By Rob Rang
FOX Sports NFL Draft Analyst
Every draft has a player – or five – whose selection creates waves through the rest of the event.
Earlier this week, we highlighted five wild-card teams whose decisions on April 29 will cause tidal waves in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. This time, we’re turning the focus back onto the players, including three clear first-round talents whose stock is highly volatile in league circles, making them possibilities to be selected as high as the top 10 but also vulnerable to a dramatic draft-day fall.
Why he could go early: Smith rightly won the Heisman Trophy this past year after helping guide Alabama to a national title by leading the country in touchdown receptions, giving him a staggering 46 over his career. That’s nearly 50% more than Pro Bowler Amari Cooper, the previous record-holder for the Crimson Tide, who had 31.
His numbers are not just the best at Alabama; they are the best in SEC history and place him fifth in FBS history. Possessing the light feet and balance of a ballerina, Smith gains almost instant separation as a route-runner and he is downright graceful when adjusting to the ball in the air, using excellent timing, as well as his long arms and sticky hands to snag any pass in his area code.
Five wide receivers from Alabama will have been drafted in the first round between the time Smith joined the Crimson Tide in 2017 and the end of Thursday’s opening frame, and Smith is easily the most polished of the bunch. A two-time captain at Alabama who saw time at both returner and gunner on special teams, Smith is no diva receiver, he appears to be as close to a sure thing as it gets.
Why he could fall: Though he didn’t miss a single one of the 54 games Alabama played over the past four years, Smith’s spindly frame raises all sorts of concerns about his ability to hold up to NFL punishment. Smith weighed even lighter than expected at this year’s medicals-only Combine at just 166 pounds. Though the injury which earned him the invitation to Indianapolis was a dislocated finger, Smith opted not to run timed drills at either of Alabama’s Pro Days. His statistics were undeniably influenced by all of the talent in Tuscaloosa, including those calling the plays. Without another dynamic receiver opposite him, Smith could be effectively bracketed by double coverage because he lacks rare size and speed.
Earliest he could be drafted: San Francisco 49ers, No. 3 overall – “I’m not saying it will happen, but there are people in that building who absolutely love him,” one long-time scout told me a few days ago. “A quarterback has to be the direction they take given what they gave up in the trade, but there are some there who think Smith could be a franchise-altering guy in Shanahan’s offense.”
Latest he could be drafted: New York Jets, No. 23 overall – If the Jets learned anything with watching Sam Darnold fail to live up to expectations it is that they must protect the investment in the young quarterback with difference-making pass-catchers. Smith comes with Broadway-like star power.
Where he’d fit best: Detroit Lions, No. 7 overall – Jared Goff is going to need a No. 1 target and Smith’s production and grit would seemingly fit right in with a franchise looking to reset not only the roster but the culture in the locker room.
Why he could go early: The No. 1 overall recruit regardless of position back in 2017, Phillips could have signed with any team in the country. Ultimately, he went with UCLA, where both his father and grandfather attended school. He was immediately successful there, registering seven tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in just seven games before injuries popped up. That ultimately resulting in his transfer to Miami, where he led a Hurricanes squad filled with future NFL draft picks in both tackles for loss (15.5) and sacks (eight) in just 10 games.
Characterized by NFL scouts in our “Honor Roll” piece as the best pure pass rusher in this class, the 6-foot-6, 260 pound Phillips is the terror off the edge every club is looking to add to the roster, showing the initial burst, bend, power and hustle to be even more successful in the NFL.
Why he could fall: Phillips rivals perhaps only Farley and Alabama center Landon Dickerson as the clear-cut first-round talents whose medical history is so alarming it could send them tumbling into Day Two.
Phillips’ injuries date back to high school when he broke his left hand (2016). He underwent two separate surgeries on his left wrist following a traffic accident in 2018. Scariest of all, Phillips has a troubling history of concussions, at least three of them at UCLA (2017-2018) with trainers there advising him to retire. Sitting out the 2019 season due to his transfer, Phillips has started a total of just 16 games in four years at the college level.
Earliest he could be drafted: New York Giants, No. 11 overall – The Giants finished with a very respectable 40 sacks last season (tied with Indianapolis for 10th in the NFL) but this number is deceiving as 11.5 of them came from Leonard Williams, with no one else contributing more than four.
Latest he could be drafted: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, No. 32 overall – Ranking behind only quarterbacks as the premium position in today’s NFL, it is hard to imagine a talent like Phillips falling out of the first round entirely and the Bucs could use reinforcements with Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh aging.
Where he’d fit best: Minnesota Vikings, No. 14 overall – With 10 draft picks to play with, Minnesota GM Rick Spielman has more flexibility than most. Pairing Phillips with a defensive-minded head coach like Mike Zimmer and opposite a proven star in Danielle Hunter could result in another immediate impact from Minnesota’s first-round pick – similar to how wideout Justin Jefferson burst onto the NFL scene a year ago.
Why he could go early: A former quarterback and wide receiver who shot up draft boards as a cornerback after just two seasons playing the position, Farley is a special talent, earning First Team All-ACC honors as a redshirt sophomore with a conference-best 16 passes broken up, including four interceptions.
He boasts an intoxicating combination of size (6-2, 197 pounds), arm length (33 3/8″) and wheels, showing not only rare straight-line speed on tape but the loose hips and greasy knees to stick to shadow receivers. Farley is the unusual combination of being already proven and yet teeming with potential. With the size to handle big receivers, as well as the agility and acceleration to handle the NFL’s speedsters, Farley could be a true shutdown corner with All-Pro potential.
Why he could fall: The durability concerns with Farley are very real. He missed his first season in Blacksburg after tearing his ACL (right knee) during a non-contact play in fall camp. He has twice undergone “minor” back surgeries since, including a microdiscectomy in March which kept him from working out for scouts prior to the draft after he opted out on the 2020 season.
Earliest he could be drafted: Dallas Cowboys, No. 10 overall – Jerry Jones has shown a willingness to gamble on injured players before (Jaylon Smith, for example) and Farley’s upside is undeniable, as is the Cowboys’ need for another cornerback.
Latest he could be drafted: Second Round – The medical red flags and depth at cornerback this year could combine to push Farley all the way out of the first round.
Where he’d fit best: Cleveland Browns, No. 26 overall – Given all of the talent on Cleveland’s defense, adding another toolsy ballhawk like Farley might just be the kind of pick that puts the Browns over the top. Plus, it would give the franchise some flexibility at the position moving forward with Denzel Ward nearing the end of his rookie deal.
Why he could go early: In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, NFL offenses have evolved with as many plays attacking the field horizontally as vertically and much more of a focus on utility players. There are a number of explosive athletes in the 2021 NFL draft well-suited to play this role, but perhaps none of them more so than the 6-0, 193-pound Toney, whose electric stop-start quickness, 4.37 speed and physicality make him a nightmare to tackle, drawing comparisons from some to former Florida (and NFL) star Percy Harvin.
After playing all over the field for the Gators early in his career (including at quarterback), Toney focused on receiver in 2020, leading Florida with 70 catches and scoring 12 touchdowns in 11 games, including one as a runner and another as a returner. With just one “full” season at receiver, Toney was still named the top wideout for the American Team at this year’s Senior Bowl.
Why he could fall: Toney is more of a schoolyard playmaker than a polished route-runner at this point, and his willingness to freelance can get his quarterback in trouble. Further, he requires a thorough vetting of his character with a couple of run-ins with the police during his time at Florida, including being pulled over on July 22, 2018 (for failure to wear a seatbelt), upon which police discovered a loaded AR-15 in the backseat of his car.
Latest he could be drafted: Second Round – Toney’s red flags are more like banners and the depth at receiver this year could give teams enough pause to allow him to fall into Day Two.
Where he’d fit best: Arizona Cardinals, No. 16 overall – A flashier and more physical version of current slot receiver Christian Kirk, Toney would be an exciting fit in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense, perfectly complementing Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins.
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Why he could go early: The 2021 NFL draft is loaded with talent at linebacker, but the one who made the most plays last year was Collins, the winner of the Bronko Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik Awards as the nation’s top defender. Collins regularly made eye-popping plays at and behind the line of scrimmage, as well as a shocking number of them in coverage (four interceptions) for a man of his size.
Don’t let the fact that he played his college ball at Tulsa fool you into thinking that he just feasted on lesser competition. Collins is among the freakiest athletes in this class, boasting incredible agility, balance and speed for his 6-5, 259-pound frame. A hard worker who slipped through the recruiting cracks after growing up playing quarterback and safety in a small town, Collins has the humility to take full advantage of his gifts.
Why he could fall: Besides the obvious level of competition questions, scouts are split on where Collins fits best schematically. He is not the traditional thumper at linebacker his size suggests, winning more with athleticism than power or technique at this point.
Earliest he could be drafted: Dallas Cowboys, No. 10 overall – Dallas gambled on a similar “late bloomer” in Leighton Vander Esch three years ago, but he has since struggled with durability. Collins would be a gamble, but Jerry Jones loves those almost as much as this linebacker’s fully trophy closet.
Latest he could be drafted: Baltimore Ravens, No. 27 and 31 overall. For years retired general manager Ozzie Newsome padded his Hall of Fame resume by drafting stars fellow scouts thought were not built right for the NFL. Current Ravens GM Eric DeCosta could follow the same strategy with the extra first-round pick acquired in trading Orlando Brown, Jr. to Kansas City.
Where he’d fit best: New England Patriots, No. 15 overall – In bringing back Kyle Van Noy and signing former Ravens’ star Matt Judon, the Patriots probably won’t be looking for another linebacker this offseason. But with the similarly built Donta Hightower entering the final year of his deal, it isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility. And, boy, would it be fun to see how Collins could blossom with Belichick’s coaching.
One of the most recognized names in the industry, Rob Rang has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, Yahoo, USA Today, NFL.com and NFLDraftscout.com, among others.
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