NFL draft prospects to watch: Utah State QB Jordan Love must deliver

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This week’s slate of games doesn’t offer a ton of pizzazz outside a handful of big contests, but there still are some big-name NFL prospects, plus a few who are just a tier below, with something notable to gain or lose. Here are five players (plus a bonus sixth!) we think have something on the line this week:

Utah State QB Jordan Love vs. Boise State

This week we wrote about the suddenly cloudy picture at quarterback atop the 2020 NFL draft following the injury to Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and what the residual effect of it could be. Two players we singled out who potentially could benefit from Tagovailoa’s misfortune were Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Utah State’s Jordan Love.

Love has had a completely confounding redshirt junior season, following up his 2018 season (a 32-6 TD-INT ratio) with only 13 touchdowns to 14 interceptions. One week, he’s spectacular, such as in his performance two weeks ago against Fresno State (30-of-39 passing, 388 yards, two touchdowns). The next, Love looks like he’s pressing, as he did at times against Wyoming (18-of-29 passing, 282 yards, two TDs, two interceptions).

But most pressing as it relates to this game on Saturday at home against No. 20 Boise, Love suffered an undisclosed injury last week, and his status remains a question vs. the Broncos (who also are being secretive about their QB plans for the game).

The bottom line is this: Love remains a prospect whom scouts are utterly fascinated with, and yet the inconsistencies are a bit maddening. His arm talent, deep touch, athleticism, confidence, character, physical traits and football IQ check all the boxes NFL evaluators are looking for. But his decision making at times this season has been truly head-scratching; he’s thrown way too many balls in harm’s way for our liking.

Jordan Love has had a strange season, but a strong finish could solidify his NFL draft stock. (Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)
Jordan Love has had a strange season, but a strong finish could solidify his NFL draft stock. (Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

But based on conversations with scouts throughout the season, there’s still quite a bit of buzz. We firmly believe he’s in line to be a first-round pick if Love can finish strong and answer some of the questions for his occasionally unsightly play this season. Boise State will test Love with a quality pass rush, but this defense has only five interceptions on the season.

The Aggies finish the season in two weeks with a bad New Mexico team. They are bowl-eligible but might not draw a quality defense in what’s expected to be a lower-tier game. So assuming Love is healthy, and assuming he ends up declaring for the draft in January, this could be his final home game at Romney Stadium. Scouts would love to see him go out in style and give them more quality tape to dissect.

Arizona RB J.J. Taylor vs. Utah

Sound the alarms!

Ladies and gentlemen, we have our first known public 2020 NFL draft underclassman declaration. It comes, interestingly, from Arizona’s J.J. Taylor — a 5-foot-6, 185-pound redshirt junior scatback. After a slow start to his season that was muddled by an ankle injury suffered early in the year against Texas Tech, Taylor has played some of his best ball this season in the past few games.

He’s elusive, shifty and surprisingly tough. Taylor actually has been the victim of several uncalled facemasks this season and has battled through. On tape, it’s fun to marvel at his open-field quickness, shifty moves and his patented spin he flashes quite a bit. But Taylor also can deliver a blow and pack quite a punch, both as a runner and as a willing pass protector. In this way, we see a little Tarik Cohen (minus demonstrable punt-return ability) in Taylor’s game, so there clearly is a home for him in the NFL.

But Taylor’s de facto Senior night against the Utes is also a chance for him to put one last good showing on tape for the bowl-less Wildcats. Utah features one of the best run defenses in the country, ranked No. 1 in FBS in yards allowed (55.4), second in yards per carry (2.28) and tied for second in TDs allowed (three). Taylor has had limited success the past two seasons vs. Utah (combined 24 rushes, 106 yards, TD), so a big game here could help boost his stock.

UCLA RBs Joshua Kelley and Demetric Felton at USC

We’re a fan of both Bruins backs who offer differing styles and a nice 1-2 punch. The Bruins are closing up on a disappointing season at 4-6, but the Trojans have been reenergized down the stretch in winning four of five. We’re big fans of their redshirt sophomore defensive tackle, Jay Tufele, who has leveled off a bit after a great start but looks like a future first-round possibility.

This is a game where the UCLA runners need to control the game and not leave things in the hands of QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson. Kelley is a 5-11, 219-pound back with force and a decent second gear when he gets in the clear. Felton might be one of the more natural receiving backs in the country but has his limitations as a runner at 5-9 and 185 pounds.

UCLA's Joshua Kelley (27) and Demetric Felton (10) hope to do more celebrating this week against USC. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
UCLA's Joshua Kelley (27) and Demetric Felton (10) hope to do more celebrating this week against USC. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Kelley saw two of his consecutive-games streaks — 100 or more rush yards (three straight games) and rushing TDs (five) — come to an end last week against Utah, easily the best run defense in the Pac-12 and perhaps the country, but he was one of the few bright spots offensively for the Bruins in the game. Felton was held in check as both a runner and receiver in that one.

