NFL DRAFT 2021: FIVE FROM THE GROUP OF FIVE - WEEK 1
By Rebecca Rennie
The 2020 season is underway, and the Group of Five conferences took center stage to begin proceedings. Here, we present five prospects from the Group of Five teams who made an impression. This is not necessarily the top prospects on show or those with the most productive box scores, but just some of those that caught the attention of this particular writer this week!
REGGIE ROBERSON JR.
The opening set of games featured some scrappy football and a few too many blowouts. One of the most competitive turned out to be Texas State giving a scare to heavily-favored SMU. The Mustangs escaped 31-24, in part due an impactful outing by star receiver Reggie Roberson Jr. In his first game back from a season ending injury in 2019, Roberson made clear his explosive traits remained intact.
Exiting the game temporarily, there was a brief concern that Roberson had injured the same foot that had kept him out part of last year. Ultimately, the knock was minor and not to the same foot, and the West Virginia transfer returned to execute on one of the key plays of the game. Late in the third, Roberson broke free from coverage to secure a 51-yard touchdown from Shane Buechele. While coverage was elsewhere, Roberson showed off his impressive agility and body control to adjust mid-air and secure the ball for the score.
Nearly as noteworthy a play, Roberson made an outstanding block on a potential touchdown in the opening quarter. Unfortunately and while disagreeing with the commentary, the block was penalized and the score rescinded. No matter, as scouts will remain impressed by the aggressive physicality on show (video below). The Mustangs’ star receiver finished with 6 catches for 99 yards and a touchdown, averaging 16.5 yards per reception.
Roberson is a relatively smaller receiver, more known for his athletic traits. However, his toughness is evident in his playmaking over the middle of the field and under tight coverage. There’s no concern over losing concentration while anticipating contact. The explosive senior’s appeal lies primarily in his translatable speed and agility. In addition to being able to stretch the field, he crucially demonstrates the ability to track the ball on deep targets, and reliably secure the ball at the catch point.
Where the dynamic playmaker requires improvement is in his route execution. As good as his movement and burst is, his precision as a route runner remains raw. His footwork can improve to aid him in his breaks and in separating. However, some of the instinctive reactionary shifts and feints are natural and effective in shaking coverage. The upside with an athletic receiving prospect with great ball skills could see Day 2 consideration. Texas State may not be the most talented opposition faced this year but expect Roberson to continue to shine throughout AAC conference play.
The Sun Belt was unquestionably one of the most enjoyable conferences to scout last season. The talent pool and depth of potential prospects is better than most realize among these teams. After a strong opening weekend from Sun Belt teams, more people may be recognizing that in 2020. Arkansas State were competitive during a 37-24 loss to a strong Memphis Tigers team. Red Wolves defensive lineman Forrest Merrill is among the top Sun Belt seniors and showcased why last Saturday.
Merrill was a forceful disruptor in the trenches throughout the contest. The senior lineman totalled 7 tackles (6 solo) with a TFL as part of that impact. The Tigers’ attention on Merrill also created openings for others in the front seven to make plays. Merrill doesn’t offer a conventional body type or length, with a short, broad frame and a shorter reach. However, he makes full use of his low center of gravity and resulting balance and leverage.
The senior D-lineman holds his ground at the point of attack with impressive consistency. More than just a space eater over the nose, Merrill has deceptive quickness and effective hand technique to create backfield pressure. He can create movement rather than rely on stalemates and shrink the pocket. He is able to avoid giving up chest control and work post-contact to negate blocking assignment intentions. Merrill may not offer a great deal outside the tackles but is light on his feet at his size with good footwork. His motor snap-to-snap stands out.
All that said, the Red Wolves tackle prospect has his limitations to his ceiling. The rush impact from the interior is unlikely to ever be significant or consistent. He has the power, bulk and technique to offer a solid floor but lesser upside of others at his position. The tendency to be taken off the field on third downs likely continues at the next level. Those relative limitations probably result in a Day 3 selection. However, Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy is an outspoken fan, so expect to see him invited next year.
Fully intending to include Brown in this article after his showing versus Central Arkansas, the bruising senior emphasized the point with another strong performance against Miami on Thursday night. UAB couldn’t quite hang with the Hurricanes ultimately, but Brown continued to flash against better opposition. Through two games, Brown is over 200 rushing yards with a pair of touchdowns, averaging 5.03 per carry.
