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  • Iestyn Withers

NFL Draft 2021: Offence Top 5s + Sleepers

Updated: Aug 5, 2022

With the Superbowl done and dusted - and the college pro days up and running – now is the opportune time to deep deeper into the top talents in this year’s draft class, as well as some of the young prospects flying under the radar. Many upcoming draftees for each position are consensus top-tier talents, however the subjectivity of player analysis allows for different opinions when it comes to ranking prospects against their direct counterparts. Furthermore, the modern play style in the NFL lends itself to different traits and types within position groups, whilst recency bias becomes a punditry factor given the number of college players that opted-out of the 2020 season due to Covid-19 concerns. Ranking offensive players into top 5s within their positions, we will also pick out a few “sleepers” that may now be first-rounders but who can still make a tangible difference when they step foot in the NFL. Quarterbacks: 1. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson 2. Zach Wilson, BYU 3. Justin Fields, Ohio State 4. Trey Lance, NDSU 5. Mac Jones, Alabama This year’s quarterback group has already been heralded as an elite draft class, and given the possibility of 4 players going in the top 10 picks, it is hard to argue that. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence remains the consensus first draft pick and really it is as simple as that. Lawrence is the best player in this year’s draft, regardless of position. The Jaguars will select the Clemson man and have their franchise QB for years to come. Where this position group gets interesting, is at number 2. Whilst this ranking sees Zach Wilson take the spot above Justin Fields, there are arguments for both to be the second best quarterback in the draft. Ultimately, this ranking will be dependent on the style of offence the drafting team wish to play. Wilson has great pocket presence and get hit throws in tight, contested windows, whist Fields is the more mobile of the two and brings a running facet to his game. Then again, some pundits will also have Trey Lance within this mix as well. Lance is an intriguing prospect due to his draftable ‘tools’. In simpler terms, Lance has everything needed to be an elite NFL quarterback, he is just very raw and not there yet. That said, if a team wants to draft Lance ahead of Fields and/or Wilson and allow Lance to sit on the bench and learn for a year or two, the North Dakota State man could easily become the second best QB in this draft – in retrospect. With an effortless cannon of an arm, the best QB running game in the draft class, and a history of very few turnover worth plays, Lance has an almost limitless potential. Contrastingly to Lance, you know exactly what you get with the number 5 man under centre, Mac Jones. Coming off a National Championship winning season – in which he had a plethora of supporting assets – Jones is far from the most athletic, mobile or explosive quarterback. However, Jones is consistent with where he puts the football, he reads the defence well and he brings a winning mentality to wherever he is drafted. Realistically, Jones is a distant fifth to the 4 QBs ahead of him, but he still brings a skillset that should remain as consistent as it did at Alabama.

Sleeper: Davis Mills, Stanford

Declaring very early for the 2021 NFL Draft, Mills is not someone who will be high on analysts’ radars until closer to draft day. However, having shown presence and potential after taking over from KJ Costello in 2019, the Stanford signal-caller definitely passes the ‘eye test’. A tall and well-built QB, Mills also possesses a lot of the baseline traits required to play quarterback at the next level. Additionally, Mills boasts an easy delivery and release of the football, as well as consistently being one of the quickest QBs this year when it came to getting the football out of his hand.

The fact that Mills declared early should not be ignored as well. Evidently, teams have shown interest in the Stanford man, and he is under the impression that the NFL wants him. An interesting prospect that is definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Running Backs

1. Travis Etienne, Clemson

2. Najee Harris, Alabama 3. Michael Carter Jr., North Carolina

4. Javonte Williams, North Carolina

5. Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis

Despite being a fan-favourite position due to social media worth plays and on-field explosivity, running backs have continued to decrease in position value over the past few NFL seasons. We have become increasingly unlikely to see early first-round running back selections in the draft, and instead teams are looking at late round selections and undrafted free agents (UDFAs). That said, there remains a decent level of running back talent in the 2021 NFL Draft, with a few names in particular that may well test the ‘positional value’ waters come day one of the draft.

