Here is our breakdown of the top 2021 NFL Draft prospects from the Big Ten conference by position!
Quarterback: Justin Fields, Ohio State
Justin Fields enters the 2021 NFL Draft as one of the most polarizing quarterback prospects, but there is no question that he is the class of the Big Ten at the position. Fields combines elite playmaking skills and top-tier athleticism to give him one of the highest ceilings out of any player in this draft. Although he struggled in the Big Ten Championship versus Northwestern and the National Championship versus Alabama, Fields established a strong resume throughout his two years starting at Ohio State, totaling 5,373 yards, 63 touchdowns and 9 interceptions to go along with 15 rushing touchdowns for his Ohio State career.
As a passer, Fields has all the tools to succeed at the next level. He is an aggressive quarterback who pushes the ball downfield with his strong, accurate arm and ability to keep plays alive with his legs. He shows great touch with his throws, with his ability to loft passes in places where only his receivers can make a play. Fields can also be very dangerous as a runner, as his Dak Prescott-like build and Russell Wilson-like elusiveness make him very difficult to bring down. His strong frame allows him to fight through tackles for extra yardage unlike most quarterbacks with his running ability.
Every prospect comes with a few concerns, and Fields has borne the brunt of the criticism in comparison to the other top quarterbacks in this draft. Dan Orlovsky made an appearance on the Pat McAfee Show and reported that Fields is a “last guy in, first guy out” type of player, a report that was vehemently shut down by Ohio State officials. Scouts have also expressed concerns with his ability to scan the field and handle the blitz. Regardless of the criticisms, Fields has clearly shown he is creme de la creme of the Big Ten as he has been the catalyst of a powerhouse Ohio State offense over the course of his college career.
Honorable Mention: Peyton Ramsey, Northwestern
Running Back: Trey Sermon, Ohio State
Senior running back Trey Sermon headlines a weak Big Ten running back class for the 2021 NFL Draft. After struggling with injuries during his junior year at Oklahoma, Sermon transferred to Ohio State for his senior season. Although he was forced to share carries with Master Teague, he had monster performances in the Big Ten Championship Game and the College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson, rushing for 331 and 193 yards, respectively. He also showcased his receiving ability, catching 4 passes for 61 yards against a solid Clemson defense.
Sermon has the prototypical size and build coupled with the necessary versatility to succeed at the next level. Although his overall numbers are not eye-popping, he does the little things on the football field that coaches love. He has a high football IQ, always making heady plays when needed, and excels at picking up blocking assignments, a skill not many running backs possess coming out of college. To add to his winning intangibles, he is a very skilled football player. He is adept at letting his blocks develop and burst through running lanes. Along with that, he is an above-average receiver who has been a solid security blanket out of the backfield for all his quarterbacks. Although not a blazer, he has enough speed vision to make defenses pay when he bursts through the hole. Overall, his experience and versatility allow him the potential to earn significant playing time at the next level as a three down back, even as a rookie.
Honorable Mention: Stevie Scott, Indiana
Wide Receiver: Rashod Bateman, Minnesota
In terms of Big Ten wide receiver prospects coming into the 2021 NFL Draft, Rashod Bateman and Rondale Moore clearly round out a rather thin wide receiver class. In theory, you cannot go wrong with selecting either Moore or Bateman above the other given their production and potential, but Bateman’s positional versatility and ability to stay healthy are the key separators that make him the #1 player at his position in the conference.
Bateman is a physical receiver who has displayed the ability to split out wide or play in the slot. As a sophomore at Minnesota, he terrorized defenses, finishing as a Fred Biletnikoff award semi-finalist, hauling in 57 catches for 1170 yards and 11 touchdowns. In terms of his fit at the next level his underrated route running and ability to secure yards after the catch give him true #1 receiver potential. To add to that, Bateman’s knack for making contested catches over defensive backs due to his solid, 6’2” frame and strong hands make him a potentially dangerous red zone threat as he transitions to the NFL.
