Finally, the 2021 NFL draft is here. After months of evaluating prospects and predicting what will happen, we can now just sit back and see how it unfolds tonight. Well, almost.
First, before the Jaguars are on the clock, I’m projecting all 32 selections of the first round one last time. Remember, these predictions are based on what I think a team will do, rather than what I think it should do.
There is still much up for debate regarding how the draft will play out. But this much we know for sure: The class is loaded with talent, and numerous potential stars are ready to make an impact on an NFL roster. That starts with an exciting quarterback group, headlined by five potential franchise starters. But where will all the best prospects end up tonight, and which teams will draft new QBs with their first-round picks?
Here is my final projection of the opening 32 picks, starting with an obvious one. Catch all the action tonight, starting at 8 p.m. ET on ABC, ESPN and the ESPN App, and follow along live with our NFL Draftcast.
See more: My final rankings
Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
New coach Urban Meyer gets to make the easiest pick of the night and start his tenure in Jacksonville with a once-in-a-decade quarterback prospect driving his offense. Lawrence’s big arm, pocket mobility and quick release perfectly fit Meyer’s offensive scheme. Watch for the Jaguars to spend a chunk of their nine remaining picks — which include four more in the first 65 selections — on protection and pass-catchers for their new signal-caller.
Zach Wilson, QB, BYU
The Jets chose to move on from Sam Darnold earlier this month, and Wilson would provide them with an excellent replacement as a QB who can read the defense, make all the throws and create when pushed out of the pocket. But like the Jags, the Jets need to continue building on offense with five total picks on Days 1 and 2.
Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State
This is where it gets interesting, with a departure from what we’ve been predicting for the past month (Alabama’s Mac Jones). Lance has a huge arm and the tools to develop into an excellent NFL starter. He has only 17 career starts, all at the FCS level, but he’d have a chance to learn and develop behind Jimmy Garoppolo for a year or two before taking over.
Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida
Pitts is a massive matchup problem for opposing defensive coordinators because of his speed, size and hands. Finding an heir to quarterback Matt Ryan is tempting, especially because the Falcons might not draft in the top five again any time soon, but I don’t see them passing up what Pitts brings to the table. He would form a dangerous trio with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley — or replace Jones in the offense if the cap-strapped team ends up trading the veteran receiver.
Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU
Cincinnati needs to decide between further protecting Joe Burrow or giving him a dominant receiver to throw to, and I have it going with the latter. Chase caught 84 passes from Burrow at LSU in 2019 for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns, so the two have plenty of chemistry. The Bengals can take the No. 1 receiver in the class now and then address the line on Day 2.
Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
The Dolphins have to give Tua Tagovailoa more to work with, and Waddle is the class’ most elusive playmaker with the ball in his hands. Tagovailoa and Waddle connected for nearly 800 yards in Tuscaloosa, too. A trio of Waddle, Will Fuller V and DeVante Parker is exactly what the second-year QB needs in order to find success.
Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon
Obviously, Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith would make sense as well, but the Lions were 10th in sacks allowed last season (42), and Sewell is the best lineman in the class. He can be a cornerstone for the rebuilding offense at left tackle for years to come. Plus, with a deep receiver class, Detroit can add a playmaker early on Day 2.
Rashawn Slater, OT, Northwestern
If Carolina expects to see something different from quarterback Sam Darnold than what he showed with the Jets, it needs to give him adequate protection. Slater is a versatile lineman who can help buy Darnold time and open lanes for Christian McCaffrey at the second level in the run game.
Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
Make no mistake, trading for Teddy Bridgewater doesn’t take Denver out of the QB running. Making such a move further calls into question whether the Broncos believe Drew Lock can be their guy, and if they don’t, then Bridgewater shouldn’t be the final answer, either. Fields is extremely accurate with a big arm, and he could be the franchise starter the Broncos are looking for.
Relive the highlights from Justin Fields at Ohio State as the QB is poised to be a top draft pick in the NFL.
Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama
Dallas is seeking a shutdown cornerback, and that’s Surtain. He’s instinctive in press coverage and will make plays on the ball. With the Cowboys, he’d be reunited with former Alabama teammate Trevon Diggs to form a solid duo at the position.
Kwity Paye, DE, Michigan
The Giants’ biggest hole right now is off the edge, and Paye is my top-ranked prospect there. They need to add more game-breakers to pair with Leonard Williams and keep their vastly improved defense strong.
DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
The Eagles, who have the most picks in the draft (11), land the Heisman winner and a dynamic route runner here to address their WR need. Their top receivers are Jalen Reagor, Greg Ward and Travis Fulgham, but Smith will give Jalen Hurts an explosive difference-maker. And remember, Hurts and Smith hooked up for 12 catches back in 2017-18 when Hurts was at Alabama.
Alijah Vera-Tucker, G, USC
With both of the top tackles off the board, I have the Chargers pivoting to the interior here. Corey Linsley and Matt Feiler were both good signings in free agency, but L.A. can’t be done. It has to make protecting quarterback Justin Herbert the top priority. Vera-Tucker is the top guard in the class and an excellent pass protector. Plus, he played tackle this past season and offers versatility.
