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NFL draft 2021 risers – Seven prospects who climbed the board over the past year, including Zach Wilson

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Despite what you’ve seen and heard on social media and the exclamatory talk that has been tossed around outside the walls of team complexes in the weeks leading up to the 2021 NFL draft, a “riser” is not just a prospect who blew up at his pro day and posted ridiculous numbers. Not in reality, at least. No, the real draft risers are the players who move their way up draft boards over the 12-plus months leading up to the draft. This year, that included the COVID-19-impacted 2020 season but also the Senior Bowl and pre-draft processes.

So with just days left before the picks start coming in, let’s look at who gained the most ground in the class since last summer and why they climbed the board. Last year’s list included the likes of Joe Burrow (No. 1 pick) and Mekhi Becton (No. 11). Which potential stars have made the biggest moves? Here are some of the top risers for this year, starting with a quarterback who won’t wait very long to hear his name called on Thursday night.

How far he climbed boards: Before the 2020 season, Wilson had just seven games with at least 20 completions in the previous two seasons combined. And he had 23 career touchdown passes, 10 fewer than he threw in ’20 alone. So entering 2020, some in the league saw him as a late Day 2 or early Day 3 prospect. But Wilson is now squarely among the top three QBs on the board for many teams thanks to a huge season.

Turning point: He moved the needle quickly as the Cougars sauntered through the early portion of their schedule, winning their first three games by a combined 148-24. Wilson threw six touchdown passes with one interception in those games.

Why he rose: He had right shoulder surgery early in 2019 and then also missed four games during the 2019 season after right hand/wrist surgery. He finished with 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions in nine games. So when he vaulted from the gate in ’20, people were quickly in tune with the athletic traits and variety of throws he showed.

Of course, a five-game stretch as October turned to November when Wilson threw 18 touchdown passes to one interception didn’t hurt either.

What they’re saying: “The goal … was to kind of show what makes me different, the type of throws I can make that I feel like other guys don’t practice and don’t try to do.” — Wilson after his pro day


How far he climbed boards: Players have gone through a Senior Bowl week many times before and forced evaluators to say that they’d “go home and take another look.” But few have truly launched themselves into teams’ evaluations after just a few days of work in Mobile, Alabama, like Meinerz did this year. He was squarely a Day 3 prospect last summer, but he could now easily be an early Day 2 pick.

Turning point: Meinerz’s Senior Bowl week was filled with high-quality work, both in team drills and one-on-ones. Though he did not play in the actual game after fracturing a bone in his right hand, he had consistently performed through the week of practices against some of the best upperclassmen in the draft from the SEC and the other Power 5 conferences.

Why he rose: Meinerz’s Wisconsin-Whitewater team canceled its season in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions. So the Senior Bowl marked the first time any scout or personnel executive had seen him on a football field since the end of the 2019 season.

Before they arrived in Mobile, many scouts thought of Meinerz as a quality developmental prospect who finished plays with a coveted nasty streak. When they were finished in Mobile, they had seen a player who had obviously put in the work when he couldn’t play in games. He was a better-conditioned player with better footwork and better technique across the board.

What they’re saying: “I always liked him some, especially when he finished plays, but thought he’d need a lot of work when he stepped up in competition. And then he showed up in Mobile and looked like a different guy who still finished plays.” — an AFC scouting director


How far he climbed boards: Sometimes it is just a matter of a short résumé getting a little longer. After moving from the defensive line to right tackle during his redshirt year at Michigan, Hudson played in only three games with the Wolverines in 2018. He then played in only one game in 2019 at Cincinnati after his request to the NCAA for a waiver to become immediately eligible after his transfer was denied. He opened the 2020 season as a late Day 3 prospect who most wanted to keep an eye on because of his potential.

But then Hudson played 10 games at left tackle this past season and had the opportunity to show his skill set, and he’s now rated a Day 2 prospect by many.

Turning point: Some scouts say his only game in the 2019 season — a January 2020 bowl game against Boston College — was a reminder to check on Hudson whenever the 2020 season got rolling. After not being able to play following his transfer, he was cleared for the final game of the ’19 season and fared well against the BC front.

Why he rose: Hudson did not surrender a sack in his only collegiate season at left tackle and consistently showed the mobility people want at that position, along with the developmental room to grow.

