They say defense wins championships. That’s the saying I grew up on and one that I still believe holds some weight, even though we live in a world where high-powered offenses are taking the league by storm. As a matter of fact, since 2013, every Super Bowl-winning team has ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense, which is a stat that measures the points a defense allows, or in this case doesn’t allow.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers smothered Patrick Mahomes and Co. in the most recent Super Bowl with an athletic, active defense that had speed and playmaking ability at all three levels. Smart teams continue to invest in talented defensive players even though it's become trendy to find players on offense to help keep pace with the Mahomes', Aaron Rodgers', and Josh Allens of the world.
This brings us to the 2021 NFL Draft, which for the most part is known for its offensive firepower, especially at the top. This year’s draft could see an offensive player go off the board with every pick in the top 10, which would be the first time that’s happened in at least 20 years if not longer. With so many star players at quarterback, wide receiver, and offensive tackle, it is entirely possible that the first defensive player will have to wait a while to hear their name called on April 29.
This year’s draft is an extremely unique case, as we might for the first time ever have five quarterbacks go in the top 10, so it is understandable that good defensive players will be pushed down. That being said, the fact there is no clear-cut No. 1 defensive prospect in this year’s class is certainly a major reason why we won’t hear a defensive player called early.
The question that many folks, including myself, are asking is who out of this year’s top defenders will hear their name called first? I believe there are five players who have a realistic shot at being the first defensive player off the board and I’ll do my best to make a case for each of them below. For bettors out there, I added the current betting lines available at BetOnline as this is a fun prop bet you can take part in.
Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama
BetOnline Odds: -120
The betting favorite to be the first defensive back off the board is Surtain. Surtain has been my No. 1 corner from the jump and with Caleb Farley having surgery on his back, I believe he is the No. 1 corner on most teams' boards as well. Surtain has prototypical size at the corner position and offers very smooth movement skills for a longer defensive back. He can easily get in and out of his pedal and has loose hips to flip and turn down the field. Surtain is a true technician and has the physical tools to match up with opposing teams' No. 1 receivers as a rookie.
While I mentioned that this could be the year where the entire top 10 of the draft is offense, I do suspect that Surtain will go in the top 10. I believe the Carolina Panthers at No. 8 would strongly consider Surtain if the offensive tackle they valued highest goes off the board before them. The Panthers have a hole at corner and could use Surtain’s skill set to finally replace James Bradberry. I think Surtain’s floor could be No. 12 to the Philadelphia Eagles, but if he got past Dallas at No. 10, I would be mildly surprised.
Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina
BetOnline Odds: +350
This is where I am placing my money for wagering purposes. It’s not that I actually think Horn will go above Surtain or even Micah Parsons, it's that I like his value in terms of placing a bet as I get more bang for my buck if I am right. With Farley having medical concerns, Horn has vaulted into the top half of the round-one draft discussions and it would be a major upset if he doesn’t hear his name called in the first 15 picks. Horn is a physically gifted defensive back who has excellent foot quickness and strength in man to man. He has the trait that all great defensive backs share in that he is an ultra-competitive player who oozes with confidence. My sneaky suspicion is if Carolina does opt to go corner, they could go for the local kid who I am sure they have known about since he was a freshman on campus. I wouldn’t take Horn over Surtain, but it would in no way shock me if a team did. I believe Horn’s floor is the New England Patriots at No. 15 as they will need to prepare for a world without Stephon Gilmore soon.
Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State
BetOnline Odds: +200
As I sit here and write this blurb, I actually think Parsons has a very good shot at being the first defensive player off the board. Think about it. If quarterbacks do go in the first three picks, which is expected, and Atlanta either takes a quarterback or Kyle Pitts, and then we already know Cincinnati and Miami are going offense, the first team that has a realistic shot to go defense is Detroit. I believe Detroit at No. 7 will strongly consider Parsons as they look to build this football team up from the ground up. They need a playmaker on defense who they can build around and be the centerpiece for the unit and that’s exactly what I believe Parsons can be. Parsons has rare size, strength, and explosiveness for the position and excels both stopping the run, covering the pass, and also rushing the quarterback. If Parsons doesn’t go at No. 7, I could see him being in play for Denver at No. 9, the New York Giants at No. 11, and the Patriots at No. 15.
Jaelan Phillips, EDGE, Miami
BetOnline Odds: +1200
This is a long shot, but I could definitely justify it. Look, teams will always invest top draft capital in talented pass rushers and Phillips is certainly a talented pass rusher. The concerns with Phillips are his medical history and the fact that he walked away from football before transferring to Miami. For us now on the media side, it is impossible to have the information that NFL teams have as we simply don’t have the resources to acquire that background information. We on the outside must factor in the fact that teams will knock Phillips for his medicals and potentially his character, but again we don’t know what the teams know.
What if a team in the top 10 has no concerns about Phillips medical history and from their evaluation love him as a kid? I can certainly tell you that just based on his tape, physical traits, and just projecting him, he is more than deserving of a top selection. If Atlanta were to trade down to say No. 9 to Denver's spot, would it be inconceivable to see them draft Phillips? What if no defensive player gets selected before the Giants at No. 11? I could definitely see them having interest. Again, this is a long shot but one that I don’t mind taking as a lofty bet.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Notre Dame
BetOnline Odds: N/A
Now this is a major wild card. Owusu-Koramoah is such a longshot he isn’t even listed on BetOnline’s site as a potential candidate for this prop bet. I have a ton of love for Owusu-Koramoah and I think he offers one of the most unique skill sets in this entire draft. He has rare coverage skills for a second-level defender and if used correctly with a creative defensive coordinator, could alter the way defense plays football in subpackages. His ability to cover not just backs and tight ends in the slot but receivers as well allows teams to stay in base personnel more often, which in turn will help a team’s run defense. I could see Denver loving this kid’s versatility and skill set for their defense, and while he would be a shocker at No. 9, I could see it. Owusu-Koramoah’s floor to me is at No. 17 to the Las Vegas Raiders, who I believe cannot pass on a player like this as this is exactly what Gus Bradley wants in his WILL 'backer.