We picked seven big NFL draft risers: Which prospects are getting more buzz?
A true, honest-to-football “riser” doesn’t jump up the NFL draft boards with a “remember when?” pro day workout. He doesn’t suddenly negate four months worth of games because his vertical jump made for good TV at the scouting combine (Jordan Davis‘ 40-yard dash not withstanding).
Instead, the real draft risers are the players who move their way up draft boards over the 12-plus months leading up to the draft — little by little, game by game, visit by visit — with a double-take workout thrown on the pile for good measure. So with just days left before the picks start coming in for the 2022 NFL draft, let’s look at some of those who have gained the most ground in the class since last summer and why they climbed the board. Last year’s list featured Zach Wilson (No. 2 pick overall), Malcolm Koonce (No. 79), Quinn Meinerz (No. 98) and Demetric Felton (No. 211).
Which potential stars have made the biggest moves? These are the top risers this year. Let’s start with a few linebackers who made the most of the predraft windup.
Scouts Inc. ranking: 48
How far he climbed boards: Many in the league believe this draft’s real strength and depth is on Day 2, when teams might be able to take a player late in the third round who has roughly the same grade as players selected early in the second round. Chenal was probably a mid-to-late Day 3 pick when his 2021 season began, but he has potentially worked his way into Day 2 selection territory, depending on whom you ask.
Turning point: His first year as a starter — a COVID-19-abbreviated seven-game affair in 2020 — provided a quality glimpse of his improvement. His 13-tackle effort against Minnesota in December 2020, with five tackles for loss and two sacks, provided momentum that he maintained all the way through the 2021 season.
Why he rose: There is still room in the pass-happy NFL for a tough, physical point-of-attack linebacker, and Chenal perhaps wins the pound-for-pound play strength award for this draft class. He had 115 tackles this past season with 18.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks and two forced fumbles. He was also a part of Jim Leonhard’s shapeshifting defense, which consistently demonstrated his ability to play the game.
What they’re saying: “I mean, we like to change it up a lot. Many of the sacks I had [last], year weren’t meant to be blitzes. These sacks were more like reactions that our position coach taught us — like if you get a certain look, let’s go. — Chenal on his 11 sacks over the past two seasons
Scouts Inc. ranking: 70
How far he climbed boards: Andersen’s on-field production stands out, but decision-makers have grown to like him even a little more after spending time with him. His profile is unique because he has been used by the team like no other player. He went from being an offensive prospect, who would likely have been a seventh round flier or a priority-free agent to a solid Day 2 defensive linebacker with an intriguing ability to do different things.
Turning point: There were a lot of turning points thanks to his versatility. After all, he rushed for 102 yards and had a sack in the same college game. In 2019, he rushed for over 1,400 yards and threw for 1,195 yards as the conference’s first-team selection at quarterback. Two years later, he was the Big Sky’s Defensive Player of the Year with 150 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions.
Why he rose: Versatility, willingness to play where he was needed, excellent physical traits, great production and a ton of toughness are all factors. He also dropped a 4. 42-second 40-yard dash at the combine at 243 pounds.
What they’re saying: “Sometimes I wish we could have all seen him play full time on defense for four years; the numbers would have been huge.
Check out the best highlights from Troy Andersen’s collegiate career at Montana State.
Scouts Inc. ranking: 103
How far he climbed boards: Woods was recruited as a quarterback by Oklahoma State and switched to tight end during the Cowboys’ prep for their bowl game to close out the 2017 season. So he has spent just four seasons (three at Oklahoma State and the 2021 season at Virginia) at tight end. With that in mind, his 44 catches and eight touchdowns this past season drew plenty of attention. Many evaluators saw Woods as an undrafted free agent before the 2021 season, but he’s now a solid Day 2 (or early Day 3) pick.
Turning point: Scouts who saw him at Oklahoma State knew he was a big-framed player (6-foot-7 and 253 pounds) who flashed some speed. But Woods managed only 28 receptions in his 34 games there. When he had a 122-yard receiving game in Week 2 last season — just his second game at Virginia — and followed with a 73-yard outing two weeks later, they had to take notice.
Why he rose: Woods showed the ability to wall off defenders for the ball and routinely broke tackles in the open field. Woods also had a touchdown catch in six Cavaliers’ seven first-season games. He showed a little more nuance at the Senior Bowl in his route running, which proved that he is still a rising player with lots of potential.
