In mid-October, we listed our 2022 NFL draft winners and losers for the first half of the 2021 college season. Now it's time to wrap up the back half of the regular season.
We'll do another winners-and-losers piece following the conference title games, bowl games and playoff contests sometime in January. But for the time being, here are the NFL prospects who have helped and hurt their stocks the most over the past two months.
Nevada QB Carson Strong
Strong has blowtorched several Wolf Pack passing marks and established himself as one of the best deep throwers in college football. There might be no better arm in the 2022 NFL draft, assuming he declares.
There is still a concern about the health of Strong’s chronic knee injury, which nearly delayed the start of his season. He also must be better at smelling pressure better and not hanging onto the football too long. Strong also has been dinged for some of his on-field histrionics when things don't go the way he wants.
But until the medical reports occur, Strong has done nearly everything you could ask as a thrower to help buttress his draft stock. In his past six games, he has a 16-4 TD-INT ratio and has made multiple eye-opening, NFL-caliber throws in each.
It’s possible that some teams could have him graded as the 2022 class' QB1 with a clean bill of health.
Western Kentucky QB Bailey Zappe
Zappe was pretty wild and a bit careless in Saturday’s win at Marshall, and he has some obvious things working against his NFL ceiling as a prospect. But there’s also no doubt that he’s put himself on the map with his efficiency, lightning-quick release and fearless approach.
Yes, the offensive system and some good weapons helped Zappe throw for 4,968 yards with a 52-9 TD-INT ratio while completing 70.1% of his passes. But we can’t hold that against him enough to suggest that he has put himself in a position to be drafted this spring with a brilliant final season after transferring from Houston Baptist.
Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder
We’ve been accused of being hard on Ridder, and that’s fair. Our biggest question: How high is the ceiling for him as an NFL prospect? That still holds, we believe, even if we unequivocally believe he’s played the best football of his career over the past two months.
What Ridder has done quite convincingly is prove that his floor is quite high. He lacks a true gun as a thrower and still has issues layering passes over the middle. But there’s a lot to like about his poise, athleticism, touch and ability to throw on the move.
With a Senior Bowl invitation secured, Ridder has a good chance to be a top-50 selection and make a run at the first round. He reminds us a bit of Jason Campbell, a former first-round pick who started 79 NFL games for five different franchises.
Tennessee QB Hendon Hooker
Entering the season, there was little buzz on Hooker as an NFL prospect. His summer grades were mostly at the UDFA level and he didn’t even begin the season as the Vols’ starter, losing the job initially to Joe Milton.
That feels like eons ago. Hooker always had the physical goods, and now the Virginia Tech transfer is blossoming into a really interesting product. He’s completing 69% of his passes, has a 26-3 TD-INT ratio and has run for 560 yards and five scores.
From about the Mizzou game on, Hooker has been terrific. Throwing for 287 yards and three TDs against Alabama will earn you proper notice. But watching the Ole Miss game, to the naked eye, Hooker looked to be on a similar plane as Matt Corral, the possible QB1 in this class.
At 6-foot-3 and 221 pounds, with big hands (10 1/2 inches) and a well-built frame, Hooker can scramble effectively and have success as a designed runner. His 11 fumbles are a concern, and Hooker takes way too many sacks. But for a developmental type, he’s a fascinating project — and Hooker could end up at the Senior Bowl, which could boost his stock further.
Missouri RB Tyler Badie
His production this season, setting a school record for rushing yards, has been nothing but absurd. The fact that he’s done it without a dominant offensive line or much skill-position help aside him makes it all the more impressive.
In a 41-carry effort (plus one catch and two runs called back by penalty) in Saturday's loss to Arkansas, Badie notched his fifth 200-yard rushing game of the season; no other FBS player has had more than two in 2021. Over his past five games, including a matchup against Georgia’s defense, Badie has totaled 866 rush yards and five scores.
Badie isn’t big at 5-foot-9 and just over 190 pounds but is a good, tough inside runner — he reminds us of Myles Gaskin — and has zero fumbles over his past 400-plus touches, dating back to Week 4 of the 2019 season.
