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Charles Snowden and Tony Poljan are UVa’s two likely selections in 2021 NFL Draft

Charles Snowden and Tony Poljan are UVa’s two likely selections in 2021 NFL Draft

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Charles Snowden doesn’t know what makes the stars twinkle, but he does know how to play linebacker.

An NFL team, perhaps trying to see how the former Virginia star would react to being caught off guard, asked Snowden, “What makes the stars twinkle?” during one of his interviews ahead of the NFL Draft.

“The answer to that is, ‘No, I don’t,’” Snowden said at UVa’s March Pro Day.

NFL prospects like Snowden can soon be done with the nonsensical questions and pre-draft antics. After months of workouts, medical checks and virtual interviews, former collegiate standouts can refocus their attention on solely football as they learn their professional landing spots this week through the NFL Draft, which begins Thursday night and wraps up Saturday.

For Snowden, he’ll likely have to wait until at least Friday’s second and third rounds to learn his NFL fate. He may even need to test his patience, holding out until Saturday’s final four rounds to land with a team.

Most draft experts project the lengthy linebacker as a Day 2 or 3 pick. He typically falls in the fourth-sixth rounds, with a few mock drafts placing Snowden at the end of the third round or early in the seventh round. His broken ankle, which he suffered in November and kept him from participating in most pre-draft workout activity, certainly doesn’t help his stock.

“The injury hurt him, just like injuries always hurt,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said earlier this month, “because it adds uncertainty, and so not being able to participate in a combine or go to the Senior Bowl and to keep playing, to have more intimate contact with NFL personnel, that will be a hardship he’s going to have to overcome, but there are plenty that are interested because of his size, because of his personal characteristic and character, as well as his production.”

Snowden’s size makes him a unique prospect. At 6-foot-7, Snowden possesses tremendous length for a linebacker. He used that length to lead all FBS linebackers with 11 passes defended in 2018. In 2019 and 2020, Snowden was a menace in opposing backfields, recording 21 tackles for loss and 11 sacks in 22 games.

NFL teams can teach technique, but they can’t teach physical traits. That’s part of what makes Snowden such an enticing prospect at the professional level.

“He’s a pterodactyl out there,” Zack Patraw, president of the NFL Draft Bible, said in a phone interview. “He’s good in coverage, which I think makes him more of a versatile piece than people give him credit for. He’s a solid pass rusher. I think he’s gonna thrive as an outside linebacker in a 3-4. There’s just a lot to like about a guy who has the athletic ability and the length that he has at his type of position.”

Given Snowden’s leadership qualities—he was a team captain in 2020—and physical traits, some may wonder why most draft analysts give him a Day 2 or Day 3 grade.

The injury, which kept him from doing anything other than the bench press at UVa’s Pro Day, took away his chance to participate in pre-draft showcases such as the Senior Bowl. He attended the event, but cheered peers on from the sideline rather than playing. Much like former UVa cornerback Bryce Hall, a pre-draft injury may prevent him from being a top-100 pick.

“I can’t control how they feel or how they view the injury,” Snowden said. “The injury is reality and that’s not within my control, so I haven’t really stressed myself out worrying about how they’ll perceive that.”

Additionally, some experts feel that Snowden’s game can use refinement. Whether it’s using leverage better in coverage or polishing his pass rushing moves, there’s room to develop.

Some scouts believe he’ll also need to grow physically. He checks in around 240 pounds, but he has a lean frame. There’s potential for Snowden to add some bulk as he transitions to the NFL level.

“Snowden comes with position and scheme fit questions,” Dane Brugler of The Athletic said in his NFL Draft guide, “but his fluid athleticism, long-limbed frame and reaction skills are an intriguing combination.”

Brugler projects Snowden as a third- or fourth-round pick.

“He’ll have an opportunity,” Mendenhall said. “I don’t know with what team. I don’t know what round, I don’t know the circumstances, but whoever gets him will be lucky.”

The other UVa standout most likely to be drafted this week is tight end Tony Poljan. Much like Snowden, it’s the athlete’s size that has NFL teams excited.

Poljan stands at 6-7 and weighs 265 pounds. The former Central Michigan quarterback turned tight end played one season with Virginia, reeling in 38 catches for 411 yards and a team-high six touchdowns. Poljan caught 33 passes for 496 yards and four touchdowns in his final season at Central Michigan in 2019.

“Obviously it’s a big jump from the MAC to the ACC, but I thought I handled the move well,” Poljan said. “It’s just little things here, little things there that I need to work on to take my game to the next level.”

Poljan projects as a likely late-round pick, likely falling anywhere from the fifth to seventh round.

“He’ll get picked,” Patraw said, “and what’s going to help him get picked is this tight end class, I wouldn’t say is great.”

Outside of Florida’s Kyle Pitts, who figures to be a top-10 pick, it’s not a loaded class at the position group. That gives Poljan, whose big frame makes him a solid developmental prospect, a good chance to be drafted.

“There are a lot of high potential players, including Tony,” Patraw said of the tight end position.

Unfortunately for Poljan, he also missed out on his Senior Bowl opportunity. He wasn’t injured like Snowden, but he tested positive for COVID-19 shortly before the event and was forced to skip the showcase. That left him with just UVa’s Pro Day as his main opportunity to perform in front of NFL scouts.

Perhaps the biggest question mark for Poljan is his lack of experience at the position. He’s been a full-time tight end for just two collegiate seasons. His production within the ACC helps his case to be drafted, but his route running can use work.

The team that drafts Poljan isn’t getting a finished product, but it is getting a player with elite size and potential to be a contributor.

“Poljan is still relatively new to the tight end position and requires further development, but he has natural pass-catching skills and physical in-line blocking ability and projects as a developmental Y tight end,” Brugler wrote in his draft guide.

Aside from Snowden and Poljan, it’s unlikely any former UVa players hear their names called over the next few days. It’s not impossible, though.

Linebacker Zane Zandier finished his four-year Virginia career with 253 tackles and 25 tackles for loss. Durable and reliable, Zandier is a sure tackler with old-school linebacker skills. If he isn’t drafted, he’s likely to earn an undrafted free agent deal.

Running back Shane Simpson performed well in his one season in Charlottesville, rushing for 278 yards and adding 133 yards as a receiver. He averaged 6.1 yards per touch and found the end zone three times. After a productive FCS career at Towson and one season in the ACC, a team might take a shot on Simpson, who would be a coveted undrafted free agent (UDFA) pickup should he not be selected.

“His name is on a lot of high priority UDFA targets,” Patraw said. “He’s someone that could likely get signed right after the draft’s done.”

Snowden and Poljan seem the most likely UVa players to be selected in the 2021 NFL Draft. Assuming one player is selected, UVa will extend its streak to four consecutive years of having a player picked in the draft.

Even with significant expert input through mock drafts and detailed draft guides, it’s always a guess as to when and where collegiate players will fall in the draft.

“Every draft I just kind of scratch my head and I’m never quite sure,” Mendenhall said.

Mendenhall, along with UVa fans, will find out soon enough where their favorite players will continue their football careers.

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