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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

The Most Likely Week 1 Starters in the 2021 NFL Draft

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    Stacy Bengs/Associated Press

    The 2021 NFL draft is a month away, and analysts and fans are pondering how the prospects will impact their future franchises.

    The draft provides a mixed bag of players ranging from developmental to pro-ready. The latter sometimes have less upside but are more prepared to contribute immediately. That will be no different this year with some of the top collegiate players poised to make an impact, while others will need time before they consistently see the field.

    We’ll focus on the players with the best chance to become Week 1 starters during the upcoming campaign. Here are the most pro-ready draft prospects in 2021.

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    It’s no shock that a quarterback prospect considered a generational talent and slam-dunk No. 1 overall pick is likely to start his first game as a pro in September.

    Trevor Lawrence has excelled at every step of his journey to the 2021 NFL draft. In college, he became Clemson’s starter by the fifth week of his true freshman season and led the Tigers to a national championship. After his incredible collegiate career, the Jacksonville Jaguars will hope Lawrence can make that type of immediate impact for them.

    Coming off an abysmal 1-15 campaign, the Jags own the No. 1 overall pick and are assuredly going to select Lawrence next month. While the club hasn’t begun accepting trade offers for incumbent starter Gardner Minshew, it inked C.J. Beathard to a two-year, $5 million deal in free agency, which likely ends Minshew’s two-year tenure in northern Florida.

    With the path clear for Lawrence to take the reins as Jacksonville’s No. 1 QB, all that remains is for him to deliver this franchise the stability it craves. He doesn’t lack talent or ability, and the team should work relentlessly to build a winner around this cornerstone.

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    Ben McKeown/Associated Press

    The 2021 running back class is crowded and includes seemingly can’t-miss prospects like Alabama’s Najee Harris and Clemson’s Travis Etienne. While these guys will contribute on Sundays at some point, no back appears more ready from the jump than North Carolina’s Javonte Williams.

    Williams made a name for himself despite sharing carries with fellow prospect Michael Carter—one of the class’ more highly regarded running backs—and improved his impressive game significantly this past season.

    The junior RB went off for 1,140 yards and 19 touchdowns on 157 totes and also capped his career in Chapel Hill by becoming a playmaking receiver. Williams hauled in 25 receptions for 305 yards and a trio of scores, adding a dimension to his game.

    Williams has a lot of power packed into his 5’10”, 220-pound frame, possessing the strength to truck would-be tacklers and the speed and elusiveness to make them miss. PFF Draft pointed out that Williams led the nation in missed tackles forced last year, racking up 76 whiffs.

    What makes Williams a surefire Day 1 starter, however, is his elite ability to pass protect. Rookie running backs can struggle to get on the field because they are a liability in this department, but Williams has no issues. The Tar Heels prospect should be able to pick up blitzes as a rookie.

    Williams prides himself on pass protection, stating he’s honed his techniques and does everything he can to stop his man from getting to the quarterback.

    Whichever franchise drafts this exciting young back is unlikely to keep him off the field. Williams should step in right away at the pro level.

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    Stacy Bengs/Associated Press

    Rashod Bateman may not be the top wide receiver prospect in the 2021 class, but he could be the most prolific rookie on the gridiron next season.

    The Golden Gophers star broke onto the scene with a sterling sophomore outing in 2019, hauling in 60 receptions for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns. His 2020 play left a bit to be desired with 36 catches for 472 yards and a pair of scores before he opted out in November to prepare for the draft. Regardless, there’s no doubt Bateman can be an early contributor in the NFL.

    At 6’2″, 210 pounds, he has a decent frame to complement a fantastic set of hands. He is strong and tough, attributes that make him difficult to bring down. While he’s not the fastest prospect in this class, he isn’t sluggish either and will be able to create separation from his defender.

    Expect Bateman to flash those mitts in Week 1, as he’s one of the most sure-handed prospects in the class. He can catch anything thrown in his direction even if he’s combating tight coverage from a defensive back, which makes life easier for whoever is under center.

    Factor in his excellent release—arguably the best in the class—and savvy route running, which stacks up against any wideout prospect this year, and you have a versatile receiver who will find himself integrated into an offense quickly.

    Bateman’s game will likely see an improvement rather than regression at the pro level. He made some incredible catches during his time in Minnesota and should get more consistent with an NFL-caliber signal-caller slinging him the rock.

    The wideout is dangerous after the catch, gets off the line well and will be a welcome addition to any team’s receiving corps when he is selected on Day 1 or early in Day 2. Don’t be surprised when he’s making highlight-reel plays early in his career.

