SDS Roundtable: Which SEC player has the best chance of going No. 1 overall in 2021 NFL Draft?
Each SDS roundtable discussion involves the SDS staff providing individual answers and comments to questions covering a wide range of sports and non-sports topics. In this discussion, we ask the question: Does the SEC have another potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft?
Previous roundtable discussions:
- If you could change 1 thing about college football, what would it be?
- What are you watching right now?
- Who is your favorite SEC football player of all-time?
- What are your 3 favorite postseason moments involving SEC teams?
- Which 4 SEC athletes are on your Mount Rushmore?
- What is your most painful sports memory?
- The greatest team I ever saw …
- Which school’s all-time position group is the best in SEC history?
- Who are your way-too-early picks to make the College Football Playoff?
- If and when the SEC expands, which 2 teams should it add?
- Who is your pick to win the SEC East, SEC West in 2020?
- Who is your favorite player from every SEC program?
- Who is your favorite SEC personality to follow on Twitter?
- Which SEC program produced best pro sports duo?
- Which prop bet would you risk stimulus check on?
- Which former assistant is first to beat Nick Saban?
- Which SEC helmet absolutely needs to be redesigned?
- Which Day 2 or 3 SEC pick will have best NFL career?
- Which SEC 1st-round pick will have best rookie season?
A bit of background …
Joe Burrow just became the 9th SEC player in the past 23 drafts to go No. 1 overall. This time last year, he wasn’t even a projected 1st-round pick. Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields will enter next season as the prohibitive favorites to go No. 1 in the 2021 NFL Draft, assuming they stay healthy and leave early, but is there an SEC player who could rise to the top?
Jon Cooper, SDS co-founder
This is an easy one for me. The best overall player, LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., won’t be eligible for the 2021 NFL Draft. So, I’m going with Tennessee offensive lineman Trey Smith. Smith has all the tools of the trade to be a perennial left tackle in the NFL. He’s smart and has character off the field. He’s also a boss on it, pushing around defensive linemen with strength, great footwork and quickness. Obviously, his health has been under the microscope during his college career; however, assuming he has a big (and healthy) year, Smith could jump into the No. 1 pick conversation.
Connor O’Gara, Senior national columnist
If we’re being honest, I’d be stunned if any of them did. With all due respect to Ja’Marr Chase and Dylan Moses, the No. 1 overall pick is for quarterbacks and edge rushers. Only twice in the 21st century did someone deviate from that, and both were offensive tackles. There really isn’t a quarterback or edge rusher who I can see making that leap. Well, at least none who I’m willing to sit here and predict will be the No. 1 overall pick.
Let’s be boring and go with Alex Leatherwood. He’s a proven All-SEC left tackle with a wealth of skill and experience. There’s no doubt he’ll have a bunch of eyes on him, and if Najee Harris has an All-American season, it’ll be that much more appealing to spend a top pick on the former 5-star recruit. He was projected to be a 1st-round pick in 2020, and he could easily be the top offensive lineman drafted in 2021.
But really, the more likely scenario is that Leatherwood is the first pick selected from the SEC while someone like Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields is picked No. 1 overall.
Chris Marler, The SDS Podcast co-host
The correct answer is none of them because Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields will be taken at 1. I get why some would say Ja’Marr Chase, but there have only been 4 WRs taken as the No. 1 overall pick ever and only 2 since 1966. If we’re answering logically, it’s probably an OL or DE, so I’ll go with Alex Leatherwood from Bama or, my sleeper, or Malik Herring from UGA. I’m pulling for Trey Smith out of Tennessee.
Michael Bratton, News editor
Given the quarterbacks likely to be available in next year’s draft, I’d say there’s very little chance any SEC player goes No. 1 overall in the 2021 draft. Probably around a 5 percent chance, and it might not even be that high.
The only position that could potentially fit that mold would be quarterbacks. There’s no chance a player at another position goes before Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields. Given that, I’ll go with Kellen Mond, Jaime Newman or KJ Costello — and all those are currently huge leaps to make that type of move.
The same thing could have been said of Burrow this time last year, so I’ll go with Costello being the most likely option of those 3. Playing in a new offensive system that’s caught on in the NFL, playing for a coach that gets the most out of his quarterbacks and playing against the best college defenses will give Costello the best opportunity to skyrocket up the draft board among the quarterbacks in the SEC.
