NFL draft: Which schools produce most talent at each position? And which prospects are next?

Eric Edholm
·12-min read

People shop on busy streets, as they say. It applies to NFL scouting, too, as the league often will send scouts to places where draft-prospect fruit previously has been borne.

That’s why when we saw the NFL’s news release on Thursday that broke down where NFL players on Week 1 rosters attended college, it got us thinking: Who are the next prospects in line at the schools that have produced the most talent at each position?

There isn’t a surefire NFL prospect at each of these schools’ respective positions, but you might be surprised just how fruitful each of those spots continue to be.

Quarterback

North Carolina State — 4 (Philip Rivers, Mike Glennon, Ryan Finley, Jacoby Brissett)

Future NFL draft prospect: Devin Leary

This surprising QB factory also produced Russell Wilson, although feisty Wisconsin fans will fight you tooth and nail on that one. Rivers clearly is the most accomplished of the four listed above, although he is in the twilight of his career, and none of the other three are starting in the league.

The bare truth here is that if there’s an NFL prospect at QB for the Wolfpack, we can’t definitively identify him. It’s probably Leary, who went through a five-start trial by fire last season and who has won the job for this season.

The redshirt sophomore will need to improve his accuracy after completing only 48 percent of his passes, but part of that was because the team often found itself trailing last season (and the coaches asked him to throw it 33 times a game). Leary has work to do before he’s on scouts’ radars.

Running back

Wisconsin — 7 (Melvin Gordon, Jonathan Taylor, James White, Corey Clement, Dare Ogunbowale, Alec Ingold, Derek Watt)

Future NFL draft prospect: Nakia Watson

Again, we’re not picking on the Badgers — great folks up there — but the school’s total is beefed up a tad with Wisconsin’s fullback trough. Still, Gordon and White have been mainstays in recent years, and Taylor has star potential. There’s little doubting the Badgers’ factory for NFL-caliber backs in recent decades.

Wisconsin running back Nakia Watson (14) is the next in line for the Badgers. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)
Wisconsin running back Nakia Watson (14) is the next in line for the Badgers. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

We expect the team to divvy up the workload more this season, but Watson is most likely the next in line who will have a shot to be a pro. The 5-foot-11, 229-pound redshirt sophomore was effective as a changeup to Taylor last season (74 rushes, 331 yards, two touchdowns).

Then again, do-it-all guy Garrett Groshek is the type of try-hard performer whom we could see going to a team like the Patriots and being beat writers’ camp crush next summer. And we can’t leave out talented freshman Jalen Berger, a speed-power runner who could emerge as the next Taylor.

Wide receiver

Clemson — 7 (DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Williams, Sammy Watkins, Tee Higgins, Hunter Renfrow, Adam Humphries, Ray-Ray McCloud) and Ohio State (Michael Thomas, Terry McLaurin, K.J. Hill, Parris Campbell, Curtis Samuel, Ted Ginn Jr., Noah Brown)

Future NFL draft prospect: Ohio State’s Chris Olave

Rejoice! We get to see Olave suit up for the Buckeyes this season (we think). He’s a very savvy route runner with plus speed who just manages to gain separation from the outside with such ease. Although the 6-1, 184-pound Olave might not be a complete receiver yet, he has quality hands and great feel for the position.

With Big Ten set to play this fall, Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave could be the next Buckeyes star. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
With Big Ten set to play this fall, Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave could be the next Buckeyes star. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

A top-50 prospect, Olave has a chance to be the Buckeyes’ 10th receiver drafted since 2015. Six of the past nine picked went in the first three rounds of the draft. Buckeyes WR coach Brian Hartline has taken a great OSU receiver tradition and elevated it.

Had Clemson’s Justyn Ross not suffered a season-ending neck injury, he might have been the choice here. And the Tigers also have a quality NFL prospect for 2021 in senior Amari Rodgers, who could see big production without Ross on the field and keep boosting his stock, perhaps adding a cherry on top with a strong Senior Bowl showing.

Tight end

Stanford — 5 (Zach Ertz, Austin Hooper, Levine Toilolo, Dalton Schultz, Kaden Smith)

Future NFL draft prospect: Tucker Fisk

The Cardinal have been cranking out NFL-caliber TE prospects for years now, and a high percentage of the school’s draft picks have at least become serviceable players. Ertz is the standard bearer, Hooper just secured a big deal and perhaps Smith is the next to break out. This doesn’t even include Colby Parkinson, a fourth-rounder of the Seahawks who is on the non-football injury list.

