GROUP OF FIVE NFL DRAFT PROSPECTS: MOUNTAIN WEST (MOUNTAIN DIVISON)
By Rebecca Rennie
Our next conference to focus on for NFL Draft prospects is the Mountain West from the Group of Five. In the first of a two-parter, we highlight players from the Mountain Division. This half of the conference features a couple of early round prospects. Get a head start on those who could be breaking out at the Senior Bowl, Shrine Game and the Combine!
After the perceived first couple of names, there’s something of an open competition to be the next edge defender off the board from a convoluted class of pass rushers. The consistent production of Curtis Weaver has made the Boise standout a popular choice to be in the early round mix. Weaver’s 13.5 sacks were good for top five nationally, among his 52 tackles and 18.5 TFLs on the year. He heads to the pros following 34 total sacks over his three seasons in college.
Weaver brings a physical presence and broad frame to the line of scrimmage. Regularly taking advantage of overmatched competition on the opposing O-line, he has flashed dominance when turned loose to focus on rushing the passer.
Often moved to difference spots across the front seven, Weaver is versatile and scheme diverse. He can shift inside and has experience dropping back into space. He switches up his attacks with some variety in his rush move repertoire. The Broncos star utilizes swim, rip and push-pull manouvers, along with more direct power attacks into the chest of his opponent. There’s more than enough in his first step and upfield burst to take the early initiative off the snap.
Measurables might be brought into question in the build up to the draft. While he has a thick frame, Weaver doesn’t appear to have ideal length. Though his get-off is solid, he doesn’t overly impress athletically either. While he drops into shall zones and works laterally in space for Boise, he looks labored and limited when deployed in those areas.
He plays with good leverage but his flexibility to turn the corner consistently against better tackles could be an issue. He beat up on some average Group of Five linemen but was mostly kept quiet against the best opposition he saw in 2019 in the bowl loss to the Washington Huskies.
Adding to the concern of how well Weaver’s impact will translate to the next level is an inconsistent motor. There’s a notable difference between his highlight moments and much of the work in between, which can appear lethargic and low energy. Weaver has been a popular suggestion for the latter stages of Round 1. However, concerns over his length, athleticism, motor and overall potential ceiling may fit better on Day 2 of the draft at best.
The narrative on the stock and potential of Jordan Love has shifted multiple times since emerging as an off-season darling of draft media. A relatively disappointing statistical season in 2019 was followed by critique over his decision to forgo his senior season regardless. The choice is his to make though, and the skill set is unquestionably exciting. Entering film study of Love with initial scepticism, the resulting opinion here is one of enthusiastic optimism.
There’s no question that Love’s 2019 film is littered with poor decisions and ugly turnovers. The potential for such mistakes to continue is certainly part of the risk in considering drafting the Aggies QB early. His significantly depleted supporting cast and feeling the need to force the ball to receivers who couldn’t get open partly contributed to some of the low-percentage throws regularly attempted over the course of the year.
The potential is through the roof with Jordan Love at the next level. While his physical traits will receive much focus regarding his upside, there’s plenty to like beyond that too. The combination of his ideal frame, athleticism, mobility and arm talent allows him to be unlimited by scheme fit and potential to expand the playbook.
His throwing motion is fast and compact with easy velocity. Able to avoid pressure and escape the pocket, he shows coordination throwing on the move while maintaining zip on the ball (example below). Able to attack all levels of the field, he can fit the ball into the tightest of windows. His quick release aids him in exploiting aggressive defenses with his quick-game execution and hitting his hot reads.
While many potential prospects who are cited for elite physical traits often show little or no feel for the position to make the most of those abilities, Love does. In spite of some of the poor decision making, Love shows instincts, poise and positive footwork as he navigates within the confines of the pocket. The Utah State passer unquestionably makes errors, but flashes progression work, using his eyes to manipulate coverage, and to throw with anticipation and timing as his receivers break their routes.
