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Who Is Prospect X? The Search for the 2021 NFL Draft’s Deepest Sleeper

For the third year in a row, we set out in search of the draft’s most overlooked prospect. We’ve identified him, but for the sake of interested teams, we’ll do our best to conceal his identity. For now, he is simply Prospect X.

Prospect X sits at the desk in his college apartment bedroom and nods quietly as the coach leading the Zoom call explains the defense’s terminology. “50 Weak Squat out of nickel,” the coach says. “All that means is Rover is dropping to two, Buck will drop two to the boundary.” An overhead light shines bright behind X’s head, and the glare washes out his face.

X’s days have been filled with video calls with coaches and phone calls with scouts. He’s logged onto this meeting from his phone, and the PC monitor on his desk is open to a color-coded spreadsheet titled NFL STUFF, where he’s tracking all of his communications with NFL teams: who he’s talked to, how many times, video or phone, and how many picks that team has in the fourth through seventh rounds of the draft. Teams that have a lot of late picks, he shades in green—if they have few players at his position, also green. A descending scale of yellow, orange and then red marks the teams that aren’t as favorable to his situation. In the same spreadsheet, he’s also compiled a list of each team’s coaching staff and the players at his position so he’s never caught off guard in a meeting.

Sports Illustrated Daily Cover: Prospect X NFL draft secret sleeper

Learning terminology can be tough, because of the language barrier between college and pro football. In one meeting with a defensive coordinator, X kept mixing up the new words with his college calls. His default reaction was to apologize immediately, that is until the coordinator told him, Dude, stop saying sorry. I’m not going to yell at you.

“Again, the new calls for today are Bandit Trap, that’s Rover in the B gap, Mike as the 32 player, and Weak Squat, Rover as the two-dropper, Mike has the middle of the field. Any questions there?”

X leans closer to his camera and nods again, this time in unison with 10 other players, each contained in his own box on the screen.

It’s April 14 and the NFL draft is just two weeks away, but today isn’t a predraft cram session with an NFL coach. It’s with his college position coach—X’s team has a game on Saturday.

For some small-school prospects, the 2021 draft season is also college football season. He’s part of a very small group of draftable prospects playing a spring schedule of college ball while simultaneously interviewing for jobs. He’s learning new college plays and new NFL plays in back-to-back meetings.

As we have the last two years, The MMQB spent months searching for the most overlooked prospect in the 2021 NFL draft. After surveying evaluators, watching tape and reading the tea leaves, we landed on a player who we believe is the draft’s best-kept secret. Each of the last two years, the guesses from readers have poured in. We will reveal his name in a follow-up after draft weekend, but for now—for the sake of interested NFL teams—we will protect his identity as best we can. For now, he is simply Prospect X.

Prospect X played multiple defensive roles during his four-year college career. He’s been a team captain for two years, and this season, he took on more responsibility as multiple teammates and coaches were sidelined after testing positive for COVID-19 or being ruled as close contacts. X had coronavirus nearly a year ago, and he didn’t miss any games for that reason.

For now, X is acting as his own agent, which is why he’s carefully curating his NFL Stuff spreadsheet. A coach on his college team has NFL connections and has been a helpful source to lean on, but X’s personality helps him to stay organized while juggling four days of practice and a game day with NFL interviews and nonstop calls and texts with scouts. He’s a detail-oriented introvert and a self-described nerd. He loves anime and video games, and he built his own PC from scratch. When he gets his first NFL contract, he wants to use some of the money to build his own car.

X didn’t get any FBS offers coming out of high school. He chose his small-school program because he had family ties there, and the lone FBS team that was interested in him decided to offer a junior college player at his position.

Last year’s Prospect X, Matt Cole, signed with the Dolphins after the draft as an undrafted free agent and spent the majority of the season on Miami’s practice squad. In December, he signed a two-year contract with the 49ers. Cole, a D-II product out of McKendree University, had an uphill climb in a draft process turned virtual because of the pandemic. He couldn’t travel to team facilities or hold any private workouts, two aspects of the draft process that are essential for small-school prospects to make an impression.

While last year’s late-round/priority free-agent-level players were negatively impacted by the lack of face-to-face interaction during the draft process, the 2021 class is actually at an advantage even though they face the same limitations. Because so many college seasons were postponed or shortened, and the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility, many players in the same draft range as X decided to go back to school.

In a typical year, around 1,800 prospects sign with NFL agents. This year, as of April 21, only 652 had signed with an agent. Most NFL teams have a “frontboard” for listing players they consider worth a draft pick and a “backboard” for ranking the others. The consensus around the league is the group of backboard prospects is smaller this year. One veteran scout said his team’s backboard is down by about 20%; they’re discussing about 150 fewer players this year. Another team’s personnel exec estimates their backboard at 20–30% smaller than a typical year. Agents and scouts agreed that those leaving school have a much better shot to get drafted this year.

