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NFL draft 2021 risers – Seven prospects who climbed the board over the past year, including Zach Wilson

Despite what you’ve seen and heard on social media and the exclamatory talk that has been tossed around outside the walls of team complexes in the weeks leading up to the 2021 NFL draft, a “riser” is not just a prospect who blew up at his pro day and posted ridiculous numbers. Not in reality, at least. No, the real draft risers are the players who move their way up draft boards over the 12-plus months leading up to the draft. This year, that included the COVID-19-impacted 2020 season but also the Senior Bowl and pre-draft processes.

So with just days left before the picks start coming in, let’s look at who gained the most ground in the class since last summer and why they climbed the board. Last year’s list included the likes of Joe Burrow (No. 1 pick) and Mekhi Becton (No. 11). Which potential stars have made the biggest moves? Here are some of the top risers for this year, starting with a quarterback who won’t wait very long to hear his name called on Thursday night.

How far he climbed boards: Before the 2020 season, Wilson had just seven games with at least 20 completions in the previous two seasons combined. And he had 23 career touchdown passes, 10 fewer than he threw in ’20 alone. So entering 2020, some in the league saw him as a late Day 2 or early Day 3 prospect. But Wilson is now squarely among the top three QBs on the board for many teams thanks to a huge season.

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Turning point: He moved the needle quickly as the Cougars sauntered through the early portion of their schedule, winning their first three games by a combined 148-24. Wilson threw six touchdown passes with one interception in those games.

Why he rose: He had right shoulder surgery early in 2019 and then also missed four games during the 2019 season after right hand/wrist surgery. He finished with 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions in nine games. So when he vaulted from the gate in ’20, people were quickly in tune with the athletic traits and variety of throws he showed.

Of course, a five-game stretch as October turned to November when Wilson threw 18 touchdown passes to one interception didn’t hurt either.

What they’re saying: “The goal … was to kind of show what makes me different, the type of throws I can make that I feel like other guys don’t practice and don’t try to do.” — Wilson after his pro day

How far he climbed boards: Players have gone through a Senior Bowl week many times before and forced evaluators to say that they’d “go home and take another look.” But few have truly launched themselves into teams’ evaluations after just a few days of work in Mobile, Alabama, like Meinerz did this year. He was squarely a Day 3 prospect last summer, but he could now easily be an early Day 2 pick.

Turning point: Meinerz’s Senior Bowl week was filled with high-quality work, both in team drills and one-on-ones. Though he did not play in the actual game after fracturing a bone in his right hand, he had consistently performed through the week of practices against some of the best upperclassmen in the draft from the SEC and the other Power 5 conferences.

Why he rose: Meinerz’s Wisconsin-Whitewater team canceled its season in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions. So the Senior Bowl marked the first time any scout or personnel executive had seen him on a football field since the end of the 2019 season.

Before they arrived in Mobile, many scouts thought of Meinerz as a quality developmental prospect who finished plays with a coveted nasty streak. When they were finished in Mobile, they had seen a player who had obviously put in the work when he couldn’t play in games. He was a better-conditioned player with better footwork and better technique across the board.

What they’re saying: “I always liked him some, especially when he finished plays, but thought he’d need a lot of work when he stepped up in competition. And then he showed up in Mobile and looked like a different guy who still finished plays.” — an AFC scouting director

How far he climbed boards: Sometimes it is just a matter of a short résumé getting a little longer. After moving from the defensive line to right tackle during his redshirt year at Michigan, Hudson played in only three games with the Wolverines in 2018. He then played in only one game in 2019 at Cincinnati after his request to the NCAA for a waiver to become immediately eligible after his transfer was denied. He opened the 2020 season as a late Day 3 prospect who most wanted to keep an eye on because of his potential.

But then Hudson played 10 games at left tackle this past season and had the opportunity to show his skill set, and he’s now rated a Day 2 prospect by many.

Turning point: Some scouts say his only game in the 2019 season — a January 2020 bowl game against Boston College — was a reminder to check on Hudson whenever the 2020 season got rolling. After not being able to play following his transfer, he was cleared for the final game of the ’19 season and fared well against the BC front.

Why he rose: Hudson did not surrender a sack in his only collegiate season at left tackle and consistently showed the mobility people want at that position, along with the developmental room to grow.

What they’re saying: “I know he was ejected in their bowl game [against Georgia, for targeting] and it was a late hit and all that, but overall, [he’s] an athletic player who is only going to get better — strong hands, good feet. And I just like the way he closes out plays.” — an NFC area scout

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Check out the best highlights from Cincinnati OT James Hudson’s college career.

How far he climbed boards: In a cornerback class that has been considered deep through Days 2 and 3, Joseph was just another name in the pool — most likely in the Day 3 range — when the 2020 season began.