USC RB Keaontay Ingram
The Texas transfer has been a bit of a forgotten name amid USC’s collapse this season, but Ingram has quietly been very efficient, especially in some recent games. Despite missing Saturday’s game against BYU with a rib injury, he put up big efforts against Arizona and Notre Dame.
Ingram is a big back with good contact balance and vision. Although he lacks long speed, his patience and burst through the hole typically result in positive runs that gain more than they’re blocked to get. Ingram runs behind his pads and plays with passion, even when his teams come up short.
We think Ingram profiles similarly to Alexander Mattison, a big back with lower-end starter potential in the NFL.
Notre Dame RB Kyren Williams
After a slow start to the season, running behind a Notre Dame offensive line that isn’t of vintage quality compared to recent years, Williams has been one of the better backs in college football the past few months. In his past six games, he’s run for 632 yards — with 478 of them coming after contact — with 10 TDs on only 109 carries.
Williams also has caught 23 passes (on 24 targets) over that span and developed into a dangerous punt returner, averaging 11.6 yards a crack. We don’t yet know his 2022 NFL draft plans, and he easily could return to school. But either way, the 5-11, 199-pound Williams has turned himself into an interesting NFL prospect. Better ball security would boost his stock even more.
Northern Illinois FB-RB-TE Clint Ratkovich
A fun, do-it-all player in the mold of the Ravens’ Kyle Juszczyk, Ratkovich has become a valuable chess piece for Thomas Hammock’s Huskies during a tremendous turnaround season, taking snaps at running back, fullback, tight end, QB, wing and receiver. Hammock previously coached the Ravens’ running backs before taking the NIU job, so it’s easy to see how Ratkovich took to the Juszczyk role and ran with it.
Ratkovich accepted a bid to the East-West Shrine Game and apparently will be tried first at running back. After all, he took a fullback dive 96 yards for a touchdown just the other day — one off his 13 scores on a mere 102 touches this season after transferring to Western Illinois. He’s got the look of a 10-year pro as a jack of all trades.
Nevada WR Romeo Doubs
Doubs was a great breakout player in 2020, catching bombs on a near weekly basis from Carson Strong. But early in the 2021 season, extra defensive attention limited Doubs’ production and made some wonder if last season was a fluke.
It was not. In his final six games of the regular season, Doubs went bananas, catching 54 passes (on 69 targets) for 727 yards and nine TDs, including a 19-catch effort at Fresno State in which he was uncoverable. He’s also a quality punt returner.
Doubs gives us some Torrey Smith vibes when we watch him. We think he’s a Day 2 prospect if he comes out.
Virginia WR Keytaon Thompson
The former MIssissippi State QB is the heart and soul of the Cavaliers’ program, developing from backup quarterback, little-used receiver and special teamer in 2020 to one of the team’s most valuable and reliable offensive weapons. He leads the Cavs with 77 catches in his first full season at receiver but also has lined up in the backfield, rushing for 247 yards and four scores and attempting four passes.
“He is UVA football,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said earlier this season.
Entering the season, Thompson earned mostly UDFA grades. But his unselfishness, desire, fast development, special-teams potential and impressive frame (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) all are NFL-quality.
The only real knock on him is a lack of speed; he’s an estimated 4.6 runner. Thompson said he’s considering staying in school for his sixth year to further his development, but either way he’s come light years as a prospect.
Wisconsin OL Logan Bruss
Entering the season, Bruss had bounced between tackle and guard (mostly on the right side) and typically received late Day 3 or even undraftable grades from teams. He might be a guard on some teams’ boards, but Bruss has held up very well this season — especially in recent games — at right tackle. We think he might end up somewhere in Rounds 4-6 if he can finish off his season at this same level and perhaps stand out in one-on-ones at a postseason all-star game.
Central Michigan OT Luke Goedeke
His teammate, Bernhard Raimann, has been earning national praise since the end of the 2020 season. But Goedeke truly has raised his own stock with a fine final season for the Chippewas. A Wisconsin-Stevens Point transfer and converted tight end, Goedeke started 24 games at right tackle and earned a Senior Bowl invite alongside Raimann.
Goedeke’s lengthy injury history is a concern. He had high-school shoulder surgery and missed the 2020 season with a torn ACL. But his strong return this season (zero sacks allowed) and strong play down the stretch make the 6-5, 305-pounder an interesting Day 3 prospect.
