Each NFL team and general manager has their own unique approach to navigating the NFL draft.
Some prefer to stand pat with the draft picks they were awarded (Pittsburgh Steelers and Kevin Colbert; Los Angeles Chargers and Tom Telesco), while others prefer to trade down and stockpile draft capital (Minnesota Vikings and Rick Spielman; Indianapolis Colts and Chris Ballard; Seattle Seahawks and John Schneider). Then, there are a few who aggressively trade up to get their guy no matter what (New Orleans Saints and Mickey Loomis) and some who love to maneuver around and find their spots (Philadelphia Eagles and Howie Roseman; Denver Broncos and John Elway).
Tendencies emerge over time, and you can better identify potential moves as they come. In an unorthodox year with shortened college football seasons and no NFL combine, clubs will likely stick to their approach and trust their process. The first round is littered with top talent at marquee positions like quarterback, offensive tackle and wide receiver. Here’s how we see some of the big moves shaking out in what should be an exciting 2021 NFL Draft.
New Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer helped Trevor Lawrence set up his pro day, but he was at The Players Championship — a golf tournament — during Trey Lance’s. The NFL likes to build up drama ahead of the draft, even if it’s obvious who the first pick or two will be, but Jacksonville can’t even pretend here.
Lawrence can make throws to every part of the field, finishing 2020 with a 97.7 PFF passing grade on passes thrown 20-plus yards downfield, fifth among all quarterbacks with at least 15 such attempts.
2. New York Jets: QB Zach Wilson, BYU
The only question here should be whether or not Sam Darnold is still on the Jets roster when New York is on the clock with this pick. The one aspect of the situation that no one seems to address when discussing Darnold potentially sticking in New York is that he only has one year left on his rookie deal, so any potential surplus value disappears as soon as the team enters a competitive window in 2022.
It’s not that the 23-year-old can’t improve; it’s just too late at this point. That breakout season should be the sophomore campaign of a fresh face in the Big Apple and not Darnold on an extension after finally showing progress in Year 4.
Wilson earned the top passing grade in the nation for the 2020 season at 95.5, grading above 75.0 in every contest. His 1.0% turnover-worthy play percentage was sixth-best among all quarterbacks with at least 100 dropbacks despite his 10.9-yard average depth of target.
3. Atlanta Falcons (via Dolphins): QB Trey Lance, North Dakota State
The only franchise that traded up in the draft more consistently than the Atlanta Falcons under former general manager Thomas Dimitroff was the New Orleans Saints, where new GM Terry Fontenot rose through the ranks before becoming the man in charge in Atlanta. New Orleans traded up 13 times from 2011-20 — with zero trade downs. Atlanta traded up 12 times and traded down three times.
Dimitroff selected QB Matt Ryan with the No. 3 overall pick in his first draft as general manager back in 2008. Here, Fontenot trades up to No. 3 to get the franchise quarterback of the future in Atlanta. Lance started just one season at FCS North Dakota State, so this shouldn’t signal an immediate end to the Matt Ryan era, as he’ll need time to adjust to the NFL game.
4. Miami Dolphins (via Falcons): WR Ja’Marr Chase, LSU
The Dolphins are in an incredible spot with the No. 3 overall pick in a year filled with quarterback talent. Miami acquired the pick from Houston in the Laremy Tunsil trade, and whether they ultimately use it on their favorite prospect or trade down for what should be a king’s ransom, the Dolphins are putting on a clinic for 31 other clubs on how to properly rebuild a roster.
Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa lost to Ja’Marr Chase’s LSU Tigers on their road to a national championship, and now the two link up in Miami. Miami needs a true No. 1 wideout to take this offense to the next level — Chase gives them exactly that. Miami couldn’t get anything going in the passing game to the sidelines or deep downfield last year, but Chase will turn the below blue zones into a nice shade of red.
Even with Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins in the fold in Cincinnati, it may be very hard for the Bengals not to take a dynamic offensive weapon like Florida TE Kyle Pitts, Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle or Heisman-winning Alabama WR DeVonta Smith. But as enticing as that may be, keeping Joe Burrow upright so he can deliver the football is perhaps even more important.
Sewell is as good a tackle prospect as you’ll ever see, and it helps that 2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams played some right tackle in college at Alabama and has familiarity on the other side. Cincinnati slides Williams over, gives Sewell the job of protecting Joe Burrow’s blindside, and the Bengals hopefully have their bookends of the future on the offensive line locked in.
