After months and months of speculation and dissecting the tape of this year’s crop of pro hopefuls, the 2021 NFL draft is finally here.
There will be no surprises with how the draft gets off and running – the No. 1 pick has seemingly been locked in since the end of the 2020 season – but there is no shortage of intrigue in this first round, which will start at the third overall pick when the San Francisco 49ers make their quarterback choice following a blockbuster trade with the Miami Dolphins.
From there, it is set to be a fascinating opening night in Cleveland, where five quarterbacks are anticipated to come off the board in one of the best draft classes at the position in recent years.
How will the top 32 picks shake out? We take our best shot at answering that question:
The worst kept secret in the NFL draft. Lawrence has effectively been a Jaguar for a few months now, but it will be made official tonight. Are the Jaguars getting a ‘generational’ quarterback as so many believe? Well, there are a plethora of numbers to support that claim. No quarterback in the Power Five last season had a higher well-thrown percentage than Lawrence’s 84.31 in 2020. His red-zone completion percentage since 2018 of 68.5 is second in the FBS.
It’s no secret who the Jets are interested in at the second slot. After a mediocre first two seasons in Provo, Wilson burst onto the season last year with 3,692 yards and a 33/3 TD/INT ratio en route to an 11-1 season. He’ll bring big-play potential to New York; among all FBS QBs, he was the fourth-most accurate on throws of at least 20 air yards with a 72.7 well-thrown percentage (min. 20 attempts). He made 55 of those throws last season and didn’t throw a single pickable pass, making him the only QB with more than 27 such attempts to keep the ball completely out of danger.
All the noise continues to surround Alabama’s Mac Jones, though there is an increasing buzz around Trey Lance of North Dakota State. However, if the 49ers want a pro-ready quarterback who can take their offense to the next level, the answer should be Fields. His completion percentage on throws of 20-plus yards in the air of 47.9 was sixth among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts since 2018. Of quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts who averaged at least 10 air yards per attempt last season, Fields’ well-thrown percentage (80.18) was second only to North Carolina’s Sam Howell (81.31).
Pitts gives the Falcons a potential superstar playmaker at the tight end position. His versatility makes him a complete nightmare for defenses as he has the ability to line up in-line, out wide as a receiver, or in the slot. He averaged 3.93 burn yards per route – third best among tight ends – and he was one of three Power Five receivers to not drop a single pass on at least 65 targets.
Sewell will still only be 20 years old when he enters the league after having been nothing short of a rock for the Ducks in his brief Pac-12 career. Before opting out of the 2020 season, Sewell produced a stellar 2019 campaign in which he allowed only 13 pressures on 285 pass protection snaps. With an adjusted sack-allowed percentage of only 1.1 in 2019, Sewell should immediately step in and provide a massive upgrade in protection from what Joe Burrow had to endure last season as a rookie.
Chase opted out of the 2020 season, but it clearly didn’t hurt his draft stock. In a record-setting LSU offense loaded with weapons, Chase was arguably the most explosive of them all. He was one of only two players (teammate Justin Jefferson was the other) to have more than 17 burn-adjusted TDs in 2019 when he ended up with 23. Chase gives the Dolphins another desperately needed weapon for their offense.
The Lions aren’t likely to pretend Jared Goff is a long-term answer under center and should one of the top-five guys drop to this point, they’ll give drafting a quarterback serious consideration. Lance may only have one full year of college seasoning at the FCS level to his name, but an enticing dual-threat skill set that led to 42 touchdowns and zero, yes zero, interceptions in 2019 should be enough to convince the Lions that he is the man they should invest in.
Most of the talk on the offensive line is about Sewell, but Slater was impressive in 2019. The Northwestern junior gave up just six pressures in 220 pass protection opportunities, making him the single best Power Five tackle in preventing pressures on a per-snap basis. He isn’t quite the physical freak that Sewell is, but if the Panthers grab him here, he should immediately fill a gaping hole on their offensive line.
Will the lure of Mac Jones be enough to swing Denver away from sticking with Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater for the time being? Not in this instance. The Broncos have a very talented roster on both sides of the ball and add to their defense by giving Vic Fangio, who has worked with a plethora of great linebackers over the years, another one to develop. Parsons would bring athleticism and versatility after he was frequently used at both inside and outside linebacker as well off the edge. Parsons was eighth in the Power Five in run disruption percentage (14.2) among players with at least 200 linebacker snaps in his last college season in 2019.
The first of three cornerbacks with NFL fathers, Surtain II feels like a great fit for the Cowboys. He only had one interception last year (and four total in his career), but he was targeted on just 12.2% of his coverage snaps – sixth lowest among all Power Five cornerbacks. He has the skill set to adapt quickly to the Cowboys’ new Dan Quinn-led defense, which plays a lot of Cover 3 Mable with a single corner in press coverage on an island.
Regardless of whether Vera-Tucker is a tackle or a guard, the Giants could use what he brings to the offensive line. He allowed 16 pressures on 204 pass protection snaps playing at left tackle in 2020. However, playing as a guard in 2019, he gave up only five in 387 such snaps for a pressure rate of 1.3 that was the best among Power Five players with at least 200 guard snaps.
The 2020 Heisman Trophy winner had a season unlike any we’ve ever seen from a college wide receiver. He racked up 111 burns on the season, which was more than any other Power Five receiver even had targets. He also had 12 more burn-adjusted TDs and 619 more burn yards than anyone else, while also being third in burn yards per route and ninth in burn percentage. Smith also forced seven defensive penalties. Last year, the Eagles grabbed their speed guy in Jalen Reagor and Smith gives them an elite route runner to go with him.
An ideal fit for the zone-heavy defense Brandon Staley will run with the Chargers, Newsome possesses an incredible blend of athleticism and instincts and should be an impact starter from Day 1. No cornerback in the Power Five with at least 100 snaps and 25 targets had a better big plays-allowed percentage than Newsome’s 4.9 last season. His burns-allowed percentage of 13.9 also put him atop the charts and he allowed the fewest burn yards per target (3.16). Receivers were open on 38.9% of targets against Newsome, the third-lowest rate in the Power Five.
A three-year starter for Virginia Tech, Darrisaw should be a plug-and-play option at left tackle. He was an elite blocker in both the pass game and run game, allowing just 5.2% pressures and 5.4% disruptions (first and third, respectively, in the ACC). The Vikings haven’t had a tackle make the Pro Bowl since Bryant McKinnie in 2009, but Darrisaw would have the potential to change that in a couple of years.
The man many expect to head to the Bay Area actually ends up in New England, where he can learn at the feet of Nick Saban’s great friend in Bill Belichick. After Cam Newton’s struggles throwing the ball last season, Jones may be a welcome tonic whose numbers suggest he could quickly challenge for the starting role. Jones’ completion percentage of 79.1 was the best in the Power Five last season as he led the Crimson Tide to the national championship while his well-thrown percentage (83.21) was third.
Son of former New Orleans Saint and cell phone enthusiast Joe Horn, Jaycee was an elite cover corner this past year at South Carolina. No cornerback in the Power Five had a lower open-allowed percentage than Horn at 36.0, and his burns-allowed percentage of 40.0 puts him seventh best among this year’s cornerback draft class.
Would Jon Gruden take another deep threat from Alabama in the first round after admitting disappointment with how Henry Ruggs III performed in his rookie season? Of course, he would. His frightening combination of speed and agility would be near-impossible for Gruden to pass up. Waddle was third in the Power Five in burn yards per target (19.96) and fifth in open percentage (90.6) while having an average depth of target of 11.5 yards.
After their first pick gave them a new offensive weapon, the Dolphins turn to the defensive side of the ball at 18. Ojulari can be an immediate impact pass rusher for Miami; his 28.8 pressure rate was tops in the SEC and fourth-best among Power Five edge rushers.
It may not be clear what Owusu-Koramoah’s best position is, but he is a versatile chess piece who could thrive behind Washington’s beastly front four. Koramoah can play as a linebacker, on the edge and in the slot and in a league where linebackers are asked to frequently coved athletic tight ends from the latter position. Koramoah can also provide excellent value. His big plays-allowed percentage of 11 was 12th among all Power Five defenders with at least 50 snaps and 10 targets in the slot.
With their quarterback woes solved following the Andy Dalton acquisition (right?), the Bears can go get some help to shore up their offensive line. Enter Jenkins, the top offensive tackle in the Big 12 over the past two seasons. He was elite both as a pass and run blocker at right tackle and has experience at left tackle as well, making him an ideal fit in Chicago.
Paye’s production – he only had two sacks in 2020 – is a cause for concern but his tremendous athleticism and his ability to create disruption should be of significant appeal to a Colts team that has struggled to draft successful edge rushers in recent years. Paye’s pressure rate of 33.3% was second among Power Five players with a minimum of 100 edge snaps last year. Playing on the same defensive front as DeForest Buckner, he should produce early in the pros.
Barmore is pretty clearly the best option in a down year for interior defensive linemen. He is a three-down defender with success both rushing the passer (18.2 pressure rate) and defending the run (16.5 run disruption rate).
Mekhi Becton is a foundational piece at left tackle and while there are rightfully some doubts about his torn ACL, Dickerson can fill the same role for the Jets at center. That’s a spot that has to be considered one of the most important positions in the Kyle Shanahan offense that Mike LaFleur will run under Robert Saleh in New York. Last season, Dickerson gave up seven pressures on 252 pass-blocking snaps and did not concede a single adjusted sack.
If it weren’t for a shaky concussion history that saw him retire from football for a short period, Phillips could easily be a top-10 pick. Phillips is an extremely well-rounded talent on the edge that can impact the game in a wide variety of ways with his pass rush and run defending abilities. The Steelers love hard-nosed players like Phillips and he could be a great option to replace the departed Bud Dupree.
It’s time to get Lawrence a potentially elite weapon at the receiver position. A criminally underrated wideout, Bateman is a steal at this point in the draft. He can create separation with his route-running, is an excellent downfield threat and has the speed and elusiveness to make things happen after the catch. In 2019, Bateman was sixth in burn yards per target (16.15) in the Power Five while only one receiver Chris Olave (84) had a higher open percentage among receivers with an average depth of target of 15 yards or more than Bateman (70.2% on an average depth of 16.2 yards).
Davis was an elite tackler this past year at Kentucky, recording 102 tackles (fifth most in FBS) while missing on just six attempts the whole year. The Browns don’t have many holes on the field to fill, but Davis can quickly join their linebacker rotation.
Oweh, the wild card of an uninspiring edge class, did not have a sack in 2020, but a team is sure to fall in love with the untapped potential offered by his monstrous athletic traits. His pressure rate of 25.0 was 11th in the Power Five among players with 100 edge snaps and 75 pass-rush snaps. Baltimore is the ideal team to develop his skill set and even if he takes time to blossom as a pass rusher, he could still find early work on run downs after logging a run disruption rate of 20.6.
If it weren’t for multiple back surgeries, Farley would probably be our first cornerback off the board. The medicals are obviously very concerning, but if he’s right in saying this latest procedure won’t affect his ability to get on the field this fall, the Saints could be getting a steal here. Farley was arguably the top cover corner in college football in 2019, holding opposing receivers to absurdly low burn (26.7) and open (28.9) percentages.
The Packers cannot ignore the wide receiver position as they so infamously did a year ago. Moore would be a gift to Aaron Rodgers as a receiver who can start Day 1 in the NFL from the slot and has the versatility to potentially take snaps as an outside receiver. A superb ball tracker who is extremely dependable at the catch point, Moore’s catch rating of 0.985 was second on the list for Power Five receivers with at least 50 targets from the slot. His open percentage of 83.5 was sixth among the 22 receivers in that group.
We’ve documented some concerns about Rousseau, specifically regarding his pass-rushing success coming disproportionately from the interior despite being an edge player by trade. That said, his upside is obvious (his 19 pressures that resulted in sacks were second to last year’s No. 2 pick, Chase Young), and with their depth up front, the Bills could be a perfect landing spot for him.
A replacement for Orlando Brown Jr. became a clear need for the Ravens following last week’s blockbuster trade with the Kansas City Chiefs. In a talented tackle class, his successor should not be difficult to identify. Having allowed just two adjusted sacks in 251 pass protection snaps while playing left tackle for the Longhorns last year, Jones may take time to adapt to playing on the opposite side. But his talent, physical gifts and numbers indicate he has what it takes to make the transition.
Collins is an incredibly intriguing linebacker prospect that could do well to learn from the elite Devin White-Lavonte David tandem in Tampa. Collins is a versatile defender that had 18 run stuffs, seven pressures (on 35 pass rush attempts) and four interceptions (three of which came on plays where he wasn’t even the defensive target). Collins wouldn’t play right away in this scenario, but he could come along slowly watching White and David while being a sub-package player for the defending champs.