The 2021 NFL Draft will begin on Thursday, April 29, and draft speculation is, as always, at a fever pitch. Below is The UCSD Guardian’s first-round mock draft, completed by Sports Staff Writer Donovan Perez-Schipper, and Features Editor Nelson Espinal. We’ll use the simplifying assumption that there are no new trades, even if there almost certainly will be, so that both mocks pick for the same teams at the same time.
- Jacksonville Jaguars
Donovan: Trevor Lawrence, Quarterback, Clemson University. Most first overall picks are decided well before the draft actually starts, and this year is no different. Urban Meyer’s team grabs the can’t-miss prospect, with the only question mark being whether they can surround him with enough talent to be successful early on.
Nelson: Trevor Lawrence, Quarterback, Clemson. Duh. Trevor Lawerence has been the #1 pick ever since he won a national championship in his freshman year. He will change the franchise and take them as far as their roster-building allows.
- New York Jets
Donovan: Zach Wilson, Quarterback, Brigham Young University. This pick seems like it was made certain after the Jets traded former franchise quarterback and University of Southern California product Sam Darnold to Carolina. Zach Wilson has a cannon arm and showed precision accuracy on all three levels with good mobility. The glaring red flag is that he only showed one year of truly elite play, but general manager Joe Douglas feels comfortable enough to hand Wilson the keys.
Nelson: Zach Wilson, Quarterback, BYU. The Jets traded Sam Darnold because they are taking a quarterback. Wilson lit it up this year and I think he is on the same tier as Lawrence. His off-platform throws and playmaking ability will make him a fan favorite in New York.
- San Francisco 49ers (from Miami via Houston)
Donovan: Trey Lance, Quarterback, North Dakota State University. The first controversial pick of the draft, where the Niners take Lance over more proven prospects such as Mac Jones or Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. Lance’s projected traits are simply too difficult to pass up on, as Shanahan gets handed a fun new piece to develop behind Jimmy Garoppolo. While it may take time for Lance to see the field as he makes the big jump to NFL-level competition, the calls for a change will come quickly if the Niners struggle early on.
Nelson: Trey Lance, Quarterback, North Dakota State. Everyone thinks this pick will be Mac Jones, but I need to see it before I believe it. You don’t trade three first-round picks for Mac Jones. The 49ers traded that capital to improve based on the system, and Lance can do just that.
- Atlanta Falcons
Donovan: Penei Sewell, Offensive Tackle, University of Oregon. The run on quarterbacks ends here, as Atlanta keeps Matt Ryan as the unquestioned starter for another year with some reinforcements. Sewell is likely the second-best prospect in this draft class, but after sitting out a year, his dominance seems to have been forgotten. One of the most dominant offensive linemen ever in the college ranks, Sewell will anchor a Falcons line for years to come giving new coach Arthur Smith a building block(er… get it?) to recreate his smashmouth-style Titans offense.
Nelson: Kyle Pitts, Tight End, University of Florida. There are reports that the Falcons might go quarterback and find a replacement for Matt Ryan, but I think they’ll try to build around Ryan instead. Pitts is a special receiving weapon and he will complement the Falcons’ receiving core well.
- Cincinnati Bengals
Donovan: Kyle Pitts, Tight End, Florida. Joe Burrow is smiling. A generational prospect gives Burrow an absolutely unfair red zone advantage. While teaming up with former teammate Ja’Marr Chase would have been nice, Pitts is simply a can’t miss prospect. Teaming up with Joe Mixon and receivers Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins will give the Bengals an offense primed for a big jump. Unless the defense and offensive line can improve, however, the Bengals might be picking high in the draft again this time next year.
Nelson: Ja’Marr Chase, Wide Receiver, Louisiana State University. This selection is a tough one. The Bengals can either go with Chase to help out Burrow or go with Sewell. The Bengals shored up their offensive line enough during free agency to the point where they can afford to go with Chase, a special wide receiver.
