The college football regular season is over and, with the postseason on the horizon, accolades are being awarded to the best players. Here, I will award similar honors, but specifically to NFL Draft prospects. These are not to necessarily highlight the best prospect at every position, rather the prospect who had the best 2021 season.
Kenny Pickett, Pitt: Few signal callers enjoyed a season like Kenny Pickett. The fifth-year senior passed for over 4,000 yards and threw 40 touchdowns while he smashed all sorts of school records. Pickett’s breakout catapulted Pitt to a 10-2 season. Even in those two losses, Pickett threw for a combined 900 yards and nine touchdowns… Kenny Pickett played Pitt into relevance while playing himself into high draft consideration.
Kenneth Walker III, MSU: Michigan State owes any offensive success this year to Kenneth Walker’s breakout season. The bruising back went for over 1,600 yards while scoring 18 times on the ground. He turned in especially dominant performances over Michigan and Northwestern, scoring nine times in those two games. The former Wake Forest player made the most of his new team and could be the top running back in this upcoming class.
Breece Hall, Iowa State: Few players were as productive as Breece Hall this year. The Cyclone running back has accounted for 23 total touchdowns this season and almost 1,800 yards from scrimmage. He is a do it all back with game breaking ability.
David Bell, Purdue: David Bell was a star for Purdue this year; catching 93 passes and scoring six times. Bell was at his best in the brightest lights, going over 200 yards receiving against a highly ranked Iowa team and again to help take down Michigan State. Purdue knew when they needed a big play that the should get the ball to David Bell.
Jameson Williams, Alabama: Alabama has quickly become a wide receiver factory and Jameson Williams looks like their next great prospect. The 6’2” receiver broke out in a big way this year as he scored 13 times through the air and went over 1,300 receiving yards in the toughest conference in the country. With his length, speed and route running savvy, expect NFL teams to be extremely interested.
Trey McBride, CSU: Trey McBride was another breakout star. The Colorado State tight end saw abnormal volume for his position, catching 90 passes for over 1,100 yards. That type of workload for a tight end is rare at any level of football, so his production is no small thing. He should see the payoff from his great season with some high draft considerations this spring.
Evan Neal, Alabama: Alabama has another great offensive lineman in Evan Neal. The massive blocker is as physical as he is technically sound. While the weapons get a lot of credit, Evan Neal played a huge factor in Alabama’s ability to throw the football this year.
Darian Kinnard, Kentucky: Kentucky has been productive on offense this year and Darian Kinnard is a big reason why. The huge offensive tackle is as dominant a run blocker as he is a pass blocker. While there are other tackles the NFL might take before Kinnard, it is hard to argue that many tackles were more effective this season.
Zion Johnson, Boston College: Zion Johnson is one of the best pure guards in the country and was part of a formidable interior offensive line for Boston College. The Eagles ran the ball down opponents throats all season and Johnson’s presence played a major factor in that. Johnson is overlooked as an NFL prospect with so many college tackles projecting to pro-guards, but Johnson will make an NFL team very happy with picking him.,
Justin Shaffer, Georgia: Georgia’s defense gets all the shine, but Justin Shaffer is hard to overlook on offense. The 12 game starter was a steady presence for Georgia and was key piece in their ability to run the ball consistently.
Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa: Tyler Linderbaum might be the best offensive lineman in the country right now, regardless of position. It is no small thing for him to shine this season when it feels like there are a handful of very good centers, but he has been excellent. Linderbaum can take over the game as a run blocker but exhibits consistency as a pass protector as well. Linderbaum could be the highest drafted center in a long time with the season he has put together.
Interior Defensive Lineman
DeMarvin Leal, Texas A&M: DeMarvin Leal was a do it all player for the Aggies this season. Leal lined up inside and out, constantly creating pressuring and wreaking havoc wherever he lined up. This defensive line class looks like the strength of the coming NFL prospects, and Leal sits among the top players.
Jordan Davis, Georgia: There are players who put up better numbers than Jordan Davis, but the strength of his season can be measured by how he created opportunities for every other defender on his team. A Mountain in the middle of the Bulldogs defense, Jordan Davis swallowed up blockers, destroyed the running game and made life easy for his teammates. Even though he was a fixture on the defense, it is crazy to think his best football is still ahead of him.
Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan: Aidan Hutchinson had the best season of any draft prospect this year. The senior defender was dominant in all phases of defensive line play, posting up 13 sacks and 14.5 TFLs on the season. His numbers, though impressive, only tell half the story. It felt like every week, Hutchinson was forcing false starts and holding penalties by offensive linemen doing anything to get an advantage over him. Hutchinson was a force and a big reason why Michigan has enjoyed the season they’re having.
Jermaine Johnson, FSU: FSU has flown under the radar this season, which means a lot of people don’t realize how damn good Jermaine Johnson has been for the Noles. Johnson has been a terrorizing pass rusher, posting up 12 sacks and two forced fumbles this year. His best games came against talented opponents like Miami and Notre Dame. If you don’t know about Jermaine Johnson now, just know he will hear his name called early in the spring.
Devin Lloyd, Utah: Few players put up the video game like numbers that Devin Lloyd posted this season. The do-it-all defender had eight sacks, TWENTY TWO TFLs, three interceptions and a touchdown. Utah put him all over the field and he thrived as a blitzer, run defender and coverage linebacker. Playing at Utah means the games are often too late for people to notice, but Devin Lloyd’s name will be said a lot more in the coming months.
Nakobe Dean, Georgia: Another chess piece, Georgia turned Nakobe Dean’s speed into a constant big play threat for their defense. Dean was a monstrous blitzer who also dominated against the run. Factor in his three interceptions on the season, and there wasn’t a phase where Nakobe Dean was not making big plays. Though he might not be the most polished player, it is clear he can be a productive and game changing defender that a creative defensive coordinator could really have fun working with.
Ahmad Gardner, Cincinnati: Cincinnati’s defense is loaded with NFL talent, but none more special than Ahmad Gardner. The lockdown cornerback gave the Bearcats so much flexibility with their play calling on defense because he could take away a team’s best receiver all by himself. Even though he was rarely targeted, Gardner had three picks to go along with four more PBUs, a forced fumble and a defensive touchdown. Gardner was the best defensive back in the country this year.
Steven Jones Junior, App State: A small school standout, Steven Jones picked off five passes this season and returned three for touchdowns. Jones was a true playmaker for the Mountaineers who used excellent speed, instincts and ball skills to consistently make big plays. Jones projects to the NFL as a slot specialist, but there is no doubt he can bring his big play ability to the NFL.
Riley Moss, Iowa: Riley Moss was a huge factor in the Iowa secondary all season. The senior cornerback picked off four passes, returned two for touchdowns and it was evident what happened to the unit when he wasn’t on the field. Hell, go check out what David Bell did to Iowa when Riley Moss was recovering from a knee injury. Moss miraculously came back after tearing his PCL and, apparently, finished the season with the PCL… But still played great football. Hopefully he can recover quickly because he looks like a great pro.
Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame: Kyle Hamilton set the tone for the Notre Dame defense. He played physical, sound football all year while still chipping in as a playmaker, picking off three passes on the season. Hamilton is one of the better all-around defenders in the country and could be the highest drafted safety in quite a few years.
Daxton Hill, Michigan: It is hard to get any shine when you play with Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, but Daxton Hill has an excellent piece in the Michigan defense. He was a do it all safety who played great coverage, came up against the run and even was a factor as a blitzer. He is a sound, well-rounded defender who has a long pro career ahead of him.
Zack Long, Tulsa: The senior kicker hit on 95% of his field goal attempts, which led the country and converted 97% of PATs. Factor in a successful onside kick, and he was one of the most dependable kickers in the country.
Matt Araiza, SDSU: In terms of positional dominance, few players were better than Matt Araiza in 2021. The SDSU punter was a weapon who averaged over 50 yards a punt and consistently pinned opposing offenses deep in their own territory. Araiza also contributed as a place kicker that converted 100% of his PATs and had a touchback percentage of 84.13% on kickoffs. Maybe the best special teamer college football has seen in a very long time.