The 2021 NFL draft, i.e. the league’s 86th annual “Player Selection Meeting,” is finally upon us, some beautiful mysteries finally about to be solved (while some others continue to deepen in Green Bay).
Outwardly, this draft will project a return to normalcy, the NFL set up with its massive stage contiguous to Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Browns’ FirstEnergy Stadium on the shores of Lake Erie. However the pre-draft process was hardly standard, what with COVID-19 forcing the league to cancel this year’s scouting combine on the heels of a season when scouts and team executives had far more limited access to college programs and the prospects whom they evaluate. Should make for an interesting calculus as teams weigh their information over the next three days and decide which players potentially fit their program.
2021 NFL draft tracker: First-round picks
1. Jacksonville Jaguars – QB Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
He becomes the fourth quarterback taken in Round 1 in franchise history – joining Byron Leftwich (2003), Blaine Gabbert (2011) and Blake Bortles (2014) – but Lawrence is the first tabbed No. 1 overall. Widely regarded as a generational prospect on par with John Elway, Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck, it’s been widely assumed for years that Lawrence would be the first player picked in this draft – the only question was which team would get him. Turns out, that’s the Jags, a franchise that needs a spark on the field after a 1-15 campaign and in the seats. Lawrence’s presumed arrival also likely spurred college coaching legend Urban Meyer to come aboard. (Meyer has hired veteran offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who facilitated Russell Wilson’s transition to the NFL in Seattle, to do the same job in Jacksonville.)
Lawrence stands 6-6 and should add weight to his 213-pound frame as his surgically repaired left (non-throwing) shoulder heals. He went 34-2 as a starter for Clemson, bringing home a national title in 2018 and finishing with 90 TD passes (against 17 INTs) in three seasons. With a powerful, accurate arm, the ability to dissect defenses and make plays with his legs plus a steady persona indicative of a franchise quarterback, now all Lawrence has to do … is live up to the hype – in Duuuval County and the United Kingdom.
- New York Jets – QB Zach Wilson, BYU
This franchise thought enough of Wilson to dump 2018 first-rounder (and No. 3 overall pick) Sam Darnold – making the Jets the first team in the common draft era (since 1967) to pick a passer within the top three picks twice in the span of four drafts. Though slightly built at 6-2 and 214 pounds and with a worrisome injury history that includes surgery on his throwing shoulder two years ago, Wilson does have tantalizing gifts that have drawn comparisons to Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes … which probably isn’t fair to them or Wilson. Still, he’s got the juice in his arm to make amazing throws with his feet set or on the move, and that may be a necessity given the general state of New York’s offense, which finished last in points and yards in 2020. Wilson was the only player at the FBS level in 2020 with at least 30 TD passes and 10 scores on the ground, and his 33-to-3 TD-to-INT ratio also paced the country. Now Gang Green and their impatient fans find out if a player who feasted on non-Power Five competition can take a franchise 52 years removed from its only Super Bowl back to the promised land. GM Joe Douglas and a new coaching regime led by Robert Saleh must surely do a better job supporting Wilson than they did Darnold.
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- San Francisco 49ers (from Houston Texans via Miami Dolphins) – QB Trey Lance, North Dakota State
A pick that’s changed hands three times, the Niners made their bold acquisition of it last month … and it was quickly followed by rampant speculation that they would take Alabama QB Mac Jones. But going with Lance, who has far more upside than Jones given his physical skills, seems like the better option given the franchise surrendered three first-rounders to get him. Lance has only played one game since the 2019 season, but what a year he had during the Bison’s national championship run. He had 28 passing TDs that year, 14 TDs on the ground (among 1,000 yards) … and no interceptions. He didn’t lose any of his 17 college starts, either. Lance, who also gets high marks for leadership and intelligence, should bring a dimension to coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense that Kirk Cousins, Matt Ryan and incumbent Jimmy Garoppolo have not. Lance, who only attempted 318 passes in college, will likely sit behind Garoppolo for a period of time, but it does stand to reason he’ll need to play soon given how little time he’s had on a football field in the last year. Could be Cam Newton-lite.
- Atlanta Falcons – TE Kyle Pitts, Florida
He’s been widely touted as the best prospect ever at his position. When you’re 6-6, 245 pounds with an 83-inch wingspan and run a 4.4 40-yard dash, that will happen. Last year’s Mackey Award winner as college football’s top tight end, Pitts scored 12 TDs among his 43 catches and should be a deadly red-zone threat. Now he’ll line up between WRs Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones (presumably) and for a coach, Atlanta’s recently hired Arthur Smith, who favors double-tight sets. Pitts, who’s also a willing blocker, could be a weapon on the order of Travis Kelce or Darren Waller if he fulfills the hype. Pitts surpasses Denver’s Riley Odoms (fifth overall in 1972) as the tight end picked earliest in the common draft era.
