This time of the draft cycle with players both dropping and flying up boards leaves everyone (including me) confused to say the least. You start hearing names getting tossed around in the first round conversation that you never would’ve expected as everyone scrambles to get their last minute scouting done. 

The first round of the NFL Draft isn’t always representative of how good a prospect is. Players get pushed up because of athletic traits and need-based drafting of desperate teams. That’s why you see players like Tytus Howard getting drafted in the first round when a team like the Texans are desperate for tackle help and all the other ones are off the board. 

There are only a certain number of players in every draft that scouts view as “first-round talents” and it usually is less than 32 players. 

To me atleast, it begs the following question, who are the best football players in the 2021 draft class?

After scouting over 110 players for this draft, my grading system has 31 players as first round talents. It’s worth noting that I didn’t take into account injury history, off the field issues, work ethic, intelligence in the film room, etc. These grades spawn solely from how they performed on the field. 

Also worth saying, these rankings are how good a prospect is without taking positional value into account. Obviously positions like quarterback and running back have much different values, I am just looking at how good that prospect is at their position in a vacuum.

Without further ado, here is the ranked list of the 31 first-round grades I gave out for the 2021 draft regardless of position. 

1 – Kyle Pitts | TE, Florida 

Grade – 6.43/7 (Blue Chip Talent)

Pitts is a freak, let’s just get that out of the way. It is RARE for someone of his size to be as fast, physical and agile as he is. On top of his elite athletic profile, he is an extremely good route runner with the best hands I have seen out of a college prospect before. I don’t like to throw the “unicorn” phrase around a lot, but that is exactly what Pitts is. Will change any offense he gets drafted to drastically. 

2 – Rashawn Slater | OT, Northwestern

Grade – 6.33/7 (Blue Chip Talent)

I get the concerns with Slater’s arm length and overall size, but his tape is simply outstanding. In 2019 he stonewalled Chase Young (who is already a top-15 edge rusher in the NFL) all game long. His technique is already NFL refined and can play any position on the line from day one. 

3 – Penei Sewell | OT, Oregon

Grade – 6.28/7 (Blue Chip Talent)

When you combine his size, athleticism, technique to the fact that he is 20 YEARS OLD, I would probably draft Sewell before Slater. He is neck-and-neck with Slater as a prospect and has future all-pro and 15-year starter written all over him. Technique has a little room to grow, but he is as close to a sure-thing as a prospect gets. 

4 – Jaylen Waddle | WR, Alabama

Grade – 6.14/7 (Blue Chip Talent)

Waddle gets dubbed as a speed guy, and rightly so, but he can do so much more. The Alabama receiver was electric with the ball in his hands when he got the chance and drew the attention of multiple defenders on almost every route he ran. He is already great, but has SO much room to grow. Unlimited potential with Waddle. 

5 – Ja’Marr Chase | WR, LSU

Grade – 6.07/7 (Blue Chip Talent)

Chase was the best receiver in college football in 2019 at 19 years of age. Dominated everyone he lined up against and won in every way possible. Chase probably has the least amount of question marks of any receiver in this class and will be a difference maker in any offense from day one.

6 – Trevor Lawrence | QB, Clemson

Grade – 6.06/7 (Blue Chip Talent)

Lawrence is and has been the best QB in this class pretty much since his freshman year of college. Has all the tools to develop into a top-ten quarterback sooner rather than later. He checks more boxes as a prospect than anybody since Andrew Luck. 

7 – DeVonta Smith | WR, Alabama

Grade 6.0/7 (Blue Chip Talent)

Smith is the best college route runner I have ever seen and adds great ball skills and speed to make him almost the full package. The 170 pound frame probably won’t be a problem in the NFL as it wasn’t in a tough SEC conference, but it’s definitely something that will push him down teams’ boards. I love Smith and think that he can be one of the better receivers in the NFL for years to come.

8 – Cameron McGrone | LB. Michigan

Grade – 6.0/7 (Blue Chip Talent)

I was blown away watching McGrone after going in with no expectations. There is nothing he can’t do as a linebacker. He has the speed, finesse, IQ, tackling ability, and block-shedding to play in any system. No one tracks the ball down better than him and he routinely takes on blocks from guys with 50+ pounds on him. I really tried to find the glaring weaknesses that are pushing him down a lot of people’s boards and I couldn’t find them anywhere. He’s going to make whatever team drafts him very, very happy. 

9 – Jaelan Phillips | EDGE, Miami

Grade – 5.94/7 (First Round Talent)

The concussion history is concerning, I get that, but Phillips is the best edge in this class by a mile. He has a rare combination of elite athleticism and technique that we don’t see too often. The concussion history is going to drive him down the board and some team with the stones is going to get an absolute stud. His tape is outstanding, reminds me of the Bosa brothers when they were coming out. 

10 – Najee Harris | RB, Alabama

Grade – 5.93/7 (First Round Talent)

Running backs in the first round are starting to slowly become a thing of the past, and I can see why. However, Harris is one of those guys that is worth it. He has everything you want in a bell-cow and does everything at least at an above average level. 

11 – Travis Etienne | RB, Clemson

Grade – 5.86/7 (First Round Talent)

Much like Najee Harris, Etienne will get pushed down boards because of his position. That doesn’t change the fact that he is fantastic all-around and can do everything for a team that needs a dual-threat running back. His burst and balance reminds me of Alvin Kamara, and I guarantee if today’s version of Kamara were in the draft he would go in the first round.

12 – Landon Dickerson | IOL, Alabama

Grade – 5.78/7 (First Round Talent)

Dickerson is straight up mean, there’s really no other way to describe him. He is the best center in this class, and he’s up there with the best offensive lineman overall in the draft. He’s going to bring an attitude to whatever line he gets added to.

13 – Micah Parsons | LB, Penn State

Grade – 5.75/7 (First Round Talent)

While I don’t think Parsons is the generational linebacker he is cracked up to be, the athletic profile is impossible to ignore. Parsons can play any linebacker position a team needs him to from day one and that versatility is enough to make him an easy first-round player. Has some room to work on his game, but with the right coaching he can be a high-end talent in the NFL.

14 – Kwity Paye | EDGE, Michigan

Grade – 5.75/7 (First Round Talent)

Paye is as sound a run defender as you will find in this draft from the edge position and has more than enough athleticism to develop into a top-tier edge rusher in the NFL as well. His ability to be moved around the line and play three downs makes him a special player to me. 

15 – Rashod Bateman | WR, Minnesota

Grade – 5.71/7 (First Round Talent)

Bateman is so much closer to that top-tier of receivers (Chase, Smith, Waddle) than the second tier. His size, route-running, hands and supreme athleticism are just as good as the top guys. I think he can be the Justin Jefferson of this year’s class, going after the first tier and finishing his rookie year as the best of the bunch.

16 – Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah | LB, Notre Dame

Grade – 5.69/7 (First Round Talent)

JOK is a little undersized for a true middle linebacker, but his value comes from the fact that he can play multiple positions. He can be your box safety or your weak side linebacker on any given down. The ability to be a chess piece to oppose today’s offenses slots JOK very high on my draft board. 

17 – Daviyon Nixon | IDL, Iowa

Grade – 5.69/7 (First Round Talent)

Nixon is another one of those guys that isn’t getting nearly enough attention from the media. When I watched him, I saw a DL that could do anything and everything he was asked. He can play in any alignment between the tackles for all three downs. Still a little raw, but I would not be surprised to see a team snagging him in the first round.

18 – Jaycee Horn | CB, South Carolina

Grade – 5.69/7 (First Round Talent)

Horn definitely still has some areas of his game that need some fine-tuning, but he is one guy that I can see being one of if not the best defensive player to come out of this class. His ceiling is Jalen Ramsey, as a physical true #1 shut-down corner. 

19 – Patrick Surtain II | CB, Alabama

Grade – 5.67/7 (First Round Talent)

While I don’t think Surtain is some generational talent at the CB position, I do believe that he can be a very, very good player in the NFL. There really isn’t anything that he can’t do at his position. Going to be a solid addition to whatever team takes him.

20 – Zach Wilson | QB, BYU

Grade – 5.63/7 (First Round Talent)

Wilson showed last year that there is no throw he can’t make. While his decision-making isn’t as clean as some people make it seem, he still processes at an above-average level for a college QB. His size raises some concern, but his skillset is exactly what you want from a modern-day QB. 

21 – Alijah Vera-Tucker | OT, USC

Grade – 5.61/7 (First Round Talent)

Vera-Tucker is flying a little bit under the radar because he has been bogged down behind a lack-luster USC team for years but I think he is the third best tackle in this class. His patience and hand usage are fantastic and he can mold into a top-tier blocker at any spot along the offensive line. 

22 – Teven Jenkins | OT, Oklahoma State

Grade – 5.59/7 (First Round Talent)

Jenkins had the most fun tape of any offensive lineman to study this year. He plays from snap-to-whistle every single down and looks to punish whatever defender is in his way. He still has some technical issues he needs to shore up at the next level, but has sky-high potential. 

23 – Elijah Moore | WR, Ole Miss

Grade – 5.57/7 (First Round Talent)

Moore is one of “my guys” in the 2021 draft. His size is a red flag for some teams that have benchmarks they require, but the shifty slot receiver can get open against all types of coverage at all levels of the field. The Ole Miss product put up video game numbers against very tough SEC secondaries while dealing with middling QB play. Put him in a good offense and reap the benefits. Moore is going to be a stud, mark my words.

24 – Creed Humphrey | IOL, Oklahoma

Grade – 5.56/7 (First Round Talent)

Humphrey’s astute wrestling background jumps out on tape when you watch him. Plays with great leverage and hand usage to move guys off the ball. Has the athletic profile to be scheme-proof, and his time at Oklahoma taught him how to set protections every snap in a complex offensive system. Not an exciting pick, but Humphrey is going to be one of those guys that has a solid decade-plus career of above-average play. 

25 – Justin Fields | QB, Ohio State

Grade – 5.54/7  (First Round Talent)

I love Fields’ raw talent just as much as the next guy. His athleticism, arm strength and accuracy pop off the screen whenever you watch him. The offense he played in didn’t make it hard on him, and that’s perfectly fine, but it’s hard to project his ability to read defenses at the next level. I think he will be fine, but when talking about first-round prospects you have to split hairs. 

26 – Alex Leatherwood | OT, Alabama

Grade – 5.52/7 (First Round Talent)

Leatherwood has been more than solid during his tenure at Alabama. He has shut down great SEC pass rushers time and time again and was an integral part of both Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones’ magical seasons. I don’t see insane upside in Leatherwood, but I do see him being an instant starter that is going to make his team better. 

27 – Trey Lance | QB, North Dakota State

Grade – 5.51/7 (First Round Talent)

Lance has all the tools to become a top-tier QB at the next level and won’t be 21 years old until next season starts. Arm strength, athleticism and decision making are his best traits. He needs to fix some mechanical issues to shore up some of his accuracy problems, but nothing a little coaching can’t change. With a patient franchise who has a plan for him (i.e. Bills and Josh Allen) he can develop into a perennial pro-bowler for whatever team selects him.

28 – Javonte Williams | RB, North Carolina

Grade – 5.50/7 (First Round Talent)

Solid. That is the best word I can use to describe Williams. He can do everything at a level that you need a running back to do. Vision, patience, burst, power, pass protection, etc. He can be a true three-down back at the next level.

29 – Tyson Campbell | CB, Georgia

Grade – 5.50/7 (First Round Talent)

Campbell is another one of “my guys” that I am much higher on than consensus seems to be. His coverage ability and movement skills are up there with the best in the class. He needs to work on his ball skills if he wants to move into that elite category, but I saw him stick with first-round SEC receivers all throughout his career at Georgia. Good coaching can easily turn Campbell into an all-pro type cornerback.

30 – Samuel Cosmi | OT, Texas

Grade – 5.50/7 (First Round Talent)

I like Cosmi a considerable amount and think that he isn’t given enough credit for how good he is in all facets of his game. The size and athleticism is enough to entice tackle-needy teams, but his technique is a lot better than people want to think. I think his floor is pretty high, and the ceiling is almost limitless. 

31 – Azeez Ojulari | EDGE, Georgia

Grade 5.50/7 (First Round Talent)

The main concern people have with Ojulari is his size but it really doesn’t show up at all on tape. Go back to the Alabama game from 2020 where they’re constantly pulling 330+ pound lineman to kick him out and he actually stonewalls them every time. He packs a punch for that small frame and has the best bend in the edge class. If he can add more pass-rush moves to his arsenal, he can develop into a top-tier edge rusher at the next level. 

With all of this being said, there are some notable players that are being mocked in first rounds that I do not have as first round talents:

  • QB Mac Jones, Alabama
  • OT Christian Darrisaw, Virginia Tech
  • CB Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech
  • S Trevon Moehrig, TCU
  • IDL Christian Barmore, Alabama
  • WR Kadarius Toney, Florida
  • LB Zaven Collins, Tulsa
  • WR Terrace Marshall, LSU

I am not going to dive into why I think what I think, just thought I would put it out there. 

Regardless of what I believe, the bottom line is that there is a bevy of first-round talent out there this year and this draft will surely be an exciting one.