Picking the best offensive players in the 2021 NFL Draft
By RJ Young
FOX Sports College Football Reporter
With the NFL Draft fast approaching (April 29 – May 1), evaluators are sequestered examining the 2021 class and ranking those players on their respective boards.
The best players at each position will be distributed throughout the league, but what if they weren’t? What if you could draft your lineup before the other 31 teams got the chance to pick?
I decided to take part in that exercise. Here's my starting offensive unit:
QUARTERBACK: Justin Fields (Ohio State)
According to Pro Football Focus, these are the college quarterbacks with the most games graded over 80 since 2018:
What I love about that list isn’t that the player ranked first (Burrow) was drafted No. 1 overall in 2020 or that the player listed No. 2 (Lawrence) is likely to be drafted first overall in 2021.
It’s that the player listed fifth (Jones) started only 16 games in college, which means he was graded above 80 in all but one. He also set the single-season NCAA passer efficiency record in his only full-time season as a starter.
But Jones might be the seventh-best player on offense for the 2020 national title team. I’d argue Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith, Najee Harris, Alex Leatherwood, Landon Dickerson and Evan Neal are all better football players than Jones.
There are those who have fallen in love with BYU quarterback Zach Wilson after his three years as the starter in Provo, where he became the youngest QB to start a game (19 years, 2 months). However, I’m not sold on his résumé and the quality of opponents BYU faced when he balled out.
Arguably his best games came against Central Florida, Boise State, Houston, Western Michigan and USC. Of that group, at the time Wilson played against them, UCF was the best team.
Yes, he threw for 425 yards — 330 in the first half — with five total TDs in the Boca Raton Bowl, but that UCF team ranked 70th in points per play allowed, 92nd in completions per game allowed and 96th in yards per play allowed.
Lawrence was named the starter over Kelly Bryant in September 2018 ahead of a game against Georgia Tech, and he took that Clemson team to a national title. The Tigers returned in 2019 and were beaten by Burrow and the Bayou Bengals in the title game.
Lawrence boasts a No. 1 overall pick's résumé if ever there were one, but we're splitting hairs here because that's what happens when you're choosing from a list of the best in the game today. He has made 36 starts, and 47% of those resulted in grades of 80 or more.
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields started the second-fewest games on this list, with 22. That means he recorded a grade of at least 80 or better in 73% of his starts.
Fields' 2020 season was remarkable on the field and off.
After watching the Big Ten cancel the 2020 season, Fields led a campaign to reverse that decision so he could have the opportunity to lead the Buckeyes to their first national title appearance since 2014. And then he did.
He did so with a dramatic performance against No. 2 Clemson in which he completed 22 of 28 passes for 385 yards with six touchdowns, one interception and half a hip. In a Pepsi taste test, you could come to believe that any one of the top four players in FBS is worthwhile (and then you can have another discussion altogether about North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance).
But Fields turned down MLB money so that he could become a better football player right away. If he’d waited to graduate until May of his senior year of high school, he could’ve reaped the monetary reward for being a top-250 MLB prospect.
He didn’t. He opted to early-enroll at Georgia.
"If it was a money thing, he'd have played baseball," Fields’ father told me in October. "If he'd have stayed for that spring in high school, he would've been drafted and maybe make a million bucks or so, then gave them 30 days and then off to college. But he didn't want to do that."
Give me the player I know has put his body and future livelihood on the line three times in three years just so he could play — and get better at playing — college football as the No. 1 overall pick and first QB off the board. That’s a leader, and that’s why I’d take Fields over Lawrence, Jones and Wilson.
OFFENSIVE LINE: OT Sam Cosmi (Texas), OG Wyatt Davis (Ohio State), C Landon Dickerson (Alabama), OG Rashawn Slater (Northwestern), OT Penei Sewell (Oregon)
Before the chaos of 2020, Alabama coach Nick Saban did not make a habit of reaching into the NCAA transfer portal for immediate help at any position — let alone offensive line. He made an exception for Dickerson, who was a graduate transfer to Tuscaloosa from Florida State.
Dickerson responded by winning the starting center job, and he kept it until he suffered a season-ending right knee injury. By then we’d all seen what he was made of — as did the folks who awarded him the Rimington Trophy, presented to the nation’s top center. Dickerson also was named a unanimous All-American on an offensive line that won the Joe Moore Award and included the 2020 Outland Trophy winner in Alex Leatherwood.
The only other player I considered for center was Oklahoma’s Creed Humphrey. But Humphrey never took the leap Dickerson did, and he hasn’t put together new tape that shows he can deal with dominant, oversized, 0-technique defenders. Bravvion Roy and Tyler Shelvin each had their way with Humphrey in 2019, and an NFL center needs to be able to block those players straight-up.
SKILL PLAYERS: RB Najee Harris (Alabama), RB Travis Etienne (Clemson), WR Ja'Marr Chase (LSU), WR Jaylen Waddle (Alabama), WR DeVonta Smith (Alabama), TE Kyle Pitts (Florida)
Chase is the only opt-out player on this list. There’s plenty of tape on him from 2019 that makes it clear he's one of the best wide receivers of this draft class. Unless he has put on the Mike Williams 50, expect Chase to be among the first flankers selected.
But the player who has perhaps the most value here is Waddle. As a true freshman, he ran more yards per route (3.44) than 2018 Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy (3.19) did.
When I asked Waddle about the part of his game that he thinks is underrated, he pointed to his ability to run routes.
"I definitely think my deception in my route running [gets overlooked]," he said. "I feel like I do a good job of making defensive backs think I'm running a route and then breaking off to another route."
Waddle offers explosive plays in three phases. Among his 17 career receiving touchdowns, eight were plays of 50 or more yards and 14 were plays of 20 or more. He’s also dynamic as a kick and punt returner, with three combined returns of at least 60 yards.
If Waddle falls past the top 16 picks, a team will end up feeling about him the same way the Minnesota Vikings did about Justin Jefferson in 2020.
RJ Young is a national college football reporter and analyst for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young. Subscribe to The RJ Young Show on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill.