COLUMBUS — Ohio State has the most first-round picks of any football program in NFL Draft history.
That trend continued Thursday night, as quarterback Justin Fields was selected by the Chicago Bears with the No. 11 pick. The Buckeyes only had one player selected in the first round this year, the fewest number of Buckeyes taken in the first round since 2015, when they didn’t have a player taken until Round Two.
Maybe that has to do with so many potential first-round picks returning to Ohio State instead of leaving for the NFL.
“Well [Chris] Olave went back,” ESPN NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. said. “Chris Olave would’ve gone pretty high. And Chris Olave went back for another year. And certainly Thayer Munford went back for another year as well and [Haskell] Garrett, defense tackle, went back for another year.”
But that could change next year. Ohio State certainly has one of the most loaded returning rosters in the country back for another shot at a national title. And the on-field success projected to come in 2021 will translate to NFL opportunities for the Buckeyes biggest stars.
Who has a chance to be selected in the first round of next year’s NFL draft? Lettermen Row is starting the 2022 pre-draft process early with five Buckeyes candidates for next spring.
WR Chris Olave
Olave could have been a first-round pick Thursday night in the NFL draft, but he chose to return to Ohio State for another season of development. And unless something truly bizarre happens in the next 11 months, Olave will be a first-round pick next April. He has progressed from breakout star as a freshman to one of the elite playmakers in college football during his time with the Buckeyes. With another season of development, strength training and insane ability, Olave will be one of the top — maybe the top — wide receiver selected in the draft next year. His combination of speed, catching ability, route-running and more make him a can’t-miss receiver prospect.
DE Zach Harrison
Ohio State has a tradition of taking highly-decorated defensive line recruits and turning them into top-five picks. Zach Harrison is next in line. The former five-star prospect was recruited to be a dominant edge player capable of jaw-dropping sacks and a mile-high ceiling. Harrison has progressed during his first two seasons with the Buckeyes, a similar trajectory of Chase Young in his first two seasons. Now Harrison has found a new sense of dedication to his craft, and it could point to a breakout junior season that vaults him into top-pick conversations. With a dominant 2021 season, Harrison could hear his name called by the NFL commissioner early next spring, and he could be the next candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year from Ohio State. He has that level of potential.
WR Garrett Wilson
If Olave is the best wide receiver in the draft class for next season, Garrett Wilson might be the second-best — or the best instead of Olave. The receiver duo is the best returning set of receivers in the country. Wilson flashed brilliance as a freshman and continued to get better in Year Two. Now as a rising junior, Wilson will be a dynamic weapon for the Buckeyes who can line up anywhere in the offense. Need a slot receiver? He can do that. Outside vertical threat? He’s the guy. Wilson’s versatility and ability to get open and make plays give him the potential to be a first-round selection next spring.
DE Tyreke Smith
NFL scouts love Ohio State defensive ends who have high ceilings, and Tyreke Smith has a chance to prove he can still be a dominant edge rusher in the league. Smith had been touted as the next great Larry Johnson product, but injuries slowed him down through two seasons, and last year was different due to the pandemic. Smith doesn’t have the numbers or production to be in the first-round conversation yet, but he has been in Johnson’s Rushmen room for three seasons, and a breakout could be coming. If Smith can stay healthy and finally put his skillset to good use on the field for a full season, he can certainly add to the collection of first-round Ohio State defensive ends.
LT Thayer Munford
Since Orlando Pace was taken No. 1 overall in the 1997 NFL draft, only one Ohio State offensive tackle has been selected in the first round — Taylor Decker back in 2016. Munford has a chance to become the second offensive tackle since Pace to land in the first round of the draft. After opting to return to Ohio State, Munford is one of the top tackles in the country. With plenty of starting experience and incredible numbers to back up his size and frame, Munford is an ideal NFL tackle. He could be a highly-rated draft prospect next spring, and he has a chance to become an anchor on a pro offensive line for years to come. All that is in front of him if he takes care of business this season at Ohio State.