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Where every 2021 NFL first-round pick ranked as a high school recruit

Sam Cooper
·20 min read
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Before they were selected in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft on Thursday night, the 32 players who heard their name called were high schoolers with a dream.

Some were rated by Rivals.com among the nation’s most elite prospects. Others had to scratch and claw just to receive a college scholarship. We decided to go back and look at how all 32 were perceived as high school recruits.

Each story — from each five-star recruit to guys with just one FBS offer — is unique.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell holds a Jacksonville Jaguars jersey as he announces that the Jaguars had chosen Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the first pick in the NFL football draft, Thursday April 29, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell holds a Jacksonville Jaguars jersey as he announces that the Jaguars had chosen Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the first pick in the NFL football draft, Thursday April 29, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

1. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson

Team: Jacksonville Jaguars

Rivals rating: 5 stars, No. 1 overall

2018 position ranking: No. 1 pro-style quarterback

Trevor Lawrence lived up to the hype. The No. 1 overall ranking by Rivals.com in the class of 2018, Lawrence was recruited by the top programs around the country and ended up committing to Clemson over in-state Georgia late in his junior year. 

Lawrence won the starting job by Week 5 of his freshman season and never looked back. He led the Tigers to a national title that year and brought them back to the College Football Playoff as a sophomore and junior. In all, he threw for 10,098 yards and 90 touchdowns as a college QB. Now he is off to Jacksonville as the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL draft.

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2. Zach Wilson, QB, BYU

Team: New York Jets

Rivals rating: 3 stars, not in Rivals 250

2018 position ranking: Unranked

Zach Wilson is the son of a Utah football player but he ended up at rival BYU. The Utes, with a commitment from another QB in the class of 2018, never offered Wilson a scholarship. During the summer of 2016, Wilson gave a verbal commitment to Boise State. More than a year later, just before the beginning of the early signing period, Wilson backed away from that commitment. 

BYU entered Wilson’s recruitment late, but Wilson quickly jumped on the offer and signed with the Cougars. Power Five schools like Cal, Iowa, Minnesota, Oregon State and Syracuse all offered Wilson, but none prioritized him like BYU did at that point in the process. Wilson showed flashes of brilliance in his first two seasons on campus, but really flourished in 2020 as a junior when he threw for 3,692 yards and 33 touchdowns.

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3. Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State

Team: San Francisco 49ers

Rivals rating:2 stars, not in Rivals 250

2018 position ranking: Unranked

Trey Lance went from small-town Minnesota to FCS star to first-round pick in the span of three years. FBS schools like Air Force, Boise State and Northern Illinois all gave Lance a look as a quarterback, but many Power Five programs wanted Lance to switch positions. The University of Minnesota, in fact, was recruiting Lance as an athlete. 

But he wanted to play quarterback and North Dakota State, which sent Carson Wentz and Easton Stick to the NFL, was the best fit. Lance became the starter as a redshirt freshman and had a remarkable season: 2,786 passing yards, 1,100 rushing yards and 42 total touchdowns. Now Lance is headed to San Francisco. 

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4. Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida

Team: Atlanta Falcons

Rivals rating:4 stars, not in Rivals 250

2018 position ranking: No. 12 tight end

Kyle Pitts began his high school career playing quarterback before he made a move to tight end. Once he established himself as a dynamic pass-catcher, he earned a four-star ranking from Rivals and was rated as the ninth-best player in the state of Pennsylvania and the 12th-best tight end in the nation. He committed to Florida with Georgia and Virginia Tech as his other finalists. 

By the time he was a sophomore, Pitts progressed into one of the top offensive weapons in the SEC. Over his last two years at UF, Pitts caught 97 passes for 1,491 yards and 17 TDs.

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5. Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU

Team: Cincinnati Bengals

Rivals rating:4 stars, No. 67 overall

2018 position ranking: No. 12 wide receiver

Ja’Marr Chase’s recruitment went all the way to national signing day in 2018. The four-star, top 100 prospect out of New Orleans reeled in dozens of offers before narrowing his choices down to LSU and Auburn. Ultimately, Chase opted to stay local by signing with LSU. It proved to be a massive coup for the Tigers. 

