Examining Notre Dame's prospects for the 2021 NFL Draft
A Notre Dame defensive end not named Julian Okwara or Khalid Kareem caught the attention of NFL Draft analyst Scott Wright last season.
So much so that he believes replacing the latter, a fifth-round pick to the Cincinnati Bengals last weekend, may not be so daunting. The last three games from Adetokunbo Ogundeji showed Wright and others what he could look like as a first-year starter in 2020. He took advantage of his increased role, tallying 14 tackles, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
“He’s a guy who could really shoot up the charts this upcoming fall if he continues to play like he did at the end of last year,” said Wright of draftcountdown.com.
The long-armed Ogundeji, at 6-foot-4, 253 pounds, produced those numbers with Kareem still starting ahead of him at strongside defensive end. Kareem’s physical limitations and other injuries gave Ogundeji more opportunities, however. Kareem played through the torn labrum in his left shoulder he suffered against Duke but underwent surgery in January.
Ogundeji also earned his first career start at defensive tackle against Stanford. He flashed versatility by holding his own while Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (leg) and Jayson Ademilola (ankle) were sidelined with injuries, recording six tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble that resulted in a touchdown from Kareem.
As he looks onward to the 2021 NFL Draft, Wright said Ogundeji could improve his draft stock the most among Irish players. He’s already proven himself after being considered an afterthought in the recruiting process.
The former three-star recruit earned Pro Football Focus’ second-highest rating (82.2) among Notre Dame’s defensive players last season and finished with 34 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, five quarterback hurries, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
“Just his ability to get to the quarterback,” said Wright on what impressed him. “He was in the backfield all the time and wreaking havoc along that defensive line. He looks like a good athlete, too. He’s got good speed off the edge. Really intriguing. Couldn’t help but notice him. He was borderline taking over the game at one or two points.”
Seniors Daelin Hayes and Ogundeji are projected to start at defensive end after spending their careers as rotational players. Ogundeji (rounds 2-7) and Hayes (rounds 6-7) are also projected to be drafted by Wright.
Why Wright pegged such a wide range for Ogundeji’s projection is because of his lack of sample size. Are Ogundeji’s final three games more of a fluke, or are they an indication of what’s to come?
For Hayes, missing nine games after suffering a season-ending torn labrum in his right shoulder against Virginia played a role in his lower stock.
“Pretty good athlete, but I don’t know if he’s going to run an amazing 40 time,” said Wright of Hayes. “He probably plays a little bit faster and more athletic than he’s going to test. It’s a situation of unfulfilled potential. We are just waiting for that light to come on. Maybe he will have a senior year where more is expected of him.”
Wright predicted five other Irish players will be selected in the 2021 NFL Draft, an April 29-May 1 event slated to be held in Cleveland. Here’s a look at them below:
Left tackle Liam Eichenberg, 6-6, 305
Wright’s round projection: 2-3.
Analysis: Eichenberg is the early favorite to be Notre Dame’s first player selected next draft and is even garnering first round projections.
As a second-year starter in 2019, Eichenberg allowed zero sacks and ranked first on the team in the pass-blocking (85.6) and run-blocking (78.8) grades on Pro Football Focus. PFF also ranked the Irish No. 2 nationally in pass-blocking, though they left more to be desired in run-blocking.
Wright said he’d like to see Eichenberg minimize his false start penalties after committing eight last season.
“Not as physically talented as (former Notre Dame and current San Francisco 49ers offensive tackle) Mike McGlinchey. Not that level of prospect,” Wright said. “I don’t see him being a top 10 overall pick. But can he be a top 100 overall pick, so top three rounds? Yeah, absolutely.
“I think he’s going to go into next year as one of the top-rated senior offensive tackles in the class. It should be another good crop next year, so he’s going to have a lot of competition.”
Rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, 6-2, 215
Wright’s round projection: 2-4.
Analysis: From unknown to revelation, Owusu-Koramoah cemented himself on the radar of NFL teams and draft analysts in just his first year as a starter.
As the only early-entry prospect on this list, Owusu-Koramoah could conceivably forgo his final season of eligibility in 2021 if he continues to evolve. He tied for Notre Dame’s lead with 70 tackles and added a team-high 13 tackles for a loss last season, along with 5.5 sacks, four pass breakups, three quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and a pair of fumble recoveries.
