The 2021 NFL draft is finally here. After months of obsession and debate over pro days, hand size, and 40 yard strokes, it’s time to pick some players.
But first, let’s get back to the college football reporters who have covered these prospects for the past few years and see who their favorites are. We’re talking quarterbacks, receivers, sleepers, and more.
And make sure our decisions match the real ones, starting at 8 p.m. tonight. ET on ESPN and the ESPN app.
Who is your favorite prospect who isn’t scheduled for Round 1?
Bill Connelly: Kenneth Gainwell. He’s the type to open up with a creative playcaller. It’s a solid (albeit small) block reader that runs back when you need it, and it can line up in the slot or across, run a believable route, and hit you that way too – in 2019, it caught 13 balls 147 yards outside of the slot, eight for 145 in a row and 28 for 318 outside the backfield. (Oh yeah, and he hurried nearly 1,500 yards and broke 42 tackles. He was a blast.)
Adam Rittenberg: Wisconsin-Whitewater offensive lineman Quinn Meinerz, a 2020 Division III player who was blown up during Senior Bowl practice and exposes his beautiful belly to the world. He played guard throughout his studies, but moved to the middle of the Senior Bowl and was so good there that NFL teams could use him there permanently.
Chris Low: Daviyon Nixon has come a long way to become one of the Big Ten’s most disruptive defensive tackles. He went to junior college, had a season off, and then flourished in Iowa in his first full season as a starter a year ago. His best football is ahead of him and he has top-notch physical skills for a 300 pounder. Watch his 71-yard interception return last season for a touchdown (Eurostep and all) against Penn State.
David M. Hale: Sometimes excellent players get lost on bad teams, and that seems to be the case with Asante Samuel Jr. He arrived in the state of Florida number 3 in the country and has been brilliantly on campus during his (nearly) three years, and yet he’s not getting a lot of pre-design buzz. Why not? He has an NFL family history (his father played in the league for 11 years) and all physical skills. Compare his numbers to the first round prospects and he does well, with a better pass resolution rate and completion percentage than Jaycee Horn and better raw QBR and yards per goal than Caleb Farley and Patrick Surtain II. The problem? Despite his excellent play, he was part of some disastrous years in the state of Florida. Someone is going to get a theft in the second round, and it wouldn’t be a shock if Samuel blossomed into the best corner in this year’s class.
Andrea Adelson: If I were to pick someone I love to see play it would be the defensive end of Wake Forest, Carlos “Boogie” Basham (and it has nothing to do with his nickname. OK, maybe a little bit with his nickname). Basham was always playing in the background, whether with sacks or duels against loss. As a junior he had 11 sacks and 18 tackles for loss, and as a senior he maintained a streak of at least one tackle for loss in 23 consecutive games. He plays with great intensity and is constantly working to find an advantage. Coaches love to use the term “big engine” to refer to people who never quit and Basham certainly qualified here.
Mark Schlabach: Due to injuries in 2019 and a shortened season in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NFL teams will have to return by 2018 to see what Purdue recipient Rondale Moore can do. How can you not like what you see? A freshman in 2018, Moore had 114 catches for 1,258 yards with 12 touchdowns, making only the third Big Ten player to surpass 100 receptions in a season. He also had 662 kick-return yards and set team records for year-old all-purpose yards (2,215) and single-game all-purpose yards (313). Even at 5-7 and 181 pounds, bog is hard in the middle and after being caught.
Who is your favorite quarterback outside of Trevor Lawrence in the draft?
Schlabach: I’m not sure if the other quarterbacks besides Lawrence are starters in the NFL that are not to be missed. So why not grab a flyer about Trey Lance, North Dakota? Sure, he has very limited experience and played at the FCS level, but it’s hard to ignore what he’s done at NDSU. As a freshman in 2019, he threw no interception in 287 attempts, setting the NCAA all-division record for the most pass attempts in a season without one. He completed 66.9% of his passes for 2,786 yards and 28 touchdowns, while running 169 times for 1,100 yards and 14 more points. He led the FCS for passing efficiency (180.6) and setting school records for passing efficiency and total offense (3,886 yards). Let him sit a season or two behind a veteran and get more flavor.
Harry Lyles Jr .: Justin Fields. For me, the most interesting thing about this class of quarterbacks is that, for the first time, I’m rightly assuming that one of the five that we expect to be in the top 10 over the long term are franchise quarterbacks. When the other four outside of Lawrence are all at their best, Fields is the one who amazes me the most. I think he’s also the quarterback to look back on and say, if you don’t work out, that you made the choice, both from a “we saw what he can” perspective and from a “we” perspective have seen what he can “makes the most sense. He has the most potential perspective.
Low: Imagine someone telling you just before last season that Mac Jones could rise to 3rd place in the 2021 NFL draft. After all, at the time he was (at least supposedly) nothing more than a “game manager” at quarterback. Funny how perceptions can change. Jones was huge in 2020. He is accurate, instinctive, smart and can do any throw. But what he does best is instilling supreme faith among his teammates and making everyone around him better.