As with many young quarterbacks, footwork as he releases the ball is a significant factor in his inconsistent ball placement. Love can be overly reliant on his natural arm strength and upper body mechanics, that he gets lax with his lower body technique and efficiently stepping into his throws. While the flashes of progression work are there, too often he’s locking onto his first read and taking too long to move on.
There’s no question that Love is a work-in-progress, with concerns over decision making and resulting turnovers. Breaking down the film reveals a heck of a lot to like though, not only from a physical standpoint, but with his presence and instincts also. While he will be deemed by some as boom or bust, the reward from that risk could be significant. Though he receives a second round grade here, it would be understandable and defensible to take a shot on Love in the first round, given the positional value.
After a productive and steady career through three seasons, Wilson took his game to another level as a senior. With yet another triple-digit tackle season and a big impact in coverage (including 4 interceptions this year, 10 for his career), the Cowboys linebacker gets a chance to continue to prove himself at the Senior Bowl later this month.
Despite being a converted defensive back, Wilson has some limitations to his movement and overall athleticism. However, his film matches with reports of having outstanding football IQ, recognition and mental processing. Heavier than most modern linebackers, perhaps dropping 10lbs will aid him in continuing his productive ways at the pro level.
Wilson is not the lightest on his feet, nor the most fluid with fairly tight hips. He can lose a step changing directions. His testing numbers will be among the more intriguing to look out for during workouts. Regardless, he has enough to continue to make plays in the NFL. He aids himself with his quick reads and decision making to get an early jump on the action. His positioning and instincts in coverage see him regularly in the right place at the right time to make plays on the ball in the passing game, such as the example below.
The Wyoming standout impacts the game between the tackles, in space, and in the backfield with well-timed blitzes. A reliable and physical tackler, he has good length and tackle radius to consistently wrap up and finish. He brings a non-stop motor and infectious energy that bolsters his teammates. He can play a little upright, but uses aggressive hands to successfully deflect and shed blocks.
Overall, Wilson is an overachieving type who maximizes his abilities and brings high character and intangibles to the table. With some limitations but plenty of bankable traits, he profiles as a likely day 3 pick right now with some potential to rise with a strong pre-draft process.
Those who were a fan of Josey Jewell may see similar traits they like in Wilson. Jewell landed as a 4th rounder to the Broncos in 2018.
A redshirt junior with 40 starts over three seasons, Cleveland decided along with Weaver to depart Boise early. He adds his name into a good group of tackle prospects for the 2020 draft class. A plus athlete at tackle, his quickness and overall movement traits are a large part of his selling point.
Cleveland is quickly out of his stance and able to achieve depth in his pass sets to track speed rushers round the arc of the pocket. He flashes impressive ability to mirror in pass protection. Easily changing directions, he redirects with minimal wasted motion, and shows good reactions and adjustments to counters. His movement is a plus in his run blocking ability in space.
Despite the athletic pluses, some technical issues muddy the evaluation. There isn’t a clear area of particular weakness. However, there is variability in his form, footwork, leverage, balance and body control that leads to inconsistent execution. Cleveland can be late to the punch with his hands on first contact and defer early control to opposing rushers. He has length, but often can bend too much at the waist in seeking out contact.
He raises concerns over his core strength and ability to anchor, not helped by a stance that can get too narrow. His toughness and physicality aren’t in question but nor is Cleveland a mauler or an imposing force at the point of attack. The Boise State junior has positive measurables in his length and athleticism that will appeal in the middle rounds. The former 3-star recruit doesn’t “wow” in any area but has the potential to develop into a starting tackle.
A disappointing 4-8 season (3-5 in Mountain West play) for Colorado State led to Mike Bobo leaving after his fifth season leading the Rams. There’s a good chance of no Rams players being drafted for only the second time in the last six years, but their best chance may be on defense with safety Hicks. The senior defensive back piled up 117 tackles in his final season, along with 5.5 TFLs and 4 pass breakups.
Hicks jumps off the game film as a clear standout on the Rams D, flashing early and often with an active and energetic game. A versatile playmaker, Hicks gets involved in the box and around the line of scrimmage, while also playing deep, looking the part in space with good range. The lean safety shows good signs of pre-snap reads and recognition, vision and anticipation. A quick decision maker, he gets an early jump on his share of plays.
