2021 NFL mock draft: 5 quarterbacks crack the top 20 picks
We’re 34 days from the start of the “legal tampering” period of the NFL offseason, when teams can start negotiating with free agents and processing transactions for the new league year.
This of all offseasons will have a major effect on any 2021 NFL draft projections given how many veteran quarterbacks could be in play to switch teams. Until we get final answers on which QBs end up where, the shape of the draft remains quite fuzzy.
But we tried our best to forecast how Round 1 — plus a few additional picks for the teams that lack first-rounders — might shake out.
The league is entering an unprecedented draft cycle with no NFL scouting combine, no private workouts and a slew of prospects who either opted out of the 2020 college season or had their seasons shortened because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The next few months will be fun, wild and unexpected. But predicting how it will all unfold is going to be even tougher than usual. Personal note: Keep this in mind before you hate-mail us about our picks. Not that we don't love hearing from each and every one of you. That goes without saying.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars
Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence
The Jaguars' brass will get to watch their future franchise QB throw at a special session this week before he undergoes labrum surgery in his left (non-throwing) shoulder. Then Lawrence will be shut down for a while with rehab.
But even this development won’t change a thing. This pick has been shut down since the Jags clinched the first overall selection in late December.
2. New York Jets
BYU QB Zach Wilson
The Jets are expected to take one of two routes at quarterback: make a run at a big-name veteran (you know who) or take one in the draft. Sam Darnold has been drawing trade interest, and the Jets seemingly allowed that news to leak freely, so you can wager that a change is coming.
The scenario obviously changes if the Jets move out of this slot, but we think there’s a slightly better chance of Wilson going in this slot than anyone else as things stand now.
3. Miami Dolphins (via Houston Texans)
Alabama WR DeVonta Smith
It’s not as simple as Smith showing up at the Senior Bowl to spend the week with the Dolphins, and boom, he’s the pick. There are scouts with other teams who believe that LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase or even Smith’s Bama teammate, Jaylen Waddle, might have better pro projections.
But head coach Brian Flores will take a long, hard look at Smith’s toughness, play speed, playmaking and fearlessness, and we believe he’d be a great fit for a Miami offense in need of some downfield juice.
4. Atlanta Falcons
Ohio State QB Justin Fields
With the report that Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are remaining in Atlanta in 2021, it might seem odd to see a quarterback in this spot. Believe us, we get it. But the Falcons must plan for life after Ryan, and if anyone knows this, it’s new GM Terry Fontenot, having arrived from New Orleans and witnessing firsthand the Saints’ annual offseason dance with Drew Brees and his future plans.
Backup Matt Schaub retired after the season, and the Falcons need to think long and hard about drafting Ryan’s eventual successor here. They might not get too many future cracks at landing one. A trade down or taking a defensive player or an offensive tackle could also be in play here.
5. Cincinnati Bengals
Oregon OT Penei Sewell
There has been some chatter among scouts we’ve spoken to that Sewell might not be the generational talent some have made him out to be. And there might be some truth to that.
But the 20-year old Sewell is a better prospect with a higher ceiling than last year's No. 4 overall pick, Andrew Thomas, and the Bengals can’t afford to get Joe Burrow — who was on pace to be sacked 51 times before his season-ending torn ACL — repeatedly assaulted by a heavy rush again.
6. Philadelphia Eagles
LSU WR Ja’Marr Chase
I could see a cornerback here if the Eagles like one of them enough, and Sewell would be hard to pass if he slipped to this spot. Personally, I’d take Kyle Pitts and flourish.
But Chase is by no means a slouch and would give the Eagles a No. 1 option for Jalen Hurts and whomever the team brings in as quote-unquote competition at QB if Carson Wentz is eventually moved. There’s the matter of Chase’s opt-out season rendering him a tougher evaluation, and the Eagles have sunk a ton of assets into the WR room, but it makes sense to add more weapons.
