Early top 25 prospects for the 2021 NFL draft: Trevor Lawrence tops the list, but other QBs lurk

Yahoo Sports

The 2020 NFL draft might still be fresh in our minds, but the path to the 2021 draft already has begun. And that’s no joke.

The strange circumstances of the coronavirus-altered 2020 draft allowed teams to get an early jump on next year, all while many people wondered if there was going to be a crush just to meet this year’s draft deadlines.

“Everything went great,” one scout told Yahoo Sports post-draft this weekend. “In fact, I have a jump on the next class. I’ve had more prep time than usual. I bet most people have a better jump on the next class than normal this time of year.”

The early grades for the 2021 class might not be due to teams until early June, but the groundwork has begun on a fascinating crop. It has the potential to have two (or three?) franchise quarterback prospects and a wide receiver class that could give the impressive 2020 class a run for its money.

We compiled an early top 25 prospects, plus several more below that for next year’s draft. Bookmark this list so we can see 10 months from now who we missed and who we got right.

It’s roughly 367 days before we can say, “Hello, Cleveland!” for the first round of the 2021 draft. But we are counting down the days. And we must be ready.

1. Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence

Lawrence’s 2018 season was better than his 2019 for the most part, and he took a beating during the two playoff games. Some evaluators quietly smiled from afar when he did. Lawrence hadn’t really been tested and it showed the NFL that the surfer-looking dude has a fierce toughness beneath.

This will be as anticipated a top prospect as we’ve seen since Andrew Luck came back to Stanford for his final season. Lawrence is the clear-cut favorite to go first overall in 2021. We’re sick of “tank” as a draft term, so how about “Languish for Lawrence?” Sadly, we doubt that sticks.

2. Oregon OT Penei Sewell

Being the draft sicko I am, I couldn’t resist a Sewell question to Ducks head coach Mario Cristobal when he joined us live for Yahoo Sports’ draft show last Thursday. 

Cristobal said Sewell was “345 pounds, and really, he could play comfortably at 375 if he wanted to.”

Whoa. Three. Seventy. Five.

Take that, Mekhi Becton! Cristobal, a man who knows OL talent as well as anyone, added that Sewell has “the most explosive power that I have ever seen as an offensive line coach or a head coach,” saying he’s “nothing I’ve ever seen before.” 

We’ve been fired up to crank up the tape on Sewell. That might even begin today. If that makes us a degenerate, it’s a stigma we’ll live with. 

Here’s the full video of Cristobal’s answer:

3. LSU WR Ja’Marr Chase

Time after time when watching 2020 DB prospects who went against Chase, he won. After a while it was easy to see that knocking a kid for getting beat by Chase — we’re looking at you, A.J. Terrell — was pointless. That’s how good Chase is. Losing Joe Burrow might hurt his production, but Chase might actually become a better receiver. He’ll be forced to be even more precise for the Tigers’ next quarterback, who likely won’t have Burrow’s touch and ball placement. We can’t imagine what that will look like. Chase was the best receiver in college football last season, even better than Jerry Jeudy in 2018.

4. Ohio State QB Justin Fields

He had only three INTs in a brilliant 2019 season for the Buckeyes, two of them coming in the CFP semifinal loss to Clemson. That will provide serious motivation for the dazzling thrower (41 TDs) and runner (688 yards, 10 TDs), making him a top prospect. Fields averaged 29.5 pass attempts per game last season before the Clemson contest. Expect him to be cut loose more, throwing to the likes of Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and others at wideout, plus some solid tight ends.

5. Florida State DT Marvin Wilson

Wilson’s return to school was stunning, especially after an injury marred his terrific season. Thought he might take the money and run, and our gut was that he was trending toward a first-round selection — early second at the worst. Going back for one more year could vault him into the top-10 range if he dominates again.