- Miami Dolphins (from Philadelphia)
Donovan: Jaylen Waddle, Wide Receiver, University of Alabama. Another piece for another quarterback drafted last year. Waddle is the third wide receiver on most draft expert’s boards, but the Dolphins take a swing on an explosive athlete. Waddle was averaging 21.1 yards per catch with Mac Jones at the helm this past season before he went down with an injury. Tua Tagovailoa and Waddle undoubtedly had a connection at Alabama before and will look to continue their partnership in Miami.
Nelson: Devonta Smith, Wide Receiver, Alabama. With Pitts and Chase gone, the Dolphins will give Tua his former teammate back. They need to give their young quarterback every reason to succeed so they can accurately gauge how good he really is.
- Detroit Lions
Donovan: Rashawn Slater, Offensive Tackle, Northwestern University. Taking Slater over a wideout would certainly be a questionable move for general manager Brad Holmes, but there is an identity being built in Detroit. Coach Dan Campbell is coming for your kneecaps and that starts with getting a road grader in Slater. Either way, improving this offense and taking a long look at Jared Goff will be a priority for this new Lions staff. Look for this spot to be a possible destination for teams looking to trade up in the draft.
Nelson: Micah Parsons, Linebacker, Pennsylvania State University. New Lions coach Dan Campell wants someone who can bite a kneecap. Parsons is a coverage and pass rusher, a do-it-all linebacker that can provide the rookie coach with a player to start the rebuilding process with.
- Carolina Panthers
Donovan: Ja’Marr Chase, Wide Receiver, LSU. Joe Brady gets his guy. The Panthers recently traded for Sam Darnold, and either he or Teddy Bridgewater will inherit the best running back in football to go with receivers Chase, DJ Moore, and Robby Anderson. An explosive offense is key for coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady to compete. This pick is a no-brainer if Chase falls to No. 8, especially when considering that there are few defensive players with top-ten value in this draft class.
Nelson: Penei Sewell, Offensive Tackle, Oregon. Quarterback is no longer a need with the Panthers. Darnold still has a lot of talent and now the Panthers need to build around him. They have a huge need at tackle, and now they get a generational one.
- Denver Broncos
Donovan: Justin Fields, Quarterback, Ohio State University. John Elway and the draft room would be jumping for joy if they didn’t have to trade up to get their man. While the likelihood of the Broncos selecting Fields at No. 9 is slim, the Broncos certainly could use a quarterback like Fields to come in and compete with Drew Lock. Lock has shown some promise, but the ceiling for Fields seems significantly higher. To compete with Justin Herbert and Patrick Mahomes in their division, the Broncos will have to swing for the fences with this one.
Nelson: Justin Fields, Quarterback, Ohio State. The Broncos need a quarterback. Drew Lock sucks, and they might need to trade up to get Fields, but he falls to them here. Fields is my third-ranked QB and is a special talent overall.
- Dallas Cowboys
Donovan: Micah Parsons, Linebacker, Penn State. The first defensive player picked in the draft will land with America’s Team. Parsons is far and away the best defensive talent going into the draft, and the Cowboys have one of the most struggling defenses. While Dallas does already have Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch at linebacker, the pass rushing proficiency of Parsons will give the Cowboys an extra boost off the edge. The Cowboys, desperate for a playmaker, select the best defensive player available.
Nelson: Patrick Surtain II, Cornerback, Alabama. Surtain is everything a corner prospect could be. He tackles well, covers and moves his feet better than anyone, and has some playmaking ability too. The Cowboys need secondary help and the best corner in the draft will help.
- New York Giants
Donovan: Alijah Vera-Tucker, Guard, University of Southern California. While this one might be a bit of a reach, the Giants really need to shore up their interior offensive line. Daniel Jones has struggled with turnovers early on in his career and Saquon Barkley could use some help up front. Vera-Tucker will immediately plug in to one of the guard spots for the Giants, though he could also fill in at tackle. A versatile player for a team that has struggled with injuries everywhere on offense makes for a great fit.
Nelson: Jaylen Waddle, Wide Receiver, Alabama. The Giants signed Kenny Golladay, but that won’t be enough to help out Daniel Jones. Their number-two receiver is Sterling Shepard, and that won’t cut it in that division. Waddle can elevate this receiving corps under a good offensive coordinator.