Sewell allowed just two quarterback hits on 491 pass-blocking snaps in 2019 and finished with the best run-blocking grade in the country by a full three grading points (95.7).
6. Carolina Panthers (via Eagles): QB Justin Fields, Ohio State
The Panthers have made it quite clear all offseason that they’re looking to upgrade at the quarterback position, and Teddy Bridgewater’s contract suggested that 2021 could be the year he was phased out of the offense for a rookie quarterback. He’s not exactly cuttable, but it would make a lot of sense if he served as the veteran mentor to the team’s quarterback of the future before moving on in 2022.
Fields is a dynamic player, and it seems like he’s this year’s victim of some overanalysis after an incredible sophomore season in which he threw 41 touchdowns to three interceptions. After being overlooked for QB Jake Fromm at Georgia, he once again gets overlooked for some one-year-wonder prospects in Zach Wilson and Trey Lance. This could be the steal of the draft, and we may all look back in a few years and question why he wasn’t an easy No. 2 overall pick.
The decision to not use the franchise tag on WR Kenny Golladay makes this an obvious choice for Detroit, as they’re also set to lose Marvin Jones Jr. to free agency. Waddle steps in immediately as the WR1 in Detroit.
The Alabama speedster was off to a remarkable start to the 2020 season, topping 120 receiving yards in all four games while averaging 22.3 yards per reception. Detroit and new head coach Dan Campbell, who has made it quite clear he wants tough players, will appreciate Waddle fighting his way back from what was supposed to be a season-ending ankle injury to play in the national championship game. He was clearly laboring in that game, but it was impressive that he was even out there.
8. Philadelphia Eagles (via Carolina): TE Kyle Pitts, Florida
It cannot be understated how genius it was for the Eagles to lose their Week 17 matchup against the Washington Football Team. In doing so, Philadelphia leap-frogged three teams desperate for their next franchise quarterback — the Lions, Panthers and Broncos.
Recent comments from the Eagles about prioritizing building around Jalen Hurts could be a smokescreen, and they may stay at No. 6 and draft Justin Fields to be their next franchise quarterback or even make a move up. But taking Philadelphia at their word, they’re in an exceptional position to trade down and recoup major draft capital as they look to rebuild and get younger at several positions.
Zach Ertz will likely be traded this offseason, potentially before the draft on April 29. Kyle Pitts and Dallas Goedert will form the new unstoppable tight end duo for the Eagles. Pitts’ season at Florida was nothing short of remarkable — he put up 17.9 yards per reception and was deployed all over the field. His 59 snaps lined up out wide was third among all tight ends, and he’s a willing inline blocker, as well.
The Broncos already have the best offensive line in the AFC West by a wide margin following the Chiefs' release of both starting tackles in Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, and the Raiders trading Trent Brown to the Patriots (the Chargers had the worst offensive line in the NFL in 2020). But there’s no reason Denver shouldn’t make the gap even larger, and Rashawn Slater is a can’t-miss prospect if Denver adheres to a best-player-available mentality.
They would have to find a spot for Slater along the offensive line in 2021 because they have large guaranteed salaries for both their right tackle and right guard. Denver signed right tackle Ja’Wuan James to a top-of-the-market deal in the 2019 offseason, but he played three games in 2019 before opting out of the 2020 season. James is likely uncuttable because of his contract, but Slater could take his spot in 2022 after a year adjusting to the NFL level and getting back in a groove following his own opt-out in 2020.
The Cowboys finally came to terms with quarterback Dak Prescott on a mega-deal, so they can shift their focus to a defense that needs a lot of help. Surtain was PFF’s highest-graded cornerback in 2020 (89.9), one of just two cornerbacks in the country to finish with an 80.0-plus grade in each of run defense, tackling and coverage.
The Cowboys drafted an Alabama cornerback with NFL bloodlines in 2020, selecting Trevon Diggs in the second round. They do the same here in the first round of 2021, taking the son of 11-year NFL vet Patrick Surtain. Diggs and Surtain reunite and look to lock down opposing receivers for years to come in Dallas.
