NFL draft winners and losers: Indiana's Michael Penix Jr. outplayed OSU's Justin Fields
A strange college football season — one where Penn State and Michigan, among others, are suffering through miserable seasons — keeps teetering along. Cancellations, even bizarre ones such as the last-minute Clemson-Florida State debacle, are now commonplace.
It’s all standard 2020 fare. Still, we were treated to some interesting individual performances this past weekend from an NFL draft standpoint. Here are our draft winners and losers from the weekend that was.
Indiana QB Michael Penix Jr.
When the Miami Dolphins took Tua Tagovailoa with the fifth overall draft pick this past spring, he became the eighth left-handed quarterback ever taken in the first round.
Could Penix become the ninth?
Whoa, whoa, whoa, you say … and I get it. Even after Saturday’s 491-yard, five-TD performance against Ohio State, most observers might not be ready to put Penix in that lofty a draft spot.
He’s a redshirt sophomore and could hang around Bloomington for multiple years. Also, his performance against OSU was marred by 24 incompletions, one of which was a late, telegraphed throw that Shaun Wade ran back for a pick six in a seven-point loss.
But the playmaking ability, touch and poise Penix has displayed this season (and for 95 percent of the OSU game) have been uncanny, and he’s starting to make a name for himself in the scouting community. Down 35-7, Penix willed his team back into the game with some daring and breathtaking moments to give the Hoosiers a shot to win or send the game to overtime.
Penix’s draft plans are unclear, but he’s a name people will be discussing in Round 1 if he sticks around college next season. And if the redshirt sophomore throws his hat into the 2021 ring, he’d be a fascinating study worth strongly considering on Day 2.
Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder
Ridder turned in another strong performance in Saturday’s win over UCF, completing 21 of 33 passes for 338 yards and two scores, and rushing 14 times for 57 yards and two more TDs.
He’s making the routine plays more consistently. In the past, you’d see high-end flashes followed by shaky mistakes; now those are becoming less frequent and concerning.
Ridder is learning to play within the offensive structure better and has a better knack for knowing when to improvise, a key trait to quality quarterbacking.
He has put himself in the Day 2 discussion, assuming the intriguing Ridder comes out early (he’s a redshirt junior).
Purdue WR Rondale Moore
Welcome back, sir! There was chatter surrounding Moore’s absence for the Boilermakers’ first three games as the silence from the coaching staff about him was fairly deafening.
It turns out that Moore was suffering from an aggravation of a hamstring injury, but there was no evidence of that in Friday’s loss to Minnesota. He caught 15 passes for 116 yards and tacked on three carries for 20 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown run. Forget the yards per catch for a minute — Moore caught most of his passes at or behind the line of scrimmage, limiting his YAC potential.
After the game, Moore read a statement apologizing for his being a distraction this offseason, when he first opted out and then opted back in once the Big Ten restarted play. Whether Moore was a distraction is up for debate, but his accountability was refreshing — and his play against the Gophers, bad defense or not, was terrific to see.
Moore has a chance now to make a run at Round 1. That wasn’t a certainty a few weeks ago.
Alabama WR DeVonta Smith
We’ve spilled a lot of ink on Smith and won’t go in too deep on him again. But consider this: With every banner performance this season — and over the past four seasons — Smith is making a push as WR1 in this class.
It’s not an absurd debate with LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase opting out this season and Smith’s brilliant teammate, Jaylen Waddle, currently rehabbing from a fractured ankle. Smith had nine catches for 144 yards and two TDs (and he almost had a third), plus the first two punt returns of his Bama career that netted 50 yards (including a brilliant 41-yarder that he almost housed), in the latest big game of his season.
Fans and media might have hated that Smith was back on punts late in a blowout, with memories of Waddle’s season-ending injury fresh in many minds. For scouts, it shows how dangerous a playmaker Smith is, even if he lacks ideal NFL receiver dimensions and might not be a burner when it comes to testing time.
To that we say: throw out the stopwatches and the scales and watch this young man dominate almost every opponent.
2 underrated RBs: Breece Hall, Jermar Jefferson
NFL draft sphere, we command you to take more notice of two backs we really like — Iowa State’s Breece Hall and Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson.
Each have been terrific this season, even if Jefferson is only three games into his 2020 campaign.
