Each year, every NFL general manager, scout and coach has a personal list of favorite prospects -- guys to pound the table for when the clock is ticking and a decision must be made about which player to invest precious draft capital in.
Well, I'm no different. With one week to go until the 2021 NFL Draft gets underway in Cleveland, here is my list of prospects I feel most passionately about. This exercise isn't all-encompassing, and it's not just limited to the most highly touted players. I've included likely Day 1 (Round 1), Day 2 (Rounds 2-3) and Day 3 (Rounds 4-7) picks here. There are others I would strongly advocate for, too, but I don't want to completely wear out the poor table!
Note: Players are listed by position, and in order of how early they're projected to be picked at positions with more than one player listed.
Trevor Lawrence is the guy at quarterback in this year's draft. There's no real argument about that, in my opinion. However, Lance excites me the most when I think about seeing how it all progresses for this year's QB class. He reminds me a lot of Bills QB Josh Allen, and interestingly enough, Allen sees a bit of himself in Lance. They were both lightly recruited out of high school and ended up at schools off the beaten NFL path. Heading into the 2018 draft, people questioned Allen's accuracy and level of competition. Lance is hearing the same questions now. We saw Allen take on the challenge and improve over the last three years. I think we could see a similar evolution from Lance once he enters the league. His upside is immense.
So, if I'm in the draft room with Kyle Shanahan when the 49ers are on the clock at No. 3 after Lawrence and Zach Wilson are picked (as we all expect), I'm telling him that if you're planning to stick with Jimmy Garoppolo in 2021, this is a perfect situation for Lance. But once Lance takes over, San Francisco will be set at the QB position for the next decade-plus.
Sermon is the prototypical old-school running back, and I love him for it. Put the ball in his chest 20 times, and he'll grind up the opposition. He reminds me of Derrick Henry coming out of Alabama in that it's not that he can't catch the ball, it's just not a huge part of his game. The biggest thing for me is the way he wears down defenses. If a team wants to be strong in the fourth quarter, he's your type of back. When you look into his backstory, you'll see he's determined to be great. That's one of the reasons I'm pounding the table for him.
Fehoko set a school record with 23.6 yards per reception in 2019, and then he had an amazing finish to the 2020 season, making 22 catches for 330 yards and three touchdowns in the final two games. At 6-foot-4, 222 pounds, he has the measurables. He has the speed, too (4.43 40 at his pro day). He's been an outstanding team player, but now he understands he can be more of a featured guy. Folks will want to compare him to Eagles WR J.J. Arcega-Whiteside because they went to the same school, but I always thought Fehoko was the better prospect. He's a better route runner and I think he's better with the ball in his hands after the catch. He can be a complete receiver, and I view him as an ascending talent.
I know that Jordan was disappointed with his pro day performance, including a 4.67 40-yard dash. Having watched him on tape, I believe he plays faster than that timed speed. He's also versatile enough to run a variety of routes, whether he's lining up in-line, split out or outside. Miami called a lot of quick-hitting passes to get the ball in his hands because of his ability to do damage after the catch. He was the only college tight end with 300-plus yards after contact last season, per Pro Football Focus. Jordan is a willing and decent blocker, as well. He's firmly in the collection of top tight ends behind Kyle Pitts and Pat Freiermuth, and I'm pounding the table for him if I need someone at the position and those two are off the board.
Christensen might not be a first-round pick, but he understands how to play left tackle with the modern NFL QB who can move. Take a look at the Packers. One of the beautiful things about David Bakhtiari and the rest of that offensive line is they know to never assume a play is over. Sometimes things take longer to develop with an athletic QB like Aaron Rodgers. Christensen played that way with Zach Wilson at BYU, which allowed for all those off-platform throws that have had people drooling this spring. Christensen has excellent footwork and he's very athletic, putting on a show at his pro day. Guys like him are invaluable these days, and I have no doubt he loves the game. Teams in need of O-line help will make decisions in the first round knowing that Christensen will likely still be out there offering value on Day 2.
You know I had to get a fellow Tennessee Volunteer in here! But this isn't just a homer pick. Smith has rightly been honored for his tremendous work on and off the field, earning UT's Torchbearer Award -- the highest student honor conferred by the school -- and the Fritz Pollard Trophy for extraordinary courage and community values, among other accolades. He's obviously worked hard and accomplished some great things, but let's not overlook the fact that he is gifted athletically and has a little nasty to him come game day. He's battled through adversity, too. He was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs in 2018 and it looked like his career might be over, but he came back to play at a high level. He can move people at the line of scrimmage and pass protect. He's reminiscent of my colleague, Shaun O'Hara: a guy who thinks the game as well as he plays it. Smith's going to learn the playbook early, he's going to know his assignments early and I think you can plug him in as a Day 1 starter.
I know a lot of people have Landon Dickerson ranked first at the position, but I think Humphrey is the best center in the draft. He first caught my eye in 2018, as the pivot for a Sooners offensive line that won the Joe Moore Award (most outstanding O-line in college football) and featured four starters who are already in the NFL. Humphrey looked like one of the best of the bunch, even back then as a redshirt freshman. He's tough, agile, holds up very well in pass protection and gets to the second level in the run game. Now, center is a tough position. You need a guy who is in sync with the quarterback and makes the proper calls for the O-line. So, there can be some hesitancy to start a rookie at such a challenging position, but I wouldn't hesitate with Humphrey. If I'm drafting him, he's an immediate starter.
