The 2020 NFL Draft contained what was easily the top tackle class we’ve seen in our six years of grading college football at PFF. Now, 2021 looks like another banner year — and boy does the NFL need it. There are already four tackles we feel comfortable calling first-rounders and a handful more that could play their way into the mix when all is said and done. If you want an elite player at the position, no one else can compare to the man at the top. Penei Sewell is the best tackle prospect we’ve ever graded, and he doesn’t have to play a snap this fall to prove that.
[Editor’s Note: PFF’s advanced statistics and player grades are powered by AWS machine learning capabilities.]
1. Penei Sewell, Oregon
I’ve written before about why I believe Sewell is so special, but it bears repeating. Agility, explosiveness, power and technical proficiency — it’s all there. And the amazing thing is how he has displayed all of those skills at the highest level we’ve ever seen despite being only 19 years old last season. Sewell hasn’t allowed more than two pressures in any game over his college career. His 13 big-time blocks last year were also the most among all tackles in college football (highest graded blocks in our system).
It’s literally impossible not to notice Penei Sewell while watching Justin Herbert. We’ll be talking about him a lot for the 2021 NFL Draft. pic.twitter.com/hbB2S5m7CV
— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) October 25, 2019
His combination of consistency and dominance is truly generational.
As I said, there is nothing Sewell needs to prove in 2020. He has voiced his support for the player-proposed Pac-12 reform this fall, and if it leads to him sitting out the entire season, there should be no ill effects toward his draft stock. In all likelihood, he's the first non-quarterback drafted next spring.
2. Alex Leatherwood, Alabama
Leatherwood is the type of tackle we’re going to be higher on than most. That's because we value not losing far more than winning along the offensive line. While pancakes and highlight-reel movement is great, being able to consistently control interactions and keep your quarterback clean is more valuable. In his first season starting left tackle for the Crimson Tide, Leatherwood did just that. He allowed only nine pressures all season with only one being a hit or a sack.
Alabama OT Alex Leatherwood, one of the top 2021 OT prospects, is a fluid mover with impressive hands.
LSU's K'Lavon Chaisson beat him outside a bit, but Leatherwood still put some strong reps on tape in their bout last season.pic.twitter.com/VJxGkGrlT9
— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) June 5, 2020
That’s not to say we wouldn’t like to see him get stronger. Power still matters at the NFL level, and Leatherwood’s three big-time blocks last season paled in comparison to teammate Jedrick Wills Jr.’s 12. Combine that with the strong tackle class from a year ago, and it’s easy to see why he decided to return to Alabama for 2020.
If a tackle doesn't have elite measurables or explosive testing numbers, then proving proficient in pass protection over a large sample size is their best bet to be a high draft pick. After an up-and-down 2018 season at guard, Leatherwood was much more comfortable at tackle in 2019. If he can build upon that success in 2020, there’s no reason to believe he won’t be a mid-to-high first-rounder.
3. Walker Little, Stanford
It’s always fun to play “what if?” — especially with the NFL draft. One of my favorites from last season was, “What if Little never went down for the season after Week 1?” While the 2020 tackle class went down as arguably the freakiest athletically at the position of all-time, it was Little who had the highest SPARQ testing rating of that recruiting class coming out of high school. He’s got the build of a jumbo tight end with broad shoulders and a relatively slender frame compared to offensive tackles.
Little had also been on a tear since the second half of 2018. Over his last 269 pass-blocking snaps dating back to Week 8 of 2018, Little has allowed only one pressure with a 93.3 pass-blocking grade. If he continued that pace throughout 2019, the New York Giants could have very well been calling his name at fourth overall in the 2020 NFL Draft instead of Andrew Thomas’.
Of course, that’s still a big “what if?” His dominance down the stretch in 2018 also coincided with the fact that he didn’t have to face near the caliber of pass-rushers that he did early in the season, when Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara and Utah’s Bradlee Anae took him to task. He had multiple issues with his pass sets back then that looked alleviated in a small sample in 2019, but he was once again facing lackluster competition.
Little’s injury and past issues can all be swept under the rug with a legit wire-to-wire performance in 2020. What we saw in 2019 makes me believe that will be the case, and it’s why he sits so highly in our rankings. Still, Little needs a full season in 2020 as much as any tackle on this list.
4. Sam Cosmi, Texas
Every time I talk about Cosmi, I feel obligated to bring up the video of him scoring a touchdown this past season against West Virginia. Not because Cosmi will be switching to tight end anytime soon but rather because you realize how special his ability to move is for a 6-foot-7, 309-pound tackle.
— Hookem Football (@hornsfootball) October 5, 2019
Cosmi was yet another tackle who could have declared last year but would have been on the outside looking in at the top tier of the position. That’s not going to be the case in 2021. He was a starting right tackle in 2018 before switching to the left side in 2019, and he saw his pressures allowed drop from 25 to 14. Cosmi has also been battle-tested in a pass-heavy Texas offense. His 200 true pass sets last year ranked 17th nationally, and he allowed no sacks and one hit on them.
An obvious area where Cosmi needs to improve is with his anchor. Six of those 14 pressures last year came via the bull rush, and he got collapsed into the pocket on multiple other sets.