7. Detroit Lions
Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle
Waddle limped back onto the field for the national title game, and his rare explosion was nowhere to be found that night, as he clearly was playing at less than full strength. Even still, Waddle had more receiving yards than DeVonta Smith when Waddle got hurt in the fifth game last season, and Waddle is expected to make a complete recovery.
The Lions could lose Kenny Golladay to free agency and appear to need to revamp the unit as a whole. Waddle’s yards-after-the-catch knack would be an excellent first building block for new GM Brad Holmes.
8. Carolina Panthers
Florida TE-WR Kyle Pitts
The Panthers clearly are seeking to upgrade at quarterback but might not have enough ammo to get a top prize there. If they end up keeping this pick, we could see Carolina going after the best playmaker available.
In our eyes, that’s Pitts. The Ian Thomas-Chris Manhertz duo offered little in the passing game beyond blocking, but Pitts could transform this offense with an incredibly diverse route tree for a man his size. Call him a tight end if you want, but he’s essentially a king-sized wideout — roughly the same size as Mike Evans and DK Metcalf, and Pitts moves just as well.
9. Denver Broncos
Alabama CB Patrick Surtain II
This is a position in Denver that was beat up pretty badly last season and could use an influx of talent. Surtain might not be better in the eyes of some who prefer Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley. But Surtain is a very solid, well-built corner who can fit Vic Fangio’s system and be a safer pick for new GM George Paton, who might not care to make Farley, who sat out in 2020, his first selection in charge.
Also, don’t be shocked if Mac Jones gets some buzz in this range, high as it might seem. Carolina at No. 8 and Denver at No. 9 are two early slots to watch for the Bama QB.
10. Dallas Cowboys
Virginia Tech CB Caleb Farley
Farley’s lack of experience at corner, with only two full seasons at the position, could be a concern for some teams considering taking him in the top 10. But he’s a high-ceiling talent who is just scratching the surface of his potential after playing high-school quarterback and spending his redshirt season in Blacksburg as a wide receiver.
The Cowboys can use help on all three levels of the defense and can start at corner, where they had a top four last season of Trevon Diggs, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown. Farley and Diggs would give them two big outside corners with press-coverage ability, something new coordinator Dan Quinn could use in his cover-3 system.
11. New York Giants
Michigan EDGE Kwity Paye
Tricky spot here, with a run on offensive weapons prior to this. If one of the receivers or Pitts is there, the Giants should take one. I could even be talked into an offensive lineman, even after taking two in the first three rounds a year ago.
But short of that, adding a pass rusher such as Paye would really help. The Giants have some nice players up front but could use a bigger source of edge pressure.
12. San Francisco 49ers
North Dakota State QB Trey Lance
If the 49ers can’t get in on one of the veteran quarterbacks in this offseason derby, they could do a lot worse than sticking with Jimmy Garoppolo (or swapping in another veteran placeholder) and grooming Lance as the eventual successor.
Figuring out where Lance goes — it could be higher than this, trust us — will be one of the great draft mysteries this year. He’s talented enough to have a better career than Zach Wilson or Justin Fields but inexperienced enough for none of us to really know how he'll develop. The team that selects Lance in the top half of Round 1 is going to need a bit of chutzpah.
13. Los Angeles Chargers
Northwestern OT Rashawn Slater
Just like the Bengals with Joe Burrow, the Chargers need protection for Justin Herbert — badly. The beautiful thing about Slater is that he can easily project to a starting spot inside or out; he should be considered a four-position prospect, even if we feel he’d be good playing his college position of left tackle.
The 2020 opt-out isn’t big or long, but Slater is smart, athletic, competitive, technique-driven and well-balanced as a pass blocker.
14. Minnesota Vikings
USC OT-OG Ali Vera-Tucker
Lacking a second-rounder, the Vikings might be trade-down candidates — especially with a quarterback (Mac Jones) still on the board. But in this scenario, we focused on two spots: offensive line and the pass rush.
