The 2021 NFL draft is nigh, blessed clarity awaiting as screens of smoke dissipate and the San Francisco 49ers finally go on the clock (the Jags and NYJ already turned in their cards, right?) to end weeks of mystery and speculation … all in hopes that we’re alive Sunday – after S.F. coach Kyle Shanahan cast doubt upon that, too – to hyperanalyze the Niners’ decisions and those of the league’s 31 other teams.
But first, one final stab at projecting the first round, one that’s already been shuffled a few times – four teams have already executed trades giving them multiple Round 1 selections, the Ravens doing so Friday – and seems sure to undergo a few more alterations by the time Thursday night wraps up.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars – Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
His name has pretty much been penciled in here for three years … it was just a matter of determining which team would sufficiently implode at just the right time to get him. (Nice job, Jags … bad job, Jets.) Largely viewed as a generational prospect, Lawrence appears to have everything it takes to deliver exactly what this moribund franchise needs: Wins in the standings and fans in the seats.
2. New York Jets – Zach Wilson, QB, BYU
He was never a threat to dethrone Lawrence at No. 1, but good luck finding a passer who generated more pre-draft buzz by virtue of his pro day and transcendent throws from his breakout 2020 season that have (dubiously) drawn comparisons to Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes. GM Joe Douglas unloaded unfortunate Sam Darnold to make way for Wilson, but now the rebooting organization must do a better job supporting its new face of the franchise than it did its previous one.
3. San Francisco 49ers (from Houston Texans via Miami Dolphins) – Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State
Alabama’s Mac Jones has seemingly been linked to the Niners ever since they traded up to this spot last month. But Lance is the kind of talent who spurs an organization to part with three first-round picks based on his exceptional potential … something that would be hard to say about Jones. A smart player who protects the ball and can make plays outside the structure of an offense, the next question would become how long it would take Lance – he’s played one game since the 2019 season ended – to displace Jimmy Garoppolo, who took this club to the Super Bowl to end the 2019 season.
4. Atlanta Falcons – Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida
Some NFL scouts and executives say they’ve never seen a prospect at this position like Pitts, who measures in at 6-6 and 245 pounds yet ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash at the Gators pro day. Twelve of his 43 receptions in 2020 went for TDs, and his size and ability to line up in-line, wide or in the slot enables him to threaten all corners of the field as a true mismatch – and one who should be very difficult to defend in the red zone. Teaming Pitts with WRs Julio Jones (assuming he isn’t traded) and Calvin Ridley will give QB Matt Ryan, who will be 36 by Week 1, a plethora of options – which he’ll doubtless appreciate since his contract almost surely ties him to the Falcons for at least two more seasons and makes drafting a QB in 2021, compelling as it might be, a bit impractical.
5. Cincinnati Bengals – Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU
Strong case to be made that they should take an offensive tackle in the aftermath of the ACL injury that prematurely ended 2020 No. 1 pick Joe Burrow’s rookie season. But an equally 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. (Also, worth wondering if Atlanta eyes Chase if Jones is offloaded.)
6. Dolphins (from Philadelphia Eagles) – Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon
Did GM Chris Grier really think he wouldn’t be able to get Pitts or Chase when he dealt out of No. 3 last month before popping back up to this spot? Regardless, Sewell, who won the Outland Trophy in 2019, is hardly a consolation prize and would surely be welcome by second-year QB Tua Tagovailoa. And given Grier traded G Ereck Flowers on Tuesday, potentially paving the way for Sewell on a reconfigured line, the stars seem to be aligning here.
7. New England Patriots [PROJECTED TRADE with Detroit Lions] – Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
Since losing their grip on the AFC East for the first time since 2008, the Pats have aggressively retooled their roster with free agents. The long-term post-Brady QB plan remains a mystery – Cam Newton is only signed for this season – but the philosophical offensive shift toward a player of Newton’s abilities suggests Bill Belichick and OC Josh McDaniels might target a successor with similar attributes. Fields is dynamic, mobile and probably more accurate than Newton and could be a steal here … even if Belichick has to part with a Day 2 pick (and maybe more) to get up to this spot.
8. Carolina Panthers – Rashawn Slater, OT, Northwestern
Darnold will be wowed by the firepower surrounding him in Charlotte. But if the Panthers want to help their new QB finally reach his professional potential, bolstering his protection seems like the most sensible approach. Slater fills a gaping void on the blind side and should widen the holes All-Pro RB Christian McCaffrey is accustomed to seeing.
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. Quarterback could be a consideration here, but new GM George Paton might start with a more conservative approach – like acquiring Teddy Bridgewater to push incumbent Drew Lock – before he takes his first major whack at the perennial problem spot.
10. Dallas Cowboys – Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina
A year after losing Byron Jones in free agency, they still need a No. 1 corner as they reload the defense for new coordinator Dan Quinn. Horn has steadily risen throughout the process and should bring swagger and playmaking to Quinn’s unit just as Richard Sherman did in Seattle.
11. New York Giants – Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
If the Giants are going to avoid doing to third-year QB Daniel Jones what the Jets did to Darnold – namely, failing to put players around him – then they need to strongly consider an explosive talent like Waddle, who can also elevate the return game. Even RB Saquon Barkley will love this pick considering how Waddle could open up the field for him.
12. Eagles (from 49ers via Dolphins) – Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama
The son of a former three-time Pro Bowler, Surtain seems like one of the surest bets in this draft. And Philly definitely needs reinforcements on the corners even if Darius Slay bounces back in 2021.
13. Los Angeles Chargers – DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
Another blocker to protect offensive rookie of the year Justin Herbert would be sensible, though the Bolts shored up the O-line in free agency. But with Smith available in this scenario, the value is too good to pass up. Teaming him with Herbert (and Keenan Allen) should only take this attack to another level … and such a move could also give the club financial flexibility if it chose to release WR Mike Williams from a fifth-year option that will pay him $15.7 million.
14. Minnesota Vikings – Alijah Vera-Tucker, OL, USC
Despite their pass rush needs, another instance of opting for the best player on the board. Whether he’s deployed at guard or tackle, where the Trojans used him in 2020, Vera-Tucker bolsters a ragged line that allowed 39 sacks in 2020 before it cut ties with veteran LT Riley Reiff.
15. Lions [PROJECTED TRADE with Patriots] – Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech
Plenty of gaps to plug amid an ongoing roster shakeup. But after dealing down with New England in this projection, probably best to address a shaky cornerback depth chart after No. 3 pick Jeff Okudah struggled as a rookie in 2020 while Desmond Trufant was released. Farley is arguably the most talented corner in this class, though a pair of back surgeries have cast a shadow on his stock. Still, he might be a wise long-term investment for a team in rebuild mode and in a division where you can’t have enough good DBs when you’re trying to beat Aaron Rodgers twice a year.
16. Arizona Cardinals – Greg Newsome II, CB, Northwestern
As the Cards transition at the position following Patrick Peterson’s departure, they could certainly use a mainstay in a division where the ball is so frequently airborne. Newsome features sub-4.4 speed and swagger that should fit right into the highly competitive NFC West.
17. Las Vegas Raiders – Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Notre Dame
They could address the offensive line after GM Mike Mayock traded away 60% of it. They could address the defensive line, even after Mayock signed Yannick Ngakoue … but dumped Maurice Hurst, Arden Key and Maliek Collins. But Owusu-Koramoah could fill an entirely different role, a dynamic, three-down chess piece at the second level … and the type of player who could be a headache for Herbert and Mahomes for years to come.
18. Dolphins – Jaelan Phillips, DE, Miami (Fla.)
Miami’s offseason, including its trade of DE Shaq Lawson and release of OLB Kyle Van Noy, are indicative that the pass rush still needs significant work. Staying local to bring in a QB hunter like Phillips could 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.
19. Washington Football Team – Mac Jones, QB, Alabama
If he doesn’t go to San Francisco at No. 3, as long rumored, Jones might be waiting a while to hear his name called. But the WFT could consider such a freefall a gift at a time when they’re patching the position with the likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen. Jones could likely step in as the starter immediately, if asked, and wouldn’t have to do much more than distribute and protect the ball to give the defensively oriented NFC East champs a great shot at a playoff return.
20. Chicago Bears – Asante Samuel Jr., CB, Florida State
Barring a hard-to-execute maneuver for a young passer – even targeting Jones likely wouldn’t represent a significant upgrade from Andy Dalton – probably best to address the cornerback position after the team was forced to make Kyle Fuller a cap casualty.
