Most people have been fixated on what the top of the 2021 NFL Draft will look like. We know Jacksonville will take quarterback Trevor Lawrence first, and the Jets and 49ers will likely draft their own franchise quarterbacks at second and third, respectively. What will the Falcons do at No. 4? Will someone trade up? Will the Bengals pick someone to protect Joe Burrow or someone for him to throw to? Will someone reach on another one of those quarterbacks?
There are plenty of other players out there who may not be talked about as much. We’re talking guys who aren’t as buzzworthy but could be important cogs for franchises down the road or guys who are gaining some buzz who might have some issues that are being overlooked. We are coming off a college football season where some schools played just a handful of games and some players took entire seasons off. So here are some X-factor players to keep an eye on as the draft rolls along.
- March 2, 2021
1 of 16
Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Is there any bigger X-factor in this NFL Draft than Lance? As a redshirt freshman in 2019, he started all 16 games and led North Dakota State to their second straight FCS championship. That season, he threw 28 touchdowns and zero … that’s right, zero … interceptions. Lance also rushed for 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns. He won the Walter Payton Award (FCS Player of the Year) and Jerry Rice Award (FCS freshman of the year) and everyone was keyed on watching him in 2020. Except, North Dakota State postponed the 2020 season, with the Bison playing in one exhibition game against Central Arkansas. In that game, Lance threw the ball 50 times for just 149 yards (and two TDs) and ran for 143 yards and another two scores. Is he the next Carson Wentz, who also went to North Dakota State? If he is, does that mean he’s more like the Wentz won was an MVP candidate early on his career or the one that lost his job and was unceremoniously ousted this past season? With a run on QBs at the top of the draft, someone may panic a bit and use some draft capital to move up to draft Lance. Who will that be and how far up will they have to go to get him? This is one of the draft’s most interesting storylines.
2 of 16
Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
The Gamecocks had a horrible 2020 season, but Horn was a real bright spot before opting out the final three games of the season. He is a very interesting prospect in this draft. Some draft experts have him as one of the top corners in this draft and a possible top 15 draft pick. Others are concerned about his speed and have him going in the late first-round/early second round. What he lacks in speed he makes up for in technique and fight. He sticks to his receiver by being physical and getting into his man. In a position know for the top talent to have an NFL lineage (Patrick Surtain II, Asante Samuel Jr.), Jaycee Horn is the son of former Saints receiver Joe Horn.
3 of 16
Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Farley is one of the most interesting cases in this draft, and some of his “issues” are commonplace on this list. He committed to Virginia Tech in hopes of being their quarterback. Instead, he was slotted to be a receiver before suffering a knee injury in his first practice. As a redshirt freshman, he was moved to defensive back where he excelled (36 tackles, 7 pass breakups, 2 interceptions as a freshman, then leading the ACC in passes defended as a sophomore). He would be All-ACC in 2019 but opted out of the 2020 season due to family concerns. The “out of sight, out of mind” cliche doesn’t apply to NFL scouts, but Farley’s back surgery in late March does concern teams and kept him from performing at Virginia Tech’s pro day. He has the size and talent teams crave at the position, but will teams be turned off by his injury issues (he missed all of 2017 and 2020 and some of 2019) and the fact he hasn’t played much football of late?
4 of 16
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Notre Dame
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Owusu-Koramoah could be that old “joker” player who can be a linebacker or defensive back, depending on the coverage. With a lot of teams going with a 4-2-5 or a 3-2-6 dime defense, having a player who can play the role of a hybrid LB/S is coveted in the age of spread offenses. Owusu-Koramoah’s speed and athleticism are ideal for covering athletic tight ends in the league and he’s physical enough to bring them down. He may be smallish for a linebacker, but he can hit ya! With so much focus on offensive weapons at the top of the draft, Owusu-Koramoah could fall into a sweet spot of a good team that can find ways to freely use his talents.