Chase put up modest numbers as a true freshman before emerging as a star in 2019 with 84 catches for 1,780 yards and 20 TDs to help LSU win a national title. Chase opted out of the 2020 season, but the decision did not affect his draft stock whatsoever as he was the first receiver off the board.

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6. Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama

Team: Miami Dolphins

Rivals rating: 5 stars, No. 31 overall

2018 position ranking: No. 7 wide receiver

Jaylen Waddle was one of three five-star recruits to sign with Alabama during the 2018 cycle. The Houston native was ranked by Rivals as the No. 31 overall prospect in the nation. He took his decision to national signing day with Alabama and Texas A&M as his two finalists. 

Some thought A&M, which had just hired Jimbo Fisher, might swoop in and snag Waddle’s signature, but the speedster ended up going with the Crimson Tide. Once he landed in Tuscaloosa, Waddle became a big play threat any time the ball touched his hands.

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7. Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon

Team: Detroit Lions

Rivals rating: 4 stars, No. 60 overall

2018 position ranking: No. 5 offensive tackle

Penei Sewell was the top player from the state of Utah in his recruiting class and ranked as the fifth-best tackle in the country. After sorting through dozens of offers, Sewell whittled his choices down to four: Alabama, Oregon, USC and Utah. Sewell initially planned to make his choice during the fall of his senior year, but Willie Taggart’s decision to leave Oregon for Florida State caused him to reevaluate. 

In the end, Sewell signed with Oregon after quickly striking up a relationship with new coach Mario Cristobal. Sewell became Oregon's starting left tackle as a freshman and never vacated that role. A few years later, he was the first offensive lineman selected in the NFL draft.

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8. Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina

Team: Carolina Panthers

Rivals rating: 4 stars, No. 189 overall

2018 position ranking: No. 20 cornerback

Like Patrick Surtain, Jaycee Horn is the son of a longtime NFL player. For Horn, his father is Joe Horn, the former New Orleans Saints receiver. The battle for Horn was hotly contested across the SEC. He first verbally committed to Tennessee in August of 2017, but he backed away after Butch Jones was fired. 

A month later, the Georgia native signed with South Carolina in the early signing period. The four-star recruit ended up becoming a starter as a true freshman. By his junior year, Horn became one of the top corners in the country. Now he is a first-round pick.

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9. Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama

Team: Denver Broncos

Rivals rating: 5 stars, No. 8 overall

2018 position ranking: No. 1 cornerback

The son of longtime NFL CB Patrick Surtain, Patrick Surtain II earned a five-star billing from Rivals, who tabbed him as the top cornerback in the country. Offers poured in for the Florida native, and Alabama, Clemson, Florida State, LSU, Miami and Ohio State were all heavily in the picture. 

LSU was considered the favorite for Surtain for a significant portion of his recruitment, but he ended up signing with Alabama on national signing day. Surtain ended up starting 38 games for the Crimson Tide and became one of the top corners in the nation.

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10. DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama

Team: Philadelphia Eagles

Rivals rating: 4 stars, No. 42 overall

2017 position ranking: No. 6 wide receiver

Hailing from Amite, Louisiana, DeVonta Smith actually committed to Georgia early in his recruiting process. But when UGA fired Mark Richt, Smith opened up his recruitment. Smith made official visits to four schools: Alabama, Florida State, LSU and Miami. 

In the end, Smith bypassed the local school and picked Alabama. The move paid off in a big way. He caught the national title-winning touchdown as a freshman and won the Heisman Trophy and another national title as a senior. Now he is headed to Philadelphia as a first-round pick.

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11. Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State

Team: Chicago Bears

Rivals rating: 5 stars, No. 2 overall

2018 position ranking: No. 1 dual-threat quarterback

Just behind Lawrence in the 2018 rankings was Justin Fields, another Georgia native. Fields initially committed to Penn State. At that point (December 2016), Fields was rated as a four-star recruit by Rivals. In the months that followed, Fields rocketed up the rankings — all the way to No. 2 nationally. 

Fields would back away from his PSU pledge and ultimately sign with Georgia. He spent his freshman season as the backup at UGA and eventually chose to transfer to Ohio State. Fields was brilliant in his two seasons in Columbus, throwing for 5,373 yards and 63 touchdowns with two top 10 Heisman finishes.