21. Indianapolis Colts – Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech
Anthony Castonzo’s retirement leaves a vacancy at left tackle for an otherwise stalwart line. Barring a veteran acquisition 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 – Jamin Davis, LB, Kentucky
Davis’ 4.37 speed and 42-inch vertical are indicative of the athleticism he could inject into this lacking linebacking group, part of a defense that struggled in just about every area last season even though this team excels at ball control.
23. Jets (from Seattle Seahawks) – Kwity Paye, DE, Michigan
Running back and O-line could be strong considerations here, though the NYJ could address either spot with pick No. 34. But the Jets are decades removed from their famed “New York Sack Exchange” and must finally revitalize this pass rush. And given what he accomplished in San Francisco, new coach Robert Saleh might be the guy who finally dials up the pressure – if given horses like Paye to team with free agent DE Carl Lawson and DT Quinnen Williams.
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 (Chargers). Unsigned LT Alejandro Villanueva also seems like a goner. 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 runner this city adores, yet he’d also protect declining QB Ben Roethlisberger as a blocker and outlet receiver … not to mention the fact that effectively keeping the ball on the ground eases the load on Big Ben’s 39-year-old right arm.
25. Jaguars (from Los Angeles Rams) – Carlos Basham Jr., DE, Wake Forest
At 6-3, 274 pounds, “Boogie” would give the Jags needed D-line depth. And his bigger frame could nicely complement wispier edge rushers Josh Allen and K’Lavon Chaisson on passing downs.
26. Cleveland Browns – Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa
Very few issues with this lineup (though corner depth could be improved), especially after the recent addition of pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney. But the 6-4, 260-pound Collins could level up Cleveland’s linebacker corps with his freakish athleticism and ability to affect all three downs as a run stuffer or in coverage, where he shines.
27. Baltimore Ravens – Azeez Ojulari, OLB, Georgia
They need to restore edge rush after saying goodbye to Matt Judon and Ngakoue in free agency. Ojulari, who averaged nearly a sack per game in 2020, looks like the best 3-4 linebacker this year. A locker room leader and relentless worker, he should also dovetail with the culture.
28. New Orleans Saints – Elijah Moore, WR, Mississippi
He can play out wide, in the slot and even provide some wingback duties – a pretty nice package and complement to Michael Thomas for a team that could use a No. 2 receiver after letting Emmanuel Sanders go.
29. Green Bay Packers – Landon Dickerson, C/G, Alabama
He seems to be rebounding nicely from knee surgery and should be a starter in this league for a decade, a nifty fit for a team that couldn’t retain All-Pro C Corey Linsley to protect Rodgers.
30. Buffalo Bills – Gregory Rousseau, DE, Miami (Fla.)
The reigning AFC East champs don’t need much but could certainly get younger and more productive when it comes to their pass rush – where Sean McDermott has had to become increasingly reliant on the blitz. Rousseau was the Atlantic Coast Conference defensive rookie of the Year after recording 15.5 sacks
COVID-19 nurse at Florida Medical Center
31. Ravens (from Kansas City Chiefs) – Teven Jenkins, OT, Oklahoma State
Baltimore moved back into Round 1 last week, trading Pro Bowl OT Orlando Brown Jr. to K.C. Though ex-Steeler Villanueva, 32, is expected to join the archrival Ravens, he’s a short-term solution. Jenkins is a mauling, play-to-the-echo-of-the-whistle type who perfectly suits this franchise … and can handle guard or right tackle duties depending on the need.
32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Joe Tryon, DE, Washington
With their entire team coming back virtually intact – even WR Antonio Brown is back on board – the Super Bowl champions have the luxury of doing just about anything here. Maybe they fish for QB Tom Brady’s heir apparent or trade out to acquire picks for their inevitable rebuild in the near-ish future. But if the focus is on the short run and a repeat bid in 2021 – which is exactly where the energies of Brady, 43, and coach Bruce Arians, 68, lie – then what about a boost for an already formidable pass rush that buried Rodgers and Mahomes in the playoffs? Tryon is rocked up and relentless, posting eight sacks for the Huskies in 2019 before opting out last year. Scheme-versatile, Tryon could focus on sub packages in 2021 and maybe take over for Jason Pierre-Paul, who’s a free agent after this season, in 2022.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL mock draft 2021: QB surprises in top 10 picks could alter first round