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NFL draft winners and losers: What to make of so-so games from Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson?

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On Saturday, as I flipped back and forth between the end of the BYU-Coastal Carolina and the early parts of Clemson-Virginia Tech, it occurred to me.

The possible first and second quarterbacks in the 2021 NFL draft were not having terrific performances.

And that’s OK.

BYU’s Zach Wilson strung some nice runs and throws together, and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence certainly wasn’t bad by normal-human standards. It’s just that neither quarterback had a commanding, earth-shattering performance this past weekend.

A few weeks ago, Ohio State’s Justin Fields had a tough outing in the win over Indiana. It was the same feeling — and it was natural to ask whether we have overrated the assumed top three quarterbacks (in whatever order) in next year’s draft picture.

The answer is no.

Average to disappointing performances along the way shouldn’t cloud views.

But keep this in mind: Does anyone now remember Patrick Mahomes slogging through a horrible game up in Ames, Iowa? Or Deshaun Watson throwing arm punts against Pitt and losing to … Nathan Peterman? Justin Herbert last year against Arizona State?

Great QB prospects have tough college games. So do overrated prospects. And underrated ones. This is why many scouts believe in the traits-over-production axiom.

BYU quarterback Zach Wilson was up and down against Coastal Carolina. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)
BYU quarterback Zach Wilson was up and down against Coastal Carolina. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

After Fields’ rough outing against Indiana, I asked a scouting director — who played some quarterback — how we should weigh these types of performances.

“It’s a good question,” he said. “There are a lot of things you should ask. Were the mistakes correctable? Were they [common mistakes] that they get away with other games? Also, what factors are they dealing with?

“Not every single complete pass is a win. And not every sack or interception is a quarterback’s fault. You have to go through the process of each good play and each bad one and ask what just happened and how does it reflect on them [as an NFL prospect]?”

Wilson (19-of-30 passing, 240 yards, one TD, one INT; 10 rushes, 55 yards) wasn’t bad, mind you. He made some tremendous runs and decisions on read-option keepers. Wilson had a 91-yard TD wiped out on the first play from scrimmage. His interception came on the end-of-half Hail Mary. Wilson had what should have been a 4-yard gain turn into a 16-yard loss because of a boneheaded decision from his wide receiver.

There were at least two drops, including a well-placed fourth-and-1 play fake that would have gained 25 yards. BYU scheduled this game midweek and had — at most — 72 hours to prepare for the Chanticleers’ defense, which ranked 14th nationally. That must be factored into Wilson’s performance.

Wilson showed some terrific toughness. He took five hits in the pocket and more as a runner. On the interception, two Coastal defenders took out a bounty on him.

He also made some special throws, most of them coming at the ends of both halves. Backed up at his own 10-yard line with 35 seconds remaining, Wilson steamrolled 72 yards down the field and put his team in a position to pull out a stunner. They came up a few yards short.

Lawrence completed 12 of 22 passes for 195 yards, one TD and one pick against Virginia Tech. His mid-third quarter interception in the end zone was regrettable as he stared down his target, and the Hokies’ Divine Deablo (one of our favorite safeties in the 2021 crop) read it the whole way.

Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence was more effective with his legs than his arm against Virginia Tech. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP, Pool)
Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence was more effective with his legs than his arm against Virginia Tech. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP, Pool)

Lawrence took some shots and kept grinding; like Wilson, his read-option decisions were mostly smart ones, picking up 41 yards and two scores on seven carries. The 65-yard TD pass to Cornell Powell early in the fourth was exactly what you want from a QB: Lawrence knew he’d have ideal coverage on that side of the field, froze the linebackers with the play-action fake and threw a perfect lob for the score.

This is why we can’t succumb to box-score scouting. It’s why we can’t let one or two games — good or bad — hijack our evaluation of a QB prospect. It’s why there is so much more nuance involved in dissecting players at that position.

Wilson and Lawrence will be fine. They’ve proven that all season. Fields showed it Saturday in his bounce-back dissection of Michigan State.

Now let’s bounce around the rest of the weekend’s action to look at some winners and losers from other NFL draft prospects …

Winners

Alabama QB Mac Jones and WR DeVonta Smith

I’m ready to have two conversations now.

Is Jones a potential first-round pick?

