The outlook for the 2021 NFL draft has shifted significantly over the past two weeks.
First, free agency – as it does every year – altered the landscape. Some teams patched roster holes or upgraded positional groups, while others suddenly had deficiencies to address. Then came Friday afternoon, when the Miami Dolphins executed a pair of trades that sent them and two other clubs – the San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles – ricocheting through Round 1’s first 12 spots.
More dominoes could tumble, reshaping the draft panorama anew. But given the fallout that’s already settled, let’s explore a fresh projection of a suddenly unfamiliar first round:
1. Jacksonville Jaguars – Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson: No matter what happens between now and draft night, you can guarantee that the former Clemson star will become the inaugural pick of the Urban Meyer era. Though Lawrence might be one of the two or three top prospects of this century, Meyer might have gotten cagey by eschewing top-shelf free agents with the Jags’ boatload of cap space. Probably better to go for mid-tier veterans – WR Marvin Jones and CB Shaquill Griffin, for example – franchise LT Cam Robinson and bring in role players than create outsized expectations for Lawrence and the franchise in Year 1.
2. New York Jets – Zach Wilson, QB, BYU: On the heels of his captivating pro day in Provo, Utah, it became increasingly apparent the Jets will either have the opportunity to draft a passer with an electric arm and see what incumbent Sam Darnold fetches in a trade while they reset the position from a financial perspective … or deal this selection for what might be a king’s and queen’s ransom while finally getting Darnold help.
3. San Francisco 49ers (from Houston Texans via Miami Dolphins) – Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State: They changed the course of this draft, Friday’s bold move vaulting the Niners nine spots up the board. Lance is a physically gifted, efficient player with the trappings of a great leader. Tantalizing to consider what a passer who can so effectively run the ball might bring to a Kyle Shanahan offense that operates at peak form when the ground game is humming. But if Lance is the choice, it might make sense to allow him to sit behind Jimmy Garoppolo while he makes the adjustment from the Football Championship Subdivision – which limited Lance to one game appearance in the fall – to the pros.
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4. Atlanta Falcons – Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State: This may now be the most fascinating juncture of the draft. QB Matt Ryan will be 36 in May and continues to play effectively, but this could be a unique opportunity for Atlanta to snatch his eventual replacement. Fields is an intriguing multi-dimensional threat who could have as much upside as anyone in this draft. He’s also from suburban Atlanta and would surely benefit from apprenticing behind a veteran of Ryan’s caliber. Yet the Falcons will surely get strong offers for this selection and should be doing a cost-benefit analysis of letting a division rival like the Panthers swoop in for Fields.
5. Cincinnati Bengals – Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon: The primary mandate here should be safeguarding QB Joe Burrow, whose rookie season was cut short by an ACL tear, after he was the No. 1 pick in 2020. Sewell addresses that while likely sending 2019 first-rounder Jonah Williams to guard – at least temporarily – after the team brought in veteran OT Riley Reiff on a one-year deal.
6. Dolphins (from Philadelphia Eagles) – Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU: Had Miami remained at No. 3, the 2019 Biletnikoff Award winner likely still would have been the best choice to spur second-year QB Tua Tagovailoa’s development. Pretty brilliant move by GM Chris Grier to drop three spots to presumably get the same player – and Chase might wind up being the best one coming out this year – the net gain being a future first- and future third-round pick.
7. Detroit Lions – Rashawn Slater, OT, Northwestern: Given the state of their rebuild – which is pretty much at square one – and new QB Jared Goff’s restructured deal, they’re likely out of the QB sweepstakes for now. A receiver certainly makes sense after Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones signed elsewhere. But adding a quality blocker like Slater, who can play anywhere on the O-line, seems to align with new coach Dan Campbell’s personality and new OC Anthony Lynn’s desire to run the ball – something the Lions have rarely done effectively since Barry Sanders retired.
8. Carolina Panthers – Mac Jones, QB, Alabama: Could this team convince the Jets or Falcons to trade down? Would the Panthers still make a run at embattled Houston Texans star Deshaun Watson? Do they like Darnold? Or might they take Jones, whom coach Matt Rhule deemed an “alpha” while working with players at this year’s Senior Bowl? Whatever the case, Carolina seems determined to upgrade a position manned by efficient but conservative QB Teddy Bridgewater in 2020. Jones may not be the athlete Wilson, Fields or Lance is, but he also doesn’t seem like much of a project and could pretty quickly step in as a point guard – as he was at Alabama – to distribute the ball to Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore and Robby Anderson. And a more ready-made product like Jones could be preferable for Carolina, which could take a step up in class with the NFC South power structure potentially changing in the wake of Drew Brees’ retirement.
