Earlier this week, our college football team released its latest Heisman straw poll, with USC QB Caleb Williams and Washington QB Michael Penix Jr. running a tight 1-2, followed by Oklahoma QB Dillon Gabriel, Georgia TE Brock Bowers and Oregon QB Bo Nix.
What takeaways did The Athletic’s NFL Draft team have off the results? Which players on the list could shake up the early rounds of next April’s draft? We talk it out in our latest roundtable.
1. Brock Bowers ranks fourth in our latest straw poll. Let’s put you on the spot: How high would you draft him in April?
Dane Brugler: Bowers should (and will) be considered in the top five picks. I don’t buy that NFL teams will be scared off by the “draft value” of his position or by the fact that many highly drafted tight ends have not lived up to expectations. NFL teams are desperate for offensive weapons, and Bowers is exactly that.
George Kittle is a popular comparison for Bowers. If teams think they are getting a 21-year-old version of Kittle, they will draft a player like that very high.
Brock Bowers everyone.
— Georgia Football (@GeorgiaFootball) September 30, 2023
Diante Lee: Tight ends typically aren’t easy to project in the NFL, because of the steep learning curves they face as blockers and route runners. But Bowers is an incredible talent that’ll be a natural in at least one of those aspects.
He looks even more explosive now than he has in the last two seasons, runs a pretty complete route tree from the slot and is a true threat after the catch as an inline tight end. He leads all FBS tight ends in catches, receiving first downs, yards per route run and expected points added (EPA).
You have to account for team needs and positional value, but I’d say anything from the No. 5 pick on should be viable.
Nick Baumgardner: Bowers is one of the three or four best players in the country, so any team that has a top-five pick and isn’t in need of a QB should consider him. And they should do so not only because of what an athletic tight end can do for a quarterback in today’s game, but because Bowers can help change the way you run the football — and thus, give your offense way more options than most teams. He’s a true three-down weapon that defenses have to account for on every snap.
Bucket him wherever you’d like on the positional value chart. Based on talent, though, he should be on the table after the top two quarterbacks (Williams and Drake Maye) and Ohio State WR Marvin Harrison Jr.
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2. Michael Penix Jr. (66 points) is a very close second to Caleb Williams (74) in this week’s poll, and he’s got a huge game against Oregon (and Bo Nix) Saturday. How should NFL teams be viewing Penix?
Baumgardner: We’ll probably keep taking heat when we say this, but it’s also just how it sort of is at this point. Penix is an extremely confident, aggressive vertical passer who understands football and is great at giving his guys a chance, no matter what. However, it’s impossible to separate his numbers from the talent he’s throwing to, and it all shows up on film.
From an accuracy standpoint, Penix’s reliability doesn’t totally match what you see on the box score. He’s still an NFL talent. I’d have him below Nix, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see someone fall in love with him on Day 2 — not unlike Hendon Hooker (Penix will be 24 next season).
Lee: People take the analysis on Penix as a backhanded compliment, and there’s part of me that’s empathetic to the Washington fanbase’s annoyance. As Nick said, though, the truth remains: He throws an excellent deep ball … and he’s surrounded by an incredible amount of NFL talent at receiver, in a scheme that makes it difficult to project what he’s going to be at the next level.
He’s rarely moved off his throwing platform, let alone pressured, and opposing defenses don’t have the coverage talent to take away throwing windows against WRs Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan. Penix is an intriguing guy, and someone I’d take in the second or third round, but I can’t say I’m confident in what he’ll be in the NFL.
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3. The loaded 2024 QB class could crowd out a couple of prospects. (There are eight QBs in this week’s poll.) Which quarterback could benefit most from returning to school next season?
Brugler: There are several logical answers. With another year of development in college, Colorado’s Shedeur Sanders could go from QB3 or QB4 to QB1. Same thing for Texas’ Quinn Ewers and Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy.
But I’ll say Duke’s Riley Leonard, because though I really like his natural athleticism and talent, there is plenty he still needs to prove as a passer. Especially now that he’s been sidelined by an ankle injury, Leonard would be greatly helped by going back to school.
Lee: Ewers could use the extra year, but the shadow of the Manning family (Arch Manning is behind him on the depth chart) looms too large. I really like Dane’s call on Leonard, too, as there’s still just enough distance between what he is now and what he could become.
But I’m going to pick Cameron Ward. Washington State has vastly improved, and we’ve seen a better Ward because of it — he ranks top 50 in EPA per dropback, top 20 in success rate on throws and tied for 11th with 14 passing touchdowns. He looks much closer this season to being the QB he was at Incarnate Word, but I think this field is too crowded for him to raise his stock to where it ultimately could be.
Cameron Ward right on target 🎯 pic.twitter.com/ByV5VdpgDf
— Pac-12 Conference (@pac12) September 23, 2023
Baumgardner: I’m old enough to remember when a whole bunch of smart NFL people were convinced C.J. Stroud was going back to Ohio State last winter. Sanders, McCarthy and Ewers all play in situations where they could stay in college and make a lot of money next year — albeit, likely not as much as they could earn in the NFL.
Still, those players have enough talent to be toward the top of any QB draft board, but each also has inconsistencies they need to work on. McCarthy feels more ready than not, and Ewers has a member of the Manning family behind him. Sanders, though, could be a real candidate to return in 2024 — if that’s what he wants.
4. Rounding out the poll with one vote this week is … Louisville DL Ashton Gillotte. Can anyone provide insight into his game?
Brugler: A true junior, Gillotte was productive rushing the passer the moment he arrived at Louisville and has gotten better each season. He has been a key part of the Cardinals’ 6-0 start, because of his ability to heat up the pocket. Only two FBS players have reached 32 pressures in 2023: Gillotte and potential top-10 pick Dallas Turner.
Gillotte is a player forcing NFL teams to pay attention to him, because of his burst and physicality.
Baumgardner: Gillotte also was a powerlifter and track-and-field standout in high school, and he competed in the international CrossFit Games at age 16. He was on the Bruce Feldman 2022 Freaks List (36-inch vert, 19.9 mph on the GPS), and unless he enters the league this April, I’ll bet a dollar he makes it again next year.
Lee: Last Saturday was a great example of how big moments can catapult a player’s stock. Gillotte lived in the backfield against Notre Dame, and his combination of power and get-off makes him tough to handle for interior linemen. He already has 6.5 sacks and a pressure rate above 19 percent this season. His positional versatility will keep him on — and climbing up — most draft boards.
(Top photo of Brock Bowers: Perry McIntyre / ISI Photos / Getty Images)
The Football 100, the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Pre-order it here.