Draft watch: 10 prospects in the Conference Championships

Pride of Detroit

Welcome to Conference Championship weekend.

Eight of the 10 Conference Championship games will be played on Saturday (December 3)—Conference USA and PAC-12 winners were decided on Friday night—and this week’s NFL Draft Watch will focus on 10 players from five of those games.

If you missed any of our previous Detroit Lions draft watch installments, you can revisit them here:

  • September 10: Kentucky QB Will Levis, Florida QB Anthony Richardson, Baylor NT Siaki Ika
  • September 17: Georgia DT Jalen Carter, SCar DT Zacch Pickens, USC WR Jordan Addison
  • September 24: Clemson DE Myles Murphy, FLA DT Gervon Dexter, TAMU RB Devon Achane
  • October 1: Michigan RB Blake Corum, Iowa LB Jack Campbell, Alabama DB Brian Branch
  • October 8: Alabama EDGE Will Anderson, Utah CB Clark Phillips, TAMU S Antonio Anderson
  • October 15: Tennessee QB Henson Hooker, PSU CB Joey Porter, Michigan NT Mazi Smith
  • October 22: Oregon CB Christian Gonzalez, LB Noah Sewell, Clemson DT Bryan Bresee
  • October 27: Georgia CB Kelee Ringo, Michigan C Olusegun Oluwatimi
  • November 5: Georgia TE Darnell Washington, Alabama RB Jahmyr Gibbs, LSU WR Kayshon Boutte
  • November 12: Arkansas LB Drew Sanders, LSU EDGE B.J. Ojulari, Utah TE Dalton Kincaid
  • November 19: SCar CB Cam Smith, Illinois DB Quan Martin, Georgia DB Christopher Smith
  • November 26: Revisiting the top 6 QBs prospects on rivalry weekend

Alright, let’s take a closer look at some of the top prospects in the 2023 NFL Draft class and who they will be playing in their Conference Championship.

Big 12 Championship: Kansas State (10) vs TCU (3)

12:00 p.m. ET on ABC

Quentin Johnston, WR, TCU (Junior)
6-foot-4, 215 pounds

At his size, Johnston is a prototypical WR-X and should be one of the first receivers off the board in this year’s draft, should he declare. If we’re being honest, Johnston’s first-round price tag may be too steep for the Lions after just using the 12th overall pick on Jameson Williams, but it’s still a good idea to know what the top of this class looks like.

Lions fit: Jamo has the versatility to be the Lions WR-X of the future, but he can also play the WR-Z, which could give the Lions the option to add a bigger receiver to pair with him and Amon-Ra St. Brown.

An excerpt from The Draft Network’s Keith Sanchez’s preview of Johnston:

“Quentin Johnston has surprising burst and acceleration for his size. When he gets off coverage, Johnston is able to use his speed and stride length to quickly eat up defenders’ cushion—oftentimes he has the speed to get on top of them and stack them… Johnston has a good blend of size and speed, and the short-area quickness just adds another element to his game that makes him a dangerous player on all levels of the football field.”

Cooper Beebe, G/T, Kansas State (redshirt junior)
6-foot-4, 322 pounds

Entering this season, Beebe had played at four of the five positions on the offensive line—missing only center—and despite being the Horned Frogs’ left tackle in 2021, he shifted inside to left guard this season. That figures to be a smart long-term move, as he projects as a starting guard in the NFL, with emergency tackle versatility.

Lions fit: The Lions should be in the market for offensive linemen, looking to replenish some depth and possibly a starting right guard. Beebe’s versatility will surely be appealing.

An excerpt from The Athletic’s Dane Brugler’s interior offensive line preview:

“A competitive, stubborn blocker, Beebe weaponizes his hands to snatch, punch and control defenders, both in the run game and pass protection. He unlocks power from his lower body, as well, but mostly relies on his instincts and physical hands to force defenders to come up with a plan B. Despite his lack of ideal length, Beebe is able to keep rushers from his frame due to that power.”

Sunbelt: Coastal Carolina vs. Troy

3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN

Grayson McCall, QB, Coastal Carolina (redshirt junior)
6-foot-3, 215 pounds

Injury Update: McCall injured his ankle in early November, and while it was suspected to keep him out the remainder of the season, a 3-6 week recovery time has allowed Coastal Carolina to keep the possibility of a return this week open.

