Seven NFL draft class risers, including Jelani Woods: Whose stock rose the most over the past year?
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A real, honest-to-football draft “riser” doesn’t launch himself up NFL draft boards with some “remember when” pro day workout. He doesn’t suddenly negate four months worth of games because his vertical jump made for good TV at the scouting combine (Jordan Davis’ 40-yard dash not withstanding).
Instead, the real draft risers are the players who move their way up draft boards over the 12-plus months leading up to the draft — little by little, game by game, visit by visit — with a double-take workout thrown on the pile for good measure. So with just days left before the picks start coming in for the 2022 NFL draft, let’s look at some of those who have gained the most ground in the class since last summer and why they climbed the board. Last year’s list included the likes of Zach Wilson (No. 2 pick overall), Malcolm Koonce (No. 79), Quinn Meinerz (No. 98) and Demetric Felton (No. 211).
Which potential stars have made the biggest moves? Here are some of the top risers for this year, starting with a couple of linebackers who have made the most of the pre-draft windup.
Leo Chenal, ILB, Wisconsin
Scouts Inc. ranking: 48
How far he climbed boards: Many in the league believe this draft’s real strength and depth is on Day 2, when teams might be able to take a player late in the third round who has roughly the same grade as players selected early in the second round. Chenal was probably a mid-to-late Day 3 pick when his 2021 season began, but he has potentially worked his way into Day 2 selection territory, depending on whom you ask.
Turning point: His first year as a starter — a COVID-19-abbreviated seven-game affair in 2020 — provided a quality glimpse of his improvement. His 13-tackle effort against Minnesota in December 2020, with five tackles for loss and two sacks, provided momentum that he maintained all the way through the 2021 season.
Why he rose: There is still room in the pass-happy NFL for a tough, physical point-of-attack linebacker, and Chenal perhaps wins the pound-for-pound play strength award for this draft class. He had 115 tackles this past season with 18.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks and two forced fumbles. He also played with assignment discipline in coordinator Jim Leonhard’s shape-shifting defense that consistently showed his aptitude for the game.
What they’re saying: “I mean, we like to change it up a lot. A lot of the sacks that I had [last] year actually weren’t intended blitzes. They were kind of like reactionary things that our position coach taught us — like if we get a certain look, let’s go, like it wasn’t just like automatic.” — Chenal on his 11 sacks over the past two seasons
Troy Andersen, ILB, Montana State
Scouts Inc. ranking: 70
How far he climbed boards: Andersen’s on-field production stands out, but decision-makers have grown to like him even a little more after spending time with him. And his profile is one of the most unique in this draft, considering he has been used by his team like no other player. He went from an offensive prospect who likely would have been a seventh-round flier or a priority free agent to a solid Day 2 linebacker who offers an intriguing ability to do other things.
Turning point: There were a lot of turning points thanks to his versatility. After all, he rushed for 102 yards and had a sack in the same college game. In 2019, he rushed for over 1,400 yards and threw for 1,195 yards as the conference’s first-team selection at quarterback. Two years later, he was the Big Sky’s Defensive Player of the Year with 150 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions.
Why he rose: Versatility, willingness to play where he was needed, excellent physical traits, great production and a ton of toughness are all factors. Oh, and he dropped a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at the combine at 243 pounds.
What they’re saying: “Sometimes I wish we could have all seen him play full time on defense for four years; the numbers would have been huge. But special teams, defense, some things on offense … there’s a place for him on a team.” — AFC personnel director
Jelani Woods, TE, Virginia
Scouts Inc. ranking: 103
How far he climbed boards: Woods was recruited as a quarterback by Oklahoma State and switched to tight end during the Cowboys’ prep for their bowl game to close out the 2017 season. So he has spent just four seasons (three at Oklahoma State and the 2021 season at Virginia) at tight end. With that in mind, his 44 catches and eight touchdowns this past season drew plenty of attention. Many evaluators saw Woods as an undrafted free agent before the 2021 season, but he’s now a solid Day 2 (or early Day 3) pick.
Turning point: Scouts who saw him at Oklahoma State knew he was a big-framed player (6-foot-7 and 253 pounds) who flashed some speed. But Woods managed only 28 receptions in his 34 games there. When he had a 122-yard receiving game in Week 2 last season — just his second game at Virginia — and followed with a 73-yard outing two weeks later, they had to take notice.
Why he rose: Woods showed the ability to wall off defenders for the ball and routinely broke tackles in the open field. He had a touchdown catch in six of the Cavaliers’ first seven games this past season, too. He also showed slightly more nuance in his route running at the Senior Bowl, which confirmed he is still an ascending player with plenty of potential.
What they’re saying: “I’d say it came pretty naturally. Being at quarterback, you have the ball in your hands all the time and catching snaps without even looking at the ball most of the time — I feel like that helped a lot. To me, there’s no difference catching the ball from [the] center and catching from the quarterback.” — Woods on switching positions
Pierre Strong Jr., RB, South Dakota State
Scouts Inc. ranking: 118
How far he climbed boards: Over the past few months, Strong has gone from a running back who would be used primarily as an early-down runner to one who can also contribute as a receiver and in pass protection. His production, his combine workout and a quality week at the East-West Shrine Bowl has pushed him from a late pick on Day 3 to a potential fourth- or fifth-round selection.
Turning point: After a 707-yard rushing season in 2020, Strong topped 100 yards in the first three games of 2021, with runs of at least 48 yards in three of his first five games. By season’s end, he had nine 100-yard rushing games, 18 rushing touchdowns and an average of 7.0 yards per carry.
Why he rose: NFL playcallers covet the explosiveness Strong brings; he is a second-level runner who can find gaps in nickel defenses and turn quick decisions into big plays. He consistently makes those kind of good decisions in traffic, and he has the speed (4.37 seconds in his only 40-yard dash at the combine) to close the deal in the open field.
What they’re saying: “I like his ability to make the right cut. He gets that first defender on his own, and if you block it right, he can turn it into something.” — NFC general manager
EJ Perry, QB, Brown
Scouts Inc. ranking: 324
How far he climbed boards: Perry was one of the quarterbacks invited to the combine to throw in the workouts for other position groups. He gained some traction with that work, along with a strong showing at Holy Cross’ pro day (he joined Holy Cross’ event). It wouldn’t be surprising to see Perry — who was likely headed toward priority free-agent status — get picked in the middle of Day 3.
Turning point: In 2021, Perry threw for 3,033 yards and 48 touchdowns in 10 games, and he added 402 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns.
Why he rose: At 6-foot-2 and 211 pounds, he has the sturdiness and ability as a runner to be considered for a multifaceted role in the NFL. But his work as a passer at both the East-West Shrine Bowl — he was the offensive MVP — and the combine has shown he is still improving his throwing motion, footwork and accuracy.
What they’re saying: “I feel like one of the things I look back on this year that’ll be able to carry over and will serve me well is the stressing of completed passes. That’s something that is of the utmost priority in the NFL. And finishing drives. This past year, we had a ridiculous number of 10-plus-play drives. That’s something when you watch NFL quarterbacks succeed, they’re operating all the way down the field. I think being challenged to do that this past year is going to help me.” — Perry on how he improved this past season
Joshua Williams, CB, Fayetteville State
Scouts Inc. ranking: 166
How far he climbed boards: Williams was not only the sole Division II player invited to the Senior Bowl, he was also the first Fayetteville State player ever invited to the all-star game. And he followed that up with a combine invite. He’s still on the learning curve, given he was a wide receiver until his senior year of high school, but he might have moved himself into late-Day 3 consideration.
Turning point: His work this past season, after his school played no games in 2020 because of the pandemic, showed some continued improvement in his technique. But given his competition level and that he wasn’t often challenged in man coverage, Williams’ big jump came during Senior Bowl week. In Mobile, Alabama, Williams posted one of the top five on-field speed measurements of the week at 21.8 mph. By comparison, North Dakota state wide receiver Christian Watson — a potential Day 2 pick in this draft known for his vertical ability — was clocked at 20.7 mph.
Why he rose: Few scouting profiles rise quicker on the draft boards around the league than cornerbacks with length and speed. And Williams was 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds at the combine with a 78¼-inch arm span.
What they’re saying: “Everybody needs corners, and everybody wants corners with some length, reach. He runs 4.5 [and] plays 4.4, and if he cleans up some technique things, he can play.” — NFC wide receivers coach
Tyshaun James, WR, Central Connecticut
Scouts Inc. ranking: NR
How far he climbed boards: Well under the radar as the 2021 season began, James could be a late-Day 3 pick if folks believe his elite pro-day numbers are in line with his progression as a receiver. James is a former prep quarterback who switched to receiver when he arrived at Central Connecticut State, and he had just one reception in his first season, so he is obviously still developing.
Turning point: He had the kind of pro day (at UConn) that forces a recount of sorts. The 6-foot-2, 216-pound James was clocked by some at 4.45 seconds in his best 40-yard dash, had a 37½-inch vertical jump and a 10-foot-11 standing broad jump — all of which would have been among the best at the position at the combine. That pushed several in the league to go back and do a little more research on him.
Why he rose: James has a rare size/speed combination with a large catch radius. His arm span was measured at 77¾ inches at his pro day, which is in line with what some linemen on this draft board have measured. He had 61 career rushing attempts (4.8 yards per carry) in his career to go with his 114 career catches, and there is plenty of potential among the rough edges.
What they’re saying: “I’d give him a look, coach him up. If he’ll do the work, he’s got a chance.” — AFC director of scouting
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