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    It’s not often a pro team can look at a left tackle in college and know he could anchor their offensive line for the foreseeable future.

    Penei Sewell is the type of lineman general managers are eager to add to the trenches to shore up the left tackle position. He was dominant during his two years at Oregon, racking up accolades while establishing himself as the best tackle prospect in football.

    While Sewell elected not to participate in the 2020 season, he’s still a lock to become a top-10 pick. He has everything a pro franchise could want in a tackle, including incredible athleticism and mountainous strength. He’s a smart prospect who is rarely caught out of position and has the nimble feet to make up for it if he does get caught off-balance.

    Perhaps the only knock on the 6’6″, 330-pound tackle is he’s yet to consistently show the ability to be an elite run-blocker. His pass protection is as good as it gets from a prospect and should have no issues translating to the pro level, but he has room to grow in the ground game.

    That issue is minor and shouldn’t stop a team like the Cincinnati Bengals—who have a vested interest in protecting last year’s top pick, Joe Burrow—from tabbing Sewell with the No. 5 overall pick. They could slot the Ducks star into the starting lineup and keep him there for years to come.

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Versatility.

    This word constantly comes up on the scouting reports for Alijah Vera-Tucker, USC’s exciting interior offensive lineman, and it’s not hard to see why. Vera-Tucker has proved himself at both guard and tackle in college, making it easy for a pro team to find a spot for him on the roster.

    The Trojans prospect put himself on the map in 2019 when he started all 13 games at guard, but he began soaring up big boards when he moved to left tackle for the 2020 season. Vera-Tucker excelled at blindside protection during his six-game stint this past campaign, which vaulted him toward the top of the OL class.

    It remains to be seen where Vera-Tucker will play as a pro, but chances are strong he’ll fill a few positions along the offensive line in his career.

    Clubs that need a starting guard will find one in the athletic 6’4″, 315-pounder. Vera-Tucker is explosive and has great control with an attitude that makes him difficult for defenders to beat. He is one of the best interior offensive line prospects, but he could also slot into either tackle position and perform at a high level.

    Because of this versatility, Vera-Tucker will find a place to start for whichever squad tabs him in the draft.

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Tight end is a difficult position for rookies to make an impact. Many early-round draftees take up to three years to come into their own. However, some players can pick things up quickly and start during their rookie seasons.

    No tight end seems more ready to defy the odds and become a Week 1 starter this year than Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth. He’s a prototypical modern prospect, starting with his 6’5″, 260-pound frame and ridiculous athleticism. The Nittany Lions star never shied away from being physical, serving as an elite blocker and pass protector during his tenure in Happy Valley, but he’s also a tough cover when he’s running routes.

    Freiermuth proved as much during his first two seasons at Penn State, racking up 15 touchdowns on 69 catches while gaining 875 yards. He wasn’t as productive during an abbreviated 2020 campaign but still hauled in 23 receptions for 310 yards and a score.

    While he may not be as hyped as Florida’s highly regarded Kyle Pitts—an incredibly exciting player, but one who currently doesn’t block well enough to be an every-down player—Freiermuth is better positioned to step into a starting role right away. A team like the Pittsburgh Steelers, who many experts have tabbing Freiermuth in mock drafts, could slot the Penn State prospect into the starting lineup and have him contribute in every facet of the game.

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    It would be hard to find a cornerback prospect—or any defensive prospect—more ready for the pros than Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II.

    The Crimson Tide have been relying on Surtain for three years after he became a true freshman cornerback starter for Nick Saban’s squad in 2018. He rarely disappointed, becoming one of the most feared defenders in college football and one rarely targeted by opposing quarterbacks.

    USA Today‘s Doug Farrar noted that last year, Surtain was targeted five times in Cover 0—a scheme that puts him on an island with no safety help—and allowed one catch for 13 yards while deflecting two other passes.

    The lack of balls thrown in his direction helps explain why Surtain hasn’t amassed much box-score production in Tuscaloosa. He has recorded four interceptions—returning one for a touchdown—along with 24 passes defensed, four forced fumbles and 116 tackles.

    Gifted with great athleticism and a high IQ, Surtain has developed into a perfect all-around cornerback. He can read a quarterback’s eyes, rarely overcommits and sticks to his man like glue. While he may not be the fastest or most athletic prospect, he does everything needed at a high level.

    The son of Patrick Surtain Sr.—one of the better corners in the NFL when he played from 1998 to 2008—will doubtless play at a high level in the pros. The potential top-10 pick has a higher floor than any other cornerback in the class and will be ready to go from the first snap.

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