We’re 12 weeks into the college football season. All Power 5 conferences are well into their inter-conference schedules. The first college football Playoff Poll is coming out after this weekend. Draft prospects are starting to strengthen their cases, falter or even emerge from nowhere.
We’re at the point where it’s now acceptable to start seriously talk about the NFL Draft. With that in mind, let’s return to the prospects we’ll see playing on Saturday.
Since the Kansas City Chiefs are coming off their bye week, there isn’t a recent game from which we can parse new needs. The team could still use help at wide receiver, linebacker and cornerback — where the team does have some young players. But the same cannot be said for the offensive line and defensive end positions.
Along the interior of the offensive line, there hasn’t been much investment — and it’s starting to show. For the third or fourth year in a row, the unit feels patched together; there are no stalwarts there.
Perhaps even more concerning is the complete lack of depth at offensive tackle; there is no immediate replacement for right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. Even after the bye week, Schwartz is still banged up; there is no guarantee he’ll be able to return either this season or next. Since left tackle Eric Fisher is also nearing the end of his contract, the Chiefs may need a future running mate for Lucas Niang.
The case for defensive end is much simpler. The Chiefs only have Frank Clark, Michael Danna and Tim Ward under contract for 2021. So the team needs not only a starting-caliber player, but depth players, too.
Let’s take a look at some players who could help fix some of those problems in 2021.
Prospects to watch
Alijah Vera-Tucker | OL | USC
USC vs. Utah, 9:30 p.m. Arrowhead time
Vera-Tucker played offensive guard for USC last season. Initially, he had opted out of this season — but late in the process, he decided to play. He’s made a seamless transition to offensive tackle.
Alijah Vera-Tucker OL USC— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) November 20, 2020
Played OG in 2019 and has kicked out to OT in 2020. Early looks show a relatively flawless transition for the athletic OG, able to continue to show quick feet and fluid hips on the outside.
Strong case for a R1 pick w/ the added versatility pic.twitter.com/uPb7fbkL3B
Vera-Tucker’s draft stock is going to suffer from his lack of elite physical traits. He isn’t an elite athlete. He doesn’t possess elite strength. He isn’t an unnaturally large human by NFL standards — and so on.
He is, however, above average in just about all of the areas that give him a quality base from which to work. Vera-Tucker is at his best when he’s controlling a rep with his hands — and the angles into which he can work his body. He’s constantly looking to get his hands into the most advantageous spot — not just to hold his block, but also so that he can work his hips around the defender and create a more secure block. He has the hip mobility needed to open up and pull, get out into space on screens and mirror pass rushers. In 2019, Vera-Tucker was an excellent left guard — but 2020’s early returns show he’s more than just a guard.
Now at left tackle, Vera-Tucker hopes that his continued strong play will demonstrate his versatility and improve his draft stock. If he can maintain his level of play, he could nearly guarantee first-round status. And as we know, the Chiefs love linemen who have the versatility to play both inside and outside.
Monty Rice | LB | Georgia
Georgia vs. Mississippi St, 6:30 p.m. Arrowhead time
Rice is a well built, experienced linebacker whose initial explosion and skillset may not instantly catch your eye. But through the early part of 2020, he has shown more range, speed and lateral agility than most expected — making him a much more intriguing prospect.
Monty Rice - #32, ILB, Georgia— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) November 20, 2020
Smart player that reads keys quickly, and doesn't play with many wasted steps at the second level. Called fronts for Kirby Smart. Good body control and punch to dislodge the ball in the run game. pic.twitter.com/NM8XY5Kzkf
At 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, Rice isn’t massive. But over the last couple of years, he’s been a consistent force in the middle of Georgia’s excellent run defense. He has a powerful build — and he knows to use it to absorb (and even displace) much larger blockers. He shows a good command of the defense; he is often able to quickly identify keys to get ahead of a running play.
Rice can utilize a variety of techniques to fill gaps or engage blockers. Used most often as a shallow hook defender in zone coverage, he does a solid job of passing off receivers and picking up crossing routes. Even when he’s stretched out into space, he takes good angles to make the correct play.
At times this season, Rice has been put into positions where has shown better-than-average speed — and more fluidity in his hips than he had previously displayed. He’s certainly shown he can be more than just a simple run-plugger — and with his football IQ and leadership skills, he could be an excellent NFL MIKE linebacker.
But Rice’s lack of foot quickness, explosion and length will likely hinder his ultimate upside and cap his ultimate draft position. There are also some questions about his ability to deal with quickly-climbing blockers that can limit his ability to cover gaps and get to the ball carrier. It’s not something he does poorly — but at Georgia, the defensive line keeps him very clean. That won’t always happen in the NFL.
Matchup to watch
Christian Darrisaw (OT) vs Patrick Jones II (DE)
Virginia Tech vs. Pittsburgh, 3:00 p.m. Arrowhead time
Darrisaw is a mountain of an offensive tackle who may be this season’s biggest riser. For a player of his size, he has excellent movement skills — and he pairs that with a nasty demeanor in finishing blocks. He’s extremely athletic — not only showing off range as a puller, reach blocker or in the screen game, but also in terms of getting depth out of his stance and changing directions to mirror a rusher.
Easy to see why @dpbrugler is hearing 1st Round buzz from VaTech OT Christian Darrisaw.— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) October 11, 2020
Massive, mauling OT with good quickness/balance - big but not sloppy
I think Chazz Surratt will be seeing him in his nightmares. Darrisaw did some good work on 2nd/3rd levels in loss vs UNC pic.twitter.com/qk7Sk94XLG
Going into 2020, Darrisaw was relatively raw with his footwork, hand placement and controlling his athleticism. While we see some rare instances where he gets off balance or out in front of his base, he’s shown very good improvement in almost every single area — although he remains a little susceptible to great speed rushes that can make him reactive (rather than proactive) in his pass sets.
Across from Darrisaw will be Jones, who is one of the better speed-and-bend rushers in this draft class. In 2019, Jones was one the most dynamic pass rushers in the country, but suffered from inconsistency — and struggled to tie together all of his athletic traits.
Jones first step is electric — and his body control to maintain that speed, change levels and turn the corner is exceptional. His long strides (and pacing up the arc) help him to quickly consume space, constantly threatening the edge — just in time to utilize his best inside counter.
Patrick Jones II DE #91— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) August 25, 2020
++ Changing levels to drop/dip under OTs
+ Explosive 1st step
+ Length + Strength
++ Upper body control
+ Spacing up the arc
+ Active vs run
- Hand usage to keep chest clean
- Ankle flexibility
- Inconsistent utilizing power
Senior Bowl Top 250 pic.twitter.com/Nh1HrXyMox
Jones has a simplified rush plan: repeatedly run as fast as he can up the arc and then throw in an occasional inside counter. So there is plenty of room for development in terms of setting up or tying multiple moves together.
During his speed rushes and counters, his hands usually stay pretty quiet; he relies on his athleticism to overcome opposing offensive tackles. It’s quite frustrating to watch, as Jones plays with quality power against the run — and the few times he opts to turn that speed into power, it works. In 2020, Jones has shown some improvement with his hands, but he still banks on his athleticism rather than his technique.