Throughout his college career, Bateman struggled with routine drops, which can be easily fixed with added concentration. However, scouts do have concerns about Bateman’s ability to separate from faster NFL defensive backs due to his lack of explosiveness and overall speed. Even though Bateman is not a burner, his physical tools and big-play ability will allow him to succeed in the NFL. He projects an AJ Brown/Calvin Ridley type receiver, who do not possess eye-popping athleticism but have molded themselves into #1 receivers due to their technique and contested-catch capabilities.
Honorable Mention: Rondale Moore, Purdue
Tight End: Pat Freiermuth, Penn State
Pat Freiermuth is the clear cut top 2021 NFL Draft tight end prospect for the Big Ten conference. Frieirmuth is one of the rare players who was able to make an immediate impact for a top college football program, catching 8 touchdowns his freshman season and 7 touchdowns his sophomore season, despite lackluster quarterback play. Dealing with injuries during the 2020 season, he was limited to just 4 games, but still averaged 77.5 receiving yards per game and caught 1 touchdown. Despite limited play, Freiermuth earned First-team All Big Ten honors and won the conference’s Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year award in 2020.
Throughout his college career, Frieirmuth was regarded as one of the best pure receiving tight ends. Although he lacks top-level speed and athleticism, he is a big-bodied force who is always able to find soft spots in zone coverage and make contested catches with defenders draped all over him. He has very strong hands and is able to use them to high point the football, making him a dangerous threat in the red zone. His most dangerous ability comes after he catches the ball, as he is able to use his elite strength and power to bully opposing defenders and demand more than 1 defender to tackle him. With his run after the catch ability, he has the potential to be an intimidating force at the next level. He did not show much improvement as a blocker throughout his college career, he has the elite size and strength coupled with NFL coaching that should improve his technique to the point where he can blossom into one of the most complete players at his position.
Honorable Mention: Nick Eubanks, Michigan
Offensive Tackle/Guard: Rashawn Slater, Northwestern
Along with being the top tackle prospect in the Big Ten, Rashawn Slater has launched himself into conversations as the top offensive lineman prospect in the entire 2021 NFL Draft. Although Michigan’s Jalen Mayfield and Ohio State’s Wyatt Davis are great prospects in their own right, Slater’s elite athleticism and speed clearly separate him as the top guard/tackle prospect in the conference. Even though Slater opted out of the 2020 season, he still has 3 years of experience facing the nation’s top pass rushers, such as Chase Young, Nick Bosa and many more. In fact, Slater went the entire 2019 season without allowing a single sack (only 6 pressures), earning an honorable mention for the All-Big Ten team.
Slater’s ability to play multiple positions on the line along with his exceptional athleticism and speed make him a very intriguing prospect in the top 10. Many teams can see him transitioning to guard when he enters the NFL due his lack of elite length and height. Those might be the only real concerns with Slater, as he has shown all the other tools to be among the most highly touted prospects in the draft. He is an athletic freak, able to get to the second level with ease and bludgeon opposing defenders, giving them no chance to make a play on the ball carrier. He is able to fire off into his stance and has extremely nimble feet which allows him to neutralize all types of pass rushers. In addition to that, he has great hand placement, which allows him to sustain blocks and be a dangerous asset in both the run and pass game. All of these traits to go along with his high football IQ provide him with perennial Pro Bowl/All-Pro potential according to many scouts.
Honorable Mention (Tackle): Jalen Mayfield, Michigan
Honorable Mention (Guard): Wyatt Davis, Ohio State
Center: Josh Myers, Ohio State
Josh Myers headlines a thin Big Ten 2021 NFL Draft class at the center position, as his towering size and experience put him firmly above the second best prospect in the conference, Penn State center Michal Menet. Going into his redshirt freshman year in 2018, Myers made a positional switch from guard to center and appeared in 10 games as a backup for Michael Jordan. As a two year starter for the Ohio State Buckeyes, Myers earned second team All-Big Ten honors in his redshirt sophomore year (2019) and first team All-Big Ten honors after his redshirt junior season (2020) where he was named team captain. Known for his leadership and intangibles, Myers projects to one of the most NFL ready lineman prospects entering the Draft.
