Every Tuesday, Rick Spielman and I do a segment called "Pop or Drop" on the "With the First Pick Podcast." In its simplest form: Draft-eligible players that ball out from the previous weekend's games usually find their way onto our "Pop" list, while players who don't live up to the hype find their way onto the "Drop" list.
To be clear, hearing your name called is neither a season-long endorsement nor an indictment; it's just a shortcut to grade their efforts, make a note and then reevaluate them throughout the season and, of course, in the months leading up to the 2024 NFL Draft.
With that in mind, and with Week 4 upon us, I thought it made sense to do a Pop or Drop, looking back over the first month of the college football season. Who impressed? Who has some work to live up to the preseason hype?
Let's take a look.
Shedeur Sanders, QB, Colorado
This is the easiest decision I'll make all week. What Sanders and his dad have done to revitalize that Colorado program is beyond comprehension -- and it's been incredibly fun to watch. I watched Sanders' Jackson State tape over the summer and while I liked what I saw, sometimes it's tough to gauge just how good a player is when he's part of a dominant team routinely beating up on the not-nearly-as-athletic competition.
Sanders answered any questions about the level of competition in the Buffs' season opener on the road against TCU. He did it again the next week against Nebraska and again last Saturday night in the double-overtime win over Colorado State.
Rick and I talked about Sanders' latest performance on the podcast:
The biggest takeaway for me is this: The bigger the moment, the better Sanders plays. In the span of three weeks, he's gone from a Day 3 prospect to QB3 in a deep draft class that includes USC's Caleb Williams and UNC's Drake Maye. And I'll take it a step further: Not only is Sanders firmly in the first-round conversation, if Maye continues to struggle with consistency (and I'll talk more about that below), Sanders (and others) could find their way into the QB2 slot. We'll find out together how Colorado responds against Oregon on Saturday and then a matchup with Williams and USC next week, but for now no one has had a better start to their 2023 season.
Spencer Rattler, QB, South Carolina
It wasn't that long ago that Rattler was a lot of folks' (me included) QB1 heading into the season. He was at Oklahoma at the time, struggled a lot early in the season and was eventually benched for Caleb Williams. Rattler made his way to South Carolina before the 2022 season. And at times he flashed that first-round potential. But he also played out of structure too often, made questionable decisions with the ball and still looked like he was growing into his game.
And he was. But so far in 2023, Rattler has made better decisions, and put his offense in positions to have success against tough opponents like North Carolina and Georgia. The first thing that you notice about Rattler isn't his arm strength or his willingness to put balls into tight windows because he trusts his receivers (and his arm), it's his toughness. He'll stand in the pocket, keep his eyes downfield, get blasted, but not before ripping a laser to a barely open teammate.
Spencer Rattler has been one of my favorite college players to watch this season. @spielman_rick and I talked about his game vs. Georgia on the @NFLDraftCBS pod, and added bonus: gave Rick my comp and draft range for Rattler and he didn't reflexively hate it. Progress! pic.twitter.com/ACKMjVdcJF— ryan wilson (@ryanwilsonCBS) September 20, 2023
In the first half against Georgia, Rattler was 16 of 18 for 152 yards and a touchdown, and the Gamecocks led 14-3 at the break.
Rattler was a Day 3 prospect coming into the season but he's a Day 2 pick right now and, who knows, if he continues dealing at this pace maybe he threatens Round 1.
Malik Nabers, WR, LSU
Nabers was the best wide receiver on the Tigers' roster last season when I was waiting for Kayshon Boutte to round into first-round form. It never happened for Boutte, who is now in New England, but Nabers is every bit the first-round talent and that was on full display last weekend against Mississippi State.
If you need him to stack cornerbacks and make a deep throw into the end zone look like a long handoff, well, you're in luck because those talents were on full display:
And a few minutes later, Exhibit B:
Nabers pulled a Puka Nacua (imagine anyone writing that season even a month ago) and finished with 13 catches for 239 yards and those two touchdowns against the Bulldogs. And while we all witnessed his ability to win downfield, if you need a possession receiver, he can wear out defenses running hitches and shallows all day long. But don't get it confused, he's twitched up, consistently separating at the top of the route. Marvin Harrison Jr. is WR1 and that ain't changing, but the race for WR2 is wide open and Nabers is firmly in the mix.
Jer'Zhan Newton, DT, Illinois
In the spring, the three defenders off the Illini defense were among the first 66 picks in the NFL Draft. Cornerback Devon Witherspoon went No. 5 overall to the Seahawks. Nickelback Quan Martin was the No. 47 pick of the Commanders and then, 19 selections later, the Eagles took safety Sydney Brown.
Even at 300 pounds, Newton got lost in the mix last season. But not in 2023 because he has been dominant, and at times unstoppable. And he's not lining up against a bunch of early season creampuffs either; he was a problem for a good Kansas team earlier this month and Penn State had few answers for him last Saturday.