The Vikings might need a guard or a tackle, depending on the team’s plans for Riley Reiff returning and what position they like Ezra Cleveland at best. But Vera-Tucker’s versatility, having played well the past two seasons at guard and tackle, helps make this an easier pick.
15. New England Patriots
Penn State LB Micah Parsons
I struggled with this pick, not knowing how the Patriots might attack the QB position this offseason. But Bill Belichick has never drafted a quarterback in the first 61 picks overall, even dating back to his days in Cleveland, so I am not sure about slotting one here.
Instead, we lean on the idea that the Patriots’ defensive breakdowns last season had to irritate Belichick immensely. Parsons could be brought along as an understudy to Dont’a Hightower and be used as a rusher early while he learns the finer points of playing linebacker. But he profiles as a potentially special performer in time.
16. Arizona Cardinals
South Carolina CB Jaycee Horn
Patrick Paterson is a free agent, as is soon-to-be 37-year old Johnathan Joseph, who ended up playing a lot of snaps early in the season out of need. Throw in Dre Kirkpatrick’s uneven 2020 campaign, and the Cardinals sure could use an upgrade here.
Horn’s lack of college playmaking (two career INTs, both in one 2020 game) could be a hangup for some, but the son of former Saints WR Joe Horn is a tough customer who had some shutdown performances the past two seasons. He allowed a mere eight receptions (on 24 targets) in seven games in 2020 and would give them some nice length on the outside.
17. Las Vegas Raiders
Notre Dame LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah
The majority of the Raiders’ needs are on the defensive side, and assuming they keep this pick, it might just be smart to take the highest-rated defender here and call it a Day 1. Maybe they find a way to deal this pick as part of a package for, say, Deshaun Watson, but let’s not hold our collective breaths on that one.
With Gus Bradley running the defense, it would make sense to grab a linebacker with some safety-like skills who can run, cover and hit. Owusu-Koramoah could be a star in this kind of system, filling a variety of roles. A pass rusher might also make sense at this spot.
Tulsa LB Zaven Collins
I thought long and hard about Najee Harris, but the Dolphins can afford to wait at running back, with three more picks coming in the next 64 selections. Collins just feels like a Brian Flores type of player — big, instinctive and surprisingly fluid for a 260-pounder.
This LB corps could use a bit more versatility and talent, and the Dolphins’ defense could be a monster in time with a few more pieces.
19. Washington Football Team
Alabama QB Mac Jones
Truthfully, I believe Jones could go higher than this, and with an extra third-round choice at its disposal, Washington could slide up into a position to grab him earlier if needed. How the team will proceed at quarterback will be interesting, as there appear to be some moving parts here with the QBs already on the roster.
Last week new GM Martin Mayhew said that “you’ve got to have football intelligence to play the position,” and it made me think they could do worse than Jones in Round 1. When we spoke to Alabama WRs DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle last week, both immediately raved about Jones’ sixth sense as his QB superpower.
Jones had a strong Senior Bowl week and now appears squarely in the Round 1 picture.
20. Chicago Bears
Oklahoma State OT Teven Jenkins
Bears fans are anxious — that’s one word to describe it — to find out which direction the team goes at quarterback. But before we know how that one ends up, it’s worth reminding that Chicago really needs to address the tackle spots.
Jenkins might be best-served as a right tackle, even though he’s played the left side before. The Bears shouldn’t plan on Germain Ifedi or Bobby Massie starting at that spot in 2021. Jenkins’ lumberjack toughness and decent flexibility would be a nice addition up front.
21. Indianapolis Colts
Virginia Tech OT Christian Darrisaw
At some point, the Colts will add a quarterback — and our suspicion long has been that it will be a veteran before a rookie. And whoever that quarterback is, they’ll need a tackle in front of them, with no obvious candidates to fill the shoes of the recently retired Anthony Castonzo.
