Prospect Profile

PFR’s 2021 NFL Draft Prospect Profile Series

In the lead-up to the 2021 NFL Draft, we’re taking a closer look at some of the brightest stars in this year’s class. There’s more to come, but here’s a look at our Prospect Profile series thus far:

NFL Draft Prospect Profile: Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle

If you haven’t been tracking Jaylen Waddle for the last three years, you could be forgiven. Early on in his career, Waddle was largely overshadowed by the likes of Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III – two eventual first-round picks. After they left Tuscaloosa, Waddle was primed to assert himself as Bama’s top wide receiver in 2020.

[RELATED: A Closer Look At LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase]

In his first six games, Waddle went off for 28 catches and 591 yards — good for 21.2 yards per catch on average — plus four touchdowns. He also kept up his strong work in the return game, giving evaluators even more opportunities to gawk at his speed on film. Unfortunately, his final return of the regular season came against Tennessee, couching his season up until the National Championship game against Ohio State.

Despite the ill-timed injury, Waddle remains one of this year’s most highly-coveted prospects. His injured ankle even kept him from running the 40-yard-dash for scouts this year — that hasn’t slowed him down either. Waddle was clocked at 4.37 seconds before he even stepped foot on campus. And, depending on who you ask, he could even be a shade faster than Ruggs on the field. Ruggs, for reference, clocked a 4.27-second 40-time last year.

With explosiveness and sustained speed down the field, it would almost be too easy to compare Waddle to Chiefs star Tyreek Hill. Almost. Both players have the ability to wreck one-on-one coverage with their speed and, like Hill, Waddle can accelerate, stop on a dime, and throttle his way past the coverage. Former teammate Najee Harris – viewed by many as the best running back in the 2021 class — also sees the similarities.

He’s small but he’s dynamic. He’s explosive. Really really explosive,” Harris told ESPN’s Adam Schefter. “The closest thing to Tyreek Hill. You gotta see him in person. How he plays how he gets in and out of cuts. How he stops and goes 60 [mph] right away.”

The knocks on Waddle are few and far in-between. Many of them were out of his control. Waddle never put together a full season like LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase did in 2019 (1,780 receiving yards and 20 receiving touchdowns, both SEC records), but he was buried behind an All-Star cast in 2018 and 2019. Then, 2020’s ankle injury effectively ended his year. His hands aren’t quite as reliable as Chase’s either. Still, Waddle has already crossed a lot of the “cons” off of his list – concerned chatter about his catching ability and upper body strength have turned into mere whispers. Blessed with serious wheels, route running, and tons of tools to make opponents miss, Waddle has cemented himself as this year’s WR2 or WR3, depending on how you rate him vs. ‘Bama teammate DeVonta Smith.

Chase ran away with the WR1 crown at his pro day when he posted a 4.38-second 40-yard dash, a number that even surprised the LSU star (“I was going for a low 4.4,” Chase said.) If Chase’s absolute ceiling is No. 4 overall after three QBs come off the board, then Waddle’s should top out at the Bengals’ No. 5 pick. After that, it’s the Dolphins at No. 6 and the Lions at No. 7, two clubs that want/need a game-changing WR like Waddle. Even with lots of variables in play, it’s hard to imagine Waddle waiting past the top ten.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

NFL Draft Prospect Profile: North Dakota State QB Trey Lance

After just 17 starts at North Dakota State, quarterback Trey Lance is ready to turn pro. He also barely played in 2020 after NDSU nixed the season, but his tremendous 2019 season is still fresh in everyone’s minds. He may be green, and he’s yet to celebrate his 21st birthday, but Lance figures to be one of the first names called in the 2021 draft.

[RELATED: NFL Draft Prospect Profile — Florida TE Kyle Pitt]

Lance arrived on campus in 2018 and attempted just one pass as a frosh. In 2019, he ascended to the starting job and put himself squarely on the NFL radar. As a sophomore, Lance threw for 2,786 yards, 28 touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Meanwhile, NDSU took full advantage of his running ability as he racked up 1,110 rushing yards off of 169 carries, good for a 6.5 average per attempt. In 2020, he led the Bison to a 39-28 comeback victory in their lone game against Central Arkansas. Despite the rust, he rattled off 143 rushing yards on 15 carries. He also threw the first interception of his collegiate career, but that can certainly be forgiven.