Michigan EDGE Aidan Hutchinson
We had him as a first-round prospect had he come out a year ago. Hutchinson entered this season as a top-20 possibility and maintained that level of play early on. But now he's taken matters to a whole different level, and in the process, he's made himself a lot of money.
Following Michigan's takedown of Ohio State, in which Hutchinson was arguably the best player on the field with three sacks, he's absolutely a top-five candidate who could be listed higher than even Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux on some teams' boards. In his past six games, Hutchinson has racked up 8.5 of his 13 sacks on the season.
We'll have plenty more on Mr. Hutchinson over the coming weeks and months. But may we offer this advice: put him really high in your mock drafts. You won't regret it.
Penn State EDGE Arnold Ebiketie
Ebiketie is among the most improved college football players in the country this season, somewhat following the Odafe Oweh development plan as an athlete-turned-pass rusher. Lightly recruited out of high school, Ebiketie first starred at Temple before transferring to Penn State and breaking out this season.
Although he’s played well throughout 2021, Ebiketie’s play down the stretch has been downright exciting. He’s put on 15-20 pounds since weighing at 240 pounds for NFL scouts this spring and hasn’t lost any of his explosive athleticism.
In one season in Happy Valley, Ebiketie has gone from a late-round possibility to a top-75 prospect. Not bad for a kid who grew up playing soccer in Cameroon and didn’t try football until high school and who was under 200 pounds as a college freshman in 2017.
Ole Miss EDGE Sam Williams
Prior to this season, the book on Williams had been all about his inconsistency. Hot one game, cold the next. There even was streakiness within games in the past.
But this season, Williams has put it all together — especially of late. After a tough outing against Arkansas, Williams has arguably been Ole Miss’ best player not named Matt Corral down the stretch.
Williams still plays past the whistle and will get flagged too often. But he’s a barrel-chested, tenacious pass rusher who has been terrorizing quarterbacks frequently. There are some character questions that must be answered, and his athletic testing results will be telling, but Williams has handled the on-field part of his evaluation very well.
Georgia LBs Nakobe Dean, Quay Walker and Channing Tindall
There isn’t a better LB trio in the country, we feel, and one of the best in the past few years of college football. Ohio State’s four-headed LB monster was a remarkable group last year, but this Bulldogs unit offers a rare combination of elite athleticism, finishing ability and playmaking.
Dean, who had a 50-yard pick-six against Florida, has been the best individual performer. Questions about his lack of size persist; he’s a scant 6-foot and 225 pounds, but you won’t find a better combination of blitzing and coverage in college football.
Walker is an excellent tackler who is always around the ball and offers intrigue with his length (at nearly 6-foot-4) and closing ability.
Tindall, who amazingly has never started a game in college, racked up three sacks at Tennessee and appears to play much faster than his testing times might suggest.
Walker and Tindall are seniors. Dean, a junior, is expected to come out for the 2022 NFL draft. Sure, they’re playing on the most talented defense in the country. But they’re a huge reason why that’s the case. Following the loss of pass rusher Adam Anderson, this LB trio has stepped up its game even more.
Washington CBs Trent McDuffie and Kyler Gordon
It has been a nightmare season for the Huskies, who fired coach Jimmy Lake before the end of a 4-8 campaign. But don’t blame the team’s starting cornerbacks, who have been strong in coverage.
McDufffie doesn’t have an interception this season — and has only two in three years — but rarely is tested. In his past six games, he’s allowed 10 catches (on 20 targets) for 62 yards with two pass breakups. Only 18 of those yards have come after the catch, too, per PFF. The 5-11, 195-pound McDuffie’s body positioning and tackling ability make up for his lack of great size.
Gordon, who has eligibility remaining, offers a little more length than his teammate. And while he’s not quite as natural in coverage as McDuffie, Gordon has had similar numbers in coverage over the same stretch, allowing eight grabs (on 17 targets) for 64 yards and two PBUs.
Both could be squarely in the Day 2 range despite playing for a team that lost six of its final eight games.
