2021 NFL mock draft: First-round projections

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This is only my fourth NFL mock draft of a surreal season, but I’ve had enough time to develop initial thoughts on the talent breakdown of the 2021 class:

— Quarterback appears top heavy. There could be as many as six go in the first round (a first since 1983), but there’s a significant drop off after the top eight-or-so prospects.

— Clemson’s Travis Etienne will likely be the only running back selected in the first round, but the class is deep.

— There will be at least five wide receivers selected in the first round and the class is very talented again.

— Florida’s Kyle Pitts and Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth are two potential first-rounders at tight end, but Miami’s Brevin Jordan could make it three in the first 50 picks.

— This is the most talented offensive line group I’ve evaluated — I’ve been doing this since 2013 — and there are potentially nine tackles who could earn first or second-round grades from me. Anywhere from 12-to-14 may end up in my final Top 50 Big Board.

— Edge rushers look top heavy as well, with a lot of projection required.

— Defensive line is deep, but lacks any elite talents.

— There could be as many as five linebackers selected in the first round and there’s talent throughout.

— Outside of offensive line, cornerback looks like the deepest position with a lot of elite size.

— I currently don’t see a safety being drafted on the first day, but the class is very deep and full of playmakers.

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The NFL draft has become a nice appetizer before our main course in September. A mock version of said draft is meant to educate, and even entertain. At very least, it helps you pass the time.

This is an early attempt at identifying the best players available in this season’s draft class, and which teams they match up well with considering the updated draft order (according to NFL.com).

The closer we get to draft day, the more I attempt to match what teams will actually do with their draft picks as opposed to what I believe they should do.

Last season, I was the fourth most accurate (out of 109) NFL draft prognosticator according to The Huddle Report (most accurate in print). I’m seventh over the past five years.

Follow me on Twitter @UTEddieBrown so we can continue the conversation.

Here’s my updated 2021 NFL mock draft:

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FIRST ROUND

1. N.Y. Jets (0-10) — Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson, Jr.

This isn’t an indictment of Sam Darnold. In fact, I believe he deserves a fresh start somewhere far away from Adam Gase. Lawrence would have been the top pick in the last two drafts had he been eligible and likely won’t be hindered by Gase (if GM Joe Douglas knows what’s good for him). A positive COVID-19 test kept the Heisman Trophy contender sidelined in a 47-40 double-overtime loss at Notre Dame, and a teammate’s positive test forced Florida State to postpone last Saturday’s matchup. Hopefully, we’ll see him return this weekend against Pittsburgh. Top needs: QB, Edge, DB

2. Jacksonville (1-9) — Justin Fields, QB, Ohio St., Jr.

The gap between Lawrence and Fields has definitely narrowed. However, the Buckeyes’ signal-caller finally looked human against Indiana, with one more incompletion then he had in his previous three games (12-to-11) and three interceptions. He made up for it with his best rushing performance of the season (78 yards and a touchdown). Top needs: QB, OT, CB

3. Cincinnati (2-7-1) — Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon, Jr.

Owner/GM Mike Brown better write on the chalkboard repeatedly like Bart Simpson, “We must protect Joe Burrow!” Burrow could miss a few early games in 2021 after suffering an ACL and MCL tear against Washington. Drafting the 2019 Outland Trophy winner — he has opted out of this season due to the threat of COVID-19 — would be a start. Sewell didn’t allow a pressure, hurry or hit in nine of 14 games as a sophomore. Top needs: OT, CB, Edge

4. Washington (3-7) — Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota St., So.

It appeared Dwayne Haskins had regressed a bit, and I’m interested in seeing if he’ll receive another shot before the season in done. As inspirational as Alex Smith’s return to the gridiron has been, he’s certainly not the future. A showcase game against Central Arkansas didn’t really do Lance’s draft stock any favors, but there’s too much arm talent and playmaking ability to deny here. Top needs: OL, WR, QB

5. L.A. Chargers (3-7) — Gregory Rousseau, Edge, Miami, So.

It’s been almost two decades since a Hurricane defensive end was taken in the first round (Jerome McDougle in 2003). Rousseau finished with 15.5 sacks in 13 games as a redshirt freshman, but has opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns. Melvin Ingram is in the final year of his contract. Top needs: OL, TE, Edge

6. N.Y. Giants (3-7) — Micah Parsons, LB, Penn St., Jr.

Parsons is another elite prospect who opted out of the 2020 season, citing “the potential risk to the health and well-being” of his young son. The G-Men haven’t drafted a linebacker in the first round since Carl Banks in 1984. Top needs: OT, Edge, LB

7. Atlanta (3-7) — Kwity Paye, Edge, Michigan, Sr.

Paye is an upside pick who hadn’t produced at an elite level before (he only had 9.5 sacks in his first three seasons in Ann Arbor), but there’s athletic indicators he will continue to improve as a pass rusher. He’s already an impressive run defender against the spread offense, which is becoming increasingly important in the NFL. Top needs: Edge, S, RB

8. Dallas (3-7) — Alex Leatherwood, OT, Alabama, Sr.

Tyron Smith can’t stay on the field and could find himself being a cap casualty this offseason. Cam Erving will be a free agent and hasn’t played well enough to resign. Leatherwood is a former five-star recruit who has shown he can be equally dominant at right guard or left tackle. Top needs: Edge, S, OL

9. Miami from Houston (3-7) — Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU, Jr.

Pairing Chase with DeVante Parker would be very tempting if Parsons is off the board. The 2019 Biletnikoff Award winner is another potential top-10 selection who has opted out this season because of COVID. Top needs: WR, OL, LB

10. Carolina (4-7) — Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech, Jr.

It’s fair to say Jeremy Chinn was a home run pick at the safety/linebacker hybrid position. Adding Farley would give this young up-and-coming defense another playmaker. The physical press corner with elite athleticism and size (6-foot-2, 197 pounds) has also opted out due to COVID. Top needs: OT, LB, CB

11. Detroit (4-6) — Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama, Jr.

Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola are all unrestricted free agents. I don’t suspect Waddle’s broken ankle will impact his draft stock much (a recent report has him potentially returning for the College Football Playoffs). He was off to an incredible start — 25 receptions, 557 yards and four touchdowns in four games — after showing promise as a sophomore. Top needs: WR, LB, DT

12. San Francisco (4-6) — Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina, Jr.

Yes, the NFC champs have dealt with an obscene amount of injuries this season, but they also failed to address two glaring needs this past offseason: the interior offensive line and cornerback. The 49ers currently doesn’t have a corner under contract after this season. Adding Horn — his father Joe was a Pro Bowl wide receiver — would give Richard Sherman someone to mentor if he returns or secure the future Hall of Famer’s replacement. He’s a very talented press corner with elite speed, good size (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) and can make plays in run support. Top needs: OL, DB, Edge

13. New England (4-6) — Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida, Jr.

Quarterback is also in play here — which means we should have an active trade market with so many teams needing a signal-caller — but really any elite talent would help the Patriots during this rebuild (yeah, I said the r-word). Pitts is definitely more receiver than complete tight end, but he’s a matchup nightmare either way. Top needs: QB, WR, LB

14. Minnesota (4-6) — Zach Wilson, QB, BYU, Jr.

America might not be able to agree on much these days, but I feel like we can all agree Kirk Cousins isn’t the long-term answer at quarterback for the Vikings. Outside of Michigan’s Paye, Wilson is the biggest riser on most draft boards. The competition level hasn’t been the strongest, but his performance has been impressive — he’s passed for 2,724 yards (third in the nation) and 26 touchdowns (tied for second in the nation) against only two interceptions. His arm talent and improvisation skills are equally impressive. Top needs: DL, FS, QB

15. Denver (4-6) — Samuel Cosmi, OT, Texas, Jr.

Garrett Bolles has been the saving grace of a bad offensive line who clearly misses Ja’Wuan James (he opted out due to COVID). You can’t develop a young quarterback if you don’t have a decent offensive line. It’s science. Cosmi dominated in 26 games at right tackle. He’s doing the same at left tackle so far this season. Top needs: OT, S, Edge

16. Chicago (5-5) — Mac Jones, QB, Alabama, Jr.

The old saying goes if you have two quarterbacks, you really have no quarterback. Jones benefits from a great supporting cast in Tuscaloosa, but he’s an accurate, decisive passer who has a QBR of 95.3 (first in the nation). Top needs: QB, WR, OT

17. Miami (6-4) — Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Notre Dame, Sr.

The Dolphins are potentially a few players from fielding a top tier defense. Owusu-Koramoah is an explosive athlete who can make plays from sideline-to-sideline. He was named the Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against Clemson. Top needs: WR, OL, LB

18. Baltimore (6-4) — Creed Humphrey, OL, Oklahoma, Jr.

Matt Skura is an unrestricted free agent, but Humphrey would be an upgrade regardless. The second-team All-American didn’t allow a sack his sophomore season and was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy (nation’s top center). Top needs: Edge, OL, S

19. Philadelphia (3-6-1) — Wyatt Davis, OG, Ohio St., Jr.

It’s been a rarity for the Eagles to field the same five starters on the offensive line this season. Davis is a system-proof, plug-and-play starter at the next level and a potential All-Pro. Top needs: OL, DB, LB

20. Arizona (6-4) — Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama, Jr.

Patrick Peterson, Dre Kirkpatrick and Johnathan Joseph will all be free agents after this season. Surtain, a former five-star recruit, has NFL DNA (father was an All-Pro corner who played 11 seasons) and prototypical traits. Top needs: CB, OL, Edge

21. Las Vegas (6-4) — Carlos Basham Jr., Edge, Wake Forest, Sr.

For as much draft capital as the Raiders have spent recently on their defense, you’d expect better results by now. There have been flashes, but nothing concrete yet. Basham is a strong, athletic, productive pass rusher who can disrupt an offense. He had 11 sacks and 18 tackles for loss as a first-team All-ACC selection in 2019 and opened 2020 with a sack in each of his first five games. Top needs: DL, OG, DB

22. Tampa Bay (7-4) — DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama, Sr.

Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown are both unrestricted free agents. Smith actually had a better statistical season than 2020 first-round picks Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy last year. He led the Crimson Tide with 1,256 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns. He has taken his game to another level since Waddle was sidelined — he has 347 yards on 20 receptions and six touchdowns his last two games against Mississippi State and Kentucky. Top needs: Edge, WR, DT

23. Indianapolis (7-3) — Eric Stokes, CB, Georgia, Jr.

The resurgent Xavier Rhodes will be a free agent after this season. Stokes is built thin, but remains an impressive athlete who maintains his physicality and is currently playing better than anyone at the position in the entire nation. Top needs: QB, Edge, OT

24. Green Bay (7-3) — Nick Bolton, LB, Missouri, Jr.

The Packers run defense has not improved by much and remains a significant weakness. A converted safety, Bolton is a thumper in the middle who is equally adept in coverage. Top needs: OL, LB, CB

25. Cleveland (7-3) — Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa, Jr.

Collins has the size (6-4, 260), athleticism and positional flexibility that will cause most defensive coordinators to drool. In six games, he has four sacks, four interceptions (two pick-sixes) and two forced fumbles. The Browns have been weak at the position for quite a while. Top needs: Edge, LB, S

26. Jacksonville from L.A. Rams (7-3) — Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech, Sr.

If you draft a franchise quarterback, you better be able to protect him — just ask the Bengals. Cam Robinson is a free agent as well. Darrisaw could find his way into the top 15 if he tests as well as I believe he will during the draft process (assuming we are able to have a combine or pro days). Top needs: QB, OT, CB

27. Tennessee (7-3) — Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota, Jr.

Corey Davis is an unrestricted free agent and could find a receptive market. Bateman is a big receiver (6-2, 210) with excellent hands who was eighth in the country with 20.3 yards per catch in 2019. The Gophers haven’t had a first-round pick since 2006 when running back Laurence Maroney went No. 21 overall to New England. Top needs: OT, WR, DL

28. N.Y. Jets from Seattle (7-3) — Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson, Sr.

Landing the top quarterback and running back in the 2021 draft would go a long ways in rebuilding a floundering offense. I was shocked when Etienne decided to return for his senior season. He would have been my top running back in the 2020 draft class. Top needs: QB, WR, DB

29. Buffalo (7-3) — Shaun Wade, CB, Ohio St., Jr.

Finding a viable option across from All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White will be a priority in the offseason. Wade is the next Buckeye cornerback up with first-round potential. Goals for his junior season include winning a national title and showing scouts he can be a shutdown corner on the outside. It’s been mixed results so far. Top needs: CB, OT, LB

30. New Orleans (8-2) — Kyle Trask, QB, Florida, Sr.

The verdict is still out on if Drew Brees’ successor is currently on the roster despite Taysom Hill doing some decent things against Atlanta. Trask has legit pocket presence and a surprising touch for such a strong arm. He has 31 touchdown passes (first in the nation) against only three interceptions and a QBR of 93.6 (third in the nation). Top needs: QB, DL, CB

31. Kansas City (9-1) — Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue, So.

The long-awaited return of Moore, who had been sidelined with a lower-leg injury, did not disappoint. He finished with 15 receptions for 116 yards and a rushing touchdown against Minnesota. It would be the rest of the NFL’s luck if a talent like Moore falls in the lap of the champs — which durability concerns could facilitate. Both Sammy Watkins and Demarcus Robinson will be free agents after this season. Top needs: WR, OL, DB

32. Pittsburgh (10-0) — Liam Eichenberg, OT, Notre Dame, Sr.

The Steelers could lose multiple starters on the offensive line in free agency. Eichenberg has been a dominant force at left tackle for the nation’s best offensive line against some of the best pass rushers the country has to offer (Pitt’s Patrick Jones II, Duke’s Chris Rumph and the barrage Clemson throws at you). Top needs: OT, Edge, QB

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