Aside from Trevor Lawrence, many feel that Lance is the most NFL-ready QB of this year’s bunch. Still shy of legal drinking age, Lance is known for putting in lots of film room time, and that showed throughout his ’19 season. Just a few months ago, Lance was seen as a second-tier QB, a consolation prize for middle-of-the-order teams missing out on Lawrence, BYU’s Zach Wilson and Ohio State’s Justin Fields. Now, he’s very much in the same conversation.

So, where will Lance land? Some saw him as a fit for the 49ers after their move up to No. 3, but there’s increasing chatter that they’ll go with Alabama’s Mac Jones instead. Unlike Lance, Jones was able to provide lots of footage for evaluators last year as he set a new national record by completing 77.4% of his throws. He lacks the mobility of Lance, but the Niners may see him as the safer choice of the two.

For the other QB-needy teams on the board, Lance offers tantalizing upside. If Lance can adjust to the pro game and work from the pocket a bit more, the sky is the limit. Falcons GM Terry Fontenot probably recognizes that, which is why he’s reportedly hesitant to pass up a Matt Ryan successor at No. 4. And, if the Falcons trade the pick, there’s a good chance that the team moving up will be eyeing Lance. Right now, it seems like the No. 3 pick is Lance’s ceiling. And, while floors are always hard to peg, it would be a surprise to see him get past No. 7. If the Lions don’t use that pick to take Jared Goff‘s successor, another team could slide in to get their preferred passer.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

NFL Draft Prospect Profile: BYU QB Zach Wilson

Could Zach Wilson leapfrog Trevor Lawrence as the No. 1 overall pick in April? No, probably not. New Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer has taken a refreshingly candid approach to the draft process in recent weeks, telling everyone within earshot that the Clemson star will be his quarterback of the future.

“I’d have to say that’s the direction we’re going. I’ll leave that up to the owner when we make that decision official. But I’m certainly not stepping out of line that that’s certainly the direction we’re headed,” Meyer said. “Trevor checks all the boxes, you know?

Lawrence may be one of the best QB prospects — or pro talents, period — in recent draft memory. Still, Wilson offers lots of promise in his own right. He’s fresh off of a breakout season in which he completed 73.5% of his throws, good for second in the nation. Meanwhile, he placed third with 33 passing touchdowns and lobbed only three interceptions. And, for good measure, Wilson added ten rushing touchdowns in his 12 starts.

Wilson’s mobility is a big part of his appeal. In fact, some see a bit of Johnny Manziel in him — which is not necessarily the pro comparison that young QBs want. Like Manziel, Wilson has shown the ability to escape pressure. He also comes from an affluent background, and draft evaluators tend to nitpick everything about players this time of year. According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, the similarities are strictly limited to his highlight reel.

I’ve heard Zach Wilson is an incredible kid, but again, [he’s] a little bit new on the scene,” Schefter said (via KNBR). “Have to vet it out, check him out, make more calls, but I know people that know him pretty well, and they speak pretty highly about him.”

The other major knock on Wilson comes from his so-so decision making in 2019, a season that was cut short by thumb surgery. But, last year, Wilson kept the turnovers to a minimum and consistently found the open man. He’ll be asked to work in the pocket more frequently at the pro level, but his ability to extend the play when the pocket collapses will still serve him well in the NFL. At his pro day, the BYU product showcased that for all to see, intentionally throwing a pass across his body and nailing his target dead-on.

Some critics may also wonder about Wilson’s durability — aside from the aforementioned thumb injury, Wilson underwent thumb surgery after his frosh season. Now, he’ll be facing bigger, stronger, faster defenders with just ~210 lbs on his 6’2″ frame. Still, no prospect is perfect (not even Lawrence), and Wilson profiles as one of the very best QBs in this year’s class.

Right now, just about everyone has Wilson ticketed for the Jets at No. 2. It’s not quite as certain as Lawrence going No. 1, however. Mac Jones, Justin Fields, and Trey Lance are also in the mix, but it seems more likely that those will be the names available for the 49ers. Even if the Jets throw a curveball, we’d be surprised to see him slide much further.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

NFL Draft Prospect Profile: Florida TE Kyle Pitts

Kyle Pitts began his high school career as a quarterback. At his Pro Day last week, he measured in with the wingspan of an offensive lineman and ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash like a wide receiver. Needless to say, the 6’6″ tight end is going to hear his name called early in the 2021 NFL Draft. 