Myers is an absolute force in the interior of the offensive line, listed at 6’5” 312 lbs, he is rather large for his position. His elite size and strength make him very hard to move for defensive lineman, who often see centers as the weak link of the line. Although he is known for having a well-rounded game, he truly excels as a run blocker, using his wide frame and explosion off the snap to get to the second level and erase linebackers and defensive backs from the play. He also is a great communicator who excels at quarterbacking his offensive line. Athleticism and overall fluidity are concerns that come with Myers, which will likely keep him out of the first 2 rounds. Regardless of those concerns, Myers is an experienced and relentless player who has the tools to be an effective starter for many years at the next level.
Honorable Mention: Michal Menet, Penn State
Defensive End/EDGE: Kwity Paye, Michigan
Kwity Paye and Jayson Oweh are definitely the top two pass rushers of the Big Ten conference heading into the draft, but Paye’s overall production and technique make him the top overall prospect at his position. With 4 years of experience at the college level, it is safe to say that Paye will enter the NFL having played in many big games and pressure situations. At the University of Michigan, Paye earned back to back second team All-Big Ten honors in his junior and senior seasons. After his senior season, Pro Football Focus ranked him as the #1 edge defender in the 2021 NFL Draft after racking up 22 pressures and 11 run stops in only 4 games.
Paye is as enticing of a prospect as they come at the defensive end position, showcasing exceptional size and physical attributes along with great football instincts that will definitely translate to the next level. He is able to utilize his strong hands and elite lateral quickness to be a force in the run game as he is routinely able to set the edge and wreak havoc in the backfield. He is exceptional at using his strength in bullrushes to overpower lineman and disrupt passing plays. Although his sack numbers leave some more to be desired, NFL coaching to improve his pass rush arsenal allows him the potential to be an extremely well-rounded EDGE defender. Due to his ability to play the run and eat up space, adding 10-15 pounds to his frame gives him the possibility to slide over to the interior portion of the line in 4-3 schemes at the NFL level.
Honorable Mention: Jayson Oweh, Penn State
Defensive Tackle: Daviyon Nixon, Iowa
In a very weak interior lineman class for the 2021 NFL Draft, Daviyon Nixon projects to be a 2nd round pick with 1st round upside due to his flashes as a pass rusher and explosive athleticism. In spite of the fact that Nixon had a late start to his career at Iowa due to academic complications, he made an immediate impact in his first season at Iowa, racking up 3 sacks despite limited playing time. In his final season at Iowa in 2020, Nixon was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year along with earning First Team All-Big Ten and Unanimous All-American honors after tallying 45 tackles and 5.5 sacks in just 8 games, very impressive production from an interior lineman.
Nixon is seen to fit well as a 3-technique defensive tackle in 4-3 schemes as he does not possess the elite strength and length to play the interior to his fullest potential in a 3-4 scheme. Despite those shortcomings, Nixon has strong hands and plays with great leverage which make him a disruptive force at the line of scrimmage. His relentless motor combined with his great instincts always keep him in the play, where he can then use his exceptional quickness and pursuit speed to bury ball carriers. His impressive sack numbers, despite not having much of a pass rush arsenal, lead many to believe that Nixon will prove to be an elite pass-rushing interior lineman in the NFL as he continues to be coached up.
Honorable Mention: Tommy Togiai, Ohio State
Linebacker: Micah Parsons, Penn State
Despite playing only 2 full college seasons and opting out in 2020, the sky’s the limit for Micah Parsons, who has shown no physical limitations to his game. He headlines a strong Big Ten linebacker class heading into the 2021 NFL Draft, as his physical tools and instincts immensely separate him from the field. In his single season starting for Penn State, Parsons was a force to be reckoned with, totaling 109 tackles, 5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles and 5 passes defensed, earning him Big Ten Linebacker of the Year, first team AP All-America and first team All-Big Ten honors. He established himself as an anchor to a solid Penn State defense before opting out in 2020 to prepare for the draft.
Parsons is a versatile linebacker whose physical gifts will allow him to play all over the field in the NFL. He has elite blitzing skills, as he is able to anticipate the snap count and use his speed and top-tier pass rush skills (was a DE in high school) to be extremely disruptive in the backfield. With a 4.36 40 time, he has sideline-to-sideline ability which is why he always finds himself around the ball and is able to keep up with running backs in coverage. He is also able to use his raw power and strength to fight through blocks and punish ball carriers in the open field. With such raw talent, he can tend to overplay and get lost at times, but his physical tools allow him to recover and make his way back in the play. There are some character concerns that have plagued Parsons throughout the draft process, but if he can get those issues situated, he is a can’t-miss prospect for any team needing defensive help.
Honorable Mention: Baron Browning, Ohio State
Cornerback: Greg Newsome II
After a rather subpar season from Ohio State standout Shaun Wade, Greg Newsome II has blossomed to the top of the cornerback charts in the Big Ten heading into the 2021 NFL Draft. Wade’s struggles in coverage along with Newsome’s stellar play have been a major reason for the Northwestern product’s rise in the Big Ten cornerback rankings. After struggling with injuries in his first two college seasons, Newsome II would earn first team All-Big Ten honors and be named to the AP All-American Third Team after recording 1 interception, 12 tackles, and 7 passes defensed in 3 games. To add to that, he only allowed a 31.6% completion percentage and 7.8 yards per catch when being thrown at, according to Pro Football Focus.
Newsome II is a speedy cornerback, who has the versatility to play in the slot and on the outside. At 6’1”, he has the size and length to cover bigger receivers while having the speed to cover the more twitchy, slot receivers. He is able to elevate with the best of athletes in jump ball/contested catch situations. In addition to that, he has strong hands that enhance his abilities in press coverage and jarring the ball loose from receivers. Newsome II is a fluid athlete who excels at changing directions, allowing him to recover against the fastest of receivers. However, at a rather lean 190 lbs, there is some concern that he will struggle facing bigger-bodied, physical receivers at the next level, but making good use of NFL weight rooms could easily quell those concerns. Newsome II has all the tools to end up being the best cornerback in this draft, but he will need to reduce his penalties and improve his turnover count to achieve such heights.
Honorable Mention: Shaun Wade, Ohio State
Safety: Jamar Johnson, Indiana
The safety class for the 2021 NFL Draft does not have any absolute homerun prospects, but there projects to be a great deal of depth at the position in the later rounds. Jamar Johnson rounds out a weak class for the Big Ten, but he has shot up draft boards as of late, primarily due to his success in his first year starting in 2020. During his junior year in 2020, he recorded 4 interceptions in just 8 games, which earned him first team All-Big Ten honors. He had a breakout performance versus Ohio State, picking off standout QB Justin Fields twice in likely one of the worst games of his outstanding career. Although he had a breakout season in 2020, team’s are concerned it may be a fluke due to lackluster production in his freshman and sophomore seasons.
Johnson is a prototypical single-high safety, possessing great instincts in zone coverage and a knack for being around the ball, whether it’s breaking up passes or forcing turnovers. He has a great feel recognizing route combinations and always seems to be in the right place at the right time. Even when he misreads a play, his speed and elite athleticism allow him to recover and make a play on the ball. He is a feisty player who plays with a chip on his shoulder, qualities that made him a great leader in the secondary at Indiana. As great as he is in coverage, Johnson does tend to struggle against the run. He takes poor angles and often tries to make lunging tackles in the open field. He will make an amazing hit on occasion, but his overall consistency as a tackler needs to improve for him to be a starter at the next level. He is also a pure single-high safety, which means he will need to be drafted by a team running a cover 3 scheme in order to maximize his potential.
Honorable Mention: Tyler Coyle, Purdue
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