NFL News & Analysis

Projecting starting lineups for all 32 NFL teams following the 2021 NFL Draft

We are still in the early stages of the post-draft NFL landscape, and plenty will change leading up to the 2021 NFL season. However, depth charts are now starting to take form, with the major offseason events in the rearview mirror. That allows us to start looking forward to potential starting lineups for the 2021 NFL season.

There are a few important things to note about this piece. First, I opted for a nickel starting defense (five defensive backs) for all 32 teams to keep it to 11 players, rather than listing base and nickel starters. Twenty-six of 32 NFL teams used nickel personnel on at least 50% of their snaps last season, and the Jacksonville Jaguars led the league in base personnel usage at just 39.9%. It just doesn’t make sense to list base starters when that is the case.

I would also be remiss not to mention The Athletic’s post-draft depth charts for all 32 NFL teams, a valuable resource when it came to working through this piece. My projections are a combination of information from beat writers covering each team alongside intuition from PFF’s data on who will likely come out on top in various positional battles. They will almost certainly change as the offseason progresses and we get more information from training camps and offseason workouts.

ARZ | ATL | BLT | BUF | CAR | CIN | CHI | CLE | DEN | DAL | DET | GB | HOU | IND | JAX | KC | LVR | LAC | LAR | MIA | MIN | NE | NO | NYG | NYJ | PHI | PIT | SF | SEA | TB | TEN | WFT


Battle to watch: Right guard

The right guard position was split between J.R. Sweezy and Justin Murray in 2020, and Murray is the favorite to take over as the full-time starter there next season. He already gave Arizona solid play in pass protection (73.7 pass-blocking grade last season), but the Cardinals would like to see improvement as a run-blocker (45.6 run-blocking grade). Murray’s primary competition will be eighth-year guard Brian Winters in his first year with the team. Winters has played 5,662 regular-season snaps at guard since entering the league in 2013,  15th at the position.


Battle to watch: Left guard

In terms of experience, Josh Andrews has the leg up on the starting left guard job in Atlanta. Andrews played over 100 offensive snaps for the first time in his career last season for the New York Jets, but those snaps produced an 18.1 pass-blocking grade. It would be disappointing if a third-round pick such as Jalen Mayfield weren’t able to win that competition. Mayfield is a bit of a project, but there are components to his game, such as his power, to build off. Atlanta is trending toward a starting offensive line where four of its starters were drafted in the last three offseasons. 


Battle to watch: Edge defender

The Ravens let their expensive edge defenders — Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue — walk in free agency for comp picks while they re-signed the likes of Pernell McPhee and Tyus Bowser to reasonable deals. They also spent one of their two first-round picks in this year’s draft on Odafe Oweh out of Penn State.

Oweh is barely scratching the surface of what he can be in the NFL. He may have recorded zero sacks in 2020, but he did put up two consecutive 80.0-plus pass-rushing grades to close his Penn State career.

Oweh will compete for snaps with Bowser, McPhee and Jaylon Ferguson. I only listed one true edge defender in the starting lineup because I wanted to highlight the three interior defenders, but multiple guys will rotate in at outside linebacker, and Calais Campbell is still capable of playing on the edge on occasion.

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Battle to watch: Defensive end

I opted for the incumbents — Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison — at the two starting defensive end spots, but there will be plenty of competition at the position. A.J. Epenesa, the Bills' second-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, is coming off a rotational role as a rookie in which he recorded a respectable 67.4 pass-rushing grade. He could push for more snaps in his second season.

The Bills also went all-in on the position in the 2021 NFL Draft by selecting Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham Jr. with their first two picks. Rousseau’s earliest contributions may actually come on the interior, where he used his length and get-off to win with ease against guards at Miami.


Battle to watch: Left tackle

The Panthers waited until the 70th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft to select an offensive tackle. That selection, Brady Christensen, should have an opportunity to win the starting left tackle job despite his less-than-ideal length. Elite athleticism and elite production at BYU thanks to consistent technique (95.9 PFF grade in 2020) can help account for some of his arm length deficiencies. 