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12. Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State

Team: Dallas Cowboys

Rivals rating: 5 stars, No. 6 overall

2018 position ranking: No. 1 outside linebacker

Micah Parsons was a five-star recruit out of Harrisburg, Pa., who mainly played defensive end and running back in high school. He committed to Penn State as a sophomore, but later walked back on that verbal commitment. He was pursued by the top schools from around the country and ended up circling back to the Nittany Lions. 

Despite not playing linebacker before college, he led PSU in tackles as a freshman and became an All-American as a sophomore. He opted out of the 2020 season, so he finished his college career with 191 tackles and 18 tackles for loss in just two seasons.

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13. Rashawn Slater, OT, Northwestern

Team: Carolina Panthers

Rivals rating: 3 stars, not in Rivals 250

2017 position ranking: No. 36 offensive guard

Rashawn Slater was a bit of an unheralded prospect coming out of Sugar Land, Texas, in the class of 2017. Slater had great grades in high school and Northwestern proved to be the perfect mix of athletics and academics. The three-star recruit chose the Wildcats over offers from Illinois, Kansas, Rice, SMU and Wyoming. Big 12 schools like Baylor and Oklahoma showed interest in Slater, but never offered him a scholarship. Slater quickly moved into the starting lineup for the Wildcats and ended up starting 37 games in his career — 26 at right tackle and 11 at left tackle.

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14. Alijah Vera-Tucker, OL, USC

Team: New York Jets

Rivals rating:4 stars, No. 176 overall

2017 position ranking:No. 17 offensive tackle

Hailing from Oakland, Alijah Vera-Tucker decided to head south to Los Angeles for his college football career. The four-star prospect chose USC as a high school junior and remained committed to the Trojans even as schools like Texas A&M and Washington continued to recruit him. During his time in uniform with the Trojans, Vera-Tucker showed his versatility by starting games at both guard and tackle. The Jets clearly valued his skillset, so they traded up and grabbed him at No. 14. 

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15. Mac Jones, QB, Alabama

Team: New England Patriots

Rivals rating: 4 stars, No. 162 overall

2017 position ranking: No. 9 pro-style quarterback

A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Mac Jones initially committed to Kentucky in July of 2015. At that point, Jones was an unheralded three-star prospect who had only a few offers. By early 2016, Jones was bumped up to a four-star grade by Rivals and began to attract attention from other schools. One of those schools was Alabama. 

In June 2016, Jones flipped his commitment to the Crimson Tide, becoming the second QB in Bama’s 2017 class (alongside a guy named Tua Tagovailoa who you may be familiar with). Jones spent three seasons as a backup in Tuscaloosa before becoming the starter in 2020. All he did was throw for 4,500 yards and 41 TDs while leading the Crimson Tide to a national title. Now he is a member of the New England Patriots. 

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16. Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa

Team: Arizona Cardinals

Rivals rating: 2 stars, not in Rivals 250

2017 position ranking: Unranked

Coming out of tiny Hominy, Oklahoma, Zaven Collins played quarterback and safety for his high school team. Tulsa was the only FBS school to offer him a scholarship, though he did attract attention from Oklahoma State. Before he committed to Tulsa in August of 2016, Collins had just one other offer and it came from Central Oklahoma, a Division II school. Collins made the transition to linebacker in college and thrived, earning multiple national awards as a redshirt junior in 2020.

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17. Alex Leatherwood, OL, Alabama

Team: Las Vegas Raiders

Rivals rating: 5 stars, No. 4 overall

2017 position ranking: No. 1 offensive tackle

Alex Leatherwood committed to Alabama early, making his decision in the summer between his sophomore and junior years of high school. He was already a heralded prospect at that point, but he ended up ascending to the top of the Rivals rankings for the class of 2017. Leatherwood ended up as the No. 1 player from the state of Florida, the No. 1 offensive tackle in the nation and No. 4 overall. By his sophomore year, Leatherwood was a starter. He ended up playing both guard and tackle for the Crimson Tide. 

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18. Jaelan Phillips, DE, Miami

Team: Miami Dolphins

Rivals rating: 5 stars, No. 6 overall

2017 position ranking: No. 2 weakside defensive end

Jaelan Phillips was one of the top-rated recruits in the entire nation when he signed with UCLA in the class of 2017. But a string of injuries ended up cutting his time in Westwood short. Later on, he resurfaced at Miami and showed the traits that made him such a coveted recruit. In his lone season at Miami, Phillips had 45 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks. Despite some of the medical concerns, the Dolphins grabbed Phillips in the first round. 

