Top 50 NFL draft prospects in 2021: Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields highlight QB-heavy class

Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz, USA TODAY
·18 min read

Ranking NFL draft prospects regardless of position is a surefire avenue for making oneself look foolish in a few years.

Given the uncertainty and randomness inherent to football, any attempt to sort players at the genesis of their professional careers is bound to be proven off-base at some later date. The matter becomes even murkier when trying to assess prospects independent of the team and coaching staffs that no doubt end up playing a critical role in shaping their careers.

But making such prognostications is part of the very foundation of the NFL draft, during which front offices must weigh a multitude of considerations with each selection. While the COVID-19 pandemic further complicated evaluations this year, dozens of players positioned themselves to be the most highly sought-after players in this year's NFL draft, which starts Thursday.

Here's USA TODAY Sports' ranking of the top 50 players in this year's class:

1. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson

Navigating his way from No. 1 recruit to national champion and surefire top NFL draft pick, Lawrence often made the extraordinary seem mundane. His success was no fait accompli, however, and it's worth stepping back to appreciate just how the 6-6, 213-pound quarterback managed to live up to the seemingly unfathomable hype. Mixing astonishing arm strength with rapid processing and recognition ability, Lawrence can attack defenses at any point on the field. What truly sets him apart from past highly touted passers, though, is his prowess for extending plays with his mobility and delivering strikes on the run. An occasional tendency to play too hurriedly is one of his few shortcomings, but Lawrence is in a tier all his own.

2. Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida

Tight ends typically don't warrant this kind of consideration in the draft given the value tied to their position, but Pitts is an exceptional prospect in every sense. There's no matchup answer for a 6-6, 245-pound target who moves like a wide receiver and pulls down jump balls like a power forward. Inline blocking will never be his strong suit, but that's a small trade-off for a tight end who otherwise looks ready to become the focal point of a passing attack.

3. Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon

After winning the Outland Trophy in a dominant campaign when he was just 19, Sewell opted out of the 2020 season amid uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. The decision shouldn't have any discernible toll on his draft stock, as Sewell sizes up as a potential cornerstone left tackle in the NFL. A little more polish will go a long way toward softening his acclimation period, but Sewell demonstrates rare flexibility and athleticism for someone his size (6-5, 331 pounds).

4. Ja'Marr Chase, WR, LSU

Though his decision to opt out of last season might have disappointed many hoping to see how Chase would have built on his electric 2019 performance, there was little need for an encore. The 6-0, 201-pound receiver made his pro potential clear after torching the Southeastern Conference's best cornerbacks en route to 1,780 receiving yards and 20 touchdown receptions, briefly a conference record. Though his frame is not what one might expect from a top-five pick, Chase is otherwise a nearly complete receiver, equally adept at racing past defensive backs as he is boxing them out for a tough catch in traffic.

Former LSU receiver Ja'Marr Chase opted out of the season due to coronavirus concerns.
Former LSU receiver Ja'Marr Chase opted out of the season due to coronavirus concerns.

5. Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State

All of the questioning on his processing has overshadowed the other ways in which the 6-3, 227-pound quarterback meets or exceeds the criteria of a franchise passer. His pinpoint accuracy is unmatched in this class, and he's remarkably efficient when on schedule. If Fields shakes the narrative about the speed of his decision-making, he could make a lot of teams regret passing on him.

6. Zach Wilson, QB, BYU

No player did more to boost his draft stock in the last year, as Wilson went from afterthought to almost assuredly the No. 2 selection. In repeatedly launching dazzling deep strikes and stunning off-platform throws, the 6-2, 214-pound signal-caller sparked visions of the NFL's next great unconventional passer. It remains to be seen, however, whether Wilson's playmaking aptitude will hold up when he has to manage tight pockets and escape pressure, scenarios against which BYU's scheme and offensive line typically safeguarded him. While it could take him awhile to adapt to the NFL's speed, his accuracy and quick release could help him get by early in his career until he feels comfortable enough to get back to his aggressive approach.

7. Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama

As soon as he sets foot on an NFL field, Waddle will command significant attention from opposing defenses looking to contain his elite speed. While he'll make his biggest mark on deep passes, the 5-9, 180-pound dynamo is a threat to score whenever given room to run with the ball in his hands. Waddle likely won't ever become a do-everything receiver, but his big-play ability as a pass catcher and returner will be a defining trait that can change the complexion of an offense.

8. DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama

Doubts about his 166-pound frame are nothing new for Smith, who defied expectations throughout his career with the Crimson Tide to become a Heisman Trophy winner and the most productive wide receiver in SEC history. It's fair to wonder whether that slight build will leave him vulnerable to being pushed around by the NFL's most physical cornerbacks, but Smith can render those concerns moot with his clean releases. Even though he doesn't look the part, Smith has the makeup of a No. 1 receiver in almost every other part of his game.

Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith dives over a tackle attempt by Notre Dame safety Shaun Crawford for a touchdown during the 2021 Rose Bowl in AT&T Stadium.
Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith dives over a tackle attempt by Notre Dame safety Shaun Crawford for a touchdown during the 2021 Rose Bowl in AT&T Stadium.

9. Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama

It should come as no surprise that the son of former three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Surtain has a mastery of the position beyond his years. While Surtain might lack ideal speed and agility, he compensates with instincts and anticipation to stick close to almost any receiver. The 6-2, 208-pound coverage ace is one of the most proven entities in this year's draft and looks capable of infusing his next team's secondary with stability.

10. Rashawn Slater, OT, Northwestern

Far from the prototype of a left tackle, Slater sets an example for all other offensive linemen in the importance of footwork. Despite sub-optimal size (6-4, 304 pounds), length and strength, he built an almost flawless collegiate resume by becoming a standard-bearer for how a blindside protector should move. Greater challenges against rangier pass rushers await, but Slater has proven to be a quick study.

11. Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State

When Parsons charges downhill, there's usually not much that can stop him. The 6-3, 246-pound linebacker often blows up plays in the backfield, and explosiveness and his change-of-direction skills make him difficult to negate. If his comfort in coverage catches up to the rest of his game, Parsons could be one of this year's most prodigious talents.

12. Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota

He's not mentioned in the same breath as the top three receivers in this class, but maybe he should be. A refined route-runner adept at shaking cornerbacks from the line of scrimmage, Bateman can make life easier for any quarterback as a consistently open target. And while he's not as explosive as other receivers in this class, he is dynamic after the catch and wins contested catches much more often than a 6-0, 190-pound player should.

13. Jaelan Phillips, DE, Miami (Fla.)

A former five-star recruit who first enrolled at UCLA, Phillips transferred to Miami and revived his football career after concussions and other ailments prompted him to medically retire in 2018. If not for those questions about his health, Phillips might be more widely recognized as the preeminent edge rusher in this class. None of his peers can match his blend of athleticism, power and fluidity.

14. Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina

Physical to a fault, Horn – the son of former Saints receiver Joe Horn – relishes smothering opponents from the line of scrimmage to the catch point. That approach could leave him vulnerable to penalties early in his career if he continues to be overly reliant on using his hands downfield. Still, he has the size (6-1, 205 pounds), long speed and athleticism to thrive as a top press-man corner.

15. Alijah Vera-Tucker, G, USC

Experienced at left tackle and guard, Vera-Tucker has the components to thrive at either position. His most promising spot is likely inside, where his coordination and know-how should shine through.

16. Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech

The traits of a shutdown defender are all there for the 6-2, 197-pound playmaker with outstanding closing speed. Now it's up to Farley to put things together, as he's behind the curve on the finer points of the position given his two years' experience at cornerback before he decided to opt out of the 2020 season. Injuries also could be a concern after he underwent a microdiscectomy in March and missed his freshman campaign with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

17. Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State

It's hard not to get carried away imagining what's within reach for a 6-4, 224-pound passer with superlative arm strength and speed – especially when that player is only 20 years old. Still, Lance has major shortcomings that need to be corrected, specifically with his erratic accuracy and unproven timing.

18. Azeez Ojulari, OLB, Georgia

Given many teams' obsession with certain traits for edge rushers, Ojulari might seem like an odd candidate to be a top selection given his 6-2, 249-pound frame. But with his rapid first step, easy bending ability and advanced hand usage, Ojulari offers everything else necessary to be a prolific sack artist.

19. Christian Barmore, DT, Alabama

In an uninspiring class for defensive tackles, Barmore stands above the rest thanks to his flashes of dominant play disrupting the passing game. It's up to the one-year starter and his future NFL coaching staff to bring more consistency to his approach after his lack of control took him out of too many plays.

20. Trevon Moehrig, S, TCU

Versatility will be his calling card in the NFL given his proficiency in a number of different coverage roles. Though not as electric as some other first-round safeties in recent years, Moehrig can rely on his impressive range and instincts to find the ball consistently.

