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2021 NFL draft: Ranking every position from strongest to weakest

Eric Edholm
·15-min read

We’re still compiling our individual prospect grades for the 2021 NFL draft, and they’ll likely be more volatile throughout this most unusual draft cycle as pro-day workout numbers, medical information and character reports trickle in from teams throughout March and into April.

Plus, we don’t technically know yet who exactly will make up this class. The deadline for eligible prospects to declare technically isn’t until March 1, leaving some questions for a few more weeks.

But we’re starting to see a clearer view from 30,000 feet, and it’s giving a picture of the relative positions of strength and weakness in this class.

Individual rankings aside, here’s a look at how all the positions (minus special teams) stack up — which ones have heft and which ones come up short.

1. Wide receiver

Much like the 2020 class, the 2021 WR crop is more than plentiful. For teams such as the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots — those who passed on drafting from a deep receiver pool a year ago — there is a chance for redemption.

This year is loaded again. In fact, it’s arguably better.

There were 16 receivers who cracked the top 100 picks a year ago. Justin Jefferson, the fifth receiver drafted, had one of the best rookie WRs in history. Plus, there were some notable Day 3 picks (Darnell Mooney, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Gabriel Davis, e.g.) who were instant contributors.

The 16 number might be hard to match this year. It’s also a strong WR free-agent class, which could water down some teams’ needs at the position.

Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith leads a deep, talented class of wide receivers in the 2021 NFL draft. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)
Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith leads a deep, talented class of wide receivers in the 2021 NFL draft. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

But the talent speaks for itself. DeVonta Smith, Ja’Marr Chase and Jaylen Waddle all have a shot to go in the first half of Round 1, perhaps even the top 10. There are maybe eight or nine receivers who have a shot to crack the top 50 overall.

And the depth after that reads as impressive, too. There are simply too many wideouts to mention in this year’s class for reasons of space. The Day 2 and early Day 3 prospects might end up going a round or two later than they might in a more typical draft cycle, and there figures to be some undrafted talent left over — prospects who might normally be taken in the first five or six rounds.

That’s how well-regarded this group is. If your favorite team missed out on the banner 2020 class, there are no excuses this time around. It’s a monster lot again.

2. Edge rusher

Some will disagree with this high mark. In conversations we’ve had with folks around the league, this might be the position that creates the widest variety of responses — not counting quarterback (which almost always creates that wide a range).

But we like this group overall for its depth and its upside, even if there’s no clear-cut top-10 overall prospect this year.

The past eight NFL drafts have produced at least one top-five selection (Chase Young, Nick Bosa, Clelin Ferrell, Bradley Chubb, Myles Garrett, Joey Bosa, Dante Fowler, Jadeveon Clowney and Dion Jordan). This year, we just can’t see a single EDGE going that high, although Ferrell is a good example of a surprise pick at a highly valued spot.

Still, with at least eight prospects who are in range to crack our top-50 overall list, it’s a crop that features a ton of potential and promise. Perhaps a more typical college season would have pushed a few higher.

Miami’s Greg Rousseau and Washington’s Joe Tryon opted out. Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari and Miami’s Jaelan Phillips have fewer than 1,000 college snaps. Michigan’s Kwity Paye was limited to four games last fall. With Penn State’s Jayson Oweh, you’re betting on athletic promise and hoping his zero-sack 2020 season is an outlier. And so on and so forth …

But in this group, there’s just so much upside oozing. Some will be busts; we know that. However, it will be surprising to me if we don’t see at least a handful of really productive pros. Maybe no Bosas or Youngs, but whatever we call that group one tier below that — this class has a surplus at that level.

3. Offensive tackle

Although this year’s tackles might pale a bit compared to 2020, when we saw four selected in the top 14 overall picks, the overall depth and talent appears quite respectable.

Unlike the EDGE spot, there appears to be a front runner for OT1 honors, and that’s Oregon’s Penei Sewell. Although we’ve talked to some evaluators who fall short of lavishing undying praise his way, Sewell is as exciting a young tackle prospect as we’ve seen in recent years.

After him is a slew of differently shaped prospects with varied skill sets, led by Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater and a few others close behind. It would not at all be a shock to see five or six tackles crack Round 1, with another half a dozen worthy of being taken in Round 2 or shortly thereafter.

If we learned anything from the Super Bowl, it’s that offensive line play matters — still. The good news is that there are enough quality prospects to fulfill many teams’ voids up front.

4. Cornerback

This position has grown on us over time, and we were close to bumping it up a spot on this list but just couldn’t in the end.

Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II and Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley headline the group, with both capable of landing inside the top 10 overall; they won’t last too long after that if they don’t.

But even with some talented underclassmen such as Derion Kendrick (Clemson) and Josh Jobe (Alabama) expected to head back to school, the 2021 class appears well-stocked at a much-needed position.

No position features stronger NFL bloodlines than at corner. In addition to Surtain, whose dad of the same name was a pretty terrific pro corner in his own right, there are other sons of former NFL players at this position, including South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn (son of former New Orleans Saints WR Joe Horn) and FSU’s Asante Samuel Jr. (son of the ex-New England Patriots corner).

NFL bloodlines run through this year's CB class, including South Carolina's Jaycee Horn, the son of former Saints WR Joe Horn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
NFL bloodlines run through this year's CB class, including South Carolina's Jaycee Horn, the son of former Saints WR Joe Horn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Georgia has four (!) CB prospects in this class: Tyson Campbell, Eric Stokes, DJ Daniel and Mark Webb, all of whom could be drafted. The first two will make runs at Round 1.

Need a nickel? We’d like to interest you in Washington’s Elijah Molden or perhaps UCF’s Aaron Robinson.

Want more of a longer, outside corner? Perhaps Syracuse’s Ifeatu Melifonwu or Washington’s Keith Taylor will tempt you.

Want a tough customer who lacks great size but won’t back down from any challenge? Northwestern’s Greg Newsome II might be your man.

There’s a CB prospect for nearly every style of coverage and every spot on the field in this class. A strong, deep group.

5. Quarterback

It starts at the top with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence — a prospect some believe is a generational talent — and actually doesn’t fall off dramatically from there.

BYU’s Zach Wilson and Ohio State’s Justin Fields both could end up in the top five overall, and they’re the most likely two to vie for QB2 honors in this class. Then again, we know of at least one team that thinks North Dakota State’s Trey Lance has the goods to be better than both of them and make a run in time at one day being better than even Lawrence.

After that, there are some questions, and the overall depth isn’t quite what we thought it might be a month or two ago. But Alabama’s Mac Jones has his fans and could join that quartet to give us only our third five-QB first round in the past 22 years.

So why isn’t quarterback higher on our list?

Well, we’ve heard some doubt cast from some NFL evaluators on Wilson, Fields, Lance (especially given his mere 17 starts at the FCS level), Jones and Florida’s Kyle Trask, for instance. Not everyone is in love with this crop on the hole.

And the remainder of the class features other big question marks such as ex-Wake Forest QB Jamie Newman and Stanford’s Davis Mills for their lack of experience and doubt cast on unorthodox/atypical QBs such as Ian Book, Sam Ehlinger and Kellen Mond who read as beauty-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder prospects.

When a few Day 3 possibilities — Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, Georgia’s JT Daniels and Pitt’s Kenny Pickett — returned to school, it took a bit of the teeth out of the QB depth.

It's a good group and potentially a very good one. But this appears to be a pretty top-heavy collection of talent, so don't be shocked when a player such as Jones goes higher than we might have assumed even a few weeks ago.

6. Linebacker

Another position that features more depth than can’t-miss talents, linebacker nonetheless features a really interesting mix this year. It’s a very respectable group with a few future Pro Bowl players among them.

And like at cornerback, they come in all different shapes and sizes here, too.

Penn State’s Micah Parsons might have been a top-10 lock had he dominated in 2020, but opting out of this past season makes his evaluation a bit trickier.

Still, after Parsons, there are maybe a half dozen who could land in Rounds 1 or 2.

Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, North Carolina’s Chazz Surratt and LSU’s Jabril Cox fit the mold of the modern, athletically gifted, three-down linebacker.

Tulsa's Zaven Collins is part of a very respectable group of linebackers in the 2021 NFL draft. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio, File)
Tulsa's Zaven Collins is part of a very respectable group of linebackers in the 2021 NFL draft. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio, File)

Tulsa’s Zaven Collins is a wild card, fitting more old-school dimensions at 6-foot-3 and nearly 260 pounds. But watch him move and defend the pass, and your fears are quickly eased.

Throwback thumpers such as Mizzou’s Nick Bolton and Alabama’s Dylan Moses can be tone setters at the next level, making people remember their hits long afterward.

Baron Browning and Pete Werner lead a quartet of Ohio State LB draft-pick hopefuls — again, four of any one position possibly being drafted the same year from the same school is just rare.

The depth and talent is impressive up and down, even though it appears to peter out somewhere in the Day 3 range. But this is a good year to need a linebacker.

7. Interior offensive line

It gets a little murky here, in that there are several OL prospects who could figure inside or outside depending on the team and the scheme.

But in lumping together the players we think could end up as guards or centers, it still reads as a very respectable group — even though there’s clearly no obvious candidate for a prospect on the level of a Quenton Nelson, Brandon Scherff or Zack Martin.

Some scouts believe that USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker, Michigan’s Jalen Mayfield, Alabama’s Alex Leatherwood and Clemson’s Jackson Carman — college tackles by trade — could kick inside. Those calls will be made team by team. But all of them profile as starting-caliber blockers wherever they line up.

