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2021 NFL draft: Brian Baldinger has strong opinions on this year's prospects

Eric Edholm
·15-min read

Brian Baldinger is one of the best tape-breakdown guys in football. The former NFL offensive lineman turned media star can be seen all over the internet and on your TV, often on NFL Network, dissecting the minutia of the game and almost always providing valuable takeaways and insight on players, strategy and what really matters when it comes to evaluating football.

And this is a great time of year to talk to Baldinger. He’s now had a chance to watch film of many of the prospects in the 2021 NFL draft — “all the top 50 guys, plus a lot more,” he told us by phone recently — and has some interesting opinions on them we wanted to share.

“On top of that, I’ve called personnel people around the league that I know. I’ll say, ‘Give me five guys I can scout today.’”

In turn, we wanted to know who some of those players were and what he thought when he watched them.

Brian Baldinger of the NFL Network has some thoughts about the 2021 NFL draft class. (Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)
Brian Baldinger of the NFL Network has some thoughts about the 2021 NFL draft class. (Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)

Baldinger is an offensive linemen at heart, so we definitely wanted to get his takes on the best blockers available in this year’s draft. But his insight isn’t limited to the big uglies up front — he’s watched every other position extensively as well.

We asked him for his big-picture views on this draft, as well as to provide some thoughts on specific players who — for good or bad reasons — really stood out in his analysis. And we’re breaking it down into two groups: the offensive linemen and, well, everyone else.

First, here are some of Baldinger’s thoughts on the non-OL prospects:

BYU QB Zach Wilson

“I remember in 1999, Andy Reid came to Philadelphia, where I live. I got to know him. At that time, six quarterbacks were being juggled as possible first-rounders. So what Andy did was, he put a different quarterback on every day in his office. He’d just have it up on his screen all day, even if he wasn’t working on them every moment.

“He’d look up there and Donovan (McNabb) was up on the screen one day, another quarterback (from that draft class) the next day, and so on. So that’s how I do it with quarterbacks. I just put them up there and watch them.

“And I can’t stop watching Zach Wilson. Whether it’s the arm talent. Whether it’s the head-and-shoulder fakes. Whether it’s the mobility. Whether it’s the flick of the wrist. He absolutely captures your eye. Period."

North Carolina RBs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter

“Those two running backs at North Carolina, Javonte Williams and Michael Carter ... I want them both. To me, Javonte, he looks like a bigger, stronger Dalvin Cook. His contact balance is ridiculous. Both of them are really good players.

“I want to say Nick Chubb (as a comp for Williams), but either way, he’s so damned good. Maybe not quite as fast. I don’t know that he has the long speed of Nick Chubb. I’ve seen Chubb go 90 yards. I don’t know if Javonte Wiliams can do that; I’m not saying he can’t, but I just don’t know."

Florida WR Kadarius Toney

“There’s this kid out of Florida — and they’ve got a lot of them — but this Kadarius Toney, like, I don’t know what position he is exactly. But he’s just this playmaker.

“You have to figure out his role. OK, he’s going to run fly sweeps. He’s going to run hitch screens. Maybe some ‘go’ rounds. Like, I don’t know what all he is. But I do know that when the ball is in his hands, he’s about as elusive as anybody in this whole draft.”

Alabama CB Patrick Surtain II

“I am biased because I knew his dad. But Patrick Surtain, he just looks so polished. He’s a guy that, first of all, if it’s midnight you never have to worry about where he’s at. He’s just as solid and clean a kid as you can be.

“If you remember his dad, he was one of those guys who would knock your (expletive) in the dirt. And his kid plays like that, too. You’re just going to get a consistency from him, I think. (Caleb) Farley and Jaycee Horn and (Greg) Newsome, there are a lot of these guys out there. I’ve watched them all.”

UCF CB Aaron Robinson

“If you’re looking for a slot corner, and you have to factor in that slot corners are starters in this world, this Aaron Robinson at UCF … he’s tenacious. He’s nasty. He’s sticky. To me, he looks like he could come in and lock down that position wherever he goes Day 1.

Central Florida defensive back Aaron Robinson is a fun prospect to watch. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Central Florida defensive back Aaron Robinson is a fun prospect to watch. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

“He’s got all the size to play outside, and I think he can play out there. But at Central Florida he was a slot corner mostly. And that slot position, you’ve got to be physical, you’ve got to be able to handle blockers, you’re down in the run mix.

“But I see all of his ability to tackle, to be physical. It all shows up.”

