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CONNOR: A way-too-early draft stock analysis of Virginia’s draft-eligible players

A first look, which will not age well, at which Cavaliers could hear their name called at the 2023 NFL Draft

While the NFL Draft is approximately six months away, the college football season is in full swing. Mock drafts under the title of “way-too-early predictions” are already infiltrating the internet. Like other Power-5 Conference schools, Virginia has a list of 2023 NFL Draft hopefuls this season. With it being the season’s midpoint, here are four players with the highest chance of turning NFL scouts’ heads for the Draft in April.

Senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong

The heart and soul of the Virginia team. Despite an incredibly poor defense, Armstrong willed his team to wins, ending the 2021 season bowl-eligible. Last season, he threw for a school-record 4,449 yards and 31 touchdowns, while rushing for 251 yards and nine touchdowns. By midseason, his incredible form even had people questioning if he could be a Heisman candidate.

However, playing well as a college quarterback doesn’t translate to interest from scouts. This is clear in Armstrong’s situation, as he opted to stay for a final year at Virginia instead of declaring for the draft after gauging scouts’ interest — most likely indicating Armstrong thought an extra year was worth the potential increase in his draft stock.

Before the start of the 2022 college season, NFL draft analysts rated him anywhere from a second-round pick to an undrafted free agent depending on his performance in 2022. Bluntly, his production has not matched last season as the lefty has struggled to find footing in new Coach Tony Elliott’s offense.

Overall, Armstrong would most likely be a seventh-round pick if the NFL Draft happened today. It’s possible declaring last year would have been more beneficial to his draft stock in hindsight. However, there are still another six games to turn it around, and Armstrong looked much more comfortable in the recent Louisville game.

Graduate student cornerback Anthony Johnson 

Alongside former safety Joey Blount, the transfer from Louisville co-led the team in interceptions in the 2021 season with three picks. Now in his graduate year, Johnson looks to solidify his draft stock. The 6-foot-2 cornerback was named to the preseason watchlist for the Reece’s Senior Bowl, an all-star scouting event that invites the best seniors in college football.

The Draft Network describes Johnson as a defensive back that excels in zone-coverage and pressing situations. The Virginia defense, unlike recent years, is off to a solid start, with Johnson playing well in coverage and open field tackling. Over the season, Johnson might be able to sneak into the conversation as one of the better cornerbacks in the draft class.

Although it is early in the season, Johnson is receiving some draft buzz. While his offensive teammates will get more media attention for the draft as they are more visible on the field, Johnson’s accolades and current form can make him the first Virginia player off-the-board. 

As of now, Johnson could be looking at up to a fourth-round grade since he continues to impress as the season progresses. This projection is backed by a recent scout report from Sports Illustrated, also listing Johnson as a 4th round pick.  

Graduate student wide receiver Keytaon Thompson

No. 99 isn't just known for his jersey number, but also for his versatility. The senior’s transfer from Mississippi State to Virginia in 2020 also included a change in his position — from quarterback to receiver. One year after the transfer, the former quarterback ended with just 10 yards shy of 1,000 receiving yards on the year and two receiving touchdowns, along with 247 yards and four touchdowns on the ground.

Thompson’s combination of rushing and receiving ability separate him from the other receivers in the draft class. This hybrid is slowly becoming more popular in NFL offenses, as seen with Deebo Samuel, Cordarrelle Patterson and even Taysom Hill. His stats alone are sufficient enough for draft consideration, but his ability to stretch the field and keep the defense guessing on his role can be helpful in moving him up draft boards. 

The biggest knock against Thompson is his age, as he would turn 25 in his rookie season, but analysts have noted his rising draft stock. Based on his production and tangibles, it looks like Thompson’s stock is around the sixth or seventh round. 

Junior wide receiver Dontavion Wicks

Although the receiver is only a junior, Wicks has the production to potentially declare early for the NFL Draft. As Virginia’s leading receiver in 2021, before the 2022 season started, some draft analysts had him as a second or third-round pick if he continued his elite play. However, the offense has been slow to start the 2022 season, which could hurt Wicks’ draft stock. If this season’s lack of offense continues, he could be forced to stay another year to rebound his draft stock.

Nevertheless, while he may not be on track to match last season’s numbers, Wicks is still proving his dependability. Thompson does have more receiving yards six games into the season than Wicks, but Wicks is still looked at as the number one receiver.

If he chooses to declare after this year — predicting from today — Wicks could be between a fifth and sixth-round pick if NFL scouts factor for the overall subpar performance of the Virginia offense so far this year — his talent is still there. 

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