NFL draft winners and losers: Ohio State QB Justin Fields somehow raised the bar even higher

Eric Edholm
·13-min read

The Big Ten made its triumphant return, and it seemed to kick up the volume in what was one of the best weeks of college football this season.

Here are some NFL draft-related observations from the week that was.

Winners

Ohio State QB Justin Fields

All it took was one game — against an inferior Nebraska defense — for the Twitter Overreaction Machine to kick into hyperdrive. But it was hard not to walk away from Fields’ performance and believe that he is more talented than 99 percent of the quarterbacks in college football. Completing 20 of his 21 passes (with the only incompletion a perfectly on-target throw) for 276 yards and two TDs, as well as running 15 times for 54 yards and a score, Fields put his star power on full display.

Ohio State QB Justin Fields was phenomenal in his season debut against Nebraska. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Ohio State QB Justin Fields was phenomenal in his season debut against Nebraska. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

The expectations for Fields this season were sky high entering this game, and Fields found a way to surpass them. And on a day when Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence was so-so by his lofty standards, it even led to a Twitter-driven reprise of the debate we first raised this summer: Could Fields surpass Lawrence in the 2021 draft?

Our answer remains no for now. And it was merely one game for Fields. But Saturday raised the bar a notch for what he can do this season after Fields practically begged the Big Ten to reconsider its initial decision to halt the season this past summer.

It was a little thing from Saturday’s game ... but did you notice Ohio State head coach Ryan Day call for a QB sneak on fourth-and-1 from his own 33-yard line in a 14-14 game midway through the second quarter?

Fields got it easily, gaining 3 yards. As much as anything, it spoke to Day’s trust in Fields to convert in such a high-leverage spot. There appeared to be no hesitation in Day’s decision to go for it.

Those little moments can help convince NFL teams that Fields can be trusted with handling big moments. As more highly drafted rookie quarterbacks are thrust into starting lineups earlier, establishing that trust quotient is crucial for QB prospects.

Liberty QB Malik Willis

The Auburn transfer who never really got a shot with the Tigers is making the most of his chance with the Flames.

He’s only a redshirt junior, and Liberty’s competition has been a mixed bag. But the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Willis had a seven-TD game (six passing, one rushing) in the win over Southern Miss and flashed some of the talent that made him a coveted recruit as an “athlete” coming out in the class of 2017.

Willis won the starting job after beating out Maine transfer Chris Ferguson, who was receiving PFA grades from NFL scouts for his work with the Black Bears prior to this season. Although Willis had a tough day at the office against Louisiana-Monroe earlier this season, he looked money against the Golden Eagles.

His arm strength stood out most Saturday, when he ripped several impressive passes while completing 77.4 percent of his attempts. Willis might not be in the 2021 draft picture, but we were compelled to drop his name here so that you can file it away for whenever he chooses to come out. He’s a dual-threat talent who opened eyes.

Michigan EDGE Kwity Paye

Nothing against fellow Wolverines EDGE Aidan Hutchinson, who also played a great game in Michigan’s season-opening win over Minnesota. But Paye was the money player Saturday, setting the tone early and completely taking over late.

Playing 69 of the 73 snaps, Paye harassed an overmatched Gophers offensive line for two sacks — both on the first defensive series of the fourth quarter — and earlier blew up a run play for minus-4 yards.

Michigan defensive lineman Kwity Paye (19) getting one of his two sacks aaginst Minnesota on Saturday. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
Michigan defensive lineman Kwity Paye (19) getting one of his two sacks aaginst Minnesota on Saturday. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

The 6-3, 266-pound Paye is an absurdly gifted athlete, and his play has rounded into form very well since he broke into defensive coordinator Don Brown’s rotation in the 2018 season. And in a 2021 draft class where the pass rush talent is a mixed bag, Paye kicked off his 2020 season with a huge performance. He looked every bit of the freakish athlete he has been billed to be.

A first-round landing spot feels like a likelihood, and seeing him crack the top half of Round 1 wouldn’t be shocking if Paye keeps it up this season.

North Carolina RBs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams

Carter and Williams undoubtedly have formed one of college football’s best 1-2 RB punches this season.

Sure, it doesn’t hurt that the Tar Heels have a future first-round quarterback in Sam Howell, a good offensive line and top-tier WR talents in Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown. But there’s no way to overlook what Carter and Williams have done this season.

The 5-9, 195-pound Carter is a slippery playmaker with good juice as a runner and returner. He has a nice, low center of gravity and can shift gears nicely to reach the second level with ease. Carter received some third-round grades this summer and has done nothing to hurt that.

