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2021 NFL mock draft: A way-too-early look at top prospects as season gets underway

While the NFL moves forward with an unaltered schedule, college football has been thrown into disarray.

As the Kansas City Chiefs prepare to host the Houston Texans on Thursday night, the first full weekend of college football will take place without two Power 5 conferences — the Big Ten and Pac-12 — as well as the Mountain West and Mid-American. Most of the FCS has also decided to shut down, and the teams that are active are playing fewer games, often without fans in attendance.

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It will be an unprecedented scouting season for the NFL’s top decision-makers, who might not get to see some of the game’s top prospects compete in 2020.

With that in mind, here are The Baltimore Sun’s initial first-round projections for the 2021 NFL draft.

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Note: The order is determined by ESPN’s Football Power Index win projections.

1. Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson

After trading defensive stars Jalen Ramsey, Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye and Yannick Ngakoue and releasing former No. 4 overall pick Leonard Fournette, the Jaguars are in rebuilding mode just three years after reaching the AFC championship game. Gardner Minshew performed better than expected as a sixth-round pick last season, but he’ll have to put on quite a show this year to convince the front office that he’s the franchise quarterback. Lawrence isn’t a perfect prospect, but he’s been coveted by NFL scouts ever since winning the national championship as a true freshman.

2. Washington Football Team: Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU

Dwayne Haskins will get the chance to prove he’s the quarterback of the future in Washington after getting the starting nod over Alex Smith. But until Washington adds more playmakers, he’ll have a tough time elevating an offense that ranked third-worst in efficiency in 2019. Chase, who opted out of the season to prepare for the draft, set SEC records with 1,780 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns to help LSU win the national championship last season and headlines a receiving class that might be even better than 2020′s much-heralded group.

3. Cincinnati Bengals: Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon

The Bengals have their franchise quarterback in No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow. Now they need to surround him with weapons and protect him. NFL analyst and former pro scout Daniel Jeremiah said he sees Pro Bowl potential in Sewell because of his ideal size, quickness and power. If former No. 11 overall pick Jonah Williams can rebound from a torn labrum that cost him his rookie season, Cincinnati could have two young, talented tackles to build around.

4. Carolina Panthers: Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State

Teddy Bridgewater signed a three-year, $63 million contract this offseason to start for the Panthers, but it’s hard to envision new coach Matt Rhule passing up the chance to select a potential star at the game’s most valuable position. Even if Bridgewater exceeds expectations, Fields, who only started one full season in college before the Big Ten postponed fall sports, can sit and develop under the tutelage of wunderkind offensive coordinator Joe Brady until the roster is in better shape.

5. New York Giants: Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State

What kind of team does coach Joe Judge want to build? General manager Dave Gettleman might not be in charge by the time the Giants make this pick, especially if it’s this high. The Giants surprisingly have one of the best young skill-position groups in football on offense, but the defense is still a work-in-progress. Parsons might not play a valuable position, but he’s freaky athletic and had the second-highest single-season run-defense grade in scouting website Pro Football Focus history in 2019. He could help fix a defense that ranked 27th in efficiency last season.

6. Miami Dolphins: Gregory Rousseau, EDGE, Miami

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With two more first-round picks on the way in 2021 and a robust free-agent class this offseason, the Dolphins might not be rebuilding for much longer. Coach Brian Flores would love to get his hands on a player of Rousseau’s caliber to add some pass-rushing punch to his defense. The Hurricanes star still has to refine his game, but his athletic traits are undeniable and well worth taking a chance on with a top-10 pick.

7. Detroit Lions: Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue

How Matthew Stafford performs in 2020 will determine the Lions’ trajectory in 2021. If Detroit disappoints again, and Stafford gets hurt again, will the team be looking for a new coach and a new quarterback? Matt Patricia hasn’t endeared himself to his players, which might result in a short tenure for the former Patriots defensive coordinator. With Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola hitting free agency after this season, a wide receiver could be the team’s biggest need. But Detroit could go several directions if they find themselves picking in the top 10 yet again.

8. New York Jets: Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama

Here’s another team that might have a new coach come draft time. The Adam Gase experiment hasn’t gone well, with the Jets spoiling the first two seasons of quarterback Sam Darnold’s rookie contract. New York traded star safety Jamal Adams to Seattle and big-ticket free-agent linebacker C.J. Mosley opted out of the season, depleting an already-thin roster of talent. This season will mark Surtain’s third as a starter for the Crimson Tide, and while Alabama corners have been hit (Marlon Humphrey, Dre Kirkpatrick) or miss (Dee Milliner, Cyrus Jones) since coach Nick Saban took over, Surtain has the tools to be an outstanding player.

9. Las Vegas Raiders: Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State

Jon Gruden is known for his wandering eye when it comes to quarterbacks. If Derek Carr disappoints this season and Marcus Mariota shows he doesn’t have what it takes to be a starter anymore, will Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock look for an upgrade in the draft? Lance impressed scouts in 2019 with his athleticism and decision-making, throwing 28 touchdown passes and zero interceptions in leading the Bison to the FCS national title. His only game in 2020 will come against Central Arkansas on Oct. 3, but he showed enough potential last season to be a top-10 pick.

10. Arizona Cardinals: Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech

We know the Cardinals offense is in good hands with Kyle Murray and DeAndre Hopkins, but what about the defense? With star cornerback Patrick Peterson set to hit the open market in 2021, the Cardinals might be looking to replace the eight-time Pro Bowl selection. Farley, who opted out of the 2020 season, has the size, speed and athleticism to be a difference-maker from Day One.

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11. Denver Broncos: Alex Leatherwood, OT, Alabama

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The Broncos could conceivably part ways with three top-notch starters on defense next offseason: outside linebacker Von Miller and safeties Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons. Starting left tackle Garrett Boles is also set to hit free agency. Which side of the ball will general manager John Elway prioritize? Leatherwood played well in his first season at left tackle in 2019, allowing only nine pressures, according to PFF. He can step in at guard or tackle to help a burgeoning offense.

12. Atlanta Falcons: Carlos Basham Jr., EDGE, Wake Forest

Will the Falcons be retooling around veteran quarterback Matt Ryan or rebuilding come draft time? Atlanta could use help in the secondary, especially with longtime starter Keanu Neal hitting free agency, and there are several intriguing safety prospects in this class. But with Takkarist McKinley also set to reach the open market, an explosive pass rusher like Basham might be more worthwhile.

13. Miami Dolphins (via Texans): Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama

Tua Tagovailoa might not be the Dolphins’ starting quarterback yet, but he almost certainly will be by this time next year. What better gift to give the new signal-caller than his old Alabama teammate? Waddle is dynamic with the ball in his hands, evidenced by his nation-leading 24.4 yards per punt return in 2019. He shouldn’t need much time to develop chemistry with his former quarterback and can add a big-play threat to an offense that needs it.

14. Los Angeles Chargers: Samuel Cosmi, OT, Texas

The Chargers don’t have a clear long-term plan at left tackle after trading Russell Okung for guard Trai Turner this offseason. After using the No. 6 overall pick on Justin Herbert, Los Angeles will likely prioritize protecting their young quarterback. Cosmi can play either tackle spot, receiving a scouting grade of 79 or better the past two seasons from PFF.

15. Chicago Bears: Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota

No matter who is playing quarterback in 2021 for the Bears, he’s going to need better wideouts to throw to. That’s going to be even more important if Allen Robinson decides he’s had enough of the Mitchell Trubisky experience and heads elsewhere in free agency. Bateman isn’t a burner, but he’s physical at the catch point and can separate from defenders downfield.

16. Green Bay Packers: DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama

Mocking a wide receiver to the Packers feels like a fool’s errand at this point, but Green Bay can’t keep the cupboard this bare for much longer with Aaron Rodgers at the helm, right? Smith played in the shadow of Henry Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy and Jaylen Waddle at Alabama, and he won’t intimidate anyone with his 6-foot, 172-pound frame, but he’s an excellent route-runner with sure hands and would pair well next to Davante Adams.

17. Cleveland Browns: Dylan Moses, LB, Alabama

The Browns lost starting linebackers Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey in free agency, leaving some holes in the middle of their defense. Moses has to answer medical concerns after tearing his ACL last year, and he hasn’t yet shown a knack for pass coverage, but he’s a strong tackler and a physical presence. He has just five missed tackles on 107 attempts in his career, according to PFF.

18. Jacksonville Jaguars (via Rams): Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida

It’s hard to know what position the Jaguars will target after presumably landing their quarterback of the future at the top of the draft. Offensive line? Cornerback? Wide receiver? There are no wrong answers. Pitts, at 6-foot-6, is an intriguing possibility, giving Lawrence a dynamic weapon in the passing game.

19. Tennessee Titans: Kwity Paye, EDGE, Michigan

If last-minute free-agent addition Jadeveon Clowney enjoys his time in Tennessee, maybe the Titans won’t have to worry about adding another pass rusher. Even if Clowney does stay, Paye might be too tempting to pass up. The No. 1 freak on Bruce Feldman’s annual list, Paye could develop into a game-wrecking monster off the edge.

20. Minnesota Vikings: Wyatt Davis, G, Ohio State

What happens with safety Anthony Harris and running back Dalvin Cook in free agency might determine what the Vikings end up doing with their first-round pick. Assuming both of those players stay in Minnesota, Davis could help bolster the interior of a line that struggled at times in 2019.

21. New England Patriots: Christian Barmore, DT, Alabama

The Patriots defense ended last season as the league’s most efficient unit, but they’ll be seeking some reinforcements come draft time, especially up the middle. Barmore has a nose for the ball and flashed the kind of strength and power as a redshirt freshman that could make him a force to be reckoned with at the next level.

22. Indianapolis Colts: Ar’Darius Washington, S, TCU

A dark horse pick to win the Super Bowl in 2020, the Colts might be at a crossroads this upcoming offseason. Quarterback Philip Rivers, wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, defensive end Justin Houston, safety Malik Hooker and cornerback Xavier Rhodes are all pending free agents, which leaves plenty of work for general manager Chris Ballard to keep the team in contention. Assuming Rivers and Hilton stay, the secondary will need the most help. Washington doesn’t have prototypical size at 5-8, 175 pounds, but he’s instinctive and reliable.

23. Buffalo Bills: Pat Freiermuth, TE, Penn State

It’s hard to find a hole on the Bills’ loaded roster, but tight end is a glaring need. Buffalo got just 459 yards and three touchdowns from the combination of Dawson Knox and Tyler Kroft in 2019. Freiermuth won’t play in 2020, but he showed plenty of potential in his first two college seasons, catching 15 touchdown passes.

24. Pittsburgh Steelers: Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson

With outside linebacker Bud Dupree, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, running back James Conner and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva set to hit free agency, it will be an interesting offseason in Pittsburgh. If any of those deals don’t get done, finding a replacement at that position becomes a priority. Seeking to rediscover the heights of the former Killer B’s, the Steelers might opt for an explosive playmaker at running back in Etienne, who broke the PFF record for broken tackles per carry last season with 91 on 207 attempts.

25. New York Jets (via Seahawks): Tutu Atwell, WR, Louisville

If Darnold is going to reach his potential, he needs more playmakers by his side. Atwell set school records with 1,276 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns last season. He can give the Jets a vertical threat from the slot or on the outside.

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26. Philadelphia Eagles: Jevon Holland, S, Oregon

The Eagles bolstered their secondary this offseason with the additions of cornerbacks Darius Slay and Nickell Robey-Coleman, but it’s far from a finished product. Holland has shown a nose for the ball with nine interceptions the past two seasons. He’s played both safety and in the slot for the Ducks, and can be a versatile part of a defense that needs more playmakers.

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Marvin Wilson, DT, Florida State

The Buccaneers might have the most talented defensive line in the league, but Shaquil Barrett and Ndamukong Suh are both pending free agents. Wilson might not become a star at his position, but he’s powerful, hard to move and instinctive and can be a reliable starter for a team looking to win now with quarterback Tom Brady.

28. Dallas Cowboys: Chris Rumph II, EDGE, Duke

Veteran Everson Griffen was a solid late addition in free agency, but the Cowboys could use more help on the defensive line. Rumph was quietly one of the best pass rushers in the country in 2019, recording the highest pass-rush win rate (31.6%) — how often a player beats his block within 2.5 seconds — in the country. He just needs to add bulk to his 225-pound frame.

29. San Francisco 49ers: Shaun Wade, CB, Ohio State

A slot cornerback throughout his college career, Wade will have to prove he’s capable of more without any game tape to show in 2020. Still, he’s a great athlete who has proved he can stick to receivers. With cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Jaquiski Tartt set to hit the open market, the 49ers will need to add some pieces in the secondary.

30. Baltimore Ravens: Aidan Hutchinson, EDGE, Michigan

If the Ravens target an edge rusher in the draft, they’ll have an intriguing collection to choose from. Hutchinson might be the safest pick at this spot, having shown consistency and versatility in his two seasons at Michigan, earning All-Big Ten honors in 2019 with 10½ tackles for loss and 4½ sacks. John Harbaugh might rely on his brother’s word more than ever in a season without any Big Ten football to scout.

31. New Orleans Saints: Nick Bolton, LB, Missouri

With quarterback Drew Brees set to retire at the end of the season, will the Saints look to draft his replacement or hand the reins over to Taysom Hill? The bet here is that Hill gets the nod for at least one season. Bolton is not only a good run defender, but tied for the team lead with 10 passes defended last season and earned a PFF grade of 90.4 in pass coverage.

32. Kansas City Chiefs: Trey Smith, G, Tennessee

The Chiefs signed Kelechi Osemele late in the offseason to fill in at left guard, and while he could get back to being the Pro Bowl player he was three seasons ago, Kansas City could still use some depth along the offensive line. Smith is a devastating run-blocker, and while there are medical concerns after blood clots put his career in jeopardy, he has first-round potential.

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