The NFL Draft is like football Christmas. General managers choose their new toys and fans are hopeful this crop of talent entering the league will take their team to the promised land.
Franchises can be made or broken in the short-term by their first-round selection, and as usual rumours are swirling around who the 2021 first-rounders will be as Thursday night approaches.
Below is Sportsnet’s complete first-round mock draft, including each team’s three greatest draft needs – a factor that has been worked into the decision-making process for where to slot certain players.
Now, close your eyes and envision we’re on the stage in Cleveland as commissioner Roger Goodell strolls to the podium.
“With the first pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Jacksonville Jaguars select…”
1. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-15)
Team Needs: QB, OL, S
PICK: Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
This has been the no-brainer choice for months. Unless Urban Meyer found out that no one came to Trevor Lawrence’s birthday party (Draft Day movie reference, look it up!), then the man they call “Sunshine” will be Jacksonville’s new franchise quarterback.
2. New York Jets (2-14)
Team Needs: QB, CB, RB
PICK: Zach Wilson, QB, BYU
The lack of high-end competition at BYU compared to what Justin Fields faced with Ohio State is my only pause when it comes to Wilson.
If new head coach Robert Saleh and Jets offensive coordinator Mike Lafleur intend to run the Kyle Shanahan system, then Wilson’s tool kit matches well. The Draper, Utah native ran a variety of personnel schemes and a lot of play action in college, which is a staple of the Shanahan offence.
Wilson also broke Steve Young’s school completion percentage record (73.5 per cent) and is someone who can throw on the move to make passes at all levels.
3. San Francisco 49ers (trade from Miami via 4-12 Houston)
Team Needs: QB, LB, CB
PICK: Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
You don’t give up the type of draft capital San Francisco did to not draft a quarterback. Fields, Mac Jones and Trey Lance have all been linked at some point to the 49ers, but to me Fields makes the most sense.
As the Buckeyes signal-caller, he battled elite-level opponents and did so under the national spotlight on many occasions. The two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year is an incredible all-around athlete who has a rocket arm and can take off for chunk yard gains on the ground. Underrated toughness to stay in the game after getting banged up, patience in the pocket and ball placement are all check marks.
One of the knocks on Fields is his tendency to stare down receivers and be a little too methodical when going through progressions. Similar criticisms were made about reigning NFL rookie of the year Justin Herbert, and I would argue that Fields’ similar skill set has a higher ceiling.
A benefit is that Jimmy Garoppolo is the intended starter for 2021, assuming he can remain healthy. That means Fields can sit and learn from Jimmy G. and one of the most QB-friendly coaches in Kyle Shanahan.
Note: Because of this patience option, the raw intrigue of Trey Lance could also be possible here.
4. Atlanta Falcons (4-12)
Team Needs: Edge, OL, RB
PICK: Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida
If another team is thirsty to move up for Trey Lance or Mac Jones, the Falcons have made it public they’re open to a trade. If the return isn’t right, then the physical freak known as Kyle Pitts should be on the draft card.
Upgrading tight end isn’t a top priority, but the potential special talent Pitts adds is too good to let slip by. Only 20 years old, the former Florida Gator has to be utilized as a receiver and not tied down to typical tight end blocking duties. Pitts' size and wingspan allows him to box out defenders at the goal line, win jump balls and pull away after the catch. Besides being a general mismatch nightmare for defenders, he is an elite pass-catcher.
Adding Pitts to Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley could take Atlanta’s aerial attack to a new stratosphere.
5. Cincinnati Bengals (4-11-1)
Team Needs: OT, WR, TE
PICK: Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon
How the Bengals don’t try to get the best offensive tackle available in this draft is beyond me. Cincinnati’s swiss cheese offensive line helped lead to their rookie franchise QB Joe Burrow blowing out his knee last season. Make the protection as solid as possible for Burrow when he returns and snag the possible future Pro Bowl tackle Sewell.
