After Justin Fields, who goes next? Five Ohio State football storylines to watch for in 2021 NFL draft

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra

The class of Ohio State prospects in this year’s NFL draft is deep.

Look for close to a dozen former Buckeyes to be selected over seven rounds that begin on Thursday.  

It could be only the seventh time since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger that the program ends up with double-digit players picked.

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But most will fall outside of the opening round. Quarterback Justin Fields, expected to be among the first players to hear his name called, is the only one of Ohio State’s prospects who is likely to be among the first 32 selections.

Other draft hopefuls are expected to be taken on Friday and Saturday. As picks start coming off the board, here are five things to watch.

Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade (24) celebrates with defensive end Zach Harrison after returning an interception for a touchdown against Indiana on Nov. 21.

How far will Shaun Wade fall?

The Buckeyes have produced a lot of highly drafted cornerbacks in recent years. Jeff Okudah, Damon Arnette, Denzel Ward, Marshon Lattimore and Eli Apple all ended up in the first round over the previous five drafts. Shaun Wade was expected to be next.

But after an inconsistent final season at Ohio State that was characterized by a difficult transition from slot corner to outside corner, Wade’s stock has slipped. Now just how much?

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Some analysts expect he could still be taken on the second day of the draft, selected in either the second or third round, while others are less bullish, looking for him to fall to the third day.

A successful pro-day workout earlier this month could help avoid a steep drop, as might versatility in the secondary. Along with starting as a slot cornerback in 2019, Wade rotated at safety in the previous season. Teams will have options for where to line him up.

Will the 49ers pass on Justin Fields?

San Francisco gave up a haul of assets, including first-round picks in 2022 and 2023, to trade up to the third overall pick.

When the blockbuster deal went through last month, the presumption was that the franchise was targeting Fields, as fellow passers Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson have been set to be selected with the first two picks.

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But a recent report from the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport said it is instead zeroing in on two other quarterbacks in Mac Jones and Trey Lance.

Perhaps all this amounts to a clever smokescreen, and the 49ers ultimately snag Fields, who once seemed to be the consensus second-best quarterback prospect in this class behind Lawrence and fits in with the league’s trend toward dual-threat signal callers. At No. 3, he could become the highest-drafted quarterback ever out of Ohio State.

If not, an unexpected tumble in the top-10 might await.

Ohio State linebacker Baron Browning celebrates a fourth-down stop as he leaps over Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence during the College Football Playoff semifinal.

After Justin Fields, who goes next?

Had wide receiver Chris Olave decided to enter the draft rather than return for his senior season, there would be little mystery over which Buckeyes prospect would be taken next after Fields.

Potential candidates instead feature a range of possibilities, including linebackers Baron Browning and Pete Werner and offensive linemen Wyatt Davis and Josh Myers.

Davis was invited to participate in the draft’s telecast along with Fields, a sign his stock is pretty high, though interior linemen are often less coveted by teams in early rounds.

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A possible late rise from Werner could be worth keeping an eye on. During an appearance on SportsCenter this week, Jim Nagy, the executive director for the Senior Bowl and a former scout, said he would not be surprised if the linebacker ended up as a late first-round selection.

Leading the team in tackles in 2020, Werner was about as productive as any of the Buckeyes’ players in recent seasons and helped himself with solid testing numbers.

Ohio State linebacker Justin Hilliard stops Clemson running back Travis Etienne in the Buckeyes' Sugar Bowl victory on Jan. 1.

Is this the Buckeyes’ largest class of linebackers?

Five times in the modern era, there have been three Ohio State linebackers taken in the same draft, most recently in 2006 when A. J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter and Anthony Schlegel were all picked.  

Never before have four linebackers been snagged.

That could change this weekend if Tuf Borland and Justin Hilliard are selected following Browning and Werner.

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Borland might have the more tenuous status between the two of them. At Ohio State’s pro day in March, he clocked 4.98 and 4.99 seconds in the 40-yard dash, leaving little that would boost his stock. Only a couple of linebacker prospects in this class have recorded slower times.

But Borland is experienced and could provide teams with leadership. He was voted just the Buckeyes’ second-ever three-time captain last August. If he slips into the late rounds, he could help mark another historic feat for the program.

Ohio State's Blake Haubeil kicks a field goal against Nebraska on Oct. 24.

Could there be special teams intrigue?

Special teams contributors are largely afterthoughts during the draft, and it’s been close to two decades since Ohio State has seen a placekicker or punter selected.

Mike Nugent was the Buckeyes’ last drafted kicker in 2005, a second-round pick of the New York Jets. He followed punter B.J. Sander, who went in the third round the previous year when he was grabbed by the Green Bay Packers.

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Could Blake Haubeil or Drue Chrisman end the drought? If teams are looking to add someone at either specialist position, it’s a possibility.

Both are considered among the best kicker and punter prospects available this year.

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman