2021 NFL Draft: The Most Overlooked Player at Every Position
Take a look at seven-round mock drafts from a year ago. You'd question projected spots for several prospects. We'll look back and do the same for the 2021 class.
In a 2020 redraft, wideout Gabriel Davis would likely go before the fourth round. He hauled in 35 passes for 599 yards and seven touchdowns with the Buffalo Bills. Kamren Curl probably moves up from the seventh round. The playmaking safety recorded 88 tackles, two sacks, four pass breakups, three interceptions and a pick-six with the Washington Football Team.
Typically, small-school talent and players recovering from injuries fly under the draft radar. This offseason, several high-potential prospects could fall lower than expected because of 2020 opt-outs and COVID-shortened campaigns. We haven't seen some players suit up since the 2019 season, which complicates the evaluation process.
Let's dig deeper than projected first-rounders to find unheralded draft gems at each position. This list includes prospects who are projected to come off the board on Day 2 but deserve a little more buzz and a higher spot in mock drafts. We've linked these players with teams based on roster needs and the best fit for their skill sets.
Quarterback: Davis Mills, Stanford
Davis Mills didn't play through a complete collegiate season. During the 2019 term, he took over for an injured K.J. Costello and finished as the starter.
In the following year, Costello transferred to Mississippi State, which allowed Davis to go into the 2020 season with the starting job, but Stanford missed September and October games because of the Pac-12's COVID-19 pandemic-shortened schedule.
Mills has started in just 11 games, so clubs will need to lean heavily on projection for an evaluation on him. In a small sample size, he's shown decisiveness in the pocket with a quick release, recording 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions over the last two years.
Although Davis isn't a dual-threat signal-caller, the 6'4", 217-pounder can extend plays with his legs if necessary. A team without a long-term solution at the position could select him on the back end of Day 2. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. views the Stanford product as a sleeper among the quarterbacks.
The Washington Football Team will go on the clock with the 19th overall pick, which is likely out of range for top quarterback prospects. With Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm, the club can afford to develop Davis for at least a year before he's expected to run the huddle.
Best fit: Washington Football Team
Running Back: Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis
Kenneth Gainwell opted out of the 2020 term and hasn't played a football game since Memphis battled Penn State in the 2019 Cotton Bowl.
Gainwell started for one full season. Teams have no idea if his 5'8", 201-pound body will hold up through the wear and tear of a 17-game schedule. With that said, he's not coming into the league with a lot of mileage on his legs.
Gainwell can gash defenses in a pass-catching role. In 2019, he hauled in 51 receptions for 610 yards and three touchdowns. If an offensive play-caller prefers not to feature him on the ground for 15-plus carries, the coaching staff can optimize his skill set as a receiver in space.
Because of Gainwell's size, he's a projected change-of-pace ball-carrier who could rack up chunk yardage on explosive plays. Yet the AAC standout has recorded more scrimmage yards (2,069) in a single season than Alabama's Najee Harris (1,891) and Clemson's Travis Etienne (2,046), two of the top running backs in the class.
With the right fit, Gainwell could become a dangerous every-down weapon out of the backfield.
New York Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur has served as an assistant under Kyle Shanahan between the 2014 and 2020 terms with the Cleveland Browns, Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers.
Gang Green could adopt some of the 49ers' offensive principles, specifically an outside-zone run scheme with skilled pass-catching running backs to supplement the aerial attack. La'Mical Perine can grind out yards between the tackles with Gainwell as a complement on the ground and a significant threat in the short passing game.
Best fit: New York Jets
Wide Receiver: Tylan Wallace, Oklahoma State
At 5'11", 193 pounds, Tylan Wallace plays like a big-bodied wide receiver.
Among the 2021 prospects, Wallace tied for second in contested catches (21) since 2019, per Pro Football Focus. He'll run through arm tackles and bounce off defenders, showing his willingness to absorb contact and push for more yards. The Oklahoma State product plays with a high level of toughness.
Yet Wallace isn't mentioned among the top names at wide receiver or touted as a first-round prospect. He barely made the cut on ESPN analyst Todd McShay's most recent two-round mock draft, listed at No. 62 to the Green Bay Packers.
Wallace will certainly draw interest on Day 2, and he's equipped to blossom in a starting role.
The Indianapolis Colts could take a wideout in the second round for a third consecutive draft. Parris Campbell has battled injuries, missing 23 outings in two seasons. T.Y. Hilton turns 32 in November.
Opposite Michael Pittman Jr., Wallace can become an immediate contributor because of his ability to create separation with smooth footwork, reliable hands, and fierce competitiveness. He could spell Hilton on the perimeter and take over the starting role if the veteran wideout experiences a sharp decline in the upcoming campaign.
