It's been a while, draft fans, but we're back. Draft season (#DraftSZN) is in full swing as all Power Five conferences are playing football, and the top players in the nation are giving fans and analysts quality tape to evaluate.
As an introduction to draft season, it's fun to start with the most important position on the field: quarterback. It's everyone's favorite position to scout and talk about but also the hardest to get right. There's a reason Mitchell Trubisky was taken over Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. There's a reason Lamar Jackson was the fifth quarterback drafted in the 2018 class. It's a hard position to scout and value because so much goes into it.
When evaluating a left tackle, you're not as worried about his ability to be the CEO of your team and franchise. You're not running safeties through psychological evaluations at the level that quarterbacks are studied and monitored. In fact, I'd argue that more time and money is spent evaluating quarterbacks than most other positions combined. If you get a pick wrong at inside linebacker, it stings, but it doesn't get you fired.
Hitting on the quarterback is so crucial, and this year's draft cycle will prove that with many teams ready to move on from bad picks (Trubisky) and upgrade over plans they thought were long term (Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins). Others, meanwhile, will look to build their own roster after inheriting former top picks (Sam Darnold). And then there are teams that must start thinking about the future (Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Indianapolis) and could enter the quarterback conversation.
The good news is there is a really good and deep group of quarterbacks to choose from, and most importantly, the top of the class features a unicorn prospect in Clemson's Trevor Lawrence.
The third-year starter missed two games because of COVID-19, but the tape he put out before that was No. 1 pick-caliber and would put him on the list of the best quarterback prospects of the last 25 years. At 6'6" and 225 pounds, Lawrence has the size that NFL teams want and also brings mobility and athleticism you don't often see in a body type like his. From an arm talent, accuracy, field vision and pocket poise standpoint, he is the best quarterback prospect in this class and should be a no-brainer pick at No. 1 overall, no matter who has that pick.
"I've honestly never seen anything like him," one NFL quarterbacks coach who asked to not be named said. "You've seen guys with a bigger arm, and you've seen guys who are faster, but I've never seen a prospect who has every trait you need and has them at a high level."
One NFL executive and likely future general manager added: "One of the best things you hear about him is that he's super confident but also super chill. He's very laid back but very intelligent. His teammates love him—you saw that with the movement this summer to get the ACC back playing—and his coaches love him. He's really unique."
"Unique" is the best word to describe Lawrence, and it's why fanbases like those of the New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars aren't upset that their teams are struggling. This year, losing and gaining draft positioning is more important than a few meaningless victories.
The Scout's Report
—Speaking of quarterbacks, rumors around the scouting community indicate the San Francisco 49ers are investing serious time and resources into scouting signal-callers. One area scout told me the team has sent top evaluator Adam Peters to see BYU's Zach Wilson and Alabama's Mac Jones this season.
—How's this for a take: One NFL offensive coach texted me this week that Kyler Murray is better than Lamar Jackson. The sophomore Arizona Cardinals quarterback has been on a tear this year, while the reigning MVP has struggled to match last year's offensive output. Saying Kyler is better already might seem like a hot take, but he's definitely playing at a high level. Even if you're not ready to say Murray is better right now, he's on an impressive trajectory.
—When evaluating quarterbacks for the future, keep this in mind: NFL scouts are infatuated with mobility. Whether it's Joe Burrow's pocket poise or Murray's running ability, teams are putting an emphasis on mobility like never before. That's good news for Justin Fields (Ohio State), Trey Lance (North Dakota State) and Wilson (BYU), who have all displayed an ability to impact the game as a passer in a moving pocket and as a runner if needed.
—We'll talk "stock up" a little later in the column, but it was impossible to watch Clemson vs. Notre Dame on Saturday night and not fall more in love with linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah for the Fighting Irish. Playing linebacker while blitzing, stopping the run and dropping into coverage, he acted like a spy for the Notre Dame defense and backed it up with huge plays in crucial moments. It's unlikely he can catch Penn State's Micah Parsons, who opted out this season, as the top linebacker in the draft class, but he is a rising prospect with a first-round grade on my board.
—Speaking of stock, watching the North Carolina offense on Saturdays, it's easy to fall for the cast of characters at the skill positions. Wide receivers Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown are electric, but it's the running back duo of Michael Carter and Javonte Williams that has us excited. Carter's contact balance and vision are exceptional, while Williams has proved to be a home run hitter. Don't be surprised if both backs are selected in the top 100.
—Is Florida's Kyle Pitts the next great tight end prospect or a product of the Florida offense? Scouts are torn, and I find myself in the middle too after his red-hot start with eight touchdowns on 24 catches. Pitts, who is listed at 6'6" and 246 pounds, doesn't appear to have the raw speed of an Evan Engram and isn't a classic in-line tight end like a T.J. Hockenson. In fact, he might be best compared to Noah Fant but in an offense that utilizes his talents better. Pitts' numbers are jaw-dropping, and he's a lock for the John Mackey Award, but questions about his ability to separate against NFL speed do exist. NFL combine testing will be a big factor in his draft position.