Is Smith WR1 in the 2021 class?

Both likely will require some far deeper diving, which we’ll reserve for another time.

But once more, Jones was tremendous (20 of 28 passing, 385 yards, four TDs, no sacks or picks) and Smith was otherworldly (8-231-3 receiving) against LSU. Both should be Heisman Trophy finalists. And we don’t know how, but they’ve each been better since WR Jaylen Waddle got hurt.

Nothing against Waddle or LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase, but Smith has a legitimate claim to be the top wideout taken. Even if he doesn’t test through the roof and isn’t an ideal-sized athlete, Smith consistently makes plays.

If we use Justin Jefferson — the fifth wide receiver taken this spring — as our case study, receivers with good but hardly elite physical traits can still be dominant. Would you be surprised if I reminded you that neither Marvin Harrison nor Issac Bruce were that big or that fast? Smith has that same dog in his game, to go along with his elite body control, concentration and separation ability to get open and torch opponents week after week.

That’s certainly worthy of Smith landing in the top 20 picks and perhaps even the top 10 or 12 overall. As long as he doesn’t run a glacial 40 at the scouting combine at roughly 180 pounds, I’ll be all in on him going very high.

Alabama DT Christian Barmore

Here we go again with the ’Bama guys.

In a year when there’s a dearth of high-end defensive tackle talent for the 2021 draft, Barmore stands as one of the few possible first-round picks in the picture.

Barmore didn’t start Saturday against LSU and played only 27 of the 73 defensive snaps in the win. He also was credited with only a single tackle. But Barmore made a huge strip sack midway through the second quarter and registered multiple pressures that led to hurried throws.

It’s not often we have an entire first round go by without a tackle taken. It has happened exactly one time (2017) since the 1998 draft. That could be the case in 2021. Even Barmore’s resume has some holes in it, and there aren’t that many other worthy Round 1 DT candidates.

But his upside, his flash plays and his youth all make for attractive qualities that could push him into that range if he declares early. Games such as the one on Saturday could get him there.

Cal LB Kuony Deng

Deng is a fascinating prospect with a terrific backstory.

The fifth of six children, Deng is the son of parents who escaped civil war in their home country of South Sudan. Three of his siblings were born in East Africa, and they were all raised by their mother after their father returned home after spending time in the United States.

Deng’s football journey is unusual, as well. He played for two years at Virginia Military Institute (where he also suited up for the basketball team), with a year spent at Independence CC in 2018 prior to landing with the Bears.

In two seasons with Cal, Deng has emerged as an interesting study. At roughly 6-foot-5, Deng is incredibly tall for an inside linebacker, the base position he plays for the Bears. He was closer to 220 pounds last year than the 250 he was listed at, prior to reportedly putting on weight this offseason.

One of two forced fumbles forced by California LB Kuony Deng in the final nine minutes in the win over Oregon. (Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
One of two forced fumbles forced by California LB Kuony Deng in the final nine minutes in the win over Oregon. (Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

On Saturday against Oregon, Deng was tremendous in the final nine minutes of the game, helping seal the upset. He registered two forced fumbles and was in on a sack — all three plays ending Ducks drives. Deng also finished the game with a team-high eight tackles, including two for losses.

How does this somewhat spindly prospect factor into the NFL? Well, physically speaking he’s somewhere on the spectrum between Arizona Cardinals LB De’Vondre Campbell and Los Angeles Rams pass rusher Leonard Floyd, but Cal’s initial plans to make Deng more of an edge-rush prospect appeared to veer at some point.

Still, there’s some intrigue in his prospects, even if Deng has been victimized in coverage, perhaps not ideally suited to carry backs and tight ends vertically with a lack of elite speed and refined positional instincts. But his physical flashes are impressive, and his production has been noticeable.

Pronounced “Coin DANG,” Deng earned mostly fourth- and fifth-round grades over the summer and has done nothing this season to damage his stock. Wherever he ends up, we’ll be fascinated to see how his eventual NFL team plans to employ Deng.

TCU S Trevon Moehrig

It’s a strange year for safeties, too, and disappointing in that many of the players who initially returned to school at the position didn’t stand out all that much.

