It's always a bit odd to speculate about the upcoming NFL draft class a year out from the event, but the exercise is even stranger at this point given the uncertainty of what this fall will hold.
While the 2021 draft is currently slated to be held in Cleveland next April, there's still no clarity about whether the college football season will take place as scheduled amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Any postponement or cancellation of games could have a huge fallout for both teams and prospects, as LSU quarterback Joe Burrow needed this past year's performance to make his unlikely rise to become the No. 1 overall pick.
Yet even though the season will be crucial for every stakeholder, many players have already put themselves on the NFL's radar. While additional scouting and closer inspection will be needed to fully assess their stock, these players constitute our early top 25 prospects (based on pro potential, not college performance) for 2021.
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1. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson: Tank for Trevor? Lose for Lawrence? Expect to hear plenty of both over the next year. While the term "generational prospect" has been thrown about all too easily, the pre-draft buzz surrounding Lawrence will be as strong as it has been for any prospect since Andrew Luck in 2011. Standing 6-6 with rare arm strength to attack defenses anywhere on the field and the poise to hold up in the face of pressure, Lawrence is very nearly the complete package at quarterback, though his uneven play early in 2019 showed he's not flawless. If he reaches his potential, he's a transformative figure for any organization.
2. Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon: With all due respect to the four offensive tackles selected in the top 15 picks this year, Sewell is in his own stratosphere as a blocker. The Outland Trophy winner dominated all comers in 2019, keeping pass rushers at bay and bulldozing big holes in the run game. He moves astonishingly well for a player who measures at 6-6 and 330 pounds, blowing up defenders on screens and at the second level. Still only 19, he provides every reason to believe he can be the NFL's next franchise left tackle.
3. Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State: Dating back to his high school days in Georgia, Fields hasn't ceded the spotlight to Lawrence. And if there's anyone who can challenge the highly touted quarterback for the top spot in next year's draft, it's the Georgia transfer. The 6-3, 223-pound signal-caller puts his downfield passes on point and threw for 41 touchdowns with just three interceptions. He also is dynamic when he takes off running, creating even more problems for defenses trying not to be victimized deep. Even if he ends up the second quarterback selected after Lawrence, he'll be far from a consolation prize.
4. Ja'Marr Chase, WR, LSU: The Biletnikoff Award winner already has the respect of his adversaries, with several defensive backs at this year's NFL scouting combine naming Chase as the most difficult receiver to defend among all the ones they faced. The 6-1, 200-pound target is a deep-ball dynamo thanks to his uncommon combination of long speed and contested-catch ability, which helped him to average 21.2 yards per catch last season.
5. Gregory Rousseau, DE, Miami (Fla.): Only No. 2 pick Chase Young had more sacks than Rousseau's 15 1/2 in 2019, a year that the then-redshirt freshman began as a backup. The 6-7, 251-pound edge rusher is still learning the nuances of the position after playing safety and wide receiver in high school, and he should only get more formidable with experience and comfort.
6. Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State: The 6-3, 244-pound athletic marvel's testing numbers would be almost impossible to believe if they weren't also reflected in his play. According to Penn State, Parsons runs a 4.43-second 40-yard dash — which would put him in wide receiver or cornerback territory — and can bench presses 350 pounds. His speed and strength should serve the consensus All-American well at the next level as a sideline-to-sideline defender.
7. Shaun Wade, CB, Ohio State: The Buckeyes' cornerback pipeline continues with Wade, who's poised to be Ohio State's sixth first-round selection at the position in five years. Wade operated in the slot in 2019 with Jeff Okudah (No. 3 overall pick by the Lions) and Damon Arnette (No. 19 by the Raiders) manning the outside, but the 6-1, 195-pound rising junior will step into a larger role and push to match Okudah as the first defensive back selected in his class.
8. Marvin Wilson, DT, Florida State: In returning for his senior season despite showing first-round talent during an injury-shortened 2019 campaign, Wilson looks to be on track to follow Derrick Brown's trajectory into the top 10. The 6-5, 310-pounder does more than command double teams, as he netted five sacks in just nine games last season.
9. Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama: The son of three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Sutrain is a gifted prospect in his own right. At 6-2 and 203 pounds with good speed, Surtain can stay in the hip pocket of almost any receiver, including some of the most imposing ones in the SEC.
