Ranking Every Position in the 2021 NFL Draft

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 23, 2021

Ranking Every Position in the 2021 NFL Draft

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    Richard Shiro/Associated Press

    Every NFL team has a big board, its guide to maneuvering through all seven rounds of the draft process. This year, more so than in the past, player rankings will likely differ significantly among the 32 clubs.

    For starters, teams may not have the same access to information for a particular prospect beyond the medical records and workout results, which will come from testing on campuses like a typical pro day. Clubs must conduct interviews virtually, so coaches will miss out on critical in-person interactions. Expect organizations with deep-rooted connections to collegiate programs to uncover more detailed scoops on a player.

    Without the hustle and bustle in downtown Indianapolis, where the NFL has held the combine since 1987, front-office executives, scouts and coaches won't have a concentrated time period to exchange ideas and thoughts on players or discuss potential trade offers that could alter draft plans. 

    Because of scattered interactions among team representatives and the uneven flow of information, prospects may have a wider draft range than normal. Next week's Senior Bowl activities in Mobile, Alabama, could become a hotbed for discussion, which sets the framework for the upcoming draft. 

    Before teams congregate in Alabama, let's take our first look at the 2021 class. We'll highlight the top three prospects at each position and rank those groups (QB, RB, WR and so on) based on the strength of talent.

    For example, a position with two potential first-rounders would rank higher than a group with one probable top-32 pick. We also took depth into account when comparing positions.

    Without medical checks, official measurements or workouts on record, these rankings are largely based on recent production, film notes on traits and how those tendencies translate to the NFL.

9. Safeties

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    TCU's Trevon Moehrig
    TCU's Trevon MoehrigBrandon Wade/Associated Press

    Top Prospects

    • Trevon Moehrig, TCU
    • Jevon Holland, Oregon
    • Richie Grant, UCF 

    The 2021 safety class doesn't have an all-in-one player who has top-notch coverage ability, textbook tackling technique, a presence near the line of scrimmage and position versatility packaged into a surefire first-round pick. Teams should choose prospects at this position with a heavy focus on the defensive coordinator's scheme and what's needed in the secondary.

    Trevon Moehrig has notable ball-tracking skills in deep coverage. He logged seven interceptions and 21 pass breakups in three collegiate seasons. At 6'2", 202 pounds, the TCU safety projects as a single-high defender who lines up in center field. But beware, he's not the most reliable one-on-one tackler.

    Jevon Holland can fill a hybrid role, specifically as a big nickel or slot defender. He'll list among the safeties, but he frequently lined up inside against pass-catchers in man coverage. The Oregon product could shadow wideouts and tight ends, though speedy receivers may expose his average foot quickness.

    Wherever Holland lines up, he's a threat to force turnovers. The opportunistic defensive back recorded nine combined interceptions in 2018 and 2019 before opting out of the 2020 term.

    Richie Grant could become a steady starter right away. He's an athletic defensive back with range and enough physicality to line up in the box. Despite his positive traits and capabilities, the UCF product didn't put it all together on film over the last two years. Since logging 108 tackles, six interceptions and three pass breakups in 2018, he's looked average rather than special.

    We may not see a safety selected on Day 1. None of these players have the high-end versatility of Alabama product Xavier McKinney, who was the first safety off the board at No. 36 in 2020.

8. Tight Ends

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    Florida's Kyle Pitts
    Florida's Kyle PittsJohn Raoux/Associated Press

    Top Prospects

    • Kyle Pitts, Florida
    • Pat Freiermuth, Penn State
    • Brevin Jordan, Miami 

    Kyle Pitts carries most of the excitement for this position, and that won't change in the coming weeks. He could join a group of elite pass-catching tight ends very soon.

    At 6'6", 246 pounds, Pitts hauls in passes like a wide receiver. Defensive coordinators will struggle to find an effective matchup for him. The big-bodied playmaker recorded 100 receptions for 1,492 yards and 18 touchdowns as a collegian.

    Pat Freiermuth's athletic profile doesn't match up to Pitts' traits, but he's a functional receiver in the passing game, especially in the red zone. The 6'5", 258-pounder caught 92 passes for 1,185 yards and 16 touchdowns in three seasons at Penn State.

