The Biggest Game-Changers in the 2021 NFL Draft Class

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistApril 21, 2021

The Biggest Game-Changers in the 2021 NFL Draft Class

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Plenty of prospects in this year's NFL draft class are exceptional players who we may be watching in the NFL for years to come. But not all are outright game-changers. 

    Put simply, game-changers are those special players who possess the ability to break a game right open⁠—on either side of the ball. 

    These dynamic quarterbacks can create a play even if they've gone through their entire progression and found no one open. These shifty running backs can't be brought to the ground, or keep their legs churning for multiple yards after contact. These speedy wideouts have an impeccable nose for the ball, even in double coverage. These ferocious pass-rushers zero-in on quarterbacks like they're wearing a honing beacon. 

    Let's take a look at some of the game-changers in this year's draft class and begin to imagine the ways they could create their own brand of chaos in the league this season and beyond. The following players appear in alphabetical order. 

    The only additional criteria used to select them (besides, you know, game-changing ability) was making sure at least one player was represented from among the following: quarterback, wide receiver, running back, tight end, pass-rusher and defensive back. After all, we all know this class is stacked with first-round wideouts who can take over a game.

Jaelan Phillips, Edge, Miami

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    Matt Gentry/Associated Press

    A 5-star recruit coming out of high school, Jaelan Phillips has played for two different FBS programs, recovered from an accident on a scooter, concussions and multiples surgeries, retired from football and un-retired...all before even reaching the NFL.

    Though Phillips has had his share of obstacles on his journey to the NFL, what he's done is present an arguably even more attractive case to teams as a resilient player who can produce in multiple systems. 

    In his freshman year at UCLA, Phillips totaled 21 tackles (seven for loss) and 3.5 sacks in seven games (four starts). After his spate of injuries, the program announced during his sophomore season he was retiring from football. 

    But Phillips wanted to return and transferred to Miami, where, in one season, he amassed 15.5 tackles for loss, good for sixth in the FBS, and led the Hurricanes with eight sacks and 45 total tackles. For good measure, he also tacked on an interception. 

    There's no question his hand, ankle and wrist injuries, as well as his concussion history (according to Yahoo's Eric Edholm, Phillips had at least three known concussions) will cause some teams to pass on Phillips. And ideally he'd have more consistent history of production. 

    But Phillips is a Swiss Army knife for the right team. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein wrote he "might have the combination of length and athleticism that would allow teams to look at him with a hand on the ground or standing depending on his weight." Edholm said Phillips "might be the best defensive prospect in the entire 2021 class," with "the length, athleticism, burst and power to be a high-end pass-rusher."

    Any player who can thrive at multiple positions on the field has a case as a game-changer. Phillips doesn't have a breadth of tape to make his case to NFL scouts. But when he's playing at his highest level, he will be able to wreak havoc on quarterbacks in the NFL.

Ja'Marr Chase, WR, LSU

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Want to know if Tigers wideout Ja'Marr Chase is a game-changer? Look no further than the arsenal of accolades he has collected during his college career.

    Chase won the Fred Biletnikoff Award as the country's best receiver in his sophomore season in 2019, was a unanimous 2019 College Football All-American, and just about ran out of records to set at LSU, including receiving yards in a bowl game, receiving yards in a single season and receiving touchdowns in a single season.

    In 14 starts in 2019, Chase he had 1,780 receiving yards and 84 receptions for 20 receiving touchdowns, which led the FBS and set SEC records.

    Chase fits the mold of a NFL X-receiver perfectly, and teams can expect him to win the contested catch and dominate one-on-one on the outside. 

    With the caveat that fantasy football is not real life, fantasy rankings can nevertheless be a useful additional tool when we're considering a player (in this case, whether he is a game-changer). The fact that CBS Sports' Dan Schneier argued Chase "has a strong case to be the No. 1 overall pick in 1-QB league rookie drafts" speaks to Chase's expected game-changing potential for the coming years. 

    Think of it this way: Would you say it's fair to call second-year wideout and former LSU Tiger Justin Jefferson a game-changer, with 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns his rookie season? Many in the draft community think Chase is even better.

