News & Analysis

NFL Tank Update: The NFL teams most likely to get Trevor Lawrence in the 2021 NFL Draft

The No. 1 overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft was one of the most coveted picks in NFL draft history, but 2021's first overall pick could blow that right out of the water.

When all is said and done, Clemson's Trevor Lawrence will go down as one of the best quarterback prospects in college football history, and whichever team is lucky enough to land in that No. 1 spot will have their franchise changed forever. Lawrence produced elite, 90.0-plus PFF grades as a true freshman and sophomore, and he once again showed that he's a player worth tanking for with an elite-graded Week 1 performance against Wake Forest this year.

“College football has never seen a QB career quite like Lawrence’s. Every tool that’s needed to succeed at the position is in his toolbox.” — PFF Lead Draft Analyst Mike Renner in the Preseason 2021 NFL Draft Guide

PFF's research indicates that it takes roughly six games before we know who a team is, so we want to give you an update on the teams that are currently the front-runners to land the Clemson quarterback before we get to that point.

After simulating the NFL season from its current point 10,000 times, we now have a preliminary idea of this year's Super Bowl winner, playoff teams, division champions and, conversely, the recipient of the first overall pick of the draft. Here are the teams with the earliest average draft position in the 2021 NFL Draft, according to those simulations. Please note that we removed the teams that would clearly not take Lawrence if they had the No. 1 overall pick — teams like Miami and Cincinnati, for example.

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1. CAROLINA PANTHERS

Carolina came in 29th in our preseason offensive rankings and 32nd in our preseason defensive rankings. In Week 1, however, the Panthers looked better than anticipated to start, thanks in large part to Joe Brady's offense and a little bit of luck. Despite Teddy Bridgewater being the sixth-lowest-graded quarterback of the week, Carolina managed to rank 19th in the percentage of passes that generated positive EPA. It still isn't great, but it's better than expected.

The defense, on the other hand, looked like one of the three worst units in the NFL. No team missed more tackles against the run (10), no pass-rush produced fewer pressures (4) and no coverage unit gave up a higher rate of positive EPA (65.6%). And PFF's simulations suggest that this mediocre play isn't likely to maintain — it's going to get worse.

Teddy lucked out with two clear turnover-worthy throws that the defense couldn't capitalize on, and he finished sixth-to-last in accurate passes thrown 10-plus yards downfield. The Panthers' offense still comes in at 28th in our Massey ranking, and they have one of the toughest schedules to face this season, according to our metrics.

2. NEW YORK GIANTS

The Giants will be interesting to follow in this race because Daniel Jones played reasonably well in Week 1 to kick off his sophomore campaign. Despite being under pressure on 54% of his dropbacks — the highest in Week 1 by nearly six percentage points — Jones finished the week as the ninth-highest-graded passer in the NFL, finishing sixth in the rate of uncatchable passes thrown. That's pretty impressive with all that pressure.

Jones has always had some fearlessness in him that would show up at times under pressure. His play from a clean pocket wasn't quite as strong, however, as his clean-pocket passing grade came in at just 13th. Granted, that's still good, but that goes to show some of his success stemmed from plays made under duress, and as we know, that is not sustainable.

The Giants might want to stick with Jones (though I wouldn't because Lawrence is that good) if he continues to string together these performances. Their defense, however, is bound to keep them from any success if Jones does continue this strong play, as they are currently 28th in our defensive Massey ranking.

3. NEW YORK JETS

This year was a make-or-break year for Sam Darnold after showing very little in his first two years of NFL action. His PFF grade from 2018 to 2019 was the third-worst among qualifying quarterbacks, and then he went ahead and posted a 37.2 PFF grade to kick off the 2020 season — the worst grade of the week.

That played a big part in the passing attack finishing the week third-to-last in per-play efficiency. Now, Darnold's situation and supporting cast haven't been great, but the overall decision-making, accuracy and play when kept clean has been bad.

PFF's research and development team has done considerable work on young quarterbacks to figure out the point at which they should have shown signs of a breakout. In Darnold's case, the time has already come and gone. As my colleague Kevin Cole put it, “he isn't doomed to failure, but his path to success would be an anomaly.”

In other words, you could lose out this season and secure Lawrence or keep playing roulette with Darnold and hope everything lands the way it was planned in 2018.

4. ATLANTA FALCONS

Matt Ryan is one of the league's most underrated quarterbacks, and he's bound for the Hall of Fame. His defense, however, looked like it's going to struggle this year.

The Atlanta defense allowed 0.55 EPA per pass play against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 1, the worst mark in the NFL by a good margin (0.49 was second-worst), and Russell Wilson had his way with A.J. Terrell and Isaiah Oliver, picking the two apart for a perfect passer rating of 158.3.

Now, not every offense they face will have a quarterback like Wilson, but they do have one of the five most difficult schedules still from here on out and will have to defend quarterbacks like Dak Prescott, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes.

Ryan was the fifth-highest-graded passer from Week 1, but the offense still wasn't particularly efficient on a per-play basis. The Falcons produced -0.04 EPA per play on offense, 22nd league-wide. And that was with Atlanta's poor offensive line having a favorable matchup against one of the worst pass-rush units in the NFL.

A lot of things would have to go wrong for Atlanta to land the No. 1 overall pick, but it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world for the Falcons to go from a likely Hall of Famer to a rare prospect like Lawrence.

5. DENVER BRONCOS

Denver fans aren't going to like this one, but just imagine Trevor Lawrence, Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy all on the field together.

The Denver defense was already in a bad spot with Von Miller out for the year due to injury. It got even worse in Week 1 when cornerback A.J. Bouye suffered a shoulder injury that landed him on injured reserve. The unit as a whole gave up the sixth-worst EPA per pass play of Week 1, and if Bouye isn't able to return as soon as Week 5, things might get even worse.

Many pegged quarterback Drew Lock as a breakout candidate this season, but his Week 1 performance didn't look too much different from what we saw last year. In 2019, Lock ranked dead last in passing grade and the percentage of uncatchable passes thrown 10-plus yards downfield. Against Tennessee last week, five of his 11 targets 10-plus yards downfield were charted as uncatchable while four of his five 20-plus-yard throws were a quarterback-fault incompletion. He ended the week with the third-worst PFF grade at the position.

Of all the situations Lawrence could go to on this list, Denver might be the best one considering the set of young, talented receivers.

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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