One of the early headlines for the 2020 NFL draft was the concept that the Miami Dolphins would #tankfortua. It worked. Brilliantly, I might add, with Chris Grier’s Dolphins team able to win five games and get their guy fifth overall without having to give up any additional draft capital.
Now it’s Trevor Lawrence’s turn.
While Tua Tagovailoa might have challenged Joe Burrow for the No. 1 spot had health and durability not been an issue, there is a decent chance that the top two picks in 2021 will both be quarterbacks.
Before getting into my first 2021 mock draft, one thing to explain is how the draft order was determined. We inverted Vegas Insider’s Super Bowl odds and slotted teams by conference based on how the NFL draft takes playoff finish into account. In other words, I don’t hate your team—Vegas does (if you don’t like where they are slotted in this mock).
With that said, here’s a way-too-early look at how the first round in 2021 could play out:
1. Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
Early odds put the Jags in the pole position in their bid to #tankfortrevor. If picking first in 2021, a front office and coaching staff reset is almost guaranteed in Duval County. Lawrence, who will finally be draft-eligible in 2021, has been the presumed top pick since his freshman campaign. He’s led Clemson to a national championship, back-to-back title game appearances with only one loss (25-1) and has all of the traits—size, arm strength, accuracy, mobility, etc.—that teams covet in a franchise-changing quarterback.
2. Washington: Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon
Would Washington consider Justin Fields here? They should. If they are picking this high again next year, it’s possible that Dwayne Haskins didn’t take a big enough step forward in his second season. A Lawrence-Fields start to the 2021 draft seems the most-likely scenario a year out, so Washington could turn this pick into plenty of draft capital to a team trading up for Fields. For now, they add a dominant left tackle prospect who can take over for Trent Williams.
3. Cincinnati Bengals: Gregory Rousseau, EDGE, Miami (FL)
Only five teams recorded fewer sacks than the Bengals’ 31 in 2019 and Carlos Dunlap will be entering the final year of his contract in 2021. Rousseau had a breakout season as a redshirt freshman with 15.5 sacks, second nationally to only Chase Young (16.5), and 19.5 tackles for loss.
4. Miami Dolphins: Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU
DeVante Parker had the unusual fifth-year breakout and Preston Williams was a highly productive UDFA before his season-ending injury. With Chase, the Dolphins give Tua Tagovailoa a true No. 1 receiver. Named by several corners in the 2020 draft as the best receiver they faced, Chase finished his Biletnikoff-winning campaign with 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns. Of his 84 receptions, a nation-leading 24 of them went for 20-plus yards.
5. Carolina Panthers: Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
Carolina went all defense—literally, all seven picks—in Matt Rhule’s first draft. In free agency, the Panthers reunited Teddy Bridgewater with offensive coordinator Joe Brady, both of whom were with the Saints in 2018. That signing should ease the challenge of implementing a new offensive scheme in such an unusual offseason. If an elite talent like Fields is available here, however, I doubt they pass on the opportunity to upgrade after giving Bridgewater a three-year deal. In his first season with the Buckeyes, Fields posted a 41-to-3 TD-to-INT ratio and added 10 rushing scores.
6. New York Jets: Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama
The Jets got a nice value in Bryce Hall in the fifth round, but cornerback will remain one of the team’s bigger needs in the 2021 draft. Five of the team’s corners are slated for unrestricted free agency in 2021. The son of a three-time Pro Bowl corner, Surtain II has excellent length, coverage and ball skills, and could be the first corner off the board in 2021.
7. New York Giants: Justyn Ross, WR, Clemson
Dave Gettleman drafted a pair of tackles—Andrew Thomas and Matthew Peart—to protect Daniel Jones and now he adds a playmaking receiver to help his young quarterback. Ross wasn’t as productive as he was in his 2018 true freshman season (46/1,000/9, 21.7 Y/R), but Trevor Lawrence’s 6′ 4″ go-to receiver has the talent and upside to be a top-10 pick in the 2021 draft.
8. Detroit Lions: Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
The true junior wideout will be more of a focal point as a receiver next season, with the departures of Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, but Waddle has elite speed and after-the-catch ability and averaged 24.4 yards per punt return in 2019. Five Lions wide receivers (including Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola) are scheduled to become free agents after the 2020 season.
