News & Analysis

PFF's early list of players to watch ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft

It is officially draft season once again. This time, 2021.

Yes, we are a ways away, but it’s never too early to start the evaluation process. Prospects like Utah State’s Jordan Love, TCU’s Jalen Reagor and Florida’s C.J. Henderson ended up as first-rounders on the back of what they did in 2018 far more than what they did in 2019. So, these are the prospects who caught our eye last season — keep an eye on them throughout the upcoming season.

[Editor’s note: Click this link to see PFF's 2020 NFL Draft grades for all 32 teams. And if you haven't already, be sure to pick up a copy of PFF's 2020 NFL Draft Guide by subscribing to PFF EDGE or ELITE.]

QUARTERBACK


Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
Justin Fields, Ohio State
Brock Purdy, Iowa State
Tanner Morgan, Minnesota
Trey Lance, North Dakota State
Jamie Newman, Georgia
K.J. Costello, Mississippi State
Kyle Trask, Florida

While Fields made up some ground on Lawrence’s lead as the number one overall pick last year, it’s going to take a lot to unseat the Clemson quarterback should he take the Tigers back to the National Championship game — simply because there’s not much Lawrence can’t do at the quarterback position. Fields has everything to be an elite quarterback himself, though.

There’s a clear delineation between those two and the rest at this point. The intriguing name here is NDSU’s Trey Lance, who had himself a ridiculous 28:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio last season for the Bison as a redshirt freshman en route to an 87.2 passing grade. 

We’ll also see if two transfers take the next step in their new homes. Jamie Newman takes his talent (86.2 passing grade) from Wake Forest to Georgia while former Stanford K.J. Costello tries to shake off an injury-plagued 2019 (81.6 passing grade in 2018) as he joins Mike Leach at Mississippi State.

RUNNING BACK


Travis Etienne, Clemson
Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State
Trey Sermon, Ohio State
Kennedy Brooks, Oklahoma
Najee Harris, Alabama
Demetric Felton, UCLA
Max Borghi, Washington State

Travis Etienne shocked the world when he decided to come back to school in 2019 for his senior year with a good chance of being the first back selected in last weekend’s NFL Draft. Chuba Hubbard similarly surprised after a 2,090-yard season — 1,300 of which came after contact — for Oklahoma State last year.

We’d be remiss here at PFF if we didn’t bring up a couple of our favorite receiving backs, though. Washington State’s Max Borghi has some angle-changing speed and broke 28 tackles on 85 catches last season. UCLA’s Demetric Felton is one of our favorite sleepers in the draft class with his crisp routes and natural receiving ability taking over for fourth-rounder Joshua Kelley.

Wide Receivers

Jan 13, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; LSU Tigers wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase (1) against the Clemson Tigers in the College Football Playoff national championship game at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Ja’Marr Chase, LSU
DeVonta Smith, Alabama
Justyn Ross, Clemson
Seth Williams, Auburn
Rondale Moore, Purdue
Rashod Bateman, Minnesota
Jaylen Waddle, Alabama
Amon-Ra St. Brown, USC
Chris Olave, Ohio State
Tylan Wallace, Oklahoma State
Tutu Atwell, Louisville
Tre Walker, San Jose State
Sage Surratt, Wake Forest

Get ready, because it’s coming. Next year looks like yet another utterly stacked draft class. Everyone knows about Biletnikoff Award winner Ja’Marr Chase at this point, as he looked unstoppable on the field as a sophomore for LSU. DeVonta Smith is a scintillating deep threat for Alabama who returned to the Crimson Tide for his senior season, likely to add more mass to his 6-foot-1, 175-pound frame.

There’s once again so much talent to go around, and covering everyone deserving is an article in and of itself. One of our favorite under-the-radar guys is San Jose State’s Tre Walker. He’s only 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, but put up 79 catches for 1,161 yards in only 10 games last season for the Spartans and can get open at all levels. 

TIGHT END


Kyle Pitts, Florida
Pat Freiermuth, Penn State
Brevin Jordan, Miami
Jake Ferguson, Wisconsin

The top-end talent that was missing in 2020 looks like it will be there in 2021. Pitts, Freiermuth and Jordan are all big, athletic and already productive at the college level. With how low we saw all the undersized move guys get drafted this year, that first part is a plus. Even in a top-heavy class, Pitts already looks head and shoulders above the others. He moves differently from your normal 6-foot-4, 240-pounder.

Offensive tackle


Penei Sewell, Oregon
Samuel Cosmi, Texas
Walker Little, Stanford
Alex Leatherwood, Alabama
Jack Carman, Clemson

As dominant as the group of tackles in 2020 was, if Penei Sewell would have been allowed to declare, there’s a 100% chance he’d have been the first tackle selected. He’s in the “best tackle prospect since Jake Long/Joe Thomas/Orlando Pace” type of conversation. Sewell was the highest-graded tackle in the country last season as a true sophomore and has the combination of size, technique and athleticism that comes around only once a decade. 

