Projecting 2021 NFL Draft Stock of CFB Title Game's Biggest Stars
In each of the past four years, the two teams playing in the College Football Playoff National Championship combined to produce at least six first-round draft picks a few months later.
This year's battle between Alabama and Ohio State will be no different.
Four players in this game—Ohio State's Justin Fields and Alabama's DeVonta Smith, Patrick Surtain II and Jaylen Waddle—are mortal locks to be drafted in the first round. But there are more than a dozen players between these two teams who are projected to be first-round picks in a recent prominent mock draft.
For sake of due diligence, I looked at six different mock drafts published within the past 48 hours: one from CBS Sports, one from NBC Sports, one from 247Sports, one from USA Today, one from Walter Football and, of course, one from Bleacher Report.
Players who appeared in the first round of at least three of those six mock drafts received a full section of commentary here. But anyone who appeared at least once (and one noteworthy player who didn't appear at all) will at least be discussed as a possible first-rounder.
Hope your "amateur draft scout" T-shirts are ready for Monday night.
Players Who Might Sneak into the 1st Round
Alex Leatherwood, OT, Alabama
Landon Dickerson, C, Alabama
Deonte Brown, G, Alabama
Josh Myers, C, Ohio State
Gotta say, I admire the mock-draft community for mostly agreeing that some Alabama offensive lineman will go late in the first round but without agreeing on who that particular lineman will be.
Walter Football and NBC Sports have Leatherwood at No. 26 and No. 25, respectively. USA Today pegged Dickerson as the 28th pick. And 247Sports has Brown going No. 32 to the Kansas City Chiefs. CBS Sports also has the Chiefs picking an interior offensive lineman from this national championship game, but that outlet tabbed Ohio State's Myers for that spot.
Christian Barmore, DT, Alabama
A lot of people probably don't have Barmore on their radar because he's only a redshirt sophomore and because he came on strong late in the year. Nevertheless, Alabama's big man is tied for the team lead with seven sacks, has forced three fumbles and has knocked down three passes. The 6'5", 310-pound Barmore a disruptive interior defensive lineman in a draft class that is strangely lacking at that position.
Shaun Wade, CB, Ohio State
Wade's draft stock plummeted this year. He probably would have been a first-round pick if he had declared after last season, and he'd probably be a projected first-rounder if he had stuck with his decision to opt out of this year. Instead, he came back, shifted from the nickel to a boundary cornerback and has struggled mightily. Wade is immensely talented, though, and I bet he'd be looking a lot better right now if he hadn't tried to change positions during this tumultuous offseason.
Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
It's a real testament to how undervalued running backs are in the NFL that only one of the six mocks (Bleacher Report's) has Harris projected as a first-round pick. In each of the past two drafts, there was only one running back taken in the first round: Josh Jacobs at No. 24 in 2019 and Clyde Edwards-Helaire at No. 32 last year. But if anyone is going in the first round this year, it should be Harris. If there is a Derrick Henry 2.0, it's probably him.
Dylan Moses, LB, Alabama
Moses isn't a projected first-rounder in any of these mocks. But in Matt Miller's way-too-early 2020 mock, he had Moses going No. 9 overall. After Moses missed that entire season with a knee injury before deciding to return to Tuscaloosa, Miller again had high hopes for Moses, putting him at No. 12 in his way-too-early 2021 mock. I find it hard to believe that the NFL has just forgotten about this physical linebacker.
Wyatt Davis, G, Ohio State
Highest Projection: No. 5 (247Sports)
Lowest Projection: Not in First Round (three mocks)
Guards typically don't start coming off the draft board until the second round. Maybe one will sneak into the first round to a team that has a dire need at that position, but 2013 was the last time there were multiple guards drafted in the first round in the same year.
Wyatt Davis could be special, though. It wouldn't be a surprise if it takes less than three years for him to become the best guard in the NFL not named Quenton Nelson.
Davis has been a consensus All-American in each of the last two years.