But this Stanford team — assuming the Pac-12 finds a road toward hitting the field this fall — doesn’t appear to have an immediate NFL prospect on the horizon. Scooter Harrington is expected to step up in Parkinson’s void a bit, but we chose the 6-4, 273-pound Fisk for his blocking prowess and special-teams contributions.

Right now, he’s not viewed as a draftable prospect but could work his way onto a roster or a practice squad.

Offensive tackle

Oklahoma — 6 (Trent Williams, Lane Johnson, Orlando Brown, Daryl Williams, Bobby Evans, Cody Ford)

Future NFL draft prospect: Adrian Ealy

This list might be in some dispute here, as we believe that the NFL is counting Ford — who played tackle last season but started the opener at guard — as one of the six. (If we’re missing someone, feel free to let us know.) But any way you spin it, it’s hard to overlook the OL talent the Sooners have cranked out in recent years.

Oklahoma offensive tackle Adrian Ealy could see his draft stock rise with another strong season. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)
Oklahoma offensive tackle Adrian Ealy could see his draft stock rise with another strong season. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

Ealy really stood out last season despite missing two games because of injury, and he was one of the few standouts — in our eyes — in the Sooners’ blowout loss to LSU in the playoff semifinals in January. The 6-5, 338-pounder might not be as highly regarded as some of OU’s interior prospects, but he can improve his current Day 3 grades with a strong final season.

Offensive guard

Michigan — 5 (Ben Bredeson, Michael Schofield, Graham Glasgow, Jon Runyan, Cesar Ruiz)

Future NFL draft prospect: Andrew Stueber

Perhaps no unit was gashed as hard by graduation than the Wolverines’ offensive line, which lost four players to this spring’s draft — and a fifth starter in Jalen Mayfield, who currently remains opted out and preparing for the 2021 NFL draft. (Will that change? We don’t yet know.)

So coming up with a clear-cut option here was really hard. We settled on Stueber, who started down the stretch in the 2018 season before suffering an ACL injury prior to the start of the 2019 season. He’s expected to be the right guard this season.

Will he kick back out to right tackle? It’s possible, but Karsen Barnhart appears to have the edge there. We have not watched the 6-7, 323-pound Stueber much, so it’s hard to know how he’ll fare, but he reportedly was battling Mayfield for a starting spot pre-injury.

The other option we’ll throw out there: Chuck Filiaga, a former blue-chip recruit who has played sparingly the past few years but has a nice pedigree of talent. Now, he just needs to win the left guard battle.

Center

Alabama — 3 (Ryan Kelly, Bradley Bozeman, J.C. Hassenauer) and LSU (Ethan Pocic, Lloyd Cushenberry III, Will Clapp)

Future NFL draft prospect: Alabama’s Landon Dickerson

These hated rivals have done a nice job producing NFL-quality pivots, and there might be more future talent just around the corner.

After coming over from Florida State, Dickerson finished the season as the starting center for the Crimson Tide in 2019, and the expectation is that he’ll be there again in 2020. (Nick Saban doesn’t care much for depth charts, you see.)

Dickerson can also play guard, and Deonte Brown might be in the center mix, so there is some question about how they’ll all line up inside this season. There’s a chance, we’ve heard, that Dickerson could play multiple spots up front, which is interesting.

Although Dickerson was not at his best in the Iron Bowl against Auburn nor vs. Michigan in the bowl game, the 6-5, 340-pound mauler is a country-strong blocker who won’t back down from a challenge. He reportedly can squat a whopping 765 pounds and will enter the season with draft grades in the third-to-fifth-round range.

LSU might also have a prospect worth watching depending on how Liam Shanahan adapts to life outside the Ivy League. The 6-5, 304-pound Harvard transfer is expected to be Cushenberry’s replacement despite never playing center before; he started 30 straight games for the Crimson at guard and tackle.

Defensive tackle

Alabama — 6 (Da’Ron Payne, Jonathan Allen, Jarran Reed, Quinnen Williams, Dalvin Tomlinson, Raekwon Davis)

Future NFL draft prospect: Christian Barmore

If you’re looking for a potential breakout candidate — a la Quinnen Williams from a few years ago — check out Barmore, the redshirt sophomore who could be the next first-round talent at the position in Tuscaloosa.

Once he earned a starting spot down the stretch, it was easy to see just how gifted Barmore is and how high his ceiling could be. At 6-5 and 310 pounds, he finds a way to maintain a low center and attack gaps with his burst and relentless energy.

