NFL draft: Best Pac-12 prospects who are playing this fall

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Even with numerous, hefty opt outs in the Pac-12 — including Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell, a potential top-five pick — the conference’s entrance to the 2020 college football season means that we have a new pool of 2021 NFL draft talent to discuss.

Keeping track of who has opted out and who has opted back in has been tedious business. But we’re trying our best to stay on top of all the wild movement the past three months. (If you think we left someone off this list, give a heads-up.)

There are several players who are back in the fold and can benefit from more tape on their dossiers. As many as six could factor into the top-50 discussion by year’s end.

For now, here are the 20 Pac-12 prospects who are expected to suit up this fall.

USC's Alijah Vera-Tucker is moving to left tackle this fall and could vie for a spot in Round 1 of the 2021 NFL draft. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
USC's Alijah Vera-Tucker is moving to left tackle this fall and could vie for a spot in Round 1 of the 2021 NFL draft. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

1. USC OT Alijah Vera-Tucker

As a first-time, full-time starter last season, Vera-Tucker was a terrific performer at left guard for the Trojans — so much so that he initially opted out of the 2020 season and begin his prep for the draft.

Well, AVT is back for this season, and at a new position. Vera-Tucker is moving to left tackle, which was the plan before his initial opt out. He could boost his stock significantly by playing at a high level at more of a premium position.

The 6-foot-4, 315-pound redshirt junior has great feet, terrific balance and flexibility. He needs to finish blocks and use his hands better, but Vera-Tucker profiles as a Day 2 pick at minimum, and he could work his way into the Round 1 discussion the way Austin Jackson did for USC a year ago.

2. USC WR Amon-Ra St. Brown

The young brother of the Green Bay Packers’ Equanimeous St. Brown (2018 sixth-round pick), the Trojans wideout took a step forward last year after a promising freshman season in 2018.

St. Brown has top-50 talent and could enter the late Round 1 picture, catching more passes from possible future top-10 pick QB Kedon Slovis.

St. Brown has mostly worked in the slot in his two years at USC, flashing some great hands, yards-after-the-catch skills and tremendous body control. We expect him to stack some big performances this season, starting with the season opener against Arizona State on Saturday.

Big comp here, but St. Brown gives Chris Godwin vibes. He faces questions only about whether his physique is developed enough and whether he can play as effectively outside against press coverage.

3. Washington DB Elijah Molden

The Huskies’ slot corner is the latest NFL prospect to be developed at the school, under the watchful eye of head coach Jimmy Lake. Molden is the leader of a very talented secondary, and he was named first team all-conference last year.

He’s listed at 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, although scouts believe he’ll end up a bit shy of those marks come weigh-in time. That size is concerning because it could pigeonhole him into a slot-only role in the NFL, even if he has dabbled outside, at safety and as a blitzer for Washington.

Washington DB Elijah Molden is the leader of a talented secondary. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Washington DB Elijah Molden is the leader of a talented secondary. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Molden’s liquidy hips and change-of-direction skills are borderline elite, and his playmaking knack (four picks, 10 passes defended a year ago) are hard to overlook. If your NFL team needs a Bryce Callahan-type of slot defender, Molden might be your man.

He’s in the top-75 picture with a chance to crack the top 50.

4. Washington State OT Abraham Lucas

A massive man and impressive pass blocker, the smooth-moving Lucas is a redshirt junior. At times, he looks like a potential first-round prospect; other times ... he has some work to do.

At early 6-foot-7 and 324 pounds, Lucas looks like a central-casting tackle. His footwork is impressive in pass protection and he hits his landmarks well on the move. When it comes to burrowing down and moving people in the run game, it’s something we have not seen him do because of the Mike Leach system in which Lucas played the past two years.

Now in a new offense, Lucas has a shot to prove his standing as a more well-rounded tackle. There’s no doubt he possesses NFL skills with starting potential.

5. Cal CB Camryn Bynum

With 38 consecutive starts entering this weekend, Bynum has a ton of experience — and tape. He has only five interceptions in that time and hasn’t displayed tremendous ball skills. But Bynum’s tackling ability, solid length (6-foot with nearly 32-inch arms) and fluid coverage skills make him a nice outside CB prospect.

He’s a top-100 prospect with a high floor, even if his testing numbers might not be in the top tier. And for all his experience, Bynum comes into this season strangely underrated. He also could be tried as a free safety at the next level.

6. Oregon State EDGE Hamilcar Rashed Jr.

Rashed broke out last season as one of the most improved players in the nation in 2019. He had 14 sacks, 22.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. Down the stretch in conference play, he had some monster pressure games — even if some of them came against lesser pass-blocking teams.