What they’re saying: “I know he was ejected in their bowl game [against Georgia, for targeting] and it was a late hit and all that, but overall, [he’s] an athletic player who is only going to get better — strong hands, good feet. And I just like the way he closes out plays.” — an NFC area scout

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Check out the best highlights from Cincinnati OT James Hudson’s college career.


How far he climbed boards: In a cornerback class that has been considered deep through Days 2 and 3, Joseph was just another name in the pool — most likely in the Day 3 range — when the 2020 season began.

He had played sparingly in 2018 as a true freshman at LSU (12 tackles in 11 games) and didn’t play in 2019 because he had transferred from LSU to Kentucky. And because he also opted out of Kentucky’s final two games this past season, his draft résumé is essentially nine starts in 2020. But he could now be a late first-round or early Day 2 pick depending on how the board falls.

Turning point: It will seem odd that evaluators took notice of Joseph’s skill set in a game that the Wildcats lost 63-3, but several have said his work against Alabama raised some eyebrows.

In all of that scoring mayhem, the game tape revealed that Alabama, with some of the best offensive talent in this draft class, threw Joseph’s way in coverage just three times — and he intercepted one of those passes.

Why he rose: His inexperience did show at times this past season, but we’re talking about a cornerback just a bit under 6 feet tall who smoothly ran in the 4.3s at his pro day and held up against some of the SEC’s best receivers. His best football is in front of him.

What they’re saying: “As a player, my time at UK, I just improved as a better person, better teammate, better leader. … [I’ve gotten] a lot of good feedback.” — Joseph before his pro day


How far he climbed boards: Campbell’s rise depends largely on the philosophy of the specific evaluator regarding the relationship between traits and production. But many around the NFL had a fourth-round grade — or lower — on him entering last season. Now? Evaluators say they could maybe see Campbell landing in the second round — and perhaps even earlier for teams with a more traits-first approach.

The kind of size/speed combination that Campbell has at 6-foot-1 and 193 pounds with a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash (some scouts had him in the 4.3s hand-timed at his pro day) is always an attention-getter in the weeks before a draft. There is the matter of one career interception in 33 games, but pro potential can often muscle past college production on a draft weekend.

Turning point: As a true freshman at Georgia, Campbell got plenty of attention from opposing quarterbacks playing opposite DeAndre Baker, and by the final three games of that sometimes choppy season, he was no longer a starter. But evaluators believe his response to that season was to play with some additional composure over the next two years. Campbell said he would “panic sometimes” when he was in certain matchups as a freshman, but the tape shows that dissipated during his sophomore and junior seasons.

Why he rose: In general, a player with size and speed can repair some technique issues, while a player who doesn’t have Campbell’s wheels can’t just become fast, no matter how good the technique might be. Teams are often more willing to take a chance on a potential-over-production player when he has Campbell’s quickness and has faced the best of college football.

What they’re saying: “I know our coaches like him, and I think he’s got that upside. You just want to get comfortable with the idea he will put in the work, and I think he will.” — an AFC scouting director


How far he climbed boards: Exactly how far Koonce climbs may depend on how teams feel about a foot injury that kept him out of both the Senior Bowl and Buffalo’s pro day. Those events could have helped his cause. But then again, he went from splitting snaps at his position in 2018 to a nine-sack season in 2019 to five sacks in six games in 2020. (He didn’t play in Buffalo’s bowl game.) Once considered a late Day 3 guy, Koonce could find his way into the early Day 3 rounds or maybe even the later side of Day 2 if a team or two find a comfort level with his medical evaluation.

Turning point: His work in 2019 got him plenty of notice from teams’ area scouts who worked that region, but his Bahamas Bowl performance moved him to the “make sure you keep an eye on him” list for some. That performance included five tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble.

Why he rose: Through the years, pass-rushers’ skills have translated to the NFL fairly quickly, no matter what level of competition they had faced. Koonce has the developmental profile of a still-ascending player at a high-value position who had 14 sacks over his last 19 games. Toss in the length coaches like to see in their pass-rushers — an 81-inch arm span for a 6-foot-2¼ pass-rusher — and you have a prospect who will get a long look.

What they’re saying: “If the medicals check out, I could see some Day 3 interest from people. I know I would push for that.” — an NFC scouting director


How far he climbed boards: It’s all about the fit sometimes. For some, Felton is a late Day 3 pick. But for others, those who want some potential pop in the passing game, he will get a longer look in the fourth- or fifth-round range.