[RELATED: Falcons Eyeing Pitts At No. 4?]

Pitts put himself on the NFL radar with 54 catches for 649 yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore. Then, last year, he took his game to a whole ‘nother level. In 13 games, he reeled in 43 receptions for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns. That was good for a 17.9 yards per catch average — a major leap from his previous 12.0 ypc. Pitts even placed as a finalist for the Fred Biletnikoff award, which goes to the top wide receiver in football.

The Florida product profiles as a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. Pitts is too fast for most linebackers and he’ll likely outstretch most cornerbacks on deep routes. His aforementioned 40-yard-dash time will only boost his stock further — most evaluators expected him to land somewhere in the high 4.5 range, which still would have been impressive for a player of his size.

On the flipside, there are questions about Pitts’ blocking ability, but he could improve in both of those areas over time. At 245 pounds, there’s ample room for Pitts to bulk up, and his 83-inch wingspan provides a solid base for pass and lead blocking.

In terms of pure talent, NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah ranks Pitts as the second-best prospect in this year’s class, behind only Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. LSU’s JaMarr Chase — who captured the Biletikoff trophy as a sophomore in 2019 — sits behind him at No. 3. So, where will Pitts land? The Florida product says that the Falcons have been showing interest in him and they’d be well within range with the No. 4 overall choice.

They were saying that they have interest in me,” Pitts said. “After today, we’ll get on another Zoom and they’ll try to learn more about myself. I feel like they are pretty interested.”

It’s been decades since a TE went in the top five. Kellen Winslow Jr. and Vernon Davis came close, but they were taken No. 6 overall in 2004 and 2006, respectively. A few weeks ago, the Falcons were expected to target a quarterback. Now, in the wake of the 49ers’ move up to No. 3, they may have to go in another direction. Pitts could very well be the pick, forming an impressive 1-2 TE combo with Hayden Hurst.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

NFL Draft Prospect Profile: LSU WR Ja’Marr Chase

With so much talk about this year’s top quarterbacks, this would be a good time to cast the spotlight on college football’s consensus No. 1 wide receiver. Playing from both the outside and the slot, LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase has shown that he can break tackles and ankles with ease. On April 29th, he figures to be one of the first names called in Cleveland. 

Chase opted out of the 2020 season, though his decision wasn’t entirely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, he was aiming to stay healthy in advance of the draft, but who could blame him? With a promising pro career ahead of him plus millions of dollars from his rookie contract alone, there was little sense in Chase risking an injury. The 6-foot, 208-pounder may have a little rust to shake, but evaluators aren’t too concerned.

In 2019, Chase set SEC single-season records in receiving yards (1,780) and receiving touchdowns (20). That same offense produced three skill positions players that went in the first round of the 2020 draft, including Justin Jefferson. As good as Jefferson was, Chase was even better, capturing the Biletnikoff Award as a sophomore.

Based on talent alone, some have Chase slotted as the third-best player in this year’s class. Of course, quarterbacks always shift the early makeup of the board, and last week’s blockbuster trades may push Chase out of the top five. That’s just fine by the Dolphins, who have reportedly been eyeing the LSU Tiger since he was just a cub. After the Jaguars officially select Trevor Lawrence, it’s expected that Zach Wilson (Jets) and Trey Lance (49ers) will follow. If the Falcons and Bengals stay put, they’re likely to address other needs before delving into WRs.

Barring more trades or early-board surprises, Chase seems destined for South Beach. As the most pro-ready receiver in the draft, many believe that he’s on course for an even stronger career than his old teammate.

I thought Chase was on a different level [than Justin Jefferson],” one scout told The Athletic’s Bob McGinn. “Watching what Jefferson did this year (with the Vikings), that just makes me say, ‘Good Lord.’ Honestly, I thought (Chase) was the best receiver in the class last year.”

