With the NFL Scouting Combine changing formats this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Reese's Senior Bowl was the last opportunity NFL scouts and decision-makers will have to see such a large cluster of top-level talent compete for positioning in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Most who excelled at the Senior Bowl are listed in my first mock draft of the year. Quarterback Mac Jones (Alabama) played well enough during practices to secure first-round grades. Edge rusher Carlos "Boogie" Basham was dominant at the point of attack, showing that his relative drop in production in 2020 should not overshadow his talents. Receivers lacking size but displaying great quickness made names for themselves, with D'Wayne Eskridge (Western Michigan), Cade Johnson (South Dakota State) and Amari Rodgers (Clemson) turning heads. Small-school offensive linemen Quinn Meinerz (Wisconsin-Whitewater) and Dillon Radunz (North Dakota State) backed up their tape with outstanding performances against FBS stars.
Another dozen Senior Bowlers could be in the first-to-third-round mix come April, but they just missed the cut here due to fierce competition. About 60 to 70 underclassmen and seniors who were not in attendance in Mobile, Alabama, will also be fighting to go in the first three rounds, so some worthy candidates will have to wait until Day 3 to hear their names called.
The free-agent compensatory picks listed in this exercise are based on my colleague Lance Zierlein's projections from last April. The official list will be made available by the league in the weeks to come. Four additional picks were added to the end of the third round for franchises losing minority employees to head coach or general manager positions throughout the league. These teams gain a third-round compensatory selection in 2022, as well. The San Francisco 49ers will also receive a third-round compensatory pick in the 2023 draft because two of their employees were hired away this cycle (Robert Saleh by the Jets; Martin Mayhew by Washington). The two tiers of compensatory picks are listed based on record and strength of schedule.
The Matthew Stafford-Jared Goff trade between the Lions and Rams, which included L.A. sending a 2021 third-round pick to Detroit, is factored into this mock. However, it is not yet clear which of the Rams' two third-round picks the Lions will receive once the trade becomes official on March 17. For now, I'm assuming it will be the Rams' original selection.
School: Clemson | Year: Junior
This is not a complicated decision for new coach Urban Meyer, as Lawrence possesses all of the characteristics you'd want in a professional quarterback. The Meyer-Lawrence Era starts now.
PROJECTED TRADE WITH JETS
School: BYU | Year: Junior
Head coach Robert Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur might believe Sam Darnold can rebound in a new system, just like Ryan Tannehill did when the Dolphins dealt the veteran to the Titans. If that's the case, the Jets should trade out of the No. 2 pick and get maximum value in return.
For the Panthers, Wilson could be the playmaker at quarterback they need to take the offense to the next level. Carolina will likely have to give up its first-, third-, and fourth-round selections this year along with a first- and third-rounder in 2022, but Matt Rhule and new GM Scott Fitterer will have their guy.
School: Oregon | Year: Junior
The Dolphins pick the top prospect on the board, building around Tua Tagovailoa. They become the first team to select offensive tackles in consecutive first rounds in a decade (Packers took Bryan Bulaga in 2010 and Derek Sherrod in '11; Seahawks took Russell Okung in 2010 and James Carpenter in '11). Sewell can play left or right tackle, allowing Dolphins coaches to maximize the services of second-year players Austin Jackson and Robert Hunt.
School: Ohio State | Year: Junior
Fields has the athleticism to run the play-action offense that new coach Arthur Smith operated in Tennessee with Ryan Tannehill.
School: Florida | Year: Junior
Pitts is the top pass catcher in the draft. With Penei Sewell off the board, Cincinnati will wait until Rounds 2 and/or 3 to get Joe Burrow some help on the offensive line. If the Bengals go with the Florida product, it would be the third time in the past 12 drafts that they selected a tight end in the first round (Jermaine Gresham in 2010, Tyler Eifert in '13).
School: Alabama | Year: Junior
The Eagles could take a receiver here, but no team has selected first-round wideouts in consecutive drafts in 15 years, and I don't see that streak ending with Philly. Instead, the Eagles nab a much-needed shutdown corner in Surtain, who will be the highest-rated defender on many teams' draft boards.
School: North Dakota State | Year: Sophomore (RS)
After the Lions traded for Jared Goff and a bundle of draft picks, new coach Dan Campbell said the team was building toward two years from now. Well, selecting the athletic, strong-armed, but inexperienced Lance to learn for a couple of years behind Goff is in that same vein.
School: Penn State | Year: Junior
If Drew Lock is the Broncos' starting QB again in 2021, or if the team finds a veteran to compete with Lock instead of drafting one early, then shoring up the defense with a stud like Parsons makes all kinds of sense.
School: Alabama | Year: Senior
Typically, GM Dave Gettleman would look to improve the front seven with this pick. But Smith's value is too high to ignore, despite his lean frame. Gettleman's first-round pick from two years ago, quarterback Daniel Jones, will appreciate the explosive, tough and reliable Smith.
School: Northwestern | Year: Senior
Most 6-foot-4 tackles are not chosen in the top half of the first round, but Slater could be the outlier thanks to his formidable blocking and nasty attitude. Adding a player with Slater's ability and demeanor should help Justin Herbert continue to develop in Year 2.
PROJECTED TRADE WITH VIKINGS
School: Alabama | Year: Junior (RS)
Alex Smith's comeback is an amazing story, but at 36, with noticeable mobility issues, he's no longer a quarterback Washington can confidently build around. Last time the franchise drafted a big, strong-armed passer … it didn't work out. Maybe this time the team will take a guy who can operate an efficient offense that will give its outstanding defense a break. To beat out competitors for Jones, such as the Patriots and Saints, new GM Martin Mayhew might need to give up a second-round pick in this draft and the next to move up.
PROJECTED TRADE WITH PATRIOTS
School: Virginia Tech | Year: Junior
In a draft without a lot of pure left tackle prospects, the Jaguars swap 1s with New England and give up fourth- and fifth-round picks (they have an extra in each round due to trades) to grab a stable force on the blind side. Trevor Lawrence needs to be protected and Cam Robinson is set to become a free agent.
School: Alabama | Year: Junior
The Cardinals could really use a playmaker to help Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins. Despite Waddle's explosiveness, his size (5-foot-10, 182 pounds, per school measurements) might keep him from landing within the top dozen picks. (Tavon Austin is the only wideout selected in the top 15 overall picks who measured at 5-foot-10 or shorter at the NFL combine over the past 20 years).
School: Notre Dame | Year: Junior (RS)
The Raiders like "football players" from successful programs and are in need of more talent in the front seven. Picking JOK meets those criteria, as the linebacker lays waste to any ball carrier who enters his sights.
School: Tulsa | Year: Junior (RS)
Although the Dolphins will likely focus on offense in the early rounds, they shouldn't ignore the need for young playmakers at the second level of their defense. Collins is an all-around talent too valuable to fall much lower.
PROJECTED TRADE WITH WASHINGTON
School: Miami | Year: Junior (RS)
The Vikings had one of the worst pass rushes in the league in 2020, and smartly traded Yannick Ngakoue when it was clear the season was not going as planned. Phillips possesses a nice combination of pass-rush ability and strength to hold the line of scrimmage.
School: Michigan | Year: Sophomore (RS)
Upgrading the Bears' offensive line will help Mitch Trubisky -- or whomever is under center in Chicago -- and Matt Nagy operate more efficiently in 2021. The powerful Mayfield could start at tackle or guard at the next level.
PROJECTED TRADE WITH COLTS
School: Missouri | Year: Junior
The Browns will