X’s college season is over now, but he doesn’t plan to sign with an agent until after the draft. He’s totally committed to his NFL future, but he still has moments of doubt about the short term. What if he doesn’t get drafted and gets minimal interest as a free agent? He wants to maintain his eligibility as a last resort, a backup to the backup plan, a Plan C.

Because of that, X says he gets a lot of questions from scouts about whether he’s really serious about playing in the NFL. “They are concerned, like, Oh, if he gets drafted low, is he even going to come out?” X says. “I'm like, are you kidding me? This is my dream.”

In the second week of March, a COVID-19 outbreak paused X’s season. Players and coaches were barred from the facility for a little over a week. Early one morning during that freeze, X was headed to a local Snap Fitness to lift on his own when his phone rang. It was an area scout.

So X, you aren't coming out? You’re going back to school?

“No, no, no,” X told the scout, trying his best to stay calm while internally panicking. “I was like, wait, whoa, whoa, whoa, what’s going on?” he says. “Hey, guys, I am coming out; I promise!”

The director of football operations for his college team got a similar call, from another area scout who organizes all the pro days for the geographical region. He also wondered about X’s draft status, because word among scouts was that X’s school wasn’t having a pro day and X wasn’t coming out. “It was like 48 hours of chaos,” the director says.

49ers receiver Matt Cole warms up on the sideline during a 2020 game

Matt Cole, last year's Prospect X, faced much steeper odds of getting drafted than this year's small-school prospects.

(Bear with us—an understanding of NCAA eligibility and draft-scouting logistics is required.)

Because of the extra year of eligibility granted to all NCAA athletes, sorting out which players were going back to school and which were entering the draft quickly became a problem for NFL scouts—one made unnecessarily complicated by some ambiguous guidelines. X’s compliance coordinator says that players like X, who had exhausted their eligibility (without counting the additional season) did not need to officially declare for the draft or submit any paperwork to announce their intentions, as an underclassmen would. X does still have the option to exercise a waiver for that extra year—even if he’s drafted—should he decide to return to school. Since this was all so new, the compliance coordinator spoke to several colleagues with other schools in the conference to confirm.

“Scouts were joking, is the league going to send us 3,000 names of players that were all going back to school?” says a third NFL scout assigned to X’s region. “Just tell us the few guys who are not going back to school instead.”

The tailspin of rumors regarding X began with an email. Each draft season, National Football Scouting Inc., the scouting service that runs the NFL scouting combine, sends out weekly updates to NFL teams that subscribe to their service. The updates include dates of pro days and the lists of players who have declared for the draft at each school. When NFS reached out to X’s school in early February, the director of football operations replied that they would not be able to have a pro day because of the school’s strict in-season COVID-19 protocol. X planned to have a pro day after his season ended.

The email that went out said X’s school wouldn’t be having a pro day. No pro day, no draft, the scouts assumed. The process was bewildering for everyone involved, and without an agent to help with communication and messaging with NFL teams, X’s intentions were quickly distorted.

“From what I’ve gathered from talking to scouts,” X says now, “before the season started, no one knew I was coming out this year.”

Over the next two days after that email, 29 NFL teams reached out to the director of football operations for clarification on X’s status. “We all talk,” the third area scout says. “We were all asking, Is X for sure? Is that kid going back? There was a lot of unknown. He was the guy everyone was still up in the air on.”

Eventually, the area scout who organizes all the region’s pro days sent out a mass email to every team, clarifying that X was indeed part of the 2021 draft class. Then the mad dash began. X’s school does not produce NFL talent every year, so some teams hadn’t seen him play in person since 2018, his sophomore season.

The third area scout says that after he found out X was in fact in this draft class, scouts scrambled last-minute to get out to a game. After the season resumed following the COVID-19 outbreak, the director of football operations says seven teams sent scouts to the school’s next two games: the Packers, Bills, Raiders, Panthers, Dolphins, Seahawks and Buccaneers.

While in crisis-control mode, both X and the director of football operations realized that X needed an NFL-scout verified pro day if he wanted to be drafted. NCAA compliance rules prevented X from attending another pro day at a school that wasn’t in the middle of their season, and scouts told the director that waiting until after X’s season to have a pro day would be too close to the draft to squeeze into their schedules.

The backup plan was to film an unverified workout and send that tape to NFL teams, but the football operations director began a furious push with the athletic director and trainer to hold a pro day on campus. If fans were allowed at games now, he argued, then why couldn’t a handful of scouts stand on the field and watch X workout? But it was spring break, and the higher-up administrators who needed to sign off on this timely issue weren’t around. “I was really sweating it,” he says.

