Months of speculation and prognostication are about to give way to actual action in the NFL draft.
With the COVID-19 pandemic shifting the very landscape of college football and the scouting process, this year’s first round is uniquely challenging to pin down. In last year’s final mock draft, I managed to hit on six of the first seven selections. That mark could be tough to match or beat. But with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell set to call out names Thursday night in Cleveland, it’s time to lay out the last set of projections.
Here’s USA TODAY Sports’ final first-round NFL mock draft for 2021:
1. Jacksonville Jaguars – Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
Everyone should be able to check off at least one proper projection in their mock drafts. Even Lawrence himself acknowledged his future NFL home when he thanked Jacksonville fans for their wedding gifts and donations. The 6-6, 216-pound signal-caller’s unassuming personality has yielded a quiet pre-draft process for him, but he looks poised to make plenty of noise as a rookie for a franchise eager to be competitive from Day 1 of its rebuild.
2. New York Jets – Zach Wilson, QB, BYU
Make that two selections that everyone should nail. Wilson is not the slam dunk that Lawrence is, especially in his projection to the NFL, but he does appear set to take the reins for Gang Green. His attacking mindset could make him a fan favorite – so long as he holds up in the face of pressure and proves himself worthy of this heavy investment.
3. San Francisco 49ers (from Houston Texans via Miami Dolphins) – Mac Jones, QB, Alabama
Whatever Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch decide to do here will no doubt cause consternation. After all, what quarterback could justify the 49ers trading three first-round picks and a third-round selection to move into this spot? Efficient if unspectacular, Jones seems like an odd payoff for San Francisco’s all-in approach. But Shanahan and Lynch could be betting that his accuracy and poise will invigorate a roster that’s otherwise ready to compete with the NFC’s best.
4. Atlanta Falcons – Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida
Only three tight ends – Ron Kramer, Mike Ditka and Riley Odoms – have ever gone on to become top-five picks in the NFL. Pitts looks poised to join that group as one of this year’s singular talents. While Atlanta might want to mull a quarterback to serve as Matt Ryan’s eventual successor, the 6-6, 245-pound Pitts provides a massive mismatch for the veteran passer to exploit in his remaining years.
5. Cincinnati Bengals – Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU
Cincinnati faces a tough choice in how better to serve Joe Burrow after the No. 1 pick’s rookie season was cut short by a knee injury. While the natural inclination might be to afford him better protection by bringing on offensive tackle Penei Sewell, there could be a significant allure in reuniting Burrow with Chase, an explosive target who doesn’t have many holes in his game.
6. Dolphins (from Philadelphia Eagles) – Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
Having both Pitts and Chase off the board seems like a worst-case scenario for a Miami team that carefully reshuffled its draft positioning up to this spot after initially trading from No. 3 to No. 12. Yet Waddle is no mere consolation prize for an outfit intent on boosting Tua Tagovailoa, who could attack downfield more readily if equipped with a 5-9 speedster who’s outstanding at tracking the ball.
7. Detroit Lions – Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon
New GM Brad Holmes might be in the catbird seat if this is how the first six picks pan out, with the possibility several teams could look to trade into this slot to grab one of the top available quarterbacks. If the Lions stay put, kick-starting their rebuild with a promising pass protector in Sewell would make a lot of sense for a franchise seemingly comfortable taking the long view.
8. Carolina Panthers – Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
Keep an eye on this slot for a possible trade for Fields or Trey Lance, particularly if the Patriots want to get aggressive in their pursuit of a long-term investment at quarterback. Even if Carolina remains here, however, a double-dip at quarterback could be the right move given that Matt Rhule and Co. can’t be sure of what Sam Darnold will give them. Fields’ deadly accuracy would allow him to put RB Christian McCaffrey and WRs DJ Moore and Robby Anderson in prime position to rack up yards after the catch.
