The 2021 NFL Draft runs from this Thursday to Saturday in Cleveland—the first round on Thursday night, the second two rounds on Friday, and the last four on Saturday—and will be televised on ESPN. This year will have a slightly more normal feel than last year, as the draft is once happening in person rather than remotely. More importantly, it’s shaping up to be an exciting one.
The first pick is not in doubt (former Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence is expected to be No. 1 overall), but there’s still potential for plenty of surprises in the slots immediately afterward. The draft has a generous handful of top quarterback prospects—more than in most years—and it’s also loaded with wide receivers. Wondering what to look for this year? These are the four questions that will define much of how the draft unfolds.
1. Who will be the next quarterbacks taken after No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence?
Clemson’s Lawrence will be the first overall pick—that has been obvious for months. He had a dominant three-year career at Clemson, and he has one of the best arms the draft has ever seen. You don’t have to watch Lawrence long to understand why he’ll go first:
The Jets appear poised to draft BYU’s Zach Wilson at No. 2 overall. Then things get very interesting. The 49ers traded up from the 12th pick to No. 3, ostensibly to draft a new quarterback of their own to replace Jimmy Garoppolo. Coach Kyle Shanahan has said he likes a whole handful of QBs at that spot. The tea leaves say the 49ers will take Alabama’s Mac Jones—a fairly surprising decision given the superior talent of Ohio State’s Justin Fields and, arguably, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance.
This draft is notable for its incredibly talented quarterbacks. If Fields falls beyond the No. 3 pick, some team much lower on the draft order might get lucky and scoop up a phenomenal talent at that critical position. Some are predicting that Fields will probably last until the middle or bottom of the top 10.
2. Will a team shake up the draft by trading up for one of those QBs?
Perhaps the most chaotic possible scenario in this year’s draft involves Fields or Lance falling lower in the first round and a team that isn’t at the top of the draft order making a trade to snatch them up. To do that, the team would sacrifice extra picks later to get an early selection spot in the first round.
A number of reports and mock drafts expect one team to do just that: Bill Belichick’s Patriots. Belichick won six Super Bowls alongside Tom Brady, but he’s now clearly on the tail end of his coaching career. He’d probably like to find the franchise a long-term answer at QB, both so he can compete in 2021 and so he can leave the Pats in good shape when he passes the reins to a successor. The Patriots currently have the 15th pick. If Fields or Lance falls outside the top five, keep an eye on New England.
A few other teams lower in the draft order need quarterbacks and might be tempted to try a big trade up. The Steelers, for example, will need to replace Ben Roethlisberger within a year, and the Bears don’t have anything resembling a long-term solution at the position.
3. Who will land the top three wide receivers in this year’s draft?
As the analysts at The Draft Network put it, “The wide receiver position is experiencing a boom period right now.” There are many elite wideout prospects in the 2021 draft, but three in particular will almost certainly get picked in the top half of the first round.
They are LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase:
Alabama’s DeVonta Smith:
And his Alabama teammate Jaylen Waddle:
All three players are outrageously skilled. Chase is probably the best of the three at going up and catching a jump ball. Smith might be the smoothest route-runner, while Waddle provides the widest range of possible roles, such as the ability to return punts (as you can see in the video above) .
In the draft, these players are rare catches. The teams that nab them will receive immediate game-breakers who can totally change the dynamic of their offenses: They can potentially score on any play from anywhere on the field.
4. Will players who opted out of the 2020 season fall on draft boards?
Because of COVID-19, a significant number of draft prospects decided not to play in the 2020 college football season. Others opted out after the season had already started. How NFL teams treat these players on draft night will be an interesting sign for future generations of draftees. If the NFL still eagerly drafts players who haven’t seen a game for more than a year, other players might view that as a smart business decision. Why risk getting injured and ruining a professional payday if NFL teams don’t care?
Early indications show that the NFL is prepared to embrace players who sat out their last college season. Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell, LSU receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall, Northwestern offensive tackle Rashawn Slater, and Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley all sat out games amid the pandemic. All but Marshall are highly likely to be first-round picks, and there’s a chance Marshall, too, might sneak in before the end of the opening round. If all goes well for those players, expect their successors in future draft years to take note.
The draft starts April 29 at 8 p.m. (EDT) on ESPN.
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