NFL draft tracker 2021: Instant analysis on every pick in the first round
The 2021 NFL draft, i.e. the league’s 86th annual “Player Selection Meeting,” is finally upon us, some beautiful mysteries finally about to be solved (while some others continue to deepen in Green Bay).
Outwardly, this draft will project a return to normalcy, the NFL set up with its massive stage contiguous to Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Browns’ FirstEnergy Stadium on the shores of Lake Erie. However the pre-draft process was hardly standard, what with COVID-19 forcing the league to cancel this year’s scouting combine on the heels of a season when scouts and team executives had far more limited access to college programs and the prospects whom they evaluate. Should make for an interesting calculus as teams weigh their information over the next three days and decide which players potentially fit their program.
Now, to the picks:
2021 NFL draft tracker: First-round picks
He becomes the fourth quarterback taken in Round 1 in franchise history – joining Byron Leftwich (2003), Blaine Gabbert (2011) and Blake Bortles (2014) – but Lawrence is the first tabbed No. 1 overall. Widely regarded as a generational prospect on par with John Elway, Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck, it’s been widely assumed for years that Lawrence would be the first player picked in this draft – the only question was which team would get him. Turns out, that’s the Jags, a franchise that needs a spark on the field after a 1-15 campaign and in the seats. Lawrence’s presumed arrival also likely spurred college coaching legend Urban Meyer to come aboard. (Meyer has hired veteran offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who facilitated Russell Wilson’s transition to the NFL in Seattle, to do the same job in Jacksonville.)
Lawrence stands 6-6 and should add weight to his 213-pound frame as his surgically repaired left (non-throwing) shoulder heals. He went 34-2 as a starter for Clemson, bringing home a national title in 2018 and finishing with 90 TD passes (against 17 INTs) in three seasons. With a powerful, accurate arm, the ability to dissect defenses and make plays with his legs plus a steady persona indicative of a franchise quarterback, now all Lawrence has to do … is live up to the hype – in Duuuval County and the United Kingdom.
This franchise thought enough of Wilson to dump 2018 first-rounder (and No. 3 overall pick) Sam Darnold – making the Jets the first team in the common draft era (since 1967) to pick a passer within the top three picks twice in the span of four drafts. Though slightly built at 6-2 and 214 pounds and with a worrisome injury history that includes surgery on his throwing shoulder two years ago, Wilson does have tantalizing gifts that have drawn comparisons to Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes … which probably isn’t fair to them or Wilson. Still, he’s got the juice in his arm to make amazing throws with his feet set or on the move, and that may be a necessity given the general state of New York’s offense, which finished last in points and yards in 2020. Wilson was the only player at the FBS level in 2020 with at least 30 TD passes and 10 scores on the ground, and his 33-to-3 TD-to-INT ratio also paced the country. Now Gang Green and their impatient fans find out if a player who feasted on non-Power Five competition can take a franchise 52 years removed from its only Super Bowl back to the promised land. GM Joe Douglas and a new coaching regime led by Robert Saleh must surely do a better job supporting Wilson than they did Darnold.
A pick that’s changed hands three times, the Niners made their bold acquisition of it last month … and it was quickly followed by rampant speculation that they would take Alabama QB Mac Jones. But going with Lance, who has far more upside than Jones given his physical skills, seems like the better option given the franchise surrendered three first-rounders to get him. Lance has only played one game since the 2019 season, but what a year he had during the Bison’s national championship run. He had 28 passing TDs that year, 14 TDs on the ground (among 1,000 yards) … and no interceptions. He didn’t lose any of his 17 college starts, either. Lance, who also gets high marks for leadership and intelligence, should bring a dimension to coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense that Kirk Cousins, Matt Ryan and incumbent Jimmy Garoppolo have not. Lance, who only attempted 318 passes in college, will likely sit behind Garoppolo for a period of time, but it does stand to reason he’ll need to play soon given how little time he’s had on a football field in the last year. Could be Cam Newton-lite.
