The 2021 NFL Draft is a cornucopia of tremendous edge rushers, intriguing quarterbacks and a bunch of drama we’ll hear loads about.
In this kickoff edition of Inside the Draft …
- We’ll run down our list of the top five edge rushers available in the 2021 draft class;
- Doubters of Ohio State QB Justin Fields will get plenty of raw meat; and
- You’ll meet the greatest pure special teams prospect in the history of pure special teams prospects.
But first, let’s set the stage for the strangest NFL draft season in decades.
No Scouting Combine hoopla. Fewer postseason all-star games. Shortened, fragmented and often confusing 2020 college football schedules. Limited travel by NFL scouts themselves. Reduced visit and workout schedules. Tightly-controlled Pro Days.
Welcome to draft season the way it used to be.
You may not remember a world in which the draft did not command nightly one-hour television programs in March and April, where your Twitter timeline didn’t flood with incomprehensible spider-web diagrams of workout results during the combine or when some of the biggest programs in the nation played only a half-dozen games.
But Inside the Draft is old enough to remember when draft guides were stapled-and-mimeographed listings of players with three-sentence “scouting reports” when “cut-ups” had to actually be cut up using the sort of film editing machines used on Casablanca, which means even NFL teams didn’t have all that many of them. Teams, fans and us media types will be learning to do more with less this year, and that’s not a terrible thing.
Admit it: your eyes roll when some Twitter Mike Mayock wannabe threads 200 GIFs on a Tuesday morning of an ordinary B1G linebacker, complete with jargon-filled explanations of what makes him the ideal fifth-round pick.
Televised hand-wringing about the difference between a 4.41 and 4.43-second 40-yard dash during the combine made you want to cut the cord. And you can’t shake the impression that scouts and GMs are gaslighting themselves when they base draft decisions on staring contests during 15-minute speed-dating interviews.
Your instincts are correct in all three cases: the inherited wisdom and the draftnik military-industrial complex which have grown around quarterback hand sizes and 3,000-word scouting reports about small-school tight ends has grown completely out of control.
That said, both teams and those of us who market ourselves as “experts” will be doing more guessing than usual over the next few months.
Among top quarterback prospects alone, there’s North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, whose team only played one game in 2020, and BYU’s Zach Wilson, who feasted on opponents like North Alabama and Texas State because of cancellations by most of their major-conference foes. And even when major programs did square off, it was often in front of a limited number of scouts: if the programs or state governments didn’t strictly limit travel and attendance in many cases, the NFL teams themselves did.
Anyone claiming that none of this matters or is easy to adjust for because of their amazing film-analysis capability is trying to sell you a subscription service.
Even your humble Inside the Draft ringleader was impacted. I missed my annual trip to the Senior Bowl and won’t be able to conduct a few dozen combine interviews like I usually do. But there are still plenty of people to talk to and talk about, and much to learn in the coming weeks.
Inside the Draft is here to cut through the hype and jargon. And that will be more important than ever in a year where some folks may be counting on hype and jargon to cover for the relative lack of actual information.
Meet the Prospect: Avery Williams, DB/Return Specialist, Boise State
Avery Williams wants to play defense. He wouldn’t mind playing a little offense, too. But Williams really wants to play special teams.
“I want to be a combination of Matthew Slater and Devin Hester,” Williams told Inside the Draft.
Becoming a cross between two of the greatest special teamers in NFL history is an unusual goal, but it may be an attainable one for Williams. He earned All America honors as a kick returner in his final season at Boise State. He also won the Jet Award (named after 1972 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny “the Jet” Rodgers) as the nation’s top return specialist. Williams returned six punts and three kickoffs for touchdowns in four seasons for the Broncos, and he also blocked five kicks in his college career.
Inside the Draft considers Williams the best all-around special teams prospect to come around in many, many years. “That is a compliment, in terms of it being true, respectfully,” Williams said. “But I am also much more than a special teams player. I see myself in the slot or nickel corner, which is where most teams see me. I can play all three sides of the ball and do it very well.”
Fair enough. But special teams became Williams’ true calling at an early age, when his family scored tickets to Super Bowl XLI: Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts against Devin Hester and the Chicago Bears.
“I was in the back of the end zone. It was raining, we all had ponchos on,” Williams recalled. “I watched Devin Hester catch the football and run it all the way to the other end zone on the first play of the game. I was in shock. To me, that was the coolest play in football.”
Williams grew into a multi-position high school standout in Pasadena, California. But he also only grew to about 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds, so he got lost in the recruiting shuffle. He was a priority walk-on at Boise State, where he soon impressed coaches and teammates — and earned a scholarship and the punt return job — by becoming the program’s 2017 Scout Team Special Teamer of the Year.
In case you haven’t guessed by now, Williams takes his roles in the kicking game very seriously.
“There’s a 20-minute YouTube video of every single kick return touchdown in college football from the 2019 season,” he said. “I watched that video over 200-300 times during quarantine. I would watch it before bed. If I was doing my laundry, I had it in the background. I’m a strong believer that when you see things, you start to become it.”
By last season, opponents were giving Williams the Hester treatment, punting out of bounds or kicking off to the far side of the field to keep the ball out of his hands. Boise State coaches adjusted accordingly. Williams and a teammate switched sides of the field just as Hawaii’s kicker approached the ball this season, resulting in a third-quarter touchdown in what ended as a tight Broncos win.
When not captaining the Boise State special teams, Williams started at cornerback, moving to slot and safety when teammates were unavailable due to injuries or quarantines. “I feel my FBI — my football intelligence — is unmatched,” Williams said when asked to outline his greatest strengths. “I was in the film room until 10 p.m. breaking down my own film, breaking down other teams. I know what the other coordinator likes to do, what routes guys like to run, their tendencies. I was able to fill the rolls that we needed.”
Boise State coaches even drew up some offensive plays for Williams, but they were never run during the shortened season. “I wish I could have put those on film,” he said.
Williams’ athleticism and student-of-the-game mentality will make him a useful nickel or dime defender in the NFL. But he can help right away as an all-purpose special teamer.
A team like the Green Bay Packers or Los Angeles Rams that got little from its return game, struggled in kick coverage and could be a big special teams play or two away from the Super Bowl would be wise to draft Williams in the middle rounds.
After all, the New England Patriots and Slater taught us that it’s better to have some guys on the special teams unit who really want to be there than a bunch of guys merely waiting for their chance to become starters.
“My role was always to play special teams,” Williams said. “That was my gift to the team. I was always grateful that Boise State allowed me to walk on and gave me a scholarship. So that was my way of giving back, and I found my true passion in the sport through that.”
The Skeptic’s Guide to Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
Each week at Inside the Draft, The Skeptics Guide will choose one of the brightest stars in the 2021 draft class and explore the biggest weaknesses in his game and reasons why he might fail. Think of it as “devil’s advocate” reasoning or opposition research, and please don’t take it personally if he’s your favorite player ever.
Justin Fields’ Ceiling Comparison: Ben Roethlisberger.
Justin FIelds’ Floor Comparison: DeShone Kizer.
Find a life partner who looks at you the way Justin Fields stares down his first read.
Fields is an excellent overall prospect with a huge problem: he locks onto his first read and rarely ever unlocks. Most college quarterbacks have trouble consistently finding their second reads, but Fields is an extreme case, especially among serious prospects. It often looks as if his neck is immobilized.
If Ohio State wide receiver Garrett Wilson is Fields’ intended target up the left sideline, a spaceship could land along the right sideline without Fields noticing.
Fields’ unwillingness or inability to go through a progression is not a fatal flaw. Nor is it an indictment of his intelligence, preparation or value as a human being. If anything, it’s an inevitable result of a quarterback-friendly system and an always-stacked Buckeyes roster.
Fields stares down Wilson or Chris Olave because they are likely to be open all the time. And if they aren’t, it’s because so many defenders are committed to deep coverage that Fields can scramble for productive yardage.
Since we’re talking about Fields’ supporting cast, let’s make an effort to steer clear of “program scouting” or downgrading Fields because of the troubled history of Ohio State quarterbacks.
Fields is a better prospect than Dwayne Haskins, even if Haskins’ maskless trips to Superspreaders Gentleman’s Club are removed from the equation: Fields is much more mobile and has a better touch on deep passes than Haskins. He’s a much better pure passer than J.T. Barrett or Terrelle Pryor. Fields “can make all the throws,” is a gritty, determined runner and handled himself well against top-tier competition.
Still, locking onto the primary receiver is an issue that can hinder a young NFL quarterback’s progress or completely derail it. The two comparisons listed above were both exceptionally talented arm/size/speed prospects who could win staring contests with a statue from the pocket at the starts of their careers.