Javonte Williams was a freight train against North Carolina State on Saturday. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Javonte Williams was a freight train against North Carolina State on Saturday. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

But the 5-10, 220-pound Williams has helped his cause the most, with Saturday’s destruction of rival N.C. State his best 2020 performance. Williams ran 19 times for 160 yards, his third straight game over 100, with three TDs. He’s the thunder to Carter’s lightning.

Williams is by far the FBS leader in missed tackles forced (41 on 82 rushing attempts) and first-down runs (40), and he has been a better receiver than advertised. Overall, he has 12 TDs (10 rushing, two receiving) in five games.

Both players are making names for themselves, and we can’t wait to see them Saturday against a solid Virginia defense, as well as two big tests — Notre Dame and Miami — at the end of the regular season.

Tulsa LB Zaven Collins

We’ve been itching to highlight the redshirt junior, and Saturday’s performance against South Florida kicked down the door for that to happen.

Collins turned in his latest masterpiece this season, logging six tackles, a forced fumble and a 38-yard interception return against USF. He faked the rush, dropped and baited the USF quarterback into throwing the pick right into his arms — and then watch him move on the return for a score:

Tulsa LB Zaven Collins picked off this pass and ran 38 yards for the touchdown.
Tulsa LB Zaven Collins picked off this pass and ran 38 yards for the touchdown.

This big man can scoot. He has been a force of nature for the Golden Hurricane since last season, and Collins’ big performances earlier this season against Oklahoma State and UCF has Collins’ stock soaring. He has shown he can rush, cover and stop the run — a true three-down weapon.

An opponent of Tulsa’s this season highlighted him as the team’s biggest defensive difference maker.

At 6-4 and 260 pounds, Collins is a king-sized linebacker by modern NFL standards. If he tests as well as expected, no one will question his ability to play the position in the league. Collins strikes us as one of those great athletes who is naturally gifted at whatever he’s asked to try. It makes sense given that he’s a former high school QB who also is said to be a heck of a golfer.

What’s his draft ceiling? Hard to say, but keep in mind the name of Jamie Collins (no relation) when you watch him — trust us when we say that their last name is not the only thing they have in common.

Appalachian State CB Shemar Jean-Charles

Quick: Do you know the nation’s leader in passes defended?

Solid guess on Jean-Charles, well done!

His size is garden variety (an estimated 5-10 and 180 pounds). His speed (4.55 range) is also ordinary. But Jean-Charles has a knack for coverage, and it was on display Saturday.

Arkansas State wideout Jonathan Adams Jr. is third in the nation in receiving yards (673) and tied for fourth in TD catches (four), and he had another big game Thursday against the Mountaineers (six grabs for 134 yards).

When Jean-Charles matched up with Adams, he hauled in only one 11-yard catch on two targets. Jean-Charles was flagged once for pass interference, but he otherwise did a great job on Adams.

Why App State didn’t have Jean-Charles follow Adams until the second half in unclear. When those two were matched up, Adams, suddenly an interesting late-round prospect, didn’t make much noise.

We’ll keep our eyes on Jean-Charles with some decent matchups coming up, including vs. Coastal Carolina WR Kameron Brown and Troy WR Khalil McClain, two big-framed NFL hopefuls.

Losers

Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle

His season-ending ankle injury on the opening kickoff Saturday was one of the year’s most disappointing college football developments. Waddle started 2020 on fire, and it’s unclear how this will affect his plans for the 2021 NFL draft.

Had he come out, Waddle had a shot at landing in Round 1. Now, it’s hard to say.

He’s no less a special talent, but missing such a big portion of the season and not stacking more good tape could drag Waddle’s stock in what is expected to be another banner year at wide receiver in the 2021 draft.

LSU LB Jabril Cox and S JaCoby Stevens

Cox’s first game as a Tiger after transferring in from North Dakota State couldn’t have gotten off to a better start, as he undercut a route against Mississippi State and ran back his first LSU interception for a score in the opener.

Since then, it has been tougher sledding for the 6-2, 221-pound linebacker. He missed a few tackles against Vanderbilt the next game and struggled in coverage in the upset loss to Missouri.

Saturday against South Carolina, Cox showed up a number of times in run defense but once again had a few plays in coverage that were subpar. Cox hasn’t been bad, mind you, but he came to LSU to be a first-round draft pick, or at least a top-50 selection. Has that been solidified? We’re not so sure.

LSU LB Jabril Cox (19) can't quite make the tackle against South Carolina wide receiver Shi Smith on Saturday. (AP Photo/Brett Duke)
LSU LB Jabril Cox (19) can't quite make the tackle against South Carolina wide receiver Shi Smith on Saturday. (AP Photo/Brett Duke)

Stevens, who is about the same size as Cox but playing more in a safety-type role, came back to school to also solidify his standing as a prospect. He earned the No. 7 jersey, and folks around Baton Rouge rave about his work ethic and commitment.

That said, his performance has been ordinary. He has been shuffled around at multiple spots, and it’s curious that defensive coordinator Bo Pelini would ask Stevens to blitz less after having success last season (and in the 2020 opener) in that role.

Covering more now, Stevens also struggled against Mizzou and had multiple missed tackles in each of the two games since. He’s still feeling his way in this new role, and LSU doesn’t have the defensive talent (or scheme) that it did last season.

The two highly regarded Tigers defenders haven’t stopped being talented players. Both profile as Day 2 prospects, able to help an NFL in multiple ways. But with each player being taken out of their comfort zones, it has limited their chances to thrive.

The 2021 DT class

It appears it will be a tough year in 2021 to need interior defensive line help in the draft.

Every week, we go mining through the college ranks to find trench defenders who might profile as top-50 selections, and so far we’re coming up empty more often than not.

The SEC has some high-end talents in Alabama’s Christian Barmore, and Georgia’s duo of Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt, but none of them have blown our socks off. The Big Ten’s late start could help, and the imminent return of the Pac-12 does, too, but some highly rated players (such as Washington’s Levi Onwuzurike) have opted out.

Florida State’s Marvin Wilson is a well-known name in scouting circles, and he has found ways to make his impact felt in certain games this season. But his physical traits are ordinary, making us question his ultimate upside. NFL scouts have been ambivalent about his pro potential.

Along with what appears to be a so-so crop of DT free agents next year, plus this underwhelming draft crop, teams that need help inside might have to seek other routes to find it.

Illinois WR Josh Imatorbhebhe

There was buzz in scouting circles over Imatorbhebhe, the 6-1, 216-pound senior who shredded Michigan and Michigan State and caught a TD in the upset of Wisconsin a year ago. He’s a phenomenal athlete with some fantastic explosion, good length and moldable traits.

But in the opener against the Badgers on Friday, he came up short. On 10 targets, Imatorbhebhe caught only three passes for 26 yards with two drops that would have moved the chains. He also whiffed on a first-quarter block that led to a screen pass getting blown up.

Illinois WR Josh Imatorbhebhe (9) couldn't get on track against Wisconsin on Friday night. (Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)
Illinois WR Josh Imatorbhebhe (9) couldn't get on track against Wisconsin on Friday night. (Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)

Wisconsin CB Rachad Wildgoose drew the assignment of covering Imatorbhebhe most plays and pretty much bottled him up in man coverage. His final catch came with more than 11 minutes left in the second quarter.

Some of Imatorbhebhe’s ineffectiveness was because of the Illini’s limitations in the pass game against a good Wisconsin defense. He’ll need to show more over the next four games before tougher defensive assignments against Ohio State and Iowa down the stretch.

Even with the potential to test exceptionally well in the pre-draft process, Imatorbhebhe needs to win more battles on the field.

Iowa OT Coy Cronk

Cronk caught our attention a few years ago when he had a respectable showing at left tackle while at Indiana, facing off against Ohio State’s Chase Young. The 6-4, 314-pound Cronk landed at Iowa as a grad transfer this offseason, and he has been moved to right tackle, a position that’s new to him, for the Hawkeyes.

His first showing this season won’t be the story of his year, but he was underwhelming. Cronk opened up a few holes in the run game but wasn’t as effective pass blocking in his Iowa debut. Purdue’s George Karlaftis (put him on your 2022 draft lists, folks) easily beat him to the outside for a drive-killing sack just before halftime.

Cronk couldn't protect the edge on this second-quarter sack vs. Purdue.
Cronk couldn't protect the edge on this second-quarter sack vs. Purdue.

The Hawkeyes rotated quite a bit on the O-line in this game, with Mark Kallenberger filling in for Cronk on one second-quarter drive. Perhaps they’re open to shuffling some things around this season outside of their two standouts, LT Alaric Jackson and C Tyler Linderbaum.

Cronk allowed a few more pressures in the game and was flagged for a false start, too. It wasn’t an ominous debut, but Cronk will need to step up his game after receiving some priority free-agent grades this summer.

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