The 2021 NFL draft appears strong at the top at quarterback, even with a few unusual and potentially tricky evaluations in the group.
There could be as many as four top-10 picks, and possibly a fifth first-rounder, giving it a similar feel to the 2018 NFL draft, when Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen landed in the top 10 and Lamar Jackson was the final pick of Round 1.
The difference might be at the top. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence isn’t a can’t-miss prospect — scouts will tell you there’s almost no such thing — but he’s as established and appreciated of a potential NFL passer as we’ve seen in years.
Plus, he’s backed by Ohio State's Justin Fields and BYU’s Zach Wilson, who might have more universal appreciation than the second wave of 2018 QB prospects.
Let’s reset the quarterback hierarchy a bit and take a look at how the players are viewed as we head into the home stretch of a trying and unpredictable college football season. (Note: Day 2 of the draft includes Rounds 2-3, and Day 3 is Rounds 4-7.)
There are also other quarterback prospects we did not list — think Indiana’s Michael Penix Jr. after he outshined Fields in their head-to-head battle — who could enter the fray if they change their plans to enter the 2021 NFL draft.
Top tier (almost certain top-three pick)
Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
The last time we saw Lawrence play was more than a month ago, in perhaps his least-impressive outing of 2020 against a respected Syracuse defense on Oct. 24. That game didn’t do anything to knock Lawrence off his perch as the almost certain top prospect in the 2020 NFL draft.
Lawrence was held out of the Boston College and Notre Dame games after his positive COVID-19 test, and FSU canceled its game against the Tigers at the last minute last week. None of this will be held against Lawrence in his evaluation, but his 2020 tape opportunities are slipping away.
Remaining games: vs. Pitt, at Virginia Tech; the Tigers could play in the ACC championship game and one or two College Football Playoff games, plus the FSU game, which could be rescheduled
Second tier (possible top-10 picks)
Justin Fields, Ohio State
Zach Wilson, BYU
Trey Lance, North Dakota State
Fields got off to a brilliant start this season, with as many touchdown passes (11) as incomplete passes through the Buckeyes’ first three games. Then Fields struggled in the win over Indiana, showing a level of panic not seen often the past two seasons.
Is that an outlier or the start of a trend? History suggests it was just a rough outing against a defense that leads all of FBS in interceptions per game.
Wilson has been the biggest riser this season, completing 74.3 percent of his passes, averaging 302.7 passing yards per game, averaging 11.5 per pass, accumulating a 26-2 TD-INT ratio and also rushing for eight scores in nine outings.
The Cougars have played only one respectable defense (Boise State) and reportedly have turned down overtures by Washington to wedge in a game between them. That’s too bad because a game against a good Huskies defense certainly would be one tape that any team considering drafting Wilson would put a lot of stock into.
There are teams that could have Wilson rated above Fields. The assumption, however, based on myriad conversations with talent evaluators from around the league, is that he’s a tick behind Fields if we were to earnestly poll all 32 clubs.
Entering the summer, there were teams that felt Lance had the highest ceiling of any QB not named Lawrence in this class. With the Bison’s fall season — a one-game affair — over, there are only limited opportunities for Lance to prove that remains the case. That’s why Lance will be one of the most fascinating evaluations in many years, flashing a limited resumé (17 starts at the FCS level) but tremendous upside as a dual-threat prospect with age on his side (he turns 21 10 days after Round 1 of the 2021 draft) .
He could end up the fourth quarterback drafted, but the top 10 overall still feels like a possible landing spot.
Fields’ remaining games: at Illinois, at Michigan State and vs. Michigan, although the Illinois game reportedly is in peril; plus the Buckeyes could play in the Big Ten championship game and one or two CFP games.
Wilson’s remaining games: vs. San Diego State; plus the Cougars could play one or two CFP games.
Lance’s remaining games: None
Third tier (likely Day 2 prospects who could go higher)
Kyle Trask, Florida
Mac Jones, Alabama
It’s possible one of these two (and possibly both, although we’re not betting on that) ends up somewhere in the back end of Round 1.
Trask has immensely elevated his game, from little-known backup at the start of the 2019 season to Heisman Trophy candidate in 2020. Jones has picked up where Tua Tagovailoa left off when Tagovailoa got hurt last year, as Bama’s passing game hasn’t lost a step.
Are either a sure-fire first-rounder? Not from our perspective.
Scouts have been impressed with both passers’ calm under pressure, and they’ve thrived — despite lacking elite arm talent — as downfield throwers.
Neither are dual-threat quarterbacks, and their upsides might be viewed as limited.
Trask has committed to the Senior Bowl, which could provide him a big opportunity, and Jones could be a candidate for that game, having already graduated, if he comes out early with eligibility remaining.
Trask’s remaining games: vs. Kentucky, at Tennessee, vs. LSU; plus the Gators could play in the SEC championship game and one or two CFP games.
Jones’ remaining games: vs. Auburn, at Arkansas; plus the Tide could play in the SEC championship game and one or two CFP games.
The next tier (Day 3 picks who possibly could slide into Day 2)
Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
Kellen Mond, Texas A&M
Kenny Pickett, Pitt
Sam Ehlinger, Texas
Shane Buechele, SMU
Feleipe Franks, Arkansas
Jamie Newman, Georgia (ex-Wake Forest)
Brock Purdy, Iowa State
There’s potential in this group, but also ample questions.
Ridder has helped his cause with a strong season, and Mond has his fans in scouting circles. Both fit the mold of the relatively strong-armed quarterback with mobility that’s all the rage, although Ridder appears to be outperforming Mond at this stage.
Pickett missed time with an ankle injury but has taken a step forward with his 2020 play. He’s still held back by dropped passes and a lack of elite talent around him, but he has a gamer mentality and respectable throwing ability, mobility and toughness to project as a backup with starting potential.
Ehlinger plays with an atypical style but carries appeal because of his hard-nosed running style and deep-ball ability, and the Senior Bowl will be a nice opportunity for him. Buechele plays with a swashbuckling style and has logged two years of quality tape after moving on from Texas, even though he profiles more as a Day 3 prospect. NFL scouts don’t roundly view him as possessing future starter potential.
The 6-foot-6, 236-pound Franks is a wild card. Physically, he’s an exciting prospect, and he’s steadied his play with the Hogs after an up-and-down career at Florida. There are a few teams that would consider drafting him and his titillating potential over some of the lower-ceiling prospects listed above.
Newman opted out of this season after transferring from Wake to Georgia. He has traits that could land him in Day 2 but might need a strong week at the Senior Bowl after he struggled down the stretch last season with the Demon Deacons and hasn’t played a game in nearly 11 months.
Purdy is maddening to watch at times, especially in some early-season struggles, and he could return to school.
Ridder’s remaining games: at Tulsa, plus the Golden Hurricane could play in the AAC championship game and one or two CFP games.
Mond’s remaining games: vs. LSU, at Auburn, at Tennessee; and the Aggies could play in the SEC championship game and one or two CFP games; plus the Ole Miss game could be rescheduled.
Pickett’s remaining games: at Clemson, at Georgia Tech.
Ehlinger’s remaining games: vs. Iowa State, at Kansas State, at Kansas; plus the Longhorns could play in the Big 12 championship game.
Buechele’s remaining games: at East Carolina, vs. Houston; plus the Mustangs could play in the AAC championship game.
Franks’ remaining games: vs. Alabama; plus the Missouri game could be rescheduled.
Purdy’s remaining games: at Texas, vs. West Virginia; plus the Cyclones could play in the Big 12 championship game.
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