Following an NFL season the likes of which we have never seen and perhaps may never see again, the 2021 NFL Draft process is likewise proceeding in an unprecedented fashion as the nation continues to recover from and adjust to the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In years past, where front offices, scouts, and the larger draft media community have all had access to a full library of game tape, a series of valuable touchpoints on the path to the draft, and a packed schedule both traveling to players and bringing them in to see and meet them in person and to further evaluate talent and character, this year is a notable exception.
Indeed, dozens of top prospects opted out for the full 2020 college football season or after a partial slate of games, while others played shortened seasons due to administrative decisions. Draft-eligible seniors joined underclassmen in announcing their intentions, finding themselves in the unusual position of having to declare whether they were entering the draft or returning for a super-senior season in 2021.
The East-West Shrine Bowl and NFLPA Collegiate Bowl were both cancelled, leading to a super-sized Reese’s Senior Bowl, supplemented by the College Gridiron Showcase and Hula Bowl. The NFL Scouting Combine as we know it was also cancelled, pulling arguably the second-biggest event of the NFL calendar year from the schedule. And while they press on, college pro days are limited in attendance and large on scrutiny, as they serve, for many prospects, as the one and only opportunity to be seen.
Beyond the circumstances affecting the league and the incoming draft class, it’s also uncharted territory for all of us who enjoy the NFL Draft and the exercise that is the mock draft, as these variables expect to make this perhaps the most difficult year, certainly in recent memory, to project who is going where. Which will make it even more of a challenge for me to try and do what to my knowledge has never been done by anyone before — be recognized as having the most accurate mock draft in the world for a second consecutive year and repeat as both The Huddle Report Mock Draft Scoring Champion and The Mock Draft Database HERC Score Champion.
With that being said, I am pleased to present — without a doubt, the most anticipated mock draft that I have ever put together — my 2021 NFL Mock Draft 1.0. These first-round projections are based on the current draft order and my impression of team needs as of March 24, and do not reflect any potential trade scenarios. Enjoy!
1 | Jacksonville Jaguars — Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
A selection more than two years in the making, the long-awaited entry of Trevor Lawrence into the professional ranks sees him report to Jacksonville as the Jaguars’ new franchise quarterback.
2 | New York Jets — Zach Wilson, QB, BYU
With Sam Darnold effectively heading into a contract year and having not panned out thus far, the Jets elect to reset at quarterback with Zach Wilson, who some teams reportedly view as the top prospect at the position over Lawrence.
3 | Miami Dolphins (via HOU) — Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida
If this pick isn’t part of a trade package involving a team moving up for a quarterback, the Dolphins could very well make Kyle Pitts, a uniquely gifted athlete, the highest drafted tight end — or prospect generally classified as such — in NFL history.
4 | Atlanta Falcons — Rashawn Slater, OL, Northwestern
The restructuring of Matt Ryan’s contract complicates the idea of the Falcons drafting his successor here. While still a possibility, the Falcons may instead invest in protection for the veteran quarterback with the selection of Rashawn Slater, a cornerstone offensive lineman with five-position flexibility.
5 | Cincinnati Bengals — Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon
Reuniting quarterback Joe Burrow with his college teammate Ja’Marr Chase is certainly within play here, but a long-term solution at left tackle expects to still be the priority for the Bengals. Penei Sewell is the most promising candidate for the role remaining on the board.
6 | Philadelphia Eagles — Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU
Depending on the day, the Eagles are planning to build around quarterback Jalen Hurts, draft his replacement, or put this pick up for auction to highest bidder. Assuming they stay put and move forward with their current QB1, Ja’Marr Chase would become their top weapon the second the commissioner says his name.
7 | Detroit Lions — Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
The Lions have a new coach and a new quarterback, but their wide receiver depth chart as it stands wouldn’t seem to offer Dan Campbell and Jared Goff all that much to get excited about. Drafting the electric Jaylen Waddle instantly changes that.
8 | Carolina Panthers — Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
Carolina is a popular choice to take one of the top quarterback prospects off the board, either here or in a trade up. While the franchise has been linked to Trey Lance and the coaching staff worked with Mac Jones at the Senior Bowl, it is Justin Fields who gets the nod on draft night in this scenario.