The Steelers lived with Roethlisberger’s “one read, then run” routine in the mid-2000s because their great defense and supporting casts allowed them to win lots of games while Roethlisberger developed. Kizer got trapped in Hue Jackson’s Cleveland Browns meat grinder and was pushed onto the field to throw 22 interceptions as a rookie and take one for an 0-16 team.
If Fields starts too early in his career for some rebuilding team like the Jets, fans will likely see a few too many examples of what Inside the Draft calls “The Fields Maneuver.” That’s when an opponent applies pressure up the middle while Haskins is waiting for his primary read to get open, forcing Fields to start to scramble a split-second too late, resulting in a sack or a dangerous throwaway.
There were plenty of examples of The Fields Maneuver in last season’s Indiana and Northwestern games: if it worked for the Hoosiers against the Buckeyes, you better believe the Bills will try it a few times against the Jets.
None of this should prevent the Jets or some other quarterback-needy team from using a top five draft pick on Fields. If anything, his one obvious flaw can focus his NFL team’s development plan.
It’s just important to be honest about the fact that Fields’ boom-or-bust variance is higher than is likely to be advertised over the next few weeks. Staring down primary receivers is not a fatal flaw, but it’s a significant one, and Fields’ early career may be defined by how quickly he can correct it.
Inside the Draft Countdown: Top 5 Edge Rushers in the 2021 Draft
There is no Chase Young or Myles Garrett who can start from day one and be a double-digit sack threat as a rookie among the 2021 draft class. But this year’s class is full of edge rushers with one or two elite skills, if not the complete package.
A team looking for an instant-impact sack specialist off the edge should pursue Shaq Barrett or Melvin Ingram in free agency. A team looking for a developmental prospect who could upgrade a sub package right away and grow into a star by 2022 or ’23 can pick from this list of Inside the Draft’s top edge rushers for ’21.
5. Azeez Ojulari, Georgia
Ojulari may not be the best edge rusher in the 2021 draft class, but he could be the best all-around football player among the edge rushers. He’s more experienced in coverage than any of his peers, defeats blockers and pursues well in the running game and handles his assignments well against options, rollouts and misdirection plays.
As a pass rusher, he’s quick enough to beat his blocker to the outside from time to time and will keep working to pick up coverage sacks. Ojulari also dealt with high school injuries which derailed his early college career, so he may still be developing. He could be a Harold Landry type who doesn’t blow up the sack leaderboard but can drop into coverage for a half dozen zone blitzes per game without getting lost.
4. Gregory Rousseau, Miami
Rousseau opted out in 2020 but recorded 15.5 sacks in 2019. He’s tall, strong, and long-armed, enabling him to swat the ball away or reach out to reel in the quarterback even when blocked. He’s a toolsy, raw, high-upside guy who could be special once he adjusts to not being able to produce sacks simply by being the best athlete on the field.
3. Kwity Paye, Michigan
Paye can absolutely take over games at times (see the fourth quarter against Minnesota) but also has long quiet stretches where he just crashes into his blocker over and over again. He possesses great footwork off the snap and the ability to turn the corner to reach the quarterback, plus the hustle to chase plays from behind.
A groin injury slowed him down during a portion of an already-curtailed 2020 season. Paye flashes double-digit sack potential but his game needs a great deal of fit ‘n’ finish.
2. Joseph Ossai, Edge, Texas
Ossai is an edge rusher’s edge rusher who can be absolutely unblockable for long stretches and string together multiple sacks and big plays. He can change directions quickly and explode when a few steps from the quarterback.
That said, the Longhorns schemed him up with stunts to get many of his sacks and pressures, and he could be the sort of defender who is a little too easy to get detoured around the quarterback or rocked backwards in the running game. Ossai is a Steelers-style outside linebacker who could be exceptional if used correctly or end up a 3rd-and-15 sub-package defender in the wrong system.
1. Patrick Jones, Pitt
Jones recorded 17.5 sacks in his final two seasons with the Panthers and forced four fumbles in 2019. He really eats up a lot of turf on his first two strides off the line of scrimmage. He has a careening style and can string together moves or rock his blocker off-balance with a violent collision.
Jones may need to add a few pounds and refine his technique a bit, but his Tasmanian Devil approach to pass rushing should eventually make him a terror off the edge in the NFL.