Hall has another year of eligibility remaining at the least, but his 180-carry, 1,169-yard, 15-TD season has to be mentioned. He’s one of the best backs in the country, consistently churning out production every single week. That’s eight straight 100-yard games this season, and he has totaled 26 touchdowns in his past 16 contests dating back to his true freshman year.
The 5-10, 217-pound Jefferson is a junior who could be in the 2021 mix. He diced up Cal on Saturday for 196 yards and a 75-yard score on 18 carries in a 31-27 game. Why so few carries? Well, the Beavers ran only 51 offensive plays, including two kneel downs at game’s end.
OSU gave Jefferson the ball twice in the final 1:05 to ice it, as Cal had all three timeouts remaining. He broke off a 16-yard run, followed by a 65-yarder, that finished off the Bears.
Jefferson’s lack of speed could hold him back, but his toughness, vision and burst all stand out as terrific traits to project him as an NFL back.
Washington TE Cade Otton
It’s looking like a top-heavy tight end draft class, but it’s also looking much deeper than the dreary 2020 TE crop. Otton’s performance Saturday showed that there might be more depth than imagined.
The 6-5, 240-pound Otton has a year of eligibility remaining but could throw his hat into the 2021 draft ring. In his second game this season, he caught seven passes for 100 yards and a touchdown, doing most of his work between the hashes.
ELITE 💯@D_Morris5 ➡️ @CadeOtton
📺 FOX#PurpleReign x #BowDown pic.twitter.com/i0uVsi3RNZ
— Washington Football (@UW_Football) November 22, 2020
It was an improvement over his one-catch, 4-yard season debut last week in which the Huskies seemed to forget they had one of the best seam receivers in college football. Otton’s teammates respect him greatly, sources say, and he’s considered a plus blocker, too.
Let’s see how the rest of Otton’s season plays out. He’s already on a high note after proposing to his girlfriend last month. Well done, sir.
Tulsa LB Zaven Collins
Another week, another appearance in the “Winners” section for Collins. On Thursday night, he performed his latest trick by running back a 96-yard pick six to put a bow on the Golden Hurricane’s wild double-overtime win.
WE HAVE NO WORDS!!!!! pic.twitter.com/CW5xPzwM6Q
— American Football (@American_FB) November 20, 2020
Oh, and he was named AAC Defensive Player of the Week with 15 tackles and two QB hurries on only nine pass rushes. Even with the occasional lapse in coverage or missed tackle, Collins has been phenomenal this season.
Could Collins crack the first round in 2021? When you see 6-foot-4, 260-pound linebackers impact the pass game the way he does, it’s not a stretch to make that projection.
Missouri LB Nick Bolton
Watching Saturday night’s Mizzou-South Carolina game, it was stunning to see Bolton’s play range and instincts in racking up nine first-half tackles. He finished with 14 tackles, two of them for losses.
Bolton doesn’t miss a lot of tackles, using great instincts and technique to defeat blocks, square up ballcarriers and deliver a blow. We’re not sure if a slightly undersized linebacker with slightly-less-than-ideal athleticism will end up in Round 1 or not. But scouts have talked about Bolton’s leadership, commitment and determination as huge plusses, as he takes a serious, studious approach to football. He’s very well respected in scouting circles and almost certainly profiles as a top-40 selection the way things are trending.
North Texas DT Dion Novil
We can’t blame you if you were not tuned in to the North Texas-Rice tilt at a time, early Saturday afternoon, when there were far more appetizing games happening. Those who missed it missed a banner performance from Novil, who might be one of the best handful of prospects in Conference USA.
Novil was unblockable in the win, racking up eight tackles (five for loss!) and a sack, spearheading a Mean Green defense that held Rice to 49 rush yards and totaled seven sacks. The Owls tried their best to tandem block Novil, but it was mostly futile as he repeatedly bullied his way into the backfield in an impressive, 62-snap performance.
If you've yet to see @MeanGreenFB NT @novil_dion in action, you're missing the most criminally underrated defensive player in CFB right now... total package interior lineman who'll shoot up draft boards early next year#GMG
— Rich Cirminiello (@RichCirminiello) November 22, 2020
Prior to Saturday, Novil was doing well as a space-clogging nose tackle. In this game, he showed that he can be a playmaker. That’s very important for his draft stock, as old-school, Ted Washington-type noses aren’t considered as valuable in a pass-heavy league.
Novil doesn’t quite stack up to the 6-foot-4 and 330 pounds he’s listed at. This spring, scouts verified his height at a shade under 6-1 and his weight at 315. Novil possesses long arms, a stout trunk and now more juice.
