The NFL draft always gifts us with a handful of surprises at the back end of the first round. In 2018, it was the Seattle Seahawks selecting San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny 27th overall and the Pittsburgh Steelers taking Terrell Edmunds at No. 28. The 2019 NFL Draft saw Tytus Howard and L.J. Collier somehow come off the board in the first round, and Damon Arnette and Jordyn Brooks were two of the bigger surprises in 2020.
Despite the NFL draft community’s best efforts to predict what will happen on April 29, there will be surprises. This is my futile attempt at predicting the unpredictable with several prospects who could be surprise selections in Round 1.
View PFF's 2021 NFL Draft position rankings:
PFF Big Board rank: 46
This wide receiver class is deep, but many of the players expected to go in the Day 2 range fall into the slot receiver category. That could lead to a situation where a team selecting in the back end of the first round reaches on Brown, one of the later-round prospects who can play both inside and outside.
Brown ran a simplistic vertical route tree at North Carolina and was used almost exclusively as a deep threat — his average depth of target topped 17 yards in both 2019 and 2020.
That doesn’t mean he will be pigeonholed into a vertical role in the NFL. Brown’s bottom line from PFF’s lead draft analyst Mike Renner in the PFF Draft Guide reads, “I wouldn’t worry too much about Brown’s limited route tree. He showed everything needed to be a complete route-runner in the NFL.”
The physicality and suddenness are there.
Several teams are on the hunt for a viable starting wide receiver option outside late in the first round, making Brown a sneaky candidate to come off the board earlier than most expect.
DL Payton Turner, Houston
PFF Big Board rank: 57
Turner has long been considered a Day 2 edge prospect, but a few things are working in his favor when it comes to potentially rising up boards.
The first is that there seems to be very little consensus about who the best prospects are in this crowded edge defender class. Rashad Weaver is listed 10th at the position on one ranking and second on another. Prospects such as Jaelan Phillips, Kwity Paye, Azeez Ojulari, Jayson Oweh and Gregory Rousseau are all viewed as top edge defenders in the class, depending on where you look. There’s a good chance that the boards in the NFL war rooms will be similarly varied.
Listed at 6-foot-6 and 268 pounds with 35-inch arms, Turner has the length and versatility to play both outside and inside. He’s also a plus athlete with good bend, as the pro-day results below indicate.
Payton Turner is a DE prospect in the 2021 draft class. He scored a 9.68 RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 44 out of 1361 DE from 1987 to 2021.
— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) April 10, 2021
His competition level and limited snaps in 2020 (he played just over four games) will likely count against him, but Turner did take a step forward last year, earning a career-high 90.0 pass-rushing grade in the process. It’s not exactly a stretch to see a team talking themselves into a player with his skill set early.
PFF Big Board rank: 71
There isn’t a box Melifonwu doesn’t check physically. The height, weight, arm length and explosion he showcased in his pro-day jumps are ideal for the position. NFL coaching staffs and front offices love to believe that they can get the most out of elite athletes, and that gives Melifonwu a better chance than most to sneak into the first round despite some legitimate questions about his game.
Melifonwu doesn’t play with the physicality his size would suggest and allowed a career-worst 66.0% completion rate and 94.9 passer rating on throws into his coverage in 2020. Those aren’t the same kind of lockdown coverage numbers that several other cornerbacks in this class boast.
His combination of size and movement skills is rare, though. NFL teams don’t often reach for below-average athletes. They reach for the physical outliers who have high ceilings if they develop properly. Melifonwu fits that bill.
PFF Big Board rank: 28
Radunz’s 28th-place rank on PFF’s big board signals that a first-round selection wouldn’t be that much of a reach, but he is frequently being mocked in the second- to third-round range as things stand right now.
Radunz needs to add some weight and strength to his frame, but the athleticism is certainly there to hold up outside. A strong Senior Bowl where he finished the week as the highest-graded tackle in attendance only strengthened his claim to be one of the first tackles to come off the board. It was a much-needed strong showing that backed up high-level play as a pass protector across two seasons at North Dakota State. He allowed just 24 pressures across 715 pass-blocking snaps in his FCS career.
Beyond Penei Sewell and Rashawn Slater, it’s not difficult to see this tackle class being viewed differently across the league, similar to their counterparts on the edge. Radunz could be appealing to a team that believes he can continue to add strength to his frame in an NFL weight room.