The Top-5 NFL Draft Prospects on the Minnesota Gophers

Credit: Jim Rosvold/University of Minnesota

The Minnesota Gophers stunned a lot of people after they won 11 games, losing just two, and going 7-2 in the B1G last season. That’s a massive improvement after going 7-6 overall and 3-6 in the B1G the year prior. The Gophers football program as a whole is becoming one to watch out for. Now, teams are highlighting the matchup on their calendars.

The AP top-25 poll currently has the Minnesota Gophers ranked at ten overall, right behind B1G rival Penn State. Ohio State ranks ahead of both teams at third overall. However, you can bet that the Buckeyes aren’t a lock to win the B1G again this year.

There are plenty of reasons to suspect that the Gophers are going to have plenty of intriguing prospects for the upcoming NFL Draft. Last year we saw safety Anotoine Winfield Jr, wide receiver Tyler Johnson, linebacker Kamal Martin, defensive end/outside linebacker Carter Coughlin, and cornerback Chris Williamson all selected in the 2020 NFL Draft. But could the 2021 NFL Draft have more and even better Minnesota Gopher draft prospects? Let’s take a look at the top-5 draft prospects for them.

5. DE #34 Boye Mafe

Redshirt Junior Height: 6-4 Weight: 260

Mafe’s hometown is Golden Valley, Minnesota and he went to Hopkins High School in Minnetonka. Mafe was ranked as the best defensive end in Minnesota coming out of high school. He lettered in both football and track and field.

Mafe redshirted his freshman year in 2017. The next year, he registered 12 total tackles, 0.5 sacks, and one pass breakup. Last year we saw the potential Mafe has. He played in all 13 of the Gopher’s games, but didn’t get a lot of quality playing time. But he made the most of it.

He registered 14 total tackles, 3.5 for a loss, and he totaled three sacks. Most of his time was in a rotational role, but this year he should find himself a starting spot on the edge.

Mafe made Bruce Feldman’s “Freaks List” this year, and for a good reason. His testing numbers are off the charts for someone of his size. His vertical came in at 40.5 inches and he also registered a broad jump of 10′-6″. To top that, he ran a 4.57-second 40-yard dash with a 10-yard split of 1.58-seconds. Mafe also registered a 4.30-second short-shuttle.

Mafe has the testing numbers, and they show on film. His burst and quickness are on full display. With more playing time this year, there’s no reason he can’t become one of the better edge rushers in this NFL Draft class.

Those testing numbers are impressive, but Mafe can also squat 653-pounds! That’s 393 more pounds than his current weight! He also power cleans 400-pounds. Mafe clearly has the strength to become one of the best defensive ends the Gophers have had.

4. WR #7 Chris Autman-Bell

Redshirt Junior Height: 6-1 Weight: 215

Autman-Bell grew up in Kankakee, Illinois, where he attended Bishop McNamara High School. He broke his hand during his senior season, which found his recruiting ranks in all different sorts. ESPN had him ranked as the 8th overall recruit in Illinois, Rivals had him at 17th, and 247Sports had him at 35th. Needless to say, the Gophers got a steal with Autman-Bell.

Autman-Bell redshirted his freshman year in 2017. In 2018, he appeared in all 13 games and received nine starts. His numbers were fairly impressive for a freshman as the third or fourth option on a team with a subpar quarterback. That season, he had 28 catches for 449 yards, which ranks third all-time by a Gopher freshman.

Last season, Autman-Bell was, again, the third or fourth option on the Gophers offense. He appeared in all 13 games again, and once again caught 28 passes, this time for 371 yards and five touchdowns. He also registered at least one catch in every game.

While you might say that the stats aren’t entirely up to snuff with Autman-Bell, the traits are there. With Tyler Johnson leaving a gaping hole in vacated targets, Autman-Bell should find himself as the second target this year, which should boost his production numbers.

3. QB #2 Tanner Morgan

Redshirt Junior Height: 6-2 Weight: 215

Alright, I know what you’re thinking, “Tanner Morgan should be higher than third-best Gopher NFL Draft Prospect,” and you’re not wrong, but wait until you see the next guy before you stop reading.

Tanner Morgan’s coming to Minnesota story is an interesting one. Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic wrote an interesting piece on the relationship of PJ Fleck and Tanner Morgan, focusing on the story about their journey coming to Minnesota. In the piece, Auerbach talks about how Morgan was destined to join Fleck at Western Michigan, but Morgan found out Fleck was headed to Minnesota, Morgan was quick to follow. Now, Tanner Morgan is Fleck’s star quarterback, leading an effective offense with great numbers.

Last season, Morgan posted 3253 yards with 30 touchdowns, and just seven interceptions, completing 66% of his passes. Those are outstanding numbers compared to what the Gophers were used to seeing in previous years.

As I’ve written in my scouting report, Tanner Morgan has a lot of positive traits that will translate well to the next level. He has phenomenal footwork and easily gets into a rhythm. Impressively, he’s also knowledgeable, scans the field well, and goes through his progressions nicely. Morgan is solid working off-script and keeps his eyes downfield when he’s scrambling. What’s really exciting for Gopher fans is that he might find himself receiving first-round hype soon.

2. OT #78 Daniel Faalele

Junior Height: 6-9 Weight: 400

Yes, Faalele beat out Morgan. Hear me out, but first, did you see his measurables? He’s 6-feet 9-inches and weighs in at 400-pounds! He’s a mammoth of a human being. You would think a guy that size isn’t very athletic; nay, his size doesn’t hinder his movement skills whatsoever.

Faalele is originally from Australia but attended IMG Academy in Florida. ESPN and 247Sports rated him as a four-star recruit and was a part of the 2018 Under Armour All-America Game. Faaelel started the final eight games for the Gophers as a true freshman and started 11 games last year. He got his experience early and looks to add to his already outstanding bag of traits. Plus, you can’t teach size!

In my scouting report for Daniel Faalele, and as I stated previously, he shouldn’t be able to move the way he does for a man his size. His length is very evident and uses that to make up for misses or to counter the rush of the defender. He creates natural leverage, and his anchor is solid. Size, athleticism, strength; Faalele has it all to be a stud tackle in the NFL.

1. WR #13 Rashod Bateman

Junior Height: 6-2 Weight: 210

Is it any surprise that Rashod Bateman is the best Gopher prospect for the NFL Draft? If it is, you’ve been living under a rock. He’s been arguably the best receiver on the team since his freshman year. Now, he is one of the best in all of college football. The traits are there, and the stats back it up.

As a freshman, Bateman started all 13 games for the Gophers. He set freshman records for receptions, with 51, and receiving yards, with 704. He combined that with six touchdowns, which was just one shy of tying the freshman record.

Last year was a tremendous year for him. He again started all 13 games and caught 60 passes for 1219 yards and 11 touchdowns. That amount of yards and touchdowns were both the second-most in a single-season for the Gophers.

Rashod Bateman currently ranks 31st overall on The Dynasty Draft Room’s 2021 NFL Draft Prospects board. There is a good reason for him to be that high. He has the perfect size to play as an outside receiver, and his game is very well-rounded. Not to mention his strong hands and an excellent catch radius.

Bateman can truly be a threat at any level of the field. He’s a great vertical threat, but can also make plays at the first and second level. He has a ton of speed and is versatile enough to play anywhere on the line of scrimmage. Don’t be surprised to see Bateman find his way into the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.

Zack Thomas | Minnesota Sports Fan

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