- Philadelphia Eagles (from San Francisco)
Donovan: Mac Jones, Quarterback, Alabama. A surprise team selects the last of the top quarterbacks in this year’s draft. General manager Howie Roseman can’t resist after Jones falls all the way into his lap, resulting in the before- and after-Tua quarterbacks from Alabama having a quarterback battle. Jones had an outstanding season, but the question of a small sample size lingers. Adding a quarterback who thrives making plays down the field to compete with an athletic juggernaut in Jalen Hurts will make for an interesting quarterback room for the Eagles.
Nelson: Jaycee Horn, Cornerback, University of South Carolina. The Eagles need to help out a secondary that has been poor for a while. They traded for Darius Slay and it didn’t work out. Horn is the second-best corner and the start of a long rebuild in Philly.
- Los Angeles Chargers
Donovan: Devonta Smith, Wide Receiver, Alabama. The last of the three elite wideouts finally comes off the board. After winning the Heisman Trophy and putting up elite stats, much has been made about his slight frame, recently weighing in at a little over 160 pounds. The third wide receiver paired with the third quarterback drafted last year will certainly compete to be the most successful pairing, as they arguably have shown the most success in college and the pro ranks, respectively. Though the Chargers have a glaring need at left tackle, they do not pass up on a proven talent in Smith.
Nelson: Rashawn Slater, Offensive Tackle, Northwestern. Justin Herbert surprised me last year. He played a lot better than I thought he would. I do not know if he can keep it up, but the Chargers need to protect their asset. Slater projects as a good tackle, but a great guard. Either way, he immediately upgrades their line.
- Minnesota Vikings
Donovan: Patrick Surtain II, Cornerback, Alabama. The run on Alabama products continues with Surtain. Minnesota selected Jeff Gladney in the first round of last year’s draft, but they still are very thin in the secondary. Surtain was a three-year starter for Alabama, impressively winning the starting job in his true freshman year. Surtain is a dependable, high ceiling corner with the potential to be an All-Pro, combining elite measurables with elite intangibles, and he will jumpstart a defensive retooling in Minnesota.
Nelson: Christian Darrisaw, Offensive Tackle, Virginia Tech. The Vikings got rid of Riley Reiff over the summer and they could use a tackle. If Horn fell, I could see them getting him, but Darrisaw can give them a future bookend.
- New England Patriots
Donovan: Kwity Paye, Defensive End, University of Michigan. The first edge rusher comes off the board to New England after they miss out on the top quarterbacks selected. Paye is a high-upside prospect who will fill an immediate need for a rotational pass rusher. Paye, along with Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchison, has been a terror for Big Ten offenses the past few seasons, so the Patriots will get a proven player here in Paye. Still, many fans will probably be left wondering where Belichick goes at quarterback for the long term.
Nelson: Mac Jones, Quarterback, Alabama. Mac Jones does not have a first-round grade from me, but I still think he goes in the first round. He was incredibly accurate in the short game and lit it up with NFL talent around him, but his arm talent is not special at all. The Patriots need a quarterback and if any of the top 5 are in this range, they will take him.
- Arizona Cardinals
Donovan: Najee Harris, Running Back, Alabama. It is easy to tell who the dominant team in college football is when looking at four of the last five picks. Harris is another great Alabama product who will give Kyler Murray another fun piece for this explosive offense. After the addition of James Conner in the backfield and AJ Green at wide receiver, the projection at this spot has been mostly defensive players. However, the Cardinals remain thin at running back and here choose to go with one of the more dominant backs in recent memory, to pair with the speedy Murray to form a scary rushing combination.
Nelson: Rashod Bateman, Wide Receiver, University of Minnesota. The Cardinals signed AJ Green, but he looked like a shell of himself last year. They need some new life in that wide receiver room. With Bateman, they get a wide receiver talent that could of been the #1 receiver in any other class. He can separate, win on the outside, and do great things with the ball.