Dave Wilson: Justin Fields is so fun to watch so he’s my pick – but I also appreciate how much Zach Wilson (no relationship) I know that) looks like the cool villain who is really good at skiing in 80s movies.
Rittenberg: I’m on the lookout for Fields, not only because his cap is incredibly high as a real double threat, but I’ve never seen a quarterback get more punished for winning the league title while he was for what he was in one Playoff game has done after that, was ignored absorbing a massive blow to the side. Give him a year to develop under the right NFL coach and he’ll become a superstar.
Healthy: I’m not convinced of the Patrick Mahomes comparisons at this point, but it’s impossible not to love Zach Wilson’s abilities. He has a big arm, throws well on the run, is athletic and intelligent. And while Jones, Lawrence, and Fields were surrounded by blue-chip talent, Wilson didn’t play with a single four- or five-star offensive weapon last year and was still recording elite numbers. And check out the story. In 2017, BYU averaged 17 points per game. After Wilson took over as a starter in 2018, the Cougars’ score almost doubled. After a year of injuries in 2019, Wilson almost doubled BYU’s average rating again in 2020. That’s a solid trend line. This is an incredibly deep QB class, and while that doesn’t guarantee every success (see 1999 class) I would be quite surprised if Wilson didn’t rise to a solid NFL player and most likely a star.
Ja’Marr Chase, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. Who is your top WR?
Wilson: Give me Waddle for its versatility and what it can do in open space and as a returner. Against what is probably the most NFL eligible secondary school he faced (Georgia), he had six catches for 161 yards and two TDs.
Rittenberg: Chase’s opt-out makes some forget how special he can be. He doesn’t have the size concerns that Waddle and Smith have while still expanding the field (21.2 yards per catch in 2019) and shining in the red zone.
Low: Just call here. Less than halfway into the season a year ago, I knew Smith was the best college football player in the country, and nothing changed when we moved on to the pro game.
Tom VanHaaren: If I chose a college team it would be an easy choice and I would go with Smith. However, I agree with Adam and would go to the NFL with Chase. He had 1,780 yards in the same season that Justin Jefferson, who was one of the top rookie receivers last season, had 1,540 yards. I think Smith will have a good career, but if I were a GM I’d bet Chase first.
Lyles: DeVonta. We all understand the size issues, but I also haven’t forgotten what I saw in the 2020 college football season. He was the best player in college football, and while his lean body was easy to spot, he didn’t show himself in his game. The NFL is a different game and its size might show up in its game, but you don’t draw players as finished products. Smith is a mechanically impeccable player with incredible vision and incredible hands. Players can grow in size, but not all players can master the finer details of position as Smith did.
Adelson: Yes, please. Oh wait, I can only choose one? I think all three will have stellar NFL careers, but I’ll go with Chase based on the reasons Adam listed. I love his size and physicality, but also the ability to make big pieces. His 1,720 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2019 are both SEC records in one season.
Who is the most exciting player in the draft?
Wilson: WR Rondale Moore broke Purdue’s record in a single game for all-purpose yards in his first college game. Let’s all hope we see him on an NFL team that knows how to let go of him.
Low: Lane Kiffin knows all about how to give the ball to his playmakers, and Elijah Moore was a big game waiting to play at Ole Miss, whether pulling past cornerbacks on deep stretches, letting things happen after the catch, or one made ridiculous catch in the end zone.
Healthy: No need to reconsider. There’s a man with a Heisman trophy and national championship on his shelf who made Mac Jones a top 10 pick and ended his college career with 48 touchdowns named DeVonta Smith. In a draft full of “exciting” recipients – Ja’Marr Chase, Tutu Atwell, Rondale Moore, Elijah Moore, and Smith’s teammate Jaylen Waddle – no one is as exciting as the reigning Heisman winner.
Lyles: I think it’s easy Kyle Pitts. It seems unfair that he got to play college football last season for making the game look so easy. Typically, when we talk about prospects, one doesn’t hear “he’s a future Hall of Famer” about a close finish or the possibility of them even finishing in the top five. Congratulations in advance to the fans of the team that gets this guy.
Who will be the best defensive player in three years?
Wilson: Linebacker Micah Parsons can and will do whatever you need with his size, speed and instinct.
Rittenberg: Few great defenders disrupt the game as often as Tulsa’s Zaven Collins, who shines on an outside linebacker or ends up in the right scheme. His weight can be an issue at around 260 pounds, but he can pester quarterbacks or cut cover. He’s always on the ball.
VanHaaren: I agree with Wilson on Parsons, but I have a strange feeling that Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is going to have a great NFL career. He’s not the biggest linebacker, but I don’t think you have to be anymore. He can do anything and anyone – he can play any of the linebacker positions. He has speed, physical abilities, he can come off the edge or fall back. I think he fits in really well with what today’s defenses are looking for and he has a chance to be a really good player in the NFL.