What they’re saying: “I’d say it came pretty naturally. I think that being a quarterback means you have the ball in your hands every time. This made it easier to catch snaps without even looking at it. I don’t see any difference between catching the ball from [the] centre and from the quarterback. — Woods on switching positions
Scouts Inc. ranking: 118
How far he climbed boards: Over the past few months, Strong has gone from a running back who would be used primarily as an early-down runner to one who can also contribute as a receiver and in pass protection. Strong was a late pick in Day 3, but his production, combined with a good week at the East-West Shrine Bowl, has helped him rise to the top of the 225-yard rushing season in -foot runs of at least
Turning point: After a 707-yard rushing season in 2020, Strong topped 100 yards in the first three games of 2021, with runs of at least 48 yards in three of his first five games. By season’s end, he had nine 100-yard rushing games, 18 rushing touchdowns and an average of 7.0 yards per carry.
Why he rose: NFL playcallers covet the explosiveness Strong brings; he is a second-level runner who can find gaps in nickel defenses and turn quick decisions into big plays. He is a consistent traffic runner who makes good decisions and has the speed (4. 37 seconds in his only 40-yard dash at the combine) to close the deal in the open field.
What they’re saying: “I like his ability to make the right cut. 49201741655225— NFC general manager
Check out the best highlights that contributed to a stellar college career for South Dakota State’s Pierre Strong Jr.
Scouts Inc. ranking: 324
How far he climbed boards: Perry was one of the quarterbacks invited to the combine to throw in the workouts for other position groups. He was able to gain some traction through that work and a strong showing at Holy Cross’ pro day. It was not surprising to see Perry, who was likely heading toward priority-free agent status, get picked in the middle day 3.
Turning point: In 2021, Perry threw for 3,033 yards and 48 touchdowns in 10 games, and he added 402 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns.
Why he rose: At 6-foot-2 and 211 pounds, he has the sturdiness and ability as a runner to be considered for a multifaceted role in the NFL. His work as a passer at the East-West Shrine Bowl and the combine showed that he is still improving his throwing, footwork, and accuracy.
What they’re saying: “I feel like one of the things I look back on this year that’ll be able to carry over and will serve me well is the stressing of completed passes. It’s something that is a priority in the NFL. And finally, finishing drives. This past year, we had a ridiculous number of 10-plus-play drives. This is something you see when you see NFL quarterbacks succeed. They operate all the way down the field. I think being challenged to achieve that this year is going to help. — Perry on how he improved this past season
Scouts Inc. ranking: 166
How far he climbed boards: Williams was not only the sole Division II player invited to the Senior Bowl, he was also the first Fayetteville State player ever invited to the all-star game. He also received a combine invitation. He may have been learning a lot, as he was a wide receiver in high school. But, he may have gotten a combine invite.
Turning point: His work this past season, after his school played no games in 2020 because of the pandemic, showed some continued improvement in his technique. Williams’ big jump was due to his competition and the fact that he wasn’t often challenged in man coverage. In Mobile, Alabama, Williams posted one of the top five on-field speed measurements of the week at 21.8 mph. By comparison, North Dakota state wide receiver Christian Watson — a potential Day 2 pick in this draft known for his vertical ability — was clocked at 20.7 mph.
Why he rose: Few scouting profiles rise quicker on the draft boards around the league than cornerbacks with length and speed. And Williams was 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds at the combine with a 78 1/4 -inch arm span.
What they’re saying: “Everybody needs corners, and everybody wants corners with some length, reach. He runs 4.5 [and] and plays 4.4. If he improves his technique, he could play. — NFC wide receivers coach
Scouts Inc. ranking: NR
How far he climbed boards: Well under the radar as the 2021 season began, James could be a late-Day 3 pick if folks believe his elite pro-day numbers are in line with his progression as a receiver. James is a former prep quarterback, who switched to receiver at Central Connecticut State. He had only one reception in his first season.
Turning point: He had the kind of pro day (at UConn) that forces a recount of sorts. The 6-foot-2, 216-pound James was clocked by some at 4. 45 seconds in his best 40-yard dash, had a 37 1/2 -inch vertical jump and a 10-foot-11 standing broad jump — all of which would have been among the best at the position at the combine. Many league members decided to do more research on James.
Why he rose: James has a rare size/speed combination with a large catch radius. His arm span was measured at 77 3/4 inches at his pro day, which is in line with what some linemen on this draft board have measured. He had 61 career rushing attempts (4.8 yards per carry) in his career to go with his 114 career catches, and there is plenty of potential among the rough edges.
What they’re saying: “I’d give him a look, coach him up. If he’ll put in the work, he has a chance. — AFC director of scouting
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.