The deadline for declaring for the 2021 NFL Draft has come and gone, leaving plenty of stars in college football for the upcoming season. Some of those players could be playing their last season in school before adding a few zeros to the old bank account this time next year.
Some of these players, like Miami (FL) quarterback D’Eriq King and Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave, passed up that opportunity this year for another run at college glory. Others, including North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell and Oregon defensive lineman Kayvon Thibodeaux, will be eligible to make the jump for the first time after this season.
Let’s rank the top 20 draft-eligible players who will hit the college gridiron this fall. Please note, this is not a mock draft or a ranking of NFL prospects. It’s a list of the top college football players who could be moving on after the 2021 season.
1. Sam Howell, QB, North Carolina: Howell has two seasons under his belt in Chapel Hill and will be the most intriguing prospect in NFL circles after next season. Before then, he’ll look to build off of a tremendous season that included 3,586 passing yards and 30 touchdown passes.
2. Kayvon Thibodeaux, DL, Oregon: The former hot shot recruit managed 9.5 tackles for loss in just seven games for the Pac-12 champs. He should be a force for a Ducks defense that has shown that it can dominate in the trenches during Mario Cristobal’s tenure as head coach.
3. Spencer Rattler, QB, Oklahoma: Rattler will be a redshirt sophomore in 2021, which should be his last as an amateur before cashing in. His slow start early last season fell by the wayside as he became one of the best quarterbacks in the country during the second half of the season. Don’t be surprised if he wins the Heisman Trophy.
4. D’Eriq King, QB, Miami (FL): King might not be one of the top NFL prospects, but his electric play in college football can’t be ignored. He passed for 2,686 yards and 23 touchdowns while adding 538 rushing yards last season. He’s the top dual-threat weapon in the sport. If he comes back healthy after his knee injury, King could be set for a 3,000-yard passing, 1,000-yard rushing season.
5. Breece Hall, RB, Iowa State: Hall was the driving force behind the remarkable Iowa State season that concluded with a Fiesta Bowl win over Oregon. Hall had 1,572 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns while adding 180 receiving yards and two touchdowns as a sophomore.
6. Kenyon Green, OL, Texas A&M: One of the anchors of the Aggies’ stellar offensive line will be back after being named a second-team All-American by the AP last season. The running game should be in good hands with Green back at one of the guard spots.
7. Darian Kinnard, OL, Kentucky: The Wildcats have made a name for themselves by winning along the line of scrimmage, and Kinnard is a big reason why. The veteran chose to come back to school rather than grabbing NFL money, and should be a force along a Kentucky offensive line that prides itself in moving the line of scrimmage downfield for its running backs.
8. Derek Stingley Jr., DB, LSU: Stingley’s sophomore season was a bit of a disappointment due to injuries and ex-defensive coordinator Bo Pelini’s massive mismanagement of talent. Stingley proved that he can be one of the best players in the country as a true freshman in 2019. Expect a repeat performance as long as he stays healthy.
9. Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State: Olave surprised many when he announced that he’ll be back to try to get Ohio State over the top and win the national title. He had 727 receiving yards last year, serving as “1A” to Garrett Wilson’s “1B.” He should develop into a true Biletnikoff Award threat in 2021.
10. George Pickens, WR, Georgia: Pickens has been a star since the moment that he stepped on campus in Athens, and the progression into a national superstar should come in 2021. The passing game should get a massive boost now that JT Daniels is entrenched at quarterback, which should send Pickens way over the 1,000-yard mark.
11. Kedon Slovis, QB, USC: Slovis averaged 320.2 passing yards and tossed 17 touchdowns in the COVID-shortened 2020 season after throwing for 3,502 yards and 30 touchdowns in a pinch as a true freshman in 2019. Assuming that the 2021 season goes off without a hitch, he should have a chance at winning the Heisman Trophy.
12. Christian Harris, LB, Alabama: Harris was thrust into action in 2019 after Dylan Moses tore his ACL and developed into a star as a sophomore. He had 79 tackles, seven tackles for loss and picked up one interception in 2020, showing that he is the next great linebacker in a long line of Crimson Tide stars.
13. Mohamed Ibrahim, RB, Minnesota: The Big Ten’s leading rusher racked up 153.71 yards per game and 15 touchdowns for a Gophers team that has a lot going for it heading into the 2021 season. Ibrahim surprised a lot of folks when he announced his return considering he is one of the top running back prospects in college football.
14. Brandon Joseph, DB, Northwestern: The rising redshirt sophomore tied for the most interceptions in the country with six, despite only playing nine games during the COVID-shortened season. The first-team All-American and Big Ten Newcomer of the year should be off to the NFL in what will be a brief career in Evanston.
15. Tyler Linderbaum, C, Iowa: Linderbaum surprised a lot of people when he decided to return to the Hawkeyes for his redshirt junior season rather than jumping at the chance to play on Sundays. He was one of three finalists for the Rimington Trophy in 2020, which is handed out to the best center in college football.
16. Kyle Hamilton, DB, Notre Dame: The 6-foot-4, 219-pound safety wasn’t afraid to stick his nose in and stop the run in 2020. He had 63, tackles, 4.5 for loss and one interception for a Fighting Irish team that made the College Football Playoff for the second time in its brief history.
17. Jordan Davis, DL, Georgia: The 330-pound anchor of the Bulldogs’ interior line surprised the college football world when he announced that he would return to school. Georgia’s defense is one of the best in the country due in large (pun intended) part to the work of Davis clogging up the middle.
18. Justyn Ross, WR, Clemson: Ross put up 1,000-yard seasons in 2018 and 2019 before a spinal condition forced him out of action in 2020. Instead of going to the pros, Ross decided to come back to school to prove he’s healthy and help the Tigers win another national title.
19. Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio State: The second part of the one-two punch at wide receiver will be back alongside his running mate in 2021. Wilson had 723 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore last season for a Buckeyes team that went to the national title game before falling to Alabama.
20. Edefuan Ulofoshio, LB, Washington: Ulofoshio led the Pac-12 North champs with 47 tackles. The former walk-on should be considered one of the nation’s best inside linebackers heading into the 2021 campaign. Hopefully the rest of the college football world pays attention.
Honorable mentions: Iowa State QB Brock Purdy, Ohio State DL Haskell Garrett, Georgia QB JT Daniels, Texas A&M TE Jalen Wydermyer, Florida DB Kaiir Elam, Clemson LB James Skalski, Oklahoma LB Brian Asamoah, Indiana WR Ty Fryfogle, Cincinnati DB Ahmad Gardner, Texas A&M RB Isaiah Spiller, UCF QB Dillon Gabriel, Utah DB Devin Lloyd, Auburn LB Zakoby McClain, TCU DB Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson.