Heading into the 2019 college football season, it seemed like a slam dunk that the Alabama Crimson Tide would have the most first-round draft selections in the 2020 NFL Draft. Despite having their fair share — a group consisting of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, wide receiver Henry Ruggs III, and offensive tackle Jedrick Wills — Alabama ultimately didn’t produce the most first-day talent.
That award went to the LSU Tigers, as they produced five first-round picks with quarterback Joe Burrow, pass-rusher K’Lavon Chaisson, wide receiver Justin Jefferson, linebacker Patrick Queen, and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The Clemson Tigers are the early favorites to produce the most first-round picks in the 2021 NFL Draft, but that will not be the case, as there are a couple of powerhouse programs that will produce more first-round talent in 2021.
Possible Clemson first-round picks in 2021
There is little doubt that Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers have the best overall prospect in the 2021 NFL Draft in quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Since leading the Tigers to a national championship as a true freshman, Lawrence has been dubbed by many to be the best quarterback prospect to enter the NFL ranks since Peyton Manning in 1998. Not only will Lawrence be a first-round pick in 2021, but he will also be the first overall selection.
Outside of Lawrence, Clemson has three other potential first-round picks. First, there is the explosive Travis Etienne, who possesses the skill-set to be a first-round pick. However, as we saw in the 2020 NFL Draft, running backs typically don’t go that early. In a 2020 group that featured the likes of D’Andre Swift, J.K. Dobbins, and Jonathan Taylor, the only running back that was selected in the first was Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
Next, there is wide receiver Justyn Ross. Ross is talented enough to go in the first, but it was recently announced that he will undergo neck surgery that will cost him the entire 2020 season. Due to this, I see no way that Ross is selected that early.
Finally, there is the talented Clemson offensive tackle Jackson Carman, who I believe will be a first-round pick in 2021. The league is starved for upper-echelon talent at offensive tackle and Carman possesses the tool belt to climb up draft boards.
Some might argue that cornerback Derion Kendrick and defensive end Xavier Thomas are other potential first-round picks, but I don’t see it. Kendrick has tremendous ball skills, as is to be expected from someone who started his tenure at Clemson as a wide receiver, but he is too raw at the position for my liking. In the case of Xavier Thomas, he has all the talent in the world, but I can not designate a first-round tag to someone that has accumulated a mere 5.0 sacks in 26 games.
There is no doubt that the Clemson Tigers will be well represented in the NFL Draft, but when it comes to Clemson’s first-round picks in 2021, I see the ceiling at three.
Why the Alabama Crimson Tide could have more first-round picks
Despite being the early odds-on favorite to produce the most first-round talent in 2019 and failing to do so, I believe this year, the Alabama Crimson Tide will deliver this year. As it stands today, Alabama has six prospects that are slam dunk first-round selections. Cornerback Patrick Surtain Jr., defensive tackle Christian Barmore, wide receivers Jaylen Waddle and Devonta Smith, linebacker Dylan Moses, and left tackle Alex Leatherwood are the players that make up that list.
As I covered in my article, Patrick Surtain Jr. is the best cornerback in the 2021 Draft class and is a surefire top-10 selection. He has the size and traits to matchup with his opponents’ best weapon.
Christian Barmore is the next dominant Alabama defensive lineman. He has the size, strength, and hands to constantly disrupt the line of scrimmage.
Dylan Moses was a first-round prospect in 2020, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury prior to the season, which ultimately led to him returning to Tuscaloosa. Outside of Penn State’s Micah Parsons, Moses is the best linebacker in the 2021 Draft.
Alex Leatherwood, at one point, was considered an elite interior offensive line prospect, but made the transition to left tackle prior to the 2019 college football season, and passed with flying colors.
Finally, Alabama is absolutely reloaded at the wide receiver position. Jaylen Waddle doesn’t have jaw-dropping production, but he has speed to kill and will no longer have to battle Jeudy and Ruggs III for targets. DeVonta Smith has big-time production and is a savvy route runner who has the knack for making big plays when they are needed most.
The worst-case scenario for the Alabama Crimson Tide is five first-round picks in the 2021 Draft.
Penn State Nittany Lions
When you think of which school from the Big Ten will produce the most first-round picks in any NFL Draft, the first that comes to mind is the Ohio State Buckeyes. They have some elite talent in the 2021 Draft in quarterback Justin Fields and cornerback Shaun Wade, but they won’t produce the most picks in the conference.
Not only will the Penn State Nittany Lions produce at least three first-round picks in the 2021 Draft, but they will also produce three top-15 players in linebacker Micah Parsons, tight end Pat Freiermuth, and offensive tackle Rasheed Walker.
Parsons is the best draft-eligible linebacker prospect in college football, and he is the best overall defensive prospect in the 2021 Draft. Last season, Parsons was the highest-rated run defender in college football, and as a sophomore, he was recognized as the “Big Ten Linebacker of the Year”. He tallied 109 tackles, 5.0 sacks, five passes defended, and four forced fumbles. This is absolutely insane production from the talented linebacker.
Freiermuth carries the nickname “Baby Gronk” and for good reason. In an extremely talented 2021 tight end class, Freiermuth is the best. He is the total package at the position, as he can block, has reliable hands, and excels in the red zone.
One of the best prospects for the 2021 Draft who isn’t receiving enough buzz is left tackle, Rasheed Walker. Pro Football Network draft analyst Matt Valdovinos agrees with me, stating: “His hands are arguably the best in the class, and his play shows a high football IQ. A physical specimen at 6’6″ and 320 pounds, Walker is a strong athlete, giving him a myriad of physical tools to call upon.”
With a myriad of talent in the 2021 NFL Draft, Alabama and Penn State will both battle for the most selections in the first round. Clemson will be close, but Alabama will likely take the crown.