With Super Bowl LV behind us and the 2021 NFL Draft looming large on the horizon, it's time to look toward the next crop of talent to hit the pro ranks. Below is my first snapshot of the top five prospects at each major position in the 2021 draft class:
The 2021 QB class is loaded with intriguing options, and teams searching for QB1s will have to determine if they prefer to build around an athletic player or a classic pocket passer. Lawrence is an exceptional talent with a combination of physical tools, intangibles and playmaking skills that would make him a candidate to be the No. 1 overall pick in any draft. He is best described as "Justin Herbert-plus," given that he has comparable traits to the 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year, but brings more sizzle. Fields is a five-star talent with outstanding athleticism and playmaking ability. He had an up-and-down 2020 campaign, but he put up big numbers in some of the Buckeyes' biggest games while looking like the best player on the field. Wilson is a natural passer with ridiculous arm talent and improvisational skills. He has the capacity to win a game of H-O-R-S-E with his off-platform throws -- and he also displays the poise and discipline to play a scripted game from the pocket.
This crop of running backs features a number of quality players with RB1 potential, and the depth of the class could prompt teams to wait until Day 2 or Day 3 to try to snag a hidden gem. Harris is big, but with the skills of a scat back. He has the size, strength and power to run through defenses as a between-the-tackles grinder, but he also displays the soft hands and receiving skills to be a legitimate weapon in the passing game. Etienne is a one-cut runner with exceptional speed, acceleration and burst. He has improved as a pass catcher, evolving into a big-play threat in the mold of Jamaal Charles and CJ2K (Chris Johnson). Carter put on a show at the Senior Bowl, flashing an all-around game that could make him an explosive weapon as a change-of-pace back.
The explosion of the aerial game at the lower levels of football has enabled rookie pass catchers to make an immediate impact in Year 1. The 2021 class is stacked with polished receivers who have route-running skills and big-play ability. Chase opted out of the 2020 season, but his spectacular play during the Tigers' championship run in 2019 provided scouts with a glimpse of his WR1 potential. As a natural receiver with exceptional hands and ball skills, he consistently wins against one-on-one coverage on the perimeter and has the capacity to anchor a passing game as a lead receiver. Waddle is the best catch-and-run specialist in the class. He has a knack for turning short passes into long gains with his electric running skills and cat-like stop-start quickness. Smith plays the game like a seasoned vet, with his patience and superb timing complementing his savvy route-running skills. The Heisman Trophy winner is not the biggest or fastest receiver in the class, but he is always open, and his jaw-dropping production against elite competition bodes well for his pro potential.
The tight end position offers the most opportunity to create a mismatch on the field in the 2020s, and this group features an intriguing mix of playmakers with games reminiscent of George Kittle and Travis Kelce. Pitts is the ultimate offensive weapon. The ultra-athletic pass catcher is a wide receiver in a tight end's body, boasting an array of skills that make him a nightmare for defenders on the perimeter. Long is a classic "Y" tight end, with the size, length and athleticism to thrive as an in-line blocker or pass catcher from the slot or out wide. He has a Kyle Rudolph-like flair that could intrigue teams looking for a throwback at the position. McKitty has all of the physical tools coaches covet in a flex tight end. Despite his limited production, the Georgia product's combination of size, speed and athleticism will make him a hot commodity in scouting circles.
The 2021 offensive tackle class is packed with quality prospects who have plug-and-play potential. Sewell is the headliner, as a dancing bear with a powerful game and nimble feet. He is a natural left tackle with the athleticism and movement skills to snuff out elite pass rushers in pass protection and cut off edge defenders on perimeter runs. Slater is a five-star player with a nearly flawless technical game. He neutralizes pass rushers with his quick hands and superb footwork while displaying enough nastiness to finish off his run blocks with violence. Hudson is a gifted athlete with the balance, body control and lateral-movement quickness to thrive on the blind side. Despite his limited experience as a starting offensive tackle -- Hudson began his career as a defensive lineman at Michigan -- he could surge up the charts as coaches and scouts fall in love with his potential.
A rock-solid collection of interior blockers could lead to an early run on offensive guards and centers on draft day. Vera-Tucker is a swing player with the potential to man four spots on the offensive line. He shined at offensive tackle for the Trojans, but could earn all-star accolades as an interior blocker at the next level if a team were to kick him inside. Davis is a people mover at the point of attack with the combination of size, strength and power to overpower defenders on inside runs. He is a quick-setter in pass protection with the balance and body control to anchor against power rushers. Dickerson's late-season knee injury will ding his draft stock, but the team that eventually pulls the trigger could land a longtime starter with a refined game that enables him to shine early in his career.
