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As the 2021 NFL draft draws near, we don’t know what to believe from reports swirling around the rumor mill. Good luck filtering through smokescreens for clues that uncover a team’s plan. Thankfully, you can still rely on common sense.
Regardless of what a general manager or coach says about a prospect, most teams will address roster holes early in the draft. If a club has a glaring hole at a premium position, expect the front office to prioritize that need. In some cases, though, an available blue-chip talent can steer front offices toward the best-player-available strategy.
In an attempt to project where certain prospects could land, pay attention to the latest updates on their performances. Although many players have clocked impressive 40-yard-dash times at pro days, subpar workout numbers could adversely affect draft stock, especially for prospects who opted out of the 2020 season.
We’ll untangle the web of reports to provide 10 draft-day predictions.
How many quarterbacks will go in the top five? Will we see an early trade that shakes up the selection order? Who’s the most logical fit for top-10 teams with multiple viable options? Which position group takes the most spots in the first round?
We’ll answer all those questions within three weeks of the draft.
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Ever since the San Francisco 49ers moved up to the third overall spot, analysts have weighed in on the team’s likely target. According to The MMQB’s Albert Breer, head coach Kyle Shanahan has kept his preferences “very close to the vest.”
NBC’s Peter King offered perspective on the 49ers’ quarterback situation that may shed some light on their preferred option.
“The 49ers maintain privately they’ll keep [Jimmy] Garoppolo, and for 2021, I believe them,” King wrote. “This trade for the third pick in the draft is meant to enrich the quarterback position more than it is to dump Garoppolo.”
If San Francisco plans to keep Garoppolo beyond the draft and into the 2021 campaign, it doesn’t need the most pro-ready option, which is a description draft analysts have assigned to Alabama’s Mac Jones.
Despite two years as a starter at Ohio State, Justin Fields hasn’t garnered the pro-ready label, but he’s shown pinpoint ball placement throughout his career, completing 68.4 percent of his passes. That checks a box for Shanahan.
The 49ers can hold on to Garoppolo unless another team satisfies their reported asking price of a first-round pick (h/t NFL Network’s Mike Giardi).
Even if San Francisco trades Garoppolo, Fields has enough starting experience to absorb the offense over the course of five months before the season begins in September. He’s more equipped to handle early action than North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, who started just one full year and a single 2020 game as a collegian.
In this day and age—and given the evolution of the quarterback position—the 49ers should target a prospect who can consistently make plays with his legs. In addition to 5,701 passing yards and 67 touchdowns through the air, Fields accumulated 1,133 yards and 19 scores on the ground through three collegiate terms.
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Justin Edmonds/Associated Press
Quarterback moves have dominated offseason headlines, starting with Matthew Stafford and Carson Wentz going to the Los Angeles Rams and Indianapolis Colts, respectively. The San Francisco 49ers moved up to the third spot, presumably for a signal-caller. On Monday, the New York Jets traded Sam Darnold to the Carolina Panthers.
In all likelihood, the Jacksonville Jaguars, Jets and 49ers will select quarterbacks in the first three slots. The Atlanta Falcons could follow suit, but according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, they’re “open to moving” out of the No. 4 slot.
The MMQB’s Albert Breer thinks Atlanta will take a signal-caller to sit behind 35-year-old Matt Ryan, though we could see a trade shake up the draft order. As clubs target top quarterback prospects, the Falcons may receive a trade offer that’s hard to reject as they rebuild their roster.
During a press conference in March, Denver Broncos general manager George Paton didn’t rule out quarterback options with the No. 9 overall pick.
If the Broncos feel comfortable with one of the top four signal-callers, they’ll likely consider a move into the top five. Because multiple teams are reportedly in talks with Atlanta, Denver should make a deal or risk missing out on a franchise player.
With a rookie addition, the Broncos could head into training camp with an open quarterback competition or start Drew Lock in hopes that he increases his trade value after a shaky 2020 campaign in which he threw for 16 touchdowns and 15 interceptions through 13 outings.
Denver would probably need to give up a future first-round pick or multiple early-round selections to slide into a top-five slot. Nevertheless, the Broncos must do their best to find a long-term starter under center. They’ve seen a revolving door at the position since Peyton Manning retired after the 2015 term.
Mark Kiszla of the Denver Post believes dual-threat quarterbacks Justin Fields and Trey Lance are viable trade-up targets.
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Vasha Hunt/Associated Press
Although NBC Sports’ Chris Simms, who’s close friends with San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, has connected Mac Jones to the club at No. 3, the Alabama quarterback isn’t the ideal prospect in that spot.
Jones has an average athletic profile. He’s not a natural mover in the pocket and won’t offer much with his legs beyond bootlegs and rollouts. Secondly, the young signal-caller had an extraordinary supporting cast this past season with two potential first-round wideouts in DeVonta Smith, the 2020 Heisman Trophy winner, and Jaylen Waddle.
Furthermore, he played behind a unit that won the Joe Moore Award for the best offensive line.
Jones won’t have offensive personnel far better than most groups across the league at the pro level. Fair or not, teams could look at his 4,500 passing yards, 41 touchdowns and 77.4 percent completion rate with some skepticism.
The Carolina Panthers acquired quarterback Sam Darnold from the New York Jets, which gives them the flexibility to address a pressing need at tackle if they’re uncertain about Greg Little’s development or at tight end if Kyle Pitts is available at No. 8.
In the event that the 49ers and Denver Broncos (No. 9 overall) don’t select Jones, he would fall past the Dallas Cowboys (10th overall), who just signed Dak Prescott to a four-year, $160 million extension.
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Thomas Graning/Associated Press
The Miami Dolphins moved down nine spots in a trade with the San Francisco 49ers and went back up six slots in a deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. General manager Chris Grier is now in a position to take a top offensive prospect who would help quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in the passing attack.
According to The Athletic’s Josh Tolentino, the Dolphins have engaged with Kyle Pitts multiple times.
“The Dolphins are showing interest in Pitts, who is arguably the best pass catcher in the draft. Coach Brian Flores was in attendance at Florida’s pro day earlier this week, and he spoke with Pitts and provided him with positive feedback after his workout. Pitts also said Flores and the Dolphins scheduled another follow-up call, a sign Miami is conducting its due diligence as Pitts’ stock continues to climb.”
The Atlanta Falcons seem more likely to trade down or select the heir to quarterback Matt Ryan. The MMQB’s Albert Breer “guesses” the latter option.
The Cincinnati Bengals could reunite quarterback Joe Burrow with his former LSU teammate, wideout Ja’Marr Chase, or take Oregon’s Penei Sewell, who’s arguably the top tackle in the class. The latter would fortify an offensive line that allowed Burrow an average of just 2.3 seconds before the pocket collapsed on him in 2020.
Pitts may fall into the Dolphins’ lap at No. 6. In two-tight end sets with Mike Gesicki (12 personnel), the Florida product could immediately upgrade Miami’s aerial attack, which ranked 20th in 2020. As a matchup nightmare, the former Gator hauled in 97 receptions for 1,419 yards and 17 touchdowns over the last two seasons.
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Ron Jenkins/Associated Press
After teams make a run at quarterbacks and pass-catchers, the Dallas Cowboys will go in a different direction. They need a defensive playmaker for a unit that gave up the fifth-most points and ranked 23rd in yards allowed this past season.
Dallas signed quarterback Dak Prescott to a long-term extension, and he has offensive weapons in wideouts Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb.
The Cowboys re-signed slot cornerback Jourdan Lewis, but new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn may want a top-notch cover man to line up opposite Trevon Diggs on the boundary. Anthony Brown has shown too many inconsistencies in coverage, and he’s missed 13 games over the last two campaigns.
Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II and South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn play a physical brand of football that would keep the Cowboys competitive against passing attacks.
The Cowboys don’t have a dire need at linebacker. Then again, Leighton Vander Esch has battled multiple injuries since his 2018 Pro Bowl season, missing 13 contests over the last two years. Dallas may find it difficult to turn down Penn State’s Micah Parsons. He could solidify the linebacker group and provide pocket pressure. The 6’3″, 246-pounder logged five sacks during the 2019 term.
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Brynn Anderson/Associated Press
The 2021 class of edge-rushers brings a lot of potential but no star power. The top prospects at the position each have at least one major question mark.
Miami’s Gregory Rousseau generated some buzz after a 15.5-sack 2019 campaign. But he opted out of the 2020 season and didn’t make a strong impression at his pro day, per Michael Renner of Pro Football Focus.
“Billed as a physical freak, Rousseau looked anything but,” Renner wrote. “The only thing freaky was his frame, as his explosive numbers and change-of-direction drills were all below average. That’s not going to help his stock when every other edge outperformed him this spring.”
Because of his absence from live-action games, Rousseau’s subpar showing could hurt him on draft day. He took advantage of interior linemen more than offensive tackles during his breakout year, which may factor into concerns about the 6’7″, 266-pounder’s ability to bend around the edge.
Michigan’s Kwity Paye has a high floor because of his ability to line up in different spots across the defensive line, but he only recorded 11.5 sacks through four terms. While solid, his low pass-rushing numbers may push him out of the top 20.
At 6’2″, 249 pounds, Azeez Ojulari’s size may scare off coaches who want a bigger defender to set the edge. However, he’s arguably the best pass-rusher in the group after showing steady improvements through three terms at Georgia.
Ojulari beats offensive linemen with explosiveness and shows closing speed when in striking distance of the quarterback. He’ll likely see limited snaps on early downs, but the former Bulldog can rack up several sacks as a rookie.
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Brian Blanco/Associated Press
We’ll see several tackles come off the board during the draft’s opening round. Oregon’s Penei Sewell, Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater and Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw could all go within the top 15. The Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers, Los Angeles Chargers and Minnesota Vikings each have question marks along the offensive line, specifically at tackle.
In the bottom half of the draft order, the Las Vegas Raiders will likely select a right tackle after trading Trent Brown to the New England Patriots. The Indianapolis Colts must replace left tackle Anthony Castonzo, who retired in January. The Chicago Bears cut right tackle Bobby Massie. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs either parted ways with or haven’t re-signed multiple starting offensive linemen this offseason.
Additionally, the Tennessee Titans may select another tackle after they cut 2020 first-rounder Isaiah Wilson because of his questionable decisions away from the field. The Green Bay Packers may add a lineman if they move Billy Turner to left tackle in place of David Bakhtiari, whose status for the 2021 season remains unclear while he recovers from a torn ACL.
More than 10 teams have some level of need at tackle or on the interior of the offensive line. We should expect high demand for the 300-plus-pounders on Day 1.
USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker has intriguing versatility. Oklahoma State’s Teven Jenkins moves bodies with brute force and strong hands. Texas’ Samuel Cosmi, Notre Dame’s Liam Eichenberg and Alabama’s Alex Leatherwood could go earlier than projected in mock drafts.
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Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
The Las Vegas Raiders’ draft strategy seems predictable unless a blue-chip prospect unexpectedly falls to them at No. 17.
They traded Trent Brown to the New England Patriots, which leaves a void at right tackle. Denzelle Good could play that position, but he’ll battle Richie Incognito and John Simpson for starting spots at guard, per The Athletic’s Vic Tafur. Brandon Parker has served as a swing tackle since he struggled mightily through the 2018 campaign and allowed 10 sacks, per Pro Football Focus.
New defensive coordinator Gus Bradley needs a safety to cover a third of the field on the back end. That’s a crucial position in his zone scheme.
The Raiders didn’t re-sign safety Erik Harris, and he inked a deal with the Atlanta Falcons. Johnathan Abram allowed an 81.8 percent completion rate this past season. Bradley will likely keep him closer to the box and in the flat.
With those glaring voids, it doesn’t take much guesswork to project how they’ll approach the early rounds. Over the last two offseasons under general manager Mike Mayock and head coach Jon Gruden, the club has prioritized needs.
The Silver and Black selected defensive end Clelin Ferrell with the fourth overall pick in the 2019 draft after trading Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears in September 2018.
Last offseason, the Raiders took the first wide receiver off the board in Henry Ruggs III at No. 12 following a failed experiment with Antonio Brown, who asked for his release before the start of the 2019 term.
Oklahoma State’s Teven Jenkins should land on the Raiders’ radar at No. 17. He’s made most of his starts at right tackle, winning one-on-one battles with strength and nasty finishes.
UCF’s Richie Grant (10 interceptions) and Syracuse’s Andre Cisco (13 interceptions) have the ball production to warrant consideration in the second round.
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Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
Caleb Farley had a strong showing in coverage during the 2019 term, recording 12 pass breakups and four interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. He opted out of the 2020 season and didn’t participate in his pro day.
According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Farley underwent a microdiscectomy. His recovery timetable, tacked on to an extended absence, could cost him millions of dollars.
Per Pro Football Network’s Tony Pauline, teams are “very concerned” about Farley’s status.
“And while combine medicals don’t take place until this week, front office personnel have confided they believe Farley won’t be ready for football until the end of the summer,” Pauline wrote. “Medical exams, MRIs, and everything else taking place in Indianapolis this week will be critical to Farley’s draft grade.”
Farley tore his ACL before the 2017 campaign but bounced back for a solid two-year stretch in a starting role. He has the ball production, size (6’2″, 207 lbs) and athleticism to become a top-15 pick, but the timing of his injury could push him to the back end of the first round.
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John Bazemore/Associated Press
Najee Harris and Travis Etienne stand out as the top running backs in this year’s class. In 2020, the former finished fifth in Heisman votes, logging 1,891 yards and 30 touchdowns from scrimmage. The latter accumulated at least 1,502 scrimmage yards in each of the last three terms.
Harris made strides through four years at Alabama, specifically as a receiver, hauling in 70 passes for 729 yards and 11 touchdowns since 2019. At 6’2″, 230 pounds, he’s also shown uncanny power and balance after contact. Yet one has to wonder if Alabama’s award-winning offensive line inflated his production.
In 2020, Etienne’s production and efficiency took a hit. After racking up over 1,600 rushing yards for the 2018 and 2019 campaigns, he finished with 914 yards on the ground this past season. The Clemson product also averaged a career-low 5.4 yards per carry. Still, he’s arguably the best pass-catching running back going into the draft.
In the NFL, Harris and Etienne could flourish as three-down backs, but teams may prefer to address the position on Day 2 because of the increased usage of the running back-by-committee approach.
With a strong class of quarterbacks, offensive tackles and wide receivers, Harris and Etienne may have to wait a little longer to hear their names called. The Pittsburgh Steelers, for example, need a new lead ball-carrier with James Conner still on the open market, but they could look to strengthen the offensive line with a tackle in the first round.
Player height and weight measurements courtesy of NFL.com.