Moehrig isn’t one of those. He’s had a good season in terms of coverage, tackling and diagnosing, and he’s one of the most athletic and best playmakers at the position in college football. Check out Moehrig’s one-handed interception of a deflected pass in the end zone late in Saturday’s win over Oklahoma State for a taste of what we’re talking about.

The 6-foot-2, 202-pound Moehrig also made six clean tackles and broke up two passes, a big one late in the second quarter on a third-down stop and the other midway through the fourth quarter at the start of the drive he ended with that pick. That’s 20 passes defended and six picks for him since the start of the 2019 season.

Come testing time, Moehrig could blow up the scouting combine. He’s a plus-plus athlete with speed, length, range and explosion. He’ll almost certainly end up as one of our top 40 or so prospects regardless of position and could work his way into the Round 1 picture.

Losers

Tulsa QB Zach Smith

It has been a tough few games for Smith, who suffered an upper-body injury on a sack he took a few weeks ago against Tulane. He left and didn’t return, and it’s unclear if Smith would have faced Houston the following week had the game not been canceled.

Smith returned Saturday against Navy and had two impressive throws: a third-and-16 completion for a conversion and a 66-yard touchdown pass to help break open an eventual 19-6 victory against the Midshipmen.

Even that TD pass came with a serious caveat. Should Smith get credit for lacing a perfect pass that ended up as a long score? Or do we note that it came in between four (!) defenders within 2 yards of his target and could have been intercepted against a more talented defense?

Tulsa quarterback Zach Smith has had a tough few weeks. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Tulsa quarterback Zach Smith has had a tough few weeks. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Either way, it came in an otherwise lackluster performance in which Smith completed 10 of 25 passes for 168 yards and the one TD. Five drops helped lower his completion percentage a whopping 20 points. And the injury likely affected Smith’s performance; it’s hard to underrate his toughness, which can be well-documented back to his days at Baylor.

But we can’t get excited about the potential of Smith as an NFL prospect, despite entering the season with some mid-Day 3 grades. His ceiling appears to be as a pro backup, lacking the athleticism, size, deep-passing ability, pocket sense, ball handling or special NFL traits to be more than that.

Smith is far shorter than the 6-4 at which he’s listed, likely closer to 6-1. He has 17 fumbles over the past two seasons, taking 53 sacks in his past 701 dropbacks along the way. Smith’s arm strength isn’t the issue, but his deep-passing touch and placement are inconsistent. On throws 20-plus yards downfield this season, Smith has completed only 11 of 33 attempts with four interceptions.

Smith will have a chance to help himself at the College Gridiron Showcase, one of the few remaining postseason all-star draft events still scheduled for 2021, and his connections to Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule in their time at Baylor might give him at least one guaranteed shot to make it in the NFL.

Given that Tulsa’s offense didn’t fall off too much when sophomore Davis Brin took over a few weeks ago, we wonder how much Smith adds to that passing game — and just how much he’d add to an NFL roster.

LSU OT Austin Deculus

It has been a tough season for LSU, so trying to compare its prospects’ 2019 performances versus what they’ve done in 2020 is tricky business.

Deculus has seen his stock slip, and he had a tough go of it in the loss to Alabama. The 6-foot-6, 316-pound right tackle had his hands full all night as a pass blocker and wasn’t much better spurring a run game that netted one long gain all night.

Coming into the season, Deculus was earning some early-to-mid Day 3 grades. He probably factors in more as a sixth- or seventh-round prospect now, even if some of his struggles have been because of factors outside of his control.

Missouri LB Nick Bolton

Bolton was the victim of a horrible call — we promise this is not an angry alumni rant — on a targeting flag that held up after review, even though he very clearly led with his shoulder on a hit against an Arkansas receiver, knocking the ball loose.

That play might actually have earned Bolton even more praise in what has been a fantastic junior season. He has been a monster in almost every game since an uneven performance vs. Bama in the opener. But missing the second half of Saturday’s game because of the infraction stung, especially when Bolton's backup dropped a potential game-sealing interception.

And prior to the hit, Bolton might have been having his least impressive game since last season. It was by no means a poor effort, but Bolton was crossed up a few times in coverage, including on the Razorbacks’ first touchdown of the game.

Bolton is still a top-40 prospect but losing the equivalent of a full game because of the penalty, along with some questions about his coverage shortcomings that might take him out of the first-round picture, could ultimately hurt his cause.

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