College coaches on surprises, best fits and value picks in the 2021 NFL draft

The NFL draft elicits a range of strong opinions, but college coaches have a distinct viewpoint.

They have seen these players up close, both in games and studying them on film, often for multiple seasons. While their job is not to project how players will fare in the NFL, they can spot strengths and weaknesses, patterns in drafting and who works best with certain teams.

I spoke to a few college coaches before last week's draft and to more than 25 in the days after, including head coaches in every Power 5 conference and some top assistants, to identify surprises, best fits and value picks, trends, and how certain position groups could perform in the NFL.

Most coaches spoke anonymously, although I did join a video news conference for Stanford's David Shaw on Monday. Some draft picks left coaches shocked, but they also appreciate the challenge NFL teams face in making evaluations, especially during a pandemic.

"College coaches have to remember the high school coaches don't get it sometimes when we don't recruit their guys," a Power 5 head coach told me. "We have a feel for which ones we like better, which ones are better, but the high school coaches only see what they have. And it's the same thing as a college coach. I'm like, 'Who is that guy? How could a Houston D-end be better than our D-end?' But maybe he is. We just don't know."

Here's an evaluation of the 2021 NFL draft through the eyes of college coaches. (Note: Coaches are identified by the roles they held during the 2020 season.)