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

NFL Draft Prospect Profile: Georgia RB D’Andre Swift

You’ve heard the draft gurus gush over this year’s lethal class of wide receivers. You’ve also heard the usual refrain about the top quarterbacks, even though some appear to be greener than the grass they play on. Meanwhile, there’s a lot less chatter about running backs in the early going.  

[NFL Draft Profile: Oregon QB Justin Herbert]

Most mock drafts don’t have a running back going in the first round, but Vegas oddsmakers seem to disagree. And, with a surname to fit his skillset, Georgia’s D’Andre Swift could be the running back to break through.

Swift’s agility was on full display last year as he dodged and juked defenders with ease. He finished out 2019 with more than 1,200 yards on the ground and seven rushing touchdowns. Long before the season wrapped, everyone sensed that Swift was ready to move on to the pros.

Give [Georgia] credit— D’Andre Swift is an impressive player. I just gave him a ‘congratulations’ after the game and wished him ‘goodbye,’ because he needs to go to the NFL,” said Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops in October, after Swift torched the Wildcats for 179 yards. “He’s an elite player.”

As a freshman at UGA, Swift shared the load with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who both opted to play out their senior seasons. Swift didn’t see much reason to wait – he’s averaged 6.6 yards per carry over the last two years, showing that he’s ready for an even bigger challenge.

Swift’s pass-catching totals weren’t as gaudy, but the highlight reel shows that he’s an extremely capable pass-catcher. And, even though his 72-inch wingspan ranked near the bottom of the RB group at the combine, he’s got a surprisingly strong catch radius. Even when the ball doesn’t hit him in the chest, and even when he has a defender bearing down on him, Swift can still find a way to come away with the rock.

He’ll have to hold the ball tighter and run with more authority at the next level, but the general consensus is that Swift is the most NFL-ready of this year’s top RBs. There’s also a belief that his blocking ability will allow him to thrive as an every-down back.

The No. 14 pick might be too early for the Buccaneers to take Swift – especially since they need to beef up the line in front of Tom Brady – but their chances of Swift falling all the way to their next pick at No. 45 aren’t great either. The Dolphins, with RB somewhere on their to-do list and three first-round picks, could also have Swift on their radar. If Miami can come out of Day 1 with their QB of the future, a strong left tackle to protect said QB, and Swift, the future will look a whole lot brighter in South Beach.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

NFL Draft Prospect Profile: Justin Herbert

Even without the benefit of traditional workouts and pro days, this year’s NFL Draft prospects have watched their stocks rise and fall with time. Or, at least, that’s the impression anonymous coaches and executives have leaked to the public, per the usual. Sure, the rumor mill is dizzying, but it’s good know that some things never change, even in the midst of global chaos. 

[RELATED: Dolphins Doing Lots Of Homework On Herbert] 

One player who has seen his stock go up in recent weeks is Oregon’s Justin Herbert. In January, the top of the quarterback pecking order seemed pretty set – LSU touchdown machine Joe Burrow in the driver’s seat, then Alabama star Tua Tagovailoa, followed by Herbert and the rest. But, over the last couple of months, there’s been more and more noise about Herbert. And, with the draft just around the corner, it seems pretty likely that Herbert will hear his name called before the likes of Jordan Love (Utah State), Jake Fromm (Georgia), Jacob Eason (Washington).

In fact, he could even leapfrog Tagovailoa. The Dolphins seemed zeroed in on the 2018 Heisman runner-up – and they still could be – but many insiders are hearing that Herbert is the real target in South Beach. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller, for example, estimates that 90% of his pre-draft intel points to Herbert being listed above Tagovailoa on Miami’s board. It’s easy to argue that Tagovailoa has more upside that Herbert, but Tagovailoa’s recent hip surgery can’t be ignored.

Other top teams have also done their homework on Herbert. The Lions, who own the No. 3 pick as of this writing, have Zoom-chatted with him (that either makes Herbert a potential replacement for Matthew Stafford or a useful bluff). The Chargers (No. 6) may also be a team to watch, since no one knows whether they’re truly committed to Tyrod Taylor under center.