9. Las Vegas Raiders: Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State
The former five-star recruit has been a dominant playmaker for the Nittany Lions since he stepped on campus. In his true sophomore campaign, Parsons led the team with 109 tackles, including 14 for loss, to go along with five sacks, five passes defended and four forced fumbles. What’s next for 2020? Kickoff returns? While he’s no longer listed as the team’s top kickoff returner, the idea of it points to his special athleticism at 244 pounds.
10. Miami Dolphins (via HOU): Walker Little, OT, Stanford
Reinforcing the offensive line in the 2020 draft, Chris Grier used a top-20 pick on Austin Jackson and a top-40 pick on Robert Hunt, then added some Day 3 depth with Solomon Kindley. While Hunt primarily played right tackle in college, he projects best to guard at the next level. Continuing the transformation of the worst offensive line in 2019, Little and Jackson would give Tua a talented set of bookend tackles to protect him for the next decade.
11. Arizona Cardinals: Shaun Wade, CB, Ohio State
Another draft, another Ohio State cornerback in the first round. After playing in the slot with 2020 first-rounders Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette outside, Wade will move to outside cornerback next season. The former five-star recruit has the size, length and athleticism to excel there as well. Not only have the Cardinals been searching for an upgrade opposite Patrick Peterson for a long time, but Peterson is entering a contract year in his age-30 season.
12. Los Angeles Chargers: Samuel Cosmi, OT, Texas
While the Chargers signed Bryan Bulaga to a three-year contract, they traded away Russell Okung to the Panthers for guard Trai Turner and remain in need of an upgrade opposite Bulaga. While he decided to return to Austin for another season, Cosmi has experience at both right tackle (2018) and left tackle (’19) and is one of the best pass-blocking prospects eligible for the 2021 draft.
13. Denver Broncos: Dylan Moses, LB, Alabama
Despite tearing his ACL in 2019, Moses might have been a first-round pick in 2020 had he declared. Moses is a high-IQ defender with sideline-to-sideline range who would thrive in the middle of Vic Fangio’s defense.
14. Atlanta Falcons: Xavier Thomas, EDGE, Clemson
This is a bit of a projection as the breakout sophomore campaign that many expected from Thomas in 2019 didn’t materialize. The former top-five recruit had 10.5 tackles for loss in 2018, as a true freshman in a reserve role on a line that included three first-round picks. Thomas says he “got that edge back” and if he puts it all together in 2020, he could go even higher than this.
15. Jacksonville Jaguars (via LAR): Liam Eichenberg, OT, Notre Dame
While I like small-school prospect Ben Bartch, left tackle Cam Robinson will be a free agent in 2021 and there has been some speculation about moving him inside this season. A potential first-round pick had he declared in 2020, Eichenberg returns to South Bend as a three-year starter at left tackle and has the length and athletic feet to protect Trevor Lawrence’s blind side for a long time.
16. Cleveland Browns: Seth Williams, WR, Auburn
If selected by the Browns, Williams (6′ 3″, 224 pounds) would give Baker Mayfield a big-bodied receiver to complement smaller wideouts Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. The physical wideout had a breakout season (59/830/8) despite playing with a freshman quarterback, and has averaged 17.3 yards per reception in the first two seasons of his collegiate career.
17. Chicago Bears: Alex Leatherwood, OL, Alabama
The Bears had the 29th-ranked offensive line, per Football Outsiders’ 2019 rankings. Leatherwood has the versatility to play multiple spots along the Bears’ offensive line, as he has started 28 games for the Crimson Tide at both tackle and guard.
18. Minnesota Vikings: Marvin Wilson, IDL, Florida State
While his 2019 season ended prematurely due to injury, Wilson was one of the few bright spots for the Seminoles last season. The former five-star recruit received a first-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board and he finished last season with 8.5 tackles for loss and five sacks in only nine games.
19. Tennessee Titans: Pat Freiermuth, TE, Penn State
Along with Brevin Jordan and Kyle Pitts, Freiermuth is one of a few tight ends that could be first-rounders next April. Among those three tight ends, Freiermuth might make the most sense for the run-first Titans, given his in-line experience and ability as a blocker. Utilized in a variety of alignments for the Nittany Lions, the 259-pound tight end has the potential to be a mismatch in the passing game as well and he’s already tied Mike Gesicki for the school record for receiving touchdowns (15) by a tight end.
20. Pittsburgh Steelers: Jamie Newman, QB, Georgia
Ben Roethlisberger played in only two games last season and the Steelers struggled as backups Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges combined to throw 18 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Big Ben will be 39 years old entering the 2021 season, so Kevin Colbert could more aggressively pursue his successor in next year’s draft. A graduate transfer from Wake Forest, Newman has the big arm and mobility to put himself into the first-round mix this time next year.
