How 2020's Returning Underclassmen Affect The 2021 NFL Draft

Photo: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Today is the final chance for underclassmen to pull their names from the 2020 NFL Draft pool. But by and large, we know who is joining the 2020 group and who is returning to school.

The 2020 class is accordingly sharp and in focus, but 2021 is also coming into some clarity. With so much talent returning this year — more than usual, it seems — we can already project some of the top players in the 2021 class. Here are some positional battles and potential risers to file away for next season.

Battle for RB1

We came into 2020 expecting an elite running back class, and we probably got one. I will not be surprised if teams have three first-round grades on running backs, given there are still five impressive rushers who could push for those upper-tier grades. (If you're wondering who, they're my top-five players on my positional rankings.)

We also expected elite running back classes in 2018 and in 2017, and we generally got them in terms of draft capital spent. Running back classes tend to be strong, because of the number of high school athletes that get funneled into the position. As such, we should expect the 2021 class to be strong as well.

Early returns are great and feature four backs who would have likely been top-10 players off the board in 2020. Mississippi State’s Kylin Hill was on the fringe but elected to return to school in a surprising pivot. He returns to a Mike Leach offense that likely won't be too forgiving for his stock as Leach rarely runs the football. But Hill could demonstrate a receiving profile that ends up boosting his stock if he has the requisite skills to translate into the Air Raid offense.

Hill was on the fringe, but Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard, Alabama's Najee Harris, and Clemson's Travis Etienne were squarely in the top-10 conversation. Etienne was even considered a dark horse candidate for Round 1 and the first rusher slot off the board. Now, they all return to school as the three-leading candidates for RB1. Hubbard led the country in scrimmage yards as the engine of an Oklahoma State attack that lost key offensive weapons to injury and will take on another year of high volume returning to a hopefully healthy unit with a Big 12 title in sight. Harris realized his elite 5-star potential this year but is back to keep a Tua  Tagovailoa-less Alabama offense afloat. And Etienne? He wants to get his degree, enjoy his four years at Clemson and play with Trevor Lawrence again.

Running back can be a brutal position, with a fleeting window to capitalize on production, youth and skill in the free-agent market. That payday is delayed for these three runners, but a huge payday can wait in the top picks of the 2021 class. Etienne enters the year as the frontrunner, but Harris has unique physical talent and Hubbard has elite production on top of home run speed. Someone will have made money by choosing to go back — maybe even all three of them — and we'll remember the 2021 class as just as good as the 2020 group.

How High Could Jamie Newman Climb?

There are a lot of quarterbacks in this 2020 group. Some clear top players, and some intriguing ones with high ceilings as they step into their critical pre-draft processes. 

Wake Forest’s Jamie Newman would have fallen into that second group. He’s an effective runner who ripped up the middle of the field on the program’s unique RPO-powered offense and had the arm strength and downfield passing to grab NFL attention this year — just not as one of those top players.

Georgia’s Jamie Newman? Well, he just might be able to.

It's unclear what exactly Georgia wants to do on offense. It has a lot of offensive minds on the coaching staff, from the recently-appointed Todd Monken to the incumbent James Coley. We may get a peek at what the Justin Fields-led Georgia offense may have looked like had Fields been given the starting job over Jake Fromm. Georgia’s Jamie Newman has a similar skillset to Fields, albeit to a less spectacular degree.

But the ceiling is high for Fields, with SEC talent, a respected coaching staff and a lot of eyes on a wide-open conference. With the aforementioned Fields and Lawrence locked into the top-two spots early, this Bulldog is vying against players like Iowa State's Brock Purdy and Florida's Kyle Trask for QB3 and beyond. 

Georgia’s Jamie Newman's decision to return to school was surprising. But when you consider the success of his quick transfer portal decision, he's positioned himself for a senior season rise. 

Florida State With Top Defenders

Remember Florida State? It was a washed program somewhere north of Gainesville where actual football is played.

Sorry Seminole fans, it had to be done. It's been a hot second since Florida State was relevant in the ACC, but even if the team success isn't there, some player success may be inbound.

New head coach Mike Norvell had some big internal recruiting wins in his first couple of weeks on the job with safety Hamsah Nasirildeen and defensive tackle Marvin Wilson both electing to return to school. Neither is a lock for the top draft pick at their position, but both became more consistent players in 2019 and are hoping to improve again in 2020. Both were potential top-50 picks who can secure Round 1 slots.

Nasirldeen is challenged by upcoming eligible juniors in Syracuse's Andre Cisco and Texas' Caden Sterns; Wilson leads a rather thin pack of aspiring top picks as the 2020 class was very strong at the position. But with Nasirildeen's shocking size and positional versatility, he's on the inside track to go in the first round, and similar things can be said of Wilson. He's just too big, powerful and quick to not enter the season as the favorite pick for DT1 on 2021 boards.

It will take a couple of years for Florida State to pull itself back into national relevance, and the next recruiting classes will be a big part of that. But in the short term, its hope rests on the power of the defense led by two of the most exciting defenders in the 2021 group.

Written By:

Benjamin Solak

Director of Special Projects

Director of Special Projects and Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Co-host of the Locked On NFL Draft Podcast. The 3-Wide Raven.

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