6. Penn State LB Micah Parsons

Off-ball linebackers have seen their NFL value diminish in some respects. Parsons should be the exception. He’s phenomenally gifted, displaying rare instincts for the position as a young player. Parsons also is a terrific athlete, is an outstanding blitzer and has the chops for coverage. Not quite the same caliber of athlete as an Isaiah Simmons, but Parsons looks like he came out of the womb meant to be a linebacker.

7. Miami EDGE Gregory Rousseau

This dude is something else. Rousseau put up 19.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks in only 529 defensive snaps last season and is 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds, with room to add mass. It wouldn’t be a shock if he approached the Chase Young spectrum. Let’s see Rousseau do it again, but the early returns are fascinating.

8. Alabama CB Patrick Surtain II

Surtain, the son of the former Pro Bowl corner for the Miami Dolphins, is a better prospect than Dallas Cowboys 2020 second-rounder Trevon Diggs. He’s the second-best CB prospect in college football right now. (First would be LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr., who isn’t draft eligible until 2022.) With strong bloodlines, great size and a strong feel for coverage, Surtain could be a top-10 pick in 2021.

Ohio State DB Shaun Wade returned to school and could be one of the first DBs off the board in the 2021 draft. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Ohio State DB Shaun Wade returned to school and could be one of the first DBs off the board in the 2021 draft. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

9. Ohio State DB Shaun Wade

Conversations with folks in Columbus led us to believe Wade might have been a more appreciated prospect than 2020 pick Damon Arnette, who was a surprise selection at No. 19 overall this year. If that’s the case, Wade has a shot at going in the top 15 next year. He has played outside corner, nickel and safety and has the hitting and coverage ability to be a do-it-all star.

10. Clemson WR Justyn Ross

Ross was more prolific as a freshman in 2018, but he did not have a down season last year. The talent is undeniable, and he has a chance to be special catching passes from Lawrence for another year. The size and ball skills are rare traits, and he could be a better prospect than Tee Higgins.

11. Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle

Waddle’s lack of elite size (5-10, 181) will be discussed, but he’s now in a position to be showcased in the Crimson Tide offense — alongside DeVonta Smith — with 2020 first-rounders Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy gone. Waddle caught 33 passes (on only 40 targets) for 560 yards and six TDs, and easily could double that production next season. He’s an absolute blur, and it helps make him a beast as a returner, too.

12. Alabama LB Dylan Moses

A torn ACL wiped out his 2019 season. Moses was a do-it-all defender in his breakout season in 2018 and should have ample recovery time to revert to that form. Like Parsons, he has three-down ability, and Moses should be the next Bama star at linebacker.

13. Clemson RB Travis Etienne

Etienne shocked us when he returned to school, and there’s always the worry of overuse, as he could approach 900 college touches after next season. But the 5-11, 211-pound Etienne was a monster last season and profiles as a terrific, highly athletic back with pass-catching talent — just ask Ohio State.

14. Texas OT Samuel Cosmi

It wouldn’t have been stunning had Cosmi entered this past draft as a redshirt sophomore, with two years of good tape out there already. He has the chance to rate among the top tackles in the 2021 class if he enters as a redshirt junior. Cosmi has started one season each on the right and left sides, an added bonus.

15. Alabama WR DeVonta Smith

Jeudy was Bama’s receptions leader last season with 77, but Smith led the Crimson Tide in receiving yards (1,256) and TDs (14). The latter was double the number of TDs catches by Henry Ruggs III, the 12th overall pick this year. Smith has a longer, skinnier build and has had his maturity questioned in the past. But the recipient of the overtime game-winning TD in the 2017 national championship has come a long way and could continue his upward climb as an NFL prospect.

16. Stanford OT Walker Little

We pegged Little as a potential first-round pick this year prior to his season-ending knee injury in last year’s opener against Northwestern. Assuming his rehab goes smoothly, the 6-foot-7, 320-pound Little — who was first team all-Pac-12 as a true sophomore — can return to top form. Scouts know his name well.

