NFL DRAFT 2022: FIVE FROM THE GROUP OF FIVE - PRESEASON PART 1
By Rebecca Rennie
Pre-season summer scouting is well underway. For many, it began the day after the 2021 draft was done! The beginning of the new season is within sight now and we are ramping up our preparation for the upcoming action at The Touchdown. Here, we take a look at one prospect from each of the Group of Five conferences. These are not necessarily the top prospects, but simply are ones recently watched that were chosen to write about. That said, this particular group feature several highly anticipated GO5 talents for the next class:
MOUNTAIN WEST: CARSON STRONG
The last draft cycle did not offer a standout Group of Five quarterback prospect (BYU being an Independent). The 2022 class appears to feature at least a couple with potential to be drafted, perhaps relatively early. Nevada Redshirt Junior Carson Strong is an early Summer favorite for many to be among the top prospects at the position.
Entering his third season with significant playing time, Strong has shown improvement as his experience has increased. Continuing that ascension in his junior year could lead to declaring early for the pros. His 2020 numbers included 2,858 passing yards at 8.1 yards per attempt, 27 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions. He completed 70.1% of his passes, an increase from 63.4% as a redshirt freshman in 2019.
The next-level appeal begins with his impressive arm strength to threaten downfield and fit the ball on time into tight windows. Some impressive deep ball completions are a key component of his encouraging film and has seen Strong often leading his receiver effectively, hitting in stride. He has his moments of telegraphing his intentions, but flashes use of his eyes to look off coverage.
His play style is outlined and emphasized by confidence and fortitude. He has belief in his abilities as a passer to take shots. The tenacity is built upon with toughness in the pocket and completing his releases in the face of oncoming hits. He does a solid job finding his checkdowns under pressure from the pass rush. Despite taking his share of chances, Strong was only intercepted four times in 2020. The Wolf Pack offense is not the most pro-translatable but Strong has opportunities to take snaps under center and make pre-snap adjustments.
While he generally shows good ball placement to all levels, there is certainly some disconnect with his footwork and lower body mechanics relative to his release. This can create some of the ball placement inconsistencies present on film. The throwing motion does not feature the quickest of actions. Though willing to take hits, a key concern with Strong is a relative lack of mobility. In addition to offering minimal threat as a runner, he may struggle to evade rushers and buy time to throw. The majority of recent early-round quarterbacks have had a level of baseline mobility higher than Strong appears to offer.
Strong missed his senior year of high school, requiring surgery to his right knee. He recently required relatively minor knee surgery to clean up cartilage on the same knee. A couple issues are not indicative of concern currently but are noted and hopefully will not be added to. An exciting underclassman, there is undoubtedly good reason for his pre-season hype. There is further progress to be made but plenty to be optimistic about regarding his projection and upside.
AAC: MYJAI SANDERS
Sanders is unsurprisingly viewed as one of the most highly though-of 2022 prospects from the Group of Five. Factoring into that is an ascending on-field impact and the physical traits in his length, flexibility and athleticism at a premium position. The Bearcats defender has added significant weight over the course of his college career, with room to add more. Flashing often over the past couple years, he could further elevate his stock with a consistently productive (presumed) final season.
With 10.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks in 2020, Sanders has solid statistical production even at this stage. Listed at 215 lbs out of high school, he has bulked up to around 260 lbs entering 2021. Even so, he appears still relatively lean on film, in part due to his long limbs. Sanders appears a well-rounded athlete with fluidity and ability to cover ground in space with his strides. A high-motor type, the Cincinnati edge often shows up outside the tackle box making stops near the sidelines. The effort also results in hustling to additional plays made in the backfield.
Sanders offers variety with his ability to win outside and inside. Initial quickness, counters and combination rush moves are regularly demonstrated. The flexibility to bend and shorten the edge makes him tough to sustain and contain on blocks. There are examples of maximizing length and keeping his chest clean. That allows him to take initiative in both pass rushing and positioning himself for run stops. Sanders frequently stands out for his knack of deflecting passes at the line, including five pass breakups last season.
When unable to establish an early advantage utilizing his length, Sanders can be overmatched at the point of attack. Inconsistent leverage can undermine average looking strength to result in some rush attempts to be shut down during initial exchanges. While his enthusiasm is a net positive, it can work against him on occasion. Sanders can sometimes lose form, pad level and balance, leading to ineffective rush attempts.
Turning encouraging flashes into more tangible production as a junior, Sanders will be a fascinating watch in 2021. A continuation of that upward trajectory and more overall consistency could place him among the top senior pass rushers. Either way, the upside and ceiling will remain present. A strong performance against top opposition in the bowl game versus Georgia only aided his profile. A road game against Notre Dame in October will be another excellent opportunity this coming season.
SUN BELT: JALEN TOLBERT
The sheer number of worthy wide receiver prospects each draft class continues unabated. So much so, that value continues deep into day 3 and into the undrafted ranks each year. Elite production and eye-catching highlights are advantageous assets to create a base level of buzz entering the season, particularly for Group of Five level prospects. Tolbert is firmly on the radar entering his senior year, aided by such attention-grabbing film put together in 2020.
Tolbert was a strong candidate to depart early for the pros after his junior season. Such a decision would have been validated off the breakout year and tangible numbers produced. The Jaguars receiver piled up 1,085 yards on 54 receptions at nearly 17 yards a catch. The 6’3”, 195 lb receiver added eight touchdowns as part of his 1st team All-Sun Belt season.