If this pick doesn’t come to fruition, it may be because New York signs free agent wideout Kenny Golladay to a monster deal. But even if the Giants make that move, there’s no reason not to double down and go from one of the worst wide receiver groups in the NFL to one of the best overnight.
Smith’s 2020 season was simply off the charts. His 95.6 receiving grade tops all other wideouts in the PFF College era. He had 84 receptions go for first downs, 26 more than the next best mark, accounting for over 70% of his total catches for the season. Smith is a big play waiting to happen every time he touches the field.
12. New England Patriots (via 49ers): QB Mac Jones, Alabama
The Patriots make a trade with the San Francisco 49ers for a quarterback … but not the one you’re thinking of. Jimmy Garoppolo stays in San Francisco, although it wouldn’t be shocking if the 49ers don’t make this trade and instead take Mac Jones themselves if he’s available.
New England brought back quarterback Cam Newton, but the base value of his deal is just $5 million — not enough to preclude a move by the Patriots to find their next franchise quarterback.
Jones has been knocked for his incredible supporting cast and middling athleticism at the quarterback position, but his field processing is really strong. If any franchise understands the value of a smart quarterback, it’s New England. And Newton would serve as a great mentor to Jones as he learns the intricacies of the NFL game.
Jones’ 11.1 yards per attempt in 2020 was tied for the best mark in the nation among all quarterbacks with at least 100 dropbacks. PFF's Seth Galina sees no reason why he shouldn’t be considered a top prospect in the same vein as Tua Tagovailoa in 2020.
The Chargers' offensive line ranked 30th in pass blocking and 32nd in run blocking in 2020, easily one of the worst units in the NFL. Rookie quarterback Justin Herbert’s incredible debut campaign was all the more impressive with this taken into consideration, but he needs protection if he wants to take his game to the next level.
Darrisaw is the answer to all of Los Angeles’ problems in the offensive trenches, earning the No. 2 pass-blocking and run-blocking grades in all of college football in 2020. He allowed just six pressures on 293 pass-blocking snaps and would be a huge addition for the Chargers at their weakest position group.
14. Minnesota Vikings: EDGE Kwity Paye, Michigan
Minnesota made a trade late in the 2020 offseason for edge defender Yannick Ngakoue, but that move obviously didn’t work out; he was subsequently traded to Baltimore midseason. Vikings star edge defender Danielle Hunter is set to return after a neck injury kept him sidelined for the entire 2020 campaign, but Minnesota is clearly in the market for someone to pair with him to get after the passer.
Paye is a raw edge prospect with crazy athleticism and upside, much like Hunter out of LSU back in 2015. Vikings co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Andre Patterson is one of the best in the business, and he would be the perfect coach to tap into Paye’s potential.
15. San Francisco 49ers (via Patriots): CB Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech
The San Francisco 49ers re-signed restricted free agent cornerback Emmanuel Moseley but are still likely set to lose Richard Sherman to free agency and may also see Ahkello Witherspoon sign elsewhere. Farley is a converted wide receiver — reminiscent of Sherman's path earlier in his football career.
At 6-foot-2 and 207 pounds, he can match up with anyone, and his 90.7 coverage grade in 2019 ranked sixth among all college cornerbacks. He allowed a lowly 36% completion rate, which ranked 11th-best in the nation among cornerbacks with at least 10 targets.
16. Arizona Cardinals: T/G Alijah Vera-Tucker, USC
Arizona made its big free agent splash before anyone else, locking in a deal with J.J. Watt following his release from the Houston Texans. Now, they look to address the other side of the trenches with USC’s tackle/guard Alijah Vera-Tucker.
The Cardinals have their left tackle for the foreseeable future in D.J. Humphries, so a rookie at either guard spot would make plenty of sense. They could also explore a move to right tackle for the versatile offensive lineman. Vera-Tucker allowed just eight pressures on 305 pass-blocking snaps in 2020, so he would be a big boost for Kyler Murray’s offensive line.
Las Vegas recently restructured the contracts of both Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski, signaling the team has confidence in both players going forward, as the Raiders didn’t really need the cap space created as a result of the moves. However, neither player is on the level of the dynamic Micah Parsons.
Parsons was PFF’s highest-graded off-ball linebacker in 2019, finishing the season with a 91.6 overall mark. He can get after the quarterback at will when set loose, generating 26 quarterback pressures on just 94 pass-rush snaps.