Felton is a bit undersized at 5-foot-8⅝ and 189 pounds, but some evaluators see lots of possibilities for him in a specific role in their respective offenses.

Turning point: Teams checked in throughout 2019, when he had four scoring plays of at least 75 yards, but overall, it has been the combination of his route running and potential in the passing game over the last two seasons that has moved him up boards. His catch-and-run touchdown in the Senior Bowl when he was lined up out wide was a tidy reminder.

Felton’s willingness to work at wide receiver in drills when teams have wanted to see him there — including at the Senior Bowl — has also helped his cause.

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Check out the best highlights from UCLA RB Demetric Felton’s college career.

Why he rose: Felton had 77 receptions and seven receiving touchdowns over his last 18 games (2019 and 2020 seasons) to go with 1,002 yards rushing. Toss in his potential as a kick returner and there is plenty of value to his game.

What they’re saying: “I feel like the league is just transitioning to mismatches, being able to create mismatches. If you put me against a linebacker, there’s no way he’s going to be able to cover me, and at the Senior Bowl, I feel like I was able to get open against DBs as well. In the league, that’s huge.” — Felton

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Ex-Austin Peay Governors DB Juantarius Bryant falls victim of Atlanta Falcons tryout hoax

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Juantarius Bryant thought he was heading to Georgia this weekend to try out for the Atlanta Falcons during the team’s rookie minicamp. When he arrived in Flowery Branch, though, he learned he had been the victim of a hoax instead.

Bryant, a defensive back from Austin Peay, was never actually contacted by the Falcons but instead by someone texting him from an Atlanta area code pretending to be defensive coordinator Dean Pees. So when Bryant arrived at the team’s facility Wednesday to get ready for his chance to accomplish an NFL dream, he was instead turned away.

“I do not know or understand why this has happened,” Bryant wrote in a Twitter message. “But I do know that everything happens for a reason. Yes, this was heart breaking for me, but just another stepping stone that I am not afraid to admit or overcome.

“At the end of the day, this will not make or break me. I will still continue to fight for my dreams because I know it’s what I really want.”

Bryant declined an interview with ESPN when reached Sunday and said he posted something about it publicly on Twitter to let people who have supported him know what was going on because he believed he had a legitimate invite to Falcons camp over the weekend.

“I am ready to move on from the situation and respectfully I do not feel like talking about it over and over again,” Bryant said in an email to ESPN. “Yes, whoever did this to me is very wrong, but I’m moving on from the situation and I forgive them for whatever reason they chose to do it.

“I honestly would not like the person who pulled this stunt on me to be publicly humiliated. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.”

Bryant, who is from Nashville, Tennessee, initially began his career as a walk-on at Austin Peay and became a first-team All-Ohio Valley Conference defensive back by his senior season in 2019 after making 107 tackles (2.5 for loss). In his career, he played in 43 games for Austin Peay with 242 tackles (8.5 for loss), eight passes defended, three forced fumbles and an interception.

The Falcons declined to comment about the situation to ESPN, but Bryant’s agent, Corey Alexander, tweeted that he has been in touch with the Falcons about what happened. A message left with Alexander seeking further comment was not immediately returned.

COVID-19 protocols limited the number of tryout players a team could have at its rookie minicamps the past two weeks. Atlanta had five players try out for the team this weekend — the maximum the team could have — and signed defensive lineman Olive Sagapolu, who was in training camp with the Detroit Lions last year, on Sunday.



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Carolina in his mind? New York Jets rookie Zach Wilson catches a tough break – New York Jets Blog

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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — A look at what’s happening around the New York Jets:

1. Wilson vs. Darnold: Zach Wilson‘s NFL debut will be off-Broadway in location only. In terms of theater, his Week 1 road showdown against predecessor Sam Darnold is worth a neon marquee.

While Jets-Carolina Panthers is being billed as Darnold’s revenge game, the potential impact on Wilson can’t be dismissed. Already facing huge expectations as the No. 2 pick and perceived franchise savior, the 21-year-old rookie and presumptive starter will be under magnified pressure in what amounts to a statement game.