After him, Leatherwood is up next and likely would have been a first-rounder had he declared after last season. We had high hopes for Little, but a knee injury ended his 2019 season after one game.

Interior Offensive linemen

Dec 28, 2019; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Oklahoma Sooners center Creed Humphrey (56) prepares to hike the ball during the 2019 Peach Bowl college football playoff semifinal game against the LSU Tigers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Creed Humphrey, Oklahoma
Trey Smith, Tennessee
Alijah Vera-Tucker, USC
Wyatt Davis, Ohio State
Josh Myers, Ohio State

Both Humphrey and Smith could have declared last year and been reasonably high picks, but both have a good opportunity now to push their stock higher. That's especially true for Smith, who will finally have an offseason to work after blood clots in his lungs put his football career in jeopardy last offseason. If we see the continued improvement Smith showed last season when he was a top-five graded guard in college football from Week 7 on, he could end up in the first round.

Interior defensive linemen


Marvin Wilson, FSU
Christian Barmore, Alabama
Tyler Shelvin, LSU
Levi Onwuzurike, Washington
Malik Herring, Georgia
Jaylen Twyman, Pittsburgh

Wilson could have snuck into Round 1 had he declared last year, but he’s hoping for a Derrick Brown-esque rise up draft boards this fall. I don’t blame him with some of the dominant reps he flashed on tape. 

The guy I can’t wait to see more of in 2020, though, is Alabama’s Christian Barmore. He took over toward the end of 2019 and registered 15 pressures over Alabama’s final five games. He earned an 87.8 overall grade on 269 snaps last season.

Edge defenders


Greg Rousseau, Miami (FL)
Xavier Thomas, Clemson
Carlos Basham, Wake Forest
Quincy Roche, Miami (FL)
Jamar Watson, Kentucky
Jacob Panasiuk, Michigan State
Jayson Oweh, Penn State
Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan

There looks to be a lot more depth in the 2021 edge class than what we saw this past year. Rousseau will be the one generating the buzz with his freakishly long 6-foot-6, 251-pound frame, but his new teammate may be the more productive one. Temple transfer Quincy Roche is a tad undersized at 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds but earned a ridiculous 93.5 overall grade last year for the Owls.

I’m interested to see how Thomas bounces back in 2020 after a lackluster 2019 and what the Clemson defense will look like. He had the exact same number of pressures last year (26) as he did his freshman year despite rushing the passer 96 more times. 

Linebackers

Nov 9, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions linebacker Micah Parsons (11) celebrates after sacking the Minnesota Golden Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan (not pictured) in the second half at TCF Bank Stadium. Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Micah Parsons, Penn State
Dylan Moses, Alabama
Chris Rumph, Duke
Nick Bolton, Missouri
Nik Bonitto, Oklahoma

Even with Dylan Moses returning from injury, this class belongs to Micah Parsons. He is, for lack of a better word, a dude. The conversation around Isaiah Simmons and how he’d translate to the NFL game won’t apply to Parsons, as we’ve seen him dominate from a traditional linebacker alignment. His 91.5 overall grade was the highest of any linebacker in the country last year. Power, size, speed and length — Parsons looks like the total package.

The intriguing name to keep an eye on here is Duke’s Chris Rumph, who earned a 90.3 run-defense grade and a 92.9 pass-rushing grade in an edge-linebacker hybrid role last year. He’s long and agile, but we’ll see how his body develops over the course of his college career. 

Cornerbacks


Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech
Shaun Wade, Ohio State
Patrick Surtain, Alabama
Paulson Adebo, Stanford
Elijah Molden, Washington
Deommodore Lenoir, Oregon
T.J. Carter, Memphis
Eric Stokes, Georgia

I was ready to call Caleb Farley a first-round talent if he declared after his redshirt sophomore year last fall, but he’s taking his talents back to Virginia Tech. He allowed only 18 catches on 50 targets faced for 257 yards and a 26.8 passer rating against. He’s got the size (6-foot-2, 207 pounds) and speed that evaluators will love.

Ohio State’s Shaun Wade is the one to watch, though, as he was exclusively a slot corner for the Buckeyes last season. He’ll get his snaps on the outside this fall. Wade has length and athleticism to stick outside, but it’s one thing to have the tools and another to put them into action.

Safeties


Jevon Holland, Oregon
Talanoa Hufanga, USC
Trevon Moehrig, TCU
Ar’Darius Washington, TCU
Paris Ford, Pittsburgh
Eric Burrell, Wisconsin

How about that TCU duo? Moehrig and Washington ranked first and second among all safeties in overall grade last season. And they couldn’t be more different. Washington is a slight 5-foot-8, 175-pound bolt of lightning with ridiculous change-of-direction ability. Moehrig is a 6-foot-2, 208-pounder with ideal length and tremendous ball skills.

Oregon’s Jevon Holland is at the top of the class, though. He earned an elite 89.6 coverage grade as a true freshman in 2018 for the Ducks at safety before an 85.3 mark this past season manning the slot. Holland has that playmaking thing down pat already with nine picks in his first two seasons.

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