21. Greg Newsome II, CB, Northwestern

Though Newsome was a three-year starter for the Wildcats, his draft stock didn't take off until 2020, when he had almost as many passes defensed (10) as catches allowed (12, according to Pro Football Focus). Fast and fluid, he comfortably sticks with receivers both vertically and horizontally. With only one career interception, though, it's unclear what kind of playmaker he'll be at the next level, especially as he faces stronger pass catchers.

22. Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa

Measuring in at 6-4 and 270 pounds at his combine recheck, Collins looks like a throwback amid an era of smaller linebackers. His size, however, belies his actual skill set. Collins moves nimbly from sideline to sideline and has uncommon playmaking ability in coverage, though his run defense is a work in progress. While he's not yet an accomplished pass rusher, he has the tools to grow considerably as a blitzer.

23. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Notre Dame

This year's premier hybrid defender, Owusu-Koramoah can handle a variety of coverage assignments while still holding up as a downhill tackler. His overly aggressive style leaves him vulnerable to giving up big plays, however, and he might require a creative role to ensure he doesn't get stuck in no-man's land.

24. Terrace Marshall Jr., WR, LSU

After playing in the shadow of Chase and Justin Jefferson in 2019, Marshall last season established himself as LSU's latest top target worthy of first-round consideration. The 6-2, 205-pounder pairs jump-ball prowess with serious speed (4.38-second 40-yard dash) to be a substantial deep threat, though he still has work to do to become a more complete receiver.

25. Kwity Paye, DE, Michigan

Things didn't quite coalesce for Paye at Michigan, where his production as a pass rusher never lined up with the buzz about his raw physical ability. There's reason to believe his next team can help him unlock that considerable athleticism, but Paye still should be able to push the pocket and disrupt the run game even if he doesn't make a significant leap.

Former Michigan DE Kwity Paye
Former Michigan DE Kwity Paye

26. Elijah Moore, WR, Ole Miss

Don't dismiss him as merely a slot receiver. The 5-9, 178-pound speedster can threaten defenses deep while still making a living underneath with his quick and reliable hands.

27. Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue

At 5-7 and 181 pounds, Moore is an outlier as a receiver prospect trying to find a place in the first two rounds. For all of the concerns about his size and durability, though, his explosiveness in the open field is also without peer in this class.

28. Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech

A breakout 2020 season took him from off the radar to a near-lock for the first round. His balance and composure make him well-suited to be a longtime starter at left tackle, though he looks more comfortable as a run blocker than a pass protector.

29. Landon Dickerson, C, Alabama

So long as there are no complications from a torn ACL suffered in the SEC Championship game, Dickerson figures to be a mainstay in the middle for whichever team drafts him. Mauling in the run game comes easy to the 6-6, 333-pounder, as does turning away any blitzers.

30. Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida

No other skill-position player flummoxes defenders quite like Toney, whose knack for redirecting in an instant makes him maddeningly difficult to corral. It remains to be seen whether he can beat defensive backs in a more traditional receiver role that will call on him to run more precise routes and reel in more contested catches.

31. Teven Jenkins, OT, Oklahoma State

When Jenkins locks in on a defender, he's looking to maul rather than merely wall them off. But his bullying approach will only go so far if he's not able to stay in front of faster pass rushers off the edge.

32. Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson

His big-play credentials, both as a runner and receiver, are evident in his 78 career touchdowns. Etienne doesn't rely purely on long speed, however, as he routinely forces missed tackles thanks to his contact balance and his burst out of cuts. He won't be a fit for every offense, however, and the NFL will test his ability to thrive in tight spaces.

Former Clemson running back Travis Etienne
Former Clemson running back Travis Etienne

33. Asante Samuel Jr., CB, Florida State

His name isn't the only thing he gets from his father, as Samuel's play is strikingly reminiscent of the former Patriots standout. Despite sub-optimal size and strength, Samuel doesn't yield much to opposing receivers with his physical and instinctual style.

34. Najee Harris, RB, Alabama

His highlight-reel hurdles serve as one of many reminders that Harris isn't like other 6-1, 232-pound ball carriers. While he's not much of a breakaway threat, Harris can reliably pick up chunks of yards by utilizing his fluidity and power as a runner. He also should be a consistent contributor as a receiver who poses matchup problems.

35. Alex Leatherwood, OT, Alabama

More functional than flashy, Leatherwood might find his future at a spot other than left tackle unless he proves he can hold up against the NFL's elite speed rushers. But that shouldn't dissuade teams from investing in a solid and stout blocker capable of neutralizing linemen with his length.