Hicks is a nice athlete and fluid in his movements. He impresses with his ability to break down in space to make 1-on-1 tackles in the open field, contributing to his high tackle numbers. Where he appears less effective is in man coverage situations, often beaten early for position in routes when covering tight ends and running backs or left trailing from press. Covering from deep with the action in front of him, he’s able to have more success against the pass.
He may not have imposing size and physicality, but Hicks is big enough and a reliable tackler through sound technique to finish plays. He’s a fringe prospect, but with athleticism, production and solid film that indicates good football IQ. He appears to not be taking part in any of the major All-Star games, so he will likely require a strong showing at his pro day.
One of the premier programs at the Group of Five level and reclaiming the conference title for the second time in three years, it’s not a surprise to see multiple players from Boise State among the top prospects in the Mountain West. Hightower leads the way among the Broncos senior class. It’s a deep receiver class in 2020 that will see some good prospects fall to the ranks of undrafted, but it would still be a relative surprise if someone doesn’t select Hightower at some point on Day 3.
Hightower will have an opportunity to improve his case while competing at the upcoming East-West Shrine event. A big-play receiver who averaged over 19 yards per reception, he wasn’t far short of 1,000 yards through the air on the season despite only 48 catches. He’s also been an impactful kick returner, including taking one attempt back for a touchdown this past year. His potential to contribute on special teams should help his chances of making a roster.
His frame is concerningly lightweight but wins with translatable athleticism. Hightower may not have elite top end speed, but can stretch the field with good initial acceleration and long strides. For a somewhat lankly leggy frame, the Boise receiver’s footwork is among his best traits. He impresses with his suddenness as he changes direction. The cutting ability is there to evade defenders both in space and when working through traffic over the middle of the field.
That ability to factor in yard-after-catch situations and work over the middle of the field, in addition to being an effective deep target, gives him versatility within a rotation at the position. He takes advantage of a free release off the line but holding up and executing routes against more physical corners might prove difficult.
NOTES ON OTHER PROSPECTS:
Another to declare for the draft early, Utah State linebacker David Woodward has his fans in the draft community. His season was ended early through injury but was once again ultra-productive for the Aggies. Woodward is a smart player with relentless effort but is significantly limited by his athletic profile. His lack of speed and athleticism limits his range and sees him beaten to angles too often. In addition, he struggles badly at the point of attack, rarely able to shed blocks, more often getting controlled and shut down. He could struggle to make a team.
TCU transfer Tipa Galeai is another former Aggie looking to earn a late round selection. With length and decent straight-line speed to close on ball carriers, he could draw interest, even with a drop in production as a senior. His hands are active but doesn’t bring a consistent rush plan or string together moves effectively. Quite upright as he moves, he’s tight in the hips and limited working laterally.
The East-West Shrine event will feature two kickers from the Mountain West, in Utah State’s Dominik Eberle and Wyoming’s Cooper Rothe. The former has had the more consistent season, missing just 3 of his 24 field goals and connecting on every extra point. Rothe has struggled, executing on just 68.2% of his field goal attempts and missing several PATs.
Don’t sleep on Air Force receiver Geraud Sanders. Followers of Pro Football Focus will know how highly they rate Sanders, despite the limited opportunities from the triple option offense. The 6’2”, 210lb receiver has a nice combination of size and speed, tracks the ball well and reliably makes plays down the field with the few chances he gets each game. He gets some favourable matchups through play action but could be worth a look to see how his game handles an expanded role.
For all previous articles in this series looking at FCS and Group of Five prospects, click here!
Feature Image Credit: AP Photo/Eli Lucero
CFB/NFL DRAFT analyst
Rebecca is an NFL Draft analyst focusing primarily on the FCS and Group of Five conferences, and a fan of both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Stanford Cardinal. You can find her other articles here and follow on Twitter @bex_r86.