While he’ll be another year older, the self-awareness is clear in citing his reasons to return. Tolbert is looking to prove himself as a better leader both on and off the field. He aims to improve his football IQ, coverage reads and generally to refine his all-round game. The chance to prove himself at the Senior Bowl afterward is also a valuable opportunity he wisely considered.
The film is certainly impressive on a frequent basis. The previously mentioned highlight moments include some spectacular receptions of varying styles. From contested catch wins in the air to high-difficulty adjustments outside his frame and snagging balls seemingly destined to hit the turf from low down are all present in his repertoire.
At times, the former 2-star prospect looks questionable in his top-level athleticism. Other times his burst and quick feet look a level above the majority around him on the field. This variance may partly factor in some improvements required in his execution as a route runner. He succeeds often with rocker steps and changes of direction to flat-foot defensive backs. Equally on display are examples of questionable timing, passive releases and some wasted motion as he breaks routes. He has ability to separate but can become more consistent in doing so.
Tolbert has good length, burst and can work well down the field when opening his stride up. He showcases ability to be used in multiple areas of the field. Often targeted on quick passes, he really impresses with creating after the catch as a runner. All indications are that he is an exceptionally hard worker, smart and committed to improving all areas of his game. Emphasizing that, he has shown progress from year-to-year that will encourage scouts. Another step in the right direction in 2021 and Tolbert could ascend draft boards further.
MAC: STERLING WEATHERFORD
An under-the-radar defensive prospect, Weatherford enters the season as one of the more intriguing seniors from the Mid-American Conference. Part of the intrigue lies in the need to return to his best form in his likely final year. In a breakout 2019 season, Weatherford piled up 98 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 10 pass breakups and an interception. Analytically grading well in coverage, he produced on all levels of the field against both the run and pass.
Though the shortened 2020 season allowed for only 3 games, Weatherford was notably less impactful during the brief number of opportunities. As a result, the RedHawks standout will look to return to his consistent redshirt sophomore form. Weatherford features good length and a well-built frame at 6’3”, 221 lbs. Though primarily considered a safety, his traits and style could lend to a somewhat hybrid safety-linebacker role. Add in his contributions on special teams coverage units, Weatherford offers value and depth in multiple areas to a roster.
Highly active, Weatherford is influential across the defense, creating an impact in diverse ways. Forceful working downhill, he racks up tackles. Quick to decipher and take off, he is aided by effective angles toward the action. Consistently in position to make plays, Weatherford wraps up well through good form and use of his length while being physical in his takedowns.
The MAC defensive playmaker appears a good enough athlete for the next level. That said, he may lack standout athletic traits to provide the highest of ceilings. Either way, he certainly helps himself through composed decision making, discipline, and closes to the ball with intent. He breaks down well in space to make a good number of plays in the open field. The RedHawks prospect is an aggressive initiator at the point of attack when taking on blocks and fighting through congestion.
In coverage, Weatherford attacks the ball at the catch point. He challenges well for position on the run and in jump ball situations. His reads and recognition have contributed toward 15 breakups and two interceptions during his college career to date. Most of the compliments listed were primarily evident from the aforementioned superior 2019 film. Weatherford is one to watch this upcoming season to see if he can reach that level again in 2021.
C-USA: SINCERE MCCORMICK
While recognizing and appreciating certain limitations, there is plenty to like about the pro potential of McCormick. There is every chance that the junior could declare early with a strong 2021 season. A third season of significant workload and providing quality film for scouts should be plentiful from an on-field perspective. Given that he will be a 22-year-old rookie after his junior season regardless, an early entry would not surprise. The former freshman All-American and C-USA offensive player of the year dominated this past season. He totalled 1,467 rushing yards (5.89 YPC) and 11 touchdowns on the ground in 2020.
At around 5ft 8, 200 lbs, McCormick is a smaller back but well-built for his frame. He shows good shift and twitch, with enough short-area burst for a back of his size. It’s notable that the Roadrunners back carries with conviction and toughness between the tackles. His mindset is that of a bigger back. That pays off for him often at the C-USA level, frequently able to bounce off contact, keep his feet on the second level and open space for yards after contact.
A sufficient athlete, his effectiveness is aided by a number of well-timed cuts. McCormick greatly stands out by impressing with his foot cadence, varied pacing and timing to set up and exploit defenders tasked with corralling the crafty slasher. While those flashes are promising, the vision is a work-in-progress. The junior back can be more consistent in setting up his blockers and in navigating traffic.
The former 3-star contributed a sparing 131 yards on 20 receptions in 2020. The statistical production as a receiver is nothing special but the film suggests potential in this area beyond the numbers. His footwork, burst and change of direction works in his favor out of the backfield on short routes. Examples of more challenging non-routine receptions are encouraging.
While size is limiting, the pass protection film was exceptional. Firstly, the awareness and execution were unexpectedly impressive. Secondly, his physicality and commitment betters than that of many stronger players at the position. Many backs with his frame can be a liability in pass protection. This should not be the case here and add to the junior’s trustworthiness on passing downs. Texas-San Antonio’s Sincere McCormick is certainly an early personal favorite Day 3 prospect for the 2022 NFL Draft class.
Starting #GO5 film for #NFLDraft2022, enjoying UTSA RB Sincere McCormick. Highly productive junior back is shifty & smart with clever variation of foot cadence and timing. But also loved toughness + effort in pass protection, couple nice back-to-back examples #NFLDraft #CFB pic.twitter.com/ndZOdDeanC— Bex_R (@Bex_R86) July 3, 2021
Feature Image Credit: John Byrne