News & Analysis

Top 10 2021 NFL Draft prospects in the College Football Playoff

Dec 19, 2020; Charlotte, NC, USA; Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) on the field in the fourth quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

While there is a good chance we look back on last year’s College Football Playoff as the most talented ever when it comes to producing draft prospects, the 2021 version is no slouch itself.

Of the 10 prospects below, there’s an outside chance all 10 will hear their names called in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. You can also clearly see by this list why Alabama has been steamrolling teams all season and is the favorite to win it all. The No. 1 player here, however, is the one who can stop them and should come as no surprise.

1. QB Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

Are we surprised? All Lawrence has left to prove at the college level is legacy. With three College Football Playoffs already on his resume, will he make it three finals appearances and two national championships?

Lawrence has managed to top his 90.7 and 91.1 overall grades in 2018 and 2019, respectively, with a 92.0 mark this season. I wouldn’t bet against him at this point, as he’s playing the best football of his career.

2. QB Justin Fields, Ohio State

Let’s not overreact to a couple of ugly games from Fields this season. He’s still a special passer. Some 73.3% of his attempts this year have been deemed accurate — the highest of any quarterback in the country. This isn't a screen-heavy, dink-and-dunk Ohio State offense, either. His average depth of target has been 9.7 yards downfield this season. Fields is a franchise quarterback prospect.

3. WR Jaylen Waddle, Alabama

If Waddle had been healthy for the whole season, there’s a chance he would have been him getting Heisman hype and not DeVonta Smith. In the four games that both played before Waddle’s broken ankle, here’s how their stats stacked up.

Stat Jaylen Waddle DeVonta Smith
Targets 29 47
Receptions 25 38
Yards 557 483
TDs 4 4
Yards Per Route 4.68 3.63
Passer Rating When Targeted 158.3 129

Waddle is also an electric returner with three career return touchdowns to his name and an 18.1-yard career punt return average. While he might just get thrown in the speed receiver bucket, that’s selling his skill set short. Waddle has tremendous ball skills, as well, and hauled in all four of his contested-catch opportunities this season.

 4. CB Patrick Surtain, Alabama

Surtain's resume at this point is darn-near impossible to argue against early on in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. He’s been starting ever since he was a true freshman and has allowed only 931 yards in his career on 1,446 coverage snaps. He has prototypical NFL size at 6-foot-2, 202 pounds. Teams will love his physicality and tackling. In his career, he’s missed only 11 tackles on 129 attempts. He’ll certainly be in the conversation for the first cornerback off the board.

 5. WR DeVonta Smith, Alabama

Smith’s weight will be a heavy topic of discussion all spring. We’ve seen it in recent years with undersized receivers like Marquise Brown, whose game doesn’t translate nearly as well when the more physical corners in the NFL get their hands on him.

My official position, though, is that Smith plays so much stronger than his listed 175 pounds that I’m not too worried. His production is absurd at this point, and he’s doing it without the bevy of first-rounders around him to take away attention from opposing defenses.

6. LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame

The lone Irish representative in the top 10, Owusu-Koramoah is everything you could want from a modern linebacker. He’s undersized by pure weight standards at 215 pounds, but you’d be hard-pressed to find that being an issue on the football field.

He is extremely sudden and explosive closing on ball-carriers, forcing three fumbles this season on 51 tackles. He plays the “ROVER” position in Notre Dame’s defense, which is a hybrid of slot corner and outside linebacker. Even in such a role where he is often asked to cover wide receivers one-on-one, JOK has earned an 81.4 coverage grade on the season.

7. CB Derion Kendrick, Clemson

Kendrick started his career as a receiver for the Tigers before taking to cornerback quickly as a redshirt freshman in 2019. Now, as an established starter, Kendrick has pretty much locked down his side of the field every week.

He didn’t allow a catch until his fifth game played this year and has yielded only 105 yards in eight games this season. The College Football Playoff could be massive for his draft stock because he might actually get tested for the first time all season.

8. QB Mac Jones, Alabama

The arm strength is middling. The mobility isn’t near the guys at the top of the class. The on-field performance, however, has been borderline flawless this season. Mac Jones is burying teams left and right at a clip that top-five pick Tua Tagovailoa never quite reached. His 95.3 overall grade is the second-highest of any quarterback in the country, behind only Zach Wilson.

The defenses he’s faced aren’t quite the murderers' row that Joe Burrow saw in 2019, though. He’s got a lot of money riding on how well he plays against a quality defense in Notre Dame — and maybe Clemson or Ohio State.

 9. OT Alex Leatherwood, Alabama

Leatherwood came into the 2019 season firmly in the conversation for OT2 behind Penei Sewell. If he took as big a leap as we saw switching from right guard to left tackle in 2019, he was a shoo-in. That didn’t happen, though.

In fact, Leatherwood has regressed mightily. He’s already allowed 15 pressures after giving up only 10 all of last season. He’s still been solid, but without elite physical tools, he could slip out of the first round.

10. RB Travis Etienne, Clemson

Etienne’s acceleration is at a different level from any other running back in college football. Linebackers simply cannot stick with him one-on-one in space.

While everyone is well-versed with what the now-senior is capable of as a runner, Etienne added a receiving element to his game that was different from past years. His 524 receiving yards this season were the second-most of any back in college football.

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