The Best Franchise Building Blocks in the 2021 NFL Draft
A single draft pick can transform NFL franchises, and a handful of prospects in the 2021 class have the potential to do just that.
The best building blocks in any given draft are usually quarterbacks given the importance of the position. However, there are always a handful of players at other positions who are so talented that front offices can build the rest of their rosters around them.
Positional importance still matters for potential building blocks. More often than not, an offensive guard or defensive tackle won't have the same impact that a top-tier wide receiver or pass-rusher does. Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons and Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II figure to go early in the first round, but they haven't had as direct of an impact on their respective teams' success as the players featured here.
Take a look at some of the best franchise cornerstones in the 2021 NFL draft class.
Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
Although his team came up short Monday night, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields continued to display the traits that have made him one of the top prospects in this year's class.
Fields had a productive career with the Buckeyes after transferring from Georgia. Over the last two seasons, he threw for nearly 5,400 yards with 63 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. He was a threat on the ground as well, running for 867 yards and 15 touchdowns over that same span.
The 21-year-old already possesses a lot of the traits that NFL teams covet in quarterbacks. He has a quick throwing motion and throws accurately to all three levels of the field. He delivers deep down the field with either velocity or touch, and he has the mobility to escape the pocket and extend plays or take off downfield.
Fields' competitive toughness may be his most admirable trait, though. After playing through the end of the 2019 season with a knee injury, he played in this year's national championship game with a hip pointer that hobbled him at times.
That kind of toughness is rare from a quarterback, and it should appeal to NFL scouts. Combine his toughness with his other traits and college production, and Fields is one of the best overall prospects in the 2021 draft class.
Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon
An elite left tackle can open up the playbook for an offense by giving his quarterback more time in the pocket. That's a big reason why the Green Bay Packers made David Bakhtiari the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history this season.
There are some talented offensive linemen in this year's draft class, but no one has the physical tools and tape that Oregon's Penei Sewell has.
Sewell was the Outland Trophy winner and a unanimous All-American for the Ducks in 2019. He decided to opt out of the 2020 season to prepare for the NFL draft, finishing his college career with only one sack allowed over 1,376 snaps.
Sewell doesn't have any holes in his game. Despite his imposing size at 6'6" and 325 pounds, he is still able to quickly shoot out of his stance. He has the balance and footwork to stay in front of defenders in pass protection, along with the play strength, leverage and aggressiveness to pave the way for his teammates as a run-blocker.
It's rare to see an offensive lineman make so few mistakes, especially at such a young age. Sewell will almost certainly be the first offensive lineman selected in April, but he also could be the first player taken who isn't a quarterback.
Zach Wlison, QB, BYU
BYU's Zach Wilson wasn't a household name back in August, but he improved his draft stock perhaps more than anyone else in college football this year.
Wilson helped lead the Cougars to an 11-1 season, the most wins for the program since 2009 and the first one-loss season since 1996. He completed an impressive 73.5 percent of his passes while averaging 11 yards per attempt, finishing the year with 3,692 yards, 33 touchdowns and only three interceptions. He also added 254 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground.
A lot of Wilson's production came deep down the field or on off-script plays thanks to his terrific arm talent. The BYU quarterback had a good feel of when to push the ball vertically, along with when to use velocity or touch to hit his receiver in stride.
Along with excellent arm strength, Wilson thrived with his poise and awareness in the pocket. He was willing to step into throws under pressure to deliver passes accurately, but he also had the awareness to avoid pressure and escape the pocket to extend the play when needed.
Those are appealing traits for a quarterback, and whichever team drafts him will need to mold its offense around his playing style. A quick passing game that doesn't allow Wilson to use his legs or look to throw the ball deep could stunt his development as a playmaker.
Wilson will have questions to answer about the level of competition he faced that the other top-tier QBs won't be asked. Fellow quarterback prospect Trey Lance will also have to answer those questions, but he may be under more scrutiny considering he played at the FCS level with a perennial powerhouse in North Dakota State.
If Wilson can answer those for scouts, he might end up being the second or third QB taken in this year's draft.
DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
Wide receivers can only take a team so far depending on their quarterback. But Alabama's DeVonta Smith is a different type of playmaker, one that could open up the playbook for a creative NFL offensive coordinator or head coach.
Smith became the first wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy since Desmond Howard in 1991 after a dominant season. He finished the year with 117 receptions for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns, and he caught 12 passes for 215 yards and three touchdowns in the first half of Monday's national championship game.
With a skinny 6'1", 175-pound frame, Smith looks like someone who could be shut down by most corners. Instead, he is so sudden and effortless with his acceleration that he can easily burn by defensive backs on his way to the end zone.
Along with his explosiveness, Smith is already a polished route-runner, using his quick footwork, pad level and eyes to toy with defenders and create as much separation as possible before the catch. Despite his slight stature, Smith also has the soft hands, leaping ability and body control to routinely make catches outside of his frame or on jump balls.
Smith may not be the first wide receiver taken given the dominance of LSU's Ja'Marr Chase in 2019. Chase protected his draft stock by opting out of the 2020 season, relying on his tape from playing with Joe Burrow instead of playing another year with a series of unproven quarterbacks.
However, Smith should succeed in the NFL regardless of who is throwing him the ball. He does such a good job of getting himself open that he will quickly become a productive playmaker in the league.
That will allow his team's general manager to start building a formidable offensive unit around a top-tier receiver.
Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
NFL scouts have been waiting for years for Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence to declare for the NFL draft. Now that he's eligible, he'll have the chance to change the direction of his next team for years to come.
Considered one of the greatest QB prospects ever, Lawrence had a nearly perfect run at Clemson, winning a national championship while making the College Football Playoff in all three seasons. He finished his college career with 10,098 passing yards, 108 total touchdowns and only 17 interceptions.
Lawrence has terrific size for a quarterback at 6'6" and 220 pounds, allowing him to easily see over his linemen to read the field. His decision-making and ability to progress through his reads has steadily improved over his college career, and that should continue to develop once he goes pro.
Physically, Lawrence can do just about anything. He delivers the ball with great velocity and consistent accuracy all over the field, and his touch on deep passes helps him drop it in the bucket to his receivers. His size and mobility also make him a threat to run the ball when no one is open.
Lawrence will almost certainly be the No. 1 overall pick in April, which means that he'll likely be playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2021. It will be up to Jacksonville's next general manager to build the offense around Lawrence, but there aren't any better building blocks in this year's class than him.