The 2020 NCAA football season ended with the Crimson Tide’s trouncing of the Ohio State Buckeyes. It was a truly unique season, one that felt the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic with numerous games cancelled and rescheduled, empty stadiums, and past bowl participation rules waived. Despite all these challenges though, the athletes put tremendous effort out on the field, giving many the opportunity to have earned a premium chance to be top draft picks.
It should come as no surprise to adamant football fans that the NFL Draft has become a huge event. Once, long ago, the draft was conducted in a hotel ballroom, away from the prying eyes of American football fans, but has since changed, having become a televised event in which rookie players are first introduced to their team’s fanships.
Despite not holding a street party like the one that took place during 2019 draft in Nashville, millions watched the 2020 NFL Draft, watching Joe Burrow, LSU’s star quarterback, become a Cincinnati Bengal with the number one overall selection. This year, Cleveland is set to host the party during the last few days of April; and with Covid restrictions being lifted, fans are expected to be in the seats, set to watch all the top picks don a fitted cap and hold their official NFL jersey with pride.
So the only question left to ask is, “Who are these stand-out college football stars that will make up the 2021 Draft Class for the NFL?”
- Trevor Lawrence
- Zach Wilson
- Wide Receivers
- Devonta Smith
- Ja’marr Chase
- Offensive Line
- Dark Horse Picks
Fifteen of the last twenty-one overall first picks from the drafts of years past have been quarterbacks. No single position is more likely to change a team’s fortunes than the right man behind the center. He is the field general, responsible for guiding the offense to the endzone no matter the cost.
Clemson’s golden-haired Trevor Lawrence has had head coaches salivating since he made a splash in 2018 as a true freshman. Lawrence had the Tiger faithfuls rocking Death Valley with his big arm, his winning attitude, and his sheer durability. Leading the Tigers to the College Football Playoffs in all his three seasons at Clemson, he won the championship in 2019 and solidified his spot as one of the best quarterbacks to wear orange and purple.
Jacksonville brought in Urban Meyer to coach the Jaguars this off-season and every one of his analysts’ 2021 NFL mock drafts has had Lawrence as the overall number one pick. Florida fans trust Meyer and hope he and Lawrence can combine to take the Jags to new heights.
Flying a bit under the radar, Zach Wilson has been absolutely tearing up the west. This BYU star led his undefeated Cougars into Conway, South Carolina, for a battle against the undefeated Coastal Carolina Chanticleers in a game that introduced the rest of the country to Wilson’s on-field prowess. Brigham Young University has a storied history of producing some of the NFL’s greatest quarterbacks, and Wilson may be another superstar to come out of the gates with glory on his mind.
Wilson may not put up the gaudy numbers that Trevor Lawrence has, but he is a proven winner with rock-solid numbers and an excellent football IQ. Many big boards are predicting that the New York Jets have been eyeing Wilson, especially after trading away past first round pick, Sam Darnold.
While taking a quarterback is often considered laying the cornerstone for an offense, a premium wide receiver can often be the missing piece for a team that is lacking an emotional spark. You only need to look at the impact players like Irving Fryar and Keyshawn Johnson, former first-rounders themselves, to know what a great wide receiver draft pick can do.
Alabama has been churning out NFL-ready athletes since the day Nick Saban arrived as head coach, and Heisman Trophy winner Devonta Smith is no exception. Smith has been a highlight-making superstar with skills that rival even the NFL’s best wide outs.
In case you weren’t following his progress this season, he pulled in 23 touchdowns for the Crimson Tide on his way to collecting college football’s most acclaimed individual award. He has been an integral part of Saban’s championship-winning offensive schemes, and despite only being 6’1”, Smith makes himself an easy target for quarterbacks with his quickness and field awareness.
The 2019 Biletnikoff Award winner, Ja’Marr Chase posted 20 touchdown catches in 2019, opting out of the 2020 season due to Covid-19. As an LSU Tiger, Chase was a favorite target for Joe Burrow, and could be a steal for the right team.
Choosing to work out for teams and avoid any potential injuries in his off-season, he remains a strong contender to be a first round pick, remaining in great physical condition throughout his time spent away from the gridiron. Because of his absence, many fans have taken an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to his abilities, but NFL scouts have not, solidifying his contention for a first round pick.
Real football fans know that a quarterback is only as good as his offensive line, and the new 17-game season is going to make line depth a key focus for many teams. For those of you who aren’t proficient in football speak, picking the right offensive linemen is absolutely critical to a winning strategy for any and every team. Just look at the New York Giants offensive line picks in past drafts, for example.
Ereck Flowers from the University of Miami was taken early and was supposed to be the anchor of a new, young line, but turned out to be a bust. On the other hand, Will Hernandez was drafted out of the University of Texas El Paso and started all 16 games last season for the Giants at left guard.
Penei Sewell from Oregon and Christian Darrisaw from Virginia Tech are considered first-rounders by many mock drafts. Some analysts also see left tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker from Southern Cal, another offensive tackle Rashawn Slater from Northwestern, and tight-end Kyle Pitts from Florida as potential first round picks on the offensive line.
More often than not, the defensive stars in college football don’t get the attention they deserve, reflected by former NFL draft classes. This makes it difficult for a player like South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn to get warranted respect after a tremendous season on a losing team.
In instances like these, it may take an eye-popping pro day or a head-turning display at the NFL combines to get analysts’ attention. For former NFL star Joe Horn’s son, Jaycee, the pro day at the University of South Carolina’s football operations center was the chance to display what most offensive coordinators in the SEC already knew; that this guy is going to make big waves given the right opportunity and barring any unforeseen circumstances.
Additionally, Penn State Nittany Lion Micah Parsons is considered to be the top defensive pick in the 2021 Draft Class for the NFL. The outside linebacker has skills that make him a danger on the strongside for any offense, can play from the down position or stand up to cover tight ends and running backs on passing routes, and is likely no stranger to playing in some of the coldest games in college football history.
As a pass rusher most quarterbacks will run to the opposite side of the field to avoid, some scouts are cautiously optimistic about his potential; however, they are exceedingly aware that he does have a personality similar to OBJ, Antonio Brown, and other diva-quotient players throughout the league.
Not to be discluded from the conversation, Azeez Ojulari is a nasty edge rusher from the Georgia Bulldogs that may very well be the first defensive lineman to find a new team to call home in this year’s draft for his pass rushing ability. With that said though, there’s no shortage of talent on the opposite side of the football, Caleb Farley being a sleeper on analyst’s radars.
Dark Horse Picks
Not unlike figuring out how to host a home tailgate party this year, the age of abundant film, both on television and streaming systems, has given football fans and the 2021 Draft Class NFL scouts entirely new access to college players’ abilities. Able to see teams outside of the Power 5 means that dark horse players can be viewed and analyzed in game situations, not just based on their performance at the NFL combine in Indianapolis.
Players like Carson Wentz, out of North Dakota State, have paved the way for other second-tier stars to shine, and Trey Lance, another NDSU Bison quarterback, hopes to show that Wentz was no fluke, and maybe even making NDSU a top-tier school for creating one of the best long-term athlete development plans in the country.
Spencer Brown, from the University of Alabama, and BJ Emmons, from Florida Atlantic, show significant promise as running backs in a passing league. Still though, if not first round picks, they both show potential as second rounders that might find themselves on the field during the NFL’s extended schedule.