The 2021 NFL Draft is six weeks away, and some of the prospects who will be great pros are barely known. This week, you get to meet one.
In this week’s edition of Inside the Draft …
You know all about DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. But what about all the undersized wide receivers who didn’t play for Alabama? We round up the top little guys likely to make a big impact as all-purpose weapons and big-play threats in the NFL.
Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell is great. But find out why The Skeptic’s Guide is skeptical about his ability to really help the Miami Dolphins or Cincinnati Bengals.
But first, leaving no stone unturned, Inside the Draft takes off to the great white north to meet one of the most unique individuals in this year’s draft class.
Meet Benjamin St-Juste, CB, Minnesota
When University of Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh personally offered Benjamin St-Juste a scholarship, the young defensive back didn’t react with much enthusiasm.
It’s not that he didn’t want to play for Michigan; St-Juste and his family drove 11 hours to attend the three-day football camp in Ann Arbor, after all. It’s just that the French-speaking Canadian had no idea what Harbaugh was saying to him.
“When coach Harbaugh offered me my first scholarship, I didn’t even know what it was or what just happened,” St-Juste told Inside the Draft.
“I just said ‘I appreciate it.’ But in my head I had no idea what he was asking me.”
St-Juste was taught English in Montreal schools, of course. He just learned it about as well as the average high school kid in the United States learns Spanish. Throughout the Michigan camp, St-Juste simply nodded when coaches barked out instructions before each drill, then did whatever the players in front of him in line did.
So … when did St-Juste figure out what Harbaugh was trying to tell him? About a week later. “I was talking to one of my academic advisers who was helping me become eligible for the NCAA. She was like, ‘you know you have a $250,000 full scholarship offer, so now you have to do things like take the ACT?’ And I was like, ‘OK, I get it now!’”
Prep football in Montreal is different, and not just because of the 110-yard field, third-down punts and the rouge. Hockey recruiters are everywhere, but few NFL recruiters venture north of the border. And French is the primary language, so it was St-Juste’s job to prevent the opponent’s quart-arrière from throwing a touche.
St-Juste had just started the process of mastering English by the time that Michigan camp rolled around. “I found some free stuff online, watched YouTube videos, tried to hang around the guys on my football team that spoke English and just listened to them,” he explained. “It came on with practice. I picked it up pretty fast.”
St-Juste became fluent enough in English to earn his Bachelor’s Degree from Michigan in just two-and-a-half years. But he only played sparingly for the Wolverines. A lingering hamstring injury jeopardized his scholarship, so he moved on to the University of Minnesota as a graduate transfer.
St-Juste not only started for two seasons for the Golden Gophers but found time to earn a Master’s Degree. “I needed football and academics and eliminated all that extra stuff,” he said. “I didn’t need to go to parties, go to restaurants or go on vacation that other college kids do in their free time. I was in the classroom making sure my GPA was as high as possible or on the football field trying to set myself up for the future.”
When not blanketing receivers with his long arms and 6-foot-3 frame or excelling in the (sometimes virtual) classroom, St-Juste also found time to become a co-founder of College Athlete Unity, an organization of over 1,000 student-athletes which held rallies for social justice last spring and summer.
“We have such a big platform, yet we only talk about football,” St-Juste explained. “We don’t talk about anything else. So we started wondering how we could put our message out there: how we could touch and educate more people that student athletes go through the same struggles outside of football?”
College Athlete Unity then took a stand for clearer and safer COVID protocols later last summer, when the B1G and NCAA appeared to be changing its mind every week and lacked a coherent player safety plan.
“We were just making sure that student athletes were safe,” St-Juste explained. “You saw the season. So many games getting cancelled and teams not showing up. Imagine that but without the plan. I don’t think we were going to have a season if there wasn’t a better plan.”
St-Juste’s size, physicality and cerebral approach will draw some inevitable Richard Sherman comparisons. St. Juste doesn’t shy away from them. “You aren’t far from the answer. When I was growing up, Richard Sherman was THE cornerback that looked like me.
“But when it comes to footwork and press technique, I’m a real Darrelle Revis guy. When it comes to physicality, I like Marlon Humphrey. And of course Sherman with his size, he’s very good in zone coverage, and he’s super-intelligent. I try to pick from every type of cornerback and create my own self.”
Sherman comparisons may be flattering (and make great headlines), but they would create unrealistic expectations for a defender projected to the middle rounds. Still, St-Juste offers size, physicality, big-game experience and the traits to grow into a leader on and off the field.
St-Juste is hoping that COVID travel restrictions are less strict come April: he hasn’t been home to Montreal in over two years and wants to spend draft weekend at home with his family.