Best fit: Indianapolis Colts
Tight End: Kenny Yeboah, Ole Miss
Kenny Yeboah's collegiate career started at Temple, but he didn't stand out at his first stop, logging 47 receptions for 538 yards and six touchdowns through four terms with the program.
Yeboah transferred to Ole Miss but almost went to Baylor before his former Temple head coach Matt Rhule accepted the same position with the Carolina Panthers in January of 2020.
Yeboah made the most of his opportunities with Ole Miss, hauling in 27 passes for 524 yards and six scores.
Because of Yeboah's late breakout campaign, he's not going to list in the first, second or third rounds of mock drafts. The 6'4", 250-pound tight end will likely land with a team in the late rounds, but he could reunite with a familiar face.
Back at Temple, Rhule encouraged Yeboah to play tight end (h/t SI.com's Nate Gabler).
"I remember coach Rhule told me, 'listen you can play tight end at the next level and be a good tight end.' I just had to put on some weight and they'd teach me how to block. And honestly, I was fine with it," Yeboah said. "I knew that if I did that, I was playing wide receiver in high school, I could use that aspect of my game."
Rhule could continue to develop Yeboah on the pro level. The Panthers need more production out of their tight ends in the passing game. In 2020, Ian Thomas played the majority of snaps at the position and recorded just 20 receptions for 145 yards and a touchdown.
Best fit: Carolina Panthers
Interior Offensive Lineman: Ben Cleveland, Georgia
Ben Cleveland's collegiate resume and hulking 6'6", 343-pound frame hasn't quite impressed draft analysts. In a four-round mock, NFL.com's Chad Reuter slotted him to the Cleveland Browns with the 110th overall pick.
Cleveland made all of his collegiate starts at right guard, so he doesn't have position flexibility, but the Georgia product plays to his strengths with a grounded base, strong hands and the arm length (33 ¾inches) to stonewall defenders.
The Cincinnati Bengals need to rebuild their offensive line, perhaps starting with a tackle at No. 5. Between the third and fourth rounds, the front office could land Cleveland. He can widen interior lanes for running back Joe Mixon.
Cleveland would have a fair shot to win the starting right guard spot over Quinton Spain, who started in eight games for the club this past season.
Best fit: Cincinnati Bengals
Offensive Tackle: D'Ante Smith, East Carolina
D'Ante Smith saw two of his collegiate seasons cut short due to injury, his freshman and senior terms. Nevertheless, he has enough experience and the physical traits to excel early on the pro level.
As a collegian, Smith played most of his snaps at left tackle, showing great footwork and using his length (35 ¼ inch arms) to back down defenders.
Smith's fluid movement should allow him to mirror pass-rushers across the line of scrimmage. He had a strong showing during Senior Bowl week, per NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah.
"Smith played in only one game this fall due to injury and scouts were lukewarm on his tape from the 2019 season," Jeremiah wrote. "So, there was very little buzz about him coming out of the 2020 campaign. There will be plenty of chatter about him coming out of this week, though. Smith was phenomenal at tackle and guard. He has extremely long arms and knows how to use them."
The Seattle Seahawks could see Smith's agility as a strong positive for their evaluations. They have a quarterback in Russell Wilson, who constantly moves the pocket and needs extended periods of protection.
While in a reserve role behind 35-year-old Duane Brown for a season, Smith can bulk up and work on his core strength to combat violent bull rushes on the edge.
Best fit: Seattle Seahawks
Interior Defensive Lineman: Jaylen Twyman, Pittsburgh
Jaylen Twyman wreaked havoc at the line of scrimmage through the 2019 term, recording 12.0 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. He opted out of the following campaign.
If Twyman suited up for the 2020 season and matched his numbers from his sophomore year, he may have garnered first-round buzz going into the draft. Instead, talent evaluators will probably want to know how the Pittsburgh product plans to counter stout interior linemen who will use leverage and power to beat him in one-on-one matchups.
Although Twyman shifted across the line on the collegiate level, he doesn't have a firm base to plug holes as a gap-stuffer. In the NFL, 300-plus-pound offensive linemen with a low center of gravity may get the best of him on run downs.
Twyman is best-suited to shoot gaps in an even-man front. Coaches can work on his functional strength and help him bulk up.
With Gus Bradley as their defensive coordinator, the Los Angeles Chargers selected Jerry Tillery in the first round of the 2019 draft. At 6'6", 295 pounds, he's a lean defensive tackle who wins with his quickness similar to Twyman.
Although Bradley didn't have a lot of success with unlocking Tillery's ability to penetrate on the interior (five sacks and six tackles for loss), Twyman will come into the league with a developed pass-rushing move set and active hands to battle in the trenches.
The Raiders need a long-term rotational defensive tackle in the 3-technique role. Maurice Hurst, David Irving and Quinton Jefferson will have expiring contracts after the 2021 season.
