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2021 NFL Draft Primer

by Mike Tagliere | @MikeTagliereNFL | Featured Writer
Apr 19, 2021

The NFL Draft will take place from April 29 through May 1 in Cleveland, Ohio.

For many, the Super Bowl signifies the end of the football season. For me, it’s the beginning of the next season, as we get to start scouting rookies for the incoming class, bury ourselves into the depth charts to see what teams might need in free agency, and once that’s done, figure out what they might do in the draft.

Well, we’ve reached the point where most fans return, even if it’s for just a few days. The NFL Draft symbolizes a brand-new season for many fans, as they are able to look up scouting reports on the players their team has drafted, allowing them to be optimistic, even if it’s short lived.

If you’re looking for a general overview of the draft and it’s prospects, you’ve come to the right place. The purpose of this article is to provide you with a condensed version of what I’ve learned about this draft class over the last few months. The strengths, the weaknesses, and the expectations.

In case you haven’t heard yet, we’re going to be doing a LIVE broadcast during Day 1 of the NFL Draft, breaking every pick down from a real team-building standpoint, as well as from a fantasy standpoint. This is something we did last year and it had a lot of success, so we hope you’ll stop by on April 29th. Click here for the link to the broadcast.

Quarterbacks

If you haven’t paid attention to any draft talk the last few months, you might not know that it appears likely we’ll have the first three picks of the draft used on quarterbacks, with the possibility of the fourth pick as well. In fact, it would be a surprise if there weren’t five quarterbacks off the board by the ninth pick.

It all starts up top with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, who’s widely considered the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck, and maybe since Peyton Manning. He comes in pro-ready and will be coming off the board to the Jacksonville Jaguars with the first pick.

After Lawrence, there’s a mixed consensus among the No. 2 through No. 5 quarterbacks in this class. BYU’s Zach Wilson seems likely to be the No. 2 overall pick, though if you were to rewind just a few months prior, the case would’ve been made for Ohio State’s Justin Fields. Meanwhile, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance has worked his way up into consideration for the No. 3 pick. Then you have Alabama’s Mac Jones who threw for 4,500 yards, 41 touchdowns, and just four interceptions in 2020. There have been plenty of insiders saying he wouldn’t fall past the No. 8 pick, but after the Panthers traded for Sam Darnold, someone is likely to fall to the Broncos at No. 9 unless someone trades up. The bottom line here is that after Lawrence, we have a group of four quarterbacks who could be mixed and matched to different teams and no one should be shocked if a team picks one over another.

Once those five quarterbacks are off the board, we might not see another quarterback drafted until Day 3 of the draft, though Florida’s Kyle Trask and Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond might sneak into Day 2. I’m not buying the recent stir that Mond has a chance to go at the end of the first round.

This is clearly a top-heavy quarterback class, and one that might be historically good, though some of the quarterbacks certainly have question marks surrounding them. Did Wilson benefit from easy opponents? Can Fields process the field and read the defense quicker than he has to this point? Was Lance’s 2019 too small of a sample size? Was Jones so good because of the receivers he had at his disposal?

Running Backs

This running back class is extremely top-heavy, as we have just two running backs who are certain to be drafted inside the top two rounds. Alabama’s Najee Harris and Clemson’s Travis Etienne are the superstars of this class, and true three-down backs who should be starting from day one. You shouldn’t be shocked to hear one or both of their names called in the first round.

After those two, the next tier of running backs that you should expect to be drafted some time during Day 2 of the draft include North Carolina’s Javonte Williams and Memphis’ Kenneth Gainwell. They are completely different backs, as Williams is a bruiser who’s viewed more as a 1-2 down back, while Gainwell is the best receiving back in this class. It’s not to say they can’t play on all three downs, but they aren’t locks to be drafted into a workhorse role.

With not so many vacancies around the league, it’s tough to see many more running backs being selected inside the first three rounds of the draft, especially knowing this isn’t a strong running back class. Those who could find their way into that territory with a little bit of luck include North Carolina’s Michael Carter, Ohio State’s Trey Sermon, and Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson.

Wide Receivers

Remember last year when we watched 13 wide receivers come off the board through the first two rounds? Yeah, that’s not likely going to happen again this year. The first-round locks of this class are LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase, Alabama’s Devonta Smith, and Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle. All three of them should be off the board by the 20th pick, at the very latest. Chase is your prototype WR1 who reminds me of DeAndre Hopkins. Smith played at a level not many have ever seen in 2020, recording 117 receptions, 1,856 yards, and 23 touchdowns in just 13 games, and has drawn comparisons to Hall of Fame wide receiver Marvin Harrison. Waddle is someone who reminds me of a hybrid of Steve Smith and Tyreek Hill, as he plays bigger than he is, and has some serious jets.

There are plenty of other receivers receiving first-round buzz, though we have to separate them from the elites. We should expect to hear Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman come off the board in the first round, as he is reminiscent of Keenan Allen, though he did measure in two inches shorter than he was listed, which will hurt his draft stock. If your team lands him outside of the first round, congrats. The others who’ve been talked about as potential first rounders include: Florida’s Kadarius Toney, LSU’s Terrace Marshall, Purdue’s Rondale Moore, Ole Miss’ Elijah Moore, and Louisville’s Tutu Atwell. While I’d consider some of them reaches even in the second round, there are insiders saying they’re getting first-round buzz.

The next tier of wide receivers that are expected to go inside rounds 2-4 include: Oklahoma State’s Tylan Wallace, USC’s Amon-Ra St. Brown, North Carolina’s Dyami Brown, Clemson’s Amari Rodgers, and Auburn’s Seth Williams. Each wide receiver brings a specific skill set to the table, so we can’t say if they’d be good picks until we see the offense they land in, and whether we believe the coaching staff can get the most out of them.

There are a few wide receivers who might sneak into Day 2 if the right team falls in love with their film. A few of my favorites who might sneak up draft boards include Western Michigan’s D’Wayne Eskridge, South Dakota State’s Cade Johnson, Clemson’s Cornell Powell, Houston’s Marquez Stevenson, Illinois’ Josh Imatorbhebhe, and North Texas’ Jaelon Darden. This class will produce some star wide receivers.

Tight Ends

If there’s a position you can absolutely project in terms of the order they’ll be drafted, tight end is it. This is one of the weakest classes of tight ends I’ve seen, though there is a bright shining star at the top in Florida’s Kyle Pitts. He’s far-and-away the best tight end in this class and might be taken with a top-five pick. That hasn’t happened for a tight end since 1972 when the Broncos selected Riley Odoms at No. 5 overall. Pitts is a physical specimen who ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash at 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds, which puts him in Calvin Johnson-type territory.

The clear-cut No. 2 tight end in this class is Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth, who has the chance to go in the first round considering the lack of depth in this draft class. If it wasn’t for Pitts’ insane measurables and eye-popping film, more analysts would be talking about Freiermuth, who has the build and skillset of an every-down tight end.

After those two, the talent pool thins out considerably, though Miami’s Brevin Jordan might sneak into the top three rounds. If there’s a team looking for a blocking tight end or the next generation of fullback Kyle Juszczyk, Notre Dame’s Tommy Tremble could be drafted during Day 2 of the draft. Some believe Boston College’s Hunter Long could go inside the top three rounds, but I don’t think that’ll be the case.

Offensive Tackles

We’re typically hearing about a few offensive tackles who are being considered inside the top five picks, but that’s not really the case this year. There may not be a consensus No. 1 tackle in this draft, as Oregon’s Penei Sewell has just one and a half years of experience under his belt and opted out in 2020, which could hurt his stock. The only other tackle who’s received top-10 buzz is Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater.

While tackles may not go ultra-early in this draft, there will be plenty of them flying off the board in the first round as a whole. Along with Sewell and Slater, Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw, USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker, Texas’ Samuel Cosmi, Michigan’s Jalen Mayfield, and Oklahoma State’s Teven Jenkins are all candidates to go inside the top-32 picks.

The next tier of offensive linemen who should go on Day 2 of the draft include Notre Dame’s Liam Eichenberg, Alabama’s Alex Leatherwood, and North Dakota State’s Dillon Radunz. Overall, this is a fairly strong tackle class with seven of them receiving first-round buzz, though some will surely leak into the second round, giving those with early second-round picks a bonus.

Interior Offensive Linemen

You don’t see teams invest heavily on interior linemen in today’s NFL. If anything, you’ll see them draft an offensive tackle and just move him inside if they want to ease him into the league. A player like USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker is someone who played both tackle and guard in college, so he could fall into this category, and might be the only interior offensive lineman selected in the first round.

The only interior linemen who’ve received any buzz surrounding the first round are Alabama’s Landon Dickerson and Oklahoma’s Creed Humphrey, who are both centers. If they did have a chance to go in the first round, it’d be towards the end of it, and it’s hard seeing a playoff team draft a center with their first-round pick.

There are a few more outside of Dickerson and Humphrey who are expected to go on Day 2 of the draft, including Ohio State’s Wyatt Davis, Wisconsin-Whitewater’s Quinn Meinerz, and maybe Ohio State’s Josh Meyers. If there’s one player I’d be excited about who seems to be falling further than he should, it’s Georgia’s Ben Cleveland, who should be considered as one of the best interior linemen in this class.

Interior Defensive Linemen

It’s odd that we might not have an interior defensive lineman drafted inside the first round this year. Don’t forget that we had two of them drafted in the first round last year, and there were six of them drafted in the first round in 2019. The only players who have a shot at getting into the first round this year are Alabama’s Christian Barmore, who is certainly not a polished player just yet (though he’s oozing with upside), Iowa’s Daviyon Nixon (who I love as a prospect), and Washington’s Levi Onwuzurike.

I’m expecting plenty of interior linemen to come off the board on Day 2, as Florida State’s Marvin Wilson, LSU’s Tyler Shelvin, NC State’s Alim McNeil, USC’s Jay Tufele, and Ohio State’s Tommy Togiai have all received second-round buzz. If there’s one player who could sneak up draft boards, it’s UCLA’s Osa Odighizuwa.

