Breaking down the NFL draft from a college football perspective
The 2021 NFL draft is finally here. After months of obsessing and debating over pro days, hand size and 40-yard dashes, it’s time to pick some players.
But first, let’s go back to the college football reporters who have covered these prospects for the past few years and see who their favorites are. We’re talking quarterbacks, receivers, sleepers and more.
And make sure to see how our choices line up with the real ones, starting tonight at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN and the ESPN app.
Who is your favorite prospect not projected to go in Round 1?
Bill Connelly: Kenneth Gainwell. He’s the kind of guy you can scheme open with a creative playcaller. He’s a solid (if small), block-reading running back when you need that, and he can line up in the slot or wide, run a credible route, and beat you that way too — in 2019, he caught 13 balls for 147 yards out of the slot, eight for 145 lined up wide and 28 for 318 out of the backfield. (Oh, yeah, and he rushed for nearly 1,500 yards and broke 42 tackles. He was a blast.)
Adam Rittenberg: Wisconsin-Whitewater offensive lineman Quinn Meinerz, a Division III player without a 2020 season who blew up during Senior Bowl practices and bares his beautiful belly for the world. He played guard throughout college but shifted to center at the Senior Bowl and was so good there that NFL teams could use him there permanently.
Chris Low: Daviyon Nixon took the long road to becoming one of the most disruptive defensive tackles in the Big Ten. He went to junior college, had to sit out a season and then blossomed a year ago at Iowa in his first full season as a starter. His best football is ahead of him, and he has elite physical skills for a 300-pounder. Go watch his 71-yard interception return for a touchdown (Eurostep and all) last season against Penn State.
David M. Hale: Sometimes excellent players get lost on bad teams, and that feels like the case with Asante Samuel Jr. He arrived at Florida State as the No. 3-ranked corner in the country, and he was nothing short of superb throughout his (nearly) three years on campus, and yet he’s not exactly getting a ton of pre-draft buzz. Why not? He’s got an NFL family history (his dad played 11 years in the league) and all the physical skills. Compare his numbers to first-round prospects and he stacks up well, with a better pass break-up rate and completion percentage than Jaycee Horn, and a better Raw QBR and yards-per-target than Caleb Farley and Patrick Surtain II. The problem? He was a part of some disastrous years at Florida State, despite his own excellent play. Someone’s going to get a steal in the second round, and it wouldn’t be a shock if Samuel ends up blossoming into the best corner in this year’s class.
Andrea Adelson: If I were to pick someone I loved watching play, it would be Wake Forest defensive end Carlos “Boogie” Basham (and it has nothing to do with his nickname. OK, maybe a little to do with his nickname). Basham constantly made plays in the backfield, whether with sacks or tackles for loss. As a junior, he had 11 sacks and 18 tackles for loss, and as a senior he kept up a streak with at least one tackle for loss in 23 straight games. He plays with great intensity and is constantly working to find an advantage. Coaches love using the term “great motor” for guys who never stop, and Basham certainly qualifies here.
Mark Schlabach: Because of injuries in 2019 and then an abbreviated season in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, NFL teams will have to go back to 2018 to see what Purdue receiver Rondale Moore can do. How can they not like what they see? As a freshman in 2018, Moore had 114 catches for 1,258 yards with 12 touchdowns, becoming only the third Big Ten player to surpass 100 receptions in a season. He also had 662 kick return yards and set team records for single-season all-purpose yards (2,215) and single-game all-purpose yards (313). Even at 5-7 and 181 pounds, Moore is tough across the middle and after the catch.
Who is your favorite non-Trevor Lawrence quarterback in the draft?
Schlabach: I’m not sure any of the other quarterbacks besides Lawrence are can’t-miss starters in the NFL, so why not take a flyer on North Dakota State’s Trey Lance? Sure, he has very limited experience and played at the FCS level, but it’s hard to ignore what he did at NDSU. As a freshman in 2019, he didn’t throw an interception in 287 attempts, setting the NCAA all-division record for most passing attempts in a season without one. He completed 66.9% of his passes for 2,786 yards and 28 touchdowns, while running 169 times for 1,100 yards and 14 more scores. He led the FCS in passing efficiency (180.6) and established single-season school records for passing efficiency and total offense (3,886 yards). Let him sit behind a veteran for a season or two and get more seasoning.
Harry Lyles Jr.: Justin Fields. The most interesting thing to me about this class of quarterbacks is that for the first time, I legitimately believe the case for any of the five we expect to go in the top 10 to be franchise quarterbacks in the long term. When the other four outside of Lawrence are all at their best, Fields is the one who leaves me stunned the most. I think he’s also the quarterback whom, if he doesn’t work out, you can look back to and say that you made the pick that makes the most sense from both a “we’ve seen what he can do” perspective and a “he’s got the most potential” perspective.
Low: Imagine somebody telling you just prior to last season that Mac Jones might go as high as No. 3 in the 2021 NFL draft. After all, at the time (at least allegedly), he was nothing more than a “game manager” at quarterback. Funny how perceptions can change. Jones was tremendous in 2020. He’s accurate, instinctive, smart and can make every throw. But what he does best is create supreme belief among his teammates and make everybody around him better.
Dave Wilson: Justin Fields is so much fun to watch, so he’s my pick — but I also appreciate how much Zach Wilson (no relation that I know of) looks like the cool-guy villain who is really good at skiing in ’80s movies.
Rittenberg: I’m rooting for Fields, not just because his ceiling as a true dual threat is incredibly high, but I’ve never seen a quarterback punished more for a league title game victory, while being ignored for what he did in a playoff game after absorbing a massive hit to the side. Give him a year to develop under the right NFL coach, and he’ll be a superstar.
Hale: I’m not sold on the Patrick Mahomes comparisons at this point, but it’s impossible not to love Zach Wilson’s skill set. He has a big arm, throws well on the run, is athletic and intelligent. And while Jones, Lawrence and Fields were surrounded by blue-chip talent, Wilson didn’t play with a single four- or five-star offensive weapon last year and still posted elite numbers. And look at the history. In 2017, BYU averaged 17 points per game. After Wilson took over as the starter in 2018, the Cougars’ scoring nearly doubled. After an injury-plagued 2019, Wilson nearly doubled BYU’s scoring average again in 2020. That’s a solid trend line. This is an incredibly deep QB class, and while that doesn’t guarantee success for everyone (see 1999’s class), I’d be pretty surprised if Wilson doesn’t blossom into a solid NFL player, and quite likely a star.
Ja’Marr Chase, DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle. Who’s your top WR?
Wilson: Give me Waddle because of his versatility and what he can do in open space and as a returner. Against probably the most NFL-ready secondary he faced (Georgia), he had six catches for 161 yards and two TDs.
Rittenberg: Chase’s opt-out makes some forget just how special he can be. He doesn’t have the size concerns that Waddle and Smith do, while still stretching the field (21.2 yards per catch in 2019) and shining in the red zone.
Low: Easy call here. Less than halfway through the season a year ago, it was clear to me that Smith was the best college football player in the country, and nothing has changed as we transition to the pro game.
Tom VanHaaren: If I were picking for a college team, I think this would be an easy choice and I’d go with Smith. I agree with Adam, though, and I would go with Chase in the NFL. He had 1,780 receiving yards in the same season that Justin Jefferson, who was one of the best rookie receivers last season, had 1,540 yards. I think Smith will have a good career, but if I were a GM, I’d bet on Chase first.
Lyles: DeVonta. We all understand the size concerns, but I also haven’t forgotten what I saw in the 2020 college football season. He was the best player in college football, and while his slim frame was easy to see, it didn’t show up in his game play. The NFL is a different game and his size could show up in his game then, but you don’t draft players as finished products. Smith is a mechanically sound player with incredible vision and hands. Players can put on size, but not all players can master the finer details of the position the way Smith has.
Adelson: Yes, please. Oh, wait, I can only pick one? I think all three will have outstanding NFL careers, but I will go with Chase based on the reasons Adam listed. I love his size and physicality, but also the ability to make big plays. His 1,720 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2019 are both SEC single-season records.
Who is the most exciting player in the draft?
Wilson: WR Rondale Moore broke Purdue’s all-time single-game record for all-purpose yards in his first college game. Let’s all hope we get to see him on an NFL team that knows how to turn him loose.
Low: Lane Kiffin knows all about getting his playmakers the ball, and Elijah Moore was a big play waiting to happen at Ole Miss whether he was blowing past cornerbacks on deep routes, making things happen after the catch or making a ridiculous shoestring catch in the end zone.
Hale: No need to overthink this. There’s a guy with a Heisman trophy and a national championship on his shelf who just helped turn Mac Jones into a top-10 pick and finished his college career with 48 touchdowns by the name of DeVonta Smith, and he’s pretty darned exciting to watch. In a draft loaded with “exciting” receivers — Ja’Marr Chase, Tutu Atwell, Rondale Moore, Elijah Moore and Smith’s teammate, Jaylen Waddle — nobody does excitement quite like the reigning Heisman winner.
Lyles: I think it’s easily Kyle Pitts. It seems unfair that he was allowed to play college football last season, because he made the game look so easy. When we talk about draft prospects, you don’t typically hear “he’s a future Hall of Famer” about a tight end, or the possibility of them even going in the top five. Congrats in advance to the fans of the team that gets this guy.
Who will be the best defensive player in three years?
Wilson: Linebacker Micah Parsons can — and will — do everything you need with his size, speed and instincts.
Rittenberg: Few big defenders disrupt plays as often as Tulsa’s Zaven Collins, who will shine at outside linebacker or rush end in the right scheme. His weight can be a concern at around 260 pounds, but he can harass quarterbacks or drop back in coverage. He’s always around the ball.