The battle for RB1 seems a two-way contest between Clemson’s Travis Etienne and Alabama’s Najee Harris. The former impressed during the 2019 season whilst the latter shone in Alabama’s Championship winning side this past season. Whilst pundit and analyst opinion differs on the who is the number one, this list sees Etienne pip Harris. The Clemson Tiger would have been a clear RB1 had he declared last year, with his 1,614 yards and 19 touchdowns - and a downright absurd 7.8 yards-per-carry average – needing to be taken into account this time around.

Etienne’s drop in performance during the 2020 season occurred directly alongside a stellar season for Najee Harris and the Crimson Tide, with the Alabama man proving extremely effective in both running and passing game – as well as being fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. In reality, the choice for RB1 is likely down to personal preference; Harris and Etienne can both be immediately impactful when they get to the league.

The North Carolina tandem come to the forefront next, with the duo likely to also be highly coveted come day two of the draft. Michael Carter Jr. and Javonte Williams were both named first team All-Americans by Pro Football Focus, and the Tar Heel pair ranked outstandingly for percentage of 10+ yard gains on carries – Williams at 26.8% and Carter at 26.1%. It is easy to see where these numbers come from, as well as the impact the two players can have once they go pro. At the collegiate level this year, Javonte Williams broke more tackles per attempt than any running back in College Football in the last six years, whilst Michael Carter Jr. average 8 yards a carry. After showing they could share the load in North Carolina, both are ready to standout on their own in the NFL.

Rounding off the top five is Memphis’ Kenneth Gainwell. For anyone who has watched college football during the past season, it is easy to see why. Gainwell is definitely the best receiving back in the 2021 NFL Draft, a much-coveted talent in the modern pass-happy, offence-first league. Memphis featured Gainwell as both a runner and receiver, but it is his pass-catching skills that will be a big part of his role in the NFL. Having been involved in the screen game and from the slot at Memphis, Gainwell has shown good route-running skills, reliable hands, and creativity in space. Though their will be need to be a notable transition to be a dual threat running back in the NFL, Gainwell’s unique receiving skillset will allow coaches to get him involved immediately.

Sleeper: Caleb Huntley, Ball State

Running back is a position that has seen a lot of small-school players find success in the league, and Caleb Huntley may well be the next man to follow this trend. At 5’11 and 230 pounds, Huntley is a powerful, bulldozing runner with two 1000-yard seasons at the collegiate level. Possessing a keen eye for diagnosing defences and locating a gap to break through, the Ball State man’s determined running style will definitely interest NFL coaches. There are question marks about his ability to contribute in the passing game however, with Huntley never catching more than seven passes in a single season at Ball State. That said, is this something Huntley can do but has never been asked to do? There will definitely be a few Head Coaches and General Managers that think it is worth finding out.

However, it is important to note that coaches will be excited about what they know Huntley can do. Nimble for a back of his size and weight, but with power and turbo to boot, Huntley can be an immediately impactful piece for the right team. Additionally, Huntley can likely contribute on special teams given his speed and power, giving him an extra boost when it comes to draft day.

Wide Receiver

1. Ja’Marr Chase, LSU

2. Jaylen Waddle, Alabama

3. DeVonta Smith, Alabama

4. Rashod Bateman, Minnesota

5. Rondale Moore, Purdue

Another stacked wide receiver class enters the NFL Draft this year, with numerous National Championship winners fighting for that WR1 spot. Heisman Trophy winning wideout DeVonta Smith is a firm fan favourite following a spectacular season for the Alabama Crimson Tide, his teammate Jaylen Waddle had an injury ravaged year but remains a huge talent, whilst LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase is fighting for space in people’s minds after opting out this past season. Honestly, all three are legitimate stars that can contribute immediately at the pro level, but with different skillsets and physical traits teams will have different orders on their draft boards.

Ja’Marr Chase was just 19 years old when standing out as Joe Burrow’s go to receiver in the 2019 season, with elite length and a physicality that belied his age. Chase’s route-running technique, hands, ball skills, post-catch ability, and blocking shined bright in a historic season for LSU, however with no recency bias to go off following his decision to opt-out, many are questioning his place as WR1. Chase could have been in the conversation for WR1 last season had he been eligible to be drafted, and in the best case scenario for him, Chase would find himself catching balls for Joe Burrow again next year in Cincinnati.