After a dynamic athlete at linebacker comes off the board, another follows one pick later. Many believe Owusu-Koramoah is a linebacker/safety hybrid a la 2020 No. 8 overall pick Isaiah Simmons, as he can make plays all over the field on defense. His 82.3 coverage grade ranked 14th among all off-ball linebackers in 2020, and he logged over 300 snaps from the slot.
The Dolphins' trade to acquire linebacker Benardrick McKinney from the Houston Texans doesn’t preclude this pick, and they need more dynamic athletes on defense to become a truly elite unit under defensive-minded head coach Brian Flores.
It remains to be seen who will lead the Washington offense next season, but one thing is for certain: The team needs another wide receiver to pair with 2019 third-rounder Terry McLaurin. Bateman is a true X wide receiver who would pair perfectly with an explosive after-the-catch threat like McLaurin. Any quarterback would be excited to work with this hypothetical young duo.
Bateman had a dominant 2019 season at Minnesota, eclipsing 20 yards per reception and earning PFF’s 14th-best receiving grade in the nation, at 89.0. According to Bateman himself on Twitter, he ran a sub-4.40 40-yard dash at the Exos combine. He has the makings of a tried and true No. 1 wideout.
The Bears declined to exercise right tackle Bobby Massie‘s option for 2021, and Jenkins would fill in right away and perhaps be a slight improvement. The Bears' offensive line isn’t terrible — it's rather pedestrian — but the unit would benefit tremendously from Jenkins’ nastiness, particularly in the run game.
His 93.6 run-blocking grade was the third-best in the country, and he could pave the way for Chicago running back David Montgomery, just mauling whoever gets in his way.
21. Indianapolis Colts: EDGE Gregory Rousseau, Miami
The 2021 edge rusher group isn’t spectacular, but there are a handful of solid prospects with some question marks about their game, including Miami's Gregory Rousseau.
Rousseau is a lot to deal with, using his lengthy 6-foot-7 frame to hand fight tackles. He burst onto the scene in 2019 as a redshirt freshman, putting up 15.5 sacks. Rousseau opted out of the 2020 campaign, but the Colts can look to replace the void left behind by Justin Houston sooner rather than later.
22. Tennessee Titans: EDGE Azeez Ojulari, Georgia
The Titans had a hell of a time in 2020 trying to find production at edge rusher opposite 2018 second-rounder Harold Landry III, with Vic Beasley giving them nothing and Jadeveon Clowney getting hurt halfway through the season and not returning. Even if a reunion with Clowney is possible, Tennessee should still take Ojulari with this pick and not think twice.
Ojulari had the fourth-best pass-rush grade in college football among all edge rushers with at least 100 snaps in 2020, finishing the season with a 91.7 mark. He generated 37 quarterback pressures on just 193 pass-rush snaps, efficiently getting after opposing quarterbacks at will.
23. New York Jets (from Seahawks): WR Kadarius Toney, Florida
Toney is the type of offensive weapon that New York’s offense desperately needs — a do-it-all player who will keep defenses guessing snap to snap. With Jamison Crowder potentially on the way out of town, Toney takes over the slot role.
The shifty wide receiver had the eighth-most yards after the catch in college football in 2020 (477). His 20 missed tackles forced ranked fifth, as he made defenders look foolish a handful of times throughout the season. Toney will be best utilized with jet sweeps and other pre-snap motion/misdirection plays, because he has to be accounted for at all times.
With Pittsburgh potentially set to lose tackle Alejandro Villanueva to free agency, Sam Cosmi would be a nice replacement for Ben Roethlisberger’s final season, serving as a building block along the offensive line for whoever the quarterback's successor will be.
Sam Cosmi's Pro Day numbers are (expectedly) insane.
He's also one of the most productive pass-blocking OTs tackles in the class.
Leaders in pressure % allowed with play-action, screens and RPOs removed:
???? 2018: Dalton Risner
???? 2019: Tristan Wirfs
???? 2020: Sam Cosmi
— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) March 12, 2021
Cosmi’s 90.7 pass-blocking grade in 2020 ranked third among all tackles in college football, and his 86.4 run-blocking grade is nothing to scoff at, either. He tested off the charts at Texas’ Pro Day and has the makings of a blue-chip talent at left tackle for years to come.