And of course, when his name is called in the NFL draft, St. Juste speaks English well enough to know exactly what he is being offered.
Top 5 Tiny WRs in the 2021 Draft
This top of the 2021 draft is loaded with outstanding wide receivers, headlined by LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase and Alabama’s DeVonta Smith. (Yes, in that order). But the 2021 wide receiver class is also deep. So deep, in fact, that a “Top 10 receivers” list wouldn’t do justice to the diverse roles that this year’s wide receiver prospects are likely to play in the NFL.
So Inside the Draft will focus this week on “little” receivers: the short, skinny or all-around teensy-weensy guys likely to line up in the slot, catch shovel passes, run jet sweeps and do all of the fun stuff that keeps a modern NFL offense chugging.
To keep things interesting, we left the Alabama duo of Smith and Jaylen Waddle off the list, because enough has already been said about them. Think of the Alabama program as adding three inches and 15 pounds. Or just think of this as a list of tiny receivers who will be available after the top 15 picks.
Either way, think of this as a list of fun-to-watch players ready to help your favorite team as all-purpose weapons and return men.
5. Amari Rodgers, Clemson: 5-foot-10, 209 pounds
Rodgers isn’t really “small.” He’s just short. He’s built more like a running back than receiver, and he runs like a running back as well. Rodgers lacks elite speed, but he has some crafty moves to get open in space over the middle and can haul in over-the-shoulder passes when he slips past the secondary.
Rodgers has been a major contributor to a stacked offense for three years and performed well at Clemson’s Pro Day last week. He will find a way to help an NFL team as a slot receiver and YAC weapon.
4.D’Wayne Eskridge, Western Michigan: 5-foot-9, 188 pounds
Eskridge was an all-state sprinter in high school, and his college sizzle reel is full of “skinny post and see ya’ later” touchdowns. He moved to cornerback for part of the 2019 season before returning to wide receiver in 2020 and averaging 23.8 yards per reception, with eight touchdowns in just six games.
Despite his defensive background, Eskridge can get tossed around a bit when trying to block, though he gives a hearty effort.
Pure speed, fine hands when plucking passes away from his body and all-around special teams value make Eskridge someone who could start his career as a package receiver off the bench, then grow into a dangerous boundary threat as a starter
3. Elijah Moore, Ole Miss: 5-foot-9, 185 pounds
Moore caught 86 passes in just eight games in 2020, with seven games of 10-plus receptions and three games of 200-plus yards. Keep in mind that he played in the SEC, not the Prairie Seminary Conference or something.
Moore caught his share of screens, of course, but he also showed the ability to get open downfield on double moves and find soft spots in zones. Ole Miss lined him up in the backfield and even at H-back to hide him from defenders.
Moore lacks the top-end speed of Eskridge and other receivers on this list, but he’s a nifty start-and-stop runner with the football in his hands, and it’s hard to argue with his production against top competition.
2. Dazz Newsome, North Carolina: 5-foot-11, 190 pounds
Newsome would be a sure-fire first round pick if he were two inches taller and about 15 pounds heavier. As it stands, he’s a converted defensive back with 126 receptions and 17 total touchdowns for the Tar Heels in the last two seasons and a solid Day Two pick with starting potential.
Newsome is the best route runner and blocker among receivers on this list, with great jab steps and head fakes at the top of his stem and a willingness to help out in the running game. That said, Newsome’s calling card is an ability to shift into fourth gear and run away from defenders after a short slant.
1. Rondale Moore, Purdue: 5-foot-9, 181 pounds
Moore is a video game Create-A-Player with maxed-out speed and elusiveness but an unusual gait. At times, he looks like Rocket Ismail high-stepping and gliding through defenders as if he’s on an air hockey table after a screen or pop pass.
Moore caught 114 passes and 12 touchdowns as a freshman in 2018 but lost most of 2019 to a hamstring injury and 2020 to COVID uncertainty. (He opted out, then opted back into a truncated season).
The injury isn’t really a concern, but inexperience could be an issue for someone who often gets the ball schemed to him instead of running a conventional route tree. Still, elite athleticism and high marks for intangibles make Moore a likely first-round pick and prime candidate for a Deebo Samuel type role.
The Skeptic’s Guide to Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon
Each week at Inside the Draft, The Skeptics Guide will choose one of the brightest stars in the 2021 draft class and explore the biggest weaknesses in his game and reasons why he might fail. Think of it as “devil’s advocate” reasoning or opposition research, and please don’t take it personally if he’s your favorite player ever.