Lyles: From all of the talented Alabama players in this draft, we’ve heard little about Patrick Surtain II. Having a kick-off corner is one of the most important assets of a team, and it will be for someone for a long time.
Adelson: I agree with Tom. Owusu-Koramoah can do so many things and he is as sure as you will find it and his ability to strike with such force and force enables him to make up for his shortcomings. For me, the most intriguing defensive player is Miami’s defensive end, Jaelan Phillips. He’s relatively raw considering his college trip (he quit football at UCLA for medical reasons, decided to play again, went to Miami, redshirted, and played for the Canes for a year in 2020). But if he can build on the sheer potential seen in the second half of 2020, he will have a huge impact.
Schlabach: If you’re not a Kentucky football fan, you may never have heard of former Wildcats linebacker Jamin Davis. Just like you’ve probably never heard of his hometown, Ludowici, Georgia, which is home to around 2,200 people. Davis only started one season in the UK but made a name for himself with 102 tackles, 1.5 sacks, three interceptions, one forced fumble and one fiddly recovery. At 6 feet 3 and 234 pounds, he has elite physical capabilities; He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds on his pro-day and has a wingspan of nearly 80 inches.
Connelly: This isn’t an amazing defensive blueprint, but while I’m pretty sure the correct answer is Parsons, people have already said that, so I’m going to give Ronnie Perkins some love. There’s a slim chance he’ll end up a bit of a tweener – too small to have a defensive ending, not versatile enough for OLB – but I doubt it. He completely changed the OU defense when he came halfway into the question, and his pass rush numbers were almost Chase Young-esque. His print rate was over 16%, and not only did he have 5.5 bags in six games, he created four more (he had the initial pressure on bags going to someone else) and enforced 12 imperfections. At the very least, he should be a creepy pass-rush specialist, though he’s not terribly against the run either.
Name the potential choices for day 3 that will have the greatest impact
Wilson: There were many Texas A&M defensive tackles against Bobby Brown III against an SEC-only schedule last fall, and he did enough to earn the award for all first-team conferences. At 6-4,320, he’s big enough to play against the barrel anywhere but still has enough physical ability to get into quarterbacks. He had at least half a sack in six of his seven starts against SEC teams last season.
Rittenberg: Boise State cornerback and special team ace Avery Williams are going to set up an NFL squad and look like a late-night deal to me. A natural playmaker, he recorded four interceptions, five forced fumbles, and made 152 tackles to keep Boise State solid. But Williams’ real worth lies in special teams where he blocked five kicks and had nine touchdowns, including four in 2020 alone (two punt, two kickoff). I have a hard time finding a more complete specialty team performer than Williams, Mountain West’s two-time specialty team player of the year.
Low: All Garret Wallow did throughout his career at TCU was making games and finding football. It was a recurring formula for defensive players under coach Gary Patterson. Wallow (6-1, 220 pounds) will hold out in the final rounds because he is not the ideal size for an NFL linebacker and is a security converted, but he has physical capabilities, is productive, and is always one step ahead of offensive attempts to do. He will be a fixture in defense and on special teams at a professional level.
Healthy: Is there a clear homerun edge rusher on anyone’s board this year? As much as I like the perks of Jaelan Phillips or Kwity Paye, or the consistency of Boogie Basham or Ronnie Perkins, it’s also possible that the best pass rusher on this year’s draft comes with a choice on Day 3, and Pitts Rashad Weaver it is my bet for a sleep perspective that is worth investing in. Weaver had a great 2018 season with 41 presses and 6.5 sacks, but missed all of 2019 with a knee injury. That didn’t seem to bother him in 2020 when he returned to the grid in Pitt’s second game and devastated the rest of the way with 43 presses (fourth in FBS) and 7.5 sacks. Working with Patrick Jones, Weaver helped make Pitt’s D-Line one of the most formidable units in the country. He would fit in as a situational pass rusher almost instantly, but he has the framework and physical skills to build on and could easily become a star if he lands in the right spot.
Lyles: Yeah what Hale said.
Schlabach: Georgia fans won’t like this selection, but what about quarterback Jamie Newman? The former Wake Forest player was scheduled to start for the Bulldogs last season but opted out in early September over concerns over COVID-19. With the Demon Deacons in 2019, he finished 60.9% of his attempts for 2,868 yards with 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He added 574 rushing yards with six more points. He has good posability and arm strength and could develop into a starter later on.
Connelly: It’s mind-boggling how deep the receiver position is in this draft – it is conceivable that a player like Amon-Ra St. Brown, Dazz Newsome or Tylan Wallace could go on the third day, and the decidedly underestimated Ihmir Smith-Marsette could go for almost anyone Case will. If you don’t end with a good WR on this design, it’s your fault.