Elite 11

The 2024 NFL Draft is the first draft for players in the 2021 recruiting class. Their senior seasons of high school football were either seriously impacted or canceled in response to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Many of them were never able to visit the college school of their choice during the recruiting process until they enrolled during the summer of 2021. 

Several of the top recruits in the 2021 class will hear Roger Goodell call their names during the first round Thursday night. More will come off the board Friday and Saturday. Most will return to college classes Monday, several at different schools from where they signed.

So tells the curious tale of the class of 2021.

In the hours after the United States began its shutdown on the heels of the spreading coronavirus, the NCAA on March 13, 2020 tweeted a ban on in-person recruiting. Speaking strictly in sports, a pandemic that wiped out nearly everything in its path in 2020 had an impact on recruiting and roster construction that is still being felt across college football.

"Recruiting the 2021 class was unlike anything else," said an assistant coach who was at a Power Five school in 2020. "Most of it was purely off of film. Being able to see body types, growth potential and get accurate and recent movement information was damn near impossible. We had to rely a ton on evaluations from people that were not in the building. It was so much harder to find 'sleepers,' and a lot of guys were overvalued because of the inability to actually see their development in a normal evaluation period."

Player rankings from 2021 Class

The two players who finished the cycle ranked Nos. 1-2, Quinn Ewers and J.T. Tuimoloau, each returned to college for the 2024 season, smartly pushing back their draft potentials for a year; they'll be projected as first-round picks next April but probably would not have reached those heights Thursday night. 

Ewers reclassified from the 2022 class. His journey is well-documented. Tuimoloau announced for Ohio State less than a month before practice started, on July 4, 2021 — months after his classmates made their February decisions. He'll enter his third year as a starter for the Buckeyes.

One July 4 earlier, with the country on lockdown, Caleb Williams announced he was headed to play for Oklahoma. A fireworks show followed his commitment, which was televised live on CBSSports HQ.

Williams would be the No. 1 quarterback in the final 2021 rankings … until Ewers' reclassification moved him up. Williams will be the first name called by Goodell on Thursday evening. 

You could have a lot of fun pulling up the final rankings for the class of 2021 and toggling around by position. 

How recruiting worked (or didn't work) in 2020

First, that second tweet from the NCAA on March 13, 2020 said that there would be a ban on in-person recruiting.

At first, it was indefinite.

That ban would continue to be extended for months at a time, preventing coaches from getting on the road during the traditional spring evaluation period that begins on April 15.

It kept coaches from hosting unofficial visitors throughout the spring (except for Arizona State, which is a whole 'other story) and official visits in April-June.

It wiped out camps, of both the college campus and showcase variety. Not beholden to the NCAA, the Elite 11 was able to do a socially distanced competition in the heart of Tennessee in July. Caleb Williams won MVP. 

Response to the coronavirus of course postponed the season in many states, canceled it in some others and led for many 2021 recruits to even opt out of playing their 2020 senior seasons. 

The NCAA did not reopen campus visits until June of 2021. 

It had an enormous impact on the evaluation process — no in-person evals, no verified heights, weights and measurements plus testing times. But we won't soon forget the videos and pictures of scales and measuring tapes, sometimes a couple inches below the ground to make a player appear taller. 

If you find yourself wondering why so many 2021 signees did not live up to "expectations," now you have your answer. What seems like an abnormally high number won't hear their names called this weekend, next year or ever.