The other reason I listed Christensen as the projected starter is that Greg Little, Cam Erving and Trent Scott don’t pose much of a threat: Scott earned a 49.4 overall grade in his only season with over 500 snaps, Erving graded above 50.0 for the first time in his career last season (58.0) and Little has yet to clear a 60.0 PFF grade in two seasons of limited action.    


Battle to watch: Quarterback

Andy Dalton is the betting favorite to start the season for Chicago, but I have a hard time seeing them throwing Dalton out there in a Sunday Night Football season opener. If you have consumed any PFF content this offseason, you are aware that we saw Justin Fields as a prospect who was closer to Zach Wilson and Trevor Lawrence than he was to Trey Lance and Mac Jones. He was arguably the most accurate quarterback in college football this past season; he is also a tremendous athlete and is coming off two consecutive seasons with 90.0-plus PFF grades at Ohio State. Chicago’s best chance to win is with him as the starter.


Battle to watch: Guard

Cincinnati’s offensive line will be put under the microscope this upcoming season after the organization's decision to draft Ja’Marr Chase over Penei Sewell.

The weakest part of that line remains at the guard position. Second-round pick Jackson Carman should be given every opportunity to win one of those starting guard jobs, while the remaining players competing for those two jobs include Quinton Spain, Michael Jordan and Xavier Su’a-Filo, among others. Spain has shown a high end (84.2 grade in 2016) with three consecutive solid seasons in Tennessee, which is why he is the likely favorite for that second guard spot. 


Battle to watch: Defensive tackle

The Browns will have healthy competition at multiple positions on their defense this offseason following a strong free agency and draft period. Defensive tackle is one of those spots, even after the release of Sheldon Richardson

Jordan Elliott had an underwhelming rookie season, but there is reason to believe he can take a step forward in his second season, given his college resume. He earned back-to-back PFF grades above 85.0 with Missouri in 2018 and 2019. He’ll battle for snaps alongside the returning Andrew Billings with free-agent acquisition Malik Jackson and draft acquisition Tommy Togiai.   


Battle to watch: Linebacker

It wasn’t too long ago that the Cowboys looked to have the best young linebacker duo in the NFL with Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. Several years, a few injuries and bouts of inconsistent play later led to an offseason where Dallas added three notable off-ball linebackers: Micah Parsons, Jabril Cox and safety-convert Keanu Neal. Parsons is expected to start immediately at Mike, leaving only the Will spot open for competition between Vander Esch and Smith in nickel defense. There are going to be talented players spending a lot of time on the sideline.

Parsons’ athleticism and ability to read blocks and attack downhill should pay immediate dividends in the run game. He earned a 94.8 run-defense grade in his last season of action with Penn State in 2019.   


Battle to watch: Cornerback

The Broncos went from not having enough quality starting options at cornerback to having too many. You won’t often see a top-10 pick absent from the projected starting lineup, but that’s the case for Denver here following free-agent acquisitions of Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby outside to go along with Bryce Callahan already in place in the slot. 

It’s not difficult to see Patrick Surtain II earning a role as the season progresses or potentially stepping into a starting job in the case of injury and never giving it back. Surtain combines impressive athleticism with sound technique and brings plenty of starting experience with him from Alabama. 


Battle to watch: Safety

This is one of the weaker position groups on one of the weaker rosters in the NFL. Tracy Walker’s PFF grade has steadily regressed in each of his first three seasons, from 89.8 as a rookie in limited action to 73.5 in 2019 and 51.0 this past season. He still figures to be top man on the depth chart heading into 2021.

Dean Marlowe is heading into his seventh season out of James Madison, but he has never played 250 defensive snaps in a season. He could get an opportunity in Detroit after being buried behind Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde in Buffalo these past few seasons. Will Harris is the other safety likely to factor into the competition.

Don’t be surprised if Detroit looks to add another veteran safety on the open market leading up to the 2021 season.


Battle to watch: Cornerback

The last mental image Kevin King left us with doesn’t work in his favor of winning back the starting job opposite Jaire Alexander. King allowed five receptions for 66 yards and two touchdowns in Green Bay’s playoff loss to the Buccaneers, most notably getting beaten by Scotty Miller at the end of the first half. Despite that, the Packers offered him a new contract this offseason, and he should be the favorite to start the season outside. His primary competition will be first-round pick Eric Stokes, who is coming off three consecutive seasons with coverage grades north of 73.0 at Georgia.     


