2022 NFL draft prospects to watch this weekend: How high could QB Sam Howell rise?

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Rivalry Week is here and we are a week away from the conference title games kicking off as we head down the final stretch of the college football season. The postseason is already on the horizon for FCS teams as the opening round of the playoffs begin Saturday.

Prospects at all levels are attempting to put a bow on their résumé of 2021 games. While a few of the top guys in this class still have things to prove, others are trying to stamp their status and rise up the board for the 2022 NFL draft. Scouts, meanwhile, are trying to get a final glimpse at prospects ahead of all-star games next year.

In this week’s player-to-watch series, I reflect back on the junior season of North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell, his improvement and the possibility that he plays in the Senior Bowl next year. I’ll also dig into a few FCS prospects to keep an eye on this weekend, along with some of the best head-to-head matchups between draft prospects happening during rivalry week.

Five prospects to watch

Week 13 opponent: at NC State (Friday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN)
2021 stats: 2,704 passing yards, 22 TD passes, 8 INTs

Howell has rewritten the record books in 35 games in Chapel Hill, as he’s the program leader in career total offense, passing yards, passing touchdowns and total touchdowns. The junior signal-caller was honored alongside the senior class last week during senior day prior to the team’s matchup against Wofford — though he didn’t play due to an upper-body injury — which is a likely hint that he’s going to enter the 2022 draft.

This has been a tale of two seasons for Howell. After throwing three picks against Virginia Tech in Week 1, he has gotten better each week. He entered the season without his top four targets from 2020 — receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome and the backfield tandem of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter — and now Howell is the total centerpiece of offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s scheme, which relies heavily on run-pass options and yards after the catch. Howell has done much more with his legs this season; after putting up 181 rushing yards and eight touchdowns from 2019-2020, he has rushed for 717 yards and nine touchdowns this season.

Howell is an on-schedule thrower who operates best within the structure of the offense, but he can make sandlot-like plays when he’s forced out of the pocket. (And he has been under pressure a lot this season, getting sacked 38 times in 11 games, which is tied for second-most in the FBS.) Howell’s calling card is his deep accuracy, as he throws long balls that don’t force his weapons to break stride. In the underneath areas, he functions well when in rhythm and thrives with excellent ball placement that allows his targets to gain yards after the catch.

If Howell decides to enter the draft, he would be eligible to compete in the Senior Bowl next year because he’s graduating from UNC next month. Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy recently mentioned that five of the top six quarterbacks in the 2022 class are likely to participate in the all-star game in Mobile, Alabama, and Howell could be on that list. Four of the top signal-callers in the class are seniors — Kenny Pickett (Pitt), Malik Willis (Liberty), Desmond Ridder (Cincinnati) and Carson Strong (Nevada) — while Ole Miss’ Matt Corral, a fourth-year junior, isn’t eligible.

Howell could boost his draft stock by playing well against NC State and thriving at the Senior Bowl, not unlike Josh Allen’s strong ending to his career at Wyoming in 2018.

Week 13 opponent: at San Diego State (Friday, noon ET, CBS)
2021 stats: 71 receptions, 1,043 receiving yards, 6 TDs

Logging career highs in catches, receiving yards and tying his 2019 and 2020 seasons in touchdown receptions, Shakir is having his best season yet. The senior wide receiver is a do-it-all weapon and well-rounded route runner with strong hands. He is a consistent threat to gain yards after the catch; he has 442 yards after the catch this season, which ranks 24th in the country. He has silenced questions coming into the year about his initial explosiveness.

Rated as a likely late Day 2 or early Day 3 target, many scouts have mentioned that he would be a welcome addition to the middle of the depth chart on the next level as a WR3 and special teams contributor early on with a chance for an expanded role in the future.

He will be facing his biggest test of the season since San Diego State’s defense is among the best in the country in multiple major categories. Only surrendering 17.4 points per game (10th best in FBS), the Aztecs defense is stingy and on a rampage to secure a spot in the Mountain West title game. Considering what’s at stake, this is a matchup to keep a close eye on.

Week 13 opponent: at Eastern Washington (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN+)

With the FCS playoffs kicking off this weekend, I wanted to spotlight three prospects to watch during the opening round of games. You might already know a little about Penning, who is ranked in the top 30 by both Kiper and McShay. The left tackle held his own early in the season in a matchup against Iowa State, a notable step up in competition. With outstanding strength, finishing ability and balance at the point of attack as both a run-blocker and pass protector, his traits stood out. That performance bodes well for his future outlook and is why evaluators are excited about his future.

His former teammate Spencer Brown — a third-round pick last April — has gone on to become a starter for the Bills. When discussing Penning with an area scout with Northern Iowa in his region, he reiterated the point that it says a lot about him that he played left tackle while Brown manned the right tackle spot opposite of him. Both tackle spots are of the utmost importance, but the best player is usually placed on the blindside of the quarterback.

In my latest mock draft, I projected Penning to go to the Ravens at No. 25. Penning is another prospect who will be at the Senior Bowl, and he’ll face elite prospects during practice. As a small-school prospect, scouts will want to see how the 6-foot-7, 320-pound offensive tackle handles the strength levels, power and speed of the increased competition.

Week 13 opponent: vs. UC Davis (Saturday, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN+)
2021 stats: 1,317 rushing yards, 15 TDs, 6.9 yards per carry

Every year, there seems to be a late round or undrafted free agent running back who goes on to become an instant contributor on the next level. Two recent examples: James Robinson went undrafted in 2020 and put up a 1,070-yard season for the Jaguars, while the 49ers took Elijah Mitchel in the sixth round in April, and he leads the team in rushing.

Strong is a candidate to claim that title for the 2022 class. Finishing the regular season ranked second in the FCS in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, he is the linchpin of the Jackrabbits offense. He has balance and decisiveness as a one-cut and go runner, and he’s at his best when afforded opportunities in zone blocking schemes.

Strong’s ability to stretch defenses laterally and attack in an instant is a trait that is repeatedly brought up in scouting reports, but his true speed will be put to the test during the FCS playoff run. At 5-foot-11, 205 pounds, he is a well-built back who also has value in the passing game. Showcasing soft hands and a threat that can be more than a simple check down runner as a receiver, he also is consistent as a pass protector.

Strong is only the fourth running back to eclipse 4,000 career yards in program history, and he is a late-round option who could go on to experience early NFL success as a three-down threat.

Week 13 opponent: vs. Southeastern Louisiana (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN+)
2021 stats: 79 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 4 forced fumbles

After playing at Maryland and then Coffeyville Community College, Bell has been a huge part of the turnaround of the Florida A&M program the past three years. His five interceptions in 2019 tied for the MEAC lead, and after the program opted out of the spring 2021 season, he has showed no signs of a drop-off this season. Though he only has one interception, he has been at his best while playing against FBS opponents. He had 15 total tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss and a forced fumble against South Florida (Sept. 18) earlier this season.

Bell is a versatile defender who could play as both a low and high safety in coverage. His physical presence against the run has helped him become one of the best small-school defensive prospects of this draft cycle.

Gathering an overall opinion on the Florida A&M safety from scouts, I received a bunch of early Day 3 grades. One scout even mentioned that, “We’d love to get a player like that in the 4th or 5th [round], for sure. Because of his background, he’s going to come in hungry and he’ll immediately be one that can play on each unit of teams [special teams].”

Bell recently accepted an invitation to play in the East-West Shrine Game in January. A strong showing there will help him move up draft boards.

In the program’s first season in the SWAC, it became the first program in the conference to make the playoffs since 1997. This weekend’s matchup is also the first time the Rattlers have appeared in the postseason since 2001. In need of continuing to show his consistency in coverage, Bell is assured of a good test against Southeastern Louisiana and quarterback Cole Kelly, who’s among the finalists for the Walter Payton Award (FCS National Offensive Player of the Year).

Best prospect matchups of the weekend

Michigan edge rushers vs. Ohio State offensive tackles

Matchup: Saturday, noon ET, Fox

The most anticipated positional matchup of the weekend is Michigan edge rushers Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo facing off against the Ohio State offensive tackle duo of Nicholas Petit-Frere and Dawand Jones. A quartet of prospects who are expected to be early-round draft picks, the eyes of scouts will be glued to the line of scrimmage. The game within “The Game,” the Wolverines tandem enters the matchup with 19 combined sacks in 11 games.

Ojabo has experienced an astronomical rise this season. Even though he only has one year of production, his first step out of the starting blocks and ability to finish in the backfield have resulted in a quick ascension up draft boards. He ranked No. 10 overall in Kiper’s latest Big Board. Ojabo needs to become a more consistent run defender, but his pass rush prowess and elite upside are two traits that have his draft stock rising.

On the opposite side, Hutchinson was the known defender coming into the season. Limited to only three starts a season ago after suffering a leg fracture, the 6-foot-6, 265-pound defensive end returned with a vengeance. With 4.5 sacks over the past five games, he has shown off a full repertoire of moves. With an angular frame and heavy hands, here an NFL comparison that came up when talking about Hutchinson with an NFL scout: Jared Allen, who racked up 136 sacks over a 12-year career.

The Buckeyes’ bookends have arguably been the best security in the blanket for Heisman hopeful quarterback C.J. Stroud.

After starting all 11 games a season ago at right tackle, Petit-Frere transitioned over to the left side where he remained as the team’s most consistent blocker. In 343 pass-blocking reps this season, he has only allowed pressure on 1.7% of those attempts. With only one penalty to his credit, the 6-foot-5, 315-pounder has a chance to be a first-round pick.

At 6-foot-8, 360 pounds, Jones is a massive blocker who is experiencing a breakout season during his first year as a starter. Manning the right tackle spot, he has only surrendered pressure on 0.3% of his 339 pass-blocking snaps. Jones, who has a Day 2 grade from most scouts right now, will be put to the test as a pass protector against Michigan. This is a heavyweight bout between four significant draft prospects.

Matchup: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS

Williams has thrived as the top target for the Crimson Tide since transferring from Ohio State earlier this year. After a three-touchdown performance against Arkansas, Williams became the first player in program history to have four touchdown receptions of 75-plus yards in a single season. An explosive route runner at multiple levels of the field, he has played himself firmly into the first-round discussion. The Crimson Tide’s go-to target is tied for second in the country in touchdown receptions (13). He also ranks in the top five in yards after the catch (557) while also being one of only 12 players averaging at least 20 yards per catch (20.6, ninth best in the FBS).

Williams ranks in the top 15 in both Kiper’s and McShay’s rankings, and I slotted him to the Bills with the 30th pick in my latest mock draft.

This matchup with McCreary has the potential to be the best positional battle of the Iron Bowl. The Tigers cornerback, who I projected to the Bucs at No. 27 in my mock draft, has held his own in coverage this season, allowing a 48.1% completion rate on throws when he’s the nearest defender in coverage. This is a loaded cornerback class, and McCreary has a chance to be one of the best. Williams is a receiver unlike anything that McCreary has faced so far this season, however, because of Williams’ versatility. The Alabama target will test him vertically while also being able to attack the underneath areas.

Source: ESPN

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