Kayvon Thibodeaux leads a talented Pac-12 crop in the coming year
Pac-12 products made a splash in the NFL in the past season, including Justin Herbert's turn from hometown hero at Oregon to Offensive Rookie of the Year for the Los Angeles Chargers. Michael Pittman Jr. also grew from relative obscurity in the USC wide receiving corps to playing a significant part in the Indianapolis Colts making the playoffs.
The Pac-12's 2021 NFL Draft class features a variety of potential standouts, from Penei Sewell and Amon-Ra St. Brown in Detroit, to Elijah Molden with the Titans and more. As the '21 class prepares to take their first steps, the next crop of Pac-12 prospects heads into next season ready to wreak havoc on Saturdays before doing their thing on Sundays.
Jayden Daniels, QB, Arizona State (So., 6-3, 185)
Smart with the ball, explosive, and possessing one of the highest ceilings of any quarterback in 2021, Daniels has yet to show his full potential — which isn't a knock. He's been one of the most exciting players in the country in each of his first two seasons at Arizona State.
With plenty of room to grow as a passer, Daniels can mature into a surefire, first-round draft pick.
Greg Dulcich, TE, UCLA (Jr., 6-4, 242)
2020 unofficially marked the Year of the Tight End in college football, with the emergence of unicorn Kyle Pitts and a crop of unprecedented talents at the position. Among the late-emerging stars was UCLA's Dulcich, who established himself as one of the top pass-catching targets in the Pac-12.
Dulcich is so good as a target, he could theoretically be a possession receiver. However, he gives up nothing blocking for the run.
Drake Jackson, DE/LB, USC (Jr., 6-4, 255)
Jackson came to USC with plenty of hype, and the edge-rushing sensation has lived up to expectations. He racked up 17 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks in what amounts to a season-and-a-half. Jackson enters his third year at USC in Year 1.5 playing in Todd Orlando's system, which promises to unleash Jackson's explosiveness.
Johnny Johnson III, WR, Oregon (Sr., 6-0, 199)
Ducks head coach Mario Cristobal noted this spring that Johnson was in phenomenal shape. Work put in at the weight room should pay off for Johnson, already a speedy option in the Ducks offense.
Look for offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead to showcase Johnson's strength quite a bit in the coming season.
Jaxson Kirkland, OT, Washington (Sr., 6-7, 310)
Potential 2021 draft pick Kirkland opted to return to Washington in pursuit of a Pac-12 championship and possible return to the College Football Playoff.
Kirkland is the anchor of a veteran offensive line that could be among the Pac-12's best. His presence is central to the Huskies' 2021 aspirations, and should only bolster his standing for the 2022 draft.
Nate Landman, LB, Colorado (Sr., 6-3, 235)
Landman has consistently been one of the best defensive players in the Pac-12. In 2020, his third year anchoring the Colorado defense and fourth season on the squad, Landman made 53 tackles with nine for a loss and four sacks. The latter two outputs were career-highs, in a shortened season to boot.
Landman's nose for the ball will continue to produce numbers, and his NFL draft stock should rise over the course of 2021.
Devin Lloyd, LB, Utah (Jr., 6-3, 232)
Lloyd plays sideline-to-sideline, flies to the ball, drops back in pass coverage, and routinely gets into opposing backfields. He has a double-digit number of tackles for a loss in each of the last two seasons and figures to be in the hunt for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2021.
Lloyd's frame and speed should be attractive for pro scouts looking to nab the latest standout Utes defensive talent to head into the league.
Abraham Lucas, OT, Washington State (Sr., 6-7, 319)
A consistency in Washington State's transition from Air Raid to Run & Shoot was the play of Lucas at left tackle. He's one of the Pac-12's biggest offensive lineman but he has uncanny mobility. Lucas spurned the NFL draft before, and a strong final season can bolster his already solid stock.
Trent McDuffie, CB, Washington (Jr., 5-11, 195)
One of the nation's best cover-corners, McDuffie takes the reins for an always loaded Washington secondary. McDuffie's effectiveness doesn't come from picking off tons of passes, in part because he covers receivers so well, he leaves little-to-no window for pass attempts.
His speed fits the evolving NFL nicely, too, as he's the kind of defensive back who can converge on and limit speedy slot receivers trying to make plays in space.
Cade Otton, TE, Washington (Sr., 6-5, 250)
Another standout tight end in 2020, Otton is Washington's most dangerous weapon in the red zone and on shortage yardage situations. Otton's reliable hands and big frame, combined with his nimble playmaking ability, make him a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.
Merlin Robertson, DE/LB, Arizona State (Jr., 6-3, 250)
Entering his fourth year starting for Arizona State, Robertson is a do-everything star only scratching the surface on his lofty potential. Robertson has operated as a run-stuffing linebacker but can also bring heat off the edge as a pass-rusher. Where he lands in the NFL might dictate if he plays outside linebacker — possibly in a 3-4 scheme — or defensive end in 4-3 and 52 looks.
Robertson's ability to drop back effectively in pass defense is also a rare commodity at his size and skill set.
Kedon Slovis, QB, USC (Jr., 6-3, 215)
From a 3-star recruit to the unlikely holder of multiple USC records, Slovis burst onto the college football scene like few players in recent memory. Slovis navigated going from unheralded prospect to Heisman hopeful gracefully in 2020, and the next phase in 2021 is that of a potential top-five draft pick.
USC will implement more 12 formation looks into offensive coordinator Graham Harrell's Air Raid scheme next season, which should help demonstrate some of Slovis' ability to operate in a more NFL-influenced offense.
Chris Steele, CB, USC (Jr., 6-1, 190)
Steele said during spring practices that his goal is to be a 2022 draft pick. With the Trojans aiming to generate more takeaways in the second year of Orlando's defense, Steele should have plenty of opportunities to load up his highlight reel.
Steele's length will make him a prized prospect for organizations seeking a cornerback who can play with some physicality against bigger targets.
Kayvon Thibodeaux, DE, Oregon (So., 6-5, 250)
Design the perfect defensive end in a laboratory, and the result may well be Thibodeaux. He's rangy, he's fast, and he hits with the force of a semi-truck. Picture his sacks like the chase scene early into "Terminator 2" and you get the idea.
Thibodeaux was central to Oregon's 2019 Pac-12 title, and with the Ducks reloaded in 2021, should put up monster numbers in pursuit of a Pac-12 three-peat.
Mykael Wright, CB, Oregon (So., 5-11, 182)
Last season's Pac-12 leader in deflected pass attempts, Wright has shown that little gets past him. Oregon hardly lost a beat with the second-year cornerback Wright taking over for veteran Thomas Graham ahead of the 2020 season, and after solidifying himself as one of the top corners in the conference, will be one to watch in 2021.
Wright's also one of the most exciting special-teams performers in the conference.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.