Position-by-position rundown of 2021's hits, misses

  • After Williams, two of the quarterbacks expected to go in the early stages were in the class of 2021. Drake Maye was the No. 4 quarterback and a five-star. National champion JJ McCarthy was the No. 6 overall quarterback in that class.
  • The quarterback ranked No. 3, between Williams and Maye? Record-setting quarterback Sam Huard, who followed his father and uncle's footsteps and went to hometown Washington, started a disastrous 2021 Apple Cup as a true freshman with an interim coach at the helm, then was beat out the following spring by incoming transfer Michael Penix Jr. Huard eventually transferred to FCS Cal Poly to play for his former high school coach.
  • The first receiver expected to hear his name called is Marvin Harrison Jr., an All-American Bowl selection. Harrison was the No. 21 receiver in that class (and the third receiver in Ohio State's class that year), while the second receiver expected to hear his name, Malik Nabers, was the No. 19 receiver nationally. Frankly, Harrison Jr. exceeded Ohio State's expectations. A lack of quality testing times kept Harrison from being ranked higher than he should have been. 
  • The No. 1 receiver in that class — the one who Buckeyes fans were really excited about — was Emeka Egbuka, who will return in 2024 and projects as a first-rounder next year.
  • Another LSU receiver, Brian Thomas Jr., is a projected first-rounder, and he was the No. 9 receiver in that class, No. 69 overall.
  • And the fastest player in NFL combine history, Xavier Worthy, was a top-100 player and the No. 13 receiver overall.
  • A miss was Adonai Mitchell. The former Texas and Georgia touchdown machine will be one of the top receivers off the board. He was a three-star prospect, ranking as the No. 60 receiver in that class, a victim of lack of verifieds and in-person evaluations. As a transfer, the 247Sports team did consider Mitchell to be a five-star prospect, so at least there's that. 
  • No running back is expected to go in the first round on Thursday, though the No. 1 running back in 2021, TreVeyon Henderson, returned to Ohio State for the 2024 season and is already projected as a first-rounder next year.
  • Tight end was a hit. A long fight was had over who should be the No. 1 tight end in the 2021 class. Brock Bowers ended up No. 2. Bowers skipped his senior season, which California held in the spring, to enroll at Georgia. Bowers finished as the No. 59 overall player that year.
  • The first tackle expected to go on Thursday night is Joe Alt, who was a top-20 offensive tackle in 2021 and the No. 180 overall player. Alt was a former tight end who didn't get as many eyes on him as he continued his massive growth that year in lockdown.
  • Two tackles who ranked among the top three are projected first-round draft picks, JC Latham, who was the No. 1 tackle that year and Amarius Mims, who was No. 3.  
  • Another five-star tackle, Kingsley Suamataia, had a buzz-worthy NFL combine and could go in the first but is more likely a Day 2 pick. Suamataia transferred from Oregon to BYU after his freshman season. 
  • Tuimoloau aside, the top defensive linemen in the Class of 2021 have had star-crossed careers. Korey Foreman had a big game against UCLA in 2022 but left USC for Fresno State to seek a fresh start this season. Leonard Taylor ranked No. 3 that year among defensive linemen, No. 5 overall, and is projecting to be a Day 2-pick at best. Taylor played at Miami. 
  • EDGE prospect Dallas Turner was the No. 12 overall player in that class and he's projecting in the top 12 of this year's draft. A big hit there.
  • Another first-round player will be Texas' Byron Murphy. Murphy didn't make the Top247 but was a four-star for 247Sports. 
  • No true linebacker is projected to go in the first round on Thursday. The top three linebackers in the 2021 class — Clemson's Barrett Carter, Georgia's Smael Mondon and Alabama's Deontae Lawson —, all returned to school for their senior year.
  • The first defensive lineman off the board is up for debate. Some project it to be Cooper DeJean, the No. 8 safety in 2021. Some project it to be Terrion Arnold, a five-star in 2021 and the No. 2 safety.
  • The No. 1 safety recruit that year, James Williams, declared for the draft but will probably go Day 3. 
  • The No. 1 cornerback that year, Kool-Aid McKinstry, was the No. 13 overall player in that class and projects to the first round himself.
  • The No. 1 athlete in that class, Ja'Tavion Sanders, was a five-star who had a bright future at either tight end or defensive line. Sanders ultimately settled in at tight end and he's projecting to the back end of the first round and should be the second tight end after Bowers.

A lot of hits. A lot of misses. A lot to still be determined. Ladies and gentlemen: The Class of 2021.