9. Denver Broncos – Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State
This might seem like a hodgepodge of options at quarterback after Denver brought on Teddy Bridgewater via trade to compete with Drew Lock. But bringing the talented yet underdeveloped Lance into this dynamic might be sensible, as he could sit and learn as a rookie while the Broncos try to be competitive in 2021. If GM George Paton wants to bow out of the quarterback sweepstakes, however, he might be best served by trading back with a team eager to scoop up Lance so that he can pick up more draft assets while still positioning himself for a top defensive prospect.
10. Dallas Cowboys – Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama
The two sides have been linked since the draft order was first set, and it’s hard to shake the sensibility of this pairing. While Surtain might not be the interception machine the Cowboys have lacked for some time, the son of former Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Surtain has a master’s level understanding of technique and coverage nuances in addition to a well-rounded physical profile.
11. New York Giants – Rashawn Slater, OT, Northwestern
Dave Gettleman just can’t pass on another one of his beloved “hog mollies.” While the Giants used three of last year’s picks on offensive linemen, including offensive tackle Andrew Thomas with the No. 4 overall selection, Big Blue essentially has self-issued a mandate to support Daniel Jones, whose protection still isn’t up to snuff. And in a division where they’ll have two matchups with Chase Young every year for the foreseeable future, it doesn’t hurt to have someone who’s already proven himself up to the task of blocking the uber-talented Washington pass rusher.
12. Eagles (from 49ers via Dolphins) – DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
Whether they opt for wide receiver or cornerback, the Eagles are under pressure to get this pick right after questionable moves at both positions in recent years have left them in a bad spot. Smith can help right some of those wrongs by making life easier for Jalen Hurts with his consistent route-running and hands.
13. Los Angeles Chargers – Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina
Much as they might like to finish off their offensive line reclamation project, the Chargers could also be drawn to rebuilding their secondary with one of the top cornerbacks on the board. While it might be a stretch to liken Horn to Jalen Ramsey, new coach Brandon Staley no doubt would relish another well-built cornerback with explosive athleticism and fierce competitiveness after he worked with Ramsey last year as the Rams’ defensive coordinator.
14. Minnesota Vikings – Alijah Vera-Tucker, G, USC
Minnesota is overdue to address its longstanding issues up front. Vera-Tucker is one of the more reliable players in this class and would help stabilize the unit for Kirk Cousins and Dalvin Cook.
15. New England Patriots – Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State
Bill Belichick is never one to turn away value in the draft, and he could strike big again here. Parsons is the premier downhill tackler in this draft, and the Patriots could pounce if they aren’t intent on finding a passer.
16. Arizona Cardinals – Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech
If Arizona wants to keep pace in the NFC West, it will need a top-flight cornerback to fill the void left by Patrick Peterson’s departure. Farley has had a turbulent pre-draft process, including a microdiscectomy that leaves him on uncertain ground and a positive COVID-19 test that will prevent him from being in attendance in Cleveland, but he has the size and closing speed to be a ballhawk at the next level.
17. Las Vegas Raiders – Teven Jenkins, OT, Oklahoma State
After blowing up their offensive line this offseason, the Silver & Black still have a sizable hole at right tackle. A rugged run blocker, Jenkins seems to fit the bill of what Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden want up front as they look to get younger.
18. Dolphins – Jaelan Phillips, DE, Miami (Fla.)
Replenishing the pass rush seems prudent given Miami’s discarding of Shaq Lawson and Kyle Van Noy. Phillips, who medically retired from football in 2018 before transferring from UCLA and reviving his career, is perhaps the most talented edge rusher in this year’s class.
19. Washington Football Team – Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Notre Dame
It’s easier for an off-ball linebacker to offset questions of positional value when he can cover tight ends and running backs as easily as Owusu-Koramoah can. The dynamic hybrid defender could open up new possibilities for a defense that will have to cover a lot of ground for Washington to repeat as NFC East champs.
20. Chicago Bears – Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech
Quarterback concerns are still swirling through the Windy City, but Ryan Pace and Co. might not find an attainable option capable of stepping in with the first string right away. If Andy Dalton is to remain the starter, Darrisaw would at least help safeguard the veteran and open holes in the run game.