Battle to watch: Quarterback

The Davis Mills pick was interesting for Houston in the sense that they are in prime position to land the No. 1 overall pick in 2022. So why are they taking a quarterback with their third-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft when they had little draft capital to work with to improve a depleted roster? The Texans must have coveted the former five-star recruit’s quick decision-making. Mills got rid of the ball in under 2.5 seconds on average over the past two seasons at Stanford. 

He’ll compete for the starting job with Tyrod Taylor, who has lost his spot as a starter to rookie quarterbacks at each of his last two stops. Taylor’s last full season as a starter (2017) came with a 77.7 PFF grade and a trip to the playoffs with Buffalo. Still, it’s hard to imagine that Mills won’t get an opportunity at some point before the Texans have to make another decision at quarterback next offseason. 


Battle to watch: Defensive end

The Colts made the defensive line an emphasis in the 2021 NFL Draft, selecting defensive ends with their first two picks. Their first-round selection, Kwity Paye, stands out as an immediate contributor. Paye earned a career-high 87.1 pass-rushing grade this past season at Michigan in a limited sample. He has freakish movement skills at his size.

Dayo Odeyingbo won’t be able to make an impact out of the gates after suffering a torn Achilles in January, but his inside/outside versatility improves the long-term outlook up front.

Kemoko Turay will compete with the likes of Tyquan Lewis, Al-Quadin Muhammad, Ben Banogu and Isaac Rochell for the other spot opposite Paye. Turay flashed dominance as a pass-rusher in 2019 (91.0 pass-rushing grade), but he has been unable to stay on the field since.


Battle to watch: Defensive line

I left two interior defenders in the projected starting nickel defense, but Jacksonville will likely run a three-man defensive line when in base. That leaves trade acquisition Malcom Brown to compete with Davon Hamilton at nose tackle. Roy Robertson-Harris, Doug Costin, Jay Tufele, Jihad Ward, Dawuane Smoot and Taven Bryan will all compete for spots up front, as well.

The real key will be how big of a step starting edge defenders Josh Allen and K’Lavon Chaisson can take in their third and second year, respectively. Chaisson ended the 2020 season on a high note, with 19 of his 29 pressures coming in his final five games.


Battle to watch: Cornerback

The trade for Mike Hughes is the latest in a trend of the Chiefs taking a high-volume, low-risk approach to adding players at the cornerback position. Along with Deandre Baker, he will compete for playing time in Kansas City this offseason after things didn’t work out for the former first-round picks at their first stops. There’s also the possibility that Bashaud Breeland returns to the team in free agency. 

If Breeland doesn’t come back, L’Jarius Sneed is the player to watch. He was arguably the best rookie cornerback in the NFL last season with an equal amount of time spent in the slot and out wide. The Chiefs have options between Sneed and Rashad Fenton. Both played at least 150 snaps in the slot and outside last season. 


Battle to watch: Cornerback

Casey Hayward Jr. may not be the same elite player that he was earlier in his career, but there is still a good chance that he is one of the Raiders’ two best options outside. Last year marked the first season in Hayward’s career that he earned a PFF grade below 75.0 on significant snaps. With Trayvon Mullen expected to have one starting spot out wide locked down, Hayward will likely be competing with Damon Arnette for the other after Arnette allowed a 129.2 passer rating into his coverage as a rookie last season.

There is also an opening in the slot for Las Vegas following the departure of Lamarcus Joyner. PFF favorite Amik Robertson played in just 35 snaps as a rookie last season out of Louisiana Tech, but he should receive an opportunity to compete for that position. He earned a 90.2 overall grade in his final season with the Bulldogs in 2019.