Despite the lack of star power at the edge positions, there are several pass rushers with boom-or-bust potential who, if they land in the right spots, could emerge as double-digit sack masters early in their careers. Rousseau falls into that category as a long, rangy pass rusher with natural instincts and skills. The Miami standout is still a work in progress, but his flashes will encourage teams to gamble on his upside as a disruptive edge defender. Paye is a quick-twitch pass rusher with a non-stop motor and active hands. He doesn't play with heavy hands, but his activity and effort enable him to chalk up garbage sacks off the edge. Oweh is a freak athlete with a combination of physical tools that will make defensive coaches salivate at his upside and potential. He has the capacity to win with power or finesse while displaying an array of maneuvers that enable him to get home.
A paucity of dominant interior defenders could prompt teams to overvalue flashers at the position during the evaluation process. Onwuzurike plays defensive tackle like Mr. Myagi, utilizing his extraordinary hand-to-hand combat skills to whip blockers at the point of attack. He combines his great hands with explosive athleticism and a non-stop motor to win against top competition. Barmore plays the game like a backyard bully, utilizing his size, strength and power to overwhelm blockers at the line of scrimmage. Although his motor runs a little hot and cold, the Alabama standout takes over games when he is motivated and inspired to bring his A-game. Nixon is a war daddy at the line of scrimmage, with active hands and quick feet. He has a feel for shooting gaps utilizing his strength and power to create space between blockers.
There are a handful of off-the-ball linebackers with speed, instincts and playmaking ability this year. Parsons might emerge as the best defensive player in the draft when it's all said and done. He is a freak athlete with explosive strength, power and speed. As an A+ blitz specialist with a nasty disposition, Parsons could play at a superstar level early in his career in the right system. Owusu-Koramoah is a dynamic run-and-chase playmaker with the speed, quickness and instincts to create splash plays all over the field. Teams looking for an active space player will target the Notre Dame standout for his potential to make an impact on the second level. Surratt is a newbie at the position, but his combination of speed, athleticism and explosiveness has helped him emerge as a difference-maker while learning on the job.
The NFL's gradual shift toward positionless football has blurred the lines when it comes to linebackers. The position is essentially split between on-the-ball and off-the-ball linebackers, due to the multiplicity of defenses and how defensive coaches deploy outside linebackers as pass rushers. Collins is a chameleon at the position as a versatile defender capable of aligning between the tackles as a box defender or on the edges as a blitzer/pass rusher. The Tulsa product expands the playbook with his versatility and playmaking skills as an inside-outside defender on the second level. Ojulari is a twitchy athlete with an explosive first-step and dynamic pass rush skills. He is ideally suited to attack as a pass rusher off the edges, but a creative defensive coordinator could view him as a pass-rushing SAM linebacker in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme. Ossai is an ultra-athletic defender with outstanding speed, quickness and burst. He is a crafty pass rusher off the edge, but his physical dimensions might make him better suited to play as an off-the-ball linebacker at the next level.
The depth and talent of this year's collection of long, athletic and versatile corners will enable teams to find starters outside of Day 1. Surtain is a polished cover corner with rock-solid fundamentals and exceptional instincts. He plays the game like a savvy vet, and his overall consistency in coverage is a testament to his diligent work on the practice field and in the film room. Farley is a big-bodied corner with outstanding instincts, awareness and ball skills, particularly in zone coverage. He is a solid tackler in space, and his physicality makes him an ideal fit in a Seahawks-style Cover 3 scheme. Molden is a versatile defender with the capacity to play in the slot or out wide. He is a high-IQ playmaker with the instincts, awareness and competitiveness to thrive in his role as a Swiss Army Knife in a multi-faceted defense.
It's hard to find safeties with the ability to thrive in coverage and run support, but the upcoming draft will offer plenty of enticing options at free safety and strong safety. Moehrig is a dynamic safety with corner-like coverage skills. He capably matches up with slot receivers in space while also flashing outstanding range as a deep-half player. Most importantly, the TCU standout is an exceptional open-field tackler with an aggressive read-and-react approach that enables him to blow up WR screens at the line of scrimmage. Holland is an instinctive ballhawk with terrific instincts and awareness. He reads quarterbacks like a base stealer swiping a bag off a slow-throwing pitcher, and his ability to produce turnovers is a game-changer in a league where contests are routinely decided by seven points or fewer. Although his size could be an issue in run support, the Oregon product could thrive as a deep-middle player in a single-high defense. Nasirildeen is a big, athletic box safety with a physical game. He specializes in plugging holes in run support but also displays solid instincts, awareness and ball skills in coverage.