21. Indianapolis Colts – Kwity Paye, DE, Michigan
Unless a cornerstone left tackle is available here as a potential replacement for Anthony Castonzo, GM Chris Ballard might be inclined to try to trade back to take advantage of a pass-rushing group that’s more diverse than top-heavy. Regardless of Indianapolis’ slot, Paye should spark plenty of interest as a fluid but powerful edge presence with the physical tools to make huge strides in his game.
22. Tennessee Titans – Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota
Although Tennessee still looks like the class of the AFC South, remaining atop the division might depend on the offense’s ability to stay on track after former coordinator Arthur Smith’s departure. Bateman, whose clean releases and refined route-running make him one of the more trustworthy receivers in this class, could step in for Corey Davis as a reliable No. 2 target opposite A.J. Brown.
23. Jets (from Seattle Seahawks) – Greg Newsome II, CB, Northwestern
Robert Saleh doesn’t have much to work with in the secondary as he tries to reverse the Jets’ fortunes. GM Joe Douglas should jump at the opportunity to add Newsome, a wiry and speedy cornerback already well-versed in a Cover 3 scheme.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers – Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
Using a top pick on a running back seems like a decidedly uncharacteristic move for Pittsburgh’s typically patient brain trust, especially given the work still to be done along the offensive line. Harris, however, would supply Ben Roethlisberger with someone who could alter the complexion of the attack both as a runner and receiver.
25. Jaguars (from Los Angeles Rams) – Christian Barmore, DT, Alabama
After Tyson Alualu reversed course and re-upped with the Steelers, Jacksonville is left to ponder its options on the interior of the defensive line. Though this is an underwhelming defensive tackle class, Barmore flashes immense upside in his ability to barrel into the backfield to make plays.
26. Cleveland Browns – Jamin Davis, LB, Kentucky
A breakout junior season rocketed Davis squarely into the first-round conversation. Cleveland’s crew of linebackers is underwhelming, and the 6-3, 234-pound defender’s coverage prowess would be a real asset to the unit.
27. Baltimore Ravens – Azeez Ojulari, OLB, Georgia
After picking up the Chiefs’ first-round selection (No. 31 overall) in the Orlando Brown Jr. trade, Baltimore is well-positioned to address glaring deficiencies at both pass rusher and receiver. Ojulari compensates for his undersized build by firing off the corner and snaking around offensive tackles, and his refined set of pass-rush moves should help him become an early contributor.
28. New Orleans Saints – Asante Samuel Jr., CB, Florida State
Despite potentially being out of range for the top four cornerbacks, New Orleans still should have several options to address its most glaring need. Samuel is instinctive and savvy enough to stay on top of receivers and make plays on any pass thrown his way.
29. Green Bay Packers – Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa
Yes, receiver has to be somewhere atop Green Bay’s priority list for the draft, especially since none of the current wideouts on the roster are under contract for 2022. But Collins would add a much-needed dose of athleticism and coverage prowess, helping the defense avoid breakdowns in key spots.
30. Buffalo Bills – Joe Tryon, DE, Washington
Jerry Hughes will be 33 when the season starts and Mario Addison will be 34. Keeping both fresh and adding a bullying pass rusher in Tryon should be a top consideration for Buffalo.
31. Ravens (from Kansas City Chiefs) – Elijah Moore, WR, Ole Miss
Though GM Eric DeCosta pushed back on the public perception that his team’s receiving corps isn’t up to snuff, he might be taking a different tack once he sees the pass catchers available with the second of his first-round selections. Moore can aid Lamar Jackson with his penchant for getting open quickly on underneath routes while still forcing defenses to respect his deep speed.
32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Gregory Rousseau, DE, Miami (Fla.)
No other team is situated quite as well to invest for the long term as the defending champions, who return all 22 starters. The 6-7, 266-pound Rousseau is still learning how to beat blockers with more than merely his length and motor, but he can spell William Gholston and Ndamukong Suh while learning from the veterans, who are both scheduled to be free agents after this year.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.