5 of 16
Kyle Trask, QB, Florida
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Again, we all know that not only will there be a run on quarterbacks in the top three or four picks in the draft, but guys like Mac Jones and Trey Lance will be intriguing prospects that could be picked in the top ten. There will be guys available later in the draft that a team unwilling to dump a bunch of picks may settle on. Trask is a perfect example of this. He was a Heisman finalist who led the nation with 43 touchdown passes last year and was one of the most accurate passers in 2020. He doesn’t possess the wow arm or the speed most teams now covet in a signal-caller, but he is a true pocket passer who put up numbers against SEC defenses. There are plenty of teams who will be looking for their next quarterback that may not need him to come in immediately and play. If Jordan Love snuck into the first round and Jalen Hurts went higher than most people expected, there is a chance that Trask is picked up by a team looking to groom him for the long haul,
6 of 16
Terrace Marshall Jr., WR, LSU
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
Not only is this a deep wide receiver class, but it’s strong at the top. While everyone knows about Marshall’s teammate Ja’Marr Chase, many people may be overlooking this tall Tiger. Marshall has size (6’3) and an ability to go up and get 50-50 balls. He’s got great hands, long arms and is outstanding at using those tools to snag balls out of the air. Once he gets the ball, he has a quick burst that can turn into big plays. While you may think that Marshall only had a big year in 2020 because Chase opted out, he also had a nice year during their 2019 title season (46 catches, 671 yards, 13 TDs).
7 of 16
Kenneth Gainwell, RB, Memphis
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
I know running backs aren’t valued very highly in the draft, but their impact on a team’s success is still tangible. Maybe we’ve left the era of a one-back system where a guy carries your offense, but having a back who can do a lot of things for you is still a must for a successful offense. The fact that Kenneth Gainwell played at Memphis and opted out of the 2020 season means he isn’t as well known as guys like Travis Etienne or Najee Harris, but he certainly can be an impact player. In his redshirt sophomore season of 2019, he rushed for 1,459 yards and 13 TDs, while catching 51 passes for 610 yards and three more scores. His ability to be a factor in the passing game makes him intriguing for a team who likes to get their backs out in space.
8 of 16
Javonte Williams, RB, North Carolina
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports
Williams will have the opposite attraction for NFL teams. He is a physical back who loves contact and could have a nice career as a short-yardage back who has the ability to break loose. He rushed for 19 touchdowns last season and led the nation with an obscene 83 broken tackles. I’m not saying he will be as great as Marshawn Lynch, but he has that style of running. For an example of his ability, his amazing run against Miami showed him bouncing a run outside, hurdling one defender, running over another before spinning around a few more would-be tacklers. Oh, and in that game, he rushed for 236 yards and three touchdowns.
9 of 16
Creed Humphrey, C, Oklahoma
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Humphrey will be a long-time starter in the NFL. He isn’t the most athletic center you’ll find, but he has both a very high IQ and a nasty streak that annoys opponents. His ability to not only read defenses and call out blocking assignments, but his physicality at keeping a clean pocket should have him targeted late in the first round by teams with franchise quarterbacks … or early in the second round by teams who just drafted a franchise quarterback.
10 of 16
Landon Dickerson, C, Alabama
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Speaking of centers with a nasty streak … hello, Landon Dickerson! If not for him tearing his ACL in the SEC championship game, he would be a no-doubt first-round pick as he’s an O-line coach’s dream. He’s an outstanding leader, which is very important for a center to be. He will be able to come in as a rookie and assert himself just fine. His teammates love him; opponents hate him and coaches trust him. He has a bit of a crazy side to him (his nickname is “Joker”) and has fun almost every second of the day. He even managed to convince Nick Saban to let him snap the ball in the victory formation in the College Football Playoff championship game … just weeks removed from repairing his torn ACL. Where he goes in the draft depends on what team feels comfortable with his injury history and his possible lack of availability when the 2021 season begins.
11 of 16
Davis Mills, QB, Stanford
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
So we talked about the top level of quarterbacks with Trey Lance and that next level with Kyle Trask. Now comes Davis Mills, who will be one of the most-watched prospects during draft week. Mills has only played 14 games in his college career, making him one of the most inexperienced players in this draft — and a quarterback to boot. He has the size and arm to be a mid-round project for a team that can afford to wait on his development. As I mentioned before, though, when it comes to quarterbacks, teams can get panic-y. Five teams will draft their franchise quarterback in the first 10-20 picks with another five teams who really need to look for a longer-term solution to their signal-caller. Someone will be tempted to take Mills earlier than expected. Teams like Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Minnesota, New England, New Orleans, Oakland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Washington, and, yep, Houston may be still looking for a guy to take the reigns in a year or two and weren’t able (or tempted) to use an early pick on one of the top five guys. Mills and Trask seem to be the cut-off point before you are just taking flyers on QBs. Mills’ stock could soar despite him being a relative unknown.
12 of 16
Dylan Moses, LB, Alabama
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Another Alabama player who has injury concerns, Moses can be attractive to a team that loves to blitz their linebackers. He is explosive — he has both power and athleticism that can be bothersome to offensive coordinators. He loves to hit and is great at tracking down ball carriers to use his gift of pop. He isn’t the best in coverage, so he may be best served on blitzing downs and run defense packages. He did miss 2019 with a torn ACL and it took him a while to get back in form this past season, so that is something that may turn off some teams. Teams that look past that will concentrate on his ability to be a defensive playmaker.
13 of 16
Zaven Collins, OLB, Tulsa
Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports
Tulsa had a fierce defense in 2020 and Collins was the undisputed leader. A converted quarterback and tight end, Collins has a rare combination of size, speed, and athleticism that helped win the Bronco Nagurski award for the nation’s best defensive player. He has a great motor and ability to find holes in the offensive line to attack ball carriers and in blitz packages. He is great at tracking down runners and has a knack for stripping the ball and creating turnovers. That includes reading plays and getting into passing lanes. Last season, he picked off four passes and returned two for touchdowns … including a 96-yard pick-six to beat Tulane in overtime.
14 of 16
Pat Freiermuth, TE, Penn State
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
Florida’s Kyle Pitts will likely make for a historic draft pick, but what does that mean for the second-best tight end on the board? Freiermuth isn’t the same kind of tight end as Pitts — he’s more of the traditional blocker who is an exceptional receiver when he breaks off the line of scrimmage. His value is very fluid. The tight end position has become very vogue of late and with several teams enamored with Pitts, could Freiermuth see a spike in his draft stock? Teams that miss out on moving up to select Pitts could look to secure the next best TE. If not, he could sneak into the back end of the first round if a contender is looking to add weapons for their offense. Expect him to go early in Day 2 as teams look to pair their newly picked quarterback with a big target.
15 of 16
Andre Cisco, S, Syracuse
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
I’m a big Andre Cisco fan. Despite playing for a flailing program at Syracuse and alongside a suspect defense, Cisco was an All-ACC performer for two seasons before missing most of 2020 with a leg injury. He is a ball hawk who is aggressive and possesses great ball skills. He is a big hitter but may be primarily a free safety in the NFL. He had 7 picks his freshman season and 5 interceptions in just 9 games as a sophomore.
16 of 16
Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Moore may project to be a gadget-type player in the NFL. He’s smallish as a receiver (just 5’7) but could make it as a slot receiver. More likely, he’ll find his footing as a hybrid running back-receiver that offenses could line up at a variety of spots on offense and special teams. That sets him apart in a very receiver-rich draft and may be attractive to a team with a lot of extra picks that could splurge on a position-less player. He led the nation with 114 receptions as a freshman, but struggled with injuries as a sophomore and got caught up in the Big Ten’s shortened schedule last season. If he is picked by a team with an imaginative offensive coordinator, he could be a real weapon.