After entering the season with mostly late draftable grades, Novil has improved on that quite a bit. Good testing could land him on the outside of the top 100, especially in what’s shaping up as an underwhelming assortment of DT talents available.
Northwestern LBs Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher
There was a lot of “future first-round pick” talk on Fisher after his terrific freshman season, but the draft buzz cooled on the linebacker who earned a lot of Day 3 grades coming into this season.
Fisher has since quietly put together a terrific campaign for the barnstorming Wildcats, who are — don’t look now — 5-0 after beating mighty Wisconsin in an old-school battle of attrition Saturday.
Fisher had 13 tackles (two for loss), a pass breakup and a forced fumble. Even stronger on the stat sheet was his teammate Gallagher, who had a team-high 14 tackles (one for loss), a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Both were tremendous in the upset, and each are playing some of their best football.
Day 3 landing spots might still be their eventual fate, but we’re taking notice of how they’ve taken strides.
It’s a fine Wildcats defense, even with a few opt-outs hurting depth. Keep an eye on junior CB Greg Newsome II, too; he’s played some terrific ball this season as well.
Ohio State QB Justin Fields
No, one sloppy game against the top-10 Hoosiers (who led FBS in interceptions coming in) won’t tank Fields’ stock. But amid talk that Fields could surpass Trevor Lawrence for 1.1 honors, this was a game that should slow that chatter considerably.
Fields still possesses elite skill and had as many incompletions (11) coming into the game as he did touchdown passes. He was also surgical on the first drive of the game and finished strong after a shaky middle portion of the game.
But this game did highlight some worries about Fields trying too hard to force plays, as two of his three interceptions came on throws he never should have attempted — under duress. Each time, Fields needed to scramble or throw it into Section J (no one sitting up there, anyway) and live to fight another day.
On his other pick, Fields appeared to stare down Garrett Wilson and invite the Indiana safety to make a clean break on the ball. We are talking about a quarterback who entered the game with a grand total of three picks on 476 career pass attempts, with two of those INTs coming against an excellent Clemson defense.
Even so, the scouts watching this tape will be just as concerned about some of Fields’ decision-making process as they will with his terrific playmaking skill. Is he likely still the second or third overall pick? Yes, but the chances for No. 1 might be dwindling.
Utah QB Jake Bentley
Bentley didn’t win the Utes’ starting QB job prior to their season debut on Saturday (despite being named a team captain after transferring), as sophomore Cam Rising earned that title but lasted only until the fourth series before suffering a shoulder injury.
Bentley — who turned 23 years old on Monday — came in and likely will be the starter going forward, it appears. But his lackluster performance (16 of 28 passing, 171 yards, TD, two picks) is yet another concern for NFL evaluators who once considered him something of a fascinating prospect at South Carolina.
After all, Bentley outshined a talented group when he won the Manning Camp challenge in 2019, flashing some terrific arm talent there. He had some strong moments in the 2018 season at South Carolina, has a prototypical QB build and has good football bloodlines with a father in coaching and two brothers who played college football.
The good news for Bentley is that he has a chance as the likely starter going forward to change his downward trajectory that was compounded by a season-ending injury last year in the Gamecocks’ opener. Does he have the goods to do so? We shall see, but his debut was up and down to say the least, and his past two years have turned his stock the wrong direction.
LSU OL Ed Ingram
Ingram is a player we liked coming into the season after essentially acting as the Tigers’ super sub during a championship run. The redshirt junior showed off some nice movement skill, seldom got pushed around and was effective coming off the bench.
Clearly LSU is dealing with a whole different set of circumstances this season, down to a true freshman quarterback and absolutely slaughtered by injuries and opt-outs. But after a few respectable performances this season, including a highlight-reel game against Vanderbilt, Ingram might have had his worst game of the season Saturday against Arkansas.
There were some straight up whiffs on Ingram’s ledger in the game, including a few where LSU was lucky that his mistakes didn’t cost him. Arkansas rushed three a number of times, so it was hard to grade Ingram’s work as a pass protector in the game. But in the run game, he looked a bit sluggish and guilty of waist-bending and lunging for blocks too much.
His journey might include returning to school for another year, as Ingram has (at least) one more season of eligibility remaining. Games such as this show there’s work to be done for an otherwise talented, versatile player.
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