The Big Board
Here's a look at my updated top 32 players for the 2021 draft. Given the staggered start to the season for many teams, some players have been evaluated more than others, but we still have enough tape and prior seasons to consider.
1. QB Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
2. OT Penei Sewell, Oregon
3. WR Ja'Marr Chase, LSU
4. QB Justin Fields, Ohio State
5. LB Micah Parsons, Penn State
6. QB Trey Lance, North Dakota State
7. CB Patrick Surtain II, Alabama
8. WR Jaylen Waddle, Alabama
9. EDGE Gregory Rousseau, Miami
10. DL Jordan Davis, Georgia
11. WR Devonta Smith, Alabama
12. QB Zach Wilson, BYU
13. CB Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech
14. EDGE Joseph Ossai, Texas
15. LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame
16. WR Sage Surratt, Wake Forest
17. WR Rashod Bateman, Minnesota
18. CB Derion Kendrick, Clemson
19. S Jevon Holland, Oregon
20. EDGE Carlos Basham Jr., Wake Forest
21. WR Chris Olave, Ohio State
22. TE Pat Freiermuth, Penn State
23. QB Kyle Trask, Florida
24. OG Trey Smith, Tennessee
25. OG Wyatt Davis, Ohio State
26. OT Alex Leatherwood, Alabama
27. OT Rashawn Slater, Northwestern
28. OT Liam Eichenberg, Notre Dame
29. LB Jabril Cox, LSU
30. TE Kyle Pitts, Florida
31. RB Najee Harris, Alabama
32. OT Christian Darrisaw, Virginia Tech
1. Stock Up: QB Justin Fields, Ohio State
I somehow got labeled by fans as a Justin Fields hater over the summer when I had him rated behind Trey Lance, but it was more about wanting to see a healthy Fields after the knee injury he battled through last season. In his second year as a starter, Fields has risen to new levels, showing better command of the ball and being the drive ball thrower he needed to be outside the hashes. He's also showing much better mobility with improved conditioning and a leaner frame—not to mention the healthy knee.
2. Stock Down: RB Travis Etienne, Clemson
This might seem like a hot take, but I'm having a hard time falling for Travis Etienne the way so many of my peers in the scouting community have. I see a one-cut, downhill runner who has to excel in an outside run scheme. I see a smaller back (5'10", 210 lbs) who can't pass protect, doesn't catch the ball well and has shown fumbling issues. In short, I see a fast player who is dynamic in space but has to prove himself between the tackles. Etienne isn't the RB1 for me that others have made him out to be and is more of a scheme-specific back at this stage who could thrive if used right in the NFL but could also be a major bust.
3. Sleeper: QB Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
Head coach Luke Fickell has his Bearcats playing great football this season, and quarterback Desmond Ridder is a huge part of that. He has shown himself to be a legitimate downfield passer and also a dual-threat who can create and score with multiple traits. It can be hard to identify sleepers in a loaded quarterback group, but Ridder definitely ranks as one.
4. As you're reading this, NFL owners are voting on a measure that would reward teams for developing people of color as coaches and key personnel executives.
Under this new bylaw, teams wouldn't be rewarded with draft picks for hiring people of color but instead would receive two third-round draft choices if they develop those persons to help them earn a head coaching or general manager position elsewhere. If a team had two non-white staff members leave to become a head coach and general manager, the club would receive three years of third-round compensatory picks at the end of the round.
This could be significant for the Kansas City Chiefs, with offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy a top candidate, and also for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have both coordinators (Byron Leftwich and Todd Bowles) eligible if the new bylaw passes.
This isn't a perfect rule—there is concern that teams would be hesitant to hire a coach or general manager and reward a rival—but something has to be done. And the NFL deserves credit for trying to think outside the box to encourage development and hirings of people of color as coaches and decision-makers.
5. How is this for a line of talent at one position: Clemson will have gone from Deshaun Watson to Trevor Lawrence to D.J. Uiagalelei. Three potential top-15 picks, and oddly enough Watson could be the latest one drafted as the No. 12 overall pick in 2017!
Head coach Dabo Swinney has built an incredible team in Clemson, and it's a testament to his recruiting and development that we will go nearly a decade talking about Tigers quarterbacks being top-10 players in their respective draft classes.
Watson was special. Lawrence is a better prospect. And there are some who look at Uiagalelei and see a combination of the two in terms of size, athleticism and arm strength.
If you can bet on sports where you live, putting $1 on Clemson's future championship odds is the world's safest bet.
6. The 2021 draft quarterback class is receiving a lot of praise, and it's all deserved, but let's not sleep on this offensive tackle class.
Oregon's Penei Sewell is a top-five prospect to headline the group, but there is also strength in numbers. In my top 32 prospects above, five tackles make the early list. Expand that to my top 50 players and you add in Samuel Cosmi (Texas), Dillon Radunz (North Dakota State), Walker Little (Stanford), Jalen Mayfield (Michigan), Jackson Carman (Clemson) and Spencer Brown (Northern Iowa) for a solid 11 tackles ranked.
Matt Miller covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report.