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Quarterbacks will go early and often in first round

The NFL Draft is an inexact science, which is a nice way of calling it an educated guessing game. Between mock drafts, smokescreens, TV analyst debates and social media reports, there is now so much Draft information (and misinformation) out there that it can be excruciatingly difficult to decipher just how the event might actually play out.

With the 2021 NFL Draft now just hours away, some of the key decisions at the top of the draft have already been made. Announcing those moves tonight will be a mere formality. However, there is still plenty of mystery to unravel beyond the obvious, no-brainer first-round picks (Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson). For example, which quarterbacks will go in the top 10 and in what order? Will this be the first Draft in NFL history that quarterbacks will be selected with the first four picks? How many teams will make draft-day trades? The only thing crazier than considering all the possibilities is predicting how they will unfold.

As always, I am here to offer some insights and opinions on this year’s first round with the release of my 2021 final mock draft, which has become an annual staple of the Times News for the past 21 years and has been ranked as one of the most accurate mock drafts in the industry over the past ten years according to www.thehuddlereport.com. So, without further ado, here is how I see things unfolding tonight (before the first trade blows it all up):

1. Jacksonville Jaguars – Trevor Lawrence (QB, Clemson)

This pick shouldn’t need much explanation, as it’s the “free square” of the NFL Draft. Lawrence has been deemed the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck, and seeing that the Jaguars have no solidified plan at the position, this pick is a no-brainer. The “Tank for Trevor” rallying cry worked to perfection and now new head coach Urban Meyer can start his NFL coaching career by selecting the quarterback of his choosing.

2. New York Jets – Zach Wilson (QB, BYU)

Sam Darnold was the #3 overall pick in the 2018 Draft but was never given a fair chance to succeed with the Jets. Now, after trading Darnold to Carolina for three draft picks, the team gets to hit the reset button and start over under new head coach Robert Saleh. The question here isn’t whether Wilson will be the pick (he will be), but rather, if the Jets can finally get it right at quarterback?

3. San Francisco 49’ers (from Miami via Houston)

– Mac Jones (QB, Alabama)

When the 49’ers traded three first round draft picks to move up to #3, it was a foregone conclusion that they’d be selecting a quarterback, but which one became the biggest mystery leading up to the draft. This pick will ultimately come down to Mac Jones or Trey Lance. Kyle Shanahan puts a premium on accuracy and being able to operate successfully from the pocket and that’s what Jones does best. Lance is more athletic and has a higher upside, but let’s remember, he has only started 17 games at the FCS level, with James Madison being his toughest opponent. Look, this pick will not be popular with the 49’ers fan base, but as crazy as it might sound, San Francisco made this blockbuster trade with the intention of drafting Jones.

4. Atlanta Falcons – Kyle Pitts (TE, Florida)

This pick can make history in one of two ways. If Atlanta opts for a future franchise quarterback here, it will mark the first time in the history of the NFL Draft that quarterbacks were selected with the first four picks. However, if the Falcons opt for the best player available in Kyle Pitts, it would be the highest a tight end has ever been drafted in the common draft era. I think this pick boils down to Pitts and Trey Lance. However, when Matt Ryan restructured his contract earlier this season, he carries so much dead cap money over the next two years that it would be almost impossible to move on from him (until 2023 at the earliest). For this reason alone, I just can’t justify taking a quarterback here. New Falcons head coach Arthur Smith is a former tight ends coach, and it just so happens that the highest graded tight end EVER is sitting there for the taking.

5. Cincinnati Bengals – Ja’Marr Chase (WR, LSU)

The million-dollar question facing Cincinnati is whether to draft Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell or LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. Protecting franchise quarterback Joe Burrow needs to be a priority, but Cincinnati hasn’t had much luck with drafting players from Oregon (Akili Smith, Jake Fisher) or the Pac-12 (John Ross) with early round picks. For weeks, the Bengals have been stating that they want an impact player that can contribute immediately with this selection. To me, that sure sounds like a reunion of the LSU record-breaking tandem of Burrow and Chase could be in the works.

6. Miami Dolphins (from Philadelphia)

– Jaylen Waddle (WR, Alabama)

The Dolphins will be holding their breath while Atlanta and Cincinnati are on the clock, because it appears that the two players they are targeting are Kyle Pitts and Ja’Marr Chase (in that order). While both players are off the board in my mock draft, this isn’t a nightmare scenario by any stretch. In need of offensive weapons, two of Tua’s former college teammates will be staring Miami in the face. I think the Dolphins prefer Waddle over Smith as a slot receiver that can stretch the field, while also excelling as a punt returner. Penei Sewell could also be an option, as Erick Flowers was just traded to Washington.

7. Detroit Lions – Penei Sewell (OT, Oregon)

Last year, Detroit wanted to trade down from #3 but couldn’t find a partner to consummate a deal. This year, the Lions might have a bit easier time doing so. The Lions are rebuilding, so trading down makes the most sense. However, if they stay here, this pick probably comes down to a receiver or an offensive lineman. Sewell would start immediately at right tackle, and along with Taylor Decker and Frank Ragnow would provide solid protection for Jared Goff. Detroit’s starting wide receiver corps consists of Breshad Perriman, Tyrell Williams and Quintez Cephus. Yikes, maybe wide receiver is the way to go here after all if Chase or Waddle fall to them.

8. Carolina Panthers – Jaycee Horn (CB, South Carolina)

This is another prime trade spot and I’m told the Patriots and Panthers already had the framework of a deal in place (undoubtedly to jump ahead of the Broncos for a quarterback). However, this was also prior to Carolina trading Teddy Bridgewater to Denver, so what that means for this pick is anyone’s guess. Two positions that the Panthers are targeting are cornerback and offensive line and I’m getting the sense that they really love Jaycee Horn. You also can’t totally eliminate quarterback from the equation (Justin Fields), even though the Panthers just traded for Sam Darnold.

9. Denver Broncos – Justin Fields (QB, Ohio State)

Denver threw the ultimate wrench into everybody’s mock drafts yesterday afternoon when they traded for Teddy Bridgewater. However, I have a hard time believing this deal is George Paton’s “fix” for the position. The team has already lost faith in Drew Lock and Bridgewater seems to be more of a keep-the-seat-warm solution. I always felt Denver was enamored with Justin Fields prior to this trade, so if the opportunity presents itself, I think the Broncos would still seriously consider taking him. Other positions that might be in play are cornerback (Surtain or Horn), offensive line (Slater) and linebacker (Parsons).

10. Dallas Cowboys – Patrick Surtain (CB, Alabama)

The Cowboys secondary hasn’t been quite the same since the departure of cornerback Byron Jones, so being able to land either Surtain or Jaycee Horn here would be an instant upgrade. Surtain is the player the Cowboys covet, as it would reunite him with former Alabama cornerback Trevon Diggs. The only real question is if Surtain makes it to this pick, as both Carolina at #8 and Denver at #9 could be in the market for a lockdown corner. Dallas could also opt to address its offensive line with this pick.

11. New York Giants – DeVonta Smith (WR, Alabama)

Last year, the Giants ranked 31st in total offense, so the game plan here should be surrounding Daniel Jones with as many weapons as possible. With the return of Saquon Barkley (torn ACL) and the free agent additions of wide receiver Kenny Golladay and tight end Kyle Rudolph, New York is well on its way. Adding another wide receive like DeVonta Smith or Jaylen Waddle would be icing on the cake. Head coach Joe Judge has ties to the Alabama football program, and reports are that he loves DeVonta Smith. General Manager Dave Gettleman is said to prefer linebacker Micah Parsons.

12. Philadelphia Eagles (from Miami via San Francisco) – Alijah Vera-Tucker (OT, USC)

The Eagles’ biggest need is at cornerback, but Patrick Surtain and Jaycee Horn might not be here. The Eagles’ biggest want is an Alabama wide receiver (Jaylen Waddle or DeVonta Smith), but they too might be off the board when Philadelphia is on the clock. Make no mistake, I think the Eagles would take any of those players ahead of an offensive lineman here but look at what the Eagles have upfront. Jason Kelce is 33 and considers retirement every offseason, Brandon Brooks (31) and Lane Johnson (30) are both coming off major surgeries and Andre Dillard still needs to prove himself at left tackle. Carson Wentz got killed last year behind what was left of the O-line, so maybe this pick isn’t so crazy after all.

13. Los Angeles Chargers – Rashawn Slater (OT, Northwestern)

The Chargers are rebuilding their offensive line in front of Justin Herbert and will have four new starters there in 2021. The one position on that line that still needs to be addressed though is left tackle. Alijah Vera-Tucker and Rashawn Slater would be logical choices here, but some wonder if they have the length and agility to play tackle in the NFL. Whatever direction the Chargers go, this pick should be spent on protecting the reigning NFL Rookie of the Year (Herbert).

14. Minnesota Vikings – Christian Darrisaw (OT, Virginia Tech)

The Vikings need a left tackle to replace Riley Reiff and they’ve been intrigued by Darrisaw throughout the pre-draft process. The Virginia Tech standout is a zone scheme fit who excels in pass protection, which are two attractive qualities for a unit that needs to shore up its ability to protect quarterback Kirk Cousins’ blindside. If the Vikings don’t address their offensive line with this pick, an edge rusher such as Kwity Paye or Jaelan Phillips would make the most sense.

15. New England Patriots – Trey Lance (QB, North Dakota State)

New England was a big spender in free agency and addressed a lot of key areas on both sides of the ball. However, aside from retaining an aging Cam Newton on a one-year deal, the quarterback position is in limbo. In a dream scenario, one of the top five quarterbacks “could” slip to them here, but if not, don’t rule out New England attempting to move up the draft board to get their guy (who I believe is Justin Fields). However, they might have to jump in front of Denver to have a chance at him. If the Patriots pass on a signal caller altogether, I would then expect them to look to the linebacker position, where Micah Parson and Zaven Collins would be attractive options.

16. Arizona Cardinals – Zaven Collins (LB, Tulsa)

Arizona’s top priority is undoubtedly cornerback, where a replacement for Patrick Peterson is needed. However, unless one of Patrick Surtain or Jaycee Horn falls to them, the Cardinals might be forced to look elsewhere with their first-round pick. Arizona has major issues defensively, and even though they drafted swiss army knife Isaiah Simmons last year, fellow linebacker Chandler Jones is an impending free agent after this season. Like Simmons, Collins is a versatile chess piece that can rush the passer and cover the middle of the field – something the Cardinals definitely need if they want to defeat Russell Wilson and Matthew Stafford.

17. Las Vegas Raiders – Micah Parsons (LB, Penn State)

It still blows my mind, but Las Vegas jettisoned three starting offensive linemen during the offseason, so I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if this pick is used to beef up the trenches. However, a playmaking alpha linebacker for defensive coordinator Gus Bradley? Sign me up! Parsons comes with some red flags thanks to some maturity issues that have surfaced during the evaluation process, which may cause him to slide down the board a bit. However, the Raiders desperately need a defensive playmaker and game-changer and Parsons is the one player in this draft that provides that possibility.

18. Miami Dolphins – Kwity Paye (DE, Michigan)

Assuming the Dolphins use their earlier pick on an offensive playmaker, I believe this selection will be focused on the defensive side of the ball, where Miami can land the draft’s first true pass rusher. Paye is an athletic freak and would serve as a perfect bookend to Emmanuel Ogbah. Continuing a Tide reunion with running back Najee Harris is awfully tempting here as well, but Paye is too good to pass up and Miami can look to secure a running back early in round two.

19. Washington Football Team – Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (LB, Notre Dame)

Washington is a team that many people think may try trading up to secure a franchise quarterback, but I’m not buying it. The Football Team has assembled a pretty good defensive unit already, but they still want more production and versatility from their linebackers. Washington will get both from Owusu-Koramoah. If Micah Parsons happened to slide this far, he would be awfully tempting as the second coming of LaVar Arrington. Offensive line is another position that can’t be ruled out here.

20. Chicago Bears – Teven Jenkins (OT, Oklahoma State)

If Chicago isn’t able to move up for a quarterback, the next best thing would be trying to protect their current one (Andy Dalton) as much as possible. Chicago’s offensive line has declined in recent years and there is a glaring need at right tackle. Plus, starting left tackle Charles Leno’s contact expires after this season, so the Bears might have to overhaul both tackle spots over the next 12 months. With several offensive linemen already off the board, the Bears need to act fast or risk getting Dalton killed.

21. Indianapolis Colts – Jaelan Phillips (DE, Miami)

The Colts would have happily grabbed one of the top offensive tackles with this pick to replace Anthony Castonzo, but with Sewell, Slater, Darrisaw and Jenkins all gone, they go with a high-risk, high-reward pick in Phillips. His upside is tantalizing, and he feels like a player ready to contribute on Day 1. The medical concerns (concussions) might be a deal breaker, but if the Colts clear him, he will add more disruption on a defensive line featuring DeForest Buckner.

22. Tennessee Titans – Elijah Moore (WR, Mississippi)

Adding another impact player on offense is a top priority for the Titans after losing wide receiver Corey Davis and tight end Jonnu Smith in free agency. Tennessee did acquire Josh Reynolds to help out, but reuniting Moore with college teammate A.J. Brown gives the Titans a reliable slot receiver who can replace Adam Humphries. Moore will also add some excitement as a punt returner. Right tackle is also a need, but after last year’s first round bust of Isaiah Wilson blew up in their face, I’m not sure they tempt fate for a second straight year.

23. New York Jets (from Seattle) – Greg Newsome (CB, Northwestern)

The Jets locked up their franchise quarterback earlier on in the draft, and with so many more needs to fill, they can simply opt for the best player available with their second first round pick. Positions New York can address here include cornerback, linebacker/edge rush, offensive line or even a running back. Cornerback Caleb Farley makes plenty of sense on the surface, but with an assortment of health/injury concerns, he might be in for a bit of a draft day slide. If the Jets look for cornerback help here, Newsome is the “safer” pick at the moment. Don’t rule out running back though, as Najee Harris and Travis Etienne will certainly be in play with this pick.

24. Pittsburgh Steelers – Najee Harris (RB, Alabama)

Nearly every mock draft out there has connected Harris with the Steelers, and can you blame them? Let’s face it, Pittsburgh had no running game to speak of last year and James Connor now resides in Arizona. Ben Roethlisberger is 39 and is no longer going to carry the team. The Steelers need balance, and a great running back is a more pressing concern than an offensive lineman. Harris is a better fit for Pittsburgh than Travis Etienne.

25. Jacksonville Jaguars (from Los Angeles Rams) – Christian Barmore (DT, Alabama)

Jacksonville’s defense has been in major decline in recent years, and this selection must be used to address that side of the ball. New head coach Urban Meyer believes you build your team around the defensive line, and Barmore would be a key piece. Barmore is the best defensive tackle in the draft and adds a pass-rush element (he led Alabama with eight sacks in 2020) that was missing from the Jaguars’ interior last season. The Jaguars can also look at a rush end (Jaelan Phillips or Azeez Ojulari) or a safety (Trevon Moehrig) with this pick.

26. Cleveland Browns – Jamin Davis (LB, Kentucky)

Cleveland is on the cusp of being a perennial playoff team. Their offense is dynamic and will be even more so with the return of Odell Beckham Jr. The defensive line has added veteran pieces up front this offseason with Malik Jackson, Takk McKinley and Jadeveon Clowney. John Johnson and Troy Hill have been added to the back end. The only piece needed to finish the job is a speedy linebacker. Davis has been one of the fastest risers in the weeks leading up to the draft and would be a perfect fit in Cleveland.

27. Baltimore Ravens – Jayson Oweh (DE, Penn State)

The Ravens lost their top two edge rushers, Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue, in free agency and they’ve targeted this draft as a good place to get much-needed help on the edge. Oweh is a fringe first round pick with tons of untapped potential, so playing next to Calais Campbell could do wonders. Other positions that Baltimore could look to address are offensive tackle, safety and wide receiver. Luckily, the Ravens have another first round pick coming up (thanks to the Orlando Brown trade) to help address one of those needs.

28. New Orleans Saints – Caleb Farley (CB, Virginia Tech)

The Saints had to purge their entire roster to get under the salary cap and gaping holes were left throughout all levels of their defense. I can make a case for a defensive lineman, linebacker or defensive back with this pick because the Saints could use help everywhere. However, there is nothing to speak of across from Marshon Lattimore at corner. Farley has the talent of a top 10 player in this draft, but his medical red flags (back surgery on March 23) will cause him to drop. If the Saints are okay with his health though, Farley could be a steal this late in round one. If New Orleans opted to go offense, a wide receiver opposite Michael Thomas would make the most sense.

29. Green Bay Packers – Kadarius Toney (WR, Florida)

The Packers could go in a lot of directions with this pick – tackle, cornerback, linebacker and receiver are among their biggest needs; however, isn’t it about time to finally get Aaron Rodgers another weapon in the passing game? I guess the odds are against it considering the Packers haven’t taken a first round wide receiver in the last 20 years, but there will be a lot of quality receivers on the board late in round one and Green Bay is said to “love” Toney (no pun intended after last year’s botched first round pick – Jordan Love).

30. Buffalo Bills – Travis Etienne (RB, Clemson)

The Bills are right on the doorstep of competing for Conference Championships, and they’re doing so without any semblance of a running game. While an edge rusher or cornerback would make complete sense for Buffalo here, a multi-purpose running back like Travis Etienne can help take the Bills offense to new heights. Etienne is the most explosive runner in this draft class and will help take a huge load off Josh Allen’s plate.

31. Baltimore Ravens (from Kansas City) – Trevon Moehrig (S, TCU)

The Ravens’ most underrated need is a ball-hawking safety the team has lacked since Ed Reed left after the 2012 Super Bowl season. Moehrig is the consensus best safety in the draft who has traits Baltimore covets: a vocal leader and a knack for being around the ball. With two first round picks, Baltimore has plenty of flexibility, and there are also rumblings about acquiring a wide receiver with one of their picks. Offensive tackle is also a huge concern since Baltimore traded away Orlando Brown to Kansas City to procure this pick. However, the Ravens seem pretty confident that they can strike a deal with ex-Steelers tackle Alejandro Villanueva after the draft.

32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Gregory Rousseau (DE, Miami)

With all 22 starters on offense and defense returning from their Super Bowl LV championship team, the Buccaneers don’t have many pressing needs. That being the case, they can take a chance on a developmental player here who can provide depth in two areas of need. Rousseau can play inside in a rotation with Ndamukong Suh and William Gholston, both of whom are in the final year of their contracts. He also can be used to rush off the edge as a stand-up outside linebacker in Todd Bowles’ defense. Another player I could see on Tampa Bay’s radar is Georgia defense end Azeez Ojulari.