25. Jacksonville Jaguars (from Rams): DI Christian Barmore, Alabama
New head coach Urban Meyer recently said he wanted to build the Jaguars' defense through the defensive line, and after spending first-round picks in consecutive drafts on edge rushers, taking the top interior defender this year would bolster the young unit.
Barmore's 91.5 pass-rush grade bested all interior defenders in college football in 2020, and his 39 pressures were also the most in the nation at the position. He may be the only interior defender worthy of a first-round pick in this year’s draft, but he’d be a nice addition at 25th overall.
26. Cleveland Browns: EDGE Jayson Oweh, Penn State
Edge defender Olivier Vernon suffered an Achilles injury in Week 17, right at the end of a great contract year for him. Even if the Browns bring back Vernon for 2021, he may not be 100% by Week 1, and they could stand to add more talent and get younger opposite star edge defender Myles Garrett, regardless.
Oweh is a complete player who excels at getting after the passer and against the run, posting an 81.7 pass-rush grade and a 77.0 run-defense grade in 2019. Cleveland could use help in both facets.
This is a very Ravens-type pick, but they have their approach for a reason: It’s highly successful. They add defensive backs like nobody's business and never stop addressing the cornerback and safety positions.
After the tumultuous Earl Thomas III saga, Baltimore is missing a true playmaker at safety — something the team has been accustomed to having for years. Moehrig finished the 2019 season with the second-best coverage grade among all safeties in college football, with a 91.9 mark. His 12 pass breakups led the country, as he’s always around the football.
While he took a small step back in 2020 in terms of grading, he once again had the most pass breakups among safeties (eight) in 2020. Baltimore's next great ballhawk is right here.
Collins was PFF’s highest-graded off-ball linebacker by a full three grading points, with his 91.1 overall grade being the only mark to eclipse 90.0 at the position in the country. He’s a dynamic athlete who projects perfectly for the modern game. His 93.7 coverage grade was the best in the country by a decent margin, as well.
Collins managed to generate 16 pressures on just 51 pass-rush snaps, using his quickness and burst to get into the backfield in a hurry. He would wreak havoc alongside Demario Davis, and New Orleans has clearly been trying to upgrade the position after trading for Kwon Alexander at the deadline last season.
With Zaven Collins off the board, Green Bay takes Bolton, the punishing linebacker from Missouri who absolutely lays the lumber and sets a nasty tone on defense. Bolton had a better 2019 than 2020, finishing the former year with the third-best PFF grade among all off-ball linebackers (91.1).
He’s a dynamic sideline-to-sideline athlete who will have opposing wide receivers hearing footsteps when they cross the middle of the field.
Newsome is quickly rising through the ranks after a phenomenal end to his season, headlined by a big interception of Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. He finished with the 10th-best coverage grade among cornerbacks (83.8) and allowed a mere 31.7 passer rating on the season.
Newsome simply didn't get beat deep, allowing just one reception on 15 targets of 10-plus air yards in 2020. Buffalo needs a cornerback to pair with Tre’Davious White after a bit of a revolving door, and Newsome could help form a daunting duo going forward.
Everyone saw in the Super Bowl just how ugly things can get without competent tackle play, and Kansas City has since released both of its starting tackles in Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz. The Chiefs drafted Lucas Niang in the third round in 2020, and he figures to slot in at right tackle, so Kansas City locks up Patrick Mahomes’ next blindside protector in Radunz.
It will, of course, be quite an adjustment for Radunz going from FCS edge rushers to the likes of Joey Bosa and Von Miller in the AFC West, but he held his own at the Senior Bowl with a step up in competition.
32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: EDGE Jaelan Phillips, Miami (FL)
Tampa Bay has the luxury of taking a gamble here, with the team boasting a loaded roster that is set to return most of its Super Bowl core. Phillips would have been a surefire top-10 pick if not for some concussion issues in his past, but the talent is all there.
The Buccaneers can do their extensive homework on a player not too far away in Miami, and if they aren’t overly concerned with Phillips’ injury history, then they could end up with an absolute steal. Jason Pierre-Paul is entering his age-32 season, so Phillips could seamlessly replace him opposite Shaquil Barrett if a deal can be struck there.
Courtesy of PFF’s 2021 NFL Draft Guide, find PFF's top draft prospect, biggest riser and wild card to watch at each position here: