Despite being only a few weeks removed from the 2020 Draft, the discussion surrounding 2021 NFL Draft prospects is off to a fast and furious start. We are all aware of the headliners of the 2021 class, a group consisting of Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell, Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. What we need to pay attention to is a group of underrated 2021 NFL Draft prospects, who could blossom into coveted prospects with a strong 2020 campaign.
At this time last year, no one was talking about Joe Burrow. In fact, there wasn’t a draft analyst out there that had Burrow ranked as anything more than a late third-day selection. Ultimately, a historic season led to Joe Burrow being the first overall selection of the 2020 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Prior to the 2018 season, quarterback Kyler Murray was a sought after baseball prospect before a sensational year led to him being the first overall pick by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2019 Draft. The year before Murray, there was the ascension of Baker Mayfield from a middle- to late-round pick to first overall pick.
It seems that every year, one of the top NFL Draft prospects comes completely out of left field, and it would be safe to assume that this year would be no different. Is there a Joe Burrow in the 2021 Draft class?
Let’s take a look at five underrated 2021 NFL Draft hopefuls that seem likely to break out in 2020.
Underrated 2021 NFL Draft prospects
Shane Buechele, Quarterback, SMU (6’1″, 207 pounds)
When 2021 quarterback prospects are discussed, the household names are Lawrence (Clemson), Fields (Ohio State), and Trey Lance (North Dakota State), but one player that has the tools to develop into a top quarterback prospect is SMU’s Shane Buechele.
Buechele’s journey to becoming the starting quarterback for the SMU Mustangs is an interesting story. In 2016, he started his collegiate career at the University of Texas, where he started all 12 games as a true freshman, throwing for an impressive 2,958 yards and 21 touchdowns.
He was the first freshman to start at Texas since Bobby Layne in 1944. He then faced an injury-plagued 2017 season, which allowed freshman Sam Ehlinger the opportunity to see significant playing time.
This sequence of events ultimately led to Buechele’s demise at Texas, as Ehlinger seized the support of head coach Tom Herman and the starting quarterback role. Due to a lack of playing time, Buechele was able to redshirt for the 2018 season, and at the season’s end announced that he would be transferring to SMU.
In 2019, his first season as the starting quarterback for the SMU Mustangs, Buechele was brilliant, throwing for 3,929 yards and 34 touchdowns, which are both school records.
Watching 2019 SMU tape while evaluating wide receiver James Proche allowed me the opportunity to get a good look at Buechele. He doesn’t have ideal size and he isn’t the most spectacular athlete, but he sure is scrappy.
He is a fundamentally sound technician, who has a smooth release. He has adequate arm strength, allowing him to make all the throws, and he excels at fitting passes into tight windows. He moves very well in the pocket, scans the field at an exceptional level, and has plus accuracy and touch.
The 2020 season will be an interesting litmus test for Buechele, but if he can pass with flying colors and build off of a successful 2019 campaign, his draft stock could soar.
Journey Brown, Running Back, Penn State (5’11”, 216 pounds)
The Penn State football program has been on a roll as of late when it comes to producing NFL running backs. First, Saquon Barkley entered the league in 2018 and was the second overall selection by the New York Giants. Since then, Barkley has blossomed into one of the league’s best players.
Then there was Miles Sanders, who was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the second round of the 2019 draft. Sanders flashed big-play potential in his rookie season and will have the opportunity to take the next step in 2020. Now, Penn State has another astounding running back prospect and his name is Journey Brown.
Brown busted onto the scene in 2019, as he produced 890 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on a mere 129 carries. He averages a sensational seven yards every time he touches the football. Brown is blazing fast, as expected from a former track star, being clocked at an astonishing 4.29 forty-yard dash time.
He also runs with power, allowing him to break tackles and create yards after contact in chunks. He needs to develop as a pass-catcher, but when he comes to carrying the rock, Brown is brilliant. Brown’s power, speed, vision, and ability to break tackles are all captured in the clip below.
JOURNEY BROWN BEAST MODEpic.twitter.com/jqLMPIepcQ
— Barstool Penn State (@PSUBarstool) December 28, 2019
Journey Brown is poised for a breakout 2020 season, and his 2021 Draft prospectus is going to skyrocket.
Kylen Granson, Tight End, SMU (6’3″, 235 pounds)
For those keeping score at home, the athletic tight end Kylen Granson is the second SMU Mustang on this list. In a loaded 2021 tight end group, Granson is a name to watch. His 2019 stat line includes 43 receptions for 721 yards and nine touchdowns, with a staggering 16.8 average yards per catch.
The Rice transfer has blazing speed and marvelous athleticism. He started his collegiate career as a wide receiver, which is a reason for his strong route-running ability. He has soft, reliable hands, and creates yards after the catch with ease. He is a bit light, so he won’t give you much as an inline blocker, but he will help in the passing game a great deal, as he is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.
He won’t be an early draft pick, but Kylen Granson is an underrated 2021 NFL Draft prospect, who could become a steal in the middle rounds of the 2021 Draft.
Jabril Cox, Linebacker, LSU (6’3″, 233 pounds)
Linebacker Jabril Cox was a two-time FCS All-American at North Dakota State before transferring to LSU earlier this year. During his three seasons at North Dakota State, Cox posted 258 tackles, 32 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, six interceptions, and two defensive touchdowns.
He was a former high school quarterback, which lends to his high football intelligence. His ability to make plays in space is sensational. His tool belt containing his ability to cover, speed, and closing ability make him an intriguing 2021 Draft prospect. When I watch clips of Cox, I am reminded a bit of 49ers’ Pro Bowl linebacker Fred Warner, which is high praise.
Cox will be moving from being a superstar at the FCS level to playing in college football’s best conference, the SEC. If Cox can produce and exhibit the ability he did at North Dakota State in his senior season with the LSU Tigers, he could ascend into a solid Day Two prospect.
Elijah Molden, Cornerback, Washington (5’10”, 191 pounds)
When you think cornerback and the 2021 NFL Draft, the familiar names are Patrick Surtain Jr. (Alabama), Israel Mukuamu (South Carolina), and Shaun Wade (Ohio State), but I am here to tell you that you’d better not sleep on Washington cornerback Elijah Molden. In recent years, the Washington Huskies have become a defensive back factory, producing the likes of Marcus Peters, Budda Baker, Byron Murphy, and Taylor Rapp. Molden’s 2019 stat line was ridiculous, as he produced 79 tackles, four interceptions, 17 passes defended, and three forced fumbles.
Molden is an instinctive player, who plays the game with tremendous fire and passion. He possesses spectacular ball skills, jaw-dropping quickness, and versatility for days. Let’s not forget Molden’s blazing sub 4.4 40-yard dash speed.
I’ve viewed a bunch of early 2021 mock drafts and it’s criminal that none have included Elijah Molden. He is a first-round caliber player in any draft class and his play in 2020 will support that notion.