There’s no reason to think we won’t see another leap in performance from the Texas offensive tackle — especially with him sticking at one position for a full offseason. It's unfortunate that he likely won’t get tested by a top rusher the way he was with K’Lavon Chaisson last season. However, handling his business against Big 12 edge rushers should see him land firmly in the first round.
5. Liam Eichenberg, Notre Dame
There’s a reason Notre Dame has produced some of the best offensive linemen at their respective positions in the NFL, and it’s because they hit the league already well-versed in the fundamentals of the position. Eichenberg is no different after going from 23 pressures allowed in his first-year starting at left tackle in 2018 to only 12 pressures allowed this past season.
He’s not the biggest, fastest, strongest, etc., but he was incredibly consistent this past season and rarely puts himself in bad positions.
Speed and quicks were the main things that gave Eichenberg fits in 2019, and improving against those types of rushers will be key. He struggles to get depth in his pass sets and can be playing catch-up against speed rushers. That’s a big no-no with NFL athletes. With how much he improved from 2018 to 2019, though, there’s reason to believe he can get it done. He’ll face quite the slate of ACC edge rushers this year, with Wake Forest’s Carlos Basham Jr., Clemson’s Xavier Thomas and Duke’s Chris Rumph — all on PFF’s top-50 draft board — on Notre Dame’s schedule in 2021.
6. Rashawn Slater, Northwestern
Northwestern hasn’t had a player drafted in the first three rounds since 2005. There’s a strong chance Slater ends that skid in 2021. He earned an 89.9 overall grade last season, making him the ninth-highest graded tackle in all of college football. With three years starting between right and left tackle under his belt, the experience is there, as well. While he got protected a bit in Northwestern’s offense — especially against Chase Young — Slater still fared extremely well on true pass sets this past season with an 84.9 grade. He’s got terrific balance and lateral agility that should serve him well in pass protection.
The biggest problem area for Slater projecting to the NFL may be something entirely out of his control. Listed at only 6-foot-4, Slater lacks the ideal height and length scouts covet in the NFL. That showed up in the Iowa game last year with the ease in which A.J. Epenesa got into his pads. There’s also no reason to think he couldn’t be an excellent guard though if he kicked inside.
Slater will get tested early on in the season when athletic Penn State edge rusher Jayson Oweh lines up across from him. He misses out on the loaded edge groups from Michigan and Ohio State, which is unfortunate, as Slater already proved he could dominate a lackluster slate in 2019. The Senior Bowl looks like it will be his biggest chance to boost his stock this upcoming season.
7. Abraham Lucas, Washington State
We’ve talked about some of the other tackles on this list being experienced in pass protection, but no one gets reps in their pass sets quite like a Mike Leach tackle. Over the past two seasons, Lucas has taken 562 true pass sets. That’s 78 more than any other tackle in college football. It’s one thing to be experienced, but it's a whole other thing to be accomplished. Lucas has earned an 86.6 pass-blocking grade on those true pass sets with only 19 pressures allowed at right tackle for the Cougars.
Listed at 6-foot-7, 324 pounds, Lucas is far more of a power tackle than former Wazzu first-rounder Andre Dillard. Of those 19 pressures, only three came via bull rushes and the vast majority were against stunts. Getting depth in his pass sets comes easily to Lucas, and he looks NFL-ready in that regard.
Obviously, in playing for Mike Leach, Lucas hasn't done much in the run game. That’s not going to change under former Hawaii head coach Nick Rolovich. More reps in the passing game isn’t a bad thing, though, as that’s where the biggest transition occurs. Unfortunately, the Pac-12 is bereft of much pass-rushing talent this fall. His biggest tests will come Week 1 against Oregon State’s ultra-quick Hamilcar Rashed Jr. and the final game of the season against Washington’s Joe Tryon.
8. Daniel Faalele, Minnesota
You’re looking at the ultimate wildcard in the upcoming tackle class. Listed at 6-foot-9, 400 pounds, Faalele is an awe-inspiring mountain of a man. Maybe the most incredible thing about him is that he doesn’t seem to be carrying a ton of bad weight. Faalele was simply built to be bigger than everyone else on the field.
— Minnesota on BTN (@MinnesotaOnBTN) April 13, 2018
His story is straight out of a movie, as he grew up in Australia and didn’t play a down in a football game until 2017.
He's yet to play a down of football but Daniel Faalele already has 23 D-1 offers ???? pic.twitter.com/iM3imhcqPX
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 18, 2017
He ultimately ended up at Minnesota, where he started as a true freshman in 2018. While it was a rocky first season that saw him finish with a 60.4 overall grade, Faalele made massive strides this past season en route to a 72.3 overall grade. He doesn’t have quite the highlight reel that similarly massive human Mekhi Becton did last season, as that killer instinct doesn’t run as hot just yet. However, Faalele is a solid brick wall that was pretty much never moved backward in either the run or pass game. With how rare his skill set is and how little he’s played the position, there’s no telling where Faalele could end up in a year or two.
Your guess is as good as mine for where Faalele takes his game in 2020. One of the biggest areas we’d like to see Faalele improve this season is in playing with leverage more consistently. At his size, the rising junior has difficulty sinking his hips into blocks and getting into defenders' pads. If he unlocks that part of his game, look out.