2021 NFL Draft: Ranking the Top Future Franchise Cornerstones

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistMarch 11, 2021

2021 NFL Draft: Ranking the Top Future Franchise Cornerstones

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    Jeff Swinger/Associated Press

    In the first round of any NFL draft, teams want a cornerstone player, someone who will provide immediate impact and sustain a high-level of play beyond their rookie contract.

    Unquestionably, quarterback is the most important position. In addition to finding the team's offensive centerpiece, front offices need foundational playmakers. Offensive tackles protect signal-callers, so they're usually next on the priority list.

    Take a look at which positions rank among the most lucrative. A handful of edge-rushers and wide receivers make $20 million or more per year, while only one cornerback cashes in that amount annually.

    With a heavy emphasis on positional value and production, we'll rank the top 10 cornerstone prospects in the 2021 draft. A player's pro expectations and injury history also factored into his place on the list.

    This isn't a big board of the top 10 prospects. The cornerstone rankings will refer to the position hierarchy below to justify one prospect over another when they're comparable in terms of production.

    Position rankings: QB, OT, EDGE, WR, CB, IOL, IDL, LB, RB, S, TE

10. RB Najee Harris, Alabama

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    For the most part, teams rely on multiple running backs, which allows the front office to replace an early-down ball-carrier or a third-down pass-catcher at a lower price than the cost of a three-down tailback. 

    But two-time rushing champion Derrick Henry has become the engine of the Tennessee Titans offense. And in 2019, Christian McCaffrey became the third player in NFL history to rack up 1,000 yards as a ball-carrier and pass-catcher in a season. They're foundational pieces.

    Over the last two terms at Alabama, Najee Harris proved he could carry a full workload, logging 530 touches for 3,419 yards and 50 touchdowns from scrimmage. At 6'2", 230 pounds, he could become a mainstay running back like Henry in Tennessee but with much better hands.

    As a complete tailback equipped to run, catch and protect the quarterback, Harris ranks No. 1 in his class at the position and can become a staple within an offense because of his size and skill set.

    Nonetheless, based on our position-value list, we cannot move Harris any higher. Running back is one of the most disposable positions on a roster.

9. CB Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    At cornerback, Caleb Farley checks three major boxes: ideal size, high-end athleticism and ball production.

    He opted out of the 2020 season but showed more than enough through two campaigns at Virginia Tech to put himself in the conversation as the top cornerback in this class. 

    Unlike Alabama's Patrick Surtain II, who's a bit robotic or stiff in some situations, Farley looks fluid in his movement and has the speed to shrink passing windows within split seconds. The 6'2", 207-pounder uses a combination of foot quickness and length to recover from false steps in coverage and stay in stride with receivers downfield.

    At Virginia Tech, Farley didn't shadow lead receivers across the pre-snap formation, but that's not a must-have quality to become an elite cornerback in zone schemes. He recorded 19 pass breakups and six interceptions as a collegian. Prospects with that frequency of ball production can hang around for a long time on the pro level. 

    Farley plays a more valuable position than Harris, so the former takes the No. 9 spot.

8. EDGE Azeez Ojulari, Georgia

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    The 2021 class of edge-rushers doesn't have a consensus top-10 prospect. Despite Gregory Rousseau's dominant 15.5-sack 2019 season at Miami, he beat interior linemen for the bulk of his production. As an NFL pass-rusher matched against 300-plus-pound offensive tackles with quick feet, the slender 6'6", 251-pounder will need to develop a sound approach to win on the outside.

    Azeez Ojulari doesn't have a double-digit sack campaign, but he's arguably the best pure pass-rusher in this group. The 6'3", 240-pounder's size will hurt his rank on some big boards, but the Georgia product shows great bend around the pocket with top-gear acceleration to finish plays. 

    Because of his quickness, analysts will label Ojulari a speedy pass-rusher, but he also possesses technical skill. Typically, the best edge-rushers have fluid movement at the hips and use their hands to push back on offensive tackles to collapse the pocket. Ojulari has flashed both qualities on film.

    Even as a starter, he played limited snaps at Georgia, but whatever franchise drafts Ojulari should unleash him in an expanded role. He recorded 9.5 sacks this past season, and his production could spike across the board with a heavier workload and another 10 pounds on his frame.

    Ojulari may land in the late teens or early 20s in the draft order, but the league's premium on pass-rushers elevates his rank above Farley's.

7. TE Kyle Pitts, Florida

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Tight ends list at the bottom of our position value list, though Kyle Pitts can also line up on the perimeter as a wide receiver. He could easily find his way into the elite pass-catching tight end group with Kansas City Chiefs' Travis Kelce and Las Vegas Raiders' Darren Waller.

    At 6'6", 246 pounds, Pitts will give defensive backs and linebackers nightmares. He has a broad catch radius, the physical toughness to battle for contested catches and just enough speed to beat defenders downfield. 

    Pitts has a legitimate claim as the most well-rounded pass-catcher in the draft because of his size, position and ability to beat man and zone coverages. He isn't the best blocker among tight ends, but he's willing to get his hands dirty while locking up defenders to spring a receiver or ball-carrier.

    This past season, Pitts hauled in 43 receptions for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns. If he continues to win one-on-one matchups, he'll be game-changer at tight end. 

    Because of Pitts' elite skills as a receiver and rare capabilities at his position, he ranks seventh. The former Gator could become a go-to pass-catcher.

    If his team views him as a big-bodied wideout who happens to play tight end, his cornerstone value would shoot through the roof.

6. QB Zach Wilson, BYU

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    Jeff Swinger/Associated Press

    Zach Wilson will likely come off the draft board as QB2 or QB3. He flashed during his junior season, throwing for 3,692 yards, 33 touchdowns and three interceptions with a 73.5 percent completion rate. The 6'3", 210-pound signal-caller also rushed for 254 yards and 10 touchdowns.

