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The ultimate Mountain West NFL draft preview: It's slim pickings this year

Warren Jackson
Warren Jackson of Colorado State is one of the top prospect in this year's draft out of the Mountain West. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

The Mountain West's NFL draft hot streak is likely to cool down with this year's selections.

The MW has had 10 players picked in back-to-back drafts, the 20 selections over that two-year period being the conference's best since 2014-15 when it had 26 picks. Last year also featured the fourth MW player to be picked in the first round in the last three seasons after Jordan Love was the No. 26 overall pick by the Green Bay Packers.

But the MW won't have a first-round pick this week. In fact, there's a good chance no players from the conference go in the first three rounds. The slim pickings is in part due to several MW standouts returning for a second senior season, per NCAA rules, which should make for a much more ample supply from the conference in next year's draft.

Here's a look at the top MW draft prospects in this year's draft, which runs Thursday (first round, 5 p.m.), Friday (second-third round, 4 p.m.) and Saturday (fourth-seventh round, 9 a.m.).

Top Mountain West draft prospects

Below are the MW players that made the top-350 prospect list of ESPN's Todd McShay (there are 259 picks in total).

148. Warren Jackson, WR, Colorado State (No. 25 WR): Jackson was the preseason MW offensive player of the year but opted out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns/to prepare for the draft. That decision might have hurt his stock, although Colorado State only played four games last season anyway (and did so with inconsistent quarterback play). At 6-foot-6 and 219 pounds, Jackson has incredible length, a large frame and is strong at the catch point. He only has one year of big-time production (77 catches for 1,119 yards and eight TDs in 2019), but he seems like a sure thing to be drafted and could be a steal if he slips into the late rounds because he didn't play last season.

189. John Bates, TE, Boise State (No. 9 TE): Bates doesn't fit the current mold of game-breaking tight end who can stretch the field, but he's a workmanlike prospect who can do a lot of different things, including serving as an H-back, protecting the quarterback in the pass game, being an above-average run blocker and a sure-handed pass-catcher who rarely drops the ball. He did not have huge production as Boise State, recording 47 catches for 579 yards and two touchdowns in his four-year college career. But he could be a backup tight end in the NFL who serves in a variety of roles.

226. Rico Bussey Jr., WR, Hawaii (No. 38 WR): Bussey wasn't a huge piece for Hawaii last season but he did have a monster year at North Texas in 2018 that put him on draft radars (he caught 68 passes for 1,017 yards and 12 touchdowns that season). He tore his ACL in 2019 and was so-so after a transfer to Hawaii last year (31 catches, 274 yards, one TD), so he's a fringe prospect. At 6 feet and 188 pounds, Bussey is a slot receiver at the next level who proved to be elusive pre-ACL tear. He could be selected based on how much stock teams put into his 2018 film.

262. Darren Hall, CB, San Diego State (No. 33 CB): SDSU develops great defensive backs, and Hall thrived during his time with the Aztecs. He's a willing tackler in the run game and excels in zone coverage in the pass game (he had some struggles in man coverage). He has a good football IQ and good size (6-0, 190) but isn't an elite athlete, so it wouldn't be a surprise if he was moved inside to nickel back if he does make an NFL team. During his four seasons at SDSU, Hall had 134 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, six interceptions (one for a touchdown), three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.

340. Manny Jones, DE, Colorado State (No. 30 DE): Jones was a productive four-year player for the Rams, tallying 136 tackles, 27 TFL, 11 sacks, two forced fumbles and one interception in his career. He never had more than five sacks in a season but has solid size for a defensive end (6-4, 280). He's a good technician with workable speed and burst but will have to get stronger at the NFL level. Jones most likely is a priority undrafted free agent but could find his name called late in the draft.

*****

That's the full list of MW players in McShay's top 350, but there are some other conference alums who could be drafted this week. For me, that list starts with SDSU safety Tariq Thompson, who is my favorite MW player in this draft class. A constant producer who is constantly around the ball, Thompson had 210 tackles, 11 TFL, one sack, 11 interceptions, five forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries and 23 passes defended in his career. He has solid size (6-0, 210) and could be an NFL starter if he improves his ability to slow the run, which is the big knock on his game (still, I think he'll make a roster). ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. released his top-150 draft prospects and no MW players made the list. But Kiper did have Thompson as the No. 22 safety in the draft.

Other players to make Kiper's positional rankings include Bates (No. 8 tight end), Hall (No. 33 cornerback), Jackson (No. 38 receiver), Bussey (No. 60 receiver), SJSU's Tre Walker (No. 46 receiver), Fresno State's Syrus Tuitele (No. 29 offensive tackle), Air Force's Jordan Jackson (No. 34 outside linebacker), Boise State's Avery Williams (No. 46 cornerback) and SDSU's Turner Bernard (No. 5 long snapper). Kiper also listed Utah State's Shaq Bond as his No. 29 safety, but Bond isn't in the draft as he returned to the Aggies for his senior season. I'd also throw in New Mexico punter Tyson Dyer and Air Force offensive linemen Nolan Laufenberg and Parker Ferguson as potential undrafted free-agent signees.

Among the players listed above, Walker, Tuitele and Williams are the most likely draft picks. Walker (5-11, 180) is small but explosive. He averaged 14.8 yards per catch in college and had 189 receptions for 2,790 yards and 12 touchdowns, so the production is there. Tuitele is 6-6 and 318 pounds and was a three-year starter for the Bulldogs. And Williams was an All-American on special teams, where he was spectacular. At 5-9 and 195 pounds, he's small for a cornerback, but he was a four-year starter who had four interceptions and 22 passes defended in his career and he'll give you something on special teams.

The Wolf Pack's top prospect is nickel cornerback EJ Muhammad, who played in the Hula Bowl. The 5-11, 195-pound Muhammad had 123 tackles, six TFL, one interception and 12 pass breakups in his six-year Wolf Pack career (five active seasons). He's a potential undrafted free-agent option.

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