Cincinnati CBs Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant
Gardner is the star of the unbeaten Bearcats on defense, a long-limbed NFL prospect who absolutely will be in the first-round mix. He’s also the owner of maybe the best nickname in college football: “Sauce.”
Although his tackling was a bit sloppy at times down the stretch, Gardner’s shutdown ability on the outside figures to make him popular with teams running zone and heavy press schemes. He also has followed opponents’ No. 1 receivers at times, which NFL teams appreciate.
Bryant has been the pleasant surprise, developing from a late Day 3 prospect into a possible top-150 pick. Following a tough day in coverage against Notre Dame, Bryant has played his best football to date while opponents prefer not to target Gardner.
Gardner could be one of the first corners drafted if he aces the interview process and grows into his frame a bit more. A businesslike performer who might only have CB4 potential, Bryant nonetheless could fill a role that every NFL team theoretically needs.
Another one! DB Coby Bryant @CBryant2_ from @GoBearcatsFB is headed to the @Reeses Senior Bowl!!! #Bearcats | #CinCityPride #TheDraftStartsInMOBILE™️ @JimNagy_SB @PaniniAmerica #RatedRookie pic.twitter.com/ZaLF9mV5CU
— Reese's Senior Bowl (@seniorbowl) November 28, 2021
Liberty QB Malik Willis
One of our first-half winners, Willis has shown some warts in recent games that complicate his evaluation a bit. Typically viewed as a raw passer in scouting circles already, Willis’ three-pick games against Middle Tennessee State and Lousiana-Monroe were causes for concern. And though he battled throughout a nine-sack game at Ole Miss, Willis must come with a warning label as a prospect.
Willis’ skill set is highly alluring and he might have as much pure upside as almost any QB in this class. But development-wise, he’s behind several others. Willis likely will need something approximating a redshirt season — outside of some special-package plays highlighting his rare athleticism — as a rookie in the league.
Going to a team with an established starter (Atlanta?) where Willis can hone some of his pocket mechanics and diagnostic skills vs. complex defenses could bear the most fruit in the long run.
Arizona State QB Jayden Daniels
The season started teetering for the Sun Devils after a 5-1 start, and Daniels’ play nearly mirrored that fall (outside of a good performance at Utah). Although he tore up Arizona on Saturday, Daniels was scattershot in the four games previously, throwing six picks and completing only 55% of his passes.
The 20-year-old Daniels has three options as we see it: declare for the 2022 NFL draft, return to school or transfer out. The fate of the ASU coaching staff could affect his decision. But we think he has too much untapped potential to declare now and risk collecting dust as some team’s afterthought development project. Daniels needs to play more college football.
Minnesota QB Tanner Morgan
Even after a disastrous 2020 season, Morgan still had some fans in the NFL scouting community, believe it or not. But we just haven’t seen enough from him to think his banner 2019 season wasn’t artificially juiced by an uber-talented Gophers offense that year.
Since then, he’s looked slow on reads, painfully inconsistent at times and lacking the kind of zip on his passes you typically see at the NFL level. We applaud Morgan’s decision to return to Minnesota in 2022, but he has a lot of work to do to rehab his NFL stock.
Oklahoma RB Eric Gray
The true junior arrived from Tennessee as one of the more hyped transfers in the country before this season. But after receiving about a dozen or so touches per game early in the season, Gray saw his offensive role diminish almost completely.
In the past eight games, he’s received a mere 35 carries, watching Kennedy Brooks take over the lion's share of handoffs, and catch only 12 catches, scoring only one TD over that span. The coaches tried to give Gray chances on special teams, but his late fumble inside the 5-yard line against Oklahoma State likely cost the Sooners the Bedlam game.
Now that Lincoln Riley is off to USC, Gray’s future plans are unclear. Perhaps a new OU coaching staff can coax out the talent that he flashed during a tantalizing 2020 campaign with the Vols.
Oregon RB CJ Verdell
The man who took over the 2019 Pac-12 championship game has had a season to forget and now has missed parts of the past two seasons. After losing time to a broken thumb in 2020, Verdell suffered a season-ending leg injury in early October.
He’s now somewhat of a forgotten man and will need to show that he’s durable enough to handle an NFL workload, despite not missing any games his first two-plus seasons when Verdell racked up more than 3,000 yards from scrimmage. Watching teammate Travis Dye thrive this season had to be bittersweet for the talented Verdell.