Edge Defenders

This might be the first draft class in my time scouting rookies that there’s not a clear-cut top-15 pick who’ll be an edge rusher. There are players being discussed as potential top-15 picks, but if none are taken in that territory, it shouldn’t shock anyone. Miami’s Gregory Rousseau was expected to be the top one available, but after opting out of the 2020 season, teams got to see his teammate Jaelen Phillips do much of the same. In fact, Phillips may go before Rousseau. We also have Michigan’s Kwity Paye, who didn’t light up the stat sheet, though many blame Jim Harbaugh for that. Those three are the surefire first-rounders.

There are a handful of other edge rushers who’ve been mentioned in the first-round conversation, though they are far from a lock to go there. Penn State’s Jayson Oweh could go as high as the top-20 after running a 4.36-second 40-yard dash at 6-foot-5 and 257 pounds, though he will take some coaching. Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari has picked up steam, while Texas’ Joe Ossai and Washington’s Joe Tryon have both been mocked as first-round picks.

Some of my favorite Day 2 targets include Vanderbilt’s Dayo Odeyingbo, who moves much better than someone who’s 6-foot-5 and 279 pounds rightfully should. Houston’s Payton Turner is another one I like, as he plays with a non-stop motor and has the size to play anywhere you’d like on the defensive line. Others who should be expected to go on Day 2 include Wake Forest’s Carlos Basham, Pittsburgh’s Patrick Jones, Oklahoma’s Ronnie Perkins, and Duke’s Victor Dimukeje.

Linebackers

This feels like a sturdy linebacker class. Nothing too out of the ordinary, but there are certainly some talented players who have the possibility of going in the first round. Penn State’s Micah Parsons is a specimen of an athlete who can defend the run, blitz, and drop back in coverage. He’ll almost certainly be off the board within the top 12 picks. Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is a converted safety who can play linebacker, safety, or cover tight ends/wide receivers out of the slot. Tulsa’s Zaven Collins is a mammoth of a man (6-foot-4, 260 pounds) who’s somehow able to play linebacker, and do it well. We’ve also heard first-round talk with Missouri’s Nick Bolton, and Kentucky’s Jamin Davis. In fact, Davis has been generating enough buzz lately that some are suggesting he might be the second linebacker off the board, though that would be a mistake in my opinion.

While there will certainly be a few linebackers of those listed who fall into Day 2, here are the other names you should expect to come off the board in Rounds 2 and 3: North Carolina’s Chazz Surratt, LSU’s Jabril Cox, Ohio State’s Justin Hilliard, Ohio State’s Baron Browning, and Alabama’s Dylan Moses.

Cornerbacks

This feels like a strong year for the cornerback position, as we have three of them who are seemingly locks to go inside the top 20 picks, and maybe inside the top 16 picks. Those players are Alabama’s Patrick Surtain, South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn, and Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley. While Farley is my top cornerback, his stock took a hit last month when it was announced he needed back surgery. It was a minor procedure, but one that could impact his draft stock. The others who have the potential to make it into the first round are Florida State’s Asante Samuel Jr. and Northwestern’s Greg Newsome.

Once you get into the second and third round, you’re going to see a lot of varying opinions, as many of the cornerbacks are so close in skill. The players I’m expecting to come off the board on Day 2 include Georgia’s Tyson Campbell and Eric Stokes, UCF’s Aaron Robinson and Tay Gowan, Kentucky’s Kelvin Joseph, Syracuse’s Ifeatu Melifonwu, Stanford’s Paulson Adebo, and Washington’s Keith Taylor and Elijah Molden.

Safeties

This safety class hasn’t received much buzz, but I believe the top-end of it is better than we’ve had in a couple years. When you go through mock drafts, you don’t see a safety taken in the first round for the majority of them. While it’s certainly a position that’s devalued in the draft, I do believe TCU’s Trevon Moehrig deserves first-round consideration.

There are a few safeties who will come off the board on Day 2, which include TCU’s Ar’Darius Washington, Syracuse’s Andre Cisco, UCF’s Richie Grant, and Oregon’s Jevon Holland. If Washington was a few inches taller, he would be getting first-round consideration, but at 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, there is concern. The others who might sneak into Day 2 are Pittsburgh’s Paris Ford and Florida State’s Hamsah Nasirildeen.

Overview

This is a draft class that feels tilted to the offensive side of the ball, which is where the NFL has been trending for years. Most importantly, it’s a great draft class for teams that need a quarterback, which is why you’re going to see them fly off the board inside the top 10 picks. You can say the same about offensive tackles, as it’d be a shock to see fewer than six of them go in the first round.

Not many have talked about this, but the lack of NFL Combine this year is going to affect the draft. My guess would be that mock drafts will be worse than ever. Sure, there are curveballs thrown at us every year, but scouting departments are going to be leaned upon heavily for this draft class. Not that they weren’t before, but when you don’t have all the players in one place to compare side-by-side, the film will dictate more than usual.


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Mike Tagliere is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Mike, check out his archive and follow him @MikeTagliereNFL.

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