NFL draft prospects to watch: Stanford QB K.J. Costello can salvage nightmare season

Eric Edholm

For those who want to take a look at the countless prospects in the whopper LSU-Alabama, we are spotlighting that entire group for a story on Friday morning.

But here are five 2020 NFL draft prospects (plus a bonus sixth because we love you) whom we’ll be watching closely this week in college football with a lot on the line:

Stanford QB K.J. Costello at Colorado

Entering the season, we had a pretty defined top four QB prospects — Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, Jake Fromm and Jordan Love — followed by a gap. Eventually we settled on Costello as our preseason QB5, encouraged by his tight-window courage and deep-ball prowess while admittedly a little underwhelmed by his accuracy and his penchant for poor decisions under duress.

Then in the season opener vs. Northwestern, Costello struggled and suffered a concussion that knocked him out multiple games. It was a brutal blow for the senior quarterback who clearly has some NFL-grade tools, excellent size and vast experience in a pro-style offense. Costello returned to play — and struggle — in losses to UCF and Oregon before he suffered a hand injury.

Costello was a game-time decision prior to the last game against Arizona, but he returned and put up his best outing of the season: 30-of-43 passing, 312 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-31 victory. Now coming off a bye and fully rested, we think he has a chance to salvage what has been a frustrating final season on the whole.

It was a tough start to the season for Stanford QB K.J. Costello, but he has a chance to rally his NFL draft stock. (Getty Images)
It was a tough start to the season for Stanford QB K.J. Costello, but he has a chance to rally his NFL draft stock. (Getty Images)

The Cardinals play at Boulder to face a Buffaloes defense that ranks 129th out of 130 FBS teams in passing yards allowed per game (316.0) and that has allowed a 24-9 TD-INT ratio. This is a prime opportunity for the 6-5, 222-pound senior to keep building on last week and remind scouts of the skills he showed in 2017 and 2018 seasons. There should be more than a few sets of NFL eyes at the game with another QB who could end up on an NFL roster next fall in Colorado’s Steven Montez.

Colorado’s defense hasn’t fared well on third down (49.1 percent conversion rate) and has only 14 sacks. If Stanford’s offensive line holds up, there might be ample chances to take shots downfield and flash his above-average arm talent. Above all, Costello has to avoid the disastrous plays that too often dot his tape.

NFL teams appreciate his toughness and intelligence and believe there’s a prospect in there. Can Costello keep it going Saturday? It could be a big game for him with the Cardinal sitting at 4-4 and needing every win they can earn to gain bowl eligibility with a tough schedule after that (at Washington State, vs. California, vs. Notre Dame). And for Costello, he could use every positive game tape for his NFL future.

Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor vs. Iowa

Jonathan Taylor has rushed for 15 touchdowns in eight games, displayed clear development this season in his work as a pass catcher and has earned some whopping praise from opponents. Check out this from Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz this week:

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Ferentz typically talks up his opponents, but this is some elite company he’s putting Taylor into. And yet over the past three games, he’s been held a bit under wraps against some better competition. Michigan State and Ohio State held Taylor to a combined 132 yards on 46 carries (2.9 yards per carry) and four receptions for 27 yards.

Taylor was more productive as a runner against Illinois, with 28 rushes for 137 yards, but his late fumble was costly in the upset loss. He really could use a bounceback game here, but it will have to come against a Hawkeyes defense that features a pretty stingy run defense (89.0 yards per game, 3.1 yards per rush). In two previous games against Iowa, Taylor has been strong: a combined 54 rushes for 270 yards (5.0-yard average).

The 5-11, 221-pound back figures to be a top-50 selection because of his incredible three-year production, outstanding athleticism, ideal build and sterling character and toughness. But he might be losing in the RB1 race to Georgia’s D’Andre Swift, with a few other strong prospects — Clemson’s Travis Etienne, Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins and Utah’s Zack Moss — nipping at Taylor’s heels.

Wisconsin needs a win, and the clearest path to victory has been to feature Taylor. And Taylor could use another few big performances to keep him clearly on strong draft footing as well, assuming the junior declares for the 2020 NFL draft in a few months’ time.

Minnesota WR Tyler Johnson vs. Penn State

This is one of the biggest games in recent Gophers history, with 8-0 Minnesota hosting 8-0 Penn State in a game that’s attracting national attention. The coaching staff is clearly building something special up there, and it was rewarded this week with long-term extensions. The icing on the cake would be a massive victory, which likely would mean cracking the AP top 10 for the first time since 1962.

Tyler Johnson will be a key figure in this game, and it’s an outstanding opportunity for him to separate himself in what appears to be a very crowded WR field in 2020. The biggest knock on his game is speed, but the 6-foot-2, 205-pound receiver has transformed from a high school quarterback into a receiver who has cut down on his concentration drops for the most part this season (save for a tough outing vs. Illinois).

We profiled Johnson this summer, talking to three Gophers coaches who have closely overseen his development. They raved about his improvement and projected him into a slot role in the NFL — Patriots WR Mohamed Sanu was the name head coach P.J. Fleck kept coming back to for as a comp for Johnson.

Minnesota WR Tyler Johnson isn't a speed merchant, but he's been highly productive. (Getty Images)
Minnesota WR Tyler Johnson isn't a speed merchant, but he's been highly productive. (Getty Images)

The Nittany Lions have moved CB John Reid more outside in recent games, which means Johnson is likely to tangle mostly with one of three safeties who end up covering the slot a lot: either 5-foot-9, 194-pound Lamont Wade; 6-foot-1, 210-pound Jaquan Brisker; or 6-foot, 203-pound Garrett Taylor. Penn State also has kicked other corners inside, but whoever checks Johnson must contend with his intriguing blend of shiftiness, size and strength. His best route is the slant, where he gains quick separation nicely.