    Wilson impresses with his arm talent. He throws with high velocity, touch and accuracy to fit passes through tight windows. He appears to have great confidence in his ability to find receivers all over the field. The BYU product is aggressive while taking deep shots but usually places the ball in catchable spots.

    He's also shown the ideal qualities to succeed at a position that's evolved over the past few years. Now, teams seem to prefer passers who have improvisational skills in the pocket, which is one of Wilson's strengths.

    Based solely on production and traits, Wilson would rank in the top five, but his injury history holds him to the sixth spot. He had shoulder and hand setbacks that required surgeries over the last two years. As a cornerstone player, you must be available to play.

5. WR Ja'Marr Chase, LSU

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    We haven't seen Ja'Marr Chase since he scorched defensive backs for 84 catches, 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2019. He opted out in 2020, but don't forget the LSU product's elite qualities as a lead receiver. 

    Unlike Alabama's DeVonta Smith (6'1", 175 lbs), we can feel confident that Chase's 6'1", 200-pound frame won't lead to durability issues. He's compact and plays through contact, forcing 22 missed tackles in 2019, per Pro Football Focus.

    Chase isn't a quick-twitch athlete, though he brings a blend of agility and physicality that will put fear into average-sized cornerbacks who lack top-gear speed.

    He only had one season with gaudy numbers, but as a sophomore, he produced against high-end competition during an undefeated year. As a pro, the 2019 Fred Biletnikoff Award winner will become a quarterback's best perimeter weapon.

    Wide receiver ranks below quarterback on our cornerstone position pecking order, but Chase doesn't have an injury history like Wilson's. Based on his breakout sophomore term, he seems like a safe choice to put up big numbers for several years.

4. OT Rashawn Slater, Northwestern

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Rashawn Slater has experience on both sides of the offensive line, though he played left tackle in 2019 before opting out of the 2020 season.

    Based on his tape, Slater isn't far behind Oregon's Penei Sewell as a prospect. The former only allowed six quarterback pressures without a sack through 11 contests in 2019, per Northwestern's website. 

    Slater's positional versatility will allow teams to move him around, which may extend his career if he struggles on one side. 

    According to The Athletic's Dane Brugler, critics have concerns about Slater's arm length. Those teams could move him inside. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. listed the Northwestern product among the guards in his early position rankings.

    Slater will likely start his career at tackle, but we cannot discount his measurables as a potential issue. If the Northwestern product succeeds on the perimeter, he'll certainly be a cornerstone, though his outlook isn't as clear in an interior spot. 

    Still, until the overwhelming perspective on Slater's position changes, he lists fourth because of the importance of a bookend tackle in protecting a quarterback.

3. QB Justin Fields, Ohio State

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    On some big boards, Justin Fields will rank as QB2, and in other draft rooms, he'll list third behind Wilson.

    Fields has a more extensive resume compared to Wilson's, and he doesn't have a checkered injury history. Over the last two terms, Fields threw for 5,373 yards, 63 touchdowns and nine interceptions. In addition to his gaudy passing numbers, he rushed for 867 yards and 15 scores through that period.

    Last season, Fields had rough outings against Indiana and Northwestern in which he struggled with ball placement and took unnecessary hits as passing windows closed downfield. On the flip side, the Ohio State product lit up Clemson's defense for 385 yards and six touchdowns while throwing just one interception in the College Football Playoff semifinal.

    Overall, Fields has the arm strength, solid accuracy (68.4 career completion rate) and mobility to lead an offense for 12-15 years. His big-game experience should help him with the pro transition.

    Fields takes the third spot because he has a clear position, as opposed to Slater, whose place on the offensive line probably depends on which team drafts him. That, and quarterback tops the positional hierarchy.

2. OT Penei Sewell, Oregon

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Sewell opted out of the 2020 season, so we didn't find out if he could build on a dominant 2019.

    He set himself apart from the best collegiate prospects when he became the first sophomore to win the Outland Trophy, which goes to the best lineman on either side of the ball. And the Oregon product remains a probable top-five pick. 

    At 6'6", 325 pounds, Sewell moves like he's closer to 300 pounds and mauls defenders at the point of attack—a scary combination for any pass-rusher.

    An offensive coordinator can exercise his creativity with Sewell on the front line. He can play in space, which allows him to block second-level defenders and clear areas on short passes and screens. 

    On tape, Sewell looks like a surefire long-term starter. He plays with power, lower-body flexion and awareness to keep his quarterback out of harm's way. 

    At No. 2, Sewell carries few question marks. He ranks higher than Fields because of his traits, performances and a distinct collegiate accolade. The imposing 20-year-old looks like a readymade Pro Bowler.

1. QB Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Trevor Lawrence has played in the spotlight since his true freshman campaign. In all three years under center, he's performed at an above-average level with a passer efficiency rating of at least 157.6 in each season.

    Lawrence's passing numbers show he can move the ball and stretch the field without too many reckless throws, recording 90 touchdowns, 17 interceptions and a 66.6 percent completion rate.

    At Clemson, Lawrence moved the chains as a ball-carrier and closed drives with his legs, logging 943 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns.

    With all of his experience, Lawrence has developed a great feel for the pass rush. He can make split-second decisions on whether to escape the pocket or hang on to the ball for a throw downfield. 

    Lawrence's pocket presence while under pressure sets him apart from Fields and Wilson.

    As time draws near for the Jacksonville Jaguars to make the first pick in the 2021 draft on April 29, they could land a prospect who changes the trajectory of their franchise for the next 15 years.

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