NFL draft winners and losers: Zach Wilson, Trey Lance swapping spots in QB pecking order?

Eric Edholm
·12-min read

Even with a near upset at Clemson and a shootout between Texas and Oklahoma State, it was a fairly mundane week from a draft-prospect perspective. Still, there was plenty to discuss from the week that was — plus, some bigger-picture observations about how the 2021 NFL draft class is shaping up.

Here are this week’s winners and losers:

Winners

BYU QB Zach Wilson

On Saturday, Wilson turned in his statistically worst game of the season — 18 of 32 passing (56.3 percent) for 224 yards, with three TDs and his first interception since the season-opening game. Wilson also ran five times for 35 yards and a score.

The pick ended a streak of 184 pass attempts without an interception, which set a school mark. It came on a bad decision — Wilson threw the ball late and short, a bad combo. It also set up Western Kentucky’s only TD of the game.

It came late in the third quarter when BYU was up 35-3. I call these “Mahomes interceptions,” in that they’re riskier-than-normal throws when a quarterback can afford to take those chances. Somewhat forgivable? Yes.

Wilson’s jaw-dropping throws stood out as he seems to have on a weekly basis. He’s playing with an incredible amount of confidence . Wilson looks like a man who believes his team can score on every drive, and the Cougars did just that early on, scoring TDs on their first five possessions before that pick (and two field goals after it).

Wilson should have had closer to 350 yards passing. Pro Football Focus credited three drops in the game, and two of them were potentially huge gains.

Here was the first — it looked like wideout Dax Milne underestimated Wilson’s arm strength, as Wilson launched the ball from his own 35-yard line and it came down around the WKU 2-yard line. Just a little 58-yard flick for you pass-distance charters at home.

This is an impressive pass, even if it fell incomplete.
This is an impressive pass, even if it fell incomplete.

And here was the second:

Remind you of anyone? At one point during his freshman year, Wilson was called the “Mormon Manziel.” That’s old and tired. It’s hard not to see a little Aaron Rodgers in that release.

We promise not to get too punch drunk on Wilson’s high-end throws and ignore whatever bad stuff is out there. But we mocked Wilson at No. 6 overall last week to the Minnesota Vikings for a reason: He absolutely has a chance to land in the top 10, alongside some of the 2021 NFL draft’s elite QBs (more on this below).

Even in bad games by his standards, Wilson manages to impress in multiple ways.

Florida WR Kadarius Toney

Toney had seven touches against Missouri. Three ended up in the end zone. All three were shockingly good plays, too. Just watch …

Here’s the first TD — count the missed tackles:

On No. 2, Toney burned a Mizzou DB in zone coverage. It was nice.

Let’s fast forward to touchdown No. 3:

Last year, Toney’s diet was far more streamlined — mostly screens, end arounds and such. The athleticism on those plays was obvious; after all, Miami safety Hamsah Nasirildeen suffered a torn ACL trying to tackle him last season.

Toney’s work last year, when he was held back considerably by a shoulder injury, earned him mostly Day 3 grades in NFL scouting departments. He looks like a different level of beast this year.

If you’re sorting through the shifty, quick receivers in the 2021 class, you’re going to want to add Toney’s list to the name. His physique looks more defined, and he can handle the Percy Harvin-type role better as a hybrid runner-receiver-returner. Toney has the short-area burst, body control and change-of-direction skill that any NFL team should love to have in the Day 2 range.

Texas EDGE Joseph Ossai

We wrote about Ossai’s big matchup with Oklahoma State’s well-regarded offensive tackle, Teven Jenkins, in our draft-prospect previews last week.

Well, Ossai won.

It’s hard to recall an individual defensive performance as dominant as this from a Longhorn. Ossai made 12 tackles — he leads the team in that category — and had six tackles for loss and four sacks, including the game-clincher on fourth-and-8 in overtime.

Ossai also recovered a fumble at the end of regulation, and on one of those first-half sacks, he dislodged the ball — and that turnover led to a critical Texas field goal right before the half.

Texas EDGE Joseph Ossai logs one of his three sacks against Oklahoma State. (Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports)
Texas EDGE Joseph Ossai logs one of his three sacks against Oklahoma State. (Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports)

Even more impressive? Ossai was dealing with a shoulder injury that he’d suffered the week before and had to wear a brace in this one. He sat out Tuesday’s practice and only partially worked during their Wednesday session.

One of our bigger regrets from our first 2021 mock draft was that we couldn’t find a spot for Ossai in Round 1. After a performance such as this, our failure to do so is looking worse with each passing day.

Virginia LB-EDGE Charles Snowden

The fascinating Snowden was a player we highlighted a few times last year, as he caught our eye as a developmental defender with unique skills. On Saturday, in the Cavaliers’ upset of North Carolina, all those skills were on display.

The 6-foot-6, 230-pound Snowden spoiled Virginia’s supper with 10 tackles, four sacks and a forced fumble on the last one. He added another QB hit along the way and also was on the punt-coverage unit that converted a late fake to help seal the game.

Two of the sacks came on back-to-back plays with UNC driving, up 10-6 early. The sacks knocked QB Sam Howell back 13 yards combined, and the Tar Heels had to settle for a 51-yard field goal. Snowden’s first-quarter performance was as good of football as he’s played since last season.

Here are all four sacks:

On the last one, Snowden dropped into coverage and green-dog blitzed when Howell flushed out of the pocket. Snowden is still learning how to play in short zones, and he allowed a few catches in coverage in this game, but his instincts appear to be sharpening at the right time.

His unusual build — tall but with room to grow — will lead to some interesting debates on how to employ him at the NFL level. Body-wise, he fits somewhere on the Leonard Floyd spectrum. For the Cavaliers, Snowden is mostly used as a pass rusher, but his athleticism can be lent to coverage and run stopping. (The 230-pound listing is what scouts had him at last year, but it appears Snowden has gained some weight this season.)

