Mountain West Football: First Look At 2021 NFL Draft Prospects
Is it too early to start thinking ahead to who the MWC’s best draft prospects are for next spring? Never.
Who could be the next men up?
The 2020 NFL Draft saw ten Mountain West players hear their names called and now undrafted free agent signings are in full swing, but draft analysts across the country are already thinking about next April, when (fingers crossed) the pandemic that marked a truly unique draft season might be behind us and NFL fans can gather in Cleveland for business as usual.
It already looks like the “Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, and everyone else” narrative will sustain us for a good long while, but could the Mountain West jump into that conversation? Who’s most likely to be drafted first from each team? Here are my best guesses.
Quarterback Donald Hammond had one of the most dominant runs through conference play in recent memory and was our pick as offensive player of the year, but it wasn’t until yesterday that Navy quarterback Malcolm Perry got drafted in the seventh round, Falcons cornerback Zane Lewis signed with Arizona as a free agent and, as a result, Hammond’s own draft outlook may have improved. While it will be tough to reach last year’s lofty heights a second time, another strong season could make him a late-round pick.
There may not be a Curtis Weaver or a John Hightower in next year’s crop of talent, but cornerback Jalen Walker could vault into the conversation as one of the conference’s best defenders. In 2019, his first full year as a starter, he defended a team-high ten passes and proved himself a capable tackler, so it’s easy to see him in the mix as a Day Three selection for right now.
In the mix: John Bates, tight end; Kekaula Kaniho, defensive back; Robert Mahone, running back; John Ojukwu, offensive tackle; Khalil Shakir, wide receiver; Avery Williams, cornerback
This one is an easy call: Wide receiver Warren Jackson emerged as one of the best in the conference last fall by averaging 14.5 yards per catch on 77 receptions. At 6-foot-6 and 210 pounds, he’ll continue to be a nightmare for pretty much any defensive back with the potential to be the next Plaxico Burress or Vincent Jackson, another feather in the cap for CSU’s standing as Wide Receiver U in the conference.
In the mix: Ellison Hubbard, defensive lineman; Trey McBride, tight end; Patrick O’Brien, quarterback; Ryan Stonehouse, punter
He may be undersized among prospects at the position, but that didn’t stop running back Ronnie Rivers from having his best year yet in 2019. He averaged nearly 20 touches per game and scored 16 total touchdowns and, with an uncertain quarterback situation and a developing crew of pass catchers around him, he could be counted upon to do even more.
In the mix: Kevin Atkins, defensive tackle; Justin Rice, linebacker; Syrus Tuitele, offensive lineman
He’ll have something to prove to NFL personnel after missing most of 2019 to injury, but Kohl Levao has been one of the Warriors’ most versatile offensive linemen over the past two seasons, spending time at tackle, guard and center in the 18 games he has played since 2018. With so much to replace elsewhere on the offense, a return to form could help the 6-foot-6, 340-pound Levao go a long way.
In the mix: Eugene Ford, defensive back; Gene Pryor, offensive lineman; Jared Smart, wide receiver; Taaga Tuulima, center
2019 was a rollercoaster for the Wolf Pack, but wide receiver Elijah Cooks quietly emerged as one of the best in the Mountain West while serving as Carson Strong’s number one target. He had more opportunity to display the athleticism behind his 6-foot-4 frame, making a number of highlight reel catches, and could be a mid-round sleeper with another step forward.
In the mix: Nate Brown, offensive lineman; Sam Hammond, defensive end; Dom Peterson, defensive end
Centers may not be a sexy draft pick, but there’s no doubt that they’re integral to offensive success and Kyle Stapley has quietly proven himself to be a workhorse for the Lobos. 2020 will be his third year as a starter and he led UNM in snaps played in both 2018 and 2019; that kind of stability can be a valuable asset in itself.
In the mix: Tyson Dyer, punter; Jacobi Hearn, linebacker; Marcus Williams, tight end