In 2019, Ohio State averaged 5.7 yards per carry. Heading into this year's national championship, the Buckeyes are sitting at 6.0. And it hasn't really mattered whether it's been J.K. Dobbins, Master Teague III, Steele Chambers, Demario McCall, Marcus Crowley or Trey Sermon doing the running so long as Davis was out there pancaking paths for those ball-carriers.
If he's still available late in the first round, I'd bet an irresponsible amount of money on the Kansas City Chiefs taking Davis and getting that much more unstoppable on offense as a result.
Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State
Highest Projection: No. 21 (CBS Sports)
Lowest Projection: Not in First Round (two mocks)
There were eight wide receivers taken within the first 34 picks of last year's draft, and that may happen again this April.
Just in this game, you've got Chris Olave, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle (if he makes his return from an ankle fracture). Outside of the championship, there's also Ja'Marr Chase, Rondale Moore, Rashod Bateman, Terrace Marshall Jr., Tylan Wallace and the gigantic wild card: Justyn Ross, who's recovering from spinal congenital fusion.
It's just a question of which potential star you're most confident in, and I don't imagine teams are going to wait long to invest in Olave.
He had 42 receptions for 660 yards and seven touchdowns in six games played, but it was the one he missed that perhaps best displays the value he adds.
In the Big Ten championship against Northwestern, Justin Fields had a nightmarish day, completing just 12 of 27 passes for 114 yards and two interceptions. Part of that can be attributed to the sprained thumb he suffered during the game, but without Olave, the passing attack was nonexistent long before that injury.
Olave is not a "just throw it up and I'll go get it" type of Randy Moss or Calvin Johnson receiver, but he has reliable hands and is an excellent route-runner. He could rack up some serious numbers in a place like Seattle or Green Bay.
Mac Jones, QB, Alabama
Highest Projection: No. 9 (Bleacher Report)
Lowest Projection: Not in First Round (two mocks)
DeVonta Smith won the Heisman Trophy on Tuesday, but Mac Jones had one hell of a year in making Alabama fans forget all about ol' Tua what's-his-name?.
Jones completed 77 percent of his pass attempts for 4,036 yards and 36 touchdowns with just four interceptions. We'll see if he can maintain it through the national championship, but his 203.0 passer efficiency rating is the highest single-season mark in college football history, edging out the 202.0 rating that Joe Burrow posted last season at LSU.
Now it's up to the draft scouts to figure out the "chicken or the egg" question.
Certainly, Jones benefited from setting up shop in a usually clean pocket while getting to utilize weapons like Smith and Najee Harris. But let's not forget that Alabama lost two awesome receivers from last year (Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy) and then lost another awesome receiver (Jaylen Waddle) to a fractured ankle on the opening kickoff of the fifth game of the 2020 campaign.
Coming into the season, a big unknown for Alabama was who would be key receivers aside from Smith and Waddle. And that unknown became an even bigger deal after Waddle's injury. But Jones helped turn guys like John Metchie and Jahleel Billingsley into major contributors.
He might be the third-best quarterback in this draft class behind Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. We'll see if he's drafted as such.
Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
Highest Projection: No. 11 (NBC Sports)
Lowest Projection: No. 22 (Walter Football)
Average Projection: 16.5
We knew coming into this season that Jaylen Waddle was an exceptional athlete with a sky-high ceiling.
He averaged 24.4 yards per punt return and 35.0 yards per kick return in 2019. Where most see a speck of daylight, Waddle can find a gaping seam and create five yards of separation before the would-be tackler even knows what happened.
What the NFL wanted to see from him this season, though, was whether he could run routes well enough to be drafted as a Week 1 starter in 2021. After all, he only made 33 receptions in 2019 as the fourth (and sometimes forgotten) member of Alabama's quartet of wide receivers.
Though he only lasted four games before suffering the fractured ankle, he did what he needed to do in that regard.
Waddle had at least 120 receiving in each of those four games, averaging 22.3 yards per reception. And he continued to show off his elusiveness after the catch, as he was the only player in the nation with multiple receptions that went for at least 80 yards.