San Diego State RB Greg Bell
The former Nebraska transfer entered the season earning some early Day 3 grades and opened with three straight 100-yard outings, including one against a tough Utah defense.
But Bell has fallen off a bit since and has put the ball on the ground five times this season. He ran for 103 yards against Nevada, but outside of a 50-yard run (taking advantage of a missed assignment on the gain) Bell has been held down of late.
His lack of burst is a concern. We’re not sure he’s draftable without some quality postseason workouts.
SMU WR Reggie Roberson Jr.
Roberson considered coming out a year ago and entered this season with legitimate Day 2 aspirations despite suffering a torn ACL last October. But his production has leveled off of late, catching only 24 passes for 260 yards and two scores with two drops on 38 targets over the past six games.
Despite SMU having one of the most prolific passing games in the country, Roberson and QB Tanner Mordecai have had trouble making connections lately. Meanwhile, fellow Mustangs WR Danny Gray has stepped up into the lead role and been more consistently productive.
Both Roberson and Gray will be at the Senior Bowl, so perhaps a change of scenery will allow Roberson’s natural talent to once more shine. But it hasn’t been the finish to an otherwise strong career that many expect.
Ohio State OT Nicholas Petit-Frere
Prior to the Buckeyes’ game against Michigan, Petit-Frere (French for “little brother”) was starting to receive some hype in media cycles for his NFL upside. But we’d spoken to enough people in the scouting world to know that there were some legitimate concerns about NPF’s ability to anchor and deal with power that he was far from a sure-thing prospect.
Those fears came to light in a very dark performance against the Wolverines and possible top-three pick Aidan Hutchinson. Petit-Frere wasn’t the only guilty party in the game, charged with allowing only one of Michigan’s four sacks, but he also had two penalties and never looked comfortable.
But this is about more than one game. Petit-Frere also struggled in games against Penn State and Nebraska and might need more seasoning despite starting the past two seasons. He’ll be 23 years old next September, however, making his draft decision a bit trickier.
Nevada OL Aaron Frost
Carson Strong’s right tackle has had a rough final campaign, especially of late. He was beaten soundly a few times in the loss to Air Force and has not looked confident as a pass blocker in recent games, one of the few Wolf Pack players to noticeably struggle in the blowout of Colorado State last weekend. He suffers from balance issues, overaggressiveness and short arm length to handle longer rushers.
Frost also has committed an unsightly 11 penalties this season, and though that’s actually down from his 16 flags in 2019, it’s merely a marginal improvement for what remains a frustrating aspect of his evaluation. He entered this season claiming he wanted to cut down on negative plays, but it’s not happened as expected.
Scouts like Frost’s nasty demeanor and physicality on the field, and he likely will endear himself to teams seeking old-school slobberknockers. But he might have to be a guard at the next level and his play has been sloppy. Frost remains an an OL coach's pet project until further notice.
Stanford DT Thomas Booker
Let’s start out by suggesting that this placement isn’t terribly fair. The Cardinal’s season has gone down the tubes, and there might be no position that has been more gutted than the defensive line. That has put an enormous level of pressure on Booker to hold the unit together.
He’s facing a lot of extra blocking and has very few teammates up front who can draw attention away from him. NFL teams know all about Booker’s football and real-world IQ, and he’ll receive strong character grades. But his tape this season has suffered from the lack of talent around him.
Since a 1.5-sack game against UCLA, Booker has zero sacks and 1.5 tackles for loss in his final eight games of the season — despite playing a whopping 550 snaps over that span.
Ohio State CB Sevyn Banks
In a situation that feels eerily similar to how it played out for 2021 fifth-rounder Shaun Wade, Banks has not put his best foot forward this season despite the Buckeyes’ strong season.
Hampered by a knee injury that left him out of spring practice and caused him to miss a few recent games, Banks’ toughness isn’t the issue. He simply hasn’t shown enough in his final season to give his draft stock a tangible boost.
Banks was dissected by Alabama in the national title game in January and hasn’t really recovered since. For a prospect who was bandied as a possible Day 2 pick, it has been a tough individual campaign.