2021 NFL draft: 15 prospects to watch in Alabama-Ohio State national title game

When the 2020 season began, no two colleges produced more of the NFL’s players than Alabama and Ohio State. And when the 2020 college football season wraps up Monday night, those two schools will lock horns in a national championship game that — no shock — features a trove of future NFL talents.

Since 2000, Alabama has landed an NFL-high 35 first-round picks. Ohio State is No. 2 on that list, just behind them with 34. Miami is the only other school with more than 24 first-rounders, producing 30 during that span.

It’s fair to say that these schools have a proven pedigree of draft talent, and this year is little different. They could help produce multiple first-round picks this year, including a few top-10 possibilities, and plenty beyond.

So while you’re watching Monday night’s national title game, feel free to use this as a 2021 NFL draft primer. After all, there’s a decent chance your favorite team will have a lot of eyes on this game as well.

(Note: Alabama center Landon Dickerson would have made this list before his season-ending injury. He’s still a candidate to be a top-50 pick.)

Ohio State QB Justin Fields can help his stock against Alabama in the CFP title game. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Ohio State QB Justin Fields can help his stock against Alabama in the CFP title game. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Ohio State QB Justin Fields

After the Northwestern game, some doubt crept in about his decision-making and poise under pressure. Following Fields’ masterpiece against Clemson in the semifinals, his buzz is soaring again.

Fields has one more shot Monday night against a terrific Alabama defense to state his case for being QB2 over BYU’s Zach Wilson and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, even if Fields is still a little beat up from the Clemson game. Some might suggest that Fields has a shot to be the first pick if Urban Meyer takes the Jacksonville Jaguars job.

We’ll see about that. But there’s no doubt Fields is the prospect who’ll have the most curious eyes on him in the championship game, and he could be the one man on the field (along with running back Trey Sermon) who could lift the Buckeyes to a national title upset.

Alabama WR DeVonta Smith

We had Smith as a top-40 prospect a year ago. He shocked many when he returned to school. It was a pretty good choice, it turned out. Smith turned into the premier playmaker in the country and won the Heisman Trophy.

There might be questions about his size (he was measured at 6-foot, 170 pounds this spring) and speed (believed to be a 4.5 runner), but that’s about where the concerns end. Smith squeezes every drop out of his natural ability and carries shades of Calvin Ridley, Isaac Bruce and Marvin Harrison in his style of play.

He could be the first receiver taken, although LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase certainly could snag that honor.

Alabama CB Patrick Surtain II

The 6-foot 2, 202-pound Surtain has a low interception total (four in 29 career games) but also 23 career passes defended and has had a good season in coverage, is an excellent tackler and is physically ready for the NFL.

Florida wideout Trevon Grimes beat Surtain for a touchdown in the SEC title game, and it will be fascinating to see how Surtain handles OSU’s Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave. A strong performance could help Surtain add another feather in his cap and earn CB1 honors over Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley.

Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle

Will Nick Saban convince Waddle to take the DeVonta Smith plan and return to school in 2021? If so, it might be the best trick the devil ever pulled. Like Smith, Waddle has a chance to be a first-round pick if he comes out early, even with a broken ankle derailing his season in the fourth game of the year.

Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle could play in the national title game, but it's not a mortal lock he enters the 2021 NFL draft. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle could play in the national title game, but it's not a mortal lock he enters the 2021 NFL draft. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

The 5-10, 182-pound Waddle has a chance to play in this game, and it’s going to be interesting to see where he is at physically. He might be on some kind of pitch count Monday night. Before getting hurt, Waddle caught 25 passes (on 29 targets) for 557 yards and four TDs, averaging more yards per route run than even Smith.

Alabama QB Mac Jones

The other quarterback in this game has improved his NFL draft stock immensely this season, displaying great poise, smart and toughness, as well as downfield accuracy that ranks among the country’s best rates, even as Jones lacks a strong arm.

The 6-2, 215-pound Jones will be an interesting test case because he’s not the most physically blessed QB prospect in this class full of dual-threat players. Jones will appeal to rhythm-passing teams that possess high-end skill-position talent.

Is he a first-round pick? That’s debatable.

Alabama DT Christian Barmore

Barmore is another player whom Saban could convince to return to school. The 6-5, 310-pounder is only a redshirt sophomore, and his ranking is mostly based on upside.

Barmore has been hot down the stretch. Watch the Notre Dame tape; against one of the best offensive lines in the country, Barmore made plays.

He has a fascinating decision coming up. In what looks like a very disappointing DT crop, he could be one of the first taken at the position.

Alabama RB Najee Harris

Harris is another example of Saban convincing a player to return to school and to have it pay off for both the player and the team. He could be the top-ranked back on several NFL teams’ boards this spring, displaying a tremendous blend of power, tackle-breaking ability and vastly improved performance in the passing game.

For teams seeking to add a big back with smaller-back abilities, similar to what the Tennessee Titans run with Derrick Henry, Harris will be a very appealing option, likely somewhere in the top 40 or so selections.