We’re still intrigued. Snowden received some third- and fourth-round projections coming into the season, and that’s about the right range for such an interesting athlete.

Virginia Tech OT Christian Darrisaw

We’re admittedly late to the Darrisaw party, with The Athletic’s Dane Brugler and Pro Football Focus’ Mike Renner deserving of praise for pointing out his fine performance this season — and his interesting NFL upside.

For the second straight game, Darrisaw pitched a shutout in terms of sacks and pressures allowed, keeping Louisville’s rushers out of the backfield. Even with a few pressures allowed before that in games against North Carolina and Boston College, he hasn’t allowed a QB hit or sack this season.

Darrisaw is not huge at 6-foot-5 and 314 pounds, but he’s quite light on his feet. A source on staff regards him as one of the team’s smartest players and praised Darrisaw’s strong instincts. He has also played with more of an attacking mentality this season, which appears to be going a long way toward improving his draft forecast.

Even though redshirt sophomore right tackle Luke Tenuta (the son of former Virginia defensive coordinator Jon) might be the more physically gifted player with potentially a higher upside, Darrisaw might find his way into the top-50 mix when it’s all said and done.

Darrisaw has now started 30 straight games at left tackle for the Hokies after spending a year at Fork Union Military Academy after high school. Fork Union’s head coach, John Shuman, had two sons who played at VT, one of which (Mark) is on the Hokies’ strength staff.

Losers

North Dakota State QB Trey Lance

Through no real fault of his own, Lance has been hurt by not playing this season, outside of the one-game showcase against Central Arkansas. The ramifications of COVID-19 have hindered several draft prospects’ futures and put several in odd binds regarding their draft decisions. Lance is one of them, even though he’s still expected to go high next spring.

Zach Wilson has a chance to bypass Lance in the QB hierarchy with his bigger body of work. And though there were NFL scouts who rated Lance with a higher grade this summer than Ohio State’s Justin Fields, Fields’ tremendous start for the Buckeyes likely will change that for many.

Lance’s draft grade hasn’t changed for most; one game can tell us only so much. Others around college football might be taking advantage of the Bison’s season being moved to spring and Lance unable to do anything on the field to change his standing in the QB pecking order.

Going from QB2 to QB4 might not cause any kind of draft free fall. Heck, we placed four QBs in the top 10 of our mock last week. But falling from, say, the sixth pick to 10th overall could cost a player about $7 million in rookie-contract salary.

Texas QB Sam Ehlinger

Ehlinger has taken a beating this season, and it appears to be affecting his performance. Playing with a sore leg that caused him to visit the medical tent multiple times last week, Ehlinger had an inefficient game throwing and running.

Completing 18 of 34 passes (52.9 percent) for 169 yards against Oklahoma State, Ehlinger threw for three TDs. He had only one pass play longer than 20 yards, took five sacks and had one of his most ineffective games as a runner.

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) has been beaten up this season. (Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports)
Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) has been beaten up this season. (Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports)

His rushing line officially reads as 13 carries for minus-9 yards. If you take away lost sack yardage, Ehlinger ran eight times for 23 yards, with a long run of 9. And while it’s hard to pin any of those five sacks squarely on Ehlinger, he was unimpressive in this game when dealing with pressure — consistent with most of his senior season.

It has been an up-and-down final year. Ehlinger usually can hit shot plays in the passing game and pick up first downs with runs. Just not in this game.

His hopes of improving draft grades in the third- and fourth-round range are starting to fade. He’s an atypical quarterback who could be resigned to a specialist or backup role in the NFL.

Purdue WR Rondale Moore

What exactly has been going on with Moore? After opting back into the season, he’s now missed both of the Boilermakers’ games this season, and Purdue has not given any clarity on Moore’s status.

Is it COVID-related? Something else? All we know for sure is that the school is being very hush hush on the matter, and in the meantime fellow WR David Bell has been putting on a show. In the two games, Bell has 22 catches for 243 yards and four scores, leading to chatter that perhaps Moore isn’t even the best receiver on his own team.

We hope to gain some clarity on this matter as we go along. But for now, the potential first-round receiver is being hurt by his absence.

The 2021 RB class

With apologies to Clemson’s Travis Etienne and Alabama’s Najee Harris, we’re starting to sour a bit on an RB class that we were darned excited about coming into the season.

A lot has happened. Mississippi State’s Kylin Hill, after a brilliant 2020 debut against LSU, has opted out. He’s expected to declare for 2021 but will face questions about his reported tension with Mike Leach and the Bulldogs coaching staff there.

Penn State’s Journey Brown, an exciting and ascending talent, was ruled out for the season with a mystery ailment that reportedly could have his football future in question.

Oklahoma’s Kennedy Brooks and Memphis’ Kenneth Gainwell both opted out this season, too.

It hasn’t been all bad, though, as Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard has produced at a high level (even though Texas held him mostly in check Saturday), and Virginia Tech’s Khalil Herbert has been a really nice surprise. We also highlighted the brilliant UNC duo of Michael Carter and Javonte Williams last week.

But overall, we’re starting to wonder how many truly special backs this class will produce.

Florida State S Hamsah Nasirildeen

The Seminoles’ best defensive piece, in our opinion, has been missing all season, still recovering from a torn ACL he suffered late last year. That’s a bit concerning, as most players rebound more quickly from that type of injury these days.

From our perspective, Nasirildeen entered the season with a chance to be one of the highest-drafted safeties. His size, versatility, athletic traits and intensity all are highly regarded in NFL circles.

But now the 22-year-old safety is facing some medical concerns that will make him a popular man at the NFL scouting combine as teams attempt to assess the condition of that knee.

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