National Football League

Which defensive player will change a franchise's fortunes after the 2021 NFL Draft?

April 25

Drafting defense isn't always sexy. But it's necessary.

The 2021 NFL Draft is less than a week away, and it’s possible that half of the first-round picks will be defensive players, according to FOX Sports' Jason McIntyre and his latest mock draft.

Which of these future professional defensemen could change the tide of a franchise?

One of the most compelling prospects to watch is Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons

On Friday’s "First Things First," Big Ten Network analyst James Laurinaitis joined former NFL linebacker LaVar Arrington to discuss just how special and versatile the 6-foot-3, 246-pound prospect is. 

"You wanna talk about scheme versus utility, Micah Parsons can absolutely fly," Laurinaitis said. "Pro Football Focus had him as the best graded blitzing inside linebacker that they’ve ever studied. I mean, that’s high praise. … He can do it all, and I think he’s a rare special talent that’s ascending." 

Parsons – who sat out last season because of concerns regarding COVID-19 – was the first true freshman in Penn State history to lead the team in tackles in 2018. In 2019, he finished the regular season with five sacks, 109 total tackles, four forced fumbles and one fumble recovery before forgoing his junior year.

At Penn State’s pro day, Parson impressed those in attendance – including Broncos GM George Paton, Giants head coach Joe Judge and Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin – by running the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds.

Parsons isn't the only Nittany Lion who made waves before the draft, as his former Penn State teammate Jayson Oweh, another likely first-round pick, also generated major buzz on pro day with a 4.36-second 40.

The 6-foot-5, 257-pound edge – a defensive end or outside linebacker, depending on the system, who acts as a pass rusher from either end of the offensive line – had 38 total tackles in 2020 and racked up 21 tackles, five sacks and two forced fumbles in 2019.

There’s also Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II – the son of three-time Pro Bowler and former NFL cornerback Patrick Surtain – who is a projected top-10 draft selection, and it’s easy to see why. 

Surtain was a three-year starter, a unanimous first-team All-American in 2020, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 2020 and the Defensive MVP of the 2021 Rose Bowl. He totaled 35 tackles, one recovered fumble, one interception and one touchdown this past season.

The 6-foot-2, 208-pound former five-star recruit is in a tight race with South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn to be the first defensive player taken in this year’s draft, and Horn also happens to have some family ties to the league.

Horn’s father, Joe Horn, is a former NFL wide receiver who played with the Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons in his 11-year career.  

Horn, a three-year starter, measures in at 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, and he edged Surtain’s pro day numbers in every major category.

Horn recorded a 40-yard dash time of 4.39, a broad jump of 11 feet, a vertical jump of 41.5 inches, and 19 bench press reps. Surtain ran the 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds, broad-jumped 10 feet, 11 inches, vertical-jumped 39 inches and totaled 18 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press. 

A third member of the secondary to look out for is Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley. While Farley doesn't have as much experience at the position as Surtain or Horn – he played CB for only two years and opted out of the 2020 season – his undeniable speed and athleticism make him a desirable target for teams lacking at corner.

Farley recorded 56 tackles, 19 passes defended and six interceptions in his sophomore season with the Hokies, earning first-team All-ACC honors.

Another top defender taking his talents to the NFL is Michigan’s Kwity Paye, who has been referred to as one of — if not the — best edge rushers in college football and this year’s most extraordinary draft prospect. 

Paye is of Liberian heritage and was born in a refugee camp in Guinea during the aftermath of the First Liberian Civil War. He and his family emigrated to the United States when he was a baby.

Now he’s looking to make waves in this year’s draft class after recording two sacks and 16 total tackles last season.

Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins, winner of the 2020 Chuck Bednarik Award and Bronko Nagurski Trophy as the nation's top defensive player, could also sneak into the top 10.

He had 54 total tackles, four sacks and two forced fumbles in the 2020 season, and he will likely singlehandedly represent the Group of 5 conferences on Thursday, considering that he is the only non-Power 5 defensive player projected to go in the first round of the draft.

The University of Tulsa is part of the American Athletic Conference (AAC).

Remember: They say defense wins championships. 

We'll see which teams move closer to the Lombardi Trophy next week.

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