The Draft Network premium Slack channel is already nicely along in its initial look at the 2021 class.
This is the first year that I have had a big community of film-watchers to discuss a new class with and a good chance to open up some large-scope conversations on the class as a whole. As such, I posited four questions to the channel, asking anyone who had given the 2021 class an initial look to give me their answers and their quick thoughts. I added my answers in my breakdowns and provided a link to each answer if you'd like to further the conversations.
New classes are always exciting and ripe for fresh arguments.
Editor’s note: The submitted answers have been edited for clarity.
Who's your favorite player you've watched thus far in 2021?
My favorite player is Ar'Darius Washington, safety, TCU. TCU plays a lot of Cover 4 and Cover 2 and he's perfect for it. He has good range, great awareness and anticipation and is a good tackler. — Owen
I haven’t watched a lick of Washington, but I've heard some good stuff. Owen is right in identifying TCU’s safeties doing a lot of hard work in the zone match defenses deployed by coach Gary Patterson, so if you have the mind for that, you should have the mind for NFL play.
My favorite player is Shaka Toney, EDGE, Penn State. He was Yetur Gross-Matos’ pass rush partner. Toney’s got jets in his cleats. — Luke
I wrote about Toney last year for the change of his body composition. I'm really excited to watch him in 2021. I don't think he'll be more than a subpackage speed rusher, but he can make money doing that well in the league. At the same time, he's pretty nifty against the run due to his explosiveness.
My favorite player is Kenny Gainwell, running back, Memphis. He is just simply fun to watch with everything he can do as a runner and a wide receiver. He has great contact balance and exciting burst. — Nick
Gainwell's a monster. Memphis keeps cycling out Day 2 athletes who may not have neat fits like a running back or receiver in the league, but it gets these players the ball in creative ways. Gainwell needs some more mass on his frame, but if he gets there, he's got everything else.
Who's an actual sleeper QB for 2021?
Jamie Newman isn’t a sleeper, necessarily, but he’s the quarterback that is going to separate himself from the other tier-two quarterbacks like K.J. Costello and Brock Purdy. I go to Wake Forest, so I got the opportunity to watch Newman live on several occasions, and he has arm talent. I think playing in an offense that doesn’t force him to hold onto the ball for an obnoxiously long time on run-pass options and play-action, as Wake Forest’s did, will really help him. Leaving Sage Surratt is going to hurt Newman, but for anyone who isn’t familiar with Georgia wide receiver George Pickens, get familiar before the 2022 draft. He and Newman are gonna be a lot of fun together. — Jack
I agree that Newman isn't a sleeper, but I also agree with the sentiment here that he has the best chance to separate himself from the pack. If you view the current tier-one quarterbacks as Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and Trey Lance, Newman or Purdy has the best argument to be at the top of the second tier — and Newman has the best chance to rise given his new system and weapons in Georgia. With that said, there's a lot that still needs to be done on Newman's film, and one change of scenery does not a quarterback prospect make.
My pick: Micale Cunningham, quarterback, Louisville. If you're looking for Lamar Jackson 2.0 this is him: same threads and everything. Cunningham has track-type speed and long legs that eat up grass in a hurry. He has elite escape ability, a quick trigger and uses good touch. — Brandon
Cunningham is an actual sleeper, so I'm glad to see he made the list. However, Jackson’s comparison is an aggressive claim in my opinion as Cunningham is still up-and-down as a passer and has yet to have a season with nearly the same rushing efficiency or volume Jackson boasted. With that said, Cunningham is playing in a great spread offense, has an improving group of weapons and has flashed everything you'd like to see out of a passer in terms of reads, pocket management and decision-making. Good pull.
Who's a newly-eligible player you're hoping declares early?
My pick: Tyreke Smith. He’s a quick, athletic defensive end. He had some good bend and flexibility when turning the corner. I’m intrigued to see what he’s like with Chase Young now in the NFL. If he succeeds, he could very well be a first-round pick. — Rahoul
Smith is a great name to pull for this question. We often miss out on talented players in summer work because they had incomplete previous seasons as a result of the talent in front of them. This is especially true of high-caliber recruits like Smith, a 4-star recruit out of Ohio who ended up in the Ohio State factory of defensive ends. Smith had five tackles for loss and three sacks in only eight games played last year, with two of his sacks coming when he stepped in for Young during his suspension in the Maryland game. Smith is a name to track early in the season as a budding first-round selection.
My pick: Trey Lance. With another elite season, he's going to go top 10. — Zack
My pick: Trey Lance. Easy, next. He has a top-five grade, for me, and I would love for him to come out of North Dakota State. — Paul
There’s a lot of Lance love here, and rightfully so. Lance's declaration is an extremely interesting conversation. When he finished the 2020 season, everyone thought he was interesting, but nobody was really talking about him as a likely declaree, give his level of competition and generally quiet national interest; he only has one season worth of starting. If he ends up as productive in 2020 as he was in 2019, there will be first-round hype and an expectation that enters the draft as a redshirt sophomore. I'd love to see him come out as well, but he may want to read the class and wait another season.
Who's the best defensive player in the 2021 NFL Draft?
Give me Gregory Rousseau or give me death. I may sound like a broken record, but there’s a reason for that: Rousseau plays a premium position and plays it better than anyone else in the country. He should dominate the 2021 college football competition. — Sam
Sam had Rousseau for his answer in the third question posed to the channel, which is why he's a broken record but appropriately so. I'm not all the way there on Rousseau; I think he's still plenty rough around the edges, and I'd like to see what he looks like in 2021 before I push my chips all the way in on him as a top player for the 2021 class. With that said, he has as good of a chance as any defensive player in the class to be the top player picked. It's impossible to argue with his production last year; I just want the film to match.
My pick: Micah Parsons. He just has a different level to him compared to other defenders. He has all the traits you want to in a linebacker and his athleticism is right up there. We could possibly see him be a top-five pick and I would not be surprised. — Zack
For my money, this is the best defensive player in the 2021 draft — though we got some Marvin Wilson submissions, and no Shaun Wade submissions, which is entirely criminal. Parsons stands a head above the rest given his frame and athleticism. He's not the same mover that Isaiah Simmons was but has great density and is a far more natural fit at a true linebacker position. Parsons also is an extremely instinctive and smart player who regularly wins not on athletic ability alone, but on vision and anticipation as well. He's a special player.