Jaylen Waddle, Alabama, WR

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Clemson Tide wideout Jaylen Waddle is no slouch on offense. The top-40 overall recruit racked up 45 receptions, 848 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman in 2018 despite only starting three games, and while his stat sheet took a hit in 2019 (33 receptions, 560 yards, six touchdowns), you try getting the ball when you're sharing the field with Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith.

    However, the return game was Waddle's bread and butter, and it's a big part of why he possesses such elite game-changing ability. In 2018, Waddle totaled 233 yards and a score on 16 punt returns, for a 14.6 average.

    In his sophomore season, his 24.4 punt return average (20 returns, 487 yards, one touchdown) led the FBS, while he added another score, as well as 175 yards and a 35.0 average, on five kick returns. It was good enough for 2019 second-team All-American and SEC Special Teams Player of the Year honors.

    In his junior season, Waddle set out to prove he could be "the guy," and he was on pace for more than 1,000 yards and scored four touchdowns in as many games.

    Unfortunately, we weren't able to see how much higher he could rise as he broke his ankle and missed six games. Still, Waddle has made his case; he's a terrific complement to a stacked receiving corps and can break a game open on special teams.

Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    A truly exceptional pass-catching tight end can change a game by being two players in one for his team—three, if you count fullback. Kyle Pitts offers that kind of two-for-one deal in the first round of this year's draft.

    Whether teams want to line the 6'6", 245-pound playmaker inside or out, he's going to create a matchup nightmare for all defenders who face him. 

    Given how his college career concluded, it's hard to remember Pitts began it as a reserve at Florida, totaling three passes for 73 yards and a touchdown in 2018. He proved he belonged the next season, leading his team with 54 catches for 649 yards and five touchdowns, and he was rewarded with first-team All-SEC accolades. 

    But it was the 2020 season that sealed Pitts' position as a top NFL draft prospect. He is such a talented pass-catcher that he won both the John Mackey award as the top tight end and was also a finalist for the Fred Biletnikoff award as the top wide receiver, thanks to his 770 yards and 12 receiving touchdowns, which tied him for third in the FBS, on 43 passes over eight starts.

    NFL.com's Lance Zierlein said Pitts "may have the traits and talent to create mismatches similar to those created by Calvin Johnson and Tyreek Hill." In fact, along with Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, Zierlein said Pitts "has a chance to become the biggest game-changer" in this year's class.

Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State

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    Barry Reeger/Associated Press

    Linebacker U is back, baby. From Jack Ham to LaVar Arrington to Tamba Hali, Penn State's ability to churn out top-rate players at the position has been notable over the years. There has been a bit of a leveling off more recently, however, leading to other programs such as Ohio State laying their own claims to the moniker of Linebacker U. 

    Micah Parsons is here to restate Penn State's case. Most outlets have tabbed the prospect the top linebacker in this year's class, certain to go in the first round. CBS Sports has him ranked at No. 8 overall; NFL.com graded him at a 6.89, a "Year 1 quality starter," and analyst Lance Zierlein wrote Parsons possesses "an NFL-ready frame and explosive speed that could make him a highly productive talent at the next level."

    The top-10 national recruit in 2018 led the Nittany Lions in tackles in both his freshman (83 tackles, five for loss, 1.5 sacks) and sophomore (109 tackles, 14 for loss, five sacks, five pass breakups) seasons. Through 13 games in his sophomore season, Parsons garnered first-team All-American honors and his four forced fumbles tied for fourth in the FBS. At the end of the season, he was named the Big Ten Linebacker of the Year (take that, Ohio State!). 

    Though we only have two seasons of tape to go off after Parsons opted out of the 2020 season because of COVID-19 concerns, it's clear Parsons has a nose for the ball. Whether it's through sacks, pass breakups or forced fumbles, he harrasses opposing quarterbacks and has the receipts to prove it. 

    The cherry on top for Parsons in the NFL draft is his elite speed. He recorded a 4.39 40-yard dash at his pro day—the record for a linebacker was set by Shaquem Griffin (4.38) in 2018. 

