Unlike last season, the Mountain West doesn't enter this season with a slew of sure-fire NFL draft picks. The MW had 10 players picked in this year's NFL draft, including the only Group of 5 player to go in the first round in Utah State quarterback Jordan Love. I'd take the under on 10 draft picks in 2019, but the conference has a number of pro-level upperclassmen. Here is a look at the MW's 12 best 2021 NFL draft prospects.
1. WR Khalil Shakir, jr., Boise State: Boise State isn't any good at getting quarterbacks drafted, but it's really good at getting players at other positions selected. The Broncos have had two receivers picked in the last three drafts and four since 2011. Shakir was a part-time starter in 2019 but led the Broncos with 63 receptions for 872 yards and six touchdowns. With an expanded role expected, the explosive 6-foot slot receiver could have a breakout year and be an early-entry to the NFL (Boise State is used to players turning pro early).
2. WR Warren Jackson, sr., Colorado State: Colorado State is a wide receiver factory, sending three players at the position to the NFL in the last four seasons. All of those receivers have been around 6-1, but Jackson is mammoth. He's a 6-foot-6, 219-pounder who had a big 2019 after two so-so seasons in terms of production. Jackson caught 77 passes for 1,119 yards and eight touchdowns in 2019 and is a big-play threat, averaging 14.3 yards per catch in his career. He should continue the Rams' pipeline of receivers into the NFL.
3. S Tariq Thompson, sr., San Diego State: Since 2000, SDSU has had at least one player picked in 17 of the 21 NFL drafts, missing only in 2001, 2007, 2010 and 2016. The Aztecs have had four defensive backs picked since 2013, and Thompson could add to that list. A big-play safety, Thompson has good size (6-0, 200 pounds) and has racked up 11 interceptions, 31 pass breakups, five forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries in his three seasons as an Aztec. A three-time All-MW honoree, Thompson just needs to continue his current level of play.
4. CB Jalen Walker, sr., Boise State: It's an interesting debate for best cover corner in the MW, and three Boise State players could make the claim, including Jalen Walker, Avery Williams and Kekaula Kaniho, which should tell you how strong the Broncos' secondary is expected to be this season. Walker, who is 6 feet and 190 pounds, had a strong junior season, although he only has one interception in 36 college games, so he has to show more big-play skills to move firmly onto draft boards. Advanced metrics rated him as an elite cornerback in 2019 despite the lack of picks.
5. WR Elijah Cooks, sr., Nevada: The Wolf Pack is in a draft drought with only one selection in the last six seasons, that being former walk-on Austin Corbett, a second-round pick in 2018. Fourth-year Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell could have his first signee at Nevada drafted into the league in Cooks, a 6-4 receiver with competitiveness, a big catch radius and the ability to high point the ball. Cooks has improved each season at Nevada and has scored 14 touchdowns in the last two years, hauling in 76 passes for 926 yards as a junior in 2019.
6. DL Dom Peterson, jr., Nevada: One of three juniors on our list, Peterson was one of the most productive edge rushers on the West Coast last season, and he did so as a sophomore. He was good against the run as a freshman and showed the ability to pass rush as a sophomore. In his two seasons at Nevada, Peterson has 12 sacks and 25.5 tackles for loss. He's undersized at 6 feet, so there's a ceiling on where he could get drafted, but if he continues to improve and pushes toward double-digit sacks as an upperclassmen, he could be an NFL player.
7. WR Tre Walker, sr., San Jose State: Walker is the fourth wide receiver in our first seven spots on this list, so just earning all-conference honors as a receiver in the MW will be difficult in 2020. The position is stacked. At 5-11 and 180 pounds, Walker doesn't have the size of the receivers above him, but he has excellent speed and has proven to be a big-play weapon (15.4 yards per catch in his career). MW offensive player of the year, SJSU QB Josh Love, has graduated, so Walker must continue that production with an uncertain quarterback spot.
8. OL Nolan Laufenberg, sr., Air Force: Air Force has only had one player drafted this century, that being a long snapper in 2019. Part of that is because of the Falcons' military responsibilities upon graduation. But we have two Air Force players on this list, starting with Laufenberg, a 6-3 mauler who posted the second-best Pro Football Focus season for a left guard ever (only Quenton Nelson’s 2017 season at Notre Dame was better). Laufenberg's only allowed one sack in his career, although pass protection will be a question give Air Force's scheme.
9. TE Trey McBride, jr., Colorado State: At 6-4 and 260 pounds, McBride has great size for a tight end. He's only a true junior, so he has plenty of time to develop, but he could be an early-entry candidate if he's able to build off his sophomore season, in which he caught 45 balls for 560 yards and four touchdowns. McBride isn't just a target in the pass game. He's also an above-average blocker, both in the run game and in pass protection. Given his size, his above-average hands and his blocking skills, he has the makings of an NFL tight end.
10. P Ryan Stonehouse, sr., Colorado State: Only a couple of punters get drafted every season, so the odds are long for anybody at the position. But Stonehouse has put together a great résumé during his first three seasons with the Rams. He's a two-time All-MW first-team honoree who has averaged 47 yards per punt in his career, including 48.3 as a sophomore. Yes, he's punting at elevation, both in Fort Collins and with road games in the MW. But for somebody who is only 5-11, Stonehouse's leg is one of the strongest in the nation.
10. QB Donald Hammond III, sr., Air Force: Hammond runs Air Force's triple-option and is the preseason favorite to win MW offensive player of the year if he can repeat his 2019 season, which saw Hammond pass for 1,316 yards and 13 touchdowns and rush for 553 yards and 13 more scores. He's obviously not a quarterback at the next level, but Hammond has good size (6-2, 220) and could be a running back/receiver conversion target or fill a Taysom Hill-style hybrid role for a creative team. Similarly, Navy QB Keenan Reynolds was drafted in 2016.
12. RB Charles Williams, sr., UNLV: Boise State's George Holani is the MW's best running back, but he's not draft eligible, so we'll give this slot to Williams, the Rebels' back who put up huge numbers last season (1,257 yards, 5.9 ypc, 11 touchdowns). He's only 5-9 and 190 pounds and hasn't shown the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield (only 13 receptions in his career), so that size and lack of proven versatility combination is a detriment, but Williams is worth mentioning as somebody who could pique the interest of NFL teams with a strong senior season.
Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.