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2021 NFL Draft Prospects: 20 Players to Watch

The NFL Draft is one of the biggest and most important events in professional football. Teams attempt to address their biggest needs by drafting some of the best players in college football, and collegiate athletes finally climb that mountaintop and join the ranks of the NFL.

Every year there are potential superstars in the draft, ones that have the potential to be true game changers and help alter a team’s trajectory. As we enter the territory of Mock Drafts and theories on what teams will draft which prospects, here are 20 players you should keep an eye on.

1. Trevor Lawrence

Position: Quarterback

School: Clemson

Conference: ACC

Year: Junior

Lawrence is, by far, the best prospect in this year’s draft and, to be honest, the best prospect the NFL has seen in years. Many draft analysts and college football experts have called Lawrence the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck, which is very high praise and is a lot to live up to. Anyone that has watched Lawrence play in college knows what he brings to the table: NFL level awareness and pocket presence, excellent accuracy, decision making that rivals the best pro quarterback, and more. 

He is the consensus number one pick in the 2021 Draft, will be a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars, and in all likelihood, that team’s starting quarterback week 1 of the 2021 season.

2. Penei Sewell

Position: OT

School: Oregon

Conference: Pac-12

Year: Junior

Some people say that drafting an offensive lineman early in the draft isn’t a “sexy” pick. Sure, maybe offensive linemen don’t create the showstopping highlights many people love to watch but make no mistake about it: An elite offensive line leads every good offense. 

Enter Penei Sewell from Oregon. Considered to be the best offensive lineman in the draft, Sewell succeeds most when forced to block on the move and keep pace with the guys rushing the QB. A guy at his size with his mobility is a rarity, and while he sometimes lacks the ability to finish a play successfully, he has shown that he is open to making the adjustments necessary to up his game. This is something he will need once he gets to the pro level.

3. Zach Wilson

Position: Quarterback

School: BYU

Conference: West Coast Conference

Year: Junior

Another Quarterback, Wilson, has been flying up draft rankings left and right practically all season. He had a not so great 2019 year, but in 2020 he excelled in almost every aspect of the game. He is on the smaller side for a quarterback (think Russell Wilson size.) He has the ability to make plays on the move, which in today’s NFL, where that sort of skill is becoming more valued, is a great asset. He has a cannon of an arm, with many people gushing over his ability to push the ball downfield with incredible accuracy.

There are concerns about his durability, considering he’s undergone shoulder surgery already, and his size also plays a factor in this at the next level. Still, he has a massive upside when he can play.

4. Micah Parsons

Position: OLB

School: Penn State

Conference: Big 10

Year: Junior

Parsons was the first defensive player to be selected on Mel Kiper Jr’s first mock draft, and for a good reason. Despite opting out of the 2020 season, Parsons led Penn State with 192 tackles, 19 for loss, and 6.5 sacks in his 26 games for the Nittany Lions. The 2019 All-American, 2019 Big Ten Linebacker of the Year, and Cotton Bowl MVP is an absolute beast and will very likely be a top 10 selection.

5. Justin Fields

Position: Quarterback

School: Ohio State

Conference: Big Ten

Year: Junior

For awhile, Fields was seen as this draft’s “consolation prize” basically, whoever missed out on Trevor Lawrence would be able to draft him. While there might be some truth in that assessment, it really is unfair to Fields. Fields isn’t as complete of a prospect as Lawrence; he struggles with his decision making and often holds onto the ball too long, among other issues. However, what he lacks in “football IQ,” he makes up for with raw talent. He has impressive arm strength and can keep a play alive, using his legs and mobility when needed. Many of Fields’ issues can be worked on and, hopefully, fixed with proper coaching when he gets to the NFL.

6. Ja’Marr Chase

Position: WR

School: LSU

Conference: SEC

Year: Junior

One of the better wide receivers in a draft loaded with great prospects at that position is Ja’Marr Chase. Chase, a junior from LSU, has impressed in an otherwise lackluster season for the Tigers. He loves to go up and attack the ball, which makes his skillset extremely valuable to any offense when combined with his hand strength. Put it this way: Quarterbacks love guys like Chase because it makes their job a whole lot easier.

He also isn’t afraid to make catches in traffic, which benefits offensive production and always a welcome sight for any QB. 

7. Kwity Paye

Position: DE

School: Michigan

Conference: Big 10 

Year: Senior

The 6’4” 270 lb Michigan defensive end had only 11.5 sacks throughout his four-year college career, including only two in his injury-shortened senior year. However, Mel Kiper Jr. recently had him pegged to go in the first round, at #21 to the Indianapolis Colts. He is raw but has all of the athleticism and tools to become a star in the NFL. 

8. Caleb Farley

Position: CB

School: Virginia Tech

Conference: ACC

Year: Junior

Farley, like Gregory Rousseau, opted out of the 2020 season. In 2019, the 6’2”. 207 lb cornerback was a first-team All-ACC selection as a red-shirt sophomore. The converted wide receiver missed the entire 2017 season due to a knee injury and spent 2018 getting acclimated to playing defense, defending seven passes, and intercepting two. 

9. DeVonta Smith

Position: WR

School: Alabama

Conference: SEC

Year: Senior

Smith had an absolutely monster season at Alabama this year, racking in over 1800 yards and 23 touchdowns. His production led to him winning the 2020 Heisman Trophy, and he helped lead the Crimson Tide to another National Championship. 

Given these statistics, you might be wondering why he isn’t our top-rated WR. Well, to answer your question, drafting Smith or Chase is a toss-up. They are both excellent players, and any offense will receive a major boost when they arrive on the scene.

