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NFL Draft Watch Conference Championships

2021 NFL Draft Watch: Top 3 Conference Championship Games

For a while, it felt like we might not make it to this point, but we are finally here. Conference Championship weekend!

NFL Draft nerds like myself live for Saturdays like this – a bunch of top 10 matchups where a lot of the names that have been circling in the draft world will be squaring off against each other. That means a lot of money will be made – or lost – for draft prospects this weekend.

In this week’s column, I wanted to take a bit of a different approach. I figured everyone knows players like Trevor Lawrence, Kyle Pitts, and Patrick Surtain II are good and noteworthy. So instead of being the millionth site to tell you that, I figured it’d be more valuable to highlight a few guys that you might not know as much about.

#1 Alabama vs. #7 Florida

This was supposed to Florida’s big chance at earning a playoff spot, but they really threw that away. As for Alabama, this should be business as usual and just another step they have to take to get to the final four. Hopefully, this one will at least be close.

Producing quality defensive tackles – and several other positions – has become a calling card for the Tide in recent years and 2020 will be no different as Christian Barmore is up next. Barmore has the size – 6’5” and 310 pounds – quickness and pass rush ability that NFL teams are looking for in a modern-day three-technique, which is why he is a potential first-rounder.

However, his run defense could use some work as he struggles to hold his ground against double teams, and he primarily plays in passing situations – 218 pass-rush snaps versus 99 against the run – per PFF.

On the other side of the trenches, center Landon Dickerson is someone to keep an eye on. He has a very stout anchor in pass protection and good body positioning as a run blocker to create rushing lanes. If he can play with lower pad level and improve his initial leg drive, the redshirt senior has a good chance to be the first interior offensive lineman off the board in April.

To Dickerson’s left is guard Deonte Brown, a third-round prospect. Brown is a road-grader with NFL-ready strength who can dominate in the run game, but he struggles in pass protection due to slow feet and a tendency to give up his inside shoulder. As a senior, the big man has made some strides in those areas, but the question remains, is it enough to make scouts and general mangers comfortable spending a top 100 pick on him?

The Gators have an impressive wideout in Trevon Grimes. As a pure hands-catcher with the strength to bring the ball in regardless of his surroundings, Grimes thrives in contested catch situations. The problem is, he is not an explosive or sharp route runner, meaning he struggles to create separation which is why he is currently slated for the seventh round.

Defensively, Brenton Cox Jr. is an interesting NFL Draft prospect because he has some desirable traits like length – 6’3” – first-step quickness and a relentless motor. But the edge defender lacks strength at the point of attack and is a bit of a tweener, which could scare some teams away. As a redshirt sophomore, Cox could return to school but if he does not, he will have a chance to be a third-round pick.

Then there is Marco Wilson, a rangy, physical corner who fits best as a man defender where he can use his foot speed, hip fluidity, and break timing to be effective. He does play flat-footed when asked to take care of the underneath zones and lacks the play strength to be much of a factor against the run. If he cleans that up, Wilson should have no problem to go in the third round. In fact, one might say he would be a…shoe-in. 

#3 Clemson vs. #2 Notre Dame

This is a rematch of arguably the best game of the college football season. Seeing as no two-loss team has ever made the playoffs, one has to think this is a must-win game for Clemson. Notre Dame, on the other hand, should earn a spot as they can keep the game close, which could be difficult with Trevor Lawrence under center this time around.

Protecting Lawrence is offensive tackle Jackson Carman. He is a large lineman – 6’5” and 328 pounds – with excellent burst, strength, and athleticism but lacks instincts, nimbleness, and has bad timing with his punch in pass protection. Carman has Day 2 potential, but his flaws as a pass blocker could cause him to slide on draft day.

In the last few draft classes, the Tigers have been known for their defensive linemen and this year is no different with Jordan Williams and Justin Foster. Williams is an impressive run defender who wins at the point of attack with some excellent strength, which also allows him to have good gap control. However, he does not offer much as a pass rusher and has struggled to find playing time with only three career starts, making him a late Day 3 option.

As for Foster, he is also a good run defender with the mental processing to quickly diagnose blocking schemes, great hand usage, and sure tackling form. The defensive end does seem to lack a pass rush plan and is very reliant on his bull rush, which typically does not translate well to the next level. With that, Foster will likely be a sixth- or seventh-rounder.

Keeping those two in check for the Fighting Irish will be Robert Hainsey and Tommy Kraemer. Hainsey is a tackle who has the versatility to slide inside, partially because of his strong anchor as a pass blocker and ability to work up to the second level in the rushing attack. The problem is, he ends up on the ground too often due to a lack of balance and athletic ability and struggles to generate power at the point of attack, making him a potential late-round pick.

Kraemer is an inside guy by trade who is a people-mover in the run game and a brick wall in pass protection. If he can improve his agility and overall athleticism, he will have a chance to start as a rookie. But right now, the road grader projects as an Early Day 3 prospect and back up to begin his NFL career.

Then there is quarterback Ian Book, who recently became Notre Dame’s all-time wins leader. Book’s best trait is his ability to throw on the run, and he does have some nice touch on his deep balls. However, the Sacramento-area native does not have the ideal size at 6’0” and 212 pounds, which shows up on tape when trying to throw around the large bodies Notre Dame has up front.

That will likely push him into the priority free agent category at the NFL Draft.

Oklahoma (10) vs. Iowa State (6)

Unfortunately, there are not a lot of College Football Playoff implications involved in this one. However, Oklahoma is looking to keep their streak of five straight Big 12 Championships going, while Iowa State looks to earn their first in school history. That makes for a pretty interesting storyline heading into Saturday.

On the outside for the Sooners is wide receiver Charleston Rambo, a potential seventh-round pick or priority free agent. The wideout’s best trait might be his versatility as he has found success on all three levels of the field in the slot, as well as on the outside. However, Rambo has a slight frame – 175 pounds – and using a stiff arm seems to be the only way he is able to create yards after the catch, which will be more difficult in the NFL given his size.

Flipping to the other side of the ball, cornerback Tre Brown has put together an excellent career in Norman. He has some blazing speed to take away deep routes, but he lacks the size, strength, and change of direction skills to cover ‘X’ receivers at the next level. As for the NFL Draft, the Oklahoma native is looking at a fifth- or sixth-round projection.

LaRon Stokes is a massive defensive lineman – 6’4” and 278 pounds – who has the strength to be an effective two-gapper and stout run defender. The problem is Stokes plays with high pad level and struggles to use his long arms effectively, which can get him into trouble against double teams. He will likely be a priority free agent if he does not take advantage of the extra year of eligibility the NCAA has granted everyone.

Cyclones quarterback Brock Purdy gained some notoriety in the NFL Draft community this offseason primarily because of his ability to navigate the pocket and extend plays. The downside of those traits is he does tend to leave the pocket early and does not have the accuracy when throwing on the run to compliment his scrambling ability.

Unless things change between now and April, Purdy will likely be a mid to late Day 3 pick.

One of Purdy’s top targets is tight end Charlie Kolar. As a true hybrid player, Kolar is a solid run-blocker and crafty receiver with reliable hands who can fit into any offense at the next level. He certainly will not be the most athletic tight end in this year’s draft class, but with his scheme versatility it will be a surprise if he slides past the fourth round.

Switching to the other side of the ball, safety Greg Eisworth II is a physical run defender who makes a major impact on the first and second levels. However, he does lack the range to play the single-high safety role and will likely be pigeon-holed as a strong safety and special teamer at the next level. Expect Eisworth to be a fourth or fifth-round pick in the NFL Draft.