21. Indianapolis Colts: Paulson Adebo, CB, Stanford
Colts general manager Chris Ballard thinks that Xavier Rhodes “can still be a high performer” for them, but even if he returns to his earlier form, he signed a one-year deal. While he wasn’t as good in coverage in 2019 as 2018, Adebo has good length and outstanding ball skills, with four interceptions in each of the previous two seasons.
22. Green Bay Packers: Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue
Making some head-scratching selections in the 2020 draft, the Packers front office ignored the team’s need to find an upgrade opposite Davante Adams by failing to draft a single receiver in one of the deepest draft classes ever for the position. If Moore is still available here, he would give the team a dynamic playmaker. While he played only four games as a sophomore due to a hamstring injury, Moore had 1,471 scrimmage yards and 14 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2018.
23. Dallas Cowboys: Richard LeCounte, S, Georgia
The Cowboys nailed their 2020 draft, but one of the positions of need they didn’t address was safety. They do so here. LeCounte, who has five interceptions over the past two seasons, can take over in 2021 for HaHa Clinton-Dix, who signed a one-year deal to join the Cowboys this offseason.
24. Seattle Seahawks: Israel Mukuamu, CB, South Carolina
Even Seattle typically drafts corners later, Mukuamu had four interceptions last season and is a long corner who would fit their prototype if they don’t trade back. In addition, both Shaquill Griffin and Quinton Dunbar are scheduled to be free agents in 2021.
25. Buffalo Bills: Tyson Campbell, CB, Georgia
Signing a one-year deal with the Bills, the 32-year-old Josh Norman graded out as one of the worst cornerbacks (109th) in 2019, per PFF. Finding an upgrade opposite Tre’Davious White will be one of Brandon Beane’s areas of focus next offseason. Campbell has the size, length and athleticism to hear his name called earlier than this next April.
26. New England Patriots: Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State
With only two quarterbacks—Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer—on the roster, it’s surprising that Bill Belichick (or his trusted sidekick) didn’t at least draft a late-round quarterback. This dual-threat quarterback threw 28 touchdowns (and no interceptions) while also rushing for 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns as Lance won the Walter Payton Award as a redshirt freshman.
27. Philadelphia Eagles: Creed Humphrey, IOL, Oklahoma
Center Jason Kelce has played at a high level for a long-time, but he will turn 32 this season and the Eagles could find a long-term replacement for him in next year’s draft. Humphrey would have been in the first-round mix had he declared last year and could be the first center prospect off the board in 2021.
28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Quincy Roche, EDGE, Miami (FL)
The Bucs used the franchise tag to retain Shaq Barrett, and Jason Pierre-Paul is on the wrong side of 30 and a free agent after the 2021 season. After transferring from Temple, Roche joins Gregory Rousseau to give the Hurricanes one of the best pass rushes in college football. Roche had 19 tackles for loss and 13 sacks in 12 games last season.
29. New Orleans Saints: Devonta Smith, WR, Alabama
The Saints signed 33-year-old receiver Emmanuel Sanders to a two-year deal this offseason, but Smith would give the Saints a longer-term complement to Michael Thomas. Playing along side Jeudy, Ruggs and Waddle, Smith led Alabama’s receiving corps in both yards (1,256) and touchdowns (14) last season.
30. Baltimore Ravens: Hamsah Nasirildeen, S, Florida State
Tall for a safety (6’4”), Nasirildeen has the length and speed to excel covering tight ends. A productive player for the Seminoles—192 tackles and three interceptions over the past two seasons—Nasirildeen offers some intriguing upside as a defensive playmaker.
31. San Francisco 49ers: Trey Smith, IOL, Tennessee
Bouncing back from a health scare (blood clots in his lungs), Smith was a first-team All-SEC selection at left guard last year. One of the top overall prospects in the 2017 recruiting cycle, Smith has started 31 games and has inside-out versatility at both guard and tackle.
32. Kansas City Chiefs: Jay Tufele, IDL, USC
The Chiefs used their franchise tag on Chris Jones and many 2020 mock drafts projected Ross Blacklock to Kansas City as a potential long-term replacement. Whether Jones is on the roster in 2021 or beyond, adding a disruptive interior pass-rusher like Tufele, who’s extremely athletic for his 315-pound frame, makes sense if he’s available at the end of Round 1.
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