Okay, so the 2021 NFL Draft is in the books, and now we can all comfortably forget about grinding tape, assigning grades, and all this other football-adjacent stuff that isn’t actually football, and start gearing up for the fall, when we’ll get to start a new season of real football action, and finally see it with fans in the stands. If you’re really desperate for football, you can take in some FCS action right now, as their season got moved to spring. Or, if you’re a big nerd like me, you haven’t quite stopped thinking about the draft, then this article is for you. Almost a full year before the fact, and several months before we see them take the field in their draft-eligible year, let’s take a look at the Heels who could see their names called about this time next year. I’ll split them into groups, starting with:
Quarterback Sam Howell
With the #HowellforHeisman campaign in as full swing as such a movement can be in early May, I’m sure you’re not surprised to see Howell at the top of this list. The 6’1, 225-pound rising junior has put together two of UNC’s best passing seasons of all time, and in just two years is tied for the program lead in passing touchdowns, putting him in position to obliterate the previous record even if he doesn’t statistically improve. He will likely end his career, even if it’s after three years, as the program’s leader in passing yards as well, and his career passer rating is the best UNC has ever seen. But players don’t necessarily get drafted based on how good they are relative to their schools’ history, so it’s a good thing that Howell was also 4th in the NCAA in passing yards, 6th in the NCAA in touchdowns, and 8th in passer rating, firmly putting him in the conversation for best returning quarterback in college football, and thus cementing him on early 2022 draft radars.
Looking beyond the production, Howell has an absolutely killer deep ball and can fit the ball into really tight windows with his anticipation and placement, which are his two main projectable skills for the NFL. He’s also shown off decent mobility and shiftiness, despite not being a superior athlete. Despite this, a fair number of draftniks are a little cooler than the media is on him at the moment, citing the lack of evidence of him making more than one or two reads downfield, his at-times spotty accuracy on intermediate throws, and only average ball velocity — and the fact that he had the NCAA’s best run game and two NFL-caliber receivers to take some of the load off. This year, he’ll have the opportunity to answer some of those questions by repeating his prior excellence with a nearly all-new set of skill position players and tightening up his short and intermediate game. Even before that, though, he’s among the country’s best quarterback prospects in 2022, and should be one of the first quarterbacks taken, ideally after another stellar season in Chapel Hill.
Projection: First Round
Offensive Lineman Joshua Ezeudu
The 6’4, 325-pound Ezeudu, like a lot of offensive linemen who aren’t in their draft year, was pretty under the radar as a redshirt sophomore last year, but did make the All-ACC Third Team as a guard, the only UNC offensive lineman to make any of the All-ACC teams despite the UNC line’s participation in creating the country’s leading rushing attack. Despite that, oddly enough, I think Ezeudu is a much better pass blocker than he is a run blocker: he has outstanding feet, hands, and mobility, so he’s easily able to stonewall his opposition and earn time in the pocket, but he’s not much of a mauler, so he doesn’t often create extra space for his running backs in the ground game. He’s not a bad run blocker, he’s just not a road grader. Pass blocking is what gets you paid, though, so I think Ezeudu is going to be really well-liked by evaluators and decision-makers. Another point in his favor is his position versatility: He’s played every position on UNC’s line except center, and done so really well, in his two years in Chapel Hill. Wherever his pro team has a hole, he’ll be able to fill it; he has both the measureables and the skill to do so even in the NFL. As a redshirt junior with a frozen year of eligibility, it’s in the realm of possibility that Ezeudu stays in Chapel Hill another year beyond 2021, but as good as he is already, I don’t think that’s incredibly likely.
Projection: Late Second-Third Round
Cornerback Kyler McMichael
Pressed into service as UNC’s #1 corner thanks to a season-ending injury to Storm Duck, McMichael more than acquitted himself over the course of the season, taking away teams’ biggest threats through the air more often than not and finishing the season with 6 pass breakups to go with his tackling stats. The interception fairy continues to be unkind to the Heels, with just 7 on the year and 3 of them coming from linebackers, so McMichael didn’t get any picks last year — but 6 PDs is pretty decent ball production for a year and should only improve as UNC gets a much-needed personnel rejuvenation in the defensive backfield, with Duck due to come back, Ja’Qurious Conley playing nickel with a full year in the system, and expected improvement at safety. Oh, and there’s Tony Grimes, who broke out towards the end of last year and will be hard to take off the field. I think McMichael’s size (6’0, 210 pounds and long) and skills will be attractive to NFL evaluators, and he should stand out next year amidst a talented backfield. Again, he’s not a lock to leave, with two years of eligibility left thanks to the COVID freeze, but he’s definitely draftable, and the NFL needs physical corners.
Projection: Mid Third - Fourth Round
I promise, I’ll be less long-winded from here on out.