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19. Jamin Davis, LB, Kentucky

Team: Washington Football Team

Rivals rating: 3 stars, not in Rivals 250

2017 position ranking: Unranked

Jamin Davis was rated as a three-star recruit coming out of the talent-rich state of Georgia in the class of 2017. Davis committed to Kentucky in March of 2016 but did not waver with his commitment after receiving a host of other Power Five offers later that year. Davis ended up as an early enrollee for the Wildcats, but did not emerge as a starter until 2020. He combined for 42 tackles in his first two seasons. In 2020 he put up a whopping 102 tackles. That high level of play put him on the radar of NFL teams.

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20. Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida

Team: New York Giants

Rivals rating: 3 stars, not in Rivals 250

2017 position ranking: No. 63 athlete

Kadarius Toney was a quarterback at Blount High School in Alabama, but colleges recruited him as an athlete. Toney ended his recruitment before his senior season by choosing Florida before even stepping foot on campus. Even when other schools entered the picture later that year (including Alabama), Toney stuck with the Gators and enrolled early. He took some snaps at QB early in his UF career, before settling in as an offensive weapon and later on as a receiver. That versatility helped Toney land in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft.

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21. Kwity Paye, DE, Michigan

Team: Indianapolis Colts

Rivals rating: 3 stars, not in Rivals 250

2017 position ranking: No. 35 defensive end

There aren’t many top-tier recruits that come out of Rhode Island, and Kwity Paye was quick to pounce on a Power Five offer when he received one. That came in December of 2015 when Paye made a verbal pledge to Boston College over UMass and Rhode Island. Later on, though, Paye would attract more attention. After nearly a year as a BC commit, Paye received a late offer from Michigan and it was too much to pass up. After a four-year career at UM, Paye ended up as a first-round pick in the 2021 draft.

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22. Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech

Team: Tennessee Titans

Rivals rating: 4 stars, not in Rivals 250

2017 position ranking: No. 32 athlete

Caleb Farley was a high school quarterback who committed to Virginia Tech as a wide receiver. Virginia Tech was the second school to offer him a scholarship, doing so just a day after Wake Forest. A month later, he picked the Hokies and stuck with that commitment even after several other Power Five offers came in. Farley was injured early in his VT career and eventually switched to defensive back. He flourished in that position and, despite multiple back surgeries, worked his way into the first round.

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23. Christian Darrisaw, OL, Virginia Tech

Team: Minnesota Vikings

Rivals rating: 2 stars, not in Rivals 250

2017 position ranking: Unranked

Christian Darrisaw had three offers, all from FCS programs (Central Connecticut State, Morgan State and North Carolina Central), before Virginia Tech came into the picture. Shortly after receiving an offer from the Hokies, Darrisaw committed. The Maryland native took a post-graduate year at Fork Union Military Academy, but stayed committed to Virginia Tech. Darrisaw ended up being a three-year starter at left tackle for the Hokies.

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24. Najee Harris, RB, Alabama

Team: Pittsburgh Steelers

Rivals rating: 5 stars, No. 1 overall

2017 position ranking: No. 1 running back

Najee Harris had one of the more infamous recruitments in recent memory. A five-star recruit in the 2017 class, Harris committed to Alabama as a high school sophomore. The California native was set to enroll early at Alabama, but Michigan continued to stay in the picture. 

The rumors swirled all the way up to the All-American Bowl in San Antonio, and Harris apparently had three plane tickets with him during that trip: one to Alabama, one to Michigan and another back home to California. In the end, he stuck with his Alabama commitment. He became a star in the SEC, and now he is a first-round pick.

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25. Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson

Team: Jacksonville Jaguars

Rivals rating: 3 stars, not in Rivals 250

2017 position ranking: No. 26 running back

Travis Etienne became “the one that got away” for LSU coach Ed Orgeron. Etienne, a native of Jennings, Louisiana, was a three-star recruit who pulled in a slew of offers from across the country. LSU was one of those schools, but the offer came too late in the process — in December of 2016 when Orgeron was interim head coach. A month later, Etienne committed to Clemson. Etienne became a star for the Tigers, eventually finishing his college career as the ACC’s all-time leader in rushing yards, rushing TDs, total TDs and yards from scrimmage.