The Alabama duo are particularly interesting given similarities within their play styles – both are elusive and capitalise with yards after the catch when given space – however it is tough not to compare Smith’s standout season directly with Waddle’s injury-hit 2020. When doing so, Smith appears a consensus better pick, however Waddle’s previous collegiate productivity must be acknowledged. When doing this, the pair are more comparable. Waddle is the quicker of the two, as well as appearing physically more ‘ready’ for the NFL, however the elusive playstyle of Smith could be hugely beneficial in the right offence, as well as his stellar route running ability. The big-market teams such as the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles will likely see huge value in both men.

Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman comes in at number four and at a clear distance from both the top three and Rondale Moore at number five; Bateman is on an isle of his own. That said, there is one category where Bateman could well be WR1: route running. Polished and finely tuned, Bateman is pegged by The Draft Network as having “multiple-Pro Bowl potential” and is ideally suited to a star/featured receiver role in the NFL.Bateman also excels at the catchpoint, showing physicality and speed on the boundary that should directly translate to the NFL. The Minnesota Gopher could be selected anywhere from pick 15 onwards, and would be an immediate improvement for the majority of NFL franchises.

Finishing off the top five, Purdue’s Rondale Moore is an interesting prospect. A swiss-army-knife style receiver whose powerful frame offsets his limitation at 5’9. A true wildcard in terms of potential, with the ball in his hands Moore is an electric talent with the ability to make impactful plays in a variety of ways. However, Moore has suffered durability issues throughout his collegiate career and these may well raise red flags in the draft process for many teams. Compared by The Draft Network to Colorado’s Laviska Shenault during last year’s process, Moore’s talent rings true but his injury history is concerning. That said, Moore still has the potential to be late first-round pick for any team that becomes besotted with his playmaking ability and potential.

Sleeper: Austin Watkins Jr., UAB

Everyone has those ‘cliff’ players. Those players that you will continue to back and highlight, dying on that cliff even when no-one else is talking about them. This is where Austin Watkins Jr. comes in for this writer. The wide array of talent at the receiver position in the 2021 NFL Draft undoubtedly means some players go without little attention or notice. UAB’s Watkins fits into that group.

In 2019, Watkins played in all 14 games for UAB amassing 1,092 receiving yards, averaging 19.2 yards per catch. He became just the third receiver in UAB history to surpass the 1,000-yard mark and as such received some attention heading into the 2020 season. This attention has died off following a less successful year, but the cousin of Chiefs’ wideout Sammy Watkins has the potential to make an impact in the NFL. Austin has the size, athleticism and aggressiveness to succeed in the right system, as well as showing that he can do it consistently without stellar quarterback play. Watkins could be drafted anywhere from the start of round 3 to the end of round 7 - but expect a team to pick him up and be happy that they did. Tight End 1. Kyle Pitts, Florida 2. Pat Freiermuth, Penn State 3. Brevin Jordan, Miami 4. Hunter Long, Boston College 5. Quintin Morris, Bowling Green Often a position that is tougher to predict when it comes to transitioning from college to professional football, this year’s tight-end class is similarly lacking as it was for the 2020 NFL Draft. That doesn’t mean there is no talent, however teams must remain vigilant with their draft boards and scouting processes to ensure they are not reaching to fill supposed roster needs. All of this is redundant when discussing TE1 in this year’s class though. Kyle Pitts is a bluechip prospect that may well be the best receiver in the 2021 NFL Draft, period. As previously stated in our Kyle Pitts focused article, Kyle Pitts spent the 2020 season as an NFL talent in a college uniform. A 1st Team All-American, Pitts broke new ground by finishing in the top 10 of Heisman Trophy voting. But the 6”6, near-250 pound Philadelphia native has not come close to his ceiling yet. Finishing the 2020 season as the third best receiver in college when it came to touchdowns, Pro Football Focus rated Pitts its best college Tight End of the past 6 years – and that is without evaluating prior to 2014. Pitts should be a top-10 draft pick this year, despite the supposed position value at the Tight End position. Once Pitts comes off the board, Pat Freiermuth and Brevin Jordan are likely day 2 selections. Both have the potential to be impactful players in the NFL, however neither are likely to be TE1 during their rookie seasons. Offering different skillsets, Jordan brings more athleticism and explosivity whilst Freiermuth appears set to be more effective in the run game. Where they come off the board will likely depend on where teams have them on the respective draft boards. Closing out this writer’s top five, Boston College’s Hunter Long and Bowling Green’s Quintin Morris are lower-floor prospects that also possess valuable upside. The former showed an excellent ability in contested catch situations this past season, whilst Morris has an extensive background as a wideout and thus brings excellent skills to the pass catching game. The small-school man has very good acceleration off the snap and does a good job of stretching the field vertically, whilst his limited experience at the position allows for much more progression under NFL coach tutelage. Comparatively, Long excelled in the passing game this past season with the most tight-end receptions in the nation, as well as being a more season blocker. Both prospects are likely to be day 3 picks, however teams may draft them earlier if their analysis sees particularly high upside.