Both backs have NFL futures and will receive draftable grades from me. Standing out in this game could help them each separate from what’s looking like a pretty talented RB crop in 2020.

Boise State OT Ezra Cleveland at Utah State

The redshirt junior has been on the NFL radar for more than a year, as his size (6-6, 309 pounds) and movement skill have been pretty clear on tape. And though Cleveland got off to a so-so start this season (missing the Portland State game with injury) and the Broncos’ offense hasn’t come close to matching their recent-year production, he’s played some really good football of late.

One scout who combs the west coast said that he believes Cleveland has raised his level of play even while the rest of the offensive line has struggled around him. That’s a good sign for a player who has a decision to make at season’s end on whether he’ll enter the draft. It’s better to have options, and Cleveland has helped his own cause if he chooses to enter.

This week he faces a respectable defensive line at Utah State, led by Tipa Galeai, although he typically lines up opposite offenses’ right tackles, so Cleveland might not see a ton of Galeai from his left tackle spot. Still, we like this matchup as a chance for Cleveland to dominate — especially as the Broncos might be without their top two quarterbacks, Hank Bachmeier or Chase Cord, for this game.

Some teams might peg Cleveland as a guard, but he’s manned the left tackle spot well and could be cross-trained inside and out, as well as at right tackle. He’s in the mix for a top-100 draft spot.

Minnesota S Antoine Winfield Jr. at Northwestern

The son of the former Minnesota Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield is really interesting. Interestingly, Winfield Jr. is a fourth-year sophomore, beset by season-ending injuries in each of the past two seasons. The team clearly felt his loss at those junctures, but during a healthy 2019 campaign Winfield has been outstanding — his seven interceptions rank him tied for second among FBS defenders.

Scouts won’t weigh this game against the Wildcats as heavily as, say, the Penn State contest (in which he had two big interceptions) or in a potential matchup against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. That’s pretty obvious considering that Northwestern has had one of the worst offenses in the country. But hauling in another pick or two will make him an even harder prospect to ignore.

Minnesota DB Antoine Winfield Jr. hauled in two interceptions against Penn State and has an excellent chance to get his hands on more footballs this week. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Minnesota DB Antoine Winfield Jr. hauled in two interceptions against Penn State and has an excellent chance to get his hands on more footballs this week. (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

With outstanding bloodlines, high intelligence, great ball skills, tackling prowess and safety-slot cornerback versatility, there’s a lot to like about Winfield. He could even be seen in a role last week that was pretty new for us, with Winfield rushing off the edge a handful of snaps against Iowa. He’s also a key contributor on special teams, adding to his NFL appeal.

There are concerns about Winfield’s size (listed at 5-10, but scouts believe he could be shorter) as well as his speed. Although he ran 40-yard dashes in the 4.4-second range in high school, that came when Winfield was in the 185-pound range. He’s reportedly bulked up over the 200-pound mark since while handling safety duties that ask him to battle in the box quite a bit.

The word on the scouting street is that Winfield could opt to declare if things continue the way they’re going, and our dart-throw estimation of where he could end up would be in the late Day 2 or perhaps early Day 3 range. A strong finish could bump that up even more.

And one bonus prospect to watch ...

Florida International QB James Morgan vs. Miami (Fla.)

We’ve tried to include a few sleeper QB prospects in this spot in our posts throughout the season, and Morgan is a fascinating one. The Bowling Green transfer had a strong 2018 season under head coach Butch Davis but has regressed this season, which was set back by an early knee injury that caused him to miss parts of three games.

Morgan’s name has come up more than once in conversations we’ve had with NFL scouts who are intrigued by the redshirt senior’s nice size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds), arm talent and care for the football (zero interceptions in his past 179 pass attempts).

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He’s also shown toughness in playing through the injury and doing so with a massive, clunky brace, and FIU doesn’t really have many game changers catching passes. Morgan’s limitations have been clear on tape in terms of pocket movement, and he’s going to be heated up by Greg Rousseau (one of the best pass rushers in the country not named Chase Young) and Jonathan Garvin.

If Morgan can gut his way through this one and make some hay against a talented Hurricanes defense, he’ll add to the scouting intrigue. We feel he could end up being a late draft pick with a strong postseason circuit, which will include an appearance at the East-West Shrine Game in January. But playing well in this one, against one of the better defenses FIU will face, could absolutely help his cause.

Technically, this is a home game for the Panthers, but the game is being played against their crosstown “rivals” at Marlins Park in downtown Miami, which was actually built on the old Orange Bowl grounds.

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