Jaelan Phillips, DE, Miami
The Vikings were among the bottom five in sacks last season, and Phillips had eight of them for the Hurricanes in 2020. With Phillips coupled with Danielle Hunter, Minnesota can return to its 2018-19 form, when it was among the five best teams in sack production.
Mac Jones, QB, Alabama
Because the Niners opted to go with Lance, the Patriots get lucky in this scenario, not having to move up and still landing one of the top five quarterbacks. Jones is an anticipatory passer with excellent accuracy; coach Bill Belichick would help him develop into a good NFL starter.
Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina
Patrick Peterson is gone, and both starting outside cornerbacks are on one-year deals. Horn is a physical corner with good ball skills, and there’s a case for him as the top defensive back in the class. It’s a great fit and solid value in the middle of the first round.
Trevon Moehrig, S, TCU
Moehrig is a ball hawk who would immediately help shore up the Raiders’ leaky pass defense from the back end. He had six interceptions and 20 passes broken up over the past two seasons.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, ILB, Notre Dame
Versatility is the name of the game for Owusu-Koramoah. He can play all over the defense and contribute to multiple areas. Defensive coordinator Josh Boyer could use a dynamic player like Owusu-Koramoah in the middle of his defense.
Check out the highlights from Notre Dame LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah’s college career.
Micah Parsons, ILB, Penn State
This is excellent value for Parsons, a sideline-to-sideline linebacker who would help stop the run and be the quarterback of the defense. I also expect Washington to pursue a quarterback — maybe Stanford’s Davis Mills — in Round 2.
Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech
If they can’t replace quarterback Andy Dalton, the Bears will look to help him. Darrisaw could slide in at left tackle. And because he has power and is a smooth mover, he’d provide a boost for leading rusher David Montgomery in the run game.
Elijah Moore, WR, Ole Miss
Christian Darrisaw could have been a replacement for Anthony Castonzo, who announced his retirement in January, at left tackle, and Jaelan Phillips could have been an impact edge rusher for the Colts. But they’re both off the board. Instead, Moore gives new quarterback Carson Wentz a savvy route runner out of the slot.
Projected trade: Bills jump up for a playmaker
I had to get at least one move in here, and I mentioned this as a possibility in my buzz story on Monday. Buffalo is contending for a Super Bowl and should do what it needs to in order to get there. Tennessee, meanwhile, missed out on the top five pass-catchers and can now look to a deep WR pool to address that hole later. The extra draft capital picked up here would help.
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Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson
Many teams have Etienne ahead of Najee Harris (Alabama) as the class’ top running back, and only six franchises in the NFL got fewer rushing yards out of their running backs last season than the Bills (1,301). Etienne can hit the home run any time he finds daylight, and an offense featuring Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs and Etienne would be scary.
Greg Newsome II, CB, Northwestern
The Jets might look at offensive line here, but Newsome would give their defense a spark with his speed, versatility and strong press coverage. The Jets had the third-worst completion percentage allowed last season (69.1%), so the picks can’t all go to the offense.
Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
In another spot where offensive line is a consideration, the Steelers replace running back James Conner with Harris, a powerful back who is slippery between the tackles. Pittsburgh averaged the fewest yards per carry in the NFL last season (3.6).
Teven Jenkins, OT, Oklahoma State
The Jaguars have to protect Trevor Lawrence, and Jenkins is tough to get around. He has the versatility to slide inside if needed, and his range as a run-blocker will help set up big rushes from James Robinson.
Christian Barmore, DT, Alabama
The Browns just parted ways with defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson two weeks ago, and Barmore is highly disruptive. An edge rusher could also be in play here.
Check out the best highlights from Alabama DT Christian Barmore’s college career.
Liam Eichenberg, OT, Notre Dame
The trade of Orlando Brown Jr. opened up a hole at tackle opposite Ronnie Stanley, and Eichenberg can help keep star QB Lamar Jackson upright. He’s a terrific pass protector who has versatility.
Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida
Toney would give the Saints an elusive receiver on offense, whether it be in the quick-pass game, with screens or as a rusher on sweeps. He had 12 total touchdowns at Florida last season.
Jamin Davis, ILB, Kentucky
We’ve come to expect the Packers to defer to later in the draft for offensive playmakers, so I’ll project Davis here as a replacement for linebacker Christian Kirksey, who was released in February. Davis is one of my favorite players in the class and can impact many parts of the defense.
Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech
When healthy, Farley is perhaps the best cover corner in the class. It’s tough not to go receiver here, but the Titans also just lost Adoree’ Jackson, Malcolm Butler and Desmond King II from their cornerback group.
Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay break down the 2021 NFL draft.
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Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota
The Ravens had by far the fewest receiving yards from the wide receiver position last season, and signing Sammy Watkins won’t fix it. Bateman is a great route runner with versatility and excellent hands. I see a little JuJu Smith-Schuster in his game.
Zaven Collins, OLB, Tulsa
The Bucs are bringing back all 22 starters from their Super Bowl roster, so there aren’t many holes. I’ve heard Florida quarterback Kyle Trask as a possibility here as a backup for Tom Brady and potential future starter, but I think he ultimately goes in Round 2. Collins, however, is a heavy hitter who can play different roles at the second level.