2021 NFL Draft: Breaking down the top 5 prospects at each defensive position


As the pre-draft process progresses, it becomes clear which players have separated themselves at each position. When the pool dwindles, it is helpful to watch those players all at once to either confirm or reject the order in which they are ranked. Last week, I broke down the top five players at each offensive position. This week, the focus turns to the defense. 

Here are the top five 2021 NFL Draft prospects at each defensive position: 

Edge rusher

  1. Gregory Rousseau, Miami (CBS Sports rank: 16)
  2. Kwity Paye, Michigan (8)
  3. Jaelan Phillips, Miami (40)
  4. Jayson Oweh, Penn State (80)
  5. Joseph Ossai, Texas (34)

The edge rusher class lacks a blue-chip player such as Chase Young, Myles Garrett or the Bosas. With that being said, there is a lot of depth at the position. I think Gregory Rousseau is the most talented with the fewest question marks. Kwity Paye was a difference maker but teams are worried about his garbage-time production. Jaelan Phillips might be second on the list but teams will have to dig into his medical history and UCLA transfer. Jayson Oweh is another super athletic but raw player. Joseph Ossai does as well as anyone targeting the quarterback’s arm in the dropback to force fumbles. UAB’s Jordan Smith and Washington’s Joe Tryon would be perfectly reasonable inclusions on this list as well. I expect a run at the position from No. 15 to No. 60. 

Defensive line

  1. Christian Barmore, Alabama (26)
  2. Daviyon Nixon, Iowa (NR)
  3. Tyler Shelvin, LSU (78)
  4. Marlon Tuipulotu, USC (91)
  5. Levi Onwuzurike, Washington (30)

Christian Barmore became the player that many expected late in the season. He is still relatively young and developing. I had concerns about Daviyon Nixon’s inconsistency but he has grown on me. Tyler Shelvin is a nose tackle that opted out of the 2020 season. USC defensive tackle Jay Tufele opted out of the season but that created an opportunity for Marlon Tuipulotu, who made the most of it. Levi Onwuzurike opted out of the season. His performance at the Reese’s Senior Bowl was not as dominant as hoped. 

Off-ball linebacker

  1. Micah Parsons, Penn State (5)
  2. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame (27)
  3. Zaven Collins, Tulsa (18)
  4. Jamin Davis, Kentucky (NR)
  5. Nick Bolton, Missouri (21)

Micah Parsons is an off-ball linebacker that also has the flexibility to rush from the edge. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is closer to a safety than a traditional off-ball linebacker. Zaven Collins is a read-and-react linebacker that can do a better job of tackling. Jamin Davis is an ascending talent. In his first year as a starter, he showed a lot of development. His coverage of Florida tight end Kyle Pitts earned him a lot of money. If you want a visual of his capabilities, watch the second play of that Florida game. Nick Bolton is an undersized linebacker that was not asked to do much in that Missouri defense. 


  1. Patrick Surtain II, Alabama (12)
  2. Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech (15)
  3. Tyson Campbell, Georgia (54)
  4. Aaron Robinson, UCF (NR)
  5. Kelvin Joseph, Kentucky (NR)

Patrick Surtain II is a big cornerback that does a great job of staying in-phase and locating the football. Caleb Farley is a lengthy cornerback. The gap between Surtain and Farley is not significant but there is a bit of a decline after those two players. Tyson Campbell does a great job of staying in-phase but can do a better job of tracking the ball in the air. Aaron Robinson and Kelvin Joseph are late risers in the process. Joseph has shown flashes of elite play. The exclusion of Jaycee Horn might come as a surprise to many but there are concerns about his style of play translating. Horn is very physical and handsy downfield, which has been a point of emphasis in the pass-happy modern NFL


  1. Trevon Moehrig, TCU (39)
  2. Jevon Holland, Oregon (33) 
  3. Paris Ford, Pittsburgh (59)
  4. Richie Grant, UCF (NR)
  5. Hamsah Nasirildeen, Florida State (35)

Trevon Moehrig is the most well-rounded true safety. Jevon Holland played a lot of snaps in the slot — before opting out of the 2020 season — so his designation is murky. The selection of Paris Ford is a commitment to the good and the bad. He shows some flashes of a player worthy of being taken late-first round but then makes some critical mistakes as well. Richie Grant was a standout at the Reese’s Senior Bowl and even made some nice plays at cornerback. Hamsah Nasirildeen is a long safety that could also spend time in the box and fulfill a unique role for defensive coordinators in the NFL. 

The top five players at each offensive position debuted on last week, so check those out in the event that you missed them. Check out the full CBS Sports prospect rankings, which is an aggregate of Ryan Wilson, Chris Trapasso and myself, as well. Fans can also find updated mock drafts each week at our mock draft landing page; only on!

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