The 2021 NFL draft is a week away. As teams, evaluators and scouts finish their draft boards, you’ll hear plenty of comparisons between some of the top prospects in this talented class and current and former NFL players. These matches might point to the way they play the game, their physical measurements, a level of versatility, similar traits or some combination of those lines of thought. But regardless, NFL draft evaluators often liken players coming out of college to established pros to put a name and a face to what they bring.
These comps aren’t always exact — and in most cases they don’t suggest the prospect will share the same level of success as the NFLer, for better or worse. But they can be helpful nonetheless to better understand prospects and how they project to the next level.
So we asked 10 of our NFL draft analysts for their single most favorite comp in this year’s class. Some you’ve probably already heard, but others might offer a new way to look at a particular prospect and what we can expect to see from him each Sunday going forward. First up, we have a potential top-five quarterback getting comparisons to an NFC South signal-caller — who was also a top-five selection.
I see Jones as a very similar player to Ryan, the longtime Atlanta Falcons QB. Jones has good but not great arm strength and is extremely accurate. The Alabama signal-caller also shows underrated movement traits in the pocket and can run boots/rollouts effectively. He is a good decision-maker with the football and throws a very catchable ball. That leads to lots of yards after the catch. — Mike Tannenbaum, NFL analyst/former GM
Atwell and Brown show how the NFL has changed over the years. They’re tiny 5-foot-9 wideouts with lightning speed who can be used all over an offense. They can fly with the ball in their hands. Brown, a 2019 first-round pick by the Baltimore Ravens, weighed 166 pounds at his combine, while Louisville’s Atwell is only 155 pounds. A smart offensive coordinator will get Atwell the ball in space and let him work. — Mel Kiper, NFL draft analyst
To start, both wide receivers have a lean frame yet know how to protect themselves and get open. But I really like this comp because of their savvy route running. Alabama’s Smith knows how to get off press coverage, he’s smooth in and out of his breaks, and he can find the soft spots in coverage. That’s Harrison, who played with the Indianapolis Colts from 1996 to 2008 and is now in the Hall of Fame. And Smith also thinks about the game in the same way Harrison did — the Heisman winner is a second quarterback on the field with excellent recall and a great understanding of defensive structures. — Todd McShay, NFL draft analyst
With his high-end traits, Florida’s Pitts will create pass-game matchups from the tight end position in the NFL. But I like the comp to Burress — a wideout who played with the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants and New York Jets from 2000 to 2012 — here when Pitts is flexed outside as the boundary X receiver or aligned in the slot. I’m looking at the long, physical frame, along with the ability to outmuscle defenders on in-breakers or contested catches. And we know that Pitts can separate vertically while also bringing scoring upside on isolation throws inside the red zone. — Matt Bowen, NFL analyst
The physical similarities between Minnesota’s Bateman and the Falcons’ Ridley are eerie, including height (6-foot-3 and 6-foot-1, respectively) and weight (both 190 pounds). Both receivers glide in a way that masks their speed, and Bateman has the polish to be as productive as Ridley was in his rookie year (821 yards and 10 TDs) if paired with a veteran quarterback. — Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer
Check out the best highlights from Minnesota WR Rashod Bateman’s college career.
While Kansas City Chiefs receiver Hill is thicker and has more power right now, Waddle’s rare change-of-direction ability, speed and explosiveness invoke shades of Hill. Like Hill early in his career, the Alabama product has a chance to quickly emerge as a premier kick/punt returner in addition to sparking an offense. Waddle’s field-flipping skill set is uncommon. — Field Yates, NFL analyst
The most obvious similarity outside of their size is the running backs’ ability to impact the passing game. Memphis’ Gainwell and the Los Angeles Chargers‘ Ekeler have very good ball skills and are effective releasing out of the backfield, working out of the slot and splitting out wide. Both are shifty open-field runners with good quickness through the hole, the contact balance to break some tackles and enough juice to make defenses pay when they get a seam. — Steve Muench, Scouts Inc.
Ojulari (6-foot-2, 249 pounds) and Ngakoue (6-foot-2, 246 pounds) are two similarly built edge defenders who come in what would be considered a small package. But don’t let the size fool you. Like Ngakoue, Georgia outside linebacker Ojulari is an aggressive edge setter against the run, especially when it comes to taking on and pulling offensive linemen.
One of Ojulari’s premier pass-rushing moves is the cross chop. That’s a move that Ngakoue — now with the Las Vegas Raiders after time with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Minnesota Vikings and Ravens — adopted as his signature move when he got to the NFL in 2016. — Turron Davenport, Titans reporter
Penn State edge rusher Oweh is the classic potential-over-production player on this board. He absolutely dominated testing — a hand-timed 40-yard dash in the high 4.3s at 257 pounds, a 39½-inch vertical jump and an 11-foot, 2-inch broad jump to go with off-the-chart performances in agility drills — but he finished without a sack in the 2020 season. There are plenty of plays where he impacts what the opponent is trying to do, overwhelms the blocker in front of him or chases down the ball carrier from behind. But he had zero sacks.
