Who is the best defensive player in the 2021 NFL Draft?


The narratives around the 2021 NFL Draft have focused on the offense, but who is the best defensive player this year? In the April 21 episode of Draft Insiders, Pro Football Network’s Chief NFL Analyst Trey Wingo and Chief Draft Analyst and NFL Insider Tony Pauline discussed the defensive side of the ball in depth.

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Who is the best defensive player in the 2021 NFL Draft?

With the defensive side of the ball starting to get more attention, Pauline addressed who he has as the top defensive player on his big board.

“My No. 1 defensive player is Patrick Surtain. I am going to say he could be selected No. 8 by the Carolina Panthers if Penei Sewell is not there. They need cornerbacks. You have got Scott Fitterer, the new GM, who comes from Seattle. Seattle has a history of taking big physical corners. I think Surtain is the first defensive player selected. Maybe Carolina, maybe Denver. I doubt he gets past Dallas if he is still there.”

With uncertainty surrounding the defensive class in the 2021 NFL Draft, Surtain could very well be the first defensive player to come off the board. On the show, Wingo addressed this and the history that very likely could be made in this draft.

“There might not be a defensive player taken until Detroit at No. 7. If that were to be the case, it would be the latest we have ever had the first defensive player taken in the first round in the common draft era — which goes back to 1967.”

The demand for a cornerback should be high at the back end of the top 10

The Panthers’ depth chart highlights just why Carolina might be interested in drafting Surtain with the eighth pick. Their CB group currently consists of A.J. Bouye, Rashaan Melvin, and Donte Jackson. While that is a solid group, all three could be gone from Carolina this time next year. Melvin and Jackson are both set to hit free agency in 2022, and the Panthers could release Bouye with little dead money to hamper them. Therefore, adding Surtain would allow them to develop him in 2021 before letting him step in as a starter in 2022.

The situation is similar in Denver. Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby are a talented pairing. However, Fuller may be a free agent next offseason, and there is no sure-fire successor at the CB position. The Cowboys are in desperate need of a CB in this draft. There is no definitive partner opposite Trevon Diggs, with none of the current names inspiring confidence. For that reason, Dallas would be delighted to get a player considered to be the best defensive option in the 2021 NFL Draft with the 10th overall selection.

Which other cornerbacks are thought of highly in this draft?

At the end of the college football season, the top of the CB class was considered to be Surtain and Caleb Farley. However, Farley’s stock has fallen following microdiscectomy surgery. That has left Jaycee Horn as the main competition for Surtain atop the CB position. In his latest big board, Pauline has Surtain ranked sixth, with Horn at No. 10.

Farley currently sits 25th on Pauline’s big board. He is narrowly ahead of Northwestern CB Greg Newsome at 28th. Pauline has a further three CBs ranked inside his top 50. Kelvin Joseph out of Kentucky is ranked 37th, with the Georgia pairing of Tyson Campbell (42nd) and Eric Stokes (44th) rounding out that group.

Which are the best defensive players at other positions in the 2021 NFL Draft?

There is a clear lack of top-end talent in the 2021 NFL Draft. Pauline addressed the concerns surrounding the defensive options on the show.

“You look at the edge rushers. You’ve got a couple of guys at the top who are mid-first-round picks. Then it really falls off. You look at defensive tackle, you got two guys who may be late first-round picks, and then it really falls off. A good crop of linebackers. A good crop of cornerbacks at the top, but then it falls off. Overall, except for the linebackers, you’ve got a good bunch of versatile linebackers, it is really not strong at any single position. And it is really bad at several positions.”

Defensive tackle and edge rushers

Much has been made of the lack of top-end talent at the defensive tackle group. It seems unlikely that a DT would come off the board before the back end of the first round, with the Buccaneers and Bills the most likely landing spots. Therefore, the attention turns to the defensive ends and pass-rushing outside linebackers. The first team that really needs a pass rusher is the Giants. On the show, Pauline discussed the latest he is hearing regarding the Giants’ plans in Round 1.

“The Giants are prioritizing an edge rusher in Round 1. The problem is where they sit with the 11th pick, any edge rusher is going to be a bit of a reach. Because you are probably looking at either one or two of the cornerbacks, Horn or Surtain, you are potentially looking at potentially one of the receivers there, being Jaylen Waddle. Your top edge rushers being Kwity Paye and Azeez Ojulari. I think Ojulari would be a great fit for the Giants, but I think he is a bit of a reach at No. 11.”

Linebackers and safeties

Entering the draft, the top three players at the linebacker position on Pauline’s big board are Micah Parsons (9), Zaven Collins (15), and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (17). Those three are all discussed as likely first-round picks. However, Pauline has no other linebacker graded in the first round.

Meanwhile, the safety position is an area of real concern in this draft. Pauline has just one safety, Trevon Moehrig (24), graded inside his top 50. He has just a total of five safeties graded among the top 100, Richie Grant (54), Jevon Holland (62), Talanoa Hufanga (78), and Elijah Molden (100).

Is this draft one of the worst in history for defensive players?

While the 2021 NFL Draft has many question marks around the defensive talent, it is not likely to match some of the worst defensive draft classes in history. Furthermore, on the show, Wingo provided some perspective into the history of bad defensive draft classes.

“The record for the fewest defensive players taken in the first round is one in 1969 when future Hall of Famer ‘Mean’ Joe Green was taken fourth overall. The last time just two defensive players were taken in the first round was 1995. Kevin Carter went as the sixth overall pick to the Rams and Mike Mamula went to the Eagles at seven.”

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