McCall’s pure numbers are eye-popping. Over three years starting, he has completed 520 passes, at a 70.4 completion percentage, for 7,700 passing yards, 75 passing touchdowns, and just seven interceptions (only one this season). He has never finished a season with an overall PFF grade below 90.0. Additionally, he also has over 1,000 yards rushing and 15 rushing touchdowns, though those numbers have declined each season as the team has focused more on his arm talent. The caveat here is the talent that McCall is throwing against.

Lions fit: If the Lions decide they are not in the market for an early-round quarterback, McCall could be the draft and develop prospect they could be looking for.

An excerpt from The Athletic’s Nick Baumgardner’s QB tiers:

“McCall, however, throws a very catchable ball vertically, has quick feet and is generally quiet in the pocket. He’s calm, doesn’t get rattled and knows where the ball is supposed to go in an offense that lives on the art of surprise.”

SEC Championship: LSU (14) vs Georgia (1)

4 p.m. ET on CBS

Ali Gaye, EDGE, LSU (senior)
6-foot-6, 255 pounds

After transferring to LSU in 2020, Gaye burst onto the scene, looking like the next great edge rusher to come out of LSU. Unfortunately, his pass rushing statistics have declined each season bringing into question his developmental ceiling. Add in the fact that he just turned 24 years old last week, and his stock is likely much lower than originally projected.

Still, Gaye has an NFL frame, has played against starting NFL talent for years, and possesses an elite first step, which will get him an opportunity to find a role at the next level.

Lions fit: The Lions need pass rushing depth and Gaye could provide that, potentially on Day 3.

An excerpt from The Draft Network’s Keith Sanchez’s profile of Gaye:

“Overall, Gaye is an NFL prospect with a high upside due to his size and natural athletic ability, but there are still detailed elements of his game that he needs to work on to be a consistently impactful player in the NFL.”

Robert Beal Jr., EDGE, Georgia (redshirt senior)
6-foot-4, 255 pounds

On a loaded Georgia roster, Beal has been limited to a contributing reserve role for most of his time in Athens. He only has five official starts in his college career, with four coming this season after Nolan Smith was lost for the season due to injury. Despite his role, Beal led the Bulldogs in sacks (6.5) in 2021 on their way to a National Championship.

Lions fit: Beal fits the SAM role the Lions deploy Julian Okwara and James Houston in and edge rusher depth is always a need in the NFL.

An excerpt from Pro Football Network’s Oliver Hodgkinson’s Georgia preview:

“Beal has certainly showcased he can get after the quarterback. In addition to his contributions as a pass rusher, the 6’4″, 255-pound outside linebacker has demonstrated the ability to drop back into coverage while proving impactful against the ground game.”

ACC Championship: Clemson (9) vs North Carolina (23)

8 p.m. ET on ABC

Trenton Simpson, LB, Clemson (Junior)
6-foot-3, 230 pounds

A do-it-all linebacker, Simpson is often compared to a smaller version of Micah Parsons, but he is closer to Isaiah Simmons and plays a similar role in Clemson’s defense. He has above-average athleticism, the speed to cover sideline-to-sideline from a stack position, can shift out and cover the slot, and blitz off the edge with an explosive burst. He’s at his best when playing downhill and allowed to attack the ball.

Lions fit: As a hybrid player capable of playing multiple roles, the Lions would find a spot for Simpson on their defense. The biggest obstacle would be the fact that Simpson best fits the Lions’ scheme at the WILL, and that is also where Malcolm Rodriguez’s future appears to be as well.

An excerpt from The Athletic’s Dane Brugler’s linebacker preview:

“Simpson is a physically impressive athlete with the fluidity and closing speed that sets him apart from most linebackers. He is an explosive tackler and plays extremely well through contact, using his physical hands to work off blockers. With another season of development at the college level, Simpson could have the traits to join (Isaiah) Simmons as the top linebacker selected in their respective draft classes.”

Josh Downs, WR, North Carolina (senior)
5-foot-10, 175 pounds

A speed slot combo receiver, Downs is the feature pass catcher in the Tar Heels offense. He’s an intelligent player that understands how to execute routes both across the middle, vertically, and is a YAC (yards after catch) machine. His size presents some durability concerns.

Lions fit: Vertical speed and YAC will be traits that are appealing to the Lions offense and Kalif Raymond’s usage shows there is a role for him. The biggest obstacle though might be the cost to acquire versus positional value.