Ohio State WR Chris Olave

Olave is not especially big, nor does he possess elite speed or quickness. But he’s an extremely savvy glider and route runner who can cut on a dime and reliably haul in catches outside his frame. It’s clear how much he meant to Fields after missing the Northwestern game and returning against Clemson to haul in six passes for 132 yards and two scores.

Ohio State WR Chris Olave has been a terrific target for the Buckeyes the past few years. (Photo by Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Ohio State WR Chris Olave has been a terrific target for the Buckeyes the past few years. (Photo by Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Olave is an ideal second wideout at the next level, and perhaps a low-end WR1. He won’t challenge Smith, Chase or Waddle for the first wideout taken if he comes out. But after earning second- and third-round grades over the summer, he has shown enough to vie for sneaking into Round 1, especially if he shows out in this game.

Ohio State OG Wyatt Davis

Davis has been a disappointment this season to some observers following a breakout sophomore campaign in 2019. But the 6-4, 315-pound guard remains well-respected and could end up landing somewhere in the top 50 overall selections if he enters this year’s draft, tests well and puts his best foot forward against a strong Bama front.

Alabama OT-OG Alex Leatherwood

Leatherwood has manned left tackle the past two seasons for the Crimson Tide and has acquitted himself very well there. That said, some scouts believe he’ll end up inside in the NFL, having played guard in 2018 and perhaps lacking great outside-hand strength to handle elite rushers.

The 6-5, 313-pound Leatherwood also is a bit penalty-prone. But his fluid athleticism, nice feet and nearly 34-inch arms have served him mostly well. We don’t view him as a first-rounder, but a top-50 pick is not out of the question.

Alabama LB Dylan Moses

It has been a strange season for Moses in returning from a torn ACL. After showing great finishing ability in the opener against Missouri, Moses has been bitten in coverage multiple times (see the Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Notre Dame games), hasn’t been as effective a blitzer as he was as a sophomore and appears to be hesitant in his reads at times.

Alabama LB Dylan Moses hasn't quite returned to form after his ACL injury in 2019. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Alabama LB Dylan Moses hasn't quite returned to form after his ACL injury in 2019. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

He’s tough and talented, but Moses’ draft stock feels volatile now. Expect the Buckeyes to test him in space. Scouts want to see the 6-2, 236-pound Moses take over games, and there would be no better stage to do that than in this one.

Ohio State C Josh Myers

Myers is even better regarded by some than his teammate Davis, and yet there’s no guarantee which one will be taken first in the draft. The 6-5, 312-pound Myers has good size, interior versatility, and the ability to deliver kill shots. He also can get jittery and whiff on some plays. The snap-to-snap consistency is a question, even if Myers carries NFL starter potential.

This game could help determine if Myers returns to school, but he’s a redshirt junior who is qualified to play in the Senior Bowl.

Myers has said he’ll announce his plans Tuesday.

Ohio State RB Trey Sermon

There perhaps isn’t a hotter player in America in the past month or so, as Sermon has summoned some Ezekiel Elliott-like production in recent games. In his past three contests, the 5-11, 216-pounder has run for 636 yards and four TDs on 70 carries, and against Clemson added four catches for 61 yards.

His outstanding contact balance has been his calling card, and Sermon has re-entered the mix as one of the top five RB prospects in this class. He might not be taken higher than Bama’s Harris or Clemson’s Travis Etienne, but Sermon could compete with the North Carolina duo of Michael Carter and Javonte Williams for RB3 honors.

If Sermon stacks up another big performance Monday, his stock could soar even more.

Ohio State DT Haskell Garrett

After suffering a frightening gunshot wound to the face in August, Garrett has had a phenomenal season for the Buckeyes, forming a great interior pair with Tommy Togiai. Garrett is an underclassman and could return to school, but the weakness of this DT class complicates that decision.

With his quick, strong hands and nice leverage inside, Garrett projects as a rotational piece early in his career with starter potential. Set the odds at around 50-50 as to whether he declares.

Just missing the cut

Ohio State LB Baron Browning

Alabama OG Deonte Brown

Ohio State DT Tommy Togiai

Alabama DL Phidarian Mathis

Ohio State LB Pete Werner

Alabama LB Christopher Allen

Ohio State CB-S Shaun Wade

Alabama DT LaBryan Ray

Ohio State TE Jeremy Ruckert

Alabama CB Josh Jobe

Ohio State EDGE Tyreke Smith

Ohio State CB Sevyn Banks

Alabama S Daniel Wright

Ohio State EDGE Jonathon Cooper

Alabama RB Brian Robinson Jr.

Ohio State TE Luke Farrell

Ohio State P Drue Chrisman

Alabama TE Miller Forristall

Ohio State OT Thayer Munford

Alabama OT-OG Chris Owens

Ohio State LB Tuf Borland

Alabama OG-OT Kendall Randolph

Ohio State LB Justin Hilliard

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