With NFL conference championship games approaching, all but four teams are looking ahead to the offseason. That means coaching changes, free agency and, of course, the draft.
Here are The Baltimore Sun’s first-round projections for the 2021 NFL draft, which begins April 29:
1. Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
New coach Urban Meyer begins his rebuild with one of the best quarterback prospects in years. Lawrence will have an exciting group of young playmakers to work with in wide receivers D.J. Chark Jr., Laviska Shenault Jr. and Collin Johnson and running back James Robinson. Now it’s up to Meyer and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan to get the most out of that group.
2. New York Jets: Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
Neither new coach Robert Saleh nor general manager Joe Douglas were part of the regime that drafted quarterback Sam Darnold in 2018, so it seems as if the former No. 3 overall pick will be on the move this offseason. But Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur believe Darnold has “untapped potential,” so perhaps the Jets will look to trade down and build a better team around the former USC star. If not, Fields or BYU quarterback Zach Wilson are the only picks that make sense.
3. Miami Dolphins (via Houston Texans): Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU
Will the Dolphins end up giving this pick back to the Texans in a trade for superstar quarterback Deshaun Watson? Miami has methodically accumulated picks during its rebuild, but after a surprising 10-6 season, it might push its chips in to win now. Should the Dolphins stay the course, the most immediate need is at wide receiver. Chase, who opted out in 2020, was a dominant player for LSU during its national championship run.
4. Atlanta Falcons: Zach Wilson, QB, BYU
Matt Ryan’s best days are behind him, and while he’s signed through 2023, the Falcons can get out of that contract after this season or even look to trade the 35-year-old. Wilson is one of the biggest risers in this year’s class, showing off the kind of tools — arm strength, athleticism, playmaking out of structure — that teams covet.
5. Cincinnati Bengals: Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon
The Bengals offensive line ranked as one of the league’s worst this season, and former No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow felt the pain by taking 32 sacks in 10 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Sewell is only 20 years old and can be a fixture at left tackle for years to come.
6. Philadelphia Eagles: DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
The Eagles desperately need a playmaking receiver. How does the reigning Heisman Trophy winner sound? Smith doesn’t have Chase’s size or athleticism, but he’s quick in the open field, can make defenders miss and separates from corners with precise route-running. Whether it’s Carson Wentz, Jalen Hurts or someone else playing quarterback, the Eagles simply need better offensive weapons.
7. Detroit Lions: Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State
The Lions have a choice to make with quarterback Matthew Stafford: Trade him for picks to kick-start a rebuild, or build a better team around him during his prime. Detroit has a new coach and general manager, so it’s hard to predict what it will do. Parsons would fill a major need for a defense that finished last in Football Outsiders’ DVOA.
8. Carolina Panthers: Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State
Teddy Bridgewater was solid, if unspectacular during his first full season as a starter since 2015, but he didn’t elevate a talent-rich offense. He’s under contract for two more years, which would give Lance — who only has 17 starts under his belt at the FCS level — time to learn offensive coordinator Joe Brady’s system.
9. Denver Broncos: Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama
The Broncos might consider a replacement for Drew Lock, who has been a disappointment in his first two seasons. Addressing the quarterback situation is the main concern for new general manager George Paton, but there are holes elsewhere. Cornerback was a consistent weak spot for the defense, and Surtain has the potential to be a Pro Bowl player.
10. Dallas Cowboys: Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech
Rookie cornerback Trevon Diggs was the lone bright spot for Dallas’ defense, which fell to 23rd in DVOA. Pairing Diggs with Farley, who put together a dominant season in 2019 before opting out in 2020, would shore up a secondary that needs more talent.
11. New York Giants: Kwity Paye, EDGE, Michigan
With star defensive end Leonard Williams hitting free agency and the Giants getting little production from their edge rushers, New York is going to need plenty of help generating pressure without blitzing. Paye, a physical marvel in the weight room, steadily improved at Michigan and has the potential to develop into a game-changer.
12. San Francisco 49ers: Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
Good luck stopping an offense with George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and Waddle catching passes. Coach Kyle Shanahan still needs to find his franchise quarterback after Jimmy Garoppolo regressed in an injury-hampered season, but adding playmakers all over the field is the best way to give whoever is throwing the ball a chance to succeed.
13. Los Angeles Chargers: Rashawn Slater, OT/G, Northwestern
The Chargers hit a home run with quarterback Justin Herbert in last year’s draft. The next step is making sure he’s protected. Slater might be better served as a guard because of his size, but he allowed only five pressures at left tackle in 2019, according to Pro Football Focus.
14. Minnesota Vikings: Gregory Rousseau, EDGE, Miami
The Vikings lost star pass rusher Danielle Hunter to a season-ending neck injury just days before Week 1, and the trade for Yannick Ngakoue didn’t work out. Minnesota ranked 30th in the league in pressure rate and had just 23 sacks. The 6-foot-7, 265-pound Rousseau flashed game-breaking potential in 2019 with 15½ sacks.
15. New England Patriots: Mac Jones, QB, Alabama
With Cam Newton unlikely to return, the Patriots are left with Jarrett Stidham as the only quarterback on the roster. Jones isn’t the most physically impressive prospect, but he showed a mastery of Alabama’s RPO-heavy offense with one of the most efficient and productive seasons in college football history.
16. Arizona Cardinals: Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida
If coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense is going to succeed, quarterback Kyler Murray needs more weapons. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound Pitts is a matchup nightmare at tight end, out wide or in the slot and has the potential to be a dominant red-zone threat. Considered a top-10 prospect, he’d be a steal in this range for Arizona.
17. Las Vegas Raiders: Azeez Ojulari, EDGE, Georgia
The Raiders defense has been among the league’s worst for two straight seasons, and an inability to rush the passer is a big reason why. Ojulari burst onto the scene this year with his speed and athleticism, finishing with 8½ sacks and four forced fumbles in 10 games.
18. Miami Dolphins: Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech
The Dolphins have some promising young pieces on the offensive line, but none that are guaranteed to be fixtures for years to come. Darrisaw was the second-highest graded tackle in the Power Five in 2020, according to PFF.
19. Washington Football Team: Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota
Washington’s quarterback situation is murky, especially if Alex Smith decides not to return. Unless Washington can make an aggressive move to the top of the board, it seems as if a veteran stopgap — or perhaps playoff surprise Taylor Heinicke — will be the starter. The priority should be putting another talented receiver next to young star Terry McLaurin, and the shifty-yet-strong Bateman fits the bill.
20. Chicago Bears: Alijah Vera-Tucker, OT/G, USC
Quarterback remains an obvious question mark for the Bears, and with Allen Robinson likely leaving in free agency, receiver is a glaring need. But the offensive line needs reinforcements, too. Vera-Tucker can play inside or out after strong seasons at guard and left tackle for the Trojans.
21. Indianapolis Colts: Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida
With Philip Rivers retiring, quarterback becomes the Colts’ No. 1 priority this offseason. Unless Indianapolis trades up or falls in love with Florida’s Kyle Trask, it seems unlikely the team picks one in the first round. Toney, a yards-after-catch specialist, would be an excellent replacement for soon-to-be free agent T.Y. Hilton.
22. Tennessee Titans: Jayson Oweh, EDGE, Penn State
The Jadeveon Clowney and Vic Beasley Jr. signings were a flop for Tennessee, which finished the regular season ranked 29th in defensive DVOA. The Titans also entered the wild-card round with just 19 sacks, tied for the fewest by any playoff team in NFL history. Oweh, an athletic marvel with reported 4.3 speed, might just be scratching the surface of his potential.
23. New York Jets (via Seattle Seahawks): Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina
The Jets’ best cornerback, Brian Poole, is set to hit free agency, and the defense ranked 28th in DVOA against the pass. You can bet defensive-minded coach Robert Saleh is going to want to fix that. Horn is an aggressive, physical corner who can help solidify a young secondary.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers: Samuel Cosmi, OT, Texas
Whether or not Ben Roethlisberger returns, the Steelers need improvements on the offensive line. Starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and guard Matt Feiler are set to hit free agency, and veteran center Maurkice Pouncey is reportedly “50-50” on retiring. Cosmi is a safe bet to be a solid starter, allowing eight pressures on 368 pass-blocking snaps this past season, per PFF.
25. Jacksonville Jaguars (via Los Angeles Rams): Christian Barmore, DT, Alabama
As exciting as it would be to give Trevor Lawrence another offensive weapon, the Jaguars need to address a defense that finished 31st in DVOA. Barmore would help fortify the defensive line after back-to-back standout seasons for the national champion Crimson Tide.
26. Cleveland Browns: Trevon Moehrig, S, TCU
With safeties Andrew Sendejo and Karl Joseph, as well as cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell and Kevin Johnson, hitting free agency, it’s a safe bet that general manager Andrew Berry (Bel Air) is going to look to improve his secondary. Moehrig led all college safeties in pass breakups in each of the past two seasons, according to PFF.
27. Baltimore Ravens: Zaven Collins, OLB, Tulsa
The Ravens’ priorities are hard to pinpoint. Wide receiver is seemingly a target every offseason, and help is needed on the interior of the offensive line. The bet here is that the Ravens are more likely to target an edge rusher instead with Matthew Judon, Yannick Ngakoue and Tyus Bowser set to hit free agency. Collins is the kind of versatile defender the Ravens love, recording 11½ tackles for loss and four interceptions this past season. He was PFF’s highest-graded linebacker in 2020.
28. New Orleans Saints: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Notre Dame
Kwon Alexander’s return from an Achilles tendon injury is questionable, and Alex Anzalone is set to hit free agency, leaving a hole in the middle of the Saints defense. Owusu-Koramoah is only 215 pounds, but the rangy Butkus Award winner would be free to play more of a hybrid role next to Demario Davis.
29. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
The defense is a huge priority for Tampa Bay this offseason with Shaq Barrett, Lavonte David and Ndamukong Suh hitting free agency. But would they be able to pass up a talent like Harris? Running the football isn’t essential to Bruce Arians’ offense, but a pass-catcher like Harris, who averaged 9.8 yards per reception in college, would be a nice addition for quarterback Tom Brady.
30. Buffalo Bills: Wyatt Davis, G, Ohio State
The Bills have a handful of offensive linemen, including right tackle Daryl Williams, right guard Jon Feliciano and left guard Ike Boettger, hitting free agency. Davis didn’t dominate the way he did in 2019 this season, but the All-American remains a talented player who only allowed four sacks and hits combined over the past two seasons, per PFF.
31. Green Bay Packers: Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson
Aaron Jones is about to become expensive, and backups Jamaal Williams and Tyler Ervin are also hitting the open market. Former second-round pick A.J. Dillon could take over as the lead ball-carrier, but he doesn’t provide the pass-catching chops of Etienne, who had 102 receptions for 1,155 yards and eight touchdowns in his four-year career.
32. Kansas City Chiefs: Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue
It doesn’t seem as if Kansas City is going to play it safe as long as Patrick Mahomes is quarterback. That might mean taking a swing on Moore, who has struggled with injuries throughout his career but has been a dynamic playmaker when healthy. If he can regain some of his freshman form, when he led all receivers in broken tackles, he could be a capable replacement for soon-to-be free agents Sammy Watkins and Demarcus Robinson.