Adam Spencer, Newsletter editor
First, let’s mention some guys who have the talent to go No. 1 overall, but won’t. Ja’Marr Chase and Dylan Moses have the skills, but receivers and linebackers don’t go No. 1 overall. Then there’s Derek Stingley Jr., but he won’t be eligible for the 2021 draft.
Thus, my pick is Alex Leatherwood. The Alabama lineman could have potentially been a top-10 pick If he came out this year, but he decided to return for the 2020 season. He’s an incredible talent and will be a lineman in the NFL for a long time to come. He’ll also be ready to start Day 1.
He’d obviously need Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields to return to Clemson and Ohio State, respectively, to rise to No. 1, but for purposes of this exercise, it’s tough to pick against Leatherwood as the top SEC player in the 2021 class.
Neil Blackmon, Florida columnist
The answer is Justin Fields, of course, but he plays for Ohio State now because in life we make choices and Kirby Smart made his own.
Alex Leatherwood is a good shout, but has he really ever displayed No. 1 overall type talent? Not yet. Ja’Marr Chase should go top 5 with his skill set, which is insane for a wide receiver, but that position doesn’t go No. 1 overall.
For me, that leaves 2 names — Patrick Surtain Jr. and Jamie Newman. Surtain is the more proven commodity, but would a corner — even one with his bloodlines and a Hall of Fame ceiling go No. 1? Nope.
So while it isn’t “likely,” Jamie Newman has the skillset and the position to break out and become the guy in the conversation with Fields and the obvious No. 1 pick, Trevor Lawrence. I’m not saying it happens — but the question asks who has “the best chance.”
All told, I think Chase or Surtain will be the first SEC player drafted next year — but Newman and Leatherwood have the best chance of going No. 1.
Chris Wright, Executive editor
It’s worth remembering how far and how fast Burrow rose. He wasn’t even a projected 1st-round pick in most preseason mock drafts.
Draft guru Mel Kiper didn’t have Joe Burrow on his preseason big board but had Jake Fromm at No. 18. Draft analyst Matt Miller made the same mistake — and had Fromm even higher at No. 14 overall.
Oh, my. If that doesn’t give you pause, I’m not sure what will.
They weren’t alone. Everybody slept on Burrow.
That’s one reason I started writing in mid-September: “Here’s my question: Burrow is 6-3 with a big arm. At what point does Joe Burrow enter the conversation for the No. 1 overall pick in next April’s NFL Draft?”
Point being, it is possible for players to rise … and others to fall. But the QBs will have to fall.
Lawrence has looked like a longer-haired version of Peyton Manning ever since he stepped on campus. Barring an injury, I think he could throw 20 interceptions in 2020 and still be the No. 1 overall pick. As a passer, he checks every box. Odds are overwhelming that he’ll be the first wire-to-wire No. 1 recruit to No. 1 pick since Jadeveon Clowney. Fields is right there, too, just as he was when he entered college as the No. 2 recruit.
The No. 1 pick is very much a positional proposition, essentially reduced to quarterbacks, left tackles and defensive ends. The last RB taken No. 1 was Ki-Jana Carter in 1995. The last WR taken No. 1 was Keyshawn Johnson in 1996. The last defensive tackle taken No. 1 was Dan Wilkison in 1994.
Every year since 1996 — the past 24 drafts — a QB, DE or LT has gone No. 1 overall.
That helps Leatherwood’s case. He’s NFL-ready and almost assuredly will be the first tackle off the board in 2021. Can he edge a QB, though?
In 17 of the past 22 drafts, a QB has gone No. 1. The 2021 draft class is loaded with top-end QB talent, so Leatherwood will need somebody to fall or return to school.
Aside from the race for No. 1, the most fascinating draft story to follow next year will be Feleipe Franks. If he has a strong year and eliminates a lot of his boneheaded decisions, he could leap into the first round.
We know NFL teams gamble on QBs. We also know NFL scouts are enamored with velo, and nobody in college football has a stronger arm. Franks will crush the Combine. He could rise just like Josh Allen, Daniel Jones and Burrow — just not quite as high.