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Top 10 NFL players from 2021 draft heading into 2023 season

"The Top 100 Players of 2023" -- voted on by the players themselves -- is underway on NFL+! The series concludes with a two-hour live show -- "The Top 100 Players of 2023: The Top 10" -- on Monday, Aug. 7, on NFL+.

Three players selected in the 2021 NFL Draft are among the players ranked between Nos. 100-81. With that in mind, former NFL running back Maurice Jones-Drew provides his ranking of the top 10 players from that year's class heading into the 2023 NFL season.

Trevor Lawrence
Jacksonville Jaguars · QB

Drafted: Round 1, No. 1 overall

He sneaks in at No. 10, but if I did this article last offseason, Lawrence wouldn't have made this list. His rookie numbers -- 59.6 completion percentage, 12 TDs to 17 INTs and a 71.9 passer rating -- paint a picture of Jacksonville's stormy 2021 campaign. But after bringing in coach Doug Pederson last offseason, Lawrence blossomed into a star in 2022, the one everyone envisioned he'd be when he was drafted first overall. He doubled his touchdown passes (25) and cut his interception total in half (8) from his rookie campaign. Not to mention, Lawrence took the Jaguars back to the top of the AFC South, won a home playoff game in dramatic fashion and nearly knocked off the eventual Super Bowl champion Chiefs at Arrowhead. Lawrence is the real deal and has the goods to take the franchise all the way.

DeVonta Smith
Philadelphia Eagles · WR

Drafted: Round 1, No. 10 overall

If I'm being honest with myself, Smith could probably be higher on this list. He had a solid rookie season as the team's WR1 with 64 catches, 914 receiving yards and five touchdowns, before his game taking his game new levels of brilliance in 2022, when Smith had 95 receptions, 1,196 receiving yards and seven scores. He benefitted from Jalen Hurts' development as a passer and the arrival of star wideout A.J. Brown, which helps explain why Smith is often overlooked in the Eagles' offense. When researching for this piece, I forgot (and know you did, too) Smith led all players with 100 receiving yards in Super Bowl LVII. He's constantly flying under the radar, but the Slim Reaper's ability to consistently produce on Sundays makes him an irreplaceable asset. He's poised to have another productive campaign this fall.

Najee Harris
Pittsburgh Steelers · RB

Drafted: Round 1, No. 24 overall

Harris is no flash in the pan. He's been every bit the durable, reliable running back the Steelers had been looking for when they made him the first running back off the board. Harris has carried the load for an offense going through transition, taking immense pressure off a past-his-prime Ben Roethlisberger in 2021 and rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett in 2022. Since entering the league, no other players has a higher percentage of team scrimmage touches (40.8%) than Harris. In fact, he leads the entire NFL in carries (579) and touches (694) during that span. Although his numbers don't necessarily jump off the box score, Harris' availability and reliability make him a huge commodity for Mike Tomlin's squad.

Amon-Ra St. Brown
Detroit Lions · WR

Drafted: Round 4, No. 112 overall

As the sixth running back picked in the 2006 draft, I can definitely relate to the chip St. Brown continues to carry on his shoulder. There aren't 16 receivers better than him in the entire NFL, let alone from within his draft class. The former fourth-rounder uses his dynamic route running to get in space and eat up YAC. The dude always seems open. That's probably why he's amassed 196 receptions since entering the league, which is tied for the most in a player's first two seasons in NFL history. St. Brown is a huge reason for the turnaround in Detroit. Few players embody their team's overall attitude and culture better.

Penei Sewell
Detroit Lions · OT

Drafted: Round 1, No. 7 overall

You'll rarely hear his name, but Sewell is one of the best offensive tackles in the biz. A Pro Bowl selection in 2022, the uber-athletic tackle thrives in both the run and pass games. Like Hall of Famer Joe Thomas and four-time Pro Bowler Ryan Clady, who weren't often talked about for most of their stellar NFL careers, Sewell routinely gets the job done with flying colors yet often goes under the radar. I'm sure Detroit wouldn't have it any other way.

Jaylen Waddle
Miami Dolphins · WR

Drafted: Round 1, No. 6 overall

Waddle posted a whopping 104 catches for 1,015 yards as a rookie despite Tua Tagovailoa and Jacoby Brissett splitting time at quarterback. He's improved every part of his game since then, thriving in his route running ability and gaining yards after the catch. Lining up opposite Tyreek Hill accelerated Waddle's improvement in Year 2, with Waddle posting 1,356 receiving yards on 75 catches to lead the league with 18.1 yards per reception (substantially better than his 9.8 average in 2021). Miami's No. 2 receiver's speed and ability to win against single and double coverage makes this offense a nightmare to game plan for.

Creed Humphrey
Kansas City Chiefs · C

Drafted: Round 2, No. 63 overall

There's no nice way to put this, but Patrick Mahomes was simply beat up by the Bucs defense in his lone Super Bowl loss. The Chiefs immediately went out and retooled the offensive line, and it's been smooth sailing ever since. Humphrey has been an elite player in the middle of the unit since he was drafted in the second round, finishing third in the 2021 Offensive Rookie of the Year voting and earning his first Pro Bowl nod after an outstanding 2022 effort.

Patrick Surtain II
Denver Broncos · CB

Drafted: Round 1, No. 9 overall

There hasn't been much to celebrate in Denver over the past two seasons. The franchise has had three head coaches (one interim) in two years -- with a fourth in Sean Payton on tap for 2023 -- while posting back-to-back losing campaigns. However, Surtain's play has been one of the few bright spots. The aggressive young cornerback hit the ground running as a rookie with four interceptions (one returned for a TD) and 14 passes defensed, before earning Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro selections in Year 2. We should be talking about Surtain a lot more considering he's putting up elite production while covering top receivers week in and week out. 

Ja'Marr Chase
Cincinnati Bengals · WR

Drafted: Round 1, No. 5 overall

Chase has more than lived up to his draft billing, and while Joe Burrow gets most of the credit for the Bengals' recent success, Chase also deserves major recognition for the role he's played in Cincinnati's deep playoff runs the last two seasons. He earned Offensive Rookie of the Year honors after setting the NFL rookie record for receiving yards (1,455) and scoring 13 touchdowns. He followed that up with an impressive sophomore campaign in which he led the team in receptions (87), receiving yards (1,046) and receiving touchdowns (9) despite missing four games at midseason with a hip injury. Chase's ability to stretch the field and win contested catches, or go one-on-one against any defender, should make the two-time Pro Bowler a regular contender for the league's top WR.

Micah Parsons
Dallas Cowboys · LB

Drafted: Round 1, No. 12 overall

Parsons is a baller with a case for being the best defensive player in the league right now after just two seasons. He's completely changed the landscape of the Cowboys' defense with his exceptional versatility, as he's the only player in the NFL with at least 500 pass rush snaps, 500 run defense snaps and 200 coverage snaps since 2021, according to Next Gen Stats. The ability to line up basically everywhere, and do everything, has no doubt helped him produce every time he takes the field. Since entering the league, Parsons ranks in the top six league-wide in sacks (26.5, sixth), QB hits (56, fourth), tackles for loss (33, fourth) and pressures (129, fifth), per NGS. It's even more impressive when you consider the fact that he ranks 48th in pass rush snaps since 2021 with 706. Without Parsons, Dallas' defense isn't anywhere near a top-five scoring unit.

Follow Maurice Jones-Drew on Twitter.

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