Guard Marcus McKethan and Tackle Jordan Tucker
These two rising seniors anchor the right side of UNC’s offensive line, so I think it’s fitting to put them together like this. Conveniently, I think their NFL evaluations are pretty similar. McKethan is a mammoth 6’7 and 335 pounds, and Tucker is nearly his physical twin at 6’6.5 and 340. They’re both absolute road graders in the run game and surprisingly mobile, as evidenced by Phil Longo using both constantly as pullers on Guard/Tackle counter plays and as lead blockers on sweeps to the outside. They use their bulk and length effectively as pass protectors, even though they don’t have the heaviest or most accurate hands (McKethan’s a little better technique-wise than Tucker, but Tucker has stronger hands to give him more room for error) or, especially compared to Ezeudu, the quickest feet to set and re-set. Tucker in particular probably has to slim down a little bit if he is going to play tackle in the NFL; professional edge rushers are just too quick for the amount of body he’d have to move to stop them right now. At the end of the day, both are very good and effective linemen who just have a few more details to iron out than Ezeudu and other draft-ready linemen across the country, and they should both be drafted after a year where they show some development.
Running Back Ty Chandler
Chandler was a low-level draft prospect out of Tennessee after this year, his solid production being a little offset by his losing his job midseason to Eric Gray. The traits are still there, though, including reasonable hands out of the backfield and track-athlete speed, for him to take advantage of a better team situation at UNC and show off what he can do. I can see him coming close to replicating T.J. Logan’s senior year, as I said when he committed to UNC, and using his speed and 3rd-down usefulness to find a home on Day 3 next year.
The Maybe, but Unlikelies
Linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel
I’m not entirely sure the 6’1, 225-pound Gemmel is an NFL talent, but I didn’t see it from Cole Holcomb before him, either, before Holcomb absolutely blew up his Pro Day and got himself drafted in the 5th round. I don’t think Gemmel is that kind of athlete, but to be fair, I didn’t think Holcomb was, either. Gemmel’s a much more downhill linebacker than Holcomb was, though; his best strengths are his physicality and run fits while he struggles in coverage and going sideline to sideline. If he shows either during the season or after it that he has the kind of athleticism he needs to correct those issues in the pros, I can see a team taking a flyer on him, but it doesn’t seem all that likely.
Wide Receiver Beau Corrales
Corrales had a really unfortunate year in 2020, first with COVID-19 threatening his health more than most because of his Type 1 Diabetes, and then with his sustaining a sports hernia that eventually required surgery and ended his season just as he’d had a statement game against Florida State. Even with a lot of young talent at receiver in Chapel Hill, Corrales has figured into a lot of the early talk about lineups, so he’ll probably continue being Sam Howell’s possession receiver on the right boundary. The 6’3, 210-pound Corrales is tall and athletic with strong hands and the ability to Moss smaller DB’s, but he’s an elementary route-runner and very slow for an NFL receiver, so I don’t think he’s all that draftable as a receiver. If he shows out as a blocker and puts on 15 or so pounds, though, he’d make an intriguing tight end, comparable to Bug Howard in the short-lived AAF.
Wide Receiver Antoine Green
With reports of William Barnes finally starting to realize his five-star potential, Green is almost certainly UNC’s biggest unfulfilled promise right now. An injury his freshman year left him buried on the depth chart in 2020, however, as he was supplanted by classmate Dyami Brown, and in limited snaps he didn’t look all the way comfortable on his repaired legs, with a couple of drops on balls he just had to reach for. He’s got great size at 6’2 and 210 pounds, with speed and athleticism to match, and looked pretty good in UNC’s spring game, so maybe this is the year he turns around and realizes his NFL potential, but it would take a lot for that to happen.
Edge Rusher Tomon Fox
Fox led UNC with 7 sacks in his senior year in 2020 and added seven QB hurries to boot, but after some time considering going pro, decided to return to UNC for a 6th year thanks to the COVID-19 eligibility freeze. Fox is a tenacious pass rusher with good bend who occasionally pulls out a nice speed rush to get to the quarterback, but his lack of length frequently leads to him getting stonewalled before he has a chance to land a punch. At 6’3 and 265 pounds, he’s got some power for his weight, but doesn’t have much in the way of power rush moves or counters. His sack production probably means he’s on NFL radars, but to this point in his career, he hasn’t developed into a complete edge rusher like you’d hope he would have, and UNC last year had to devote a lot of linebacker blitzes to offset him and his groupmates’ inability to consistently pressure the quarterback. With more support on the interior, things could turn around for him as a pro prospect, but he has to show significant growth as a 6th-year college player.
Raymond Vohasek plays with a relentless motor, but is probably too athletically limited for the NFL and might see his snaps eaten up by underclassmen with more innate ability. Garrett Walston is a very good blocker as a tight end with safe hands and that just got Tommy Tremble drafted by the Carolina Panthers, but Tremble is practically another lineman in the run game and Walston isn’t quite that. And players like Storm Duck, Khafre Brown, and Emery Simmons are technically going to be draft-eligible and are NFL talents, but even if they’re good this year, it’s tough to jump to the draft off just one year of production unless it’s otherworldly.
Do you think I missed anybody? Agree or disagree with my quick evaluations? Let me know in the comments!