The NFL Draft is the ultimate lottery — regardless of how much you think you know, the first round brings surprises, and often, disappointment. Seemingly every year, there is a player who gets drafted in the first round that no one predicted or went much earlier than anticipated. It is the beauty of the beast, and the 2021 NFL Draft will presumably be no exception.
Be sure to join PFN Chief NFL Analyst Trey Wingo and Chief Draft Analyst Tony Pauline every week on Draft Insiders as they break down all you need to know heading into the 2021 NFL Draft. Subscribe to our PFN YouTube channel and hit the notifications icon so you can tune in live every Wednesday at 9 PM ET.
Previous bewildering first-round NFL Draft selections
Being a first-round selection in the NFL Draft is no guarantee of success. The side of the road that leads to the Hall of Fame is littered with the discarded careers of former top selections who never lived up to their draft position. That’s no fault of their own; they weren’t the ones that pulled the trigger. However, that doesn’t stop us from labeling these athletes as “busts.”
Before we look at some names that could be awe-inspiring selections in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, Pro Football Network’s Chief NFL Analyst Trey Wingo and Chief NFL Draft Analyst and NFL Insider Tony Pauline revealed some of the reaches from previous first rounds during the April 14 episode of Draft Insiders.
Clelin Ferrell, EDGE, Clemson
Wingo starts, “Clelin Ferrell, a few years ago, is the first one that comes to mind.”
“That Clemson defensive line, they called themselves the Power Rangers and all that kind of stuff. People love the Maxx Crosby pick for the Raiders. Well, Maxx Crosby is the player they thought Clelin Ferrell was going to be.”
“When Ferrell went off the board at four, we were like, ‘what the hell is going on?!’ Out of all that stuff, that’s the first one that comes to mind. It just made no sense, and it hasn’t worked out.”
Despite a hyper-productive career at Clemson — Ferrell recorded 20 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks in his final season — it was still a wonder to most when the Las Vegas Raiders made him the fourth overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Although it may be early to label him a bust, his 6.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss across his first two seasons is hardly the return on the investment that the Raiders hoped for.
By comparison, fourth-round pick Crosby has generated 17 sacks and 30 tackles for loss. Furthermore, Crosby started in all 16 games in 2020 compared to just 11 by Ferrell. The most damning indictment of Ferrell’s selection was the assumption that pass rusher would be their biggest need in the 2021 NFL Draft. They also aggressively pursued a pass rusher in free agency, eventually securing Yannick Ngakoue to a two-year, $26 million contract.
Terrell Edmunds, S, Pittsburgh Steelers
Pauline continues, “There’s been a lot of surprises over the year.”
“I think one of the funniest, most ironic ones, was when the Steelers took Virginia Tech safety Terrell Edmunds in the first round. The only reason he was in the building was because his brother was there. His brother was taken by the Buffalo Bills — he was expected to be a first-round pick — and he was there for his brother. Nobody, not even Terrell Edmunds, thought he was going to be a first-round pick. They call his name, and he pops up on stage because he happens to be in the building to celebrate with his brother.”
In many respects, Edmunds was a much bigger reach than Ferrell. At least with Ferrell, there was speculation he would be a first-round pick. Edmunds received pre-draft grades in the late third-round range. Yet, he found himself as the 28th overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft.
After a poor 2019 season where he allowed 4 touchdowns, Edmunds enjoyed his best year in 2020. The Steelers will presumably pick up his fifth-year option sometime this season.
Travis Frederick, C, Dallas Cowboys
Not all first-round surprises turn out to be terrible decisions. Wingo points to Dallas Cowboys center Travis Frederick as an example of such a player. Dallas astonishingly drafted him in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Frederick outplayed his pre-draft grade and went on to relish in an All-Pro career as a 96-game starter.
Wingo: “He had a second/third-round grade. But once again, this proves the point — if you trust yourself, it doesn’t matter. I can’t tell you how many people said he shouldn’t be taken in the first round. He’s been a monster, absolutely lived up to the pick.”
While testing times are coming under increased scrutiny, Frederick is a prime example of why numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. As Pauline points out, the former Wisconsin Badger hardly tested as an athletic specimen.