10. Justyn Ross, WR, Clemson: At his best, Ross looks almost unguardable in one-on-one situations, overwhelming cornerbacks with his 6-4, 205-pound build and penchant for circus catches. The next step in his development is to become a more consistent pass catcher, which starts with improved route running.
11. Dylan Moses, LB, Alabama: If not a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered last season, Moses almost assuredly would have already earned the distinction of being a first-round draft pick in this year's class. A phenomenal athlete, the 6-3, 235-pound linebacker can make his mark dropping into zone coverage or attacking downhill.
12. Jevon Holland, S, Oregon: His playmaking streak is evident in his nine interceptions the last two seasons and 15.3 yards per punt return in 2019. The Thorpe Award semifinalist also has been outstanding in covering the slot throughout his career.
13. Creed Humphrey, C/G, Oklahoma: The former wrestling standout went from pinning his opponents to pancaking them. Humphrey is particularly adept at winning in confined spaces, but he also can be dangerous on the move.
14. Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida: This year's crop of tight ends was perhaps the weakest of any group in the draft, but there are several players — including Penn State's Pat Freiermuth and Miami's Brevin Jordan — in line to make 2021 much stronger at the position. Pitts, who creates mismatches in the passing game with his 6-6 frame and speed to separate after the catch, looks like the most promising of them all.
15. Alex Leatherwood, OT, Alabama: Citing "unfinished business," Leatherwood opted to return for his senior season rather than push to join Crimson Tide linemate Jedrick Wills in the first round. If he can hone his technique, he could end up a top-15 selection.
16. Sam Cosmi, OT, Texas: Boasting a 6-7, 310-pound frame, Cosmi has the ideal make-up to be a starting left tackle. His development as a pass protector is encouraging, and last season's matchup with LSU's K'Lavon Chaisson showed he can handle facing off against first-round talent.
17. Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson: It was Etienne, not Lawrence, who won ACC Offensive Player of the Year in 2018 and '19 after eclipsing 1,600 rushing yards in each campaign and totaling 49 touchdowns. The 5-10, 210-pound breakaway threat said he returned to school after being given a second-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, and Day 1 should be within reach in 2021, though his outlook might hinge on continued growth as a receiver.
18. Walker Little, OT, Stanford: A knee injury robbed him of all but one appearance last year, so Little will have some work to do in re-establishing himself as a top prospect. With his 6-7 and 320-pound build, though, he likely will have plenty of admirers waiting among talent evaluators.
19. DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama: Even with first-rounders Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy off to the NFL, the Crimson Tide's receiving corps is far from depleted. Rising junior Jaylen Waddle is an electric target who also should garner first-round consideration, but Smith stands out for his crafty route running and an overall refinement that helped him lead Alabama's loaded pass-catching crew in receiving yards (1,256) and touchdown catches (14).
20. Wyatt Davis, G, Ohio State: After establishing himself as a consensus All-American, Davis opted to delay his entry into the NFL at least another year for another go-around in Columbus. The 6-4, 315-pound blocker is powerful at the point of attack and has enticing tools in pass protection.
21. Andre Cisco, S, Syracuse: In his first two years in the ACC, Cisco quickly stood out for his ball skills, recording 12 interceptions. If he can become more consistent, the 6-0, 203-pound safety will be in the first-round conversation.
22. Trey Smith, G, Tennessee: Medical evaluations will be critical to Smith's stock after blood clots in his lungs disrupted the former five-star recruit's career, but there will be plenty of suitors so long as he gets the green light from doctors. Smith can drive defenders off their spots in the run game and can anchor to prevent the pocket from collapsing.
23. Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue: When healthy, Moore might be the most electric threat in college football. Evaluators will scrutinize his size (listed at 5-9, 180 pounds), but he can strike in a number of ways, having won the Hornung Award as college football's most versatile player when he was a freshman.
24. Paulson Adebo, CB, Stanford: Returning for his senior season was likely a shrewd move after an uneven 2019 campaign. The 6-1, 192-pound former receiver can bounce back by continuing to polish his approach and show off his impressive ball skills after tallying eight interceptions in two years.
25. Tyler Shelvin, DT, LSU: At 6-3 and 346 pounds, Shelvin commands a significant amount of attention with his sheer power. He likely won't record a ton of sacks, but the nose tackle can still be plenty disruptive for opposing offenses.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.
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