Oregon State pass rusher Hamilcar Rashed Jr. had a breakout season in 2019. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Oregon State pass rusher Hamilcar Rashed Jr. had a breakout season in 2019. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It’s going to be hard to make that kind of per-game production this season, but Rashed has a chance to rise quickly if he does. He has long arms, great burst off the line and plays with whistle-to-whistle intensity.

Can he be an effective NFL rusher at 6-3 and 248 pounds? Can he add polish to his pass-rush technique? Those are the biggest questions.

7. USC WR Tyler Vaughns

Vaughns was a nice running mate to St. Brown and Michael Pittman Jr. last season. He figures to have a slightly bigger role as a senior.

There might not be anything eye-popping with him as a prospect, but Vaughs offers a reliability factor with his good length (6-foot-2 with nearly 34-inch arms), inside-outside positional versatility and consistent production.

Outside of a six-snap performance against Utah (when he suffered an ankle injury) last season, Vaughns caught four or more passes in every game in 2019 and dropped only four passes on 96 targets after the opener. Does he lack blazing speed? Shifty quickness? Yes and yes.

But he’d make a nice complementary receiver in the NFL, sort of in the Josh Reynolds mold.

8. UCLA DL Osa Odighizuwa

Odighizuwa is a fascinating study with a tricky projection. West Coast scouts have estimated that Odighizuwa stands a little less than 6-feet-2 and weighs closer to 270 pounds than the 279 he’s listed at.

Those are unusual dimensions for a traditional NFL rush end and pretty small to be kicked inside full time, so we could see him struggle to find a consistent home on defense, similar to the 49ers’ Solomon Thomas. Odighizuwa often plays head up over the offensive tackle in the Bruins’ three-man front but might lack the length to be a 5-technique in the NFL.

Odighizuwa isn’t likely to be as highly thought of coming into next year’s draft as Thomas, the third overall pick in 2017. But his good football DNA (the brother of former Giants third-rounder Owa Odighizuwa), quick-penetration ability and good leverage make him a top-100 candidate.

9. Arizona State WR Frank Darby

Darby might not land in Round 1 the way his former teammates, N’Keal Harry and Brandon Aiyuk, did. There’s still NFL receiver talent in the overlooked Darby, and he should raise his stock with a big final season like the other Sun Devils.

Arizona State WR Frank Darby could be the Sun Devils' next star at the position. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Arizona State WR Frank Darby could be the Sun Devils' next star at the position. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Darby’s frame is on the lean side, and we’d like to see him harness more of his raw strength and explosion. With terrific quickness, ball-tracking ability and outstanding feet, the 6-foot, 194-pound Darby should be a big weapon for QB Jayden Daniels

In a four-game span last November, Darby caught 16 passes for 387 yards and seven touchdowns. He is a better player than the Day 3 grades he received over the summer, and with the Pac-12 back on, Darby has a chance to show it.

10. Utah TE Brant Kuithe

He was one of our favorite players to watch last season, and he has a year of eligibility remaining after this season.

The 6-foot-2, 235 H-back type has a little more burst as a receiver than 2020 Green Bay Packers third-rounder Joseph Deguara or 2020 Patriots third-rounder Dalton Keene. And the role the Packers expected to use for Deguara before he got hurt is likely to be similar to how Kuithe eventually will be unleashed for an NFL team.

Kuithe isn’t big enough to be a full-time, in-line tight end. Think of him as a fullback, running back, receiver and tight end rolled into one. We tweeted this out when we thought the Pac-12 might not have a season.

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11. Cal LB Kuony Deng

There aren’t too many 2021 prospects built in Deng’s mold. He’s 6-foot-5 and somewhere around 230 pounds, a lanky and athletic off-the-ball linebacker with great athleticism. (You’re free to ignore the Cal roster, which lists him at 250 pounds. If he’s that heavy, we’ll eat an entire raw duck.)

Deng isn’t afraid to mix it up inside despite his lack of bulk, and he has intriguing potential to be a blitzing factor as well as the ability to cover tight ends and backs, even if he needs development in that department.

We see him similarly to how we viewed equally lean 2020 Giants sixth-rounder Cam Brown coming out last spring, but with more upside.

12. Stanford QB Davis Mills

We’re in wait-and-see mode on Mills, the former five-star recruit who has been held back by injuries. The Cardinal also figure to be shorthanded this season because of myriad transfers and opt-outs over the past year-plus.

But if Mills can showcase his natural throwing ability, the 6-3, 230-pound Mills fits the mold of a pocket passer with big upside. He threw for 1,070 yards and six touchdowns over Stanford’s final three games, including a 504-yard outing against Washington State.

Watch this beautiful job of avoiding the rush in tight quarters in the red zone and firing a strike for a TD against Oregon State:

Rolling out to the short side, Davis Mills gathered himself and threw a pretty strike for a TD in 2019.
Rolling out to the short side, Davis Mills gathered himself and threw a pretty strike for a TD in 2019.