36. Jayson Oweh, DE, Penn State

Combining a 6-5, 257-pound frame with blistering speed off the edge (4.36-second 40-yard dash), Oweh is an imposing matchup off the line of scrimmage. When he isn't able to race around his blocker, however, his shortage of experience (only began playing football as a high school junior) shows, and his underdeveloped pass-rush plan was a big reason he failed to record a sack in 2020.

37. Elijah Molden, CB/S, Washington

Put him in the slot and rest easy against smaller receivers. While the 5-9, 192-pound Molden lacks the size to hold up on the outside or at safety, his quick-trigger play signals a long and fruitful career at nickel.

38. Pat Freiermuth, TE, Penn State

The "Baby Gronk" moniker is a bit much, but Freiermuth does have a similar calling card to the Buccaneers tight end in his sheer strength in discarding defenders after the catch. Though he likely doesn't have explosive traits, he can be a reliable, high-end starter, particularly if he cleans up his blocking.

39. Jamin Davis, LB, Kentucky

In his lone season as a starter, Davis exhibited the overall athletic package teams covet in a linebacker while still demonstrating his need for further refinement. His play is rooted in finesse far more than force, but he can chase down plays in the run game and be a significant asset in coverage.

40. Mac Jones, QB, Alabama

When everything clicks, Jones regularly settles into being a decisive and prolific distributor. It's hard to tell, though, whether he can provide an actual spark as an offensive catalyst, as he was seldom forced out of his comfort zone. The deciding factors may rest in his processing and pocket maneuverability given his overall struggles to execute outside of structure.

41. Sam Cosmi, OT, Texas

The risk Cosmi poses is high, as balance and leverage issues will need to be addressed before he can become a trusted blindside protector. But it's hard to overlook the upside of a 6-6, 314-pound left tackle with his movement skills.

42. Javonte Williams, RB, North Carolina

The former linebacker runs like he's still trying to dole out punishment, regularly shedding would-be tacklers with his nasty stiff-arm. Though his cutting ability makes him more than merely a north-south runner, Williams still needs to diversify his skill set in the passing game to become a complete back.

43. Creed Humphrey, C, Oklahoma

A three-year starter who never gave up a sack, Humphrey is the picture of dependability. He won't bulldoze many defensive tackles in the NFL, but he can keep blockers at bay with his well-rounded approach and know-how.

44. Richie Grant, S, UCF

Hunting down the ball from a deep alignment is Grant's specialty. The three-year starter is quick to key in on plays and thwart a throw, though he might struggle with certain man-coverage assignments.

Former Houston defensive lineman Payton Turner
Former Houston defensive lineman Payton Turner

45. Payton Turner, DE, Houston

His massive wingspan (84 inches) and remarkable agility should tantalize almost any team in search of pass-rushing talent. While Turner is no doubt still in need of development, his relentless style and burgeoning feel for the game are promising signs for his long-term projection.

46. Carlos Basham Jr., DE, Wake Forest

More than a big body at 6-3 and 274 pounds, Basham uses his rapid burst off the line of scrimmage to make plays in the backfield. While he might never consistently produce double-digit sack totals, he has a good chance to be a valuable starter for some time.

47. Liam Eichenberg, OT, Notre Dame

Steady and savvy, the three-year starter doesn't offer much of a wow factor but nevertheless is a reliable blocker. Though he could be challenged to match up with longer, quicker pass rushers on the edge, Eichenberg could be a trustworthy option at offensive guard.

48. Levi Onwuzurike, DT, Washington

Able to get into the backfield in a hurry, Onwuzurike is an attacking force on the interior. Establishing more discipline in his rushes is an essential step for him to become a viable every-down starter.

49. Gregory Rousseau, DE, Miami (Fla.)

Despite racking up 15 1/2 sacks as a redshirt freshman in 2019, Rousseau is still learning how to utilize his 6-7, 266-pound frame to become a consistent edge rusher, as he did most of his damage by working inside against overmatched guards and centers. He's not powerful enough to replicate that approach in the pros, and his length will be negated unless he learns how to beat blockers with more than his initial burst.

50. Ronnie Perkins, DE, Oklahoma

Flexibility and power are a winning combination for any pass rusher, and Perkins displays both in his slippery rush off the edge. If he improves his hand usage, he could be a pesky matchup for opposing offensive linemen.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL draft: Ranking top 50 prospects for 2021 in QB-heavy class