Sleeper: Tommy Tremble, Notre Dame Given the big drop-off from TE1 to TE2, TE3 and TE4 to the remaining tight ends, there are numerous prospects to choose from when discussing potential sleepers at the position. Despite finding a place in the top 5, Quintin Morris is likely a sleeper on many draft boards, however this writer wants to focus on Notre Dame’s Tommy Tremble. When discussing the potential impact Tremble can make in the NFL, the story is a little different to that of other tight end prospects. Rather than harking on about elite athleticism, length at the catchpoint or stellar route running ability, Tremble’s primary strength is his vicious and downright nasty blocking. According to Pro Football Focus, his 83.7 run-blocking grade this season was the highest of any tight end in the country, and the physicality he brings to the gridiron is likely going to entice a fair few GMs. With a less than refined route running ability – as well as the fact that he wasn’t the top tight end at Notre Dame – Tremble will be a mid-draft pick at best. That said, whether in a tight end or fullback role, the toughness of the Fighting Irish man will be a useful asset to whatever place he calls home.

Offensive Tackle 1. Penei Sewell, Oregon 2. Rashawn Slater, Northwestern 3. Christian Darrisaw, Virginia Tech 4. Samuel Cosmi, Texas 5. Liam Eichenberg, Notre Dame In the pass-happy modern league, offensive tackles are – in the words of the now infamous Mastercard adverts – priceless. Well, it’ll come as a relief to pass-protection needy teams that this draft class is stacked. With a consensus two standouts in the class, Penei Sewell and Rashawn Slater are high-class talents that are ready to start (and make an impact) in the league immediately as rookies. That said, Sewell is younger than his Northwestern opponent and brings a more elite arm length and agility to the position. Arguably the best player in the draft, Sewell opted out of this past season but his film as a 19-year-old is something to behold. However, Slater is – debatably – a more polished prospect, and who gets drafted first may well depend on the ‘eye of the beholder’. Outside of the top two, Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw bring a powerful nastiness to the left tackle position. Almost lazy in the way he was able to easily dominate opponents at the collegiate level, Darrisaw will need to show some technical growth as a pro in order to validate coming off the board in the top-15 of the 2021 NFL Draft. However, the Hokies star brings all the physical traits GMs cherish and that should be enough for a team to fall in love with him this year. Once the top 3 prospects are off the board, there are numerous talented youngsters making up the next group. Whether Samuel Cosmi of Texas, Notre Dame’s Liam Eichenberg, Stanford’s Walker Little, ex NDSU Bison Dillon Radunz, or Teven Jenkins of Oklahoma State, there will be plenty of ‘upside’ to choose from. Similar to the decision between Slater and Sewell at the top of the draft, each team will likely have a different ranking for these latter day-one prospects, with the decision depending on personal preference and analysis. Regardless, with a class this deep, it would be no surprise to see offensive tackle the most selected position in round one.

