Much of the anticipation for Indiana’s 2021 football season stems from the fact that so many Hoosiers decided to use the extra eligibility granted to them because of the COVID-19 pandemic and stick around in Bloomington instead of entering the 2021 NFL Draft. Much of Indiana’s senior class effectively decided not to graduate (from football anyway) because of the option to return for a season that has a chance to be special.
However, this weekend also has a chance to be special for the seven Indiana players who did decide to put their hat in the ring. It’s unlikely that all seven will actually see their names go across the ticker on draft day, but there’s a good chance all of them will land on at least an NFL mini-camp roster by the end of the weekend.
The one sure bet to be taken is safety Jamar Johnson, a first-team All-Big Ten pick who declared for the draft after his junior season. Johnson’s spot in the safety pecking order generally varies from mock draft to mock draft, but he’s generally expected to be taken either late on the second day of the draft Friday in the third round or early on Saturday in the fourth or fifth. Pro Football Focus actually has him listed as a top 50 overall prospect and the No. 3 safety in the draft class.
Johnson stands out because of his coverage ability, and increasingly important tool with the NFL becoming a more pass-oriented league. He tied for the team lead in interceptions with four last season and added four pass break-ups.
“He’s a true safety who can cover sideline-to-sideline and has the toughness to be able to make tackles and can be the quarterback of the defense and communicate with the back end,” Johnson’s agent Jared Fox said. “In this draft, he’s one of the few who have that skillset, and in the modern NFL it’s a skillset that’s highly sought after, being able to run and cover, run the seam with the tight end, pick up a slot guy, come down and cover the slot in nickel, that’s a versatility that very few guys have in this draft and in general. It sort of puts him in a class among just a couple of other guys.”
Johnson has some weaknesses when playing inside the box and he had some missed tackles near the line of scrimmage last season, but he still recorded 43 tackles including 3.5 for loss and a sack last season and at 6-foot-1, 197 pounds with a 40 time under 4.6 seconds he’s well built for the position in the modern game.
“These days, the words ‘box safety’ have a negative connotation in many cases because it means the guy plays more going in drive rather than being able to turn around and go in reverse,” Fox said. “Jamar’s ability to turn and run and flip his hips and change direction are things that evaluators and coaches are much more aware of than they were in the past.”
After Johnson’s name goes off the board there are several other players who could be taken and are certain to be signed with priority free agent status if they are not.
The Hoosiers have three draft hopefuls in the trenches, two on the defensive line and one on the offensive line. Of those the most likely player to get drafted is Jerome Johnson, a second-team All-Big Ten pick in 2020. The 6-3, 304-pound three-technique defensive lineman finished second on Indiana’s roster last season with 4.0 sacks and tied for second with 4.5 tackles for loss. He is showing up in the sixth round in some draft boards and fits particularly well in pass-rushing packages because of his long limbs.
“He’s got some natural gifts that I think a lot of guys don’t have,” Joe Vaccaro, Johnson’s agent, said. “He’s got a really fast-twitch first step. He’s a guy that, In the workout part of it itself, his 40 and his jumps and things, aren’t insane for his size, but his film is going to be better than his workout part.”
Vaccaro admitted that some teams have some concerns about his consistency. He finished with just 18 tackles in eight games last season.
“He showed flashes at times at Indiana where he was unstoppable,” Vaccaro said. “But there will be times in a game where he will disappear for two quarters. So we’ve been working with him on stamina. … He’s able to play in a 4-3 or a 3-4 system, either way, and he can play either inside or outside, which makes him more versatile than most. I think he’ll wind up on a team where they run a more rotational defensive line because of the stamina issues.”
Defensive tackle Jovan Swann is less likely to be picked up after recording just four tackles this season, but the transfer from Stanford has a more productive Pac-12 track record that teams can look back on. He was honorable mention All-Pac 12 in 2018 and he recorded 5.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss in 2019.
On the offensive line, Harry Crider is a fringe draft prospect, but the 6-3, 307-pounder has a good chance of at least picking up a priority free agent offer because he can play center and guard and because he was a three-time academic All-Big Ten selection and was renowned for his community work. He also bench pressed 225 pounds 31 times at Indiana’s pro day, so that also helps his cause.
“He’s a very intelligent kid,” his agent, Joe Linta said, “and off the field he’s a guy you’d want to marry your sister or your daughter. If you don’t like Harry Crider, there’s something wrong with you.”
The Hoosiers’ two skill position players in the draft are also on the cusp of being drafted but will almost certainly be picked up immediately in free agency if they are not.
Running back Stevie Scott is coming off his least productive year from a yardage standpoint, finishing with 561 yards at 3.6 per carry. However, he still managed 10 touchdowns for the third straight season, and his 6-2, 231-pound frame suits him well for pass protection.
“Stevie is a guy who we think will be even better in the pros than he was in college,” said Vaccaro, who is also Scott’s agent. “I think most teams still view him as that power back because that’s what they’re accustomed to seeing him do. He’s shown that he has the ability to get to the outside and he’s gonna be fast enough to break a run if he has to, that home-run ability. They think that he’ll be able to catch passes out of the backfield and also work in pass protection, so I think most teams think of him as kind of a rotational back.”
Slot receiver Whop Philyor is in a similar position, and possibly more draftable than Scott. The 5-10, 184-pounder is pigeon-holed as an inside receiver because of his size, but he was a very effective one at Indiana, catching 180 passes for 2,067 yards and 12 touchdowns the past two seasons. He got a lot of his work done in the horizontal passing game, catching passes at or near the line of scrimmage and turning those into yardage, but also showed the ability to make plays on intermediate and deep routes.
Punter Hayden Whitehead faces an interesting weekend as specialists generally do. It’s highly unlikely he’ll be drafted, but with a 41.4 career punting average it’s safe to assume he’ll get a look in someone’s training camp due to his leg strength.
“With specialists, you never know, it’s a little different,” Whitehead’s agent Dave Lee said. “I think it’s safe to say he’s in the top tier of punters at this point.”
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