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26. Greg Newsome, CB, Northwestern

Team: Cleveland Browns

Rivals rating: 3 stars, not in Rivals 250

2018 position ranking: No. 36 safety

Greg Newsome, an Illinois native, opted to stay in his home state for college — even after finishing out his high school playing career at IMG Academy in Florida. He picked Northwestern over offers from schools like Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Virginia and Virginia Tech. 

Newsome cracked Northwestern's starting lineup as a true freshman and ended up playing in 21 games with 18 starts over three seasons. He totaled 20 pass breakups and made a highlight reel interception against Justin Fields and Ohio State in the 2020 Big Ten title game. 

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27. Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota

Team: Baltimore Ravens

Rivals rating: 4 stars, not in Rivals 250

2018 position ranking: No. 59 wide receiver

Minnesota brought Bateman, a four-star recruit out of Georgia, up to the Twin Cities in the class of 2018. The Gophers were on Bateman early and Bateman stuck with Minnesota even after multiple SEC schools, including Georgia, began recruiting him. Bateman made an immediate impact, catching 51 passes for 704 yards and six TDs as a freshman. In 2019, Bateman became a star with 60 catches for 1,219 yards and 11 TDs as Minnesota emerged as one of the surprise teams in the country. 

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28. Payton Turner, DE, Houston

Team: New Orleans Saints

Rivals rating: 2 stars, not in Rivals 250

2017 position ranking: Unranked

A Houston native, UH was Payton Turner's best offer by a significant margin. Other than his hometown team, Turner's only other listed offers on Rivals were Alcorn State, Army, Brown, Cornell and Texas Southern. Listed at 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds, Turner proved to be a steal for the Cougars. He was a three-year starter at UH who finished his career with 114 tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. 

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29. Eric Stokes, CB, Georgia

Team: Green Bay Packers

Rivals rating: 3 stars, not in Rivals 250

2017 position ranking: No. 51 athlete

A lanky cornerback known for his speed, Eric Stokes was recruited at a variety of positions. But the Bulldogs saw him as a defensive back and were able to land the signature of the Georgia state champion track star in February 2017. Stokes' other offers included Florida, LSU, Ole Miss and West Virginia. At UGA, Stokes became a full-time starter in 2019. In 2020, he was voted a second-team all-SEC selection by the league's coaches. 

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30. Gregory Rousseau, DE, Miami

Team: Buffalo Bills

Rivals rating: 4 stars, not in Rivals 250

2018 position ranking: No. 15 athlete

Gregory Rousseau played all over the field during his high school career and was listed as an athlete by Rivals. The Florida native narrowed his choices down to LSU, Miami, Oregon and USC. And once he stayed local and chose Miami, the coaches there molded him into a pass-rusher. Rousseau opted out of the 2020 season, but put up huge numbers in 2019: 54 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks. 

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31. Jayson Oweh, DE, Penn State

Team: Baltimore Ravens

Rivals rating: 4 stars, No. 140 overall

2018 position ranking: No. 9 strongside defensive end

Jayson Oweh was a basketball player for the early parts of high school. But when he took up football, college coaches began swarming. Oweh racked up dozens of offers but eventually whittled his choices down to two Big Ten East schools: Ohio State and Penn State. 

Oweh ended up picking PSU, where he ended up displaying his raw pass rush skills. He notably did not register a single sack in 2020, but the Ravens looked past the stats and saw the freakish athleticism.

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32. Joe Tryon, DE, Washington

Team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers 

Rivals rating: 3 stars, not in Rivals 250

2017 position ranking: No. 39 strongside defensive end

A native of the state of Washington, Joe Tryon initially committed to Washington State in August 2016. Later in the process, though, Tryon received offers from Oregon, Utah and Washington. Tryon stuck with his WSU commitment after the offers from Oregon and Utah, but he ended up flipping to Washington in January 2017. As a sophomore in 2019, Tryon put up 12.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks. He opted out in 2020, but was still able to slide in as the last pick of the first round.

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