Sleeper: Jackson Carman, Clemson After serving as Trevor Lawrence’s pass protector at the collegiate level, Jackson Carman looks to step into the NFL and have a similar impact. Narrowly beating out Cincinnati’s James Hudson for the sleeper spot, Carman is a powerful and athletic offensive lineman who has age on his side at just 21 years old. Many teams will see Carman as a project tackle in the 2021 NFL Draft, and believe that he will continue to improve and grow into a starting calibre lineman. Pundits and analysts have differed on whether Carman plays tackle or guard at the next level, however the Clemson man spoke to the 2 for 1 Drafts Podcast and said that teams are exclusively interested in him as a tackle prospect rather than shifting him inside. With notable power, Carman moves well for his size and features strong hand technique blended with a strong feel for his role. Carman drops down in the draft due to his previous struggles against speed pass rushers, however he has the ability to be a long- O-line piece for many suitors. Interior Offensive Lineman 1. Alijah Vera-Tucker, USC 2. Wyatt Davis, Ohio State 3. Creed Humphrey, Oklahoma 4. Landon Dickerson, Alabama 5. Aaron Banks, Notre Dame Combining the guards and centres for this final ranking only further displays the depth in this year’s offensive line class. No matter what teams are looking for on the interior of their O-line, this draft has it. Vera-Tucker out of USC is almost the consensus number one guard at this point – despite experience at tackle – bringing elite balance and control to pass protection, the Trojan is as competitive as they come against a powerful rush. A prospect that will bring immediate stability to an offensive line in need, AVT is seemingly a ‘can’t miss’ talent. Despite dropping on draft boards over the course of the season, Wyatt Davis slides in at the number two spot here. Expected to come in as a starting right-guard from the outset, the former Buckeye mixes lateral agility and mobility with a strong base of functional power. Davis is unlikely to be a player that continues to bust through glass ceilings, however he has the traits and skillset to have a long, tenured NFL career as a cemented and deep rooted piece on a franchise’s O-line. After two consecutive guards, we have two centres coming off the board next. Oklahoma’s Creed Humphrey and the Crimson Tide’s Landon Dickerson are two interesting prospects, with the latter perhaps a riskier draft pick due to health concerns. Humphrey is coming off 36 straight starts at Oklahoma and negates his average athleticism with his high football IQ and awareness of how to get the most out of his physical shape. On the other hand, Landon Dickerson brings nasty power and strength to the centre position. Almost immovable at times, Dickerson would likely be higher on draft boards if not for his history of ankle and ligament injuries, but still seems destined to be a second-round pick in this year’s class. Notre Dame’s Aaron Banks props up the top-five here, though Quinn Meinerz and Trey Smith are not far behind. As with the tackle class, the depth of talent in this year’s interior offensive line group means there will be differences of opinion and many suitors. It would be no surprise to see Superbowl contenders – such as the Packers, Bills, Chiefs and Buccaneers – snapping up some sure-fire pass protection upgrades come draft day.

Sleeper: Sadarius Hutcherson, South Carolina The D-III standout Quinn Meinerz would have been the surefire pick for a sleeper here, but after a stellar, internet breaking performance at the Senior Bowl he is waaaaaaaaaay out of sleeper contention. This allows South Carolina’s Sadarius Hutcherson to sweep in and get his NFL credentials talked up. A redshirt senior, Hutcherson played at tackle a lot at the collegiate level – as well as both left and right guard. That said, he likely switches to guard in the NFL to mask his limitations. Hutcherson is a powerful blocker that displays a tough mentality, and comes off 4 years as a starter in the SEC. A decent athlete that does well to connect with moving targets in space and pull, Hutcherson shows up particularly well in the run game. Despite timing issues, as well as issues with hand placement, Hutcherson has a plethora of traits that should translate well into a starter role in the NFL. Whilst Hutcherson may not be an immediate starter, franchises will like the potential the South Carolina man shows and understand that he has starter upside. If Hutcherson can work on the areas he struggled with in college whilst continuing to show good blocking and movement skills on the interior, he can make an impact for the right team.

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