2021 NFL Draft: 4 players who could be surprising first-round selections

Pittsburgh, PA, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels wide receiver Dyami Brown (2) runs after a catch against the Pittsburgh Panthers during the third quarter at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh won 34-27 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

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:

QB | RB | WR | TE | T | iOL | DI | EDGE | LB | CB | S

WR Dyami Brown, North Carolina

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.

Related: North Carolina WR Dyami Brown needs to become more than a deep threat in the NFL via Kevin Cole

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.

Potential landing spots: Pick No. 27 (Baltimore), Pick No. 28 (New Orleans), Pick No. 29 (Green Bay)

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.

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.

Potential landing spots: Pick No. 28 (New Orleans), Pick No. 30 (Buffalo), Pick No. 32 (Tampa Bay)

PFF's 2021 NFL Draft Guide contains a full list of pros/cons, a long-form written analysis above a bar chart of stable PFF metrics and Mike Renner's “Bottom Line” and “NFL Draft Projection” for every prospect in the guide.

CB Ifeatu Melifonwu, Syracuse

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.

Potential landing spots: Pick No. 24 (Pittsburgh), Pick No. 29 (Green Bay), Pick No. 30 (Buffalo)

PFF’s 2021 NFL Draft Guide is loaded with three-page draft profiles on hundreds of NFL draft prospects in the 2021 class. The draft guide also includes three-year grades, advanced stats, player comparisons, 2021 NFL Scouting Combine data, 2021 Reese’s Senior Bowl grades and much more. Click here to get your copy today!

T Dillon Radunz, North Dakota State

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.

Potential landing spots: Pick No. 24 (Pittsburgh), Pick No. 25 (Jacksonville), Pick No. 31 (Kansas City)


More of PFF's 2021 NFL Draft tools here: 
2021 NFL Draft Big Board | 2021 NFL Draft Guide | 2021 NFL Draft Stats Export | NFL Mock Drafts | NFL Mock Draft Simulator

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