The thumbs-up from the school came the following week. Now all they needed was NCAA approval. The compliance coordinator wrote up a waiver to convince the NCAA to allow a college football player to interview for a professional job during his college season. He sent the waiver on a Wednesday morning and requested an expedited review. It was approved on Thursday, and the pro day was scheduled for the following Monday—two days after a game.

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With a date on the calendar, X figured it was probably time to start figuring out how to run the 40, something he hadn’t done since high school. Typically, a prospect’s agent will set him up at a specialized facility and spend draft season preparing for predraft drills. In X’s case, he watched about an hour’s worth of YouTube videos on perfecting the start, tried a few 10-yard starts and ran the 40 just once before the big day. A former college teammate who got drafted by an NFL team helped talk him through the shuttle run and other drills.

Less than 48 hours before his pro day, X played 74 snaps and secured the game-clinching tackle in his team’s narrow victory, sprinting across the field to bring down a running back who had just received a lateral. X’s athletic trainer watched it all from the sideline, amused by the thought of X recovering in time for his pro day in 48 hours. Wow, we have to get you ready now.

On Sunday, X spent some time in the therapy pool doing a hydro workout. He stretched and tried to keep moving so the soreness wouldn’t set in, though the pain was inevitable. “I was hurting pretty good,” he says. After everyone else had left the facility, he ran through the rest of his pro day drills.

X is easygoing and relaxed, but he woke up with butterflies in his stomach on the morning of his pro day. He started overthinking every drill. Fourteen scouts showed up to watch him work out, a big number considering they’d had only a little over a week’s notice, and X was the main attraction.

If scouts didn’t know X was in this draft class before his pro day, his workout certainly caught their attention. He ran a fast 40—among sprinters from the school’s indoor track team, who were nice enough to share the indoor facility for the workout—and tested well despite his nerves. “His performance was unexpected,” the area scout says. “The fact he did it right after a game, when these other kids that opted out have been training for months, the agents are paying 50 grand [for their training] … it’s kind of refreshing.”

After his pro day, X still had three more games in his season, so he had to squeeze in Zoom meetings with NFL teams in between Zoom meetings with his college team, sometimes missing a position meeting here or there because an NFL team needed his time. The third area scout guessed that X would have received a combine invite, had teams actually known he was in this draft class when they voted for players. X has now had phone calls or video calls with 30 of the 32 NFL teams.

Browns lineman Drew Forbes blocks during a 2019 game

Drew Forbes was the original Prospect X, in 2019.

Shortly after his pro day, a VP with an NFC East team called the school’s athletic trainer requesting X’s medicals. The trainer says his interactions with NFL teams in the past have always been with his counterparts in the training room. This was the first time he’s heard from someone so high up in an organization.

Three teams have told X that they want to draft him. He’s met with position coaches across the league, an NFC North defensive coordinator, an AFC West defensive coordinator and three special teams coordinators.

X had heard from several scouts that they would be hitting him up after his season, and after his final game—two Saturdays ago—he was indeed inundated with unscheduled calls from scouts and scheduled Zoom meetings with coaches, to the point where he had to frequently decline incoming calls from other teams because he was already on the phone or in a meeting. “I feel bad about that,” he says, “but they are understanding.”

NFL Network reached out to his college asking for headshots, action photos and game film to build graphics for their draft broadcast. Per X’s spreadsheet, there's one team that’s shown interest in him that he has shaded in green in both the number of players at his position on their roster (not many) and number of late-round picks (a lot), and a few more that are green in one category and yellow in the other, also good options for him.

“[X], anything to add for these guys based off what you saw in practice yesterday?” the college coach asks, turning the meeting over to his captain.

X won’t be practicing this afternoon. A contusion the previous week means his coaches and trainer are playing it safe—X won’t play in his final game. His trainer called in some favors to get him in for an MRI as quickly as possible, and X, thinking like a smart agent, is busy reaching out to every team he’s talked to, letting them know about his injury, that he’d be 100% within a week and a half. He mostly just wants to make sure no one travels to his last game thinking they’re going to see him.

X never considered opting out of this season, even when the conference decided on a spring schedule that would overlap with the draft process. He knew he needed another season to develop his game, even if that meant navigating the draft process mostly on his own, risking injury and getting lost in the mix.

“Keep the communication up and relax,” X says to his teammates. “Don't overthink, especially some of you younger guys. It's not that hard; play with your eyes and play with your feet.”

With that advice, the coach ends the meeting, and X heads to the facility for his last week of college ball, mixed with the home stretch of draft prep.

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