- Cincinnati Bengals – WR Ja’Marr Chase, LSU
Strong case to be made here for an offensive tackle in the aftermath of the ACL injury that prematurely ended 2020 No. 1 pick Joe Burrow’s rookie season. But apparently, a more compelling case to reunite Burrow with his main weapon from LSU’s 2019 title team when Chase established himself as the best wideout in college football. Widely regarded as the premier receiver in this draft, Chase’s built-in chemistry with Burrow could take this offense up a few notches given what Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, both very capable targets themselves, already provide. The 2019 Biletnikoff Award winner as college football’s top receiver, Chase’s name constantly came up in last year’s combine as the player his peers with most impressed by at the position – including former LSU teammate Justin Jefferson, who tore up the league for the Vikings in 2020. Chase set SEC records in 2019 (1,780 receiving yards, 20 TDs) surpassed by Alabama’s DeVonta Smith in 2020.
- Dolphins (from Philadelphia Eagles) – WR Jaylen Waddle, Alabama
He’s been compared to Tyreek Hill and will reunite with former Crimson Tide QB Tua Tagovailoa in Miami. Waddle and WR Will Fuller V will give Miami speed to burn on the outside, and Waddle could also greatly enhance the Fins’ return teams. Waddle was having a season every bit as good as Heisman Trophy Winner Smith in 2020 before a fractured ankle paused his season – though Waddle did return for the national championship game. The AFC East better beware double moves from a player who averaged 10 yards after the catch.
- Detroit Lions – OT Penei Sewell, Oregon
The first pick of the new regime in Motown is Sewell, who won the Outland Trophy at age 19 in 2019 before opting out last year. A 6-5, 331-pounder, Sewell moves shockingly well for a man his size and will likely force Detroit OT Taylor Decker to the right side. This pick also signals a new philosophy in Detroit, where new coach Dan Campbell and offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn want to run the ball, something this franchise hasn’t done effectively since Barry Sanders retired more than two decades ago.
- Carolina Panthers – CB Jaycee Horn, South Carolina
The first defensive player off the board, the son of former Saints WR Joe Horn becomes the latest defender taken by Carolina, which has yet to draft an offensive player in the Matt Rhule era. Perhaps a more explosive athlete with slightly better ball skills than Alabama counterpart Patrick Surtain II, Horn joins a division where his father starred at the start of the century. And given how much the ball is in the air in the NFC South with Tom Brady, Matt Ryan and the pass-happy Saints on the schedule twice apiece, understandable while Rhule and Co. would eschew a tantalizing QB option (Justin Fields, Mac Jones) in favor of Horn now that they’ll be rolling with Darnold.
- Denver Broncos – CB Patrick Surtain II, Alabama
And the corner run begins. Surtain, also the son of an NFL star (a three-time Pro Bowl DB of the same name) is viewed as one of the safest bets in this draft given his technical acumen, 4.46 speed and intelligence. Surtain is also a willing tackler, which his new coach, Vic Fangio, will appreciate. One knock on last year’s SEC defensive player of the year was that he only picked off four passes in three seasons. Also, perhaps a bit of a surprise given new GM George Paton signed veteran CBs Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller in free agency, though the latter is on a one-year deal.
- Eagles (from Dallas Cowboys) – WR DeVonta Smith, Alabama
The Heisman Trophy winner heads to Philly, where he’ll play with fellow Tide alum Jalen Hurts. Smith set SEC career (3,965 receiving yards) and single-season records (1,856 receiving yards, 23 TDs) in 2020 and torched Ohio State in the College Football Playoff title game for 12 catches, 215 receiving yards and three touchdowns in a half. Hall of Famer Isaac Bruce told me this about Smith’s prospects when asked if there was any concern about his 166-pound frame. “Once his development (occurs), he’s gonna be a guy who’s gonna have to be double-teamed,” said Bruce. “He’s just that good. … You just see his maturation from college, making huge plays his freshman season all the way up to being the guy last year, and he just showed up every single week. He’ll definitely be a No. 1 receiver, not very long from now.” Smith will team with last year’s first-round pick, Jalen Reagor, for a new-look Eagles offense.
DeVonta Smith poses with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after being selected by the Eagles.
- Chicago Bears (from New York Giants) – QB Justin Fields, Ohio State
Four years after their disastrous draft trade for QB Mitchell Trubisky, whom GM Ryan Pace selected instead of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, they take another big swing for Fields by giving the Giants a future first-rounder to move up. This could also be a self-preservation move for Pace and coach Matt Nagy, who seem to be in a fight to keep their jobs beyond this year despite two playoff trips in the past three seasons. Fields are mobile, highly accurate (68.4% completion rate in a college career split between Georgia and Ohio State), and have all the tools to be a superstar. Better still, he doesn’t have to play right away with veteran Andy Dalton on board as Chicago’s anointed QB1 for 2021 … though these plans could change in the not-too-distant future.
