Matt Miller's Way-Too-Early 2021 NFL Draft Big Board
The 2020 NFL draft class featured impressive quarterbacks (four selected in Round 1), a historic level of depth at wide receiver (37 drafted) and strong top tiers at offensive tackle and cornerback.
As good as the 2020 class was, the 2021 class might be even better. Not only does it boast star potential at linebacker and cornerback, but it could also have the advantage over this year's group at quarterback, wide receiver and offensive tackle as well.
The 2020 class was seen as one of the strongest and deepest classes in quite some time, but 2021 may be better on that front, too. One NFL team I spoke to had 32 first-round grades, which I've never heard of within the past decade.
You know names like Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields, and they've earned their way into the top of the 2021 class. But there are others to know and watch whenever the 2020 college football season (hopefully) gets underway.
1. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
After a breakout true freshman season in 2018, Trevor Lawrence somewhat came back down to earth as a sophomore. However, NFL scouts still regard him as one of the best they've seen.
At 6'6" and 220 pounds, Lawrence has the arm power, accuracy and athleticism of a No. 1 overall prospect. He's versatile enough to execute a power run game against Ohio State, but he can also become a dropback passer in a shootout against LSU.
Lawrence isn't a sure-thing No. 1 overall pick even though his potential is through the roof. He still has to play with more command in 2021, and scouts would like to see him take over a game with either his arm or his legs. But if he continues to develop, he could become one of the best prospects of the last decade.
2. Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon
Great left tackles don't come around often, but Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell is a great one. No potential required; he's already there.
The 6'6", 330-pound junior moves like a much smaller player, with excellent agility, poise and balance. His powerful lower body will make you think you're watching a 20-year-old Jason Peters.
If the team that lands the No. 1 pick in 2021 already has its quarterback of the future in place, Sewell should be the favorite to be the selection.
3. Ja'Marr Chase, WR, LSU
Watching Ja'Marr Chase play, you'd never think he was 6'1" and 208 pounds. He plays like a 6'4", 220-pounder who can dominate at the catch point and doubles with special speed, power and body control.
Chase is among the most naturally gifted receivers to play college football in the last several years. My first thought watching him play was "Julio Jones," as he often blows past defensive backs but is also incredibly physical in his routes and after the catch.
It bears watching whether Chase takes much of a hit with Joe Burrow and Joe Brady now in the NFL, but his raw talents are eye-opening and would have made him the top receiver in the 2017, 2018, 2019 or 2020 draft classes.
4. Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State
You might be wondering who Trey Lance is, but casual observers will know soon enough.
In his redshirt freshman season, he threw for 28 touchdowns and zero interceptions while completing 66.9 percent of his passes. He also added 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. He's good—like, Michael Vick in Madden good.
Lance has to avoid the sophomore slump that plagued many top prospects before him, but he has plenty of athletic potential, arm talent and ability to dominate games. There will be questions about the level of competition he's facing, but the throws and runs he makes would work against LSU just as well as they do against James Madison.
5. Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama
Much like the 2020 class, the 2021 group will feature many recognizable second-generation NFL names. Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II will lead that charge.
The 6'2", 203-pound junior will quickly remind fans of former Crimson Tide cornerback Marlon Humphrey with his size, length, quickness and physicality in coverage. Among draft-eligible cornerbacks (LSU's Derek Stingley Jr. isn't eligible until 2022), he's the best we evaluated in college football last season.
Surtain will have to fight off a strong cornerback class, but he's the early favorite to be CB1.
6. Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State
It's rare for a linebacker to be a top-10 prospect, but Micah Parsons looks the part at 6'3" and 244 pounds with excellent lateral quickness and football IQ. His awareness and poise both against the run and in coverage will entice plenty of teams.
It's important to hammer home that Parsons isn't a 6'0", 225-pound hybrid. He's built to play "Mike" linebacker with an NFL-ready physique.
Parsons has been the most impressive Penn State player since Saquon Barkley left. Scouts and evaluators have been patiently waiting for the moment when he's draft-eligible.
7. Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
As my Stick to Football podcast co-host Mello put it, Jaylen Waddle is the perfect mix of Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy. That's terrifying, but it's accurate.
Waddle has the speed of Ruggs but the body control and route running of Jeudy. Ruggs and Jeudy were selected Nos. 12 and 15 overall, respectively, but Waddle's all-around game potentially could have him ranked higher and drafted earlier.
How his game develops in 2020 with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa no longer at Alabama bears watching, but his talent is off-the-charts good.
8. Samuel Cosmi, OT, Texas
Left tackle Samuel Cosmi almost entered the 2020 NFL draft, and he would have been my No. 5-ranked offensive tackle if he had. Instead, he headed back to Texas to secure his spot as a high first-rounder while continuing to improve his game.
