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3 things Mel Kiper thinks about the 2021 NFL Draft

MEL-KIPER

The new league year begins in two weeks, which will allow free agents to begin talking with teams and agreeing to new deals. Free agency will likely play a large role in determining which direction teams go in when it comes time for the NFL Draft next month.

The Giants will have some big decisions to make prior to the start of the draft. As it stands today, the Giants have six selections in this year's draft, including each of their own picks in the first three rounds.

The other three picks - their own in the fourth-round, their own in the sixth and Arizona's sixth-round pick (acquired in the Markus Golden trade) - are not set as compensatory picks have yet to be announced, which will alter the draft order in the latter rounds.

ESPN's draft analyst Mel Kiper jumped on a conference call this week to share some of his thoughts on the draft. He touched on a wide variety of topics, including some of his favorite prospects at certain positions that could interest the Giants. Here's a summary of his thoughts:

WR is the strongest position in this year's draft

A lot has been said about the top of the wide receiver board in this year's draft. While the draft is still almost two months away, three prospects have separated themselves from the rest of the class: LSU's Ja'Marr Chase and Alabama's DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle.

According to Kiper, the three are ranked in the following order: Smith, Chase, Waddle. However, the difference between each one is rather small. As Kiper said on the conference call, choosing between Smith and Chase is essentially a flip of a coin. "Those two are interchangeable," the draft analyst said.

Kiper mentioned the depth of the wide receiver position in this year's class. While three guys could go in the top 10, there are a plethora of Day 2 guys who will immediately step in and make an impact as rookies.

"If you're looking in the third round, you're going to see guys like Josh Palmer [of] Tennessee, maybe [Houston's] Marquez Stevenson, as well," Kiper said. "Rashod Bateman is more of a second rounder out of Minnesota … Dez Fitzpatrick out of Louisville, Shi Smith from South Carolina. There is going to be a lot of depth at wide receiver all the way around.

"I like Jacob Harris as a late rounder out of UCF. I think he's a very underrated guy. I love Cade Johnson out of South Dakota State. You have Seth Williams [and] you also have Anthony Schwartz out of Auburn. Amon-Ra St. Brown from USC, I mentioned Tylan Wallace earlier. There are a lot of good receivers in this draft, all the way around … I like the wide receiver position a lot. It's the strongest position overall in this draft."

But the premier talent rests at the very top of the draft board, which brings us back to the top three receivers…

NFL Media analyst Daniel Jeremiah updated his ranking of the top 50 prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft for the final time before the start of the draft.

Kiper envisions good fit for Giants and Waddle

The Giants own the No. 11 pick in the first round. With the way the first round could shake out, it is highly unlikely that Smith, Chase, and Waddle each will still be on the board when the Giants are on the clock. In fact, there is a chance all three are taken by the time it's the Giants' turn to make their pick, which is why Kiper suggested that the Giants could possibly trade up in order to get their guy.

The receiver Kiper believes has the best chance of ending up a member of Big Blue? Waddle.

Waddle was only able to play in six games this past season because of a foot injury. He caught 28 passes for 591 yards and four touchdowns in 2020, earning a selection as Second-Team All-SEC. Although he played well last season, it was his performances in 2018-19 that really put Waddle on the NFL radar.

In 13 games as a sophomore in 2019, Waddle caught 33 passes for 560 yards and six touchdowns. But it was his ability on special teams that really caught the eye of NFL teams. Waddle returned 20 punts for 487 yards (24.4 yards per return) and a touchdown that season, adding five kickoff returns for 175 yards (35.0 yards per return) and another touchdown. He was named First-Team All-SEC in addition to SEC Special Teams Player of the Year.

He was selected as the SEC Freshman of the Year in 2018 after recording 45 receptions for 848 yards and seven touchdowns in 15 games, while also returning 16 punts for 233 yards (14.6 yards per return) and a touchdown.

Add in Joe Judge's Alabama ties and it should come as no surprise that the Giants could be interested in the 5-foot-10 Texas native.

"Waddle is not only a great receiving entity as a slot guy, but also a great punt returner," said Kiper. "I think Waddle brings tremendous value if he gets into that [No.] 9-to-11 area. I don't think he gets passed the Giants."

As Waddle was recovering from a broken foot, Smith was putting together a historic, Heisman Trophy-winning season. Smith finished the year with 117 receptions for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns while taking home a laundry list of awards.