Best fit: Las Vegas Raiders
Edge-Rusher: Joe Tryon, Washington
During his 2019 sophomore term, Joe Tryon made plays in an every-down role, logging 12.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks. He opted out of the following season.
Tryon doesn't have a double-digit sack campaign that compares to Miami's Gregory Rousseau, who logged 15.5 in 2019. Unlike Georgia's Azeez Ojulari, the Washington product didn't have a third year to show significant improvement before declaring for the draft.
In his most recent mock draft, Chris Trapasso of CBS Sports listed Tryon as the last pick of the second round, going to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Tryon's blend of strength and explosiveness could create early opportunities for him wherever he lands in the pros. Furthermore, at 6'5", 262 pounds, he can play in even- and odd-man fronts on the edge.
The Miami Dolphins traded pass-rusher Shaq Lawson to the Houston Texans in exchange for inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney with a late-round pick swap. They haven't replaced the departed defender with a top-tier veteran addition from the open market, but the front office can take Tryon on Day 2 to fill that void.
Under head coach Brian Flores, the Dolphins have used multiple fronts. Tryon's position flexibility should allow him to play on all three downs while providing a boost to the pass rush.
Best fit: Miami Dolphins
Off-Ball Linebacker: Chazz Surratt, North Carolina
Between the 2018 and 2019 terms, Chazz Surratt transitioned from quarterback to linebacker. With only two years at his current position, the 6'2", 227-pounder has a lot to learn while on the pathway into the NFL.
As a result, Surratt seems more like a project despite his solid production over the last two seasons. Since 2019, he recorded 206 tackles, 22.5 for loss, 12.5 sacks, five pass breakups and two interceptions.
Teams must exercise patience with Surratt's inevitable mistakes, but in the meantime, he's capable of making impact plays.
Typically, rookies gradually rise through the ranks with the Pittsburgh Steelers, which is an ideal pace for Surratt's early development. He could sharpen his tackling angles while in a backup role with the opportunity to play in certain spots if Devin Bush isn't fully recovered from a torn ACL by Week 1.
According to ESPN's Brooke Pryor, Surratt met with Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler. Although he's a work-in-progress at linebacker, the North Carolina product has tremendous upside.
Best fit: Pittsburgh Steelers
Cornerback: Paulson Adebo, Stanford
As a two-year starter at Stanford, Paulson Adebo has recorded eight interceptions and 27 pass breakups. He's a ball hawk on the boundary with some faults.
Although Adebo has the ball production of a first-round pick, his game film shows some inconsistencies in his ability cover receivers who run precise or complex routes. He opted out of the 2020 campaign, which makes his evaluation difficult in terms of projection to the next level.
On a positive note, teams will likely take a chance on Adebo's ability to match up against big-bodied X receivers on the perimeter because he can press at the line of scrimmage and recover with adequate foot speed.
The San Francisco 49ers need another playmaker in the secondary, specifically on the boundary. Jason Verrett had a solid 2020 campaign, logging seven pass breakups and two interceptions, but he played more than four games in a single season for the first time since 2016. Fellow cover man Emmanuel Moseley has 17 starts with just two interceptions in three seasons.
Even with some lapses in coverage, Adebo could develop into a top-notch starter who's capable of leading the 49ers in interceptions every year.
Best fit: San Francisco 49ers
Safety: Jamar Johnson, Indiana
Jamar Johnson's collegiate resume is light on experience, but he has the highlight plays that illustrate his potential.
At Indiana, Johnson lined up at safety and in the slot, but he didn't become a full-time starter until the 2020 campaign. The 6'2", 205-pound defensive back recorded 69 tackles, eight for loss, four sacks, seven interceptions and five pass breakups through three collegiate terms.
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields took criticism for his poor performance against Indiana this past season. Johnson picked him off twice in a November contest. He can read the quarterback from center field or match up against pass-catchers in man coverage.
Johnson's experience in different roles and his ball production should push him into first-round discussions, but limited time as a starter leaves question marks about his full potential. Still, he could land a starting job for a team rebuilding its secondary.
The Atlanta Falcons allowed safety Keanu Neal and defensive back Damontae Kazee to walk in free agency—both signed with the Dallas Cowboys.
Johnson's position flexibility would allow him to see immediate action at safety or in the slot with the Falcons defense in nickel alignment.
Atlanta has major question marks at safety though. Erik Harris allowed a 124.1 passer rating when targeted this past season with the Las Vegas Raiders. Jaylinn Hawkins, a 2020 fourth-rounder, has only played 74 defensive snaps. Johnson would address a pressing need on the back end of the Falcons defense.
Best fit: Atlanta Falcons
Player height and weight measurements courtesy of NFL.com.