Tulsa LB Zaven Collins

“You can’t help but think, ‘What is Zaven Collins going to be?’ Is he Levon Kirkland? Is he Jeremiah Trotter? What is he going to be at that size and length? With that and the way that he gets to the ball, he’s an intriguing guy.

“He’s skating at times. I like to see a guy who can just throw a flipper and take care of the offensive guard, you know? But that’s more the way they used to play inside. There’s some of that that doesn’t show up.

Houston DL Payton Turner

“(A league evaluator) told me, ‘Watch this kid Payton Turner from Houston. Six-five and change, 270 (pounds), three-year player, 84-inch wingspan, 36-inch arms — you can see his length show up on tape, too.

“And you watch this guy and say, ‘Geez, could this be Leon Lett?’ I mean, I played against Leon, and you couldn’t get your hands on him; he was just too long.”

Penn State LB Micah Parsons

“All these guys who opted out, I know they all had their reasons for doing it, and I don’t question that or doubt any of it. But I am of the belief you have to play football to get better at football. That’s my biggest thing.

Philip Rivers played 50 (college) games, and it made a huge difference for him, you know? I’m not sure he (becomes) Philip Rivers if he doesn’t have that experience.

“Parsons, he played the one year (as a starter) and there are times when I watch him and I wonder what he’s doing. He’s not instinctive at all to me. I see the flashes. But like, he’s not Devin White, you know?

“(White) gets there to the ball. He plays all three downs. You can’t take him off the field. Ever. I don’t see any of these (2020 draft linebackers) playing like that.

“With (all of) the opt outs, I’d just want to know what they did last season. What were they doing for those three, four months? Were they in class? In the weight room? Were they living back home? If you’re not playing football and not in that competitive environment, are you getting better at football? I don’t know the answer to that.”

Baldy’s takes on some of the top OL prospects

We spoke at length about this year’s offensive linemen. Here are some of the most interesting tidbits Baldinger dropped in our laps:

2020 OLs > 2021 OLs

“I don’t think it’s a strong year for offensive linemen. Although it does have good depth, I think. I mean, what Tristan Wirfs did this year was amazing. He played every snap. And this sounds crazy, but I don’t think they win a Super Bowl without him. He locked up every good pass rusher coming off the edge. Cam Jordan, he locked him up in New Orleans.

“Mekhi (Becton), you look at what he can do, what he did in spurts last year. Or you look at Jedrick (Willis) in Cleveland. I just don’t see that level of player in this class.”

Oregon OT Penei Sewell

“That’s not to say Penei Sewell can’t be that (Wirfs-caliber prospect). He’s basically been playing for a year. Hasn’t played a lot, he’s on the ground too much, but you can see him flash and it makes you think. I think a lot of people, when they heard he opted out, think that he’s going to be the next Jonathan Ogden. He’s not Jonathan Ogden, but nobody is.”

If not Sewell, maybe it’s Rashawn Slater

“Rashawn Slater at Northwestern is a good-looking player. Jalen Mayfield at Michigan is a good-looking player too. But some of these guys barely played this year.

“So I don’t know. I’m not holding it against guys who opted out, for whatever reason. But if you want to be a great left tackle, the only way to be a great left tackle is to play left tackle. It’s just hard to think that any of these guys improved without playing. It makes it a little bit difficult.”

High praise for a Trojans blocker

“Take this Ali Vera-Tucker at USC, for instance. He’s a guard. He played left tackle in college, but he’s a guard in our league. But maybe he’s David DeCastro inside, you know? It’s not a knock. He has that type of skill.”

The best center in the 2021 class

“You watch Landon Dickerson at Alabama, that’s as big a center as I can ever remember. He’s just huge. He really takes up a lot of space — the guy is about 6-foot-6 — but he gets low, he bends, he moves well.

“And he’s about as interesting as it gets inside. I think he’ll be the first center off the board. (Vera-Tucker and Dickerson) are very interesting to me.”

And don’t forget about this guy

“(Virginia Tech OL) Christian Darrisaw played well last year and got better every year he played. I feel good about his evaluation. We saw him play a lot. He made strides and he got better. That’s what you want to see in a perfect world.”

Notre Dame’s left tackle, plus a great Bill Parcells left tackle story

“I like Liam Eichenberg at Notre Dame. He’s an all-effort guy. I don’t know if he’s a left tackle or not.

“But I’ll tell you a quick story about left tackles. I remember talking to Bill Parcells one day. He was telling me the story about Jumbo Elliott. They drafted him in the second round out of Michigan, and Bill wanted to find out if he can play left tackle.