#Illinois DT Jer'Zhan Newton made a lot of plays as a pass rusher against Penn State, but this two play sequence on the goal line may be the best from him all season.— Devin Jackson (@RealD_Jackson) September 19, 2023
Wins the leverage battle on both and walks the guards into the RB's paths on both plays. A dominant player, man. pic.twitter.com/4oS6E3tzav
Newton is a first-rounder all day long. The only question is how high does he end up going. His motor is through the roof and unlike a lot of defensive linemen, he doesn't seem to tire as the game wears on. He plays with heavy hands, regularly stands up the offensive lineman across from him (see above) and spends a lot of the game in the opponent's backfield.
Joe Milton, QB, Tennessee
Milton has drawn comparisons to Anthony Richardson, and much of that has to do with his arm strength. In fact, Milton probably has a better arm than Richardson, but that's where the similarities end. Richardson made just 13 career starts in college while Milton is in his sixth year of college. Milton began his career at Michigan and transferred to Tennessee before the 2021 season. And while he hasn't played a ton, either, he has been around two-high profile programs competing for playing time going back to 2018. Milton also isn't the athlete that Richardson is (and there's no shame in that -- no one is), but the biggest issue through the early season schedule is that Milton has struggled with accuracy, decision-making and seeing the entire field.
Against Florida, Milton was a mixed bag -- he'd make touch throws into the end zone like this:
And he'd then inexplicably short hop a critical third-down slant that he could probably throw in his sleep. Milton also doesn't throw with anticipation, something that could become a problem at the next level. And while he's good in the quick game -- he'll consistently put the ball on his receiver's face -- when the chips are down and he needs to push the ball downfield, he doesn't seem to play with a ton of confidence.
There's time to right the ship, of course. And even though Milton has been in college since '18, heading into Week 4 he's attempted exactly 18 more passes in his career (233) than Richardson did in three years at Florida.
Drake Maye, QB, North Carolina
A year ago, when evaluating Will Levis coming out of Kentucky, it felt like you had to squint at times to see the talent that was underneath all the inconsistencies. Maye has certainly been more consistent than Levis, who was the 33rd overall pick back in the spring, but he hasn't lived up to the "definitely a top-five pick" hype, at least through the early part of the schedule.
There has been plenty of good, for sure -- he started 10 of 10 against South Carolina in the opener -- but there have been too many reckless plays, poor decisions that led to needless turnovers. There were two against Minnesota last week and there's no way to explain this one other than just forcing the issue instead of taking the sack and living to fight another down.
Again, there's a lot to love about his game, and he makes plays -- with his arm and his legs -- that few others can. But the NFL is full of playmaking quarterbacks who at times can't get out of their own way and their teams are, or soon will be, in the market for their next franchise QB. Put another way: In Maye's last eight games dating back to Georgia Tech last season, he's thrown as many interceptions (8) as touchdowns.
If Maye can tidy up the mistakes, he's a top-five pick all day long. If he can't, then an organization is banking on potential, which is a dangerous position to find yourself if you're a coach or general manager in win-now mode.
JJ McCarthy, QB, Michigan
There's been a lot of talk about Caleb Williams' athleticism, and the comparisons to Patrick Mahomes -- and both are warranted. He's the clearcut No. 1 overall pick. But McCarthy is probably a better athlete and that athleticism gets him out of situations that might doom other quarterbacks. Unfortunately -- and this is a recurring theme with almost every college quarterback -- the lack of consistency can be problematic, at least when projecting McCarthy as one of the top passers in the 2024 class.
The Wolverines haven't had a real test yet through three weeks, making quick work of ECU and UNLV. In those first two games, McCarthy completed a mind-blowing 87.3 percent of his passes for 573 yards, with five touchdowns and zero interceptions. Last Saturday, McCarthy threw two more TDs against Bowling Green, but also tossed three interceptions. And while not every pick is the same, it's hard to argue that McCarthy was responsible in all three instances. The first came on a throw to the end zone, the second came on a downfield throw where either the ball was underthrown or the QB and the WR weren't on the same page. And the third was a ball that you absolutely, unequivocally have to throw away unless it's the last play of the game and you need a touchdown.
That said, there's a lot to appreciate about McCarthy's game. In addition to the athleticism, he's shown the ability to layer balls over second-level defenders and hit his receivers in stride. And despite INT No. 3 above, McCarthy can win out of structure and will make off-platform throws that other QBs can't. He's also incredibly tough -- he'll take a hit and pop right back up. It's also important to note that he has just one full year as a starter; he'll continue to grow as a passer and mature as a decision-maker. It's why NFL teams are high on him and why he's a Day 2 pick right now -- and he'll have a chance to work his way into Day 1 before it's all said and done.