He’s been widely touted as the best prospect ever at his position. When you’re 6-6, 245 pounds with an 83-inch wingspan and run a 4.4 40-yard dash, that will happen. Last year’s Mackey Award winner as college football’s top tight end, Pitts scored 12 TDs among his 43 catches and should be a deadly red-zone threat. Now he’ll line up between WRs Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones (presumably) and for a coach, Atlanta’s recently hired Arthur Smith, who favors double-tight sets. Pitts, who’s also a willing blocker, could be a weapon on the order of Travis Kelce or Darren Waller if he fulfills the hype. Pitts surpasses Denver’s Riley Odoms (fifth overall in 1972) as the tight end picked earliest in the common draft era.
Strong case to be made here for an offensive tackle in the aftermath of the ACL injury that prematurely ended 2020 No. 1 pick Joe Burrow’s rookie season. But apparently a more compelling case to reunite Burrow with his main weapon from LSU’s 2019 title team, when Chase established himself as the best wideout in college football. Widely regarded as the premier receiver in this draft, Chase’s built-in chemistry with Burrow could take this offense up a few notches given what Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, both very capable targets themselves, already provide. The 2019 Biletnikoff Award winner as college football’s top receiver, Chase’s name constantly came up in last year’s combine as the player his peers with most impressed by at the position – including former LSU teammate Justin Jefferson, who tore up the league for the Vikings in 2020. Chase set SEC records in 2019 (1,780 receiving yards, 20 TDs) surpassed by Alabama’s DeVonta Smith in 2020.
He’s been compared to Tyreek Hill and will reunite with former Crimson Tide QB Tua Tagovailoa in Miami. Waddle and WR Will Fuller V will give Miami speed to burn on the outside, and Waddle could also greatly enhance the Fins’ return teams. Waddle was having a season every bit as good as Heisman Trophy Winner Smith in 2020 before a fractured ankle paused his season – though Waddle did return for the national championship game. The AFC East better beware double moves from a player who averaged 10 yards after the catch.
The first pick of the new regime in Motown is Sewell, who won the Outland Trophy at age 19 in 2019 before opting out last year. A 6-5, 331-pounder, Sewell moves shockingly well for a man his size and will likely force Detroit OT Taylor Decker to the right side. This pick also signals a new philosophy in Detroit, where new coach Dan Campbell and offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn want to run the ball, something this franchise hasn’t done effectively since Barry Sanders retired more than two decades ago.
The first defensive player off the board, the son of former Saints WR Joe Horn becomes the latest defender taken by Carolina, which has yet to draft an offensive player in the Matt Rhule era. Perhaps a more explosive athlete with slightly better ball skills than Alabama counterpart Patrick Surtain II, Horn joins a division where his father starred in at the start of the century. And given how much the ball is in the air in the NFC South with Tom Brady, Matt Ryan and the pass-happy Saints on the schedule twice apiece, understandable while Rhule and Co. would eschew a tantalizing QB option (Justin Fields, Mac Jones) in favor of Horn now that they’ll be rolling with Darnold.
9. Denver Broncos –
10. Dallas Cowboys –
11. New York Giants –
12. Eagles (from 49ers via Dolphins) –
13. Los Angeles Chargers –
14. Minnesota Vikings –
15. New England Patriots –
16. Arizona Cardinals –
17. Las Vegas Raiders –
18. Dolphins –
19. Washington Football Team –
20. Chicago Bears –
21. Indianapolis Colts –
22. Tennessee Titans –
23. Jets (from Seattle Seahawks) –
24. Pittsburgh Steelers –
25. Jaguars (from Los Angeles Rams) –
26. Cleveland Browns –
27. Baltimore Ravens –
28. New Orleans Saints –
29. Green Bay Packers –
30. Buffalo Bills –
31. Ravens (from Kansas City Chiefs) –
32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers –
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.