17. USC DT Jay Tufele

We first took notice of him while watching the Utah game. Tufele hasn’t yet produced banner numbers, but he looks the part in flashing a handful of snaps per game. He might be undersized, but Tufele looks like he can develop into a very good interior penetrator and pass rusher. Those are always highly sought at the next level.

Florida TE Kyle Pitts highlights a great crop at the position in the 2021 NFL draft. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Florida TE Kyle Pitts highlights a great crop at the position in the 2021 NFL draft. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

18. Florida TE Kyle Pitts

Talking to an evaluator about the 2020 TE prospects a month ago before the draft we just put to bed, he made sure to mention: “Next year’s class will blow this one out of the water. Don’t know how many [tight ends] go high this year. But [in 2021], you could have three or four go before the first one goes this year.”

He was right about that last part; after Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet went 43rd, no other tight end was taken until No. 91 overall. 

Pitts might need work on his blocking, but he has game-changing receiving ability. He is just one of many gifted players at the position, along with Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth and Miami’s Brevin Jordan, who a year from now all could end up going before where Kmet went.

19. Purdue WR Rondale Moore

The electric Moore was limited to four games last season. We attended one of them: a 13-catch, 222-yard, one TD torching of Vanderbilt that showed how dangerous this man is. We’ll have to see if he has recovered from the torn ACL he suffered against Minnesota. Moore is incredibly explosive as a slot weapon and returner. Think Hollywood Brown for a recent comp.

20. Tennessee OG Trey Smith

Smith returned to school for his senior season, citing his desire to earn his degree. He’s a smart, talented blocker who was all-SEC last season, so the only questions about him are whether he can play tackle and if his health issues are a concern. Smith was diagnosed with blood clots in February of 2018, and it limited his time on the field that season, but 2019 went off without a hitch. Barring a poor medical evaluation, he looks like a star.

21. South Carolina CB Israel Mukuamu

The Gamecocks have two very good corners on NFL radars, and perhaps teammate Jaycee Horn is more polished now. Mukuama had the big pick-six on Jake Fromm in the upset of Georgia — and actually, his second pick (of three) in that game was just as impressive — and is just a stunning specimen, standing nearly 6-foot-4 with long arms. His evaluation will be fascinating.

22. LSU DT Tyler Shelvin

“An absolute beast” is how one LSU staffer described Shelvin, and we heartily agree. Right now, Shelvin is highly underrated among fans, we suspect, because of his modest production. He’s just not a sacks and TFL guy right now. With another year, the 6-3, 345-pound Shelvin could be a homewrecker, even on a slightly stripped Tigers defense.

23. Alabama RB Najee Harris

We’ll be the first to admit we underrated Harris’ potential NFL impact a year ago, and all he did was go out and wreck people last season. There’s a Marshawn Lynch-ian quality to his game, as Harris has significantly improved his pass-catching prowess and maintained his power despite an increased workload.

24. Alabama OT Alex Leatherwood

Leatherwood was up and down last season, and the 2020 first-round talk early last season was premature. Jedrick Wills Jr. was more effective last season, and Leatherwood made a great decision to return to school. With a jump, he can become a first-round prospect in earnest in 2021.

North Dakota State QB Trey Lance set the FCS world on fire in 2019. (Photo by Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
North Dakota State QB Trey Lance set the FCS world on fire in 2019. (Photo by Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

25. North Dakota State QB Trey Lance

The redshirt sophomore will be the buzzy name of the summer as we (hopefully) approach college football season. After all, when you complete 67 percent of your passes, log a TD-INT ratio of 28-0, run for 1,100 yards and 14 TDs and lead your team to a I-AA title and the first 16-0 finish in college football since 1894, you’re going to get buzz. We need to slow our roll a bit on a QB with fewer than 300 pass attempts at an FCS school, but the 6-foot-3 Lance has the talent to grow into something special.