In the opener against Missouri, he also made a few remarkable contested grabs.
Waddle's size (5'10") might scare away some teams. But as long as he ends up with a quarterback who can throw a deep spiral, he could be a Pro Bowl receiver in short order.
Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama
Highest Projection: No. 6 (CBS Sports)
Lowest Projection: No. 16 (247Sports)
Average Projection: 10.5
With everyone else in our top six, it's a "Wow, look at those numbers!" situation.
With Patrick Surtain II, it's more like, "Wow, look at the lack of numbers!"
Surtain had a bit of a Revis Island thing going on this year. Even though Alabama's opponents are almost always forced to throw a ton of passes in hopes of keeping pace with the Crimson Tide offense, they had enough sense to avoid Surtain at all costs.
Sports Illustrated's Christopher Walsh wrote about it in early December. Walsh noted that through Alabama's first six games, the ball only went in Surtain's direction once for every 11.3 coverage snaps, and on those 22 targets, he only relented 10 catches for 110 yards. He allowed one touchdown and also scored one on a pick-six.
In addition to his elite coverage skills, Surtain showed the propensity for forcing fumbles over the past two seasons. He didn't get any (yet) this year, but he forced four fumbles while only involved in 79 tackles in his first two seasons.
There are a few other intriguing cornerbacks in this year's draft class, most notably South Carolina's Jaycee Horn and Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley. But if Surtain isn't the first one drafted, that would be a mistake. This guy is going to immediately improve whichever defense acquires his services.
DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
Highest Projection: No. 6 (three mocks)
Lowest Projection: No. 22 (Bleacher Report)
Average Projection: 9.8
Can't say I can ever recall a dude having four consecutive breakout seasons, but all hail DeVonta Smith.
Buried on a roster that included the likes of Calvin Ridley, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, Damien Harris, Josh Jacobs and Bo Scarbrough, Smith made almost no impact for the first 99.9 percent of his true freshman season in 2017. And then he came out of nowhere to make the national championship-winning 41-yard touchdown reception in overtime against Georgia.
The following year, he made 42 receptions for 693 yards. As a junior, he led a loaded Crimson Tide receiving corps in both receiving yards (1,256) and touchdowns (14). And as a senior, he led the nation in both categories.
In six of his last seven games, Smith had a minimum line of: seven receptions, 130 yards, two touchdowns. In the exception, he still hit 130 all-purpose yards thanks to 111 as a punt returner.
Smith just became the first wide receiver to win the Heisman in nearly three decades, and the vote wasn't even all that close.
Five of the six mocks studied still have former LSU WR Ja'Marr Chase going ahead of Smith, but man, it's going to take guts to tell your fans, "Smith had a historic season and all, but we'd rather have this other guy who hasn't played in a year."
Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
Highest Projection: No. 2 (four mocks)
Lowest Projection: No. 4 (USA Today and NBC Sports)
Average Projection: 2.7
Before the 2020 season even began—heck, before these two stars even threw their first pass in college—we assumed that the top two picks in the 2021 NFL draft would be Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields.
The Lawrence portion of that equation never wavered, but there were points when it looked like North Dakota State's Trey Lance or BYU's Zach Wilson might sneak ahead of Fields at QB2 in this year's class.
After the performance Fields had against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, though, it's all come full circle back to Fields as the most likely No. 2 pick. He set career-high marks in both yards (385) and touchdowns (six), and he did a lot of it after suffering a vicious hit in the ribs/hip/torso from James Skalski.
Even if Fields had been at full health, the 56-yard bomb he unleashed to Chris Olave in the third quarter to basically seal the game would have been a sight to behold. To do that while in a degree of pain that kept him from even getting onto the stationary bike without grimacing was unreal.
For the most part, what a player does in a bowl game isn't going to make any difference on draft day. This one felt different, though. And if he doubles down with a big performance against Alabama on Monday, you can lock him in at No. 2 to the New York Jets.