Over the last five years, the ACC has produced an average of 13.14 NFL draft picks per year. While that doesn’t quite compare to the 21 that come from the SEC, the ACC feeds a healthy amount of players into the NFL every year.
While the ACC is lacking when it comes to players I view as first-round-caliber prospects at this point in the process, the depth of the talent in the conference is exciting. With that in mind, these five players deserve more hype entering the 2021 season and I can see them all developing into major risers as the season goes on.
LB Amari Gainer, Florida State
Gainer caught my eye during the 2019 season as he gained more and more playing time as the season progressed. His size, length, and athleticism instantly pop when watching him play and he plays with an unrelenting motor. After studying him for multiple seasons now, his processing skills and overall play speed have improved and he’s primed to emerge as one of the best linebackers in the ACC in 2021.
Gainer is a modern linebacker that thrives in coverage and in space, so much so that the Seminoles frequently play him in an overhang role and trust him to play man coverage in the slot and be responsible for considerable real estate to defend on the field. Gainer checks a lot of boxes and I expect him to make a lot of plays in 2021.
TE James Mitchell, Virginia Tech
The rising crop of tight ends appears to be a good one and Mitchell deserves more praise for making the group even better. A big-play threat, Mitchell has averaged 16.9 yards per reception across 47 catches over the last two seasons.
Mitchell is a smooth athlete with outstanding hands. He has terrific body control as a route-runner and at the catch point, where his basketball background from high school shows up. He makes outstanding adjustments to the football and is just so natural in the way he catches the ball. Mitchell is a willing blocker that has experience working in-line and flexed out to the slot. Mitchell profiles well as an F tight end at the next level for an offense that likes to spread things out.
CB Jermaine Waller, Virginia Tech
Waller is a bit of a forgotten man in the rising corner class, likely because he missed all but three games in 2020 due to injury. That said, his 2019 season revealed a dynamic skill set where he paired with Caleb Farley to form a dominant tandem at cornerback for the Hokies.
Waller offers an intriguing blend of length, range, speed, ball skills, and coverage versatility. He can be trusted in man coverage and his football IQ shines when in zone. If Waller can stay healthy and build on his 2019 campaign, he could be the big riser in the ACC and cement his status as an early-round selection.
IOL Grant Gibson, NC State
Gibson came to the Wolfpack to play defensive tackle but transitioned to center in 2018 and has developed into one of the ACC’s top blockers. Gibson is dynamic with his movement skills, lateral quickness, and functional strength. His ability to hit reach blocks and operate in space shines in NC State’s zone-heavy run scheme. He’s a steady pass blocker that does an outstanding job staying square to his opponents and maintaining the depth of the pocket.
The knock on Gibson will be his frame. He has a dense build and lacks length, making him a center only and one that doesn’t deliver ideal size. However, there is no disputing how effective he is as a blocker and his football character is exceptional, earning several awards for his leadership and attitude.
TE Trae Barry, Boston College
2021 will be Barry’s first season at Boston College after beginning his college career with Jacksonville State. His transition to Boston College is the perfect opportunity for him to show he can handle the physicality required at a higher level of competition because Boston College hasn’t been shy about prioritizing targets for tight ends in the passing game.
Barry is a long and lean tight end that features terrific body control, hands, ball skills, and is a good athlete. He made good route adjustments and found plenty of success down the field at Jacksonville State. I can see him becoming a reliable option for quarterback Phil Jurkovec in the middle of the field and delivering a big season as he emerges in the rising tight end class.