Others to watch

Quarterbacks: Jamie Newman, Georgia; Tanner Morgan, Minnesota; Brock Purdy, Iowa State; Kellen Mond, Texas A&M; KJ Costello, Mississippi State; Sam Ehlinger, Texas; Kyle Trask, Florida

Running backs: Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State; Kylin Hill, Mississippi State; Kennedy Brooks, Oklahoma; Zamir White, Georgia; Trey Sermon, Ohio State; Pooka Williams Jr., Kansas; Journey Brown, Penn State; CJ Verdell, Oregon; Max Borghi, Washington State; Jaret Patterson, Buffalo

Wide receivers: Seth Williams, Auburn; Tamorrion Terry, Florida State; Rashod Bateman, Minnesota; Chris Olave, Ohio State; Terrace Marshall Jr., LSU; Tylan Wallace, Oklahoma State; Amon-Ra St. Brown, USC; Tyler Vaughns, USC; Sage Surratt, Wake Forest; Nico Collins, Michigan; Tutu Atwell, Louisville; Tarik Black, Texas; T.J. Vasher, Texas Tech; Warren Jackson, Colorado State

Tight ends: Brevin Jordan, Miami (Fla.); Pat Freiermuth, Penn State; Charlie Kolar, Iowa State; Matt Bushman, BYU; Jake Ferguson, Wisconsin; Jeremy Ruckert, Ohio State

Interior offensive linemen: Wyatt Davis, Ohio State; Creed Humphrey, Oklahoma; Deonte Brown, G, Alabama; Cade Mays, Tennessee; Alijah Vera-Tucker, USC; Jarrett Patterson, Notre Dame

Offensive tackles: Liam Eichenberg, Notre Dame; Jalen Mayfield, Michigan; Abraham Lucas Washington State; Jackson Carman, Clemson; Cole Van Lanen, Wisconsin; Thayer Munford, Ohio State; Rashawn Slater, Northwestern; Alaric Jackson, Iowa; Adrian Ealy, Oklahoma

Interior defensive linemen: Jaylen Twyman, Pittsburgh; Jay Tufele, USC, JR; LaBryan Ray, DT, Alabama; Christian Barmore, Alabama; Levi Onwuzurike, DT, Washington; Osa Odighizuwa, UCLA; Isaiahh Loudermilk, Wisconsin; Khyiris Tonga, BYU

Edge rushers: Carlos Basham Jr., Wake Forest; Xavier Thomas, Clemson; Patrick Jones II, Pitt; George Karlaftis, Purdue; Charles Snowden, Virginia; Quincy Roche, Miami (Fla.); Joe Tryon, Washington; Patrick Johnson, Tulane; Jayson Oweh, Penn State; Jacob Panasiuk, Michigan State; Myjai Sanders, Cincinnati

Linebackers: Chazz Surratt, North Carolina; Shane Lee, Alabama; Baron Browning, Ohio State; Quay Walker, Georgia; Nick Bolton, Missouri; Joseph Ossai, Texas; Jabril Cox, LSU; Dimitri Moore, Vanderbilt; Monty Rice, Georgia; Paddy Fisher, Northwestern; Chris Rumph, Duke; Garret Wallow, TCU

Cornerbacks: Paulson Adebo, Stanford; Asante Samuel Jr., Florida State; Tyson Campbell, Georgia; Trey Dean III, Florida; Jaycee Horn, South Carolina; Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech; Elijah Molden, Washington; Josh Jobe, Alabama; Eric Stokes, Georgia; Thomas Graham Jr., Oregon; Deommodore Lenoir, Oregon

Safeties: Andre Cisco, Syracuse; Cade Sterns, Texas; Hamsah Nasirildeen, Florida State; Richard Lecounte, Georgia; Talanoa Hufanga, USC; Paris Ford, Pittsburgh; Jevon Holland, Oregon; JaCoby Stevens, LSU; Tyree Gillespie, Missouri; Trevon Moehrig, TCU; Kolby Harvell-Peel, Oklahoma State; Richie Grant, UCF

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