He had played sparingly in 2018 as a true freshman at LSU (12 tackles in 11 games) and didn’t play in 2019 because he had transferred from LSU to Kentucky. And because he also opted out of Kentucky’s final two games this past season, his draft résumé is essentially nine starts in 2020. But he could now be a late first-round or early Day 2 pick depending on how the board falls.

Turning point: It will seem odd that evaluators took notice of Joseph’s skill set in a game that the Wildcats lost 63-3, but several have said his work against Alabama raised some eyebrows.

In all of that scoring mayhem, the game tape revealed that Alabama, with some of the best offensive talent in this draft class, threw Joseph’s way in coverage just three times — and he intercepted one of those passes.

Why he rose: His inexperience did show at times this past season, but we’re talking about a cornerback just a bit under 6 feet tall who smoothly ran in the 4.3s at his pro day and held up against some of the SEC’s best receivers. His best football is in front of him.

What they’re saying: “As a player, my time at UK, I just improved as a better person, better teammate, better leader. … [I’ve gotten] a lot of good feedback.” — Joseph before his pro day

How far he climbed boards: Campbell’s rise depends largely on the philosophy of the specific evaluator regarding the relationship between traits and production. But many around the NFL had a fourth-round grade — or lower — on him entering last season. Now? Evaluators say they could maybe see Campbell landing in the second round — and perhaps even earlier for teams with a more traits-first approach.

The kind of size/speed combination that Campbell has at 6-foot-1 and 193 pounds with a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash (some scouts had him in the 4.3s hand-timed at his pro day) is always an attention-getter in the weeks before a draft. There is the matter of one career interception in 33 games, but pro potential can often muscle past college production on a draft weekend.

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Turning point: As a true freshman at Georgia, Campbell got plenty of attention from opposing quarterbacks playing opposite DeAndre Baker, and by the final three games of that sometimes choppy season, he was no longer a starter. But evaluators believe his response to that season was to play with some additional composure over the next two years. Campbell said he would “panic sometimes” when he was in certain matchups as a freshman, but the tape shows that dissipated during his sophomore and junior seasons.

Why he rose: In general, a player with size and speed can repair some technique issues, while a player who doesn’t have Campbell’s wheels can’t just become fast, no matter how good the technique might be. Teams are often more willing to take a chance on a potential-over-production player when he has Campbell’s quickness and has faced the best of college football.

What they’re saying: “I know our coaches like him, and I think he’s got that upside. You just want to get comfortable with the idea he will put in the work, and I think he will.” — an AFC scouting director

How far he climbed boards: Exactly how far Koonce climbs may depend on how teams feel about a foot injury that kept him out of both the Senior Bowl and Buffalo’s pro day. Those events could have helped his cause. But then again, he went from splitting snaps at his position in 2018 to a nine-sack season in 2019 to five sacks in six games in 2020. (He didn’t play in Buffalo’s bowl game.) Once considered a late Day 3 guy, Koonce could find his way into the early Day 3 rounds or maybe even the later side of Day 2 if a team or two find a comfort level with his medical evaluation.

Turning point: His work in 2019 got him plenty of notice from teams’ area scouts who worked that region, but his Bahamas Bowl performance moved him to the “make sure you keep an eye on him” list for some. That performance included five tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble.

Why he rose: Through the years, pass-rushers’ skills have translated to the NFL fairly quickly, no matter what level of competition they had faced. Koonce has the developmental profile of a still-ascending player at a high-value position who had 14 sacks over his last 19 games. Toss in the length coaches like to see in their pass-rushers — an 81-inch arm span for a 6-foot-2¼ pass-rusher — and you have a prospect who will get a long look.

What they’re saying: “If the medicals check out, I could see some Day 3 interest from people. I know I would push for that.” — an NFC scouting director

How far he climbed boards: It’s all about the fit sometimes. For some, Felton is a late Day 3 pick. But for others, those who want some potential pop in the passing game, he will get a longer look in the fourth- or fifth-round range.

Felton is a bit undersized at 5-foot-8⅝ and 189 pounds, but some evaluators see lots of possibilities for him in a specific role in their respective offenses.

Turning point: Teams checked in throughout 2019, when he had four scoring plays of at least 75 yards, but overall, it has been the combination of his route running and potential in the passing game over the last two seasons that has moved him up boards. His catch-and-run touchdown in the Senior Bowl when he was lined up out wide was a tidy reminder.

Felton’s willingness to work at wide receiver in drills when teams have wanted to see him there — including at the Senior Bowl — has also helped his cause.

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Check out the best highlights from UCLA RB Demetric Felton’s college career.

Why he rose: Felton had 77 receptions and seven receiving touchdowns over his last 18 games (2019 and 2020 seasons) to go with 1,002 yards rushing. Toss in his potential as a kick returner and there is plenty of value to his game.

What they’re saying: “I feel like the league is just transitioning to mismatches, being able to create mismatches. If you put me against a linebacker, there’s no way he’s going to be able to cover me, and at the Senior Bowl, I feel like I was able to get open against DBs as well. In the league, that’s huge.” — Felton

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