9 | Denver Broncos — Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State
In terms of need, cornerback has been a blinking red light for the Broncos all offseason. But after making moves to shore up the position in free agency, they can try their hand once again at finding their quarterback of the future with Trey Lance, who makes up for what he lacks in experience with prototypical tools and through-the-roof upside.
10 | Dallas Cowboys — Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama
The Cowboys selected Alabama cornerback Trevon Diggs in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft. You can trust they started doing their homework on Patrick Surtain II then and, after a strong season and stellar Pro Day, should now know all they need to know. As part of the team’s secondary rebuild, the college teammates find themselves back together in Dallas.
11 | New York Giants — Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa
In recent years, the Giants have been shown to make draft night… well, interesting. Drafting Zaven Collins here would be another case of their board not necessarily aligning with the consensus, but they might see value in a big, versatile defender who could be deployed in multiple ways within their scheme.
12 | San Francisco 49ers — Mac Jones, QB, Alabama
While they’ve not jumped on to ride, the 49ers have seemingly had their ticket ready for every spin of the quarterback carousel this offseason. As it stands, Jimmy Garoppolo will be back for another go with San Francisco, but he could be looking over his shoulder at Mac Jones.
13 | Los Angeles Chargers — Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina
Turning over much of their offensive line, the Chargers could look to round out the front five with Alijah Vera-Tucker or Christian Darrisaw, but cornerback is also a glaring need. With a new defensive-minded head coach in Brandon Staley, the pick just might be Jaycee Horn, who is firmly in the mix as the top CB in this draft.
14 | Minnesota Vikings — Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech
If they don’t attempt to move down to recoup additional picks, expect the Vikings to prioritize either the offensive or defensive edge with their first pick. In this scenario, Christian Darrisaw steps in as the new starting left tackle following the release of Riley Reiff.
15 | New England Patriots — Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, S, Notre Dame
The odds are better than average that the Patriots won’t be picking here on draft night. They typically drop down, but after making a splash in free agency, they are rumored to be gearing up to climb the board for a quarterback. In lieu of movement here, they stand in and draft the versatile JOK, who can pair with a similar hybrid defender in Kyle Dugger to seek and destroy in space.
16 | Arizona Cardinals — Greg Newsome II, CB, Northwestern
The Cardinals are among the teams most frequently projected to snag one of the top cornerbacks available, but with Patrick Surtain II and Jaycee Horn already spoken for, and with medical and durability concerns casting doubt over the draft status of the highly regarded Caleb Farley, they pivot to riser Greg Newsome II to fill a dire need.
17 | Las Vegas Raiders — Landon Dickerson, OL, Alabama
After building a vaunted offensive line over the past few years, the Raiders effectively dismantled the entire thing in one offseason. Looking to reconstruct yet keeping with their typical eyebrow-raising draft approach, they take Landon Dickerson, who is a first-round talent but comes with a lengthy injury history.
18 | Miami Dolphins — DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
Back on the clock for the second time, the Dolphins will likely look to continue arming the offense, possibly at running back with Najee Harris or Travis Etienne. However, with Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith still on the board, they steal a player they expect to seriously consider drafting third overall.
19 | Washington Football Team — Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State
Washington is another team that could be in the market to move up to secure one of the top five quarterbacks. That’s not in the cards here, but bringing highly touted linebacker Micah Parsons into the fold would be a fine consolation prize — and make an already feared defense downright scary.
20 | Chicago Bears — Alijah Vera-Tucker, OL, USC
With the wide receivers they have seemingly not long for Chicago, the Bears expect to look long and hard at a pass catcher here. But, given the depth of this draft class at the position, they could instead consider an upgrade to the offensive line. Alijah Vera-Tucker makes sense as a plug-and-play blocker wherever they need him up front.