Is that a fair way to look at it? No, but that’s how it will play. The NFL schedule-makers, always lusting for drama, did the Jets no favors by staging Wilson versus Darnold. This is no soft opening, that’s for sure.

Wilson hasn’t commented yet on the matchup, but someone who knows him well believes he will be unfazed by the magnitude of it.

“He looks forward to opportunities like this,” said former NFL quarterback John Beck, Wilson’s longtime personal coach. “Because people kind of snubbed him young, meaning he wasn’t heavily recruited [in high school], he could see these as opportunities to prove something.

“He’s not one of those people who had everybody telling him how good he was. In situations like this, those [players] probably think, ‘Oh, gosh, I may fail and, if I fail, what does that mean?’ I think Zach views that as the opposite.

“To him, it’s not him versus Sam Darnold. In Zach’s mind, it’s him taking the stage at his first regular-season game. To him, that’s what this stage is about. Because of that, he wants to play really well in that situation. I think that type of challenge excites him.”

Last month’s Darnold trade wasn’t a clear-cut decision for Jets general manager Joe Douglas, who admitted he considered the possibility of pairing Darnold and Wilson. Despite his struggles in New York, Darnold remains popular within the organization and the fan base. In that sense, it’s probably a good thing the opener is on the road. If the day goes sideways, Wilson won’t have to worry about fan backlash.

2. Two for the show: As expected, Wilson will wear No. 2. There’s certainly not much Jets history associated with that number. The most recognizable player to wear No. 2 was place-kicker Nick Folk, a member of the team from 2010 to 2016. In terms of New York sports history, the all-time No. 2 is a no-brainer — former Yankees star Derek Jeter.

3. Sorry, wrong number: First-round pick Alijah Vera-Tucker will wear No. 75, which raises a question: Why is that number still in circulation? The Jets should retire that number because it belonged to the late great Winston Hill, who was recently inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Other ex-Jets in the Hall of Fame — quarterback Joe Namath (12), wide receiver Don Maynard (13) and running back Curtis Martin (28) — had their numbers retired by the team. Even defensive lineman Joe Klecko (73), not a member of the HOF (even though he should be), had his number retired. Why should Hill, who wore No. 75 with distinction for 14 seasons, be different? By the same token, offensive lineman Kevin Mawae (68), inducted in 2019, also should be afforded that honor. No current player has No. 68.

Vera-Tucker wore No. 75 at USC, so his preference is understandable. Chuma Edoga, another former USC lineman, wore it for the Jets the past two years. No one should wear it again now that Hill has been posthumously honored in Canton.

The Jets, aware of the Hill situation, haven’t ruled out adjustments in the future.

4. Inside the schedule: Every team’s schedule is filled with quirks and trends. Let’s take a closer look at the Jets’ slate:

  • Positives: They have 13 games at 1 p.m. ET, a franchise record. That’s not great for national exposure, but it makes the coaches happy. Prime-time games cut into the following week’s preparation. … The Jets and Chicago Bears are the only teams without back-to-back road games. … They face only one 2020 playoff team (Tennessee Titans) in their first seven games. … Starting in Week 10, they have six home games in a span of eight weeks, their first such stretch since 1976. … They could benefit from an unbalanced schedule. Due to the 17-game schedule and a London game, the Jets have nine home games, seven true road games and one international game. The Miami Dolphins have the same situation.

  • Negatives: The bye is Week 6, the earliest it can be. (Three other teams have the early bye.) For the Jets, it comes after their trip to London. That means they have to close the season with 12 straight games, which will be taxing. … Their rest differential is minus-2 days. That’s not ideal, but it’s better than the New England Patriots (-15) and Dolphins (-6). (Note: The Jets had a plus-8 differential last season, which did them no good.) … They’re away from home in four of the first six games, which could be a factor now that stadiums are expected to be at full capacity again. … Five of the Jets’ final 10 games are against 2020 playoff teams.

5. Did you know? The Jets play the Patriots in Weeks 2 and 7. If Wilson starts against Mac Jones, who will supplant Cam Newton at some point, it will mark the first time in the history of the Jets-Patriots rivalry that two rookie quarterbacks started. That covers 121 regular-season games. Tom Brady started 36 of them, none as a rookie, which explains a lot.

