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An initial primer on UNC players’ NFL Draft prospects

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With the Senior Bowl going on this week, NFL Draft season has officially begun, and several UNC alumni are in the thick of it

NCAA Football: Senior Bowl Practice Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re a fan of the Kansas City Chiefs or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and/or Tom Brady, feel free to bookmark this article and come back to it after February 7th, when your NFL season will be over like the rest of ours. For the rest of us, though, with the Senior Bowl taking place this week, NFL Draft season has officially begun, and for the purposes of writing for this website, that’s a big deal this year, because UNC might have one of its most prominent, if not one of its biggest, draft classes in recent history, starting with two participants at the Senior Bowl. We’ll be doing more coverage of the Draft process as it goes along, in the modified format that this year necessitates, but I think now is as good a time as any to start things off with a quick rundown. Let’s get started:

Seniors

UNC has three departing seniors who are expected to be NFL Draft picks: Running back Michael Carter, wide receiver Dazz Newsome, and linebacker Chazz Surratt. Surratt and Carter accepted invites to the Senior Bowl; Carter pretty early on and Surratt quite last-minute. I doubt Surratt was a late invite, because he’s been on NFL radars since halfway through last season. What I think is more likely is that he planned to skip it in favor of the NFL Combine, until he got the news that the Combine will be a little modified this year, at which point the Senior Bowl was going to be his only chance for in-person contact with NFL coaching staffs and evaluators. Regardless of the reasoning, both guys have been practicing in Mobile for the past week and, from perusals of some recaps and Twitter mentions of their names, both have been solid but not particularly eye-opening. Carter’s hands have been mentioned as a plus, as has Surratt’s range, but we knew that already. We did get two fun clips of the two going against each other, including Surratt beating Carter in a blitz pickup drill and Carter burning Surratt on a route (each drill is heavily favored towards the position who took the win there, so these clips aren’t referenda on the players themselves):

Both are expected to be Day 2 picks in the draft, though people vary pretty wildly on where they stack up among their peers and where they might be taken (let alone considerations of team fit). Dane Brugler of The Athletic ranks Surratt 36th and Carter 100th on his Big Board right now, (paywalled) while the people at The Draft Network rank Carter 51st and Surratt 58th (rankings free, breakdowns paywalled). Daniel Jeremiah doesn’t have either in his Top 50. The CBS Sports folks are probably the most down on the pair, ranking Carter 94th and Surratt 80th. Where they slot amongst their peers, though, is a lot more consistent, and might give us some more indication as to what their draft prospects look like at the moment. Carter usually ends up between the 5th and 8th-best running back in the draft (the TDN people have him 4th, which feels optimistic even to me), and Surratt is invariably the 5th or 6th-best off-ball linebacker. In 2020, a quite strong running back class and a very top-heavy linebacker class, that would give Carter a range between 55 and 74 and peg Surratt at the back of the second round. I’d expect Carter’s range to decrease a little from there and Surratt’s to increase slightly, just based on how those positions (and needs) are shaping up in this year’s draft. They do have a lot more to show, though, particularly in testing, where Carter can answer some questions about burst and speed and Surratt can confirm his athleticism.

Newsome was on a lot of folks’ radars at the end of last year after a 1,000-yard season, he looked like a dynamic slot receiving prospect with killer route-running ability and great strength at the catch point for his size. He took a step back in his senior year, however, and his draft hype has cooled off slightly from this time last year — and his ceiling was always somewhere around the third round, at most, just because his size limits him to being a slot receiver. He’ll still be drafted, but it may not be until Round 5 or so — though he’s got a chance to rise up draft boards with a solid Pro Day and Combine process. He’s got the kind of agility and route-running acumen against off coverage that could raise some eyebrows in drills.

Juniors

Here’s where things get very interesting. Carter, Surratt, and Newsome, like any draft prospect, could improve or tank their draft standing in the coming months, but where they stand right now feels pretty stable. They’re known quantities with established roles to play in the NFL, and none of them feels likely to be a star. That’s definitely not the case with the two players who decided to forgo their remaining year of eligibility (COVID-19 exemption not considered) at UNC for the draft, namely running back Javonte Williams and wide receiver Dyami Brown. Brown is the slightly less interesting case of the two, because he’s at least clearly in the second tier of wide reciever prospects, after the truly elite ones like DeVonta Smith and Ja’Marr Chase. After about four guys who probably be taken in the first round, though, the position group becomes murkier, and that’s where Brown finds himself right now. Brugler has him as the 9th-ranked receiver and TDN has him 10th, but their overall rankings are much more different: 58 and 77, respectively. One thing to consider is that Brugler seems to be taking positional value much more into account than TDN does, and Brown’s ability to get off press coverage and get downfield as an outside receiver has the potential to separate him from some of the other second-tier receiving prospects, who will likely be relegated to the slot as pros. I’ve seen several people who expect him to be among the biggest risers in the draft process, and because of that value, I wouldn’t be surprised. Right now, he’s probably looking at a mid-third round selection, but that could easily and mightily improve.

And finally, we get to Javonte Williams, who’s been one of the hottest names early on in draft talks. Anywhere reputable you look, he’s no lower than the 3rd-ranked running back on people’s boards, and at times he even sneaks into the top two depending on how put off people are by Travis Etienne’s lack of wiggle. Overall, TDN has him as the 34th-best player in the draft, which is pretty wild to write out loud. Brugler isn’t quite as generous, though again, he’s accounting for positional value, and running backs’ value might be the lowest of any non-specialist position, so his ranking of 68 makes more sense. Both, for the record, have him as the 3rd-ranked back. For all the talk of running backs not mattering in the NFL, however, general managers have consistently been saying both with their (usually confidential) words and their actions that they don’t really buy that as much as Football Twitter does. Last year, the third running back was picked at #41. Three years ago, the 3rd running back picked was picked in the first round (Let’s not talk about 2019). Williams’ combination of power, acceleration, balance, and competence in the passing game, not to mention his undeniable want-to on the field, make for an extremely attractive prospect, and if Rashaad Penny could sneak into the first round in 2018, I honestly think it’s possible for Williams as well. It’s a weird draft season, but far weirder (and worse) decisions have been made. Nevertheless, it seems virtually guaranteed he’ll be off the board by pick #50, which would mark the first time since Eric Ebron that a Tar Heel non-QB has done so.

Altogether, UNC is looking at it being fairly likely that four Heels are drafted before pick #100, which hasn’t happened since 2013 and has happened, if I counted right, less than 5 times in UNC’s entire history. This won’t be the biggest UNC draft class ever, but it’ll be one of the ones where Heels are most visible in recent memory, and that’s pretty exciting. It’s just another symptom of being a program on the rise as fast as UNC is. Be sure to keep checking in as draft season continues for more news on these Heels’ professional prospects.