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2021 NFL Draft season preview: Defensive prospects

Pass rushers and defensive backs dominate the list

With Week 1 of the 2019 college football season set to premiere on Saturday, it’s once again time to look ahead and preview what the 2021 NFL Draft should look like in the spring—in terms of talent at specific position groups. Now we turn to defensive side of the ball.

This year’s defensive class fits what the NFL has become about on defense in recent years—stopping the pass. Depth and overall talent at edge rusher and safety were both severely lacking from last year’s draft, with no safeties taken in the first round and only two pass rushers. That’s set to change in a big way in 2021 as the safety position is absolutely loaded and this year’s group of pass rushers is a vast group of players looking to catapult their draft stock with a solid season.


Defensive Tackle

It was a down year for tackles last year and that trend will probably continue this year. Florida State’s Marvin Wilson is as good as it gets—a massive, strong-as-an-ox guy along the interior, who nonetheless gets a good amount of penetration. There are definitely a couple players waiting to emerge in Alabama’s Christian Barmore and Pittsburgh’s Jaylen Twyman, but they need to put more tape out before they’re anointed as first rounders. (That’ll be tough for Twyman, as he just opted out of the season.) Levi Onwuzurike from Washington is another guy with massive physical gifts and will be one to track during the season, if the Pac-12 ever has a season.

Edge Rusher

Premier size, length and athletic skills allow Miami’s Gregory Rousseau to dominate every time he steps on the field. The 6’7”, 250-lb pass rusher needs to add a bit more weight for the NFL (which he will have plenty of time to work on because he opted out) but he should be a top-ten pick regardless. Finding the next best prospect is difficult as there is a cluster of players who have yet to emerge. Rousseau’s teammate Quincy Roche is a speed rusher looking to burnish his draft stock and prove he can produce in the big leagues. Let the record show that this writer is a huge fan of both Kwity Paye from Michigan and Carlos Basham, Jr. of Wake Forest. They both have oodles of athleticism on the edge and I can’t wait to watch how they’ve improved in the offseason. Clemson’s Xavier Thomas contracted COVID-19, and will likely miss most of the season unfortunately, as he was having a solid spring according to coaches. Pitt’s Patrick Jones II shows great burst off the line at 6’5” and 260 lbs, but he has trouble truly bending around the edge.

Linebacker

Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons was one of the first players to opt out of the season, and when you watch his tape you know why. He’s instinctual and has the size you want, along with the speed to keep up in coverage—he’s a complete player. North Carolina’s Chazz Surratt is just now coming into his own as a highly effective and aggressive coverage linebacker, having only made the transition from quarterback two years ago. Dylan Moses is the next in a great line of Alabama linebackers who hit like a truck and are always around the ball. It’s hard to find a weakness in Missouri’s Nick Bolton. He’s not dominant in any one area, but he’s smart and always brings maximum effort. Expect all four of the above players to be in the conversation as first rounders.

Safety

The top handful of safety prospects feature a good mix of coverage chops and traditional jack-of-all-trades type players. Jevon Holland is more of the latter. Oregon deploys him in the slot and as a traditional safety, and his ball skills are impressive with nine interceptions over just two seasons. Syracuse’s Andre Cisco is more of a traditional single-high safety with good instincts who has a crazy 12 interceptions over two seasons. TCU’s Ar’Darius Washington is a feisty player who plays much bigger than his 5’8” size, but his coverage skills are top notch and he’s not afraid of contact either. A potential riser during the season is Middle Tennessee’s Reed Blankenship, he’s a certifiable athletic specimen who can cover a ton of ground quickly when lined up as a single-high player.

Cornerback

Draft watchers haven’t decided on a sure-fire top prospect at the corner position, but there are certainly plenty of candidates. Patrick Surtain II is the son of a former NFL player and plays all over the field for the Crimson Tide. His ability to play the ball and create turnovers puts him over the edge. Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley is a specimen at 6’2” and 207 lbs, and he has sprinter speed to keep up with wide receivers. It’s up in the air how Ohio State’s Shaun Wade will see his stock fair after manning the slot for his career and not getting a season where he plays outside corner, thanks to the Big Ten delaying the season. Paulson Adebo out of Stanford has received a lot of hype throughout the years as a prospect, but he’s made enough mistakes throughout his career to be labeled as a second-day player. Finally there’s also Georgia’s Tyson Campbell, who needs to prove that he can build his technique to go with his uncommon athleticism. If he does just that, he could be something really special.