9. Denver Broncos – Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State: Vic Fangio’s defense relies on OLBs Bradley Chubb and Von Miller creating pressure off the edge … which means you need a pair of capable off-ball backers patrolling behind the line. Exceptionally rangy Parsons fits the mold for a team that addressed its issues at corner during free agency.
10. Dallas Cowboys – Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama: A year after losing Byron Jones in free agency, they still need a No. 1 corner. Coming off Surtain’s impressive pro day, settling on the son of a former Pro Bowler makes plenty of sense for Dallas.
11. New York Giants – Alijah Vera-Tucker, OL, USC: It’s not draft season until you reference GM Dave Gettleman and his love of “hog mollies.” But after getting QB Daniel Jones more weapons in free agency (Golladay, WR John Ross, TE Kyle Rudolph), Gettleman would be wise to bolster the protection of his young passer, who’s absorbed more than three sacks per game during his first two seasons.
12. Eagles (from 49ers via Dolphins) – Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama: Like Miami, Philadelphia could wind up getting a player it might have targeted all along at No. 6 – its original draft slot – while accelerating the team’s reboot and still improving the supporting cast for second-year QB Jalen Hurts, now the unquestioned starter for 2021. Waddle played with Hurts in Tuscaloosa, is a highly explosive threat and adds a game-breaking element to the return game.
13. Los Angeles Chargers – Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida: The Bolts nicely retooled their offensive line in free agency. Though left tackle remains an issue, it would be hard to bypass Pitts – perhaps the next coming of Travis Kelce – given the loss of Hunter Henry and what he could do to advance offensive rookie of the year Justin Herbert’s progression.
14. Minnesota Vikings – Gregory Rousseau, DE, Miami (Fla.): The Vikes had an NFC-low 23 sacks in 2020, coach Mike Zimmer saying of his defense: “worst one I’ve ever had.” Rousseau, who’s only 20, had 15½ sacks in 2019, winning Atlantic Coast Conference defensive rookie of the year honors before opting out in 2020. His 6-7 frame also makes him a threat to bat down balls when he can’t get to the quarterback. Could be an especially important option given Vikes DE Danielle Hunter’s apparent dissatisfaction with his contract.
15. New England Patriots – DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama: Always fun to connect players to Bill Belichick after they’ve excelled under his good friend, ‘Bama coach Nick Saban. As talented and explosive as Smith is, he’ll have to prove he can sustain NFL punishment off the line and downfield. That said, the Pats know how to maximize a player’s strengths while masking weaknesses (literal or figurative). But this seems like a “take the best player available” scenario, and Smith definitely has more upside than newly signed WRs Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne.
16. Arizona Cardinals – Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech: He might be the best corner in this draft, though a recent microdiscectomy to ease back pain didn’t help the stock of the former all-ACC performer, who skipped the 2020 season. Still, a team that just moved on from Patrick Peterson should consider its long-term future at corner in a division where the ball is so frequently in the air.
17. Las Vegas Raiders – Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Notre Dame: They could address the offensive line after GM Mike Mayock just traded away 60% of it. But defense still seems like the priority, even with DE Yannick Ngakoue onboarding. Owusu-Koramoah is a dynamic, three-down chess piece at the second level, the type of player who could be a headache for Herbert and Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes for years to come.
18. Dolphins – Trevon Moehrig, S, TCU: Miami looks set on the corners with Xavien Howard and Byron Jones but could certainly use help on the back end. Moehrig has nice range, plays with good instincts, can cover and is willing to come up and make a hit – all traits coach Brian Flores would love.
19. Washington Football Team – Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa: The WFT finished with the league’s second-ranked defense in 2020 but could significantly improve behind its vaunted front. Off-ball linebackers who are 6-4 and 260 pounds are unicorns in the modern, pass-centric NFL. But Collins has the athleticism and coverage ability to pull it off – Exhibit A being the Bednarik Award winner’s game-winning, 96-yard pick-six to beat Tulane last season.
20. Chicago Bears – Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina: Even in the wake of a surprising playoff push, this team feels like a mess after plugging Andy Dalton into what seems like an unsolvable quarterback equation. And GM Ryan Pace created a new vacancy by signing Dalton when No. 1 corner Kyle Fuller consequentially became a cap casualty – not good when the NFC North mandate is slowing league MVP Aaron Rodgers. At least Horn, son of former Saints WR Joe Horn, might wind up being more than a lateral move after putting on a pro day show.
