2021 NFL Draft Honor Roll: Ranking the best prospects in 25 categories
By Rob Rang
FOX Sports NFL Draft Analyst
There are many ways to break down an NFL Draft class, but among the most eye-opening is to pinpoint which players have one dominant skill that separates them from other top prospects.
In looking at the 2021 draft hopefuls, FOX Sports went to insiders from the college and pro levels to go inside their evaluation process.
From general managers to scouting directors, area scouts and college coaches to trainers, we asked our sources to name the smartest quarterback in this class, the running back with the best balance through contact, the receiver who high-points passes like an All-Pro, the nastiest blocker, the most instinctive defender and 20 other categories.
With the draft less than a month away, scouts were understandably hesitant to give their true feelings on players, which is why we promised anonymity. We also leaned on a couple of buddies in the media world with strong eyes for talent; their job was to make sure the scouts weren't leading us completely astray and, frankly, to be sure we weren't missing quality players.
The result was a fun little exercise in identifying some of the "really cool kids" from the Class of 2021 ...
Scouts were left buzzing after Lance's pro day March 12, with some speculating that he was the inspiration behind the San Francisco 49ers’ bold trade up to the No. 3 overall pick. "This kid has an absolute hose, man," one NFL GM said.
Wilson complements his own strong arm with an efficient delivery and snappy release. His ability to deliver sudden strikes with defenders bearing down on him is impressive.
Part of the reason Lawrence is going to be the first pick of the draft is his ability to throw receivers open. His pillow-soft touch down the sideline and into seams forces the opponent to defend every blade of grass.
Scouts didn’t need Fields’ stellar pro day session Tuesday to know he is a rare athlete for the quarterback position. Fast, physical and highly competitive, Fields terrorizes defenders with his legs the way Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen and Kyler Murray do.
Trask doesn’t have the howitzer or wheels of some of this year’s exceptional QB crop, but he does a nice job of reading defenses at the line of scrimmage and adjusting, showing both the smarts and the guts to make challenging throws. "Until Trask, Dan Mullen always used a run-heavy offense. [Their receivers] were reason enough to switch this year, but Trask had a lot to do with that, too," an NFL scout said.
"You’d better add more categories for Harris. He’s the best at most things. He can knock you on your ass, leap over you, break your ankles. And he’s 6-foot-2, 230 [pounds]!" one NFL GM said.
Brought up by multiple voters, the 5-foot-10, 220-pound Williams pinballs through contact and looks to dish out punishment of his own.
"Give the kid credit. He still isn’t the most natural out of the backfield, but he returned last year in part to prove that he could be an asset in the passing game, and he has really improved. He catches and puts the ball away so much more fluidly now than earlier in his career," a rival college coach said.
A classic cutback artist who perfectly complemented the bowling-ball-like Williams for the Tar Heels, Carter runs the ball like he’s playing chess, anticipating where defenders are headed and stringing together moves.
The 6-foot, 227-pound Stevenson is built like a tank, and he’s just as powerful and intimidating. Scouts like Stevenson because he brings his hard hat on every snap, whether he’s running the ball, blocking for teammates (including in pass protection) or competing on special teams.
"Not only is he fast, he tracks the ball well and has just enough size to compete. Some of the other speedsters in this class don’t play as fast as they run because they can’t play the ball or handle [defender's] hands on them. Waddle will go early because he can," an NFL GM said.
"Some guys use their size. Others are strong. Williams is both of those things, and he has terrific body control and concentration. He just wins so many contested passes. He’s the easy winner in this category, in my opinion, though there are a lot of really good receivers this year," an NFL GM said.
"He’s a good player who gets a little overshadowed in this class. One of the things I like most about him is that he’s physical, and he doesn’t need the ball near him for defenders to know it," one NFL scout said.
Occasional drops make it easy to see why Eskridge spent time at defensive back for the Broncos, but his instant acceleration and scrappiness through contact have scouts projecting him as one of this year’s most underrated receiver and returner prospects.
"Look, I think you can make a strong argument for Ja’Marr Chase or Rondale Moore here, too, but I’d give it to Toney. He has some Deebo Samuel to him in that he’s physical, athletic and fearless," an NFL GM said.
While I would have voted for Oregon’s Penei Sewell, Slater was most popular with this year’s voters. Slater is one of the few players who might have boosted his stock by sitting out the 2020 season, as his masterful performance against Chase Young in 2019 still has scouts gushing.
"He’s the nastiest blocker we’ve seen at this level since Quenton Nelson with Notre Dame. He’s so big, quick and physical. Even with the injuries, I could see some team using a first-round pick on him. He’s everything you want on and off the field," one rival college coach said.
At 6-foot-2, 290 pounds, the former Wildcats center isn’t the biggest guy out there, but Jackson possesses terrific initial quickness and lateral agility to beat defenders to the spot. He’s a technician once latching on, bending at the knees and delivering a hard strike to turn and seal. "He’s a future starter some lucky team is going to grab in the middle rounds," an NFL scout said.
This isn’t a particularly gifted class of defensive linemen, with several of the most intriguing talents flashing rather than dominating throughout their respective careers. But no one has flashed more than Phillips, who pairs his upper and lower halves beautifully to slip by tackles in the blink of an eye.
At 6-foot-3, 346 pounds, Shelvin is well-suited to playing the role of human stump, with his thick legs growing roots into the turf when would-be blockers try to move him. Don’t ask him to track down ball carriers on the perimeter, but he’s the late-round pick who could singlehandedly improve a club’s run defense.
"He hits the hole harder than most running backs and can beat a lot of them to the flats, too. He’s not the biggest guy, but instincts and speed trump size a lot of time at our level now," an NFL GM said.
"He’s the one who doesn’t get enough attention. There are a lot of quality off-ball linebackers in this class, but for my money, Cox is as good as any of them, especially in coverage. He is alert and a very good athlete. Not many guys have the confidence and speed to make the jump he did. He was excellent in coverage at NDSU and didn’t fall off in the SEC or Senior Bowl, either," an NFL scout said.
Stickiest Cover Corner: CB Patrick Surtain II, Alabama
"How do you not go with Surtain? He’s the best corner in this class, and it isn’t close. Sure, there are some smaller corners with light feet and loose hips, too, but this guy is 6-foot-2. He can lock down anyone you put out there across from him," an NFL GM said.
After being clocked in the low 4.6s last week at USC’s pro day, Hufanga isn’t going to be a fit for everyone, but the hard-hitting, 6-foot-1 210-pounder is an enforcer who generated six turnovers in as many games for the Trojans in their COVID-shortened 2020 campaign. His 35 combined tackles in two games against rival UCLA speaks to his competitiveness as well.
While TCU safety Trevon Moehrig and Washington’s Elijah Molden also earned votes, Holland appropriately won the award for stickiest hands by his fingertips. The NFL is all about turnovers, and in averaging an interception every three games in his Oregon career, Holland certainly fits that. Instinctive, athletic and possessing the soft hands and body control to adjust to the ball in the air like a receiver, Holland is a true ballhawk.
Just as high school yearbook predictions need a few years to pan out, we won’t be able to evaluate how these skills translate in the pros for a while, but it sure will be fun to watch.
One of the most recognized names in the industry, Rob Rang has been covering the NFL draft for more than 20 years with his work found at FOX Sports, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others.