6. Miami Dolphins (via trade with 4-11-1 Philadelphia)
Team Needs: WR, Edge, OL
PICK: Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU
A sturdy six-foot, 201-pound durable wideout who you can line up inside or outside is an excellent fit in Miami’s burgeoning offence. Chase ran an impressive 4.34-second 40-yard dash at his pro day, but it's his toughness, durability, route running and glue hands that I like the most. Reminds me of a Jarvis Landry-type and gives Tua Tagovailoa a reliable Day 1 target.
7. Detroit Lions (5-11)
Team Needs: WR, LB, S
PICK: Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
His height (five-foot-nine) and pull away speed means Waddle’s career in Detroit should begin in the slot. It also means he could become Jared Goff’s new best friend on those shorter over-the-middle passes the Lions new quarterback loves. The team is pretty thin on playmaking talent at wide receiver, and Waddle also provides value as a quick twitch kick/punt returner.
8. Carolina Panthers (5-11)
Team Needs: OL, DT, S
PICK: Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State
I would be surprised if Carolina remains at No. 8. Trading up or back is a real possibility depending what happens above them. In this case, the Panthers are able to select the rawest top-tier QB in this draft class. The possibilities for Lance are sky high, but there’s also bust potential.
Lance played under centre quite a bit in a pro-style offence at North Dakota State and by all accounts is a football film study junkie. A true dual threat, the soon-to-be 21-year-old threw just one interception in college, 30 touchdowns through the air and ran in another 18. The issue is the 2019 Walter Payton Award winner played only a single season as a starter, and threw a measly 318 total passes during his three years in school.
Balancing the technical improvements Lance needs in several areas with his special arm talent is something talent evaluators will have to weigh. Patience will be key, and the Panthers have that luxury by acquiring Sam Darnold a few weeks back. I see Josh Allen and Carson Wentz potential if Lance is coached up properly.
Note: If Trey Lance ends up in San Francisco then keep an eye on the Panthers to climb up a few rungs to score Justin Fields.
9. Denver Broncos (5-11)
Team Needs: OL, QB, LB
PICK: Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State
Defensive-minded head coach Vic Fangio gets the draft’s highest-ranked linebacker in Parsons. Von Miller is not the player he once was and Parsons is a three-down linebacker with elite size and speed who could become a cornerstone of the Denver D.
Offensive line could also be an option here, but it would be foolish to let the Penn State product get away.
10. Dallas Cowboys (6-10)
Team Needs: OL, DT, DB
PICK: Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama
An offensive lineman to help protect the returning Dak Prescott is definitely on the table for Dallas. However, instead of getting the No. 2 tackle, Jerry Jones selects the top defensive back.
Patrick Surtain’s six-foot-two, 208-pound build allows him to physically hang with any receiver. Son of a Pro Bowl corner and coach, he’s technically sound and is rarely caught out of position. Surtain is a disruptor, as his 31 defended passes, four forced fumbles and four interceptions would suggest. He instantly makes the Cowboys secondary better.
11. New York Giants (6-10)
Team Needs: Edge, OL, LB
PICK: Azeez Ojulari, Edge, Georgia
GM Dave Gettleman already brought in big-ticket free agent Kenny Golladay to give Daniel Jones a true top receiver and Nate Solder returns at left tackle. The Giants need a more dynamic pass rush. Adding the explosive Ojulari to the mix of Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence immediately improves the rotation.
12. Philadelphia Eagles (trade from Miami via 6-10 San Francisco)
Team Needs: WR, CB, OL
PICK: DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
The Eagles have to get a legitimate playmaker at wide receiver after inexplicably passing on Justin Jefferson for the underwhelming Jalen Reagor last year. The slender-framed Heisman Trophy winner will remind the Philly brain trust of a young DeSean Jackson, and provide a threat that can be pushed outside or in.
Smith possesses excellent hands and precise route-running abilities, but his durability at the pro level needs to be taken into account. Lacking elite speed and having a thin build leaves him vulnerable to press coverage pressure so new head coach Nick Sirianni will have to be creative to maximize Smith’s potential in space.
13. Los Angeles Chargers (7-9)
Team Needs: OL, CB, Edge
PICK: Rashawn Slater, OT, Northwestern
The Chargers nailed their quarterback draft choice last off-season in Justin Herbert, and now it’s time to ensure he remains safe. Enter Slater, who suited up at both left and right tackle at Northwestern before opting out due to COVID-19 in 2020. Slater is going to be counted on to step in as a starter immediately.
14. Minnesota Vikings (7-9)
Team Needs: OL, Edge, TE
PICK: Alijah Vera-Tucker, OT/G, USC
After cutting Riley Reiff, the Vikings have to take the best available offensive lineman. I believe Vera-Tucker fits the bill as someone Minnesota can pop in as either a tackle or guard. He played at both positions with USC and should help keep Kirk Cousins upright.
15. New England Patriots (7-9)
Team Needs: QB, WR, DL
PICK: Mac Jones, QB, Alabama
Jones’ football IQ, quick release, progressions, accuracy and willingness to stand tough in the pocket seem to be everything Bill Belichick is looking for. The Patriots were uncharacteristically aggressive in free agency, signing a pair of pass-catching tight ends in Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. Now they need their quarterback of the future since Cam Newton is clearly not the long-term solution.
As a one-year starter, Jones set the Alabama school record for passing yards in a season (4,500) and the NCAA record in completion percentage (77.4 per cent), while leading the Crimson Tide to a national championship. All that sounds terrific, but in my books he draws pro comparisons to Andy Dalton and Derek Carr at best.
His throwing power on deep balls, lack of mobility and average overall athleticism shouts second-round pick. I see the Jacksonville native as a small step above a game manager and not worth reaching for. That being said, he’s NFL ready and fits the Patriots mould.
16. Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
Team Needs: CB, OL, TE
PICK: Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina
Horn is a perfect match for the Cardinals, who must improve their secondary. Son of former NFL wide receiver Joe Horn, Jaycee has the height and speed to keep pace with anyone he’s assigned to. The SEC Academic Honor Roll member always covered an opponent’s No. 1 receiver, mirrors his target effectively and led the Gamecocks in passes defended for 2020.
If Horn can cut down on his grabby penalties and ball-hawk a bit more, then we could be looking at a special CB.
17. Las Vegas Raiders (8-8)
Team Needs: OL, LB, S
PICK: Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech
After nuking their offensive line this off-season, the Raiders find a Day 1 starting right tackle waiting for them at No. 17. Darrisaw is a bulldozer in the run game and started 35 times at left tackle for Virginia Tech. He can sometimes get beat around the edge in pass protection, but in general projects as a plug-and-play lineman.
18. Miami Dolphins (10-6)
Team Needs: WR, Edge, LB
PICK: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Notre Dame
Miami sprints to turn in their card and get a chess piece for Brian Flores’s defence. Owusu-Koramoah can be utilized at linebacker, nickel corner or safety and is a bundle of energy. He was the ACC defensive player of the year and led Notre Dame in several defensive categories.
The Fighting Irish weapon can be over-aggressive at times, but his versatility to fly all over the field makes any discipline issues worth the risk.
19. Washington Football Team (7-9)
Team Needs: OL, LB, S
PICK: Landon Dickerson, OL, Alabama
As long as he receives a clean bill of health, Dickerson would be an excellent choice for Washington. The Crimson Tide product has played guard, centre and both tackle positions. His large, powerful frame gives WFT some flexibility to use Dickerson as they see fit on an offensive line that needs to get better, even after the acquisition of Ereck Flowers from Miami.
20. Chicago Bears (8-8)
Team Needs: OL, WR, Edge
PICK: Christian Barmore, DT, Alabama
Could the Bears use an exciting rookie quarterback? Of course, but at 20th overall they’re not getting one here unless there’s a shocking fall from one of the top five. I could see Chicago trading down with a club like the Browns, who may want to leap ahead a few spots for a cornerback.
In this scenario, Chicago stays put to select the top defensive tackle in Barmore. Another Alabama player goes in the opening round and he lands in another 3-4 base scheme defence. Barmore received the national championship defensive MVP, led the Crimson Tide in sacks this past season (8) and clogs up rushing lanes when necessary. The Bears can take of wide receiver and offensive line later.
21. Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
Team Needs: OL, Edge, CB
PICK: Kwity Paye, Edge, Michigan
Indianapolis has the explosive Paye fall into their lap. He’s shorter than ideal for coming off the edge, yet Paye has found success from quick feet and hand work to squeeze by offensive tackles. He’s excellent against the run with room for growth on techniques to get into the backfield more consistently.
22. Tennessee Titans (11-5)
Team Needs: OL, WR, TE
PICK: Teven Jenkins, OT, Oklahoma State
Tennessee can wait to address wide receiver and tight-end depth. Over the last two off-seasons, the Titans have lost three right tackles and in a run-first offence shoring up the offensive line should be a top priority. They do just that by selecting the very large Jenkins, a six-foot-five behemoth who took snaps at both tackle positions, as well as guard, at Oklahoma State and has a reputation for out-muscling defenders.
23. New York Jets (via trade with 12-4 Seattle)
Team Needs: QB, CB, RB
PICK: Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech
The Jets wrap up their second opening-round choice by addressing their thin secondary. A productive starter at Virginia Tech (six interceptions, 25 passes defended), Farley can compete right away for plenty of snaps in New York with his prototype size.
Farley opted out of the 2020 campaign, so the necessary technical tweaks never got a chance to be cleaned up for the world to see. Injuries include a torn ACL in 2017 and back surgery in March that could cause him to miss time in training camp. However, his nose for the ball, tackle-to-the-ground mentality and adaptive footwork to receiver route changes makes Farley a Pro Bowl-level prospect.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
Team Needs: OL, RB, Edge
PICK: Jaelan Phillips, Edge, Miami
Pittsburgh could go in several directions at 24th overall. Instead of taking the sixth offensive lineman of the draft or a running back, they go with the high ceiling of Phillips off the edge. Phillips played standing up and with his hand in the dirt in college, which means the Steelers could move him all around that aggressive front-seven.
Phillips is viewed as a risky pick due to severe concussions and briefly retiring in 2018. Other injuries have sidelined the 21-year-old over the years as well, but when healthy he can be incredibly disruptive in an opponent's backfield.
25. Jacksonville Jaguars (via trade with 10-6 L.A. Rams)
Team Needs: QB, OL, S
PICK: Trevon Moehrig, S, TCU
Now that the Jaguars have their future under centre locked down it’s time to upgrade the defensive backfield. Moehrig attacks the ball, is always looking to make a play and took home the Jim Thorpe Award for best defensive back in college this past season.
Moehrig can play centre field on his own, in two safety sets and slip down to cover the slot as well. He doesn’t have great recovery speed if beaten so Jacksonville will need to work with the TCU team captain on that.
26. Cleveland Browns (11-5)
Team Needs: CB, DL, Edge
PICK: Greg Newsome II, CB, Northwestern
Cleveland GM Andrew Berry did a tremendous job of adding pieces across the club’s defence in free agency so that he doesn’t need to reach for any specific role. Cornerback remains the leanest position based on starting-level talent and injury history. Berry’s aggressiveness makes me think that a trade up to select a higher-ranked CB is coming on draft night.
If the price is too rich to move then the fluid and instinctual Newsome makes sense at No. 26, even though he’s missed time after being banged around at Northwestern. Newsome didn’t allow a touchdown in 2020 and defended 25 passes in just 21 games in college. If he can stay on the field, then the Chicago native could challenge to start as a rookie opposite Denzel Ward.
27. Baltimore Ravens (11-5)
Team Needs: Edge, OL, S
PICK: Jayson Oweh, Edge, Penn State
The Ravens made a blockbuster trade with Kansas City last week that sent offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and draft picks to the Chiefs in exchange for several picks, including the 31st overall selection.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Baltimore tried to bundle their pair of first-rounders to move up and grab one of the better offensive tackles or defensive ends. However, in this mock the picks stay as is and the Ravens grab the high risk/high reward Oweh.
His stat line won’t wow you, but he tests off the charts. A natural athlete, his burst off the snap and bend to maneuver around tackles is intoxicating. The problem is the lack of consistency and expected time it will take him to develop under NFL tutelage.
28. New Orleans Saints (12-4)
Team Needs: CB, WR, DL
PICK: Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa
There are other areas where the Saints could use improvements, but the front office goes best player available on defence as they welcome in the man-beast known as Zaven Collins. This AAC defensive player of the year’s smooth sideline-to-sideline coverage is valuable when it comes to tracking tough-to-take-down tight ends or larger wideouts.
During three years at Tulsa, he was all over the box score, averaging 7.4 tackles per game and can play any of the three linebacker spots. Can he create turnovers? Yup! Two of Collins’ four interceptions in 2020 were returned for touchdowns. To think that this six-foot-four, 259-pounder’s pass-rush skills are still underdeveloped is scary.
29. Green Bay Packers (13-3)
Team Needs: OL, DL, WR
PICK: Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida
The baffling debacle that was Green Bay’s draft choices last year cannot be repeated. Maybe the front office will finally get Aaron Rodgers a swiss-army knife flashy weapon like wide receiver Toney.
This Florida Gator owns ankle-breaking start/stop moves and sprinted a blistering 4.37-second 40-yard dash. The negatives are that he was a one-year starter (2020), dealt with some injury issues and was slow to transition to receiver from being a high school QB. All that being said, Toney can slide outside, inside, backfield and perform gadget plays to utilize his speed. I feel this Packers fit could open up the offence.
30. Buffalo Bills (13-3)
Team Needs: Edge, CB, TE
PICK: Joe Tryon, Edge, Washington
I’ve seen running backs mocked to the Bills and I just don’t buy it. Devin Singletary, Zach Moss and Matt Breida are all on the roster so there’s no sense in spending a first-round pick on a back in a pass-first system. Freshening up that Buffalo defensive line makes much more sense.
Tryon sure looks the part of a nasty edge rusher and with some coaching tweaks could turn into a real force. The Bills are in a good place where they can work Tryon in on a rotational basis and build up his workload as he grows.
31. Baltimore Ravens (via trade with 14-2 Kansas City Chiefs)
Team Needs: Edge, OL, S
PICK: Alex Leatherwood, OL, Alabama
As mentioned with the Ravens earlier first-round selection, I would be surprised if they kept both of their first-round picks instead of packaging them to trade up. But in this situation, Baltimore helps their pass rush at No. 27 and now move to the offensive line. Trading Orlando Brown Jr. to the Chiefs means that they need to shore things up in front of Lamar Jackson.
Leatherwood offers the flexibility to settle in at tackle or guard. His decorated college career includes awards for being the best blocker in the SEC (Jacobs Blocking Trophy), top interior offensive lineman (Outland Trophy) and unanimous All-American.
32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)
Team Needs: Edge, OL, CB
PICK: Gregory Rousseau, Edge, Miami
The Bucs offence was a lot of fun last season, but the defence played a huge role in winning the Super Bowl. The front-seven has some aging pieces, so Tampa Bay nabs a boom-or-bust prospect in Rousseau.
Opting out of 2020 for COVID-19 reasons, Rousseau joined Chase Young as the only defender with 15 or more sacks the season prior. Totalling 19.5 tackles for loss in that campaign, he possesses all the physical tools to be a wrecking ball in the pros. The reigning champs are in a position where they can roll the dice on a very raw talent with sky-high upside.