2021 NFL draft: Ranking the strongest position groups

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There is an influx of 300-plus new players in the NFL each year, and not every class is created equally. Teams have their own big boards that the front office and coaching staff collaborate on for months, but they also pay attention to which position groups are loaded with talent and which ones are lacking.

Whenever a specific position is ripe with talent, those positions can be deflated, and teams can find quality prospects later in the draft than they would have otherwise. On the other hand, if a particular position is thin with talent, the top-tier players will often get pushed up even further because of the lack of blue-chip difference-makers.

For example, Ceedee Lamb fell all the way to the Cowboys at the 17th pick and was widely considered one of the best wide receivers in the class, but there were so many other prospects in the same tier that he fell. To make it a little easier to understand my rankings, I will identify any star-caliber player, future starters, and depth at each position — focusing mainly on the first five rounds of the draft.

1. Offensive Tackle

The top-end talent from last year’s class is superior to this year, with only Penei Sewell and Rashawn Slater guaranteed to go in the first round, though I think five more could go on the first night of the draft. The difference between this years’ tackles and last years’  is the depth at the position. There will be over ten tackles taken in the first two days of the draft, and the possibility of finding an immediate starter in the second round is better than it’s ever been, which doesn’t often happen with tackles.

2. Wide Receivers

Two years in a row, the wide receivers are battling for the draft’s top position group. The elite, game-changing players are Ja’Marr Chase, DeVonta Smith, and Jaylen Waddle, but the depth is there too. Rashod Bateman, Rondale Moore, Terrace Marshall, Elijah Moore, Kadarius Toney, Josh Palmer could all be game-changers. The best part of this class is there is a wide variety of body types. The day three talent in this class is also superior to any other, and the only reason the tackle position is higher is because of the rarity of quality tackles in the NFL.

3. Quarterbacks

This is one of the best quarterback classes in recent memory, and the first four picks of the draft could be quarterbacks. Trevor Lawrence anchors this group with elite superstar potential and is one of the highest-rated prospects since Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning. Then there are the Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, and Trey Lances of the class who possess some incredible physical gifts, each having something the other doesn’t. Then you have Mac Jones, who will be the fifth and final quarterback taken on most mock drafts but maintains elite intangibles that none of the others have. Then you have hail mary prospects like Kellen Mond, Kyle Trask, and Davis Mills, who could sit and develop into a starting-caliber quarterback. It drops off after those, which is why the position is the third strongest.

4. Cornerbacks

This class of cornerbacks is getting pushed down the list, but only because the other positions are so strong, not because the cornerbacks are weak. In fact, I could make the argument the day two cornerback prospects are deeper than any other position. Patrick Surtain, Caleb Farely, Jaycee Horn, and Greg Newsome will likely be drafted in the first round. At the same time, players like Asante Samuel Jr. Aaron Robinson, Tyson Cambell, Eric Stokes, Tay Gowan, and Ifeatu Melifonwu are all prospects that can become starters that will be available after the first round.

5. Interior Offensive Linemen

This year’s class is all dependent on Alijah Vera-Tucker and whether he’s drafted as a tackle or guard. Last year’s interior offensive line class was one of the weakest in the draft, but if Vera-Tucker is drafted as a guard, it could be a sneaky good class. Players like Wyatt Davis, Jaylen Mayfield, Kendrick Green, Ben Cleveland, Landon Dickerson, Aaron Banks, Creed Humphry, Trey Smith, and Quinn Meinerz should all become starters and may go as early as the second round.

6. Linebackers

This linebacker class is eerily similar to last year’s but has more different body types. Micah Parsons is a do-it-all player; Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is a hybrid linebacker/safety; Nick Bolton is a modern thumping middle linebacker; Zaven Collins is the traditional strongside linebacker. Players like Jabril Cox, Jamin Davis, Justin Hilliard, and Chazz Surratt all have starting-caliber attributes and will be day two picks.

7. EDGE Defenders

This edge class is one of the most divisive position groups in this draft class, with more boom-or-bust prospects than any. The high projectability is due to this groups’ insane athletic ability, while the low floor is due to their lack of refinement. Jayson Oweh, Kwity Paye, Azeez Ojulari, Jaelen Phillips, and Gregory Rousseau are all physical marvels. Ronnie Perkins is the most refined, and nobody considers him the best edge this year. The physical gifts are undeniable, but every prospect needs refining.

8. Running Backs

There are really only three sure-fire starters in this year’s draft who can do it all: Travis Etienne, Najee Harris, and Javonte Williams. Beyond that, even if there are gems, it will be tough to find day one starters. Trey Sermon, Michael Carter, Khalil Herbert, Kenneth Gainwell, Chris Evans, and Chubba Hubbard all have starting-caliber potential but will need to be in a favorable situation, whereas the aforementioned blue-chips can thrive wherever.

9. Safeties

There could be a second straight draft without a safety hearing his name called in the first round. This year’s group is weak at the top but strong in the middle. Trevon Moehrig, Jamar Johnson, Elijah Molden, Richie Grant, Jevon Holland, Ar’Darius Washington, Andre Cisco, and Tyree Gillespie will be available on day two and could provide low-end starting-caliber play.

10. Tight Ends

Kyle Pitts headlines this group, but it isn’t very encouraging after the Florida Gator. Pat Freiermuth, Brevin Jordan, Tommy Tremble, and Hunter Long round out the top five for the tight ends, and none are even low-end starters next year.

11. Interior Defensive Linemen

It’s been over 20 years since at least two defensive linemen weren’t taken in the first round of the draft. Christian Barmore is the only first-round graded defender, but I’m higher on Alim McNeil, Levi Onwuzurike, and Milton Williams in the later rounds of the draft. Still, one of the weakest classes since 1998.

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