The week of the 2021 NFL Draft has finally arrived. After scouting prospects for years and spending way too much time breaking down pro day highlights, the next step has come for a promising draft class that has been through a college football season unlike any in modern history. With no NFL Combine, you would think that would only heighten the importance of what these players have shown on tape in college. Instead, we are lingering on hand-timed 40-yard dash numbers and the latest en vogue drill skill, which this year seems to be the off-platform deep throw.
It’s an annual tradition to unveil this list here at the end of the process. This is not a mock draft, which leans heavily on team needs, nor a reflection of how we think a team’s big board should look on draft night. This is a ranking for college football fans, meant to celebrate the best future pros before their playing careers change forever at the end of the week. We are ranking the top 32 players in the NFL Draft based on what they showed us college — awarding excellence that has been, not what might be in the future.
As you’ll see in the rankings below, there’s not a ton of disagreement as it pertains to the top players in the draft class. But what I’ve found in over a decade of covering college football for CBS Sports and assisting with the NFL Draft coverage is that an exclusively college-centric approach to ranking players breaks from the NFL consensus in a few notable ways.
- Misplaced concerns with how a player “fits” at the next level: Just by earning an invitation to the NFL Combine, these players have outlasted cuts at every level and proven to be some of the most gifted football players in the country. There is an argument to be made for finding the right “fit” for a franchise or coaching staff, but when offensive and defensive players are downgraded because of how their size and measurables line up with a certain profile or expectation, I think mistakes are made in the evaluation process.
- Misplaced excitement based on measurables: The inverse of the “fit” concerns comes into play when NFL teams come back from the combine with testing numbers that overtake the evaluation process. Draft history factors into models and projections that use these numbers to inform decisions, but too often that can either overshadow the game film or contribute to bias and a new lens for reviewing a select player’s performance. Testing well is a great way for a player to boost their draft stock and increase how much money can be made on their rookie deal, but players who have proven their performance at a high level on Saturdays tend to be the ones with intangibles that help them make it to a second contract.
- Draft value and scarcity: I understand the basic calculations that go into “a run on [position]” and why teams looking to address needs might choose to make moves or selections seeing that the number of high-end prospects at a certain position is starting to dissipate. I also generally disagree with passing on multiple best-player-available selections to address those needs.
Whether or not these players end up as 10-year pros, Pro Bowlers or even Hall of Fame-caliber players at the next level is dependent on far more than success in college, but what we have seen on Saturdays informs us plenty about talent and a player’s competitive DNA. So with college performance as the building blocks of the rankings, let’s dive into the top 32 prospects of the 2021 NFL Draft.
1. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson: Won a national championship as a freshman and lost only twice as a starting quarterback with both defeats coming in the College Football Playoff. The NFL crowd has been hyping up Lawrence for years based on his projections as a generational talent, but his college accomplishments alone would be worth this No. 1 status.
2. Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State: Critics who linger on poor showings against Indiana and Northwestern in 2020 are looking for reasons to pick Fields apart. Context, however, reminds us those are two of the toughest defenses in the Big Ten and the Buckeyes might have had a reason for looking out of sync in a delayed-but-rushed season with frequent changes to the lineups because of COVID protocol. In 2019, Fields became the first quarterback in Big Ten history with 40 passing touchdowns and 10 rushing touchdowns, and his 41-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio was the best in the country. That was his first year as a starter, and it alone gave us everything we needed to see to make him the No. 2 to Lawrence in the class.
3. Penei Sewell, OL, Oregon: In two full seasons of starting — his freshman and sophomore seasons — Sewell allowed just one sack in 1,376 snaps. He’s been pro-ready for years and the kind of player you don’t need to ask for a number when watching the tape. Now Sewell wasn’t going to win the Heisman Trophy, but in a year where the “best player in college football” discussion extended beyond quarterbacks, Sewell could have easily been in the mix.
4. Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU: Ask opposing defensive backs from the SEC or recent College Football Playoff about the best wide receiver in this draft class, or even the last two draft classes. Chase has shown us everything we need to see and, like Sewell, was always destined to be in this position heading into draft week.
5. DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama: Smith did not come out of high school with projections indicating much more than low first-round talent, so his rise up the boards is a credit to the hard work put in to improve and shine in an absolutely stellar season en route to winning the Heisman Trophy. What stood out about Smith’s 2020 was in the details of his usage and production spike after Jaylen Waddle’s injury. Steve Sarkisian moved Smith all around the offense and he found ways to excel thanks to a versatile skill set that makes him dangerous in any wide receiver room.
6. Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida: Some consider Pitts the best non-quarterback in the draft class. Based on what he could be, I don’t think that’s too bold. But we’re ranking based on what we’ve already seen, and Pitts deserves to be among the top non-quarterbacks, but I give the edge to the two wide receivers from the SEC West.
7. Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State: It’s too bad we didn’t get to see Parsons as a return specialist in 2020 because any opportunities to see him with the ball in his hands would have only heightened the draft hype. His athleticism and instinctual play were so exciting to see in its infancy, but we know there’s even more to come from Parsons.
8. Zach Wilson, QB, BYU: As one of the best quarterbacks in BYU history, Wilson will always have a special place in college football lore. His prolific playmaking in the Cougars 9-0 start to the season had both team and player among them most exciting stories in the sport. Things became noticeably more difficult for Wilson when they faced Coastal Carolina and San Diego State later in the year, similar to how things went in 2019 against the likes of Utah and Washington. So while we celebrate his successes, the proper college-centric ranking is behind Lawrence and Fields.
9. Mac Jones, QB, Alabama: In his only full season as a starter, Jones set the NCAA single-season record for completion percentage (77.4%) and became Alabama’s all-time single-season passing leader. Since Nick Saban has given in to letting the offense cook, we may see more 400-yard passing performances in the near future. But as it stands, the Crimson Tide only have 10 in history and four of them came from Jones.
10. Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama: Bonus points awarded here for Waddle as one of the best return specialists in college football, which I assume is why some NFL teams reportedly consider him the top wideout in the draft. There are so few players who can make a difference in the open field like Waddle that his top-end route running and skills from the slot are just par for the course.
11. Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa: Collins was the best defensive player in college football last season. He not only racked up tackles and tackles for loss, but seemed to always rise to the occasion with big-time playmaking in key situations. Collins had four interceptions in eight games, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, a safety and ran one of those four interceptions 96 yards the other way for a game-winning touchdown in overtime against Tulane.
12. Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama: The Crimson Tide defense didn’t rank up there statistically with the 2015 or 2017 title winners, but they did finish in the top 20 nationally in yards per play allowed thanks in part to having elite play at the cornerback position. Defensive coordinator Pete Goulding was able to dedicate extra eyes and bodies to the rest of the field knowing that Surtain, the. SEC Defensive Player of the Year with 38 career starts under his belt, had his assignment on lock.
13. Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson: The two-time ACC Player of the Year re-wrote the record books for career conference marks during a four-year run that included four ACC titles, four College Football Playoff appearances and two national championship games with one national title. But the most impressive stat is not his accumulated totals but the rate he carried throughout that four-year career, averaging 7.22 yards per carry. That’s tops in ACC and school history, and No. 11 among all FBS players with at least 300 career rushing attempts. That 7.22 number is the evidence of explosiveness that terrifies opposing defensive coordinators when Etienne is on the field.
14. Najee Harris, RB, Alabama: As Alabama leaned more on its passing game to win a national championship, Harris was able to show off his ability to excel not only as a runner but as a receiving threat out of the backfield. A well-executed screen pass with Harris…