VanHaaren: I agree with Wilson about Parsons, but I have a weird feeling Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is going to have an awesome NFL career. He’s not the biggest linebacker, but I don’t think you have to be anymore. He can do everything and anything — he can play any of the linebacker positions. He has speed, physical skills, he can come off the edge or drop back. I think he fits really well with what today’s defenses are looking for, and he has a shot to be a really good player in the NFL.
Lyles: Out of all the talented Alabama players in this draft, we’ve hardly heard about Patrick Surtain II. Having a shutdown corner is one of the most important assets on a team, and he’s going to be that for somebody for a long time.
Adelson: I agree with Tom. Owusu-Koramoah can do so many things, plus he is as sure a tackler as you will find, and his ability to hit with such force and power allows him to make up for his shortcomings. To me, the most intriguing defensive player is Miami defensive end Jaelan Phillips. He is relatively raw considering his collegiate journey (quit football at UCLA for medical reasons, decided to play again, went to Miami, redshirted and played one year for the Canes in 2020). But if he can build off the pure potential was saw in the second half of 2020, he will make a big impact.
Schlabach: Unless you’re a Kentucky football fan, you might not have heard of former Wildcats linebacker Jamin Davis. Just like you’ve probably never heard of his hometown of Ludowici, Georgia, which has a population of about 2,200. Davis started only one season at UK, but he made his mark with 102 tackles, 1.5 sacks, three interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. At 6 feet 3 and 234 pounds, he has elite physical skills; he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds at his pro day and has a nearly 80-inch wingspan.
Connelly: This is not an amazing defensive draft, but while I’m pretty sure the right answer is Parsons, people have already said that, so I’ll give some love to Ronnie Perkins. There’s a slight chance he ends up a bit of a tweener — too small for defensive end, not quite versatile enough for OLB — but I doubt it. He completely transformed the OU defense when he was eligible midway through, and his pass rush numbers were almost Chase Young-esque. His pressure rate was over 16%, and he not only had 5.5 sacks in six games, he also created four more (he had the initial pressure on sacks that went to someone else) and forced 12 incompletions. At the very least, he should be a scary pass rush specialist, though he’s not terrible against the run either.
Name the potential Day 3 pick who will make the biggest impact
Wilson: Saw plenty of Texas A&M defensive tackle Bobby Brown III against an SEC-only schedule last fall, and he did enough to earn first-team all-conference honors. At 6-4, 320, he’s big enough to play anywhere inside against the run but still has enough physical skills to get after quarterbacks. He had at least half a sack in six of his seven starts against SEC teams last season.
Rittenberg: Boise State cornerback and special teams ace Avery Williams will make an NFL roster and looks like a late-round steal to me. He’s a natural playmaker who recorded four interceptions and five forced fumbles, while making 152 tackles for an always-solid Boise State defense. But Williams’ real value is on special teams, where he blocked five kicks and had nine return touchdowns, including four alone in 2020 (two punt, two kickoff). I have a hard time finding a more complete special teams performer than Williams, a two-time Mountain West special teams player of the year.
Low: All Garret Wallow did during his entire career at TCU was make plays and find the football. That has been a recurring formula for defensive players under coach Gary Patterson. Wallow (6-1, 220 pounds) will last into the latter rounds because he doesn’t have ideal size for an NFL linebacker and is a converted safety, but he has physical skills, is productive and is always a step ahead of what the offense is trying to do. He’ll be a fixture on defense and on special teams at the professional level.
Hale: Is there a clear home run edge rusher on anyone’s board this year? As much as I like the upside of Jaelan Phillips or Kwity Paye or the consistency of Boogie Basham or Ronnie Perkins, it’s also quite possible the best pass-rusher in this year’s draft could come with a pick on Day 3, and Pitt’s Rashad Weaver is my bet for a sleeper prospect worth investing in. Weaver had a terrific 2018 season, racking up 41 pressures and 6.5 sacks, but he missed all of 2019 with a knee injury. That didn’t seem to bother him in 2020, as he returned to the starting lineup in Pitt’s second game and wreaked havoc the rest of the way, with 43 pressures (fourth in FBS) and 7.5 sacks. Teamed with Patrick Jones, Weaver helped make Pitt’s D-line one of the most fearsome units in the country. He’d fit in almost immediately as a situational pass-rusher, but he has the frame and physical skills to build upon and could easily become a star if he lands in the right spot.
Lyles: Yeah, what Hale said.
Schlabach: Georgia fans won’t like this selection, but what about quarterback Jamie Newman? The former Wake Forest player was supposed to start for the Bulldogs last season but opted out in early September because of concerns about COVID-19. With the Demon Deacons in 2019, he completed 60.9% of his attempts for 2,868 yards with 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He added 574 rushing yards with six more scores. He has good mobility and arm strength and might develop into a starter down the road.
Connelly: It’s mind-blowing how deep the receiver position is in this draft — it’s conceivable that a player such as Amon-Ra St. Brown, Dazz Newsome or Tylan Wallace could go on the third day, and the decidedly underrated Ihmir Smith-Marsette almost definitely will. If you don’t end up with a good WR in this draft, it’s your fault.
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