The depth inside lasts well into Day 2, and perhaps into Day 3, being boosted by recent revelations such as small-school Senior Bowl standout Quinn Meinerz.

Had Alabama’s Landon Dickerson not suffered a torn ACL late in the season, and had Ohio State’s Wyatt Davis performed better in the Buckeyes’ shortened season, this group would look even stronger on paper.

8. Safety

This is a very tricky group to evaluate, we feel. On the surface, there are some fascinating talents who could turn out to be All-Pro level performers … or end up as overdrafted busts.

That’s why there might not be a first-round prospect in the lot here, even if we would endorse TCU’s Trevon Moehrig as worthy of that consideration.

There’s truly an incomplete picture here, with several prospects having opted out of 2020 or had limited opportunities last season to produce more quality tape. That list includes Florida State’s Hamsah Nasirildeen, Oregon’s Jevon Holland, Syracuse’s Andre Cisco, USC’s Talanoa Hufanga and Pitt’s Paris Ford.

The Missouri duo of Tyree Gillespe and Joshuah Bledsoe are underrated, UCF’s Richie Grant doesn’t get enough national attention and two or three of the eventual Day 2 or early Day 3 picks here might turn out to be hidden gems.

We’d also throw in Ohio State’s Shaun Wade at this spot provisionally. He was a college corner by trade, but Wade struggled enough at times for some scouts to forecast him either to a nickel CB role or perhaps try him at safety.

But overall, there are enough questions at safety to where we hesitate to stamp a stronger grade on the class as a whole.

9. Running back

Always a tricky position to weigh because of the NFL’s reliance on the passing game, this year’s running back group has some really appealing higher-end talents and a few lower-rated prospects we think could make it in the league.

But even with the slew of underclassmen who returned to school in 2020, there’s still a little lack of pizzazz overall.

Alabama’s Najee Harris and Clemson’s Travis Etienne are two of the best-known prospects, producing gaudy numbers on big stages for their respective playoff programs and national-title winners.

Clemson running back Travis Etienne is one of the best playmakers in this year's draft class. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)
Clemson running back Travis Etienne is one of the best playmakers in this year's draft class. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

But right behind them is North Carolina’s thunder-and-lightning duo of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, both of whom could be big-play pieces in the right systems.

There are third-down prospects such as Memphis’ Kenneth Gainwell (a 2020 opt out), UCLA’s Demetric Felton (who also played wide receiver at the Senior Bowl) and Virginia Tech’s Khalil Herbert.

We’ve also got a pair of wild-card backs in Ohio State’s Trey Sermon and Oklahoma’s Rhamondre Stevenson — once Sooners teammates — who could develop into three-down starters.

After that is an interesting allotment of long-shot prospects worth kicking the tires on. But can we call this a group without flaws and concerns? We cannot.

10. Tight end

Last year’s TE class was pretty much a morass. This year is better — and it features one of the higher-rated prospects at the position in recent memory. But overall, it might not be a special crop in many other ways.

Kyle Pitts (whom we consider more of a receiver than a true, in-line tight end) is a rare specimen. We think the world of the guy and would take him very, very high in this particular class.

After that, however, it’s a fairly steep dropoff. Penn State’s Pat Friermuth could crack the top 50. Boston College’s Hunter Long and Miami’s Brevin Jordan are top-100 possibilities, with Notre Dame’s Tommy Tremble maybe just outside of that.

After that crew, there are a few other Day 3 prospects we like as TE2 or TE3 types.

But with a slew of talented underclassmen (Ohio State’s Jeremy Ruckert, Utah’s Brant Kuithe, Iowa State’s Charlie Kolar and Wisconsin’s Jake Ferguson among them) returning to school, the depth is really thinner than we thought it might be.

11. Interior defensive line

From about October on, it’s been clear this position would be a problem. Right now, it’s clear that there’s not a no-doubt first-round selection, even if it would be stunning not to see at least one interior player end up in the top 32.

The sheer number of opt outs has clouded the picture. Washington’s Levi Onwuzurike, Pitt’s Jaylen Twyman, USC’s Jay Tufele, LSU’s Tyler Shelvin and others chose not to play in 2020. Strong final seasons might have boosted their stocks into that first-round range, but we certainly understand why they made the decisions they did.

Alabama redshirt sophomore Christian Barmore came on strong late in the year, putting out some great tape in the national-title game. Iowa’s Daviyon Nixon is another player who helped boost his stock this season, along with USC’s Marlon Tuipulotu and Ohio State’s Tommy Togiai.

But there are just a lot of questions with the available group as we now know it. Nearly all of them have enough holes in their evaluation to make this a tough year for a team to need a defensive tackle and hope for the draft to provide one.

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