Alabama defensive lineman Christian Barmore is the next star up front for the Tide. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)
Alabama defensive lineman Christian Barmore is the next star up front for the Tide. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

But can Barmore keep up his per-snap production with a bigger workload? As late as the LSU game last season, he was only playing about a dozen snaps per game. But by season’s end, his impact on games remained high even with more snaps.

With more refinement and control in his game, Barmore could be a star. He possesses everything you want in a prospect carrying on the incredible tradition of DL talent that Nick Saban and Co. have cultivated.

As far as the NFL players listed above, like with Oklahoma’s tackles, there’s the question of positional assignment. I actually counted eight Bama “tackles” including the six above, plus Damion Square and Da’Shawn Hand, but that gets a bit muddled with 3-4 fronts and players who line up at multiple spots.

Defensive end

Miami — 7 (Calais Campbell, Olivier Vernon, Anthony Chickillo, Jonathan Garvin, Al-Quadin Muhammad, RJ McIntosh, Allen Bailey, Joe Jackson)

Future NFL draft prospect: Greg Rousseau

You’ll notice we listed eight ends above. The problem once again comes with positional assignment. Is Campbell an end? Is Vernon? It depends on each team’s nomenclature.

But the point is that the Hurricanes have consistently sent good edge talent to the NFL, even if it’s been a shockingly long time (Jerome McDougle, 2003) since they produced a first-round edge rusher. That run is likely to end in 2021.

Rousseau was a revelation last season as a redshirt freshman, ranking second in the nation in sacks (behind Chase Young) with 15.5 and ranking tied for sixth nationally with 20 tackles for loss. At 6-7 and 260 pounds, with vines for arms, Rousseau checks off every physical trait you could ever want in an edge rusher.

But as an NFL prospect, projection is required. Rousseau opted out for this season and has begun his draft prep, but there’s a rawness to his game that scouts will be slightly leery of. A lack of strength and getting too upright were two big things scouts mentioned as potential areas of improvement, and Rousseau tended to be stymied a bit if he didn’t win off the snap.

Still, we’d be shocked if he got out of Round 1, with the top 15 a strong possibility.

Linebacker

LSU — 9 (Devin White, Deion Jones, Patrick Queen, Kwon Alexander, Barkevious Mingo, Jacob Phillips, Duke Riley, Kevin Minter)

Future NFL draft prospect: Jabril Cox

Again, only eight listed above; take that up with the depth-chart aficionados. We’re past the point of splitting hairs over this.

But in the first four listed — White, Jones, Queen and Alexander — we see a breed of linebacker that can almost be trademarked at this point. The Tigers have found fast-flow, heat-seeking missiles with ideal athleticism, and they’ve flooded NFL defenses in the past few years.

The next in line appears to be Cox, the transfer from North Dakota State who flashed that type of athleticism at the FCS level the past few years. The 6-3, 231-pounder can fly around to make plays in the backfield and in coverage. He joined the Tigers to raise his NFL profile and could experience a Queen-like rise in the draft picture.

Also don’t overlook Damone Clark, who could lead LSU in tackles from the inside.

Defensive backs

Alabama — 12 (Minkah Fitzpatrick, Landon Collins, Marlon Humphrey, Eddie Jackson, Dre Kirkpatrick, Deionte Thompson, Anthony Averett, Levi Wallace, Tony Brown, Ronnie Harrison, Trevon Diggs, Kareem Jackson)

Future NFL draft prospect: Patrick Surtain II

No, we’re not about to start up a “real DBU” debate here.

Just know that the Crimson Tide produce a ton of volume on the back end defensively, and this list doesn’t even include Xavier McKinney, who is on IR. There’s also no sign the run is coming to an end anytime soon.

Alabama defensive back Patrick Surtain II could be a first-rounder in 2021. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)
Alabama defensive back Patrick Surtain II could be a first-rounder in 2021. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

Surtain is one of the best prospects who potentially could enter the 2021 class, a man-cover corner with ideal length, athletic traits and ball skills. And yes, if the name rings familiar, he’s the son of the former Pro Bowl corner of the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins.

Junior is a chip off the old block. He’s actually longer and bigger than Dad and will bully receivers in press-man coverage. If there’s a knock on the younger Surtain, it’s that he’s perhaps lacking in high-end speed and quickness and has limited ball production (three INTs in two seasons).

Still, we view him as nearly a first-round lock if Surtain chooses to come out next year.

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