Penei Sewell is awesome. Watch five minutes of film of the Oregon offense and you will want him to protect your favorite quarterback for the next decade. This edition of The Skeptic’s Guide is not going to harp upon some secret flaw in his footwork or hand placement that only Inside the Draft’s hyper-attuned scouting acumen can detect. It’s about the wisdom of drafting an offensive lineman with a top five pick or top 10 pick.
The success rate for linemen drafted among the Top 10 in a draft class is actually rather high. There are some Luke Joeckel and Robert Gallery types among the all-time busts. But there are plenty of guys like Joe Thomas, Trent Williams and D’Brickishaw Ferguson who anchored left tackle for their teams for about a decade each.
Inside The Draft used the tools at Stathead.com to examine every offensive lineman drafted in the top 10 from 2000 through 2016 (we wanted guys who have played for a few years) and found that 18 of those 29 lineman recorded career Average Value totals over 40. In other words, about 62 percent of offensive linemen drafted high in the first round become quality starters.
The problem is baked right into the names mentioned above. Thomas is a future Hall of Famer who became famous as the lone great player on terrible Browns teams. Ferguson is a Ring of Honor type who played for mostly-awful Jets teams. Williams’ Washington teams were more competitive, but of course the organization was rotting from the top down.
The problem continues down the list of linemen drafted among the top 10. Chris Samuels suffered the same fate as Williams for Washington in the 2000s. Bryant McKinnie played his best years for Minnesota Vikings teams that were happy to earn Wild Card berths; in other words, he played his best years for typical Vikings teams. Leonard Davis suffered for years on bad Cardinals teams before a late-career renaissance with the Cowboys.
Not every top 10 offensive lineman is consigned to NFL purgatory: Eric Fisher and Lane Johnson are among those with Super Bowl rings. But it sure looks as though terrible teams that draft great left tackles don’t turn into great teams, just slightly less terrible teams with great left tackles.
Selecting a lineman at the near the top of the draft board may be one of those tactics which sounds prudent but is actually a waste of resources. After all, that top pick could be converted into a quarterback. Or, if your team doesn’t need a quarterback, lots of extra top picks.
That leads us to the top of this year’s draft board. Most 2021 mock drafts start out like this:
- Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson.
- New York Jets: Zach Wilson, QB, Brigham Young; or Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State; or something peculiarly Jetsy which straddles the Spinal Tap stupid/clever line.
- Miami Dolphins: Possibly Sewell, but more often Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU.
- Atlanta Falcons: A defensive player to toss upon the pyre of Falcons futility.
- Cincinnati Bengals: Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon.
These mocks are probably right; the first three or four picks in most drafts are easy to predict by the middle of March.
The Dolphins are unlikely to trade down because they already have so many draft picks. And the Bengals have Joe Burrow at quarterback and a desperate need at offensive line. But quarterback-needy teams like the Chicago Bears could offer the Bengals tractor-trailers full of players and picks for the right to draft fifth. Why aren’t many draft experts predicting that will happen?
- The Bengals are such a rinky-dink organization that they are essentially being run by the Madden AI, a mock draft simulator and Stevie from Schitt’s Creek. If the Houston Texans are letting Deshaun Watson trade offers go to voicemail, then Bengals trade offers are piling up beneath an overflowing mailbox on a dry-rotted front porch overrun with feral cats.
- Some of us think a trade up is very possible but can’t be bothered speculating upon it or including it in a mock draft. The Bengals fanbase is so small, and Sewell is such a safe and easy player to write about, that it’s more cost effective to just stuff Sewell into the fifth overall pick and then focus on something that will cause some outrage on Philly sports-talk radio.
Miami looks like the best landing spot for Sewell, for both parties. The Dolphins are a playoff team with extra picks, making them safe bets to escape the futility cycle which trapped Thomas, Ferguson and the others. Then again, Chris Samuels was also one of two first-round picks for a Washington team that just finished 10-6 and was flush with the bounty of the Ricky Williams trade.
The Jets also drafted both Ferguson and Nick Mangold in the first round in 2006, building an offensive line great enough to fool them into thinking Mark Sanchez was a quality quarterback (and, let’s be fair, to help net the Jets a few AFC Championship Game appearances). History has a way of throwing ice water on even the soundest draft strategies.
Drafting a lineman like Sewell is often a no-brainer. That means it’s often the smartest decision a franchise that keeps getting stuck selecting high in the first round every year can make. Which, in turn, means that those teams can draft a great lineman, then turn around and immediately return to making dumb decisions.
Maybe the Dolphins, Bengals or some other team breaks the cycle with Sewell. (We’ve given up all hope for the Falcons). Or maybe Sewell will slide down until a little later in the first round due to a quarterback feeding frenzy and ends up in a better situation as a result.
Next Week at Inside the Draft: We pull back the curtain to explain how mock drafts are really assembled.