Heggie battled through injuries in his first two seasons and answered the bell in the SEC against some big-time talents in the past two years. I'm a big fan of his intelligence, toughness and physicality. He's going to be dependable. Years ago, I saw Corey Linsley play at Cal when he was with Ohio State. I was really impressed with the way he played in that Buckeyes victory. We got to the draft the next spring, and he ended up going in the fifth round to Green Bay. That stuck with me, because I thought he was a good player. He turned out to be an incredible value for the Packers, earning first-team All-Pro honors last season, and he was rewarded last month by the Chargers with a free-agent deal that made him the league's highest-paid center. Heggie will probably be drafted on Day 3, and he could follow the same kind of path as Linsley, becoming a starting center before long.
Tufele opted out of the 2020 season last summer while his sister, Noreen, was fighting for her life after being diagnosed with COVID-19. Thankfully, she recovered, and I'm excited to see Tufele get his shot at the next level. He moves well up and down the line of scrimmage laterally. I think he has better pass-rush ability than he's been able to display thus far. I know a lot of people are down on this year's defensive tackle class, but Tufele can be a guy who causes issues in the backfield. The arrow is pointing up here.
Hubert was all over the field when I turned on the tape from Reese's Senior Bowl practices. He's a high-motor player, and he has a full arsenal of moves and counter moves when rushing the passer. As my colleague Daniel Jeremiah would say, he has a lot of clubs in his bag. That said, I think people might underestimate him a little bit. He was highly productive in college (34 tackles for loss in the past three seasons) and I expect him to be a very good all-around pro. He'll be a nice find for a team early on Day 3 of the draft.
Ball-magnet alert! Every time I turn on his tape, Collins is making a play. Now, I know he reportedly weighed in at 270 pounds recently at the NFL Scouting Combine, which is 11 pounds more than he weighed at his pro day early this month. I think he'd be better off playing between 250 and 260 pounds. I'm not overly concerned about the weight right now, though. Collins can play inside or on the edge, like the Patriots have used Dont'a Hightower. My comp for him is Leighton Vander Esch, another big linebacker who played the passing lanes really well and went in the first round.
I realize Micah Parsons is the No. 1 linebacker in the draft, but I believe Collins is a very similar player and might even have a little chip on his shoulder after being pegged as the No. 2 prospect at his position coming out of Tulsa.
I was talking to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin last year about scouting wide receivers. He broke it down as succinctly as this: "When we evaluate wide receivers, we start with whether they can catch the football." Makes too much sense, doesn't it? That's what they do. Well, what do linebackers do? They tackle people! Fisher tackles people! All the time! I want people on my roster who are going to do what they're supposed to do. Fisher might be a starter or he might be a backup, but I know this: When it comes time to make a tackle, Fisher's going to get the job done. I don't like to overlook guys as productive as Fisher, who made 400-plus tackles (!) and posted a school-record 11 forced fumbles during his time with the Wildcats.
I know Farley's stock is said to be falling after a back procedure that prevented him from participating in Virginia Tech's pro day, but he's still my top cornerback in the draft. If I'm an NFL GM, as long as my medical experts tell me he's going to heal, I'd love to take a shot on him. I see some similarities between him and Richard Sherman. Both are WRs turned CBs, although Sherman made the transition later in his career (which is part of the reason he lasted until the fifth round). Farley also has the elite mind that Sherman possesses. I like the former Hokie's length, ability to play the football, speed to run with receivers and willingness to step up to make a tackle. I expect him to keep improving in all of these areas. Remember, he only has two seasons of experience at corner. I think his best is yet to come.
Molden is my top candidate to be this year's Antoine Winfield Jr., a second-rounder in 2020 who is coming off a sensational rookie season that culminated in a Super Bowl victory. I viewed Winfield as a player in the Tyrann Mathieu mold because of his instincts and the willingness to do it all -- tackle, cover, play in the slot or deep at safety. Molden is just like Winfield: The son of a former NFL player who was raised in the game and displays the same type of instincts. I think he's an automatic starter at nickel back no matter where he's drafted.
A potential first-round pick, Moehrig is the best safety in the draft. He can play in the box, up high or cover in the slot. I love that versatility, but what cinched it for me was a chat with TCU's Gary Patterson, who teaches as much defense as any college football coach in the country. He told me Moehrig's the best flat-foot man-coverage safety he's ever had. Patterson coaches his players hard, and Moehrig is sharp. He understands all the concepts. Moehrig's going to make his fellow DBs better, no matter what's asked of him at the next level.
I think some people see him as undersized for a safety (5-10 1/2, 196), but we're starting to lose some of those prerequisites about size, aren't we? Mathieu (5-9, 190) is not exactly a giant playing safety. LeCounte has spent his time in school covering elite talents from the likes of Alabama, LSU and Florida. He's held up well against top competition. LeCounte might not be drafted until Day 3, but I think he's a really good football player. At the end of the day, he makes plays.
Brett DioGuardi, LS, Florida
This one is personal. I've known this young man since he was 4 years old. He's good friends with my son. They grew up playing ball together. DioGuardi has the frame to be a long snapper in the NFL, and he no doubt has the determination to make it. He decided to walk-on at Florida to live his dream of playing for the Gators and waited his turn, working hard behind the scenes before becoming a starter in 2020. He did an excellent job snapping for one of the best kicker prospects available this year, Evan McPherson. DioGuardi is not going to show up in all the rankings (there are other guys who have more athleticism and experience), but if he gets an opportunity, he could be a 10-year snapper in the NFL. I know there aren't many long snappers who get picked, but I would pound the table for him whether he's being considered in the draft or for a spot as an undrafted free agent.