- Las Vegas Raiders
Donovan: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Linebacker, University of Notre Dame. The Raiders take one of the best players on the board in Owusu-Koramoah, an absolute stud for the Fighting Irish. A blend between an old-school thumper and a sideline-to-sideline slot defender, he will be the exact kind of playmaker the Raiders need. After two impact signings at linebacker in the 2020 offseason, the Raiders fill out their linebacking core with a possible perennial top tackle player.
Nelson: Alijah Vera-Tucker, Offensive Tackle, USC. The Raiders let go of a few linemen and are in need of fresh blood in the trenches. If Rashawn Slater stays at tackle, Tucker is easily the best guard in this class.
- Miami Dolphins
Donovan: Azeez Ojulari, Linebacker, University of Georgia. The ‘Fins pass on the two Miami university edge rusher prospects for Ojulari. For an edge rusher, Ojulari is small at 240 pounds and projects better as a 3-4 outside linebacker, a scheme which the Dolphins currently employ. Racking up 8.5 sacks last season for Georgia against SEC competition, Ojulari has proven he can play against high-caliber competitors and would be a welcome addition to the young core in Miami.
Nelson: Jaelan Phillips, Defensive End, University of Miami. The Dolphins built a stable at cornerback already and all they are missing is some pass rush to help them not need to cover for so long. Phillips has a lot of red flags because of concussions, but his tape is the best out of any pass rusher. He is worth the risk at this point in the draft.
- Washington Football Team
Donovan: Christian Darrisaw, Offensive Tackle, Virginia Tech. Washington probably was a better football team than you thought last year. After struggling through much of the regular season, they were able to win the putrid NFC East and matchup against Tom Brady’s Buccaneers, and they were pretty competitive against the eventual Super Bowl champions. Ron Rivera is rebuilding the culture here in Washington, and Darrisaw will go a long way in helping to build that. Regarded by some draft experts as the best pass protector in college football last year, Darrisaw will immediately plug in the spot vacated by former Washington player Trent Williams to protect Ryan Fitzpatrick’s blindside.
Nelson: Kellen Mond, Quarterback, Texas A&M University. The Football Team needs a quarterback. Fitz is not going to cut it for long and if the team cannot trade up, they will need to reach for a quarterback. Mond has all of the tools to be a good QB, but he needs to be helped along in his development.
- Chicago Bears
Donovan: Trevon Moehrig-Woodard, Safety, Texas Christian University. The Bears elect to fortify their defense with this pick, grabbing the consensus best safety in this draft class. While the Bears offense is certainly the main issue plaguing Chicago, Matt Nagy’s squad still has some holes to fill on defense. Moehrig-Woodard should slot in next to Eddie Jackson to help a secondary that just lost a very quality player in Kyle Fuller. After going 5–0 to start out last season, the Bears struggled mightily because of an anemic offense and a defense that went from elite to average. Reclaiming their defensive identity will be important if they are to find success this coming season, and Moehrig-Woodard and Jackson as ballhawks will certainly help in that regard.
Nelson: Terrace Marshall Jr., Wide Receiver, LSU. The Bears need a No. 2 receiver to compliment Robinson. Marshall has the body and tools to be a receiver on the outside, but his route running needs to develop.
- Indianapolis Colts
Donovan: Terrace Marshall Jr., Wide Receiver, LSU. The second LSU receiver off the board, the Colts go with Marshall to get incoming starter Carson Wentz some help. Ever since the days of Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, the Colts have struggled to find elite wide receivers to help out their quarterbacks. TY Hilton has been good for a long time, but is certainly past his prime. Combining Marshall with up-and-coming second-year player Michael Pittman will be a welcome sight for Carson Wentz, whose struggles last year likely had something to with a lack of separation from his receivers.
Nelson: Azeez Ojulari, Linebacker, Georgia. The Colts need an offensive lineman or a pass rusher here. With the depth in the second round, they may want to go pass rusher. Ojulari needs more pass rush moves and he is undersized, but he can get to the QB in a hurry.
