle safety. He has added another pick and two TFLs to his resume so far.
The most fun I had watching among this group was this guy from Boise State, who the national landscape hasn’t caught up on yet. Skinner did actually fill up the stat sheet in a big way last season – 92 combined tackles (66 solo), seven(!) of those for loss, three PBUs, two picks, two fumbles forced and three recovered. Having missed one game, he’s pretty much on the same trajectory and showed what a game-wrecker he can be from that safety spot right away against Oregon State in this year’s opener against Oregon State, where he made a great pick, closing the ball on a shallow crosser and reaching between the receiver’s hands, batting the ball to himself and setting up his offense in scoring range. Skinner says he molds his game after Kam Chancellor, which is on display with how emphatically he fills the C-gap and how he dominates first contact with any type of receiver trying to block. Despite being a 220-pound safety, who can play in the box however, he actually ended up in the deep post regularly last season, where he does a great job of putting himself in position to bracket guys streaking down the seams, and when he drops down as a robber, you see receivers be aware of where he is and short-arm passes.
And while the entertainment factor was greater with Skinner, I thought Jammie Robinson played the position with an energy and demeanor that was second to none. His ability to anticipate breaks, decipher through patterns and leverage receivers as a deep zone defender is very advanced for a college player, while his awareness allows the Seminole coaches to line him up in a lot of different spots as a chess-piece in coverage. In the run game, his urgency to attack forward from the slot and deep alignments I really enjoy to watch. I’ve seen him be lined up 12 yards deep and shoot through the legs of the back on power runs bounced wide for no gain before. However, what I came away with the most is how super-reliable Robinson has been as a tackler, whether he has to put his body in the way of rolling train and take the runner to the ground with him or twists guys down from the side.
Honorable mentions: Brandon Joseph (Northwestern), Ronnie Hickman (Ohio State), Brian Branch (Alabama), Quindell Johnson (Memphis), Kenny Logan (Kansas) & Bentlee Sanders (Nevada)