Northwestern offensive tackle Rashawn Slater (second from right) lines up to block during a game against Purdue. Despite opting out of the 2020 season, Slater has got several NFL teams buzzing, and may become in the highest pick in the NFL draft in Northwestern history. Photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

The time has finally come. Spring is in full swing. April will soon turn to May, and on Thursday night at 7pm CT, the Jacksonville Jaguars will be on the clock to begin the 2021 NFL Draft in Cleveland, Ohio. The First Round will take place on Thursday, the Second and Third Rounds will be on Friday, while the remaining rounds will wrap up on Saturday afternoon. 13 potential draftees are expected to be in attendance in Cleveland for the draft, including former Northwestern offensive tackle Rashawn Slater.

Slater is atop a large group of Wildcats who are hoping to hear their name called this weekend. Cornerback Greg Newsome is also expected to go in the first round after impressing at his pro day and getting much attention online for his consistency and ability to lock down top wide receivers. Beyond the possible first-rounders, former Northwestern standouts are also receiving notice, including linebacker Paddy Fisher and quarterback Peyton Ramsey.

Rashawn Slater:

Slater goes through drills during Northwestern's 2021 Pro Day. Slater has gotten the attention of several NFL teams, including the Los Angeles Chargers and Carolina Panthers. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

For Slater, the expectation is that he should be selected in the top half of the first round, even after sitting out the 2020 campaign. It does appear that he will be the second offensive tackle taken, however, as most mock drafts project Penei Sewell (Oregon) to be selected ahead of Slater, but where these tackles will be selected is still a mystery. The first team hungry for a tackle will likely grab Sewell, while Slater will need to wait to be the second OT selected.

In terms of destinations, the top three picks are considered to be “locked in” on quarterbacks, meaning none of them will be taking Slater.  The Atlanta Falcons pick fourth, but reports indicate that they’re high on Florida tight end Kyle Pitts, effectively forcing the draft for everyone else to begin at the fifth pick.

It is highly likely the Cincinnati Bengals will be choosing a tackle, especially considering their inability to protect star quarterback Joe Burrow last season, and his severe injury that came as a result. Unfortunately for Slater, Sewell seems to be their target if they choose to bolster the line, so the Wildcat is likely to slide outside the top 5.

Another relevant development to watch is a trade between the Dolphins and the Washington Football Team, as Miami shipped starting tackle Ereck Flowers to Washington. certainly increasing the chances they take a tackle at No. 6. Miami is a talented team that likely is only a few players away from title contention, and the offensive line is a glaring roster need. If Cincinnati selects Sewell, Slater would be the best tackle remaining according to analysts, so Miami could be a destination for both tackles.

If Sewell were to slide back to No. 6, then he likely would get the look from Miami, but this is certainly a positive development for Slater as demand for tackles in the top 10 increased: thus increasing the chances Slater is selected in the top 10, albeit to Miami or another team. It’s also worth noting that Miami might be interested in wide receiver Devonta Smith, who won the Heisman Trophy in 2020 as college football’s most valuable player. Miami will be an interesting topic of discussion on draft night.

From there, it truly is unknown what might happen for Slater. Most teams, including the Miami Dolphins, Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, and Los Angeles Chargers all could make the case to bolster their offensive line, so it will certainly be interesting to see how this shakes out for Slater, but it’s hard to imagine him sliding past the 13th pick undrafted.

One unlikely, but possible outcome to watch is the Chargers, as they have been rumored to be interested in him as a tackle, especially with a star quarterback of their own to protect in 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert. The latest mock draft from ESPN also has Slater falling to the Chargers at pick 13, so this article- written on Monday, April 26- may carry more weight than previously realized.

It is also possible a team trades up or down to make the selection. That being said, our prediction is he gets selected No. 8 by the Carolina Panthers, a team with their own core to develop and work around, but draft night could still bring unexpected twists and turns.

Greg Newsome:

Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome celebrates after a stop during a 2019 game against Iowa. Newsome has also gotten a lot of attention from NFL teams for his ability to lock down top receivers, including the local team, the Chicago Bears. Photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

For Newsome, Northwestern’s star cornerback who has been one of the most consistent players in the Big Ten, it is a little more difficult to predict where he could fall. Analysts say, however, that he will likely fall to the latter half of the first round.

Newsome is part of the clear top tier of cornerbacks, which should work for his benefit. Patrick Surtain II (Alabama), Jaycee Horn (South Carolina), Caleb Farley (Virginia Tech) and Newsome all make this tier, but Surtain, having won a National Championship at Alabama in 2020, is receiving more attention than others.  

Starting at pick 16, the Arizona Cardinals, Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans, New York Jets, Seattle Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers all have reason to select a cornerback. Given the large gap in talent after Newsome, it also is highly possible that another team picking later in the first round or early in the second round would trade up to grab Newsome, especially if he were to slide deeper into the range mentioned.

That said, our prediction is that the hometown Chicago Bears will grab Newsome at No. 20 to bolster their already impressive defense, and replace the departure of All-Pro cornerback Kyle Fuller.

Many other Wildcats are hopeful of hearing their name called this weekend, and it seems like school history can be broken with two first round picks — the first time this may ever occur. But what about the others?

Paddy Fisher and Peyton Ramsey:

Northwestern quarterback Peyton Ramsey goes through drills during Pro Day. Ramsey may not be drafted, but has had discussions with several NFL teams about his playing future, including his hometown Cincinnati Bengals and the reigning Super Bowl champions Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics 

This is where it gets tough. Both Fisher and Ramsey have fantastic resumes, but will likely not make huge splashes on the NFL level, due to other talents at their position getting way more hype and recognition.

That being said, Fisher does have a strong case to either be drafted in the late rounds, or picked up following as an undrafted signing. The 2020 Big Ten Fitzgerald-Butkus Linebacker of the Year and two-time First Team All-Big Ten is a stellar talent up the middle, and provides a sturdy tackling net that would bolster any defense.

For Fisher, however, scouts have noted that his performance in the 2021 Senior Bowl highlighted that while his production is high, his speed and ability to cover passes may not translate well to the NFL level, where timing is fast and players go. As a result, Fisher’s options are limited, but will likely be recognized by certain teams requiring new linebacking talent, including the Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Rams and New York Giants — all defensive schemes with tough work upfront.

In a league filled with elite quarterback talent, Peyton Ramsey is not expected to make a huge splash at a starting level, or lead a team to a Super Bowl. His production, however, along with his ability to complete passes and help run an offense, has got some NFL scouts buzzing about a potential backup or practice-squad role.

According to Sports Illustrated, several teams have already met with Ramsey to discuss a potential late-round pick or undrafted signing, including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — whose starting quarterback is seven-time Super Bowl champ Tom Brady — Detroit Lions, and Cincinnati Bengals. The last one may be influential to Ramsey, as he grew up in the Cincinnati area — look for that notice if he falls through the late rounds undrafted.

With four stellar talents, Northwestern may become a new factory of production for the NFL. All eyes on Cleveland!

Reach for it. Photo Courtesy of Northwestern Athletics