1. Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon EDGE
Thibodeaux is a freak of nature pass rusher who is someone you can build a defense around. While he has missed time this year with an injury, he’s been dominant when on the field. Usually a quarterback is taken first overall, but at this point Thibodeaux is the overwhelming favorite at number one. When you think of some of the best pass rush prospects over the years (Jadeveon Clowney and Myles Garrett for example), they all have the elite athleticism and technical ability to step in right away and produce. Thibodeaux is cut from that same cloth.
2. Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame S
I said in the preseason that it’ll be tough for anyone to surpass Thibodeaux or Stingley Jr. for a spot in the top two, but Hamilton has played out of his mind this year. Before an unfortunate knee sprain, Hamilton was all over the field for the Fighting Irish and showed he can play anywhere you need him to. When you look back, you could seriously consider Hamilton to be the best safety prospect of all time.
3. Derek Stingley Jr., LSU CB
If he had stayed fully healthy the past two seasons, there’s a chance Stingley Jr. would be at the top of this list. However, after maybe the best season for a freshman defensive back in college football history, Stingley Jr. has battled numerous injuries the last two years. When healthy, he has the potential to become the best cornerback in the NFL and figures to be a high-level starter as a rookie.
4. Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan EDGE
No player has exceeded my expectations more than Hutchinson. Coming into the season, I didn’t quite understand the hype that he has been getting for the last two years. In 2021 he’s looked like a man among boys and is taking over games by getting to the quarterback. He has the technical refinement and ability to explode off the snap that could make him a routine Pro Bowler.
5. Jordan Davis, Georgia DL
Davis will never be the MVP if you’re looking at the box scores, but he could be the most impactful player in college football right now. As the anchor on Georgia’s top-ranked defensive, Davis blows up double teams and clears lanes for his linebackers and edge rushers to make plays. When you see Davis ranked this high, think of the impact Vita Vea has on the Bucs defense.
6. DeMarvin Leal, Texas A&M DL
There isn’t a position on the defensive line that Leal can’t play. His versatility and athleticism made him a top prospect coming into the year, but now he’s finally putting it all together on the field. He’s beating tackles with his strength and interior linemen with his first step explosiveness. I’m not sure if he’ll be a big-time sack guy in the NFL, but he will cause havoc on opposing offenses.
7. Drake London, USC WR
Looking for the next Mike Evans? London is your guy. The former USC basketball player turns a 50/50 ball into an 80/20 ball in his favor. He’s out for the season with an ankle fracture but should be healthy by the summer.
8. Evan Neal, Alabama OT
An absolute behemoth of a man, Neal can play either tackle spot and should be one of the best run-blocking linemen in the league sooner rather than later. At 6’7″ and 350 pounds, Neal will be one of the biggest players in the league. Playing against NFL-caliber talent also helps Neal’s stock and there’s a strong chance he’s a top-five pick.
9. Kaiir Elam, Florida CB
Long-limbed corners who have ball skills will always be valued by NFL teams. Elam fits that bill. Despite a very disappointing season for Florida, he has played well. A true lockdown corner who excels in man and in zone, Elam should be able to step in as a rookie and play meaningful snaps. He does have a tendency to be overly aggressive, but that problem can be treated with good coaching.
10. George Karlaftis, Purdue EDGE
In order to appreciate Karlaftis, you need to watch Purdue play live. His sack total might not be eye-popping this season, but it’s tough to find a play where he isn’t being double-teamed. He doesn’t have the explosiveness of Thibodeaux or Hutchison, but his ability to bull rush tackles is elite. A huge part of playing the defensive line is not relying on athleticism to win every time. Karlaftis lacks that elite athleticism, but the rest of his game makes him so good.
11. Chris Olave, Ohio State WR
Olave isn’t the flashiest receiver, but he produces week in and week out. Earlier this season I compared him to Devonta Smith and Robert Woods, but in the right situation he can even be better than both of them. He doesn’t have great size, but he is an elite route runner who can get open in any coverage. Olave is a player who can start right away and develop into a star.
12. Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, Cincinnati CB
Cincinnati’s resurgence on defense due to studs like Sauce Gardner. Gardner has long arms and speed that is so popular now with boundary corners. With eight career interceptions, he has proven each year that he is a ballhawk and that teams better think twice before throwing his direction. He might need a little more coaching than some of the other corners in this class, but his ceiling is an All-Pro.