Johnson also is 57 catches shy of Eric Decker’s school mark for receptions, and he could come close to overtaking that mark. The Gophers have only four regular-season games remaining but control their own fate for a spot in the Big Ten title game, which would give Johnson six more games along with whatever bowl they end up in. Johnson also is 506 yards behind Decker’s school receiving record and four receiving touchdowns behind Ron Johnson’s school record of 31.

We have Johnson as a late Day 2 or early Day 3 prospect — just on the cusp of the top 100 picks. His talent and production speak for themselves, but NFL scouts we’ve talked to still wonder if Johnson’s play speed will be a hindrance at the next level. This is a big game for him.

Connecticut OT Matt Peart vs. Cincinnati

UConn is in the midst of a terrible, no-good season (even FCS Central Connecticut rates higher than the Huskies in Jeff Sagarin’s college football ratings), but this team has a possible top-100 prospect in its right tackle.

Matt Peart is 6-foot-7 and 301 pounds with long arms (possibly 35 inches or more) and has the look of an NFL player off the hoof. Scan his tape and you see a player who has the ability to get out into space with good footwork and nice athleticism. He might lack great recovery ability after being beat by an initial rush, but there’s a reason why scouts stamped preseason grades in the Round 4 range — with the chance to move up into the Day 2 discussion with a strong senior season.

Pro Football Focus rates Peart as the fifth-highest graded offensive tackle in the country (just behind potential top-10 pick Andrew Thomas of Georgia and possible first-rounder Jedrick Wills Jr. of Alabama), and that even comes after Peart got off to a slow start to the season. He was tested in the opener against Wagner’s criminally underrated pass rusher, Cam Gill, and then suffered an undisclosed injury on the second play from scrimmage against Illinois.

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Peart returned for the next game, and he has yet to miss a contest in his four seasons. But the team captain — even during a solid run in recent games — still must answer questions about playing too upright and showing more nastiness. It’s fair to call Peart something of a finesse blocker, and it’s something old-school OL coaches will ding him for.

But this game against No. 17 Cincinnati presents perhaps the best individual opportunity to boost his stock. The Bearcats don’t have a fearsome pass rush but do feature three edge players — Myjai Sanders, Malik Vann and Michael Pitts — who have logged 12 or more pressures, per PFF. Peart seemed to struggle against edge quickness against Houston and could use this contest to help solidify a landing spot in the draft’s first 100 picks.

And one more factor: Scouts always are looking at a prospect’s effort in blowouts, on either side. Peart has been on the wrong end of many of those, so don’t think they’ll gloss over the tape at the ends of contests.

Appalachian State LB Akeem Davis-Gaither at South Carolina

Akeem Davis-Gaither is one of the better group-of-five prospects in the 2020 class, presenting some fascinating skills and athleticism that appear to be in line with what NFL teams seek in modern linebackers. He splits his time fairly evenly between putting his hand in the dirt and lining up off the ball in a two-point stance.

Davis-Gaither can also cover the slot several times per game. In a game against North Carolina, he spent the majority of that contest — a massive victory for the Hilltoppers — covering the slot. He even made an acrobatic interception in that game, baiting a freshman quarterback into throwing the ball his way. Watch Davis-Gaither keep his eyes up in zone coverage and earn the diving, film-study interception:

Akeem Davis-Gaither hauls in this diving interception vs. North Carolina.
Akeem Davis-Gaither hauls in this diving interception vs. North Carolina.

We’ve heard the comparisons of Davis-Gaither to Indianapolis Colts 2018 second-rounder Darius Leonard, and there are some similarities. Both play with an infectious energy and high football awareness. Neither are big by NFL standards, but the 6-2, 215-pound Davis-Gaither has NFL speed and athleticism — he should test well at the NFL scouting combine — and range to handle coverage duties, even if he’s not the tackle vacuum that Leonard is. Davis-Gaither also is said to have very long arms for his frame and he uses leverage well when asked to set the edge.

Davis-Gaither could ascend through the postseason, but this is a big game for him against a South Carolina team that has a few talented backs in Tavien Feaster and Rico Dowdle, along with slot receivers Shi Smith and Bryan Edwards. Coming off a 16-tackle outing in a loss against Georgia Southern, Davis-Gaither is playing some of his best ball of the season and this is a great stage for him against a competitive SEC club.

And one bonus prospect to watch:

Northern Arizona QB Case Cookus vs. Sacramento State

Yeah, it might be hard to find this one on television outside of the Big Sky regions, but we wanted to highlight Case Cookus, a name that has continued to come up in our scouting chats when seeking some under-the-radar QB prospects for 2020.

The 6-4, 205-pound passer is a rare sixth-year senior who has overcome a few big injuries in his career at Northern Arizona to throw his 100th career TD pass and become the active FCS career leader with 11,121 passing yards. On the season, he has thrown for 3,153 yards with 26 touchdowns and only seven interceptions.

Northern Arizona QB Case Cookus has set passing records and is an NFL prospect. (Getty Images)
Northern Arizona QB Case Cookus has set passing records and is an NFL prospect. (Getty Images)

Sac State is the eighth-ranked FCS team after losing last week. NAU’s defense is prone to allowing a ton of yards, which puts Cookus in a position where he needs to score on just about every possession. Scouts like the fact that his talented arm keeps NAU in most games.

Expect Cookus to land at one of the postseason all-star games, which should help give him a bigger stage to help boost his stock.

Remember the name. Case Cookus is on the NFL’s radar, but he needs a strong finish to become a draftable prospect given his age (he turned 24 in October), injury history and questions about his level of competition.

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