This is a massive improvement to 2019, where the Blazers back averaged 3.77 per carry on the year. Brown’s 2019 season was blighted by an ankle injury that derailed him after two exceptional seasons. The senior is healthy again and has shed some weight from his frame. That has already paid dividends, looking notably faster with better burst than not only 2019 but his sophomore season too. Perhaps a borderline draftable prospect previously, this version of Brown is absolutely worthy of committing a draft selection.
Brown broke free for a long run early against the Hurricanes. As impressive as that was, his plays that followed were as key from a scouting perspective. Brown made a comfortable 10-yard reception out of the backfield shortly after his early long run. That was followed by a smart pickup in pass protection to stonewall an oncoming defender. The former play was particularly good to see as Brown has had minimal opportunities as a receiver in his college career so far. The more he is able to put that on film, the better for his projection.
That said, Brown makes his money with his power-through-contact imposing running style. Brown effectively lowers his shoulder, driving and breaking through tackle attempts. Consistently seeing the field well, his vision and decision making are reliable. Add in his good footwork and the added burst shown early in 2020 and Brown can continue to win between the tackles at the next level. He gives his all with toughness and a permanently hot motor. The tackle below after an interception exemplifies that mentality. If nothing else, put him on special teams and he can thrive there too.
Known more in recent seasons for their dynamic skill position prospects, Memphis have low key produced some talented pro defenders also. Edge defender Bryce Huff was a personal favorite last year in particular. T.J. Carter is next up from the Tigers, and has notably been championed by PFF during this pre-season. Teams simply do not throw his direction. Such avoidance leads to bare stat lines such as against Arkansas State to open 2020. His one single tackle was the extent of his box score numbers, but Carter again did his job in coverage.
The Red Wolves lost some significant receiving talent from last year, including Omar Bayless and Kirk Merritt. Dahu Green and Jonathan Adams return, however, the former with length, the latter with power and size. Carter is relatively small and slight, yet effectively matched up with his assignments throughout the contest.
Carter surveys the field well, balancing his attention between receiver and quarterback smartly. The instincts, recognition and reads stand out often. Carter trusts his reads, frequently allowing him to get an early jump on routes and attack the ball in the air. His high football IQ is reflected in being equally reliable in both man and zone responsibilities. At the catch point, the Tigers corner is a feisty battler who won’t easily by outfought.
As positive as the above all reads, Carter’s projection is greatly impacted by his athletic profile. The senior DB lacks ideal speed, agility and fluidity. He is tight-hipped when working through his backpedal and transitions. In addition, his general short-area quickness and top speed appear limited. The combination of size and athleticism makes it tough to project him to maintain his level of play at the NFL level. Remaining as an outside corner seems unlikely. The intelligence and execution cannot be dismissed however, even if his draft stock has it’s limitations.
There were several blowouts across the opening weekend of college football. Yet, Southern Miss arguably had as disappointing a start to the season as anyone. Widely favored over South Alabama, the Golden Eagles were instead comfortably beaten. Shortly after, the turbulent tenure of head coach Jay Hopson came to a swift conclusion. With all that said, let’s try and find a positive among the upheaval.
Southern Miss lost star receiver Quez Watkins as an early declare for the 2020 NFL Draft. He remained an Eagle, being selected by Philadelphia in Round 6. Back-to-back years with a drafted receiver is probably a longshot, but Tim Jones has intrigue. The senior was a bright spot in the loss to the Jaguars. Jones caught 6 passes for 139 yards, averaging over 23 yards per reception. He added 37 yards on his lone kick return on special teams.
Listed at 6’1” and 202lbs, Jones arguably looks a little smaller than that listing. He stands out as a smooth athlete with sharp footwork and shiftiness in the open field. His fluidity on the move is backed up by his clean receiving skills to snag the ball out of the air and maintain his speed after securing the catch. He impresses with his aggression to own the catch point under close coverage. On shorter receptions, he looked dangerous as a runner after the catch.
Though fluid, it’ll be key to see how Jones tests. The top speed and overall athleticism will be telling, particularly if he measures in a little smaller than listed. Continuing to put up big numbers will be important to drawing attention from evaluators. There may be a head coaching change, but up-and-coming young offensive mind Scotty Walden remains. Walden was the co-OC and receivers coach but will take over as interim head coach. The Golden Eagles offense and playmakers like Jones should continue to produce.
Feature Image Credit: UAB Athletics.