- Tennessee Titans
Donovan: Caleb Farley, Cornerback, Virginia Tech. After the surprising release of Adoree Jackson, the Titans select Farley to help out their secondary. Farley, nicely sized at 6 feet 2 inches, fits the mold the Titans are looking for at cornerback. While he opted out of this past season, he certainly has the tools to be a real difference-maker for the Titans. Though Surtain and Jaycee Horn, the other high-graded cornerbacks in this draft, have more film with SEC competition, Farley is a naturally gifted corner with heaps of potential for defensive-minded coach Mike Vrabel. Although a risk, the Titans will likely get more production out of him than bust Isaiah Wilson from last year’s draft.
Nelson: Kwity Paye, Defensive End, Michigan. I am not a fan of Paye. His technique is not impressive, but his tools should make the Titans interested. They need a pass rush and Paye could develop under Vrabel.
- New York Jets (via Seattle)
Donovan: Jaycee Horn, Cornerback, South Carolina. The Jets take care of another team need by adding Horn to their secondary. The son of great wide receiver Joe Horn, the Jets use their second pick of the first round on their defense. Horn is certainly in the conversation to be the best of the cornerbacks taken in this year’s draft, and will plug in as an immediate starter for the Green this coming season. Horn should be taken in the top twenty picks of this year’s draft based on his talent and resume, but an early run on offensive players results in a little bit of a slide for Horn, allowing the Jets to swoop in and take another big talent to add to their young pieces.
Nelson: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Linebacker, Notre Dame. Under the right scheme, Owusu-Koramoah is a steal here. With Robert Saleh taking over in New York, he won’t leave the draft without a defensive player. I trust Saleh to get the most out of Owusu-Koramoah in the 49ers’ scheme.
- Pittsburgh Steelers
Donovan: Joseph Ossai, Linebacker, University of Texas. The Steelers defense was great this last year, in large part due to the contributions of edge rushers TJ Watt and Bud Dupree. Dupree, however, left for the Titans in free agency, leaving his outside linebacker spot to Steelers draft pick Alex Highsmith, but the Steelers pick Ossai for some competition to pair with Watt. Ossai is a disruptor in the backfield, proficient in run and pass coverage along with rushing the passer. He is a perfect fit as a Steeler and will compete for early snaps for a stout defense.
Nelson: Najee Harris, Running Back, Alabama. The adage “don’t take running backs in the first round” does not apply to Mike Tomlin. He will take a running back and it will be Harris. Book it.
- Jacksonville Jaguars (via Los Angeles)
Donovan: Asante Samuel Jr., Cornerback, Florida State University. The Jaguars select a local product in Samuel to fill a glaring need. Jacksonville was atrocious in many facets last season, but pass defense was arguably the worst of them all, as they were third-worst in QB rating allowed. Samuel is a recent riser up draft boards, and while he may be a tier below the corners drafted above him, he can certainly be an impact player for the Jaguars. The last cornerback prospect from Florida State drafted by the Jaguars was an immense talent, and the Jaguars can only hope that Samuel is a similar gem.
Nelson: Teven Jenkins, Offensive Tackle, Oklahoma State University. The Jaguars took a special quarterback with Lawrence and they need to protect him now. Jenkins is one of my favorite guys from this draft. He could end up as the second-best tackle and I would not be surprised.
- Cleveland Browns
Donovan: Greg Newsome II, Cornerback, Northwestern. The run on corners continues with the Browns selecting this Northwestern product. For the Wildcats last year, Newsome was one of the leaders for a surprisingly stellar defense. Though Newsome is smaller and less speedy compared to his first-round counterparts, he certainly has proven himself as a talented option. The Browns will pair him with Denzel Ward to form a young and talented cornerback duo.
Nelson: Gregory Rousseau, Defensive End, Miami. Rousseau was the surefire bet to be the first defender taken early last season, but due to his opt-out and tape leaving more to be desired, he will fall. The Browns have a need at DT and Rousseau can kick inside.
- Baltimore Ravens
Donovan: Rondale Moore, Wide Receiver, Purdue University. The Ravens get an extremely fun piece in wide receiver Rondale Moore. The Ravens have invested in the receiver position in the last few drafts for Lamar Jackson, and continue that run here. The Ravens love versatile speedy receivers, and Moore fits the Hollywood Brown role. It is easy to imagine all the fun play combinations that can be made with the stable of speedy skill position players the Ravens would have at their disposal, and they will need to continue their creativity to compete with the up-and-coming Browns.