    Despite his size, Freiermuth isn't a highly skilled inline blocker, though he could develop more at the pro level. Assuming his medicals check out following a 2020 season-ending shoulder surgery, the former Nittany Lion should come off the board on Day 2.

    Brevin Jordan had a strong 2020 term, logging 38 receptions for 576 yards and seven touchdowns. He's a solid inline blocker, which will allow him to play a fair amount of snaps in a starting role for a team that needs a balanced player at the position.

    The tight end group has one first-round prospect in Pitts, which elevates this position over the safeties.

7. Running Backs

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    Clemson's Travis Etienne
    Clemson's Travis EtienneBrian Blanco/Associated Press

    Top Prospects

    • Travis Etienne, Clemson
    • Najee Harris, Alabama
    • Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis

    Travis Etienne and Najee Harris could've declared for the 2020 draft as junior underclassmen and might have gone within the top 50, yet they returned to school and improved in different areas.

    Etienne saw a drop-off in his rushing total and average yards per carry between 2019 and 2020. On the other hand, he became the ACC's all-time leading rusher (4,952 yards) and showcased improved pass-catching skills. The versatile tailback finished 2020 with 48 receptions for 588 yards and two touchdowns.

    If Etienne works on his blitz pickup, he'll easily slide into an every-down workhorse role at the pro level.

    Like Etienne, Harris also finished with his best receiving totals in 2020, hauling in 43 catches for 425 yards and four scores. Relative to other running backs, he's a bigger, taller ball-carrier at 6'2", 230 pounds.

    In 2020, we saw Harris power through tackles; he ranked third in yards gained after contact (765), per Pro Football Focus.

    Harris had the benefit of running behind the Outland Trophy winner (Alex Leatherwood) and the Rimington Trophy winner (Landon Dickerson) for most of the season, though that doesn't discount his great vision and physical run style.

    Kenneth Gainwell is the unheralded name among the top three running backs. He opted out of the 2020 season, but the year before, the Memphis product accumulated 2,069 yards and 16 touchdowns from scrimmage.

    For that one season as a starter, Gainwell showcased exceptional route-running and pass-catching skills in a receiving role. He's a potential second-round pick with the ability to rack up 1,500-plus scrimmage yards in a season for a team that needs a lead back.

    North Carolina's Javonte Williams has the ideal size (5'10", 220 lbs) for a featured tailback. After racking up 1,445 yards and 22 touchdowns from scrimmage in 2020, he could slide into the third spot at the position over Gainwell, who's a year removed from game action.

    Beyond Etienne and Harris, the running back group doesn't have flashy names, and teams may wait until later in the first round or early on Day 2 to take one of the top two prospects at this position.

6. Cornerbacks

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    Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley
    Virginia Tech's Caleb FarleyLynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Top Prospects

    • Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech
    • Patrick Surtain II, Alabama
    • Jaycee Horn, South Carolina

    Caleb Farley seems like the gold standard among the cornerback group, even with his passive approach in run defense. He has the best chance to develop into a shutdown cover man. Patrick Surtain II and Jaycee Horn trail him as Tier 2 prospects at the position.

    Farley checks the boxes in size (6'2", 207 lbs), press-man ability, route anticipation and closing speed. He'll blanket wide receivers on the perimeter and make plays on the ball. The Virginia Tech standout recorded six interceptions and 19 pass breakups in two terms before opting out of the 2020 campaign.

    Farley is comfortable with physicality at the beginning of routes, fights through contact downfield and recovers well when he's beat on a snap. Multiple teams will likely target him within the top 10.

    Surtain may struggle against wide receivers with top-end speed and sure hands, yet he'll use his instincts and timing to disrupt the passing game in man coverage.

    With 24 pass breakups and four interceptions through three seasons, Surtain's physical limitations shouldn't hurt his draft stock to a significant degree. Although he doesn't have Farley's upside, the savvy defensive back should maintain a steady starting role on the boundary.

    If Horn avoids penalties for excessive use of hands, he'll flourish in man coverage on the pro level. The South Carolina product opted out of the rest of the 2020 season after logging six pass breakups and two interceptions in seven appearances.