- Cowboys (from 49ers via Dolphins and Eagles) – LB Micah Parsons, Penn State
Dallas drops two spots after missing out on Horn and Surtain II to add Parsons to what was the worst defense in franchise history in 2020. With Sean Lee retiring and former first-round LB Leighton Vander Esch possibly entering his final season with the team, Jerry Jones and Co. reload at linebacker – and Parsons might arguably be the most impactful defender in this draft. Though he opted out in 2020, Parsons is a blue-chip prospect, able to defend the run and pass while also hunting quarterbacks. He’s had to answer questions about off-field issues in Happy Valley and will remain under a microscope as a member of the league’s most high-profile team. But in terms of talent, this could be a home run for Jones and new coordinator Dan Quinn.
- Los Angeles Chargers – OT Rashawn Slater, Northwestern
The Wildcats’ first Round 1 selection since 2005, Slater likely plugs in as offensive rookie of the year Justin Herbert’s new bodyguard on the blindside. Slater can likely thrive at any O-line position, but given the Bolts have an issue at left tackle – and Slater has shown in the Big Ten pits that he can handle players like Chase Young – expect him to slot in there.
- Jets (from Minnesota Vikings) – OL Alijah Vera-Tucker, USC
Douglas quickly gets to work in a bid to safeguard No. 2 pick Wilson, trading up for Vera-Tucker. He played multiple positions for the Trojans and could be a candidate for left guard or right tackle on a line anchored by last year’s first-rounder, massive LT Mekhi Becton.
- New England Patriots – QB Mac Jones, Alabama
A national champion passer falls to the six-time Super Bowl champions. Well neither is currently a fair comparison, Jones is far closer to the Tom Brady mold than the Cam Newton mold for a team in need of a long-term successor post-TB12. Long rumored to be the choice of the 49ers at No. 3, Jones’ trademark is his accuracy and decision-making after completing 77.4% of his passes in 2020 for 4,500 yards and 41 TDs. Pats coach Bill Belichick surely did his homework on Jones, who played for his close friend Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa. Now it will be worth monitoring how New England designs an offense that’s conducive to both Jones’ abilities and Newton’s.
- Arizona Cardinals – LB Zaven Collins, Tulsa
He’s massive at 6-5 and 259 pounds, but don’t mistake him for an edge rusher. Collins, the valedictorian of his high school class, is a heady off-ball linebacker who will team at the second level with last year’s first-rounder, versatile Isaiah Simmons. Collins, who had a pair of pick-sixes last year (including a game-winning 96-yarder in overtime), was last season’s Bednarik Award winner as college football’s top defender.
- Las Vegas Raiders – OL Alex Leatherwood, Alabama
Maybe a bit of a reach this early, Leatherwood will certainly fill a need for Vegas after GM Mike Mayock traded 60% of his starting offensive line in March. The 2020 Outland Trophy winner could plug in at guard or right tackle after playing inside and outside for ‘Bama, though Kolton Miller is entrenched on QB Derek Carr’s blindside in Sin City.
- Dolphins – DE Jaelan Phillips, Miami (Fla.)
Miami’s offseason, including its trade of DE Shaq Lawson and release of OLB Kyle Van Noy, was indicative that the pass rush needed significant work. Staying local to bring in a QB hunter like Phillips should be a boon to a franchise with a mandate to target Bills star Josh Allen if they’re going to dethrone the AFC East champs. Phillips had a remarkable comeback in 2020, recording eight sacks for the Hurricanes after concussions had derailed his career into retirement at UCLA prior to his transfer.
- Washington Football Team – LB Jamin Davis, Kentucky
The NFC East champs continue to build out last year’s second-ranked defense with a needed playmaker at the second level. Davis’s 4.37 speed and 42-inch vertical illustrate his athleticism, which should be nicely leveraged playing behind the WFT’s vaunted defensive line.
- Giants (from Bears) – WR Kadarius Toney, Florida
Dave Gettleman trades down for the first time in his nine drafts as an NFL GM and picks up a 2022 first-rounder and Toney, who was a nightmare out of the slot for the Gators in his senior year – exploding for 70 catches and 984 yards with 10 TDs. Though he won’t have Pitts to divert attention away from him in New York, Toney should be effective alongside WR Sterling Shepard Evan Engram, and newly signed WR Kenny Golladay as Gettleman surrounds third-year QB Daniel Jones with weapons.
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