The 6'7", 310-pounder won't have the arm length or strength questions that kept former Texas left tackle Connor Williams from being a first-rounder or a projected NFL tackle. If he can stay healthy and play like he has for the last two seasons protecting Sam Ehlinger's blindside, Cosmi has the tools of an early first-rounder.
9. Dylan Moses, LB, Alabama
Nick Saban is a master recruiter, and he does some of his best work getting draft-eligible players to return to Alabama for their senior seasons. That's the case with linebacker Dylan Moses, who missed the 2019 season because of a torn ACL and considered leaving Alabama before changing his mind and returning to school.
Moses hasn't played football in more than a year, so he'll likely have some rust to shake off early on, but his 2018 film was first-round caliber. His return to the gridiron is one of the most anticipated storylines of the 2020 college football season.
10. Shaun Wade, CB, Ohio State
Ohio State's claim as DBU will be bolstered in 2020 with the play of Shaun Wade. Had he entered the 2020 draft, he would have ranked higher than Damon Arnette and likely would have been the No. 3 cornerback on my board.
Wade has all of the tools he needs to succeed; he just needs to put it together more in terms of awareness in coverage. But his size (6'1", 195 lbs), physicality and quickness jump off the screen while you're trying to watch his teammates play.
Wade could easily end the 2021 draft process as the top cornerback in the class.
11. Gregory Rousseau, Edge, Miami
Production usually catches your eye first when putting together an early big board. Then you go back and watch the player to see whether he has the requisite athleticism to make him a good draft prospect.
Gregory Rousseau's 15.5 sacks last season is the kind of production you love to see, especially when coupled with a 6'7", 253-pound frame that has quickness and length but is still getting stronger.
The Miami Hurricanes have a special one in Rousseau, who will be tasked with following up his breakout campaign with a solid 2020 season. If he can do so, he's a lock to go in the top 15.
12. Devonta Smith, WR, Alabama
When you're one of four future first-rounders on your team at wide receiver and you have a five-touchdown game against Ole Miss, scouts are going to take notice of your game. That's what Devonta Smith did in 2019, and it's why many around the NFL were surprised when he opted to return to Alabama for his senior season.
Smith heads back to Tuscaloosa with a chance to bulk up, but he'll also have an opportunity to be the No. 1 wide receiver for 'Bama. Like Jaylen Waddle, he'll have to prove himself without quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, but his hands and route running are ideal for the NFL, and he's a surefire first-round talent.
13. Marvin Wilson, DL, Florida State
One of the best defensive tackles in college football last season, Marvin Wilson surprisingly returned to school rather than declaring for the 2020 draft. That decision was great news for Florida State, but it's equally big for his draft stock.
If Wilson has a Derrick Brown-like senior season, it could propel him up the board into a top-10 selection.
The interior defensive line class in 2021 looks to be somewhat underwhelming, so Wilson's return to school could prove to be especially brilliant. Whereas he would have battled to be the No. 3 or No. 4 interior defensive lineman in 2020, he has limited competition to be the first tackle off the board in 2021.
14. Sage Surratt, WR, Wake Forest
Were it not for another dominant group of SEC receivers in the 2021 class, Sage Surratt would be getting more hype as the potential WR1 in the class.
Wake Forest doesn't boast the surrounding talent that LSU or Alabama does, but Surratt's tape is impressive nevertheless. As a redshirt sophomore, he tore up the field with big-time power and physicality in his routes and after the catch.
At 6'3" and 215 pounds, Surratt has the size and power to make an easy transition to the NFL. His play above the rim is the best of the 2021 receiver class based on last year's film.
15. Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
One of the biggest surprises of the 2020 draft cycle was Alabama running back Najee Harris returning to college for his senior season.
It's rare for draft-eligible running backs to return to school, especially those with as much talent and productivity as Harris. But Nick Saban is a master recruiter and got his star tailback to return.
Harris will be the focal point of Alabama's offense in 2020 with a new quarterback under center. His power, explosive running style in the open field and his ability as a receiver out of the backfield all combine to make him one of the best backs in college and a top-tier NFL prospect.
16. Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue
If you like explosive wide receivers, Rondale Moore is your guy.
Built in the mold of a Marquise Brown or Jalen Reagor, Moore is a blur with the ball in his hands. At 5'9" and 180 pounds, he might be short, but he isn't small. His explosive lower-body strength allows him to quickly accelerate with the ball in his hands.
Whether it's in the return game or passing game, Moore is a threat to make house calls any time he touches the ball. As long as he can stay healthy in 2020, he looks like a first-round lock.
17. Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota
Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck has loaded the Gophers with NFL talent, and he'll have a first-rounder in wide receiver Rashod Bateman.
At 6'2" and 210 pounds, the true junior has the production to intrigue NFL scouts and the athleticism to propel him into the first round of the draft. Scouts who worked on the Gophers' 2020 draft class are already buzzing about Bateman's ability to set up and beat cornerbacks with agile moves and fluid routes.