    Because of Horn's "grabby" tendencies, Florida State's Asante Samuel Jr. could rank third at the position on some draft boards. He's a smaller cornerback (5'10", 184 lbs) but is equipped to handle man coverage with his great footwork and ball skills. Samuel recorded 29 pass breakups and four interceptions as a collegian.

    Farley has top-10 potential, while Surtain likely comes off the board at some point in the first round. Horn could sneak into Day 1 if a team has need at cornerback, which gives this group a clear-cut big three. However, the position lacks high-quality depth beyond this trio.

5. Defensive Linemen

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    Michigan defensive end Kwity Paye
    Michigan defensive end Kwity PayeCarlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Top Prospects

    • EDGE Kwity Paye, Michigan
    • EDGE Gregory Rousseau, Miami
    • DT Christian Barmore, Alabama 

    Clubs in need of defensive linemen will find more value in the back end of the first round through the middle of Day 2 because this class doesn't have a standout top-10 pick who looks close to a bona fide star.

    Kwity Paye and Gregory Rousseau should come off the board in the middle of the first round. If the NFL had held a typical scouting combine, the latter might have moved into the top 10 because of his athletic ability. Azeez Ojulari (Georgia), Carlos Basham Jr. (Wake Forest) and Joseph Ossai (Texas) are intriguing names to watch at edge-rusher outside of the top 20.

    In 2020, Paye played four games, lined up in different spots across Michigan's defensive front and flashed an explosive burst off the line of scrimmage.

    He has 11.5 sacks in four seasons, but he applied consistent pressure and routinely sniffed out run plays. In 2019, the former Wolverine logged 12.5 tackles for loss. At 6'4", 272 pounds, he's versatile with a high floor.

    As a redshirt freshman in 2019, Rousseau finished second in sacks (15.5) behind Chase Young, who went No. 2 overall in last year's draft. He has the highest ceiling among incoming 2021 defensive linemen because of his long arms, size (6'7", 265 lbs) and production as a one-year starter. 

    Nevertheless, we have to consider Rousseau's year away from the field because he opted out of the 2020 campaign. Despite his dominant season, the Miami product takes long strides in his pursuit of quarterbacks and doesn't shoot out of his stance as quickly as Ojulari, Basham and Ossai.

    Christian Barmore had a late surge as a pass-rusher from late November through the CFP National Championship, recording six sacks in his last six games. The Alabama product will lead a weak defensive tackle group. At the same position, keep an eye on Iowa's Daviyon Nixon in the second round. He logged 19 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks in two seasons.

    Teams that intend to rebuild a struggling defense should stockpile pass-rushers. This group doesn't feature a polished star edge-rusher such as Chase Young, but Paye, Rousseau, Ojulari, Ossai and Basham all have an intriguing upside. The depth at this position pushes this unit one spot above cornerbacks.

4. Off-Ball Linebackers

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    Penn State's Micah Parsons
    Penn State's Micah ParsonsBarry Reeger/Associated Press

    Top Prospects

    • Micah Parsons, Penn State
    • Nick Bolton, Missouri
    • Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame 

    In terms of off-ball defenders, we've included 3-4 inside and 4-3 outside linebackers along with hybrids who play the linebacker-safety role. All three players listed above bring a different type of explosiveness at an unglamorous position. 

    Micah Parsons could hear his name called within the first five selections. At 6'3", 245 pounds, he covers ground like some of the smaller hybrid second-level defenders who weigh closer to 220 pounds. The blue-chip linebacker can lay a big hit on ball-carriers or chase them down sideline to sideline.

    Defensive coordinators can use Parsons in creative ways, lining him up on the edge or unleashing the versatile playmaker on a blitz. He's the complete package at linebacker and will change a defense. The Penn State product opted out of the 2020 season, but in 2019, he recorded 109 tackles, 14 for loss, five sacks, five pass breakups and four forced fumbles.

    The discussion between Nick Bolton and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah as the No. 2 off-ball linebacker will likely come down to schematic fit. The former should transition into a traditional middle linebacker, while the latter will find his footing on the second or third level in nickel packages or as a 4-3 weak-side linebacker.

    Bolton could have an opportunity to play with the green dot and headset as a rookie. He has a strong feel for the run with the downhill explosiveness to disrupt plays in the opponent's backfield on any down, logging 220 tackles, 17.5 for loss and four sacks in three terms at Missouri. 