Nelson: Kadarius Toney, Wide Receiver, Florida. Whoever takes Toney in the first round will be committing the biggest reach in the draft. He cannot run a route. Even though he can make magic happen with the ball, if he doesn’t get the ball, it doesn’t matter. Lamar Jackson would like some weapons and someone will talk themselves into Toney.
- New Orleans Saints
Donovan: Nick Bolton, Linebacker, University of Missouri. The Saints are looking to move into the post-Drew Brees era and are facing a considerable amount of uncertainty. They are in need of an influx of young talent as they are in a very tight cap situation, and they choose to grab Bolton. The Missouri product is a mature prospect who will easily be able to earn snaps for Sean Payton’s defense. The Saints do not have too many holes on either side of the ball, with the real question coming into this year being the future of the quarterback position for the Saints.
Nelson: Christian Barmore, Defensive Tackle, Alabama. The Saints lost Sheldon Rankins in free agency as a result of their insane credit card bill. Barmore is the best tackle in the draft and is great value at the end of the first.
- Green Bay Packers
Donovan: Elijah Moore, Wide Receiver, University of Mississippi. The Packers finally give in and give Aaron Rodgers some help. For as long as we can remember, Rodgers has only had Davante Adams as a dependable option on the outside. Moore will provide some immediate help to jumpstart an already very productive offense returning Rodgers, Adams, and running back Aaron Jones. While this might not put to rest rumors of Rodgers leaving his longtime home, Moore is a productive receiver who will give Rodgers some separation he desperately wants.
Nelson: Greg Newsome II, Cornerback, Northwestern. Poor Aaron Rodgers. First, they drafted Jordan Love in the first, now they go corner. Newsome is too good to pass up at this point. They need to go receiver in the second round, however.
- Buffalo Bills
Donovan: Travis Etienne, Running Back, Clemson. The Bills ran out Devin Singletary and Zack Moss to pair with Josh Allen last season, and they performed adequately. Running back might not be a particular need, but the Bills take Etienne to give a new dimension to their offense. Bringing more of an all-around punch is a privilege Buffalo can afford because of their success last year, and Etienne certainly will provide just that. Etienne was at times the best player on Clemson’s football team over the last few years and might be one of the most slept-on players in this year’s draft. Buffalo might be getting a gem here.
Nelson: Javonte Williams, Running Back, University of North Carolina. The Bills are rumored to be in love with Williams. They want to solve their running game problems with another running back instead of a lineman. Javonte is the second-best back in this class and if they insist on going RB, this is their guy.
- Baltimore Ravens (via Kansas City)
Donovan: Landon Dickerson, Center, Alabama. In the pick acquired in the Orlando Brown trade, the Ravens choose to take care of their offensive line. Dickerson is an experienced product from Alabama who could start at guard or center for the Ravens. After recently drafting Alabama center Bradley Bozeman, the Ravens go back to the Alabama offensive line factory and grab a player specializing in run blocking, having opened up many lanes for fellow first-rounder Najee Harris over the last few seasons.
Nelson: Sam Cosmi, Offensive Tackle, Texas. The Ravens traded Orlando Brown to the Chiefs which means they will need a replacement. Cosmi is raw, but if he can develop the technique, he will be a good tackle.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Donovan: Zaven Collins, Linebacker, University of Tulsa. The Bucs grab an edge rusher with the last pick of the first round in Collins. Collins might be a bit of a project as he wasn’t very known coming into this season and has not gone up against the elite competition, but his recent production is undeniable. Adding another versatile player, the Bucs defense will get even more formidable with the addition of a tackling machine who is capable of wreaking havoc in the backfield, especially after developing behind Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett.
Nelson: Caleb Farley, Cornerback, Virginia Tech. The Buccaneers have the luxury of taking risks and Farley is one of the bigger ones. Their corners are not impressive and Farley would be an immediate upgrade who could end up being the best corner drafted if healthy.
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