BY MICHAEL QUIRK
The 2021 NFL Draft is just 11 days away, and all of the focus is on how a wildly unpredictable top part of the draft will shake out. Will the 49ers take Justin Fields or Mac Jones at No. 3? Will the Falcons take Kyle Pitts, an heir-apparent to Matt Ryan, or will they trade down? Will the Bengals opt to protect Joe Burrow with Penei Sewell, or will they give him another weapon to compliment Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins? How will the weapons shake out 6-8 and will a quarterback-needy team like the Patriots or Bears try to get in the mix with a trade up?
Months of speculation will come to an end in less than two weeks as top prospects will turn their attentions from daily calls with their sports agent to daily calls with their Keller Williams agent. So with much of the attention centered around the “can’t miss” prospects in the draft, I would like to turn the attention to 10 guys who won’t go near the very top, but whom I believe will make a Pro Bowl at some point in their careers. This is truly a time capsule that is setting myself up for a Freezing Cold Takes, but fortune favors the bold so let’s have at it.
Cornerback from South Carolina
There is an episode in The Office where Michael Scott proposes to his girlfriend Holly, leading her through a parade of co-workers each asking Holly to marry them first. After she gets to office temp Ryan, Michael says, “that was the only one I was worried about.” That’s how I feel about Horn right here. Not because I don’t think he will have a great career, but the whole premise is guys who won’t go top 10 and Horn is sneaking up on Patrick Surtain II with a chance to go 10 to Dallas.
The son of New Orleans Saint great and Nokia enthusiast Joe Horn, the former Gamecock possessing everything one could want in a corner. He has great size for the position at 6’1 and 205 lbs., and utilizes it well. He absolutely puts dudes on an island in man coverage in part because of that length, and also due to his absolute alpha personality. In order to be an elite corner a la Jalen Ramsey, Darrelle Revis, Patrick Peterson, etc., you need an absolute “dog” mentality and Horn brings that in spades. He is physical at the line of scrimmage and he will fight tooth and nail for the football. This is a cluttered cornerback class at the top with Horn, Surtain, Caleb Farley, and Greg Newsome, but when it’s all said and done, don’t be shocked if Horn is the cream of that crop.
Edge from Georgia
Projection: Mid-first to early second
This is not an elite edge rusher class in terms of prospects. There is no Chase Young, Myles Garrett, or Mario Williams at the top. There is a huge pool of guys who will go in some random order from the middle of the first through the beginning of the third, with maybe none going in the top 20. Someone has to emerge from that group once they reach the NFL, though, and my pick is Ojulari.
The UGA product is young and he’s lean, but he is wildly athletic and has great bend around the edge. He is still a work-in-progress when it comes to playing in space post-snap, but is an absolute rifle rushing the passer. He has an elite first step and is quick to get into the backfield whether he is standing up or with a hand in the dirt. Given how offenses have evolved, versatility in the front seven is paramount and perhaps no one does that better in this edge class than Ojulari.
Linebacker from Tulsa
Projection: Late-first to mid-second
Collins just screams “I’m going to Pittsburgh or the NFC North and I’m going to be a starter for 12 years.” He is almost 6’5, has a nose for the football when playing against the run, and can stay on the field for passing downs. Collins was a big reason Tulsa had one of the better defenses in the country a year ago and will make a Day 1 impact in the NFL. While someone like Ojulari needs to find the right scheme to fully utilize his abilities, Collins fits about anywhere. There have been questions about his speed, but that is quickly negated by his top-of-the-line instincts. He is going to be a staple of one team’s defense for a long time.
Linebacker from Missouri
Projection: Second round
Bolton is absolutely shot out of a cannon every time he is on the football field. We talk all the time about guys on offense who even when they don’t have the football, they affect the play because you have to account for them. Bolton is exactly that on the defensive side. He is a sideline-to-sideline field shrinker who makes you think twice about going over the middle, will chase down dump-downs to a back, and execute a QB spy to perfection against the better running quarterbacks in the league. I am a card-carrying member of the Nick Bolton fan club and that dude will absolutely ruin your day.
Center from Oklahoma
Projection: Late first to early third
Cut from the mold of Jeff Saturday, Humphrey is a wildly intelligent leader of the offensive line with a mean streak a mile long. He started three seasons at Oklahoma, and possesses elite hands at the point of attack. Humphrey is as good of a center prospect as you are going to come across and suffers from the same affliction as running backs in that his positional value is diminished. Whomever selects him is getting a mainstay for the line for a decade.
Defensive back from Oregon
Projection: Late second to third
As mentioned with Ojulari, versatility is paramount in today’s NFL and Holland is a guy who can line up anywhere in the secondary. He lined up both on the boundary and at safety for the Ducks, excelling at both. Holland is a dynamic athlete who also returned punts for Oregon and can be sort of a Swiss army knife in the backend. He is a sure tackler with good coverage skills. It would not hurt to put on a little weight, but the production is there, the athleticism is there, and I think Holland ends up being the best safety out of this class.
Offensive tackle from Stanford
Projection: Second to fourth round
This is one of the biggest wild card projections in the draft as it will all depend on which narrative about Little teams believe. Some could be scared off by the fact he has not played much meaningful football since 2018 given an early knee injury in the 2019 season and an opt-out from 2020. Others will see his dominance in 2018 as a pass blocker and take a chance on a guy who was seen at the time as a potentially early first round talent. Little is an ironic monster, given that he is almost 6’8, and he has great footwork off the edge. He will be the third member of his family to play in the NFL, and if he lives up to his potential, should be the best of the bunch.
Linebacker from UNC
Projection: Late second to third
One of my absolute favorite players in the draft, Surratt is fascinating. He started at quarterback for the Tar Heels as a redshirt freshman and saw minimal action in his sophomore year at the position before switching to linebacker. All he did in that first year at the position is become first-team All-ACC and the runner-up for conference defensive player of the year. Surratt, who also has a brother in this draft class, logged 115 stops and 22.5 TFL in 24 games at linebacker. Having a former quarterback at linebacker gives you the intelligence and leadership you need for a “coach on the field” type, and if he can find a team that helps him hone the finer points of the position, he can be a legitimate steal on Day 2.
Running back from Memphis
Projection: Third to fifth round
Gainwell opted out of the 2020 season and really just had one year of film at Memphis. That one year was a doozy, though, as he racked up 1,459 yards on 231 carries (6.31 YPC) and 13 touchdowns, adding 51 catches for 610 yards and three scores on the receiving end. Gainwell rushed for 209 yards on 14 carries against UL-Monroe and followed it up two weeks later with nine catches for 203 yards receiving against Tulane. An absolute home run hitter out of the backfield, Gainwell is a modern back that can be used in the same way as fellow teammate Antonio Gibson or like James White. He is a willing pass blocker and once he releases, he is a nightmare in the open field. All of the hype for the 2021 running back class centers around Najee Harris and Travis Etienne, but Gainwell will have a word on who ends up the best back in the class.
Defensive tackle from Ohio State
Projection: Late second to fourth round
Like Gainwell, Togiai lacks much tape. When he finally got into the rotation under the legendary Larry Johnson, Togiai showed violence up front. He played his best games against the best competition and logged three sacks against Penn State last season. That should provide some optimism on how he will be able to help against the pass on the next level, but where he figures to shine is against the run. I have hope for Togiai finding himself in Honolulu or Orlando or wherever they’ll hold the Pro Bowl, but even if he doesn’t, he figures to have a long career in the NFL plugging up the middle of the line of scrimmage.