21 | Indianapolis Colts — Alex Leatherwood, OT, Alabama
The Colts are in prime position to add a wide receiver, a pass rusher, or a cornerback, but left tackle could be the focus here. The experienced and highly decorated Alex Leatherwood tested out more athletic than expected at his Pro Day and is deserving of a crack at tackle. He should be just fine parked next to a perennial All-Pro in Quenton Nelson.
22 | Tennessee Titans — Teven Jenkins, OT, Oklahoma State
With last year’s first-round pick Isaiah Wilson proving to be an epic bust and expected starter Dennis Kelly being released, the Titans are in need of an immediate answer at right tackle. Enter Teven Jenkins, a massive mauler with a nasty on-field demeanor who would help pave the way for the offense to do what they do best — run the football.
23 | New York Jets (via SEA) — Kwity Paye, EDGE, Michigan
With the Jets adding Carl Lawson and Sheldon Rankins in free agency, GM Joe Douglas and new head coach Robert Saleh have made it clear that remaking the defensive front is one of the top items on their agenda. Drafting physical marvel Kwity Paye to line up opposite Lawson is another step in that direction.
24 | Pittsburgh Steelers — Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
Leaning on a committee-based backfield approach, the Steelers put forth the least effective rushing attack in the league last season. Drafting a true load-bearing feature back in Najee Harris would go a long way towards righting the run game and bringing balance back to their offense.
25 | Jacksonville Jaguars (via LAR) — Joseph Ossai, EDGE, Texas
The Jaguars’ second pick in the opening round is not nearly as predictable as their first. After ranking next to last in sack production, another pass rusher might be the target. The Texas connection with defensive staffer Chris Ash gives the relentless Joseph Ossai the edge here over the other edge defenders remaining on the board.
26 | Cleveland Browns — Azeez Ojulari, EDGE, Georgia
The Browns could be a candidate to bail out of the first round if the right scenario meets the right offer. However, standing in to pick here, they could be in a position to draft the highest-rated player on their board. In this case, that might be Azeez Ojulari, a talented edge rusher who continues to build momentum heading into April.
27 | Baltimore Ravens — Christian Barmore, DL, Alabama
Edge, center, and wide receiver are all viable considerations for the Ravens here, but the organization typically subscribes to selecting the best player available early. Christian Barmore is a beastly inside presence who should only get better and would make sense for a team with a defensive front that deploys multiple starters over 30.
28 | New Orleans Saints — Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech
In the mix as CB1 and possibly the top defensive prospect overall throughout the process, Caleb Farley is now fresh off back surgery, which follows his COVID-19 opt out in 2020 and being inactive for the final two games of 2019 due to injury. With his draft stock presently a mystery, it may now come down to whether a secure organization like the Saints is willing to absorb the inherent risk for him not to fall out of the first round.
29 | Green Bay Packers — Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida
Will this be the year the Packers finally draft a wide receiver in the first round? It remains to be seen, but should they pass, it certainly won’t be for lack of options. Assuming they break from convention, Kadarius Toney would be a fun fit in the Green Bay offense and would give Aaron Rodgers a different type of weapon with which to work.
30 | Buffalo Bills — Jaelan Phillips, EDGE, Miami
While the Bills have a solid collection of edge defenders, they lack a true stud pass rusher. Fortunately, they should be within striking distance of several prospects who can get after the quarterback. Jaelan Phillips might actually be the best of the bunch in terms of talent and potential and, if he checks out medically, would be a steal at the back of the first round.
31 | Kansas City Chiefs — Liam Eichenberg, OT, Notre Dame
Offensive tackle has been far and away the most popular projection for the Chiefs here and understandably so. While there are compelling options down the board, the fear of missing out and the subsequent fear of compromising Patrick Mahomes might force their hand. Liam Eichenberg is the latest rock-solid blocker to launch from the Notre Dame o-line factory and a fitting selection late in the first.
32 | Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue
The reigning Super Bowl Champions have done an incredible job at retaining talent this offseason. However, one player not currently re-signed is receiver Antonio Brown. The Buccaneers may still run it back with the veteran, but if they don’t, you can bet Bruce Arians would certainly entertain the idea of adding the firecracker that is Rondale Moore to his offense.