College News & Analysis

2021 NFL Draft: Ranking the top five players at each position

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. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

With the deadline for early declarations passing Monday, it’s high time to start going over the top prospects by position. We’ll be diving deeper into each positional group in the coming weeks, but for now, let’s start with the top fives and break down the prospect from each that we may be higher on than most.

Quarterback

  1. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
  2. Zach Wilson, BYU
  3. Justin Fields, Ohio State
  4. Trey Lance, North Dakota State
  5. Mac Jones, Alabama

Zach Wilson at No. 2 in our quarterback rankings and on the PFF draft board might turn some heads. That’s how physically gifted he is, though, and how well he played this season. Just look at the arm talent and placement on these throws.

One might point to his competition level as a knock, but if you look at the difficulty level of some of his throws, that criticism doesn’t quite hold up as much. Wilson led all quarterbacks in the country with 64 tight-window completions. His 95.0 passing grade on such passes ranked first in college football and was even higher than Joe Burrow’s 90.5 mark from last year. That’s why he’s QB2.

Running back

  1. Travis Etienne, Clemson
  2. Javonte Williams, North Carolina
  3. Najee Harris, Alabama
  4. Michael Carter, North Carolina
  5. Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis

Javonte Williams just put together a season the likes of which we’ve not seen before. He broke a ridiculous 75 tackles on only 157 attempts. To put into perspective how insane that is, those 75 broken tackles were six more than any other back last season despite him placing only 19th in total rushing attempts. Alabama's Najee Harris had 95 more carries and still broke fewer tackles. Williams' hard running style at 220 pounds should translate nicely.

Wide Receiver

  1. Ja’Marr Chase, LSU
  2. Jaylen Waddle, Alabama
  3. DeVonta Smith, Alabama
  4. Rashod Bateman, Minnesota
  5. Kadarius Toney, Florida

Jaylen Waddle over Heisman winner DeVonta Smith may seem blasphemous right now, but go back and watch the first four games with both healthy where Waddle outgained Smith, and it doesn’t seem as crazy. Waddle has a special level of speed and quickness that can change games. He’s also going to be a weapon in the screen and return games. He broke 19 tackles after the catch on 106 career receptions at Alabama and averaged 18.1 yards per punt return.

Tight End

  1. Kyle Pitts, Florida
  2. Pat Freiermuth, Penn State
  3. Brevin Jordan, Miami (FL)
  4. Hunter Long, Boston College
  5. Tony Poljan, Virginia

We are not the biggest fans of drafting tight ends highly. They are oftentimes products of scheme. If they are incapable of beating man coverage from a safety, they can easily be taken out of games by opposing defenses. Florida's Kyle Pitts is different in that regard. Even if you just considered him a wide receiver, he’d still be one of the top prospects in the class with the ability he’s already shown to separate against corners. Get him matched up on a linebacker or a safety, and it’s game over. He averaged 4.91 yards per route when Florida saw man coverage this season. The next closest tight end was Brevin Jordan at 2.93 yards.

Offensive Tackle

  1. Penei Sewell, Oregon
  2. Rashawn Slater, Northwestern
  3. Christian Darrisaw, Virginia Tech
  4. Teven Jenkins, Oklahoma State
  5. Samuel Cosmi, Texas

Christian Darrisaw is a name you’re going to hear a lot more of in the coming months, and he could even come off the board as high as the top 10 when all is said and done. He earned the second-highest grade we’ve ever given to a Power Five tackle, posting a 95.6 overall mark. And he wasn’t exactly going up against slouches. He faced draftable edge defenders such as Carlos Basham (Wake Forest), Quincy Roche (Miami), and Victor Dimukeje (Duke) and shut them all down.

Interior Offensive Line

  1. Alijah Vera-Tucker, USC
  2. Wyatt Davis, Ohio State
  3. Landon Dickerson, Alabama
  4. Creed Humphrey, Oklahoma
  5. Ben Cleveland, Georgia

The interior offensive line class is almost as deep as the tackle class. One PFF favorite in the group is Georgia guard Ben Cleveland. He has been terrific when called upon in his career and hasn’t allowed a sack since 2017. While he played in a rotation the previous two seasons, Cleveland starred as a full-time starter in 2020. He’s a barrel-chested 335-pounder who stops bull rushes in their tracks. While not the most athletic, he has still gotten the job done in pass protection, as well.

Interior Defender

  1. Christian Barmore, Alabama
  2. Alim McNeil, N.C. State
  3. Levi Onwuzurike, Washington
  4. Marvin Wilson, Florida State
  5. Daviyon Nixon, Iowa

This isn’t the year to be in need of defensive tackle help. Outside of Barmore, there may not be another guy making too much of an impact in Year 1. One guy who could certainly develop into a difference-maker in time, though, is North Carolina State’s Alim McNeil. He’s a 320-pounder who possesses a first-step like a 280-pounder. He played a ton of pure 0-tech for the Wolfpack and continuously disrupted in the run game. McNeil’s 92.1 run-defense grade was the second-highest in the country at the position. While he’s got little in the way of pass-rushing moves, it doesn’t take much to be effective in that regard with his explosiveness.

Edge Defender

  1. Kwity Paye, Michigan
  2. Gregory Rousseau, Miami (FL)
  3. Jayson Oweh, Penn State
  4. Azeez Ojulari, Georgia
  5. Carlos Basham, Wake Forest

This edge group has some real-deal athletes, but none stand out more on tape than Michigan’s Kwity Paye. That’s because he brings the total package to the table. Quicks, bend, power, speed — you name it, Paye has it. There’s no polished product at the top of this edge class by any means, but Paye has already shown the flashes on tape that get you excited. He had 22 pressures and 11 run stops in his four games this season.

Linebacker

  1. Micah Parsons, Penn State
  2. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame
  3. Nick Bolton, Missouri
  4. Zaven Collins, Tulsa
  5. Chazz Surratt, North Carolina

If there is an NFL combine this year, every single one of these guys is going to put on a show in some regard. That is, except Missouri’s Nick Bolton. He’s not the fastest nor the longest, but he brings the heat play after play.

He’s led the SEC in stops in back-to-back seasons and sees the game at a high level already.

Cornerback

  1. Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech
  2. Patrick Surtain II, Alabama
  3. Jaycee Horn, South Carolina
  4. Asante Samuel Jr., Florida State
  5. Tyson Campbell, Georgia

Caleb Farley retains his top spot even after opting out of the 2020 season. The reason is the level of physical tools he brings to the table combined with his stellar 2019 campaign. If you were to put together a corner from a size and speed perspective, they’d look a lot like Farley. His long strides help him make up ground with ease down the field. It’s why he allowed only five catches on 27 targets on throws targeted 10-plus yards downfield in 2019.

Safety

  1. Trevon Moehrig, TCU
  2. Ar’Darius Washington, TCU
  3. Hamsah Nasirildeen, Florida State
  4. Elijah Molden, Washington
  5. Andre Cisco, Syracuse

This safety class has a bunch of different body types and physical skill sets. The one that sticks out the most is easily TCU’s Ar’Darius Washington. Being 5-foot-8, 179 pounds is normally a listing for a futbol player — not a football player. Flip on the tape, though, and you see a player constantly rising above those physical limitations. In his career at TCU, Washington allowed only 16 catches on 37 targets for 172 yards with three scores, five picks and seven pass breakups.

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