Likewise, Vikings pass-rusher Hunter ran in the 4.5s at the 2015 combine at 252 pounds after he had posted 1.5 sacks in his final season at LSU. But we saw a high-effort player with pursuit skills and an ability to win in the pass rush with some additional polish. — Jeff Legwold, Broncos reporter
Everything lines up with these two players. It’s hard to find 6-foot-8-or-taller offensive tackles with great mobility. Brown (Northern Iowa) is seen as “developmental,” but he was the elite tester on the offensive line in this class and has high-end starter talent like Miller, who just got a big-money extension with the Raiders. Miller was also viewed as a developmental guy coming out of UCLA. — Jim Nagy, NFL draft analyst
TE Josh Hill retires from football less than 2 months after signing with Detroit Lions
Hill, who turns 31 later this month, spent his first eight years with the New Orleans Saints before being released in a wave of salary-cap cuts. He initially planned to follow his former position coach, Dan Campbell, to Detroit before the apparent change of heart.
Hill’s one-year deal with the Lions was scheduled to pay him $1.2 million.
“This game has blessed my family and I with more than we could have ever imagined,” Hill wrote in an Instagram post. “Everything this game has given and taught me makes this decision extremely difficult, but I am looking forward to all of the years I have with my young family, and being able to chase after different dreams.”
Hill joined the Saints as an undrafted rookie from Idaho State in 2013 and quickly earned a place as a versatile blocker, receiver, core special teams player and occasional fullback. The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder finished his career with 116 catches for 1,071 yards and 15 touchdowns in the regular season, plus another 15 catches for 166 yards and a TD in the playoffs.
Saints coach Sean Payton once described Hill as so valuable in so many different areas of the playbook that losing him to an injury early in a game was “like losing your front door.”
“He has been a model of consistency throughout his eight seasons with us,” Payton said in a statement when Hill was released. “He has been reliable, selfless and filled numerous roles for us, oftentimes on the fly and in the middle of games, filling each role at a very high level.”
Players Association fires back at NFL’s voluntary offseason workout policy following Ja’Wuan James’ injury
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos and tackle Ja’Wuan James have become the focal points in the growing acrimony between the NFL and the NFL Players Association over attendance of players at voluntary offseason workouts.
That relationship grew even more strained on Thursday when the players’ union fired back to its membership in response to a memo from the NFL’s management council to team executives and head coaches earlier this week.
In a wide-ranging email to players, which was read to ESPN, union officials devoted a section to the season-ending Achilles tendon injury James had suffered earlier this week while working out away from the Broncos’ complex.
In the email, union officials said:
“It was gutless to use a player’s serious injury as a scare tactic to get you to come running back to these workouts.
“This memo is another sign of what they think of you and also affirms that they simply want to control you year-round in any and every way that they can.
“We have been in touch with Ja’Wuan James. Despite an open threat of an ‘NFI’ designation, Ja’Wuan was working out to stay in shape under a program recommended to him by his coach.”
James had been specifically named in the league’s memo Tuesday. In that memo, it was outlined under the “Non-Football Injuries” designation that teams like the Broncos would have “no contractual obligation” to pay players like James their salaries if they were injured away from the team facilities.
The memo also outlined why a player’s salary would be paid if the injury had been suffered during a workout at a team’s complex. The memo also mentioned: “Clubs are encouraged to remind players of the significant injury-related protection provided if they choose to work out at the club facility and the risks they undertake in choosing to train at a non-NFL location.”
James has a $10 million salary guarantee for the 2021 season the Broncos would not have to pay, according to the collective bargaining agreement, because he suffered the injury at another site. The union also pointed out in its email Thursday while the NFI designation has been part of the CBA for some time, the league has “never, ever sent such a memo about voluntary workouts.”
The Broncos players were among the first earlier this offseason to issue a statement through the NFLPA that they would boycott the team’s voluntary offseason program. Several players, more than 20 at times, have still worked out at the team’s facility in recent weeks, including several who are returning from injuries.
Broncos coaches have routinely given players specific workout protocols to follow during the offseason, if the players wishes to, if the players are working out away from the facility. James, who opted out of the 2020 season due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, had also been in the team’s facility at times this offseason.
Days before the draft Broncos general manager George Paton was asked about James’ progress and said: “He’s been here, and he’s been working out. He looks great and the expectation is he starts at right tackle and he plays well.”
James has played 63 snaps over three games combined – all in 2019 — since he signed a four-year, $51 million deal with the Broncos in March of that year. During the 2019 season James suffered a torn meniscus as well as a torn MCL in separate games that season.
Detroit Lions release former second-round running back Kerryon Johnson
Detroit drafted the former Auburn standout in the second round in 2018. Johnson became expendable after the team drafted D’Andre Swift No. 35 overall in 2020, signed free-agent running back Jamaal Williams in March and drafted Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson last week.
Johnson ran for 1,225 yards and eight touchdowns over three seasons. He also has 61 career receptions for 527 yards and three scores.
Last year, he had 181 yards rushing and two scores on 52 carries, and had 19 receptions for 187 yards receiving and a touchdown.
The Lions also added a player in free agency, signing tight end Darren Fells on Wednesday. The move gives the team a veteran at the position it can put on the field with Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson.
The 35-year-old Fells has 123 career catches with 1,483 yards receiving and 21 touchdowns. The previous two years in Houston, he had a combined 55 catches for 653 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Fells has started 76 games — including 13 with the Lions in 2017 — and played in 102 games with Arizona, Detroit, Cleveland and the Texans. He was a rebounding standout at UC Irvine and played basketball in Argentina, Mexico, Belgium, Finland and France before playing in the NFL.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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