10. Jaylen Waddle

Position: WR

School: Alabama

Conference: SEC

Year: Junior

Another Alabama WR, Waddle was the Robin to Smith’s Batman, serving as the number two in the Crimson Tide offense. When they couldn’t turn to Smith, Waddle was able to seamlessly step in and excel. While he isn’t the biggest receiver, which could provide some issues for him in the pros, Waddle is able to dust defensive backs with his speed. He also has immense talent as a kick returner, a welcome asset for any team.

11. Patrick Surtain II

Position: CB

School: Alabama

Conference: SEC

Year: Junior

Patrick Surtain II is the son of former Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs corner Patrick Surtain Jr. The three-year starter for Alabama was the first cornerback off the board on Mel Kiper Jr’s draft board, with the prototypical size you are looking for in a cornerback. However, there is some concern about his deep field speed, which may scare some teams away. Regardless, he is a lock to be taken in the first round. The only question is, how high?

12. Gregory Rousseau

Position: DE

School: Miami

Conference: ACC

Year: Junior

After an impressive 15.5 sack 2019 campaign, Rousseau opted out of the 2020 season amongst Covid concerns. The 6’ 7”, 267 lb defensive lineman can shift around anywhere on the line and cause havoc, but he is still a bit raw. Having only played in one game in 2018 and sitting out all of 2020, his game experience and tape are limited, so it’s possible he could slip to the late first round or even second round. However, he is an absolute monster, and some team out there will roll the dice on the high risk, high reward Rousseau.

13. Nick Bolton

Position: LB

School: Missouri

Conference: Big 12

Year: Junior

The 6’0” 232-pound linebacker starred for Missouri and is well known for delivering big hits despite being a bit undersized. He is a good athlete with great instincts and was considered the Missouri defense and a locker room leader. My best guess has him landing somewhere later in the first round, although I wouldn’t be shocked if he slipped into the early second round because of his size concerns.

14. Kyle Pitts

Position: TE

School: Florida

Conference: SEC

Year: Junior

I know what you’re thinking: “A tight end? On a top prospects list?!” Well, that should show you just how special Pitts is. Pitts, while listed as a TE, can best be described as a larger wide receiver. What I mean by that is, he’s fast, he’s lean, but he’s also strong enough to block when you need him to. 

His speed is one of his greatest strengths, it’s not often that you’ll see a tight end keeping pace or outrunning defensive backs, but Pitts has the ability to do just that. Given that he is such a “hybrid” type of player, he is difficult to scheme around, giving offenses another advantage heading into gameday.

15. Javon Holland

Position: Safety

School: Oregon

Conference: PAC 10

Year: Junior

Holland is another player that opted out of the 2020 season but is widely considered the top safety in the draft regardless. The 6’1” 196-pounder racked up 66 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 4 interceptions, four pass deflections, and a pick-six in his 2019 campaign. He is known as a good leader with a stellar football IQ and an excellent athlete. He is a lock as a first-round pick, but likely not until later in the round.

16. Trey Lance

Position: QB

School: North Dakota State

Conference: Missouri Valley Football Conference

Year: Sophomore (RS)

Another quarterback? You betcha. 

Lance is a “roll the dice” type of player because he comes from the FCS, so his opponents’ level of difficulty brings up the question of just how good he is. He has immense talent, showcasing an ability to watch a play develop, remain calm, and deliver a strike, placing the ball exactly where it needs to go. 

He struggles with deep-ball accuracy, which, if he is drafted by a team with receivers that specialize in those types of plays, presents a concern. However, Lance is more of a project than the other QBs in the draft, so with proper coaching, it is a skill that he has time to improve on.

17. Christian Barmore

Position: DL

School: Alabama

Conference: SEC

Year: Sophomore

The 6’5” 310-pound tallied 37 tackles and a team-high 8 sacks in his 2020 redshirt sophomore season, good enough to earn him Third Team All-American honors. Barmore was selected as the Defensive MVP of the 2021 National Championship Game and has all the necessary tools you are looking for in a star interior d-lineman. He is projected to come off the board somewhere in the mid-late first round.

18. Patrick Jones II

Position: Edge

School: Pittsburgh

Conference: ACC

Year: Senior

Jones was selected as a first-team All-American after his phenomenal 2020 season, in which he compiled 44 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 9 sacks, and a fumble recovery. He led the ACC in sacks (5th in the country) and was named a semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award, given to the country’s top defensive player. It will be interesting to see where he lands, as there are some size concerns. The late first-round seems about right, but all it takes is one team desperate for an EDGE to fall in love, and he could go much higher than that.

19. Joseph Ossai

Position: OLB

School: Texas 

Conference: Big 12

Year: Junior

In 2020, Ossai stood out for the Texas Longhorns with 55 total tackles, 5 sacks, 16 tackles for loss, and 3 forced fumbles.  The 6’4” 253-pound EDGE is known for his athleticism and ability to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. Another raw prospect, his hustle, and endless motor should translate well to the NFL. Ossai will likely be selected at the end of the first or top of the second round.

20. Rashawn Slater

Position: OL

School: Northwestern

Conference: Big 10

Year: Senior

As I mentioned above, any good offense begins in the trenches. Along with Sewell, Rashawn Slater is one of the top prospects to keep an eye on in this year’s draft and has the potential for serious success in the league.

What Slater lacks in size, he makes up for in his skillset and talent. He has the ability to recover from his mistakes quickly and adapt to what is happening on the fly. He is better suited at playing on the inside of the offensive line, possibly as a guard, and can help with any team’s run game.

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