Owusu-Koramoah may represent the linebacker-safety hybrid that pro and college football teams covet in the modern era. His prowess in coverage and off the edge could result in him being selected higher in 2021 than he would have been 10 years ago, Wright said.
“He would have been called a tweener. ‘We don’t know where to put him.’ But now, being that safety-linebacker hybrid is almost a feather in your cap and in your favor,” Wright said. “A lot of impact plays behind the line of scrimmage. It’s just a question of where you play him. Where’s his best fit?
“His draft spot is going to be capped to a certain degree because of those concerns about his size and position. But I could name five players in the past draft with similar physical profiles who were drafted late day two, early day three.”
Right tackle Robert Hainsey, 6-5, 295
Wright’s round projection: 3-5.
Analysis: Wright wondered if Hainsey should be considered not far behind Eichenberg.
Hainsey didn’t allow a sack in 423 snaps last season. In his 252 pass plays, Hainsey surrendered just two hits and six hurries to his quarterback. He played in his first 12 games as a freshman before securing the starting job for the Citrus Bowl against LSU and the following 21 games.
But Hainsey missed Notre Dame’s last five games in 2019. He underwent surgery on a fractured left ankle that he suffered against Virginia Tech. Right tackles also aren’t considered as valuable as left tackles, and Wright projects Hainsey to remain at his position in the NFL.
“What I like about him, he’s got a lot of experience,” Wright said. “He stepped in and made an impact right away. And a really good athlete. I think he’s a guy who is probably going to test pretty well in the pre-draft process. Just a really good, solid player.
Offensive guard Tommy Kraemer, 6-6, 317
Wright’s round projection: 3-5
Analysis: Kraemer will be one of the top three to five senior offensive guards going into this season, Wright said.
Unfortunately for Kraemer, his position continues to decrease in perceived value. In the two drafts since the Indianapolis Colts selected former Irish offensive guard Quenton Nelson No. 6 overall, only a combined four interior offensive linemen have been picked in the first round. Nine offensive tackles have been selected.
In the first 38 picks this past draft, six offensives tackles and one interior offensive lineman were chosen.
“A case could be made that Kraemer might be a more highly-rated prospect at his position than Eichenberg is at his. It’s just tackles are more valuable,” Wright said. Far more tackles go earlier than guards. It’s tough with the positional value. It’s tough for true guards like Kraemer to go really early.”
Like Hainsey, Kraemer also endured a season-ending injury. The MCL sprain he suffered in his left knee against Michigan sidelined him for Notre Dame’s final six games. Kraemer’s expected to return for the season opener as a starter, along with Hainsey. Doing so would give Kraemer four-year starter distinction.
Quarterback Ian Book, 6-0, 212
Wright’s round projection: 6-7, UDFA.
Analysis: Former Notre Dame and current Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Chase Claypool impressed Wright enough to call him one of his favorite prospects last draft class.
Wright’s impression of Claypool wasn’t an indicator that he thought the same about his quarterback. In fact, he thought the opposite.
“One of the cases I consistently made for (Claypool),” Wright said, “is that there was a lot of production left on the field due to Ian Book’s inability to get him the ball. Ian Book has a lot to prove.”
Book’s proved himself as a solid college quarterback. He’s 20-3 as a starter and should finish at least second all-time in touchdown passes at Notre Dame. Book became the only quarterback in Irish history to record at least 2,500 passing yards, 500 rushing yards and 30 touchdown passes in a season. Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts was the only other quarterback to reach those marks in 2019.
But when assessing Book’s pro potential, Wright didn’t mince words.
“Last year was not really great in really any regard,” Wright said. “My biggest concern is his vision, keeping his eyes downfield and finding those open receivers. He’s got to work on accuracy, and pretty much every regard he needs to improve upon where he was last year.
“There’s a lot of tools in place for him to do that. He’s got a good offensive line in front of him still. A lot of guys make that leap in their final year.”
*More than 500 people and counting voted on a Twitter poll asking which Notre Dame player would improve his draft stock the most this season. Owusu-Koramoah received more votes than Ogundeji/Hayes, Book and the "other" option by a wide margin.
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