    "I just feel like I'm the most versatile player in this class," Parsons told reporters  over Zoom after his pro day. "I can play middle linebacker, I can play outside and I can pass rush. I don't think there's no place I can't play in a linebacker spot."

    Sounds like something a game-changer would say!

Najee Harris, RB, Alabama

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    Roger Steinman/Associated Press

    Plenty of NFL running backs prove themselves to be game-changers (we're looking at you, Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley and Alvin Kamara), but given the way the position is valued (or not valued) in the NFL draft, they're not often celebrated in the same way as other skill position players. 

    But Alabama's Najee Harris deserves to be counted among the ranks of this year's biggest game-changers. Still, he had to wait patiently to prove it. 

    Harris was no secret on the recruiting trail; he was the nation's No. 2 recruit in 2017 and was named the Bobby Dodd National High School Running Back of the Year. Still, the running backs room at Alabama was a crowded one, and Harris had to wait two seasons to earn his first start.

    By his junior year, however, Harris was the go-to option in the backfield, and he showed the college football world what all the fuss was about, racking up 1,224 yards and 13 touchdowns on 209 carries. He also had 27 receptions for 304 yards and seven additional scores. 

    Opting not to enter the NFL draft last season and remain at Alabama for his senior year proved to be a brilliant move on Harris' part. In 2020, he was part of Alabama's national title run, ending the season ranked second in the FBS in carries (251) third in yards (1,466) and stood alone with 26 rushing touchdowns. 

    His hard-running style and heavy use in college may give some teams reason to pause, but Harris is the total package for a game-changing running back. He can handle the workload on first and second down, catch passes out of the backfield on third down and block. What more could you ask for?

Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Pass-rushers can throw a wrench in a quarterback's plan, but arguably the players on the field most able to turn a game on a dime the same way a quarterback can are the defensive backs. And Patrick Surtain II will make a lot of NFL quarterbacks very unhappy. 

    In 2019, he did almost everything a defensive back can do with the ball, amassing 42 tackles, two interceptions, eight pass breakups and three forced fumbles in 12 games. In 2020, en route to a national title, he led the Crimson Tide in passes defended (12) and added an interception. 

    Think of a game-changing defensive back in the NFL today and chances are, Jalen Ramsey was the first name that popped into your head. And that's good news for Surtain.

    Alabama associate defensive coordinator Charles Kelly sees a lot of Ramsey in Surtain's game, according to Patrick Surtain Sr.

    "Coach Kelly kind of compared them because he'd seen Pat in high school and he knew what kind of player Jalen was, he actually recruited Pat to Florida State," the elder Patrick Surtain told Alex Byington of the Montgomery Advertiser.

    What kind of physical traits define a game-changing cornerback? Elite size and athleticism, sound technique, and the ability to shut down top wideouts. How about a nose for the ball, fluid movement and big ups? Surtain's got them all. This shutdown cornerback can neutralize an opponent's best offensive weapon, and that's the definition of changing the game. 

Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Of all 22 players on the field at any given moment, it's the quarterback who possesses the greatest potential to be a game-changer. An elite quarterback can come up with any number of ways to evade a top pass-rusher or to outsmart a savvy defensive back. 

    Trevor Lawrence, regarded as one of the most pro-ready quarterback prospects in recent memory, is a surefire game-changer. 

    What is there left to be said about Lawrence? He's polished yet he can improvise; he doesn't have a chip on his shoulder yet he's highly motivated; he's got the size and the arm of a prototypical quarterback, as well as the football IQ. But it may be Lawrence's dual-threat ability both inside the pocket and on the move that make him truly next-level.

    Though he's sure to don a Jacksonville Jaguars uniform later this month barring an extraordinary draft-day trade, Lawrence could succeed in any number of systems given his well-rounded playmaking ability. 

    In a 10-game season in 2020, Lawrence tossed 24 touchdowns and ran in another eight, as well as completed a whopping 69.2 percent of his passes. It was good enough for ACC Player of the Year honors and a runner-up spot for the Heisman Trophy. Lawrence is the ultimate game-changer: a defensive coordinator's worst nightmare and an offensive coordinator's dream.

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