6. No opt-outs: Before the 2021 NFL draft, Douglas was on the fence when asked how he would evaluate prospects who opted out for 2020. On one hand, he said it would be a “challenge” to grade players based on 2019 tape. But he made sure to note he respected the wishes of those who decided not to play, ostensibly for COVID-19 concerns. (Wink, wink.)

As it turned out, no fewer than 19 teams drafted at least one player who opted out for the entire college season — but not the Jets. Wide receiver Elijah Moore opted out for the final two games at Ole Miss, but he still had eight highly productive games on tape in 2020. Douglas picked players who played, and I don’t think that was a coincidence. He’s all about minimizing risk, and he recognized opt-outs carried more risk than other players.

7. Super sleeper: For obvious reasons, the Jets’ third-day defensive draft picks didn’t get much exposure, but one name to watch is fifth-round pick Jamien Sherwood, the safety/linebacker hybrid. He was a tackling star at Auburn, but his pro evaluation dropped with a disappointing 40-yard dash (4.74 seconds) at his pro day. The Jets see him as an ideal fit as a weakside linebacker in their 4-3 front — a wide-open position — and there’s some thought he could emerge as the starter. He played safety with a linebacker mentality.

8. Looking for gems: The Jets were aggressive in signing undrafted free agents, doling out relatively large guarantees for coveted players. Oregon State cornerback Isaiah Dunn got $185,000 and Ole Miss tight end Kenny Yeboah received $180,000, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Those were two of the league’s biggest guarantees.

9. Whatever happened to…: Most of the members of the Jets’ previous coaching staff landed jobs in the pro and college ranks. Of the coordinators and position coaches on Adam Gase’s staff, only Gregg Williams (defensive coordinator), Joe Vitt (outside linebackers) and Jim Bob Cooter (running backs) are out of coaching. Vitt, Gase’s father-in-law, could retire. Gase, too, is not coaching; he has two years left on his contract.

10. The last word: “He’s a fantastic guy. I think he’s the leader of men that the Jets need. I think he’s going to be one of the biggest parts of the rebuild phase.” — center Connor McGovern on coach Robert Saleh, via inforum.com in Fargo, North Dakota (his hometown).



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New York Giants sign former first-rounder Kelvin Benjamin

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The New York Giants have signed former Carolina Panthers first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin, the team announced Sunday.

Benjamin and former Philadelphia Eagles running back and Super Bowl hero Corey Clement impressed over the weekend during tryouts at rookie minicamp and received one-year deals.

A wide receiver who had over 1,000 yards as a rookie for the Panthers in 2013, Benjamin has not played in the NFL since 2018. He worked primarily as a tight end at the tryout.

“In terms of Benjamin working a different position [Friday], we’re going to work different guys at a variety of things right now,” Giants coach Joe Judge said. “He’s a big guy. He’s always been a big receiver. He’ll work receiver. He’s working a little bit flex tight end as well.

“I wouldn’t really kind of, you know, pin him down to any one position at this point. We’re going to use the weekend to move him around to different spots and see how it works out.”

Benjamin would join a crowded tight end room along with Evan Engram, Kyle Rudolph, Kaden Smith and Levine Toilolo. The Giants also are deep at wide receiver after adding Kenny Golladay and John Ross in free agency and drafting Kadarius Toney in the first round. This will make it tough for Benjamin to ultimately land a spot on the final roster, regardless of position.

It was just three years ago during a Monday Night Football broadcast that ESPN analyst Booger McFarland famously declared Benjamin was “probably a Popeyes biscuit away from being a tight end.”

Benjamin, 30, has spent time with the Panthers, Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs. He has 209 career receptions for 3,021 yards and 20 touchdowns. The 28th overall pick in 2014 was originally drafted in Carolina by current Giants general manager Dave Gettleman.

Clement, 26, spent the first four seasons of his professional career with the Eagles. He has been slowed in recent years by injury but is best known for his performance in Super Bowl LII, when he had 100 receiving yards and a touchdown in the Eagles’ upset win over the New England Patriots. Clement also helped execute the Philly Special, a trick play that resulted in a touchdown reception by quarterback Nick Foles.

The Giants needed veteran depth at running back. With Saquon Barkley coming back from a serious knee injury, the Giants signed Devontae Booker as a free agent and drafted Gary Brightwell in the sixth round.

New York also announced that it had waived running back Jordan Chunn and tight end Nate Wieting.

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