An excerpt from The Athletic’s Dane Brugler’s mid-season rankings:

“Listed at 5-10, 175, Josh Downs doesn’t have an ideal size, but his scampering speed and ball skills make him tough to cover, especially downfield. He won’t reach triple-digit receptions like he did last season (especially after he missed two games in September), but he is finding the end zone more in 2022. Downs has the talent to crack the top 50.”

Big 10 Championship: Purdue vs Michigan (2)

8 p.m. ET on FOX

Aidan O’Connell, QB, Purdue (senior)
6-foot-3, 212 pounds

The former walk-on has a boatload of confidence, a lot of experience in Purdue’s variety-filled offense, and has started at least three games in each of the last four seasons. Accuracy is his best friend, but he lacks arm strength and could be this year’s version of Bailey Zappe—an early Day 3 prospect who can be a reliable QB2 in the NFL.

Lions fit: The Lions will likely need to invest in the quarterback position this offseason, and depending on their approach, they may be in the market for a young backup behind Jared Goff.

An excerpt from The Athletic’s Nick Baumgardner’s QB tiers:

Aidan O’Connell is a bit behind the pace of his sparkling 2021 season (8.5 yards per attempt, 36 Pro Football Focus-graded “big-time throws” and consistent decision-making against pressure). It’s been more of a roller coaster for O’Connell this year, but the big-bodied QB’s processing ability will serve him well throughout the draft process.”

DJ Turner, CB, Michigan (redshirt Junior)
6-foot-0, 181 pounds

Michigan’s CB1 for the past two seasons, Turner has an expandable skill set and can mirror the opponent’s No. 1 wide receiver. Turner still has another year of eligibility but he’s a firm Day 2 pick at this point and the NFL may be too tempting to pass up.

Lions fit: The Lions will be in the market for corner depth and Turner has a lot of traits the Lions covet. He’s comfortable in press-man, is solid in run support, has legit speed, and is long. There is NFL starter potential with his developmental trajectory.

An excerpt from The Athletic’s Dane Brugler’s mid-season rankings:

“DJ Turner lacks refinement in several areas. He needs to play with more control in downfield coverage and when firing downhill against the run. However, he has 4.3 speed with redirect skills and toughness that will translate well to the NFL. He is a top-100 prospect trying to break into the top 50.”

Mike Sainristil, Slot NB, Michigan (senior)
5-foot-10, 182 pounds

Sainristil’s path to success is drenched in the details that turn sleepers into superstars.

After enrolling early, Sainristil, a three-star slot receiver, absorbed the offensive playbook and pushed for playing time as a true freshman. At first, his impact was moderate, primarily contributing in specialty roles, but his skill set won him the starting job as a sophomore, and after three seasons he had produced 36 receptions for 532 receiving yards, and five touchdowns, as well as gaining some experience returning punts and kicks.

In 2022, with slot defensive back Dax Hill off to the NFL (first-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals), Michigan was looking for an explosive player to fill a massive void in the defense and approached Sainristil about making the position switch.

Sainristil accepted the new role and immediately got to work learning the defensive playbook. By the spring, Sainristil was already in the mix for the job and won it in the fall. Even though he was a starter, Michigan still toyed with the idea of using him on offense early in the season but eventually allowed him to settle in the role.

As a defender in a pivotal role, Sainristil’s speed, explosiveness, athleticism, ball skills, football intelligence, toughness, and leadership (he is a team captain) are all on display on a weekly basis. Through 12 games, he has registered 48 tackles, 4.5 for losses, two sacks, and seven pass breakups—none bigger than his most recent against Ohio State (video clip below).

On Saturday, Sainristil will likely draw coverage duties on Purdue’s rising star at receiver, Charlie Jones, in what figures to be a fun battle for draft evaluators.

While Sainristil is a true senior, he does have another year of eligibility remaining due to the extra year provided by the NCAA after the COVID impact in 2020. Therefore, if Sainristil believes he needs more than one season’s worth of polish on defense before jumping to the pros, he has the option to return to Ann Arbor for another season.

Lions fit: The Lions need help in the slot and Sainristil has a litany of traits the Lions staff would absolutely love. He’s going to need to gain some more experience in order to reach his full potential, but his work ethic and physical skills point to him having a bright future.

An excerpt from Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, via SB Nation’s Maize N Brew:

“He’s got the skill-set for it. He’s got the skill-set for receiver, he’s got the skill-set for corner, for nickel corner. Skill-set reminds me a lot of Jimmie Ward (Harbaugh drafted him in the first round of his final year in with the 49ers) and what he had in college. Yeah, skill-set.”

Textbook. Simply, beautiful.

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