Smith may have finished the season with more of the spotlight on him due to his gaudy numbers, but when it comes to the two Alabama wide receivers, Kiper warned people about sleeping on Waddle.

"Both of these guys love to play the game, both very competitive players, both very versatile," the ESPN draft analyst said. "I like Smith a little bit better, but Waddle is right there. Had it not been for the ankle, we might have been having a really good debate there had he finished the year strong and put up the numbers he would have been capable of putting up had he played the rest of the year at 100 percent … I'd give a slight edge to DeVonta over Jaylen Waddle, but both are going to be really good players."

Photos of 2021 NFL Draft prospect, Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle.

Edge group features many 'boom-or-bust' guys

Kiper loves the talent at wide receiver, but the same cannot be said about the edge defenders. As he mentions in his 2021 NFL Draft mailbag article, "The biggest weakness [of the draft] is the lack of pure, 4-3 hand-in-the-dirt defensive ends. There's no Myles Garrett or Joey Bosa at the top of the class, and even guys like [Miami's] Gregory Rousseau (quick-twitch ability) and [Michigan's] Kwity Paye (production) have major flaws. Of course, teams always covet edge rushers, so we're likely going to see a few prospects get overdrafted."

Rousseau sat out the 2020 campaign, but exploded in 2019. Playing in 13 games for the Hurricanes, he recorded 15.5 sacks, 19.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. Ohio State's Chase Young was the only defender in the nation to finish with more sacks than Rousseau, whose accolades that year include First-Team All-ACC, Second-Team All-American, Freshman All-American and ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year.

There is a good chance that Rousseau is the first edge rusher to hear his name called on April 29. Kiper predicted as much in his latest mock draft, where Rousseau (No. 21 overall to the Indianapolis Colts) was the first of several players at his position to go in the latter part of the first round before a later run.

"Gregory Rousseau from Miami, who opted out and had the big year in 2019, but when you look at 2019, there were some games where you were getting coverage sacks, you're not as quick off the snap," Kiper said. "I think he needs to anticipate a little better, be a little more explosive off the snap. I think another year would have really helped him. He didn't have it. Jaelan Phillips, the durability concern coming in. He did have a great year in Miami, picked up where Rousseau left off…

"I think you look also at the combo guys, a Joe Tryon, opted out of Washington. He's that combo defensive end/ outside linebacker. Joseph Ossai of Texas. He could put his hand on the ground, play in space on his feet. But he only had two games where he had real good sack production. Jayson Oweh at Penn State, intriguing. 4.3 speed at 260 pounds, didn't have a sack. I really like Chris Rumph II out of Duke. He could be a guy in the second round you look at. I mentioned Azeez Ojulari from Georgia. Quincy Roche, Miami, another guy who can get some coverage sacks, hustles. Maybe more of a third-round pick than a first or a second. Elerson Smith, Northern Iowa I have a fourth-round grade on. Those are some of the EDGE guys that will go in the first few rounds."

One player being linked to the Giants in some mock drafts is Michigan's Kwity Paye.

Paye played in just four games this past season, picking up two sacks, four tackles for loss and 16 total tackles (12 solo), which earned him Second-Team All-Big Ten honors for the second straight year.

In 2019, he recorded 50 total tackles (26 solo), 6.5 sacks, and 12.5 tackles for loss over 12 games.

Paye (6-4, 272) has shown flashes of brilliance throughout his four-year career with the Wolverines. However, his production has not always matched up with his tremendous size and athleticism. Nonetheless, the 22-year-old will likely be one of the first edge defenders to hear his name called in this year's draft, and could even be in play for the Giants at No. 11.

"When you look at Kwity Paye, it's the pass rush potential that he has flashed at," Kiper said when asked what stands out about Paye. "He certainly plays hard. He gets after the quarterback. Obviously, this season being interrupted the way it was and the COVID season, it's hard to evaluate a player and scrutinize him heavily. He should test tremendously well. I love the intensity he plays with. Like I said, he's a guy you can play in a variety of ways- with his hand on the ground, with his feet."

With college pro days set to begin later this week, a lot can change between now and the draft. Make sure you check Giants.com often over the next two months for all of the latest prospect news regarding Big Blue and the selection process.

NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks unveiled his first position rankings for the 2021 NFL Draft.

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