“If you remember, Travis Frederick ran the 40-yard dash in something like 5.75. He was a laughing stock because he ran so slow — as do a lot of Wisconsin Badger offensive linemen. But, they can play at the next level.”
Who could be the surprise first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft?
The expected run on quarterbacks early in the first round gives the 2021 NFL Draft some shock-and-awe potential. If you like your surprises in the form of a draft day fall, then Micah Parsons‘ off-field concerns could lead to a slide down to the latter half of the first round.
Moreover, with passers and pass catchers set to dominate the early running, the potential for one of the best players in the class — Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell — to be available outside of the top 10 isn’t as big of a stretch as you might imagine.
While those events would be surprising, whose appearance in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft would be a genuine shock?
Milton Williams, DT, Louisiana Tech
The defensive line position is increasingly intriguing in the 2021 NFL Draft. Between both defensive tackle and defensive end, there isn’t one single standout player. Looking specifically at the interior of the defensive line, there isn’t a player that stands out from the rest of the crowd as the consensus best at the position. Many analysts have Christian Barmore as a potential first-round defensive tackle. Meanwhile, Levi Onwuzurike has seen his fair share of love in first-round mock drafts.
However, one player who is rising up draft boards rapidly is Louisiana Tech defensive tackle Milton Williams. According to Pauline, “Milton Williams is getting late first-round grades from some teams.”
As Pauline explains, that doesn’t mean he’s going to be a first-round pick. Still, he alludes to the Dallas Cowboys considering him as an option with the 44th pick “if he’s still there.” The possibility of him not being available at that early stage of the second round raises the possibility that he sneaks into the back end of the first round.
It would be a meteoric rise for the defensive tackle, who was relatively unknown before the 2020 college football season. Yet, Williams broke out for the Bulldogs this last year. Furthermore, he’s been extremely impressive during the pre-draft process, including a performance at Lousiana Tech’s Pro Day that left draft pundits raving about his athletic ability. A versatile defensive lineman, Williams displayed creativity during the offseason, using a private gym to get into incredible shape.
Davis Mills, QB, Stanford
It is truly unique how this 2021 NFL Draft quarterback class has evolved over the last year. Trevor Lawrence has, of course, been the consensus No. 1 overall pick for some time. Justin Fields and Trey Lance have also been highly-rated potential first-rounders for a considerable amount of time.
On the other hand, Zach Wilson and Mac Jones‘ emergence throughout 2020 has added an extra dimension to this class. Still, there aren’t enough first-round caliber signal-callers for all of the NFL teams that need to address the position prior to the start of the season.
Therefore, a player like Stanford’s Davis Mills could find themselves as the sixth quarterback selected in the first round.
Despite being a five-star recruit, nothing about Mills’ college career points to him being a first-round selection. He doesn’t have the jaw-dropping tape of Lawrence. He doesn’t have the exciting playmaking skills of Fields, Lance, or Wilson. His college statistics lack the gaudy numbers that Jones put up for Alabama en route to a national championship.
Conversely, he possesses the prototypical NFL physique as well as a strong arm. He’s put the work in during the offseason to demonstrate to teams that he possesses the skill set necessary to succeed at the next level. That, combined with a supply-and-demand deficit, could see Mills taken late in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Ronnie Perkins, EDGE, Oklahoma
As alluded to earlier, the defensive line class lacks a true standout leader. That is true for edge rushers as much as it is for the interior of the defensive line. On any given day, Azeez Ojulari or Kwity Paye may be considered the best in the class. Gregory Rousseau‘s poor outing at Miami’s Pro Day has raised further questions surrounding his draft stock. Jaelan Phillips might be the most talented pass-rush prospect in the class but comes with enormous medical concerns.
Then there’s Ronnie Perkins.
Strong, fast, explosive, and downright dominant at times for Oklahoma, Perkins is as talented as they come. That said, he also comes with concerns following a suspension from the program that saw him miss time late in 2019 and at the start of the 2020 season.
There are multiple teams with a need and scheme fit for Perkins. A traditional 4-3 defensive end, teams such as the Cleveland Browns, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Indianapolis Colts, and the Buffalo Bills are potential landing spots. With most of those teams selecting late in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that Perkins sneaks into Day 1.
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Oliver Hodgkinson is a staff writer for Pro Football Network. You can follow him on Twitter at @ojhodgkinson.