13. Darian Kinnard, Kentucky OL
If you’re in the market for a mauler of a lineman, Kinnard is your guy. PFF’s highest-graded run blocker in 2021, Kinnard has tackle and guard versatility. He’s a huge part of Kentucky’s run game, but can hold also his own as a pass protector.
14. Andrew Booth, Clemson CB
While this season has been a disappointment for Clemson, Booth Jr. has shown glimpses that he can be a very good pro. Possibly the most athletic defensive back in this draft, Booth Jr. is still raw. Due to a lack of defensive snaps, don’t be shocked if he doesn’t play a whole lot as a rookie. If an organization is patient and can coach him up, he could be a star in the making.
15. Treylon Burks, Arkansas WR
Burks would be a household name if he played at a bigger program. Blessed with great size and athleticism, Burks can beat you in a multitude of ways and is a tough guard for any defender. What has surprised me the most this year is his ability to make plays after the catch. Just throw the ball in his direction and he’ll make a play.
16. Garrett Wilson, Ohio State WR
In the last two years, we’ve seen receivers with speed will rise in the draft. Wilson isn’t as technical or well-rounded as teammate Chris Olave, but he is an explosive athlete who can stretch the field. He’s just scratching the surface as a player.
17. Kenyon Green, Texas A&M OL
Another versatile offensive lineman with the ability to play on the interior or out at tackle. Green is a plug-and-play starter as a rookie. He may not pop off the film from an athletic standpoint, but he’s so consistent across the board. I think the best route for him is to start him at guard and eventually kick him out to right tackle where he can be one of the best run-blocking linemen in the league.
18. Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa C
Not too often do you see centers drafted in the first round, but Linderbaum seems to be a shoo-in at this point. Ultimately it will come down to positional value. As a center, Linderbaum doesn’t really have a weakness. He’s strong at the point of attack yet still has the athleticism to be utilized out in space. He will be in the All-Pro discussion for the next ten years.
19. Jaquan Brisker, Penn State S
Brisker is a freak athlete that is getting better each and every week. Despite being pretty raw and not having started a ton of games, Brisker gets his hands on the ball and causes turnovers. He plays well both in deep coverage and in shallow zones going against bigger receivers. At first, he might be used in sub-packages where he could play several spots, but eventually he will settle into a starting role at either safety spot.
20. Devin Lloyd, Utah LB
This year’s Jack of all trades player has to be Lloyd. Whether he’s lining up to rush the passer or dropping into coverage, Lloyd has become one of the best defenders in college football this season. He might not be for everybody based on his skill set, but he does make big plays and could very well rise up the draft boards based on his versatility.
21. Ikem Ekwonu, NC State OL
One of the biggest risers so far has been Ekwonu. He wasn’t on my radar up until a few weeks ago. There is some concern on whether he’s a guard or tackle, but from what I’ve seen he has the athleticism and size to play just about anywhere. Play him in a zone rushing system and he’ll dominate any defensive lineman.
22. Carson Strong, Nevada QB
The first (and only) quarterback on this list is the best pure thrower in the class. While Strong lacks the athleticism that so many college quarterbacks possess now, nobody is more accurate on all three levels of the field. Also, knocking a quarterback for not being athletic is wrong, especially when you’ve seen what Mac Jones is doing this year. Put him in the right system and Strong could become an elite signal-caller.
23. David Ojabo, Michigan EDGE
Another player that has just recently come onto my radar is the ultra-quick pass rusher Ojabo. Hutchinson gets a lot of the praise on the Michigan defense, but it’s actually Ojabo who has more sacks. He’s been destroying offensive linemen as he sees a lot of one-on-ones this year. He’s the first guy off of the snap and is just too fast for college linemen to slow down. While still a raw player, he has the desirable traits of a first-rounder.
24. Jahan Dotson, Penn State WR
Dotson is a high-level receiver prospect who should be a solid WR2 for years to come. He doesn’t have great size, but is a good athlete with a great feel for the game. If he plays in a system that will use a lot of three-receiver sets, he will do a lot of damage in space and in the slot.
25. Jaxson Kirkland, Washington OL
Another offensive linemen with the versatility to play either inside or at tackle. Kirkland started his college career at right guard before moving to left tackle the last two seasons. It hasn’t always been pretty, but for the most part, Kirkland has been a rock for the Huskies. I think ultimately he’s a better fit at right tackle due to his lack of athleticism and overall ceiling, but he could be a steady starter right off the bat.