The 2021 NFL Draft order is set — well, at least the first 18 picks are. Retirements, trades and free agency will obviously play a massive role in how each of these teams approaches the draft, but as it stands, here’s how I see the first 18 selections shaking out.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars — QB Trevor Lawrence, Clemson
Feel free to turn in the card before April 29, Jacksonville. At the very least, please don’t use up the whole 10-minute clock.
2. New York Jets — QB Zach Wilson, BYU
I already went in depth on the Zach Wilson versus Justin Fields (versus Sam Darnold) debate, and I’m sure everyone will have a calm, reasonable take on it. The discourse will surely continue to rage all the way until draft day. Even if this pick is traded, I can’t see it being anything other than a quarterback.
3. Miami Dolphins (from Houston Texans) — OT Penei Sewell, Oregon
The discussion of what the Dolphins should do with this pick will carry on all spring. One thing is clear, though. Few quarterbacks — especially rookies — would succeed behind the Dolphins' offensive line in its current form. Sewell is this year’s version of Chase Young, just on the opposite side of the ball.
4. San Francisco 49ers (from Atlanta Falcons) — QB Justin Fields, Ohio State
There are a few reasons why I strongly believe the 49ers will be the team most likely to sell the farm for one of these quarterbacks. The first is that quarterback classes like this don’t come around every year. The 49ers are too good to truly bottom-out, and they end up in a position to take one here.
Also, head coach Kyle Shanahan has never had himself a true franchise guy since taking over for the 49ers, and we saw what he did with one in Atlanta. The final reason is that all of the top guys are mobile — an element we’ve seen take run games around the league to the next level. Shanahan created magic with RG3 as a rookie, and I believe he could do something similar with Fields.
5. Cincinnati Bengals — WR Ja’Marr Chase, LSU
No more Penei Sewell, but not all hope is lost. Chase was putting up over 1,700 yards against the top corners in college football as a 19-year-old. He’s every bit the prospect A.J. Green was a decade ago. The Bengals need to find some offensive line help in free agency so they don’t pigeonhole themselves into one on draft day.
6. Philadelphia Eagles — QB Trey Lance, North Dakota State
You don’t have to look much further than Jalen Hurts‘ benching in Week 17 to see the Eagles still need a quarterback. Debate the ethics of it all you want, but Hurts has not played nearly enough to be considered the “guy” going forward. Lance brings a similar athletic skill set but with a cannon for an arm that can open up the downfield passing game.
7. Detroit Lions — EDGE Kwity Paye, Michigan
While the Lions have some young pieces to build around defensively, they still don’t have one true difference-maker. Paye has the type of physical tools to be that guy. With 22 pressures in four games this season, he showed he’s much closer to realizing that potential than previously thought.
8. Carolina Panthers — LB Micah Parsons, Penn State
Panthers defensive coordinator Phil Snow took a lot of stuff from his time at Baylor and put it into action in the NFL. It means asking players to be versatile with their roles.
There may be no more versatile athlete defensively in this draft class than Parsons. He moves like a safety, has the size of a linebacker and rushes the passer like a defensive end. He earned 85.0-plus pass-rushing and run-defense grades in 2019 en route to a 91.6 overall mark.
9. Denver Broncos — CB Patrick Surtain, Alabama
A.J. Bouye could be a cap casualty next year, and even if not, he will miss the first two weeks next year due to suspension. Surtain is a long, smart cornerback who would fit in swimmingly with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. He hasn’t allowed over 65 yards in any single game over the past two years.
10. Dallas Cowboys — CB Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech
Farley is another opt-out and will have a chance to make himself a good deal of money with his performance at the combine. He'll likely test better than anyone else at the top of the cornerback class, and at 6-foot-2, 207 pounds, that will be hard to pass up for the Cowboys. Plus, we’ve already seen it on the football field, with Farley allowing a 26.8 passer rating into his coverage in 2019.
11. New York Giants — WR DeVonta Smith, Alabama
This stacked receiver class is once again likely to push some blue-chip talents down a bit like it did in 2020. That’s music to the Giants' ears, as they are desperately in need of a true No. 1-type receiver.
Smith certainly qualifies, as he’s carried the Alabama offense despite being without his three fellow first-round receivers. He has racked up over 1,200 receiving yards, including the third-most yards after the catch in the country.
12. Atlanta Falcons (from San Francisco 49ers) — TE Kyle Pitts, Florida
This pick will depend on the next offensive coordinator, but after seeing how well Matt Ryan performed under Kyle Shanahan, I’d be surprised if the Falcons didn’t go back to that tree. In that case, a dynamic receiving weapon at tight end would be deadly in this offense. Pitts’ 96.2 grade this past season is the highest we’ve ever seen at the position.
13. Los Angeles Chargers — OT Rashawn Slater, Northwestern
The Chargers can’t risk Joe Burrow-ing their franchise quarterback. They tried their best with some of the offensive lines they threw out there early in the season, too. Slater has the athleticism and body type to play any position on the line, boasting a 90.0 grade as a left tackle in 2019 and 75.0-plus grades at right tackle in 2017 and 2018.
14. Minnesota Vikings — EDGE Gregory Rousseau, Miami (FL)
Rousseau is basically the dream prospect for what the Vikings have coveted at the defensive end position. He has uncoachable tools for days, but due to his opt-out, we didn’t get to see him take his dominance to the next level in 2020 like some others. That may make him underrated come draft time.
15. New England Patriots — QB Mac Jones, Alabama
This is another pick that will be the topic of much debate from now until draft day. It’s going to depend a whole lot on what the Patriots do at the quarterback position in free agency, as they have the fourth-most cap space of any team in the league as of now.
Jones plays an efficient and mistake-free brand of football that I could see appealing to Bill Belichick. He is one of just three college quarterbacks with 350-plus attempts and fewer than 10 turnover-worthy plays in 2020.
16. Arizona Cardinals — WR Jaylen Waddle, Alabama
It truly is a shame we didn’t get to see more of Waddle in this Alabama offense. What he did in his first four games before breaking his ankle was nothing short of special. Waddle was averaging 19.2 yards per target. Not per catch — where he averaged 22.3 yards — but per target. No one could stay with him down the field.
17. Las Vegas Raiders — EDGE Azeez Ojulari, Georgia
While the Raiders have thrown a good deal of resources at their defensive line, they still finished 28th in team pass-rushing grade. They definitely don’t have a pure speed rushing threat on the roster like Ojulari, either. While they’d ideally add some interior help, as well, this isn’t quite the class to do it.
18. Miami Dolphins — LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame
This year’s Butkus Award winner, JOK was a consistent difference-maker on one of the best defenses in America. He flashes very modern linebacker traits, as the ROVER position he played at Notre Dame would oftentimes be called a slot cornerback in NFL defenses. That will fit in any scheme — especially a man-heavy one like the Dolphins. Owusu-Koramoah finished the 2020 campaign with 75.0-plus grades in run defense and coverage.