The 2021 NFL Draft kicks off in Cleveland in just 10 days! It’s a thrilling time to be a football fan.
This year’s draft features more unknowns than just about any draft and draft class in memory. Between opt-outs, no Combine, limited access to pro days and limited college schedules and competition, it’s unprecedented chaos entering the home stretch.
Here are 10 thoughts I have right now on the draft and what might happen on April 29-May 1st.
I think the top-2 picks are set in stone
It’s probably not a surprise to anyone to see a prediction of Trevor Lawrence as the No. 1 pick and Zach Wilson going No. 2. It would be nice to have some drama at the top, but there isn’t any sign of it coming. Go ahead and order those jerseys, Jaguars and Jets fans.
I still believe Justin Fields goes No. 3 overall
This is not intended to be disrespect to Mac Jones, a quarterback I actually liked more the more I watched him. But he’s not close to Justin Fields as a passer, as an athlete or as an overall prospect. I still refuse to believe some allegedly smart and savvy football people like 49ers GM John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan wouldn’t see that.
I know there are many people who are well-connected to both the draft and to the 49ers who insist Jones will be the pick. I believe their sincerity, too. I just can’t believe that’s the move until Roger Goodell announces it sometime next Thursday.
The Falcons hold the key to the next several picks
Atlanta picks at No. 4 and what they choose to do holds incredible ripple effects for the rest of the top 10, and even beyond. They have many options:
--take Florida TE Kyle Pitts
--take North Dakota State QB Trey Lance (or Fields if he falls)
--trade the pick to a team looking to come up for the fourth QB (especially if it’s Fields)
--throw out a wild card selection like Alabama CB Patrick Surtain or Michigan EDGE Kwity Paye
My current money is on a team trading up to land the 4th QB, or Pitts if the Falcons stay put. I do think there’s more potential for the first defensive players coming off the board here, specifically Surtain.
The next three picks are easy to identify but hard to slot
Picks 5 through 7 belong to Cincinnati, Miami and Detroit. The three players they will take (presuming Pitts is gone at 4) are Oregon OT Penei Sewell, LSU WR Ja’Marr Chase and Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle.
Who goes where? Spin a wheel, throw a dart, flip a coin. The best current guess, based on conversations I’ve had with insiders for all three teams:
Bengals - Chase
Dolphins - Waddle
Lions - Sewell
That could change three times from the time I write this to the time you read it. But I do feel oddly confident those will be picks 5-7 in some order.
Now if Pitts is still on the board, that changes the dynamic. Miami didn’t trade back up to 6 to not take a weapon, and Pitts is the most unique weapon in the class.
Denver lands a QB without trading up
I am part of the groupthink that sees Denver taking a quarterback with the No. 9 pick. If Fields or Lance are still on the board, and one of them should be, new GM George Paton gets to select his new franchise QB. If he wants one…
And that’s part of the chaos this year. Paton is a rookie GM and leads a team that might have a QB but also might not. Detroit and Brad Holmes are in the same boat, though Jared Goff with the Lions is quite a bit better than Drew Lock has played for Denver. Those two unpredictable situations really monkey with the predictive models.
Hypothetically speaking, let’s say the Broncos don’t take a quarterback. I see them selecting Penn State LB Micah Parsons for LB-centric head coach Vic Fangio and with Paton coming from a Vikings team that has emphasized athleticism on defense in prior drafts.
Jaelan Phillips is the next big wild card
The Miami EDGE is straight out of central casting physically. Phillips has length, burst, twitch, speed and power, the complete athletic package. It showed impressively on Hurricanes tape in 2020 beyond his 8 sacks in 10 games.
But he’s got a difficult medical history to consider. Phillips wound up at Miami because he suffered at least three concussions at UCLA, and he was forced to medically retire. Without knowing how teams feel about his medicals, particularly in an era where concussion awareness and long-term health implications are far more prominent than ever before, it’s impossible to project Phillips. He could be the first defender off the board. He could fall out of the first round, though I doubt it. Get used to seeing him slotted all over the map. That’s not an accident.
Later first-round pairings that make a lot of sense
In surveying some fresh mock drafts, there are a few team/player pairings after the first 10 or so picks that I really like. They’re speculative, of course, but I think the consensus is onto something with these:
Philadelphia at 12: Devonta Smith, WR, Alabama
New England at 15 (assuming it’s not Mac Jones): Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa
Washington at 19: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Notre Dame
New York Jets at 23: Azeez Ojulari, EDGE, Georgia
Pittsburgh at 24: Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
Cleveland at 26: Greg Newsome, CB, Northwestern
What are the Browns thinking at 26?
I cover the Browns as the managing editor of Browns Wire, so I’ll throw out what I know here…
First, signing Jadeveon Clowney didn’t impact their draft, not one bit. Clowney is injury-prone and on a one-year deal, and the same is true of Takk McKinley. They bought a year but it won’t stop them from taking an EDGE, particularly one with some positional versatility like Zaven Collins (more a LB) or Paye (more a DE).
Releasing Sheldon Richardson did, however. That speeds up the clock on their need at DT. I know they’ve spent a lot of time on the top DTs in this class. Having said that, I do not know how they feel about top DT Christian Barmore from Alabama. Based on a conversation I had with someone close to the situation last week, they don’t expect him to be there--but he’s absolutely a strong favorite if he’s still on the board.
The second tier of DTs, a grouping that includes Louisiana Tech’s Milton Williams, Iowa’s Daviyon Nixon, North Carolina State strongman Alim McNeil and squatty LSU bulldog Tyler Shelvin, is where I expect the Browns to tap the market. They have an extra 3rd round pick (89 and 91) and I’m a big believer one of those goes to DT if they don’t get Barmore. Of that group, I’d pounce on Williams. I think GM Andrew Berry will too. Don’t be surprised if they trade up, though they won’t force it.
QBs after the top 5
As always happens, the NFL unapologetically will wildly overdraft quarterbacks in hopes of scratching off the winning lottery ticket. Almost without exception, they’ll be left with a lapful of that annoying silvery gunk that doesn’t come out of your fingernails or jeans easily.
I don’t see any QBs in the first round after the top five, not this year. Too many teams have viable options or young enough recent draft picks with some remaining potential to rush it in the first. Day 2, however…
There is a lot of buzz about Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond coming off the board in the first half of the second round. Keep an eye on Denver there, or possibly New England. Expect Davis Mills from Stanford and Kyle Trask from Florida to also be second-round picks.
I believe the big chasm comes after that trio. There might not be another QB taken after Trask (or Mills, whoever comes later) for over 100 picks.
Players I consistently hear the media is too high on
One of the things I regularly do is send mock draft projections to NFL team employees I trust, a few agents and a trusted old source who has been wildly helpful--and mostly correct--over the years. And I generally get honest feedback. Here’s what I have gotten back this year, as well as what others have intimated in various outlets.
The NFL doesn’t see these players nearly as lofty as the draft media does, and why if applicable:
Devonta Smith, WR, Alabama (size and Jaylen Waddle’s pre-injury performance outshining him)
D’Wayne Eskridge, WR, Western Michigan (overage and level of competition)
Baron Browning, LB, Ohio State (uneven play, no easy positional fit)
Jamin Davis, LB, Kentucky (one-year wonder)
Dillon Radunz, OT, North Dakota State (level of competition)
Ar’Darius Washington, S, TCU (size)
It doesn’t mean they’re primed for a massive fall. Smith is still a top-20 lock. Browning and Davis will go in the top two rounds, Radunz likely does as well. But it’s an indication that they’re more generally expected to get drafted earlier than the NFL sources believe they will.