Are the Dolphins really leaning towards Herbert over Tagovailoa? We won’t know for sure until Thursday. What we can say for sure – Herbert’s cannon and 6’6″ stature are both drool-worthy for NFL evaluators. He’s also drawn praise for his work ethic and there’s nothing scouts love more than a film junkie. On the flipside, Herbert has been knocked for holding on to the ball too long and missing out on open receivers. Even with his frame and arm strength, Herbert will have to straighten out his timing in order to succeed as a pro.

NFL Draft Prospect Profile: Tristan Wirfs

Quality offensive line talent is hard to come by in today’s NFL, but this year’s class is surprisingly strong in that area. Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, potentially, could be the first one off the board.

At 6’5″ and 320 pounds, Wirfs offers uncommon athleticism for his size. Wirfs put those skills to good use for the Hawkeyes, earning Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year honors in 2019. In college, he primarily lined up at right tackle, though he also offers experience on the left side, and some say that he can also work on the interior as a pro.

With a reported 40-yard-dash time of 4.85 seconds and a 625-pound max squat, Wirfs has scouts drooling over his potential. Georgia’s Andrew Thomas and Alabama’s Jedrick Wills Jr. are also pushing to be the first tackle selected, but Wirfs is widely viewed as the most NFL-ready of the bunch.

In all likelihood, the Bengals will kick off the draft by selecting LSU’s Joe Burrow, followed by the Redskins grabbing elite defensive end Chase Young at No. 2. The Lions, at No. 3, are entertaining offers to trade down; any team that moves up will probably use that choice to take a quarterback, or something other than an offensive lineman. But, Wirfs, Wills, and Thomas are all thought to be possibilities for the Giants at No. 4, provided that they don’t move back in the order.

A trade down would make sense for the G-Men, who are also on the hunt for pass rushers, centers, and safeties. However, history suggests that Dave Gettleman will be inclined to stand pat – in five drafts with the Panthers, and two drafts with the Giants, he’s never moved down from his first-round pick. Even if he passes on Wirfs, the Iowa standout won’t have far to fall. The Cardinals have some serious holes to plug on the O-Line as they aim to protect Kyler Murray – with the ability to play on the inside and outside, the No. 8 pick may represent Wirfs’ floor.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

NFL Draft Prospect Profile: Isaiah Simmons

There’s little doubt that Isaiah Simmons will hear his name called early in the NFL Draft. His pro position, however, remains in question. At 6’4″ and 230 pounds, the Clemson standout has the size and skillset to make it at linebacker. Meanwhile, he’s also got the chops to play safety and handle the slot. No one’s quite sure how Simmons will be used at the next level, but that’s not a bad thing.

[RELATED: Jeff Okudah’s NFL Draft Profile]

Used sparingly in two frosh seasons, Simmons broke out as a sophomore in 2018 with 88 stops, including nine tackles for a loss and two sacks. Things only picked up from there – Simmons managed 104 tackles, 16.5 tackles for a loss, eight sacks, and three interceptions as a junior en route being named the nation’s best linebacker. With freakish athleticism for his size, NFL Draft guru Matt Miller went outside of the sport to find a proper comp for the underclassman.

Can I compare Isaiah Simmons to Zion Williamson?,” Miller tweeted. “Just too big, fast, smart, and athletic for anyone to handle.”

Joe Burrow is considered to be a shoe-in for the Bengals’ No. 1 overall pick. The Redskins, at No. 2, would shock the world by drafting anyone other than Ohio State star Chase Young at No. 2. After that, could it be Simmons’ turn to take center stage (er, monitor screen)?

The Lions don’t seem terribly interested in him, but they do seem to be leaning towards a trade back from No. 3. The team moving up could be in the market for a QB – perhaps Tua Tagovailoa – but don’t discount the possibility of Simmons. After posting a 4.39 40-yard-dash and 39-inch vertical leap at the combine, there will be plenty of teams tempted to pounce on the Tigers defender.

Even if that doesn’t happen, Simmons won’t have far to fall. If the Giants stand pat at No. 4 and Dave Gettleman can resist a “hog mollie” like Jedrick Wills Jr., Mekhi Becton, or Tristan Wirfs, they could add Simmons to a revamped front seven alongside Blake Martinez. The Dolphins (No. 5) are laser-focused on finding their quarterback of the future in the early stages, but there aren’t many other clubs that could be ruled out for the versatile wonder. Simmons’ ceiling is sky-high and so is his draft floor.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.