Battle to watch: Defensive line

There is a lot of talent throughout the Chargers’ roster, but the defensive line has some questions beyond All-Pro talent Joey Bosa. Jerry Tillery has played both inside and outside for Los Angeles across his first two seasons, and neither alignment yielded success, as Tillery failed to clear a 45.0 PFF grade in either 2019 or 2020. He and Justin Jones should take most of the interior snaps alongside Linval Joseph, but the Chargers did bring in Christian Covington, as well. Uchenna Nwosu and Kyler Fackrell will battle for snaps at the edge spot opposite Bosa.   


Battle to watch: Center

Austin Blythe started all 18 games at center for the Rams in 2020. Now, he will be competing for a starting job on a suddenly crowded Chiefs offensive line. That leaves Los Angeles relatively thin at the position heading into next season. Brian Allen started nine games at center for the Rams in 2019 (45.4 pass-blocking grade), but Allen missed the entire 2020 season while recovering from a significant knee injury he suffered in 2019 and a battle with COVID-19. 

Coleman Shelton and Austin Corbett are the other options at center. Corbett began his career at center with the Browns, but he has only played both guard positions for the Rams in recent years. Corbett earned a career-high 73.4 PFF grade at right guard last season.


Battle to watch: Right tackle

Robert Hunt is expected to kick inside to right guard with fellow 2020 draftee Solomon Kindley replacing Ereck Flowers on the left side. That opens an opportunity for Jesse Davis, D.J. Fluker and Liam Eichenberg to compete for the starting right tackle job. Davis and Fluker have the benefit of starting NFL experience, but Eichenberg’s consistent technique should allow him to contribute out of the gates. He’s coming off an 89.9 PFF grade at left tackle with Notre Dame in 2020.


Battle to watch: Cornerback

This may be less of a battle than it was shaping to be just a few weeks ago. The Mike Hughes trade removes one player from the competition, and Jeff Gladney could be facing a suspension following assault charges this offseason. If available, Gladney would compete with Mackensie Alexander for a slot role after a shaky rookie season (48.5 coverage grade), with Patrick Peterson and Cameron Dantzler presumably starting outside. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Vikings look to add another cornerback in free agency, given the lack of depth behind those four, though.


Battle to watch: Quarterback

Cam Newton was put in a tough situation last season. It’s always going to be difficult to lead an effective passing offense when your team leaders in routes run are Damiere Byrd, Jakobi Meyers, N’Keal Harry and Ryan Izzo. Assuming Newton beats out first-round selection Mac Jones for the job to start the season, he will have significantly better receiving options to work with in 2021. The supporting cast in New England still pales in comparison to what Jones had to work with in Alabama last season when he earned a 95.8 PFF grade. 


Battle to watch: Linebacker

Zack Baun was expected to transition from an edge role at Wisconsin to an off-ball linebacker role in the NFL. That didn’t happen in his first season with the Saints. Baun lined up in the box on just nine of his 102 defensive snaps, with the remainder coming in an edge defender alignment.

He should receive an opportunity to compete for a starting job in nickel alongside Demario Davis, but New Orleans’ second-round selection Pete Werner could pose a challenge. Werner has NFL size and athleticism, and it’s not nearly as difficult to project his role as it was for Baun after Werner’s three years at Ohio State.


Battle to watch: Nickel

The Giants have a problem in their secondary: They have too many starting options.

It’s certainly not the worst problem to have. I opted for their top three safeties: Logan Ryan, Jabrill Peppers and Xavier McKinney in the starting lineup. That group gives them enough slot versatility to where they don’t necessarily need a third cornerback on the field in nickel. Darnay Holmes and Aaron Robinson will also both compete for the starting nickel job. Robinson played the slot at UCF, but his size and experience in press coverage could give him the opportunity to compete outside, as well.


Battle to watch: Cornerback

The Jets have made a lot of promising moves this offseason, from the coaching staff to personnel. However, the cornerback group remains a glaring weakness. While 2020 fifth-round pick Bryce Hall showed flashes — particularly his Week 15 performance against the Rams — New York is lacking high-end talent at the position. They don’t have a cornerback in contention for a starting job who was drafted before the fifth round, including 2021 draft selections Jason Pinnock out of Pittsburgh and Michael Carter II out of Duke. A free-agent acquisition to man one of the starting jobs outside seems likely.