Enter Darrisaw, who reads as a good match for GM Chris Ballard. Darrisaw came from a bit off the draft radar this season to excel, and though he still needs to anchor better and play with a bit more nastiness, he has the athletic template to develop into a strong blind-side blocker for whomever they get at QB.
22. Tennessee Titans
Texas OLB Joseph Ossai
Some might peg a DB here, and we get it. But our thinking is that upgrading the front seven could help the secondary return to its 2019 form and not be the big-play sieve it was this past season. The long-armed, high-motor Ossai would be a really nice pairing opposite Harold Landry, we suspect, and give the Titans more effective rush combinations up front.
23. Jets (via Seattle Seahawks)
Georgia CB Tyson Campbell
As with the Dolphins five slots earlier, a running back could be in play here. But our thinking is, with the Jets’ next pick just around the corner at No. 34 (and zero backs gone in this simulation), the chances of them getting a good one down the line might be pretty strong.
So here we instead went for another big need at corner. Campbell isn’t without his warts, but physically speaking, he’s easily one of the more impressive athletes at the position still on the board. New coach Robert Saleh and DC Jeff Ulbrich will be seeking long, highly athletic cover men to populate the defense.
Campbell is an option, but keep an eye on two others who make sense: Syracuse’s Ifeatu Melifonwu and Northwestern’s Greg Newsome II.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers
Alabama C-OG Landon Dickerson
Another team that is likely to draft a running back but perhaps not at this point. Offensive tackle was another spot that really made me think long and hard.
Dickerson’s torn ACL is going to cloud his medical evaluation, but he just feels like a central-casting Steelers offensive lineman. The Crimson Tide’s beloved leader is big, strong, nasty, smart and surprisingly agile. If Maurkice Pouncey calls it a career, this would be an excellent replacement, but Dickerson also can play guard readily.
25. Jaguars (via Los Angeles Rams)
Alabama DT Christian Barmore
Barmore is a big-framed, high-upside player with the skill to rush the passer from the interior (a Jaguars need) and also be an effective run-stopper. We’re certain that Urban Meyer watched the national title game against his former Ohio State squad and couldn’t help but notice Barmore wrecking the Buckeyes’ blocking schemes with multiple big plays.
He’s still raw and young, but Barmore has the potential to be great in time. The Jaguars remain a team that’s still setting the table and can afford to let him develop.
26. Cleveland Browns
Miami EDGE Jaelan Phillips
This was a two-position race for me: DB or pass rusher? I couldn’t quite talk myself into any of the available corners here, and Greedy Williams’ return at least suggests that internal improvement is a possibility.
So why Phillips over his (sometimes) more touted Hurricanes counterpart, Greg Rousseau? This would all be about the Browns’ analytics-driven front office placing a higher value, we’d venture to guess, on a player with a ton of athletic promise and one who played great ball in 2020.
Phillips’ medical reports and interviews will determine whether he can crack the top 40 or so picks.
27. Baltimore Ravens
Georgia EDGE Azeez Ojulari
The young Bulldogs rusher is a quickly ascending talent who might end up being some teams’ top-rated EDGE in this class, even while his lack of size and length will be problematic for some teams and his inexperience a hangup for others. But his edge juice, twitch and freaky bend will be traits we suspect the Ravens will fall for.
28. New Orleans Saints
Florida WR Kadarius Toney
A bit later than we expected for Toney, who is an electric playmaker, but it’s an excellent fit, we believe, for a Saints team that might have to generate offense in different ways if Drew Brees retires. Toney has lined up in the backfield, in the slot, out wide and as a punt and kick returner. (He’s even taken snaps at QB, completing 3-of-6 passes for 82 yards and a TD in college.)
The Saints would have Michael Thomas to run slants, Tre’Quan Smith to run clear-outs and can let Toney and Alvin Kamara dice up opponents with a thousand paper cuts. Emmanuel Sanders turns 34 in a month, is set to hit the cap at $10.5 million and averaged 43 yards a game over his final 11 contests last season.
29. Green Bay Packers
Syracuse CB Ifeatu Melifonwu
The Packers have a knack for irritating their fans with their recent first-round picks, often deviating from the most clear, obvious void on the roster. But in this case, it would make sense for the Packers to review the tape of their playoff loss and realize how big a need this position would be.
Melifonwu has the size (nearly 6-foot-3 and nearly 215 pounds) to be a natural Kevin King replacement and lock down a starting job outside. If the Packers are going to be more of a zone-heavy defense under Joe Barry, then adding a Seattle-style corner makes a lot of sense.
30. Buffalo Bills
TCU S Trevon Moehrig
The Bills’ moves on the offensive line this offseason will tell us a lot about how they'll approach the draft. But in the meantime, let’s assume they’ll be in better shape on the offensive line than what we saw in 2020.
What they also could use is a rangy, versatile safety who can handle some slot duty, and Moehrig fits that mold to a tee. Last year the Bills were very much in on Kyle Dugger, whom the Patriots drafted early in Round 2, and Moehrig checks off a lot of the same boxes with terrific athletic traits, ball skills and positional versatility. He played the nickel, in the box and as a deep safety, turning in a strong 2020 season for the Horned Frogs.
31. Kansas City Chiefs
Alabama OT-OG Alex Leatherwood
The Chiefs’ pass protection in the Super Bowl was atrocious without their two starting tackles in the lineup. Both could return in 2021, as could OGs Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Keleche Osemele. But adding more layers of insurance for the best quarterback in football feels somewhat important.
Leatherwood can look a little stiff and mechanical at times, and some teams believe he'd be best at guard. But his build and skill set fit what the Chiefs seek in their linemen, and he could help bolster the depth issue as a future starter inside or out.
32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Miami EDGE Gregory Rousseau
Perhaps a bit lower than you’re used to seeing him in mocks, Rousseau presents a really interesting draft study: What to make of a player who had tremendous production (15.5 sacks) as a redshirt freshman but who sat out in 2020 and appears to need some polish and positional development?
We figure that the Bucs are playing with house money with this pick, and the possible departure of Shaq Barrett in free agency would open a spot up front. Rousseau, a Florida native, would be a fun pet project for DL coach Kacy Rodgers.
Teams with no first-round picks
Iowa DT Daviyon Nixon
It just feels easier projecting a Seahawks second-rounder than one of their first-round picks, where they have gone off the radar a bit in recent years. That’s just sort of their approach to the draft, we've come to realize.
But in this simulation, landing one of college football’s best breakout players at a need position is just too hard to pass on. The 6-2, 305-pound Nixon possesses the kind of length, quickness and violent hands this scouting staff seems to favor.
Stanford OT Walker Little
If a team is going to trade all of its first-round picks over two presidential terms, it might as well gamble in Round 2 on first-round talents (with incomplete resumes) such as Little. The first Stanford freshman to start at left tackle in 17 years in 2018, Little has been limited to a mere 72 snaps since that season, suffering a torn ACL late in the 2019 season opener and opting out of the 2020 season.
But pedigree matters, and the former elite high-school recruit is a gifted athlete with starter potential, even if his draft evaluations could be all over the map. The Rams must groom an eventual replacement for Andrew Whitworth.
Western Michigan WR D’Wayne Eskridge
If you’ve not seen this dynamo in action, you’re in for a treat. Eskridge isn’t big at 5-foot-9 and 188 pounds, but the converted cornerback is a powder-keg playmaker as a slot receiver and kick returner.
Eskridge averaged a stunning 23.3 yards per catch, 21.5 yards per rush and 27.5 yards per kickoff this past season, was a Senior Bowl standout and is expected to run a scorching 40-yard dash at his pro day.
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