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A national champion to an English giant: the NFL draft’s most intriguing prospects

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Qwan’tez Stiggers, CB, Toronto Argonauts

In recent drafts, we’ve seen players selected from Australia. We’ve had a tight end with no experience picked out of Germany in the sixth-round, thanks to Mike Mayock demanding it on the draft broadcast – that really happened! What we haven’t seen is an American-born player selected out of Canada. And we haven’t seen an American-born player drafted who played no college football.

That will change this year. Stiggers was the top rookie in the CFL last season, finishing with five interceptions and 53 tackles in 16 games. He had initially signed to play college football at Division II Lane College, before dropping out after the death of his father. He then signed with the Toronto Argonauts in 2023 after a stop in Fan Controlled Football, a league where viewers make the play calls through an app. Now Stiggers is on his way to being a top-100 pick.

But he is more than a fun story. The 22-year-old is a dynamic athlete with the ideal build for a modern corner. He’s long, has slick feet and is a natural playmaker once the ball is in the air.

Not many players have been drafted without playing in college. Typically, they go in the later rounds, and are seen as long-term projects with athletic upside. Stiggers is different. He has been wined and dined by 13 teams during the pre-draft process, despite not being invited to the NFL combine. Teams will travel to Mars if they think they can unearth a cornerback who can be a difference-maker as a rookie. In Canada, they’ve found a top-100 player who can make an impact right away.

JJ McCarthy, QB, Michigan

No player has been more polarizing this cycle than McCarthy. His advocates see a quarterback of untapped potential, with a big arm, wheels and a fearless streak. His detractors point to McCarthy’s time at Michigan and say, with those skills, he should have produced more.

McCarthy guided Michigan to the national championship with a roster loaded with future NFL talent – by the time the draft concludes, the 2023 Wolverines roster will probably have more players drafted than any team in history. Given the surplus of talent, McCarthy was asked to mind the shop, to play within the offense, to hand the ball off to running backs (a lot) and play smart, mistake-free football. He rarely threw on third down, largely because Michigan were comfortably ahead in games – or they were so overwhelming that they did not need third downs.

For some decision-makers, McCarthy is the platonic ideal of a quarterback prospect: A talented passer with the athletic traits and intangibles that make scouts and GMs purr. He’s a proven winner and leader, who has been drawing up plays since he was five years old. He told fellow recruits looking at joining Michigan that “if they wanted to party and chase girls, go somewhere else”, according to draft analyst Dane Brugler.

It’s telling, however, that leaks from the scouting world reference everything except McCarthy’s ability to complete passes. Call it the Daniel Jones Zone. There are flashes from his college resume, but the quarterback that teams want him to be in the pros is different from the one he was asked to be at Michigan.

McCarthy could wind up being the second player off the board. He could go third. He could equally become the centerpiece of a trade package that sees a team – the Giants, the Vikings – mortgaging their future to trade up to select him.

Kiran Amegadjie is a top prospect as he comes out of Yale. Photograph: Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Kiran Amegadjie, OL, Yale

The Ivy League is poised to have its highest draft selection this century. With the likes of Kyle Juszczyk, Foyesade Oluokun and Michael Hoecht already in the NFL, the Ivy League is well represented – an all-time Ivy League team is as strong as they come, with some decent coaching options. But Amegadjie is the first prospect from the conference with a shot at being selected in the top 50 picks since 1972.

With arms so long they look like they’ve been CGI’d on to his body, Amegadjie was a bulldozer at left tackle for Yale. He pummelled lower-level competition in the run game, although he is unrefined in pass protection. In the NFL, he’s likely to kick inside to guard, but he has the kind of wingspan and tippy-tappy footwork that will afford him a chance to compete for a tackle spot.

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Laiatu Latu, Edge, UCLA

Teams have access to more statistics than ever, but when it comes to the final evaluation, GMs fall back on the oldest method of all: watching actual games. And if you watch those games, it’s clear Latu is as gifted as any player in this class.

But there are medical concerns. Latu suffered a neck injury at Washington in 2020 and was forced to retire from the sport. During his hiatus, he had multiple operations on his neck and took up rugby in Seattle. In 2022, he was cleared to return to football and transferred to UCLA, where he spent the next 24 months clowning all before him.

It’s the style that grabs you with Latu. He’s the most distinctive pass-rushing prospect in recent years. It’s tempting to say Latu plays at his own pace, but that phrase is typically attached to slower guys. The 23-year-old is explosive in tight spaces. He’s good slow and fast. He plays at whatever pace serves him. There are times when he isn’t even really rushing the passer, at least not in the traditional sense. It’s as though he’s playing his own sport, some fusion of MMA and interpretive dance; he’s all limbs and head fakes and unorthodox approaches to knifing into the backfield.

Latu is stylistically mesmerizing, but that style has substance. He finished with 27 sacks and 107 total pressures in his two years at UCLA, the highest rate in college football. His 26.2% pass rush win rate in his final year is tied for the highest figure on record. If the surgeries affected his game, it didn’t show up at UCLA. In two seasons with the team he did not miss a game due to injury.

Projections currently peg Latu as a mid-to-late first-round pick. Grabbing him in the middle of the first round would be like getting in on sunlight on the second day.

International pathway players

Some players in the league’s IPP program, like Louis Rees-Zammit, will enter the league as free-agents. But others are eligible for this year’s draft because they’re in their fourth year out of high school. Travis Clayton (England), Jotham Russell (Australia) and Bayron Matos (Dominican Republic) will all be eligible for selection from this year’s program.

Clayton is the kind of tantalizing bundle-of-tools talent that will get offensive line coaches weak at the knees. At 6ft 7in and more than 300lbs, Clayton is a former rugby player and boxer who, if you squint hard enough, has the look of an NFL tackle.

Given the success of Jordan Mailata, who recently signed a three-year $66m contract extension with the Eagles, it wouldn’t be surprising to see multiple teams turn their final picks over to IPP graduates. Mailata’s story is a one-of-a-kind: the rare meeting of an undiscovered gem with a relentless work ethic winding up with the finest position coach in the sport. But Mailata blazing the trail has opened the door for Clayton to be a late draft choice. The Eagles bet on Jeff Stoutland to develop Mailata’s raw tools when they selected the Australian in the seventh round of the 2018 draft – Mailata introduces himself as a graduate of “Stoutland U”. Other teams will hope their staff can do the same, grabbing a developmental prospect at a premium position on a cheap rookie contract.

But the most intriguing prospect of the bunch is Matos. He was recruited to play college basketball at New Mexico, where he played 20 games in his freshman year, before transferring to USF and walking on to the football team. Before moving to Florida, he had never worn pads or a helmet. Matos practiced as a defensive end at USF but switched to the offensive line when he rocked up at the IPP program. Like Clayton, Matos is a giant – 6ft 8in – but one with unteachable hops who could play on either side of the ball.

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