Battle to watch: Left tackle

Former first-round pick Andre Dillard’s career has not gotten off to a tremendous start. He earned a 59.7 overall grade in spot-start duty as a rookie before missing the entirety of the 2020 season with injury. Meanwhile, former rugby player Jordan Mailata actually exceeded expectations in his 10 starts at tackle in 2020 with a 70.3 PFF grade. That should be enough to make him the favorite to start next season at left tackle for Philadelphia, even with the draft investment advantage going to Dillard.


Battle to watch: Cornerback

There has been much talk this offseason about the Steelers’ offensive line, but the cornerback position is in a similarly precarious spot following the departures of Steven Nelson outside and Mike Hilton in the slot. 

Cameron Sutton is all but guaranteed a starting job with Joe Haden after the team re-signed him to a two-year, $9 million contract this offseason. It just remains to be seen whether he plays outside or as the nickel. Sutton played over 200 snaps in both alignments last season. Meanwhile, 2019 third-round pick Justin Layne and 2020 undrafted free agent James Pierre will be the primary competitors for the third starting spot in nickel, but Arthur Maulet and Shakur Brown could also factor into the competition. 


Battle to watch: Quarterback

The longer Jimmy Garoppolo remains on the roster, the more likely he is to be the Week 1 starter. The 49ers could save over $20 million against this year’s cap by releasing him, but they may not view Trey Lance as ready to start the season with concerns about his limited experience against low-level competition. 

I’ve previously written about how Lance’s athleticism and ability as a runner (821 designed rushing yards in 2019), intelligence and care with the football (five turnover-worthy plays in all of 2019) give him a higher floor than most believe. Getting him early reps wouldn’t be the worst thing for San Francisco, even if it looks to be unlikely.   


Battle to watch: Defensive line

The Seahawks are still missing a pure 3-technique following the release of Jarran Reed. That could be recent signing Robert Nkemdiche, but it’s difficult to bank on a player who has played 16 snaps in the past two seasons being a legitimate contributor. L.J. Collier is the favorite to maintain his 5-tech role, but I could see Kerry Hyder pushing him for that job. Hyder is coming off a career year with San Francisco in 2020 (55 pressures).

The LEO spot should be an interesting competition between free-agent signing Benson Mayowa, Carlos Dunlap and Alton Robinson, with Darrell Taylor expected to move to SAM. I gave the edge to Dunlap, whose 31 pressures in nine games with Seattle last season more than doubled his total with the Bengals in seven games.   


Battle to watch: Running back

Re-signing Leonard Fournette was part of the Buccaneers’ run-it-back offseason. His playoff performance could make him the front runner to receive early-down work to start next season. However, Ronald Jones was the better runner for much of the 2020 campaign (84.7 rushing grade compared to Fournette’s mark of 70.9). 

The signing of Giovani Bernard fills a clear need for a pass-catching running back out of the backfield, as Tampa Bay running backs combined to drop a league-high 15 passes in 2020. Those three backs create a difficult path to the field for 2020 third-round pick Ke’Shawn Vaughn.


Battle to watch: Right tackle

One of the Titans’ cap casualties this offseason was last season’s starting right tackle, Dennis Kelly. Clearly, the expected succession plan to 2020 first-round pick Isaiah Wilson did not go according to plan. 

That leaves 2021 second-round selection Dillon Radunz to compete with depth options such as Kendall Lamm and Ty Sambrailo for the starting job this offseason. Radunz will need to continue to add strength in the NFL, but he was one of the more impressive offensive linemen at the Senior Bowl and has high-end athleticism to work with. Lamm and Sambrailo have just one season with more than 500 offensive snaps between them in 12 career seasons.     


Battle to watch: Safety

Washington is left with an interesting decision at strong safety following Landon Collins’ return from injury. Seventh-round rookie Kamren Curl played well in relief there last season, picking up a 68.4 PFF grade on over 800 snaps. The majority of those snaps came in the box and slot, making a pairing with Collins difficult. The Football Team recently brought in Bobby McCain from the Miami Dolphins, who will compete with Jeremy Reaves at free safety. Reaves earned an impressive 84.1 PFF grade in limited action down the stretch last season.


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