Notre Dame offensive lineman Liam Eichenberg might be a left tackle in the NFL. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Notre Dame offensive lineman Liam Eichenberg might be a left tackle in the NFL. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

“So he goes to LT (Lawrence Taylor) and says, ‘Look, I gotta find out if we can keep him at left tackle or do we need to move him somewhere else? So I need your best, LT. Go put it on him. Give them the LT experience. Talk nonstop, do your thing.’

“Not even a week goes by and LT goes to Bill and says, ‘Coach ... he’s your left tackle.’”

“It’s a good story, but it’s also something you need to find out. I remember (Buffalo Bills OT) Dion Dawkins when he was coming out of Temple, and every single analyst said, ‘Oh, he’s a guard.’ But he’s started three straight years at (left tackle) and it looks like he can hold down that position."

Tackle or guard? Guard or center?

“So I don’t want to say that Rashawn Slater or Jalen Mayfield can’t play tackle. I don’t know if Liam Eichenberg can play left tackle. They might look like a guard. But let’s give them a shot out there and see what he can do.

“Speaking of Jonathan Ogden, he played left tackle as a rookie. Then he moved to left tackle and became great. But if I am taking any of these guys in the first round, I want to see them play the position in college at least some.

“(Minnesota Vikings OL) Ezra Cleveland is a good example. College left tackle, but no one really knew where he was going to end up, what position he’d play. Well, he ended up at right guard and was a pretty good right guard.

“Could he go to left tackle down the road? Maybe. But right now, you’ve got good value for him at right guard. Dalvin Cook ran the ball really well, and he was a big part of it. The point is, I want to get these guys on the field right away. You can cross-train these guys. There’s a way to do that."

How to figure out an OL prospect’s best position

“I think it’s about finding the best (starting) five. At the end of the day, that’s what matters. It’s good to have those swing guys, always good to have depth. But give me your best five and let’s get them out there first. And if you’re not developing your players, you’re not going to be winning anyways.

“Tampa Bay this year, they go out there and lose their right guard late in the season, Alex Cappa, and they put in Aaron Stinnie in there, and nobody knew. His first start was against the Saints in New Orleans. They never skipped a beat.

“Somebody was developing (Stinnie), and no one (outside the building) knew anything about Aaron Stinnie. He hadn’t played. Then you go out and win a Super Bowl with Aaron Stinnie at right guard.

“Tom Brady needs all the protection he can get, right? So you get your starting five and then you start developing the rest of the these guys. Cross-train him, keep him after practice, give him some extra reps when you can. Sundays, even if they don’t dress, get them an hour workout out there. There are ways to do it, to develop (offensive linemen)."

The must-have trait for an OL

“Like I was talking about with Sewell, I played with Ray Donaldson in Indianapolis. He used to say to me — and I’ll never forget it — ‘If I am on the ground, I am having a bad day.’ So I look at guys and ask why they’re on the ground. Are they tripping? Do they have bad feet? Bad balance?

“I think balance is so underrated. There are some guys — like, you watch Brandon Brooks in Philadelphia. The guy is never on the ground. He’s got tremendous balance. Now, he’s a 345-pound fire hydrant. But balance is so important.

“With (New York Giants OT) Andrew Thomas, I never thought he was the best tackle last year. I thought he had bad balance. He was always on one foot. Queue it up this year, and it’s all the time. How do you coach that out of him?

“If guys don’t have good balance, they’re too easily moved. Too hard to stay in front of (their man). The object is to stay between the quarterback and your man. You have to keep your feet on the ground and have a good base. Balance is part of being able to drop and anchor and stop a good bull rush. If you can’t do that, you’re going to give up too much ground.”

Does arm length matter?

“Every guy is different. Some short-armed guys don’t get beat. If you’re doing your job, I don’t care if you’re standing on your head. Whatever works. Some guys win with ugly bodies. Some win with short arms. And then we’ve seen all the Tarzans of the world play like Jane.

“To me, every guy is different. I know everyone wants comps. I like comps, too. It helps. But some guys can be their own mold, too.”

Baldinger breaking down X’s and O’s on Coach Tube videos

Baldinger is currently engaged in a coaching course on CoachTube.com — an “Offensive Line Seminar with Brian Baldinger and Bob Wylie.” The course implements game film to break down the intricacies of NFL offensive line play, featuring former NFL veteran lineman Baldinger and Wyle, a veteran NFL line coach with the Browns and Raiders.

“With this pandemic, everyone was sort of wondering, how do we adjust?” Baldinger said. “And we just thought it was the perfect time to get going on these and launch this series. How to scout players, learning from players who have done it.

“We did this first one this year, and I think it’s something we are going to do for a long time to come.”

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