    Don't sleep on Bolton's shallow coverage ability. He also recorded 12 pass breakups and two interceptions as a collegian.

    At 6'1", 215 pounds, Owusu-Koramoah plays his best when he's allowed to shoot gaps on run downs, pressure quarterbacks on designed blitzes or cover pass-catchers in the slot. The Notre Dame product had 142 tackles, 24.5 for loss, seven sacks, seven pass breakups, five forced fumbles and an interception in two seasons. Teams should focus on translating his versatility into production rather than fitting him into one specific role.

    North Carolina's Chazz Surratt and Tulsa's Zaven Collins could provide a blend of pocket pressure and pass coverage, which will put them in Day 2 consideration.

    Similar to the defensive line group, multiple off-ball linebackers will come off the board on Day 2 and probably become starters. This unit also has quality depth, but Parsons, Bolton and Owusu-Koramoah (if properly utilized) could become NFL Pro Bowlers early in their careers.

3. Wide Receivers

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    LSU's Ja'Marr Chase
    LSU's Ja'Marr ChaseGerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Top Prospects

    • Ja'Marr Chase, LSU
    • DeVonta Smith, Alabama
    • Jaylen Waddle, Alabama

    The 2021 wide receiver class could top last year's group in terms of immediate impact from the top three prospects.

    Although DeVonta Smith won the 2020 Heisman Trophy, he may not be the best player at the position.

    Don't forget, Ja'Marr Chase opted out of the 2020 season. He had an unreal sophomore term, recording 84 receptions for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns. Of course, quarterback Joe Burrow, who went No. 1 overall to the Cincinnati Bengals in last year's draft, contributed to the wideout's gaudy numbers.

    Chase also doesn't have the question marks about his size (6'0", 208 lbs) that Smith, who's 6'1" and 175 pounds, does.

    Nevertheless, Smith's ability to separate on silky smooth routes will translate to the next level. He used those moves to rack up 235 receptions for 3,965 yards and 46 touchdowns in four years at Alabama. Offensive coordinators can move him across the formation because of his ability to play all three wide receiver positions (Z, X and the slot).

    Through the draft evaluation process, teams will nitpick these prospects. Smith's slender body type and average speed will surely become talking points in draft rooms, but he's unlikely to fall outside the top 10.

    In all three of his seasons at Alabama, Jaylen Waddle made splashy plays, averaging at least 17 yards per reception each year. Because of his elite speed, solid route running and reliable hands, he projects as a lead wideout at the pro level.

    Waddle couldn't put his skill set on full display this past season. In October, he underwent surgery for a fractured ankle and returned to action for the CFP National Championship, but he suited up at much less than 100 percent.

    On paper, Waddle's production seems to fit a late Day 2 or early Day 3 selection. He has 106 receptions for 1,999 yards and 17 touchdowns through three seasons, but his traits and impressive big-play ability should push him into the top 32.

    If Waddle somehow falls out of the first round, keep an eye on Minnesota's Rashod Bateman, who recorded 60 catches for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2019. He opted out of the 2020 season after five games.

    The wide receiver unit brings tantalizing sizzle, featuring the physically gifted Chase, a Heisman Trophy winner and exceptional route-runner in Smith and Waddle, who has tremendous upside. Don't forget the high-quality depth, too. Bateman, LSU's big-bodied wideout Terrace Marshall Jr. (6'3", 200 lbs), and Florida's versatile playmaker Kadarius Toney are the names to monitor at the end of Day 1 and going into Day 2.

2. Offensive Linemen

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    Oregon's Penei Sewell
    Oregon's Penei SewellRon Jenkins/Associated Press

    Top Prospects

    • OT Penei Sewell, Oregon
    • OT Rashawn Slater, Northwestern
    • OT Christian Darrisaw, Virginia Tech 

    Penei Sewell opted out of the 2020 season, but he has a large enough body of work to maintain a spot atop this position group. The Oregon standout won the Outland Trophy as the best interior lineman in 2019.

    Sewell will lay guys out on the first and second level with power behind his punch. When he's consistent in shuffling his feet, edge-rushers won't find their way around him near the pocket. A club in the top five will certainly take him without hesitation.