21. Indianapolis Colts – Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech: Anthony Castonzo’s retirement leaves a void at left tackle for an otherwise stalwart line. Barring a free agent signing or shuffling All-Pro LG Quenton Nelson outside, the path of least resistance might be drafting reliable Darrisaw and leaving the other four starters in place. Gotta bubble-wrap new QB Carson Wentz after he was sacked a league-high 50 times (in just 12 games) and eventually fell apart.
22. Tennessee Titans – Jalen Mayfield, OT, Michigan: A dreadful pass rush got significant love in free agency (OLB Bud Dupree, DL Denico Autry). Now GM Jon Robinson can fix his right tackle conundrum after whiffing twice in 2020 by failing to re-sign All-Pro Jack Conklin before misfiring spectacularly on troubled first-round pick Isaiah Wilson, who’s already out of the league.
23. Jets (from Seattle Seahawks) – Kwity Paye, DE, Michigan: The Jets are decades removed from their famed “New York Sack Exchange.” However new coach Robert Saleh might be the guy who finally revitalizes the pass rush and signing DE Carl Lawson was a great start. But no reason to stop there, especially with Buffalo QB Josh Allen threatening to take over the AFC East, and the explosive Paye might settle in nicely opposite Lawson.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers – Najee Harris, RB, Alabama: Their blocking issues are apparent following the retirement of C Maurkice Pouncey and defection of G Matt Feiler. LT Alejandro Villanueva also remains unsigned. But this is a team that hasn’t run the ball effectively for a decade – and ranked last in the league in 2020 – which might explain why the Steelers are 10 years removed from their last Super Bowl trip. Harris is the type of physical runner this city adores, yet he’d also protect declining QB Ben Roethlisberger as a blocker and outlet receiver.
25. Jaguars (from Los Angeles Rams) – Jaelan Phillips, DE, Miami (Fla.): The Jags’ 18 sacks in 2020 ranked only ahead of Cincinnati – and by just one. Phillips and a healthy Josh Allen could fix that.
26. Cleveland Browns – Joe Tryon, DE, Washington: They made excellent upgrades to the secondary in free agency, but a 22nd-ranked pass defense could still use help – which explains the ongoing recruitment of Jadeveon Clowney. But you can never have enough QB hunters, especially when one – All-Pro Myles Garrett – will be dealing with double teams.
27. Baltimore Ravens – Azeez Ojulari, OLB, Georgia: They need to restore edge rush after saying goodbye to Matt Judon in free agency. Ojulari, who averaged nearly a sack per game in 2020, looks like the best 3-4 linebacker this year.
28. New Orleans Saints – Greg Newsome II, CB, Northwestern: He’s confident and talented, coming off a pro day performance that included a 4.38 40-yard dash. Newsome might be made to order for a team that must contend with Tom Brady and his arsenal of Bucs receivers … a task that got more challenging with Janoris Jenkins’ departure.
29. Green Bay Packers – Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida: Maybe GM Brian Gutekunst finally gets a bona fide complement to Davante Adams and more help for Rodgers? Toney had a breakout senior year for the Gators, amassing 70 catches for 984 yards and 10 scores. He’s got the explosive ability to consistently burn No. 2 corners and should only blossom while learning how to fine-tune his routes with help from the masterful Adams.
30. Buffalo Bills – Jayson Oweh, Edge, Penn State: His college production (seven sacks in three seasons) was suboptimal, to be kind. But the 6-5, 257-pounder’s pro day, which included a 4.36 40-yard dash, rekindled intrigue. Also, the AFC East champs can no longer rely on Jerry Hughes to consistently generate pressure.
31. Kansas City Chiefs – Teven Jenkins, OT, Oklahoma State: The world saw what happened to their decimated O-line in Super Bowl 55. The AFC champs patched the interior during free agency, adding Joe Thuney and Kyle Long, but questions remain at tackle. Jenkins could lock down the right side following Mitchell Schwartz’s release.
32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue: What do you give the guys that have everything? How about an all-purpose threat like Moore, who blazed an unofficial 4.29 40 at his pro day while posting 42½-inch vertical jump. Sure, he’s undersized at 5-7. But a guy who’s been (unfairly) compared to Tyreek Hill and could be a wingback type the Bucs don’t currently have might be just be the toy Tom Brady wants – especially while Antonio Brown remains unsigned.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
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