With Tyler Johnson now in the NFL, Bateman will get the lion's share of Minnesota's targets in 2020. That could cause him to shoot up draft boards.
18. Alex Leatherwood, OT, Alabama
Alex Leatherwood is yet another potential first-rounder whom Nick Saban convinced to return to Tuscaloosa for the 2020 season.
Leatherwood wasn't as highly regarded as former teammate Jedrick Wills, but he has the look of a potential first-rounder nevertheless.
He still needs to work on improving his athleticism and agility from his stance, but at worst, he's a high-level guard prospect in the NFL.
19. Jalen Mayfield, OT, Michigan
Jim Harbaugh might not be able to beat Ohio State, but he sure can recruit and develop offensive linemen.
One year after having four of their offensive linemen selected in the 2020 NFL draft, the Michigan Wolverines will put perhaps the most talented of their 2019 starting linemen in the pros.
The 6'5", 319-pound Mayfield showed last season that he has the tools to be a first-round pick if he chooses to enter the 2021 draft. His ability to maul in the trenches but also play with quickness in pass protection or zone runs immediately catches your eye when evaluating the Michigan offensive line.
A good 2020 season could make Mayfield the No. 2 offensive tackle in the class.
20. Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson
When Trevor Lawrence and the Clemson offense struggled early in 2019, Travis Etienne got them back on track. The same went for Clemson's close win over Ohio State in the College Football Playoff, too.
A blur out of the backfield, Etienne dominates on swing routes and outside runs. He's a modern Jamaal Charles-type prospect with excellent balance, agility and burst. Put him in a zone-blocking scheme and use him as a receiver out of the backfield, and NFL teams will fall in love with his big-play ability.
It isn't trendy to spend a first-round pick on a running back these days, but Etienne's talent is top-25-caliber in the 2021 class.
21. Justyn Ross, WR, Clemson
Justyn Ross is one of the best wide receivers in college football, which may beg the question of why he slots in so low here.
The main reason is that Ross is a carbon copy of Tee Higgins, who was an early second-round selection.
Ross is a big-bodied target and an excellent vertical threat, but scouts will question his lack of burst and speed in his routes and with the ball in his hands. If he can trim down his 40-yard dash time and become more explosive in the open field, he could be a first-rounder in 2021.
22. Pat Freiermuth, TE, Penn State
While no teams spent a first-round pick on a tight end in the 2020 NFL draft, that could change with Penn State's Pat Freiermuth in 2021. He'll compete with other top-tier prospects like Brevin Jordan (Miami) and Kyle Pitts (Florida) to be TE1, but early tape study puts Freiermuth at the top of the board.
Much like Cole Kmet, the first tight end drafted in 2020, Freiermuth is a classic in-line tight end, but he has the athleticism and speed to be a difference-maker in space. He won't be pigeonholed into being only an inline or flex tight end, as he offers a ton of versatility at 6'5" and 259 pounds.
A number of talented tight ends in college football deserve to be mentioned as possible early-round selections, but Freiermuth is the best of the bunch.
23. Trey Smith, IOL, Tennessee
A former 5-star recruit as an offensive tackle, Trey Smith played only seven games in 2018 before missing the rest of the season because of blood clots. He returned as a powerful offensive guard in 2019, and his tape against SEC opponents looked like something Quenton Nelson did in college.
Smith is powerful and a mauler, but he still has the muscle memory of an offensive tackle and has good agility in space. He's still working his way back to 100 percent, too.
If he's able to maintain his power while improving his conditioning, he could be even more impressive in 2020 than he was in 2019.
24. Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
Justin Fields enters the 2020 season as a Heisman favorite and one of the most productive returning quarterbacks in college football. But like Trevor Lawrence before him, he has a bullseye on him from scouts and defensive coordinators alike.
Fields impresses with his touch and his toughness as a runner, but his decision-making and field vision don't stand out. His average arm strength also could be an issue if it doesn't increase in power, which can happen naturally as a player matures.
There's no doubt that Fields is good, but the transition from good college quarterback to good NFL prospect isn't always easy. He will require plenty of future evaluation before locking him in as a prospect.
Too many early-season watchlists are littered with Heisman finalists and big-time producers, but my early evaluation on Fields was not overly positive. There's 12 months for his stock to improve, but he shouldn't be seen as a first-round lock at this point of the predraft process.
25. Creed Humphrey, IOL, Oklahoma
The lone starter on the 2018 Oklahoma offensive line who wasn't drafted, Creed Humphrey seemed like a lock to enter the 2020 draft class. Instead, he opted to return to Norman for another season.
Humphrey will now have a chance to be the top interior offensive lineman and the top center in the 2021 class.
Humphrey will likely become more of a run-blocker as the Sooners transition to an inexperienced quarterback in Spencer Rattler, but that could actually boost his draft stock. His versatility, athleticism and upside are as good as 2020 first-rounder Cesar Ruiz's.