    Interestingly, ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. believes Rashawn Slater has a chance to move inside at the next level.

    "This is a veteran offensive line prospect who has started 37 games at both left and right tackle, though I see his NFL future at guard because of his size," Kiper wrote. "He has good feet and is an excellent pass-blocker; he didn't allow a sack last season while playing on the left side."

    Teams should initially keep Slater on the outside, where he performed well in college. He doesn't have elite physical traits like Sewell, but the Northwestern product possesses the shrewd hand technique and smooth footwork to become a starter for a decade or longer.

    Unlike Sewell and Slater, Christian Darrisaw played through the 2020 term and had a strong showing, earning first-team All-ACC honors. He's not light on his feet but eclipses or wipes out edge-rushers upon contact.

    Although the top three prospects among the offensive linemen list as tackles, we shouldn't overlook a deep group of guards that could feature starting talent through the second round.

    USC's Alijah Vera-Tucker played left tackle for the 2020 season but lined up at both guard positions in 2018 and 2019. Because of his athleticism, he could easily transition to the outside in the NFL. His position seems fluid with team need as a determining factor.

    Ohio State's Wyatt Davis and Alabama's Landon Dickerson are the top prototypical guards in the class. Despite tearing his ACL in the SEC Championship Game, the latter won the 2020 Rimington Trophy for best center in college football.

    On paper, this is one of the best offensive line classes in recent years. Three or four tackles could go in the first round, along with a couple of guards. That concentration of talent elevates this unit over the three star-studded prospects and solid depth at wide receiver. Teams can make vast improvements in the trenches this offseason.

1. Quarterbacks

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    Clemson's Trevor Lawrence
    Clemson's Trevor LawrenceJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    Top Prospects

    • Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
    • Justin Fields, Ohio State
    • Zach Wilson, BYU

    Trevor Lawrence stepped into the college football spotlight as a true freshman in 2018. Since then, he's shown poise and made pro-level throws all over the field from inside and outside the pocket.

    In 40 contests, Lawrence totaled 10,098 passing yards, 90 touchdowns and just 17 interceptions. He's no stranger to big games, leading Clemson to one (15-0) undefeated season in 2018 and going to a second championship game in 2019.

    With the No. 1 overall pick, the Jacksonville Jaguars will likely take Lawrence. Despite his previous ties to Ohio State, head coach Urban Meyer ranked the Clemson standout as the nation's top quarterback in a June appearance on Fox College Football. Although the Buckeyes outplayed the Tigers in the 2020 CFP semifinal, Lawrence has a stronger body of work. He'll provide new hope for the Jaguars' future.

    In that matchup, Fields carved up Clemson's defense, throwing for 385 yards, six touchdowns and an interception, which likely boosted his draft stock. He also played through a rib injury in that performance. The Ohio State product has dynamic playmaking ability as a pass-first, run-capable signal-caller, logging 5,701 passing yards, 67 touchdowns and nine interceptions to go with 1,133 rushing yards and 19 scores on the ground in three seasons.

    Yet some teams may slot Zach Wilson in the second QB spot because he posted comparable passing numbers at a non-powerhouse program without NFL-level talent around him. The BYU signal-caller threw for 7,652 yards, 56 touchdowns and 15 interceptions with 642 yards and 15 rushing scores.

    While Fields showcased his arm strength, touch and anticipation this season, Wilson made several throws while off-balance and threaded the needle through tight spaces.

    Wilson and Fields ranked first (72 percent) and second (68 percent), respectively, in accuracy rate on attempts 20-plus yards downfield, per Pro Football Focus. Both signal-callers fit into the mold of the modern athletic quarterback who can improvise and produce big plays.

    Lawrence, Fields and Wilson could all go top 10 on draft day, perhaps within the top eight picks as franchise players. And still, wild-card options like North Dakota State's Trey Lance and Alabama's Mac Jones could sneak into the top 20 because the New England Patriots (15th), Washington Football Team (19th) and Chicago Bears (20th) all need long-term options at quarterback.

    In addition to presumed No. 1 overall pick Lawrence, the potential top-20 talent in this group separates this position from the rest.


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