Does he come out this season or next? We don’t know. He has a first-round ceiling but has yet to show it consistently.

13. Oregon RB CJ Verdell

Verdell has some eye-popping burst, as he showed in a brilliant performance in the Pac-12 title game against a terrific Utah defense last season. On 18 carries in that game, Verdell gained 206 yards — 140 of them after first contact — with three TDs.

Strangely, Oregon varied his rushing volume quite a bit last season, and his production was inconsistent — 636 of his 1,220 rush yards came in three games — and often took him off the field on third downs.

Will the Ducks give the 5-9, 210-pound Verdell more receiving work this season? It’s unclear but new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead had a similar type of back at Fordham, Chase Edmonds, who has carved out a nice role in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals.

14. Washington State RB Max Borghi

One of our favorite third-down backs in college football, the 5-10, 198-pound Borghi is a natural in the passing game with great hands, nice quickness in his breaks and terrific burst with the ball.

We’ve heard him described as a poor man’s Christian McCaffrey. But Borghi is really more of a slot receiver than running back and lacks McCaffrey’s vision, pace and feel for running inside. Still, any team needing a good pass-catching back will love Borghi’s production and underrated toughness.

15. Colorado LB Nate Landman

When we visited Colorado last summer at the start of camp, we came in asking a lot about Laviska Shenault and Steven Montez. We actually left more fascinated by Landman, whom the previous staff raved about.

Landman has short arms and a smaller frame at 6-foot-2 and 232 pounds. He’s also not an elite athlete for the position. But his instincts, toughness and smarts were all highly spoken of, and it showed up on tape last season.

He might be a Day 3 pick, but Landman has a chance to stick as a solid linebacker for an NFL team.

16. Washington TE Cade Otton

We’re unsure who the Huskies’ QB will be, and we’ll have to wait to see Otton and his teammates, as their first game of the season was canceled. (NFL scouts also have been told that, as of now, they won’t be allowed to attend games at Husky Stadium this season because of COVID fears.)

The 6-5, 240-pound Otton is considered something of a throwback (he doesn’t wear receiving gloves) and he fits in nicely as an in-line tight end, slot receiver or even offset fullback for the Huskies. He has one more year of eligibility remaining after this season.

17. UCLA QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson

Perhaps the most intriguing Pac-12 QB in this year’s draft mix is the inconsistent but wonderfully talented Thompson-Robinson. His accuracy has been scattershot at times, and the team tended to go as he did.

UCLA QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson is a fascinating prospect if he keeps improving. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
UCLA QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson is a fascinating prospect if he keeps improving. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

With three experienced receivers back and another year marinated in Chip Kelly’s offense, the 6-1, 200-pound Thompson-Robinson has a chance to be a QB sleeper, either in the 2021 draft or in 2022. He possess star power and might be on the verge of his best season yet.

18. Oregon CB Deommodore Lenoir

Lenoir has been on the draft radar for a bit now, and we’re happy he opted back into playing after initially saying he’d start his draft prep early.

He’s not terribly big at a shade over 5-foot-10 and 199 pounds. But the feisty, competitive corner backs down from no challenge and will come up and knock a receiver’s block off from the opening whistle.

Lenoir won’t be a fit for every NFL team. He has struggled in zone coverage, lacks top-end speed and can be grabby, but he’d be perfect as an outside corner for a man-heavy system such as that of the Chiefs, Patriots or Titans.

19. Stanford C Drew Dalman

“A real ass kicker” is how one West Coast scout described the undersized Dalman, and the tape backs that up. Dalman measures well below NFL standards at the position at 6-foot-3 and about 290 pounds, but he plays with great leverage and intensity.

Size hasn’t held back NFL standouts such as Jason Kelce and Corey Linsley. He and QB Davis Mills looked great down the stretch last season and could be a standout pair in 2020.

T-20. Arizona CB Lorenzo Burns, Arizona State CB Jack Jones and Oregon State RB Jermar Jefferson

You get a three-way entry here.

The 5-10 Burns came back to school to boost his draft stock, and he’s got really good instincts and patience at the position. The problem is that he’s likely under 170 pounds. His speed could put him on that Donte Jackson spectrum as a prospect.

Jones is only slightly bigger at a verified 5-11 and 172 pounds (spring measurement). He’s not as fast as Burns but has good coverage ability. Teams have tested his size and tackling ability in the past, and it’s an area in which he must keep proving himself.

Jefferson is a sleeper favorite of ours, even after his production slipped last season following a breakout year as a freshman in 2018. Turn on last year’s Washington State game for a sampler of what the 5-9, 215-pound Jefferson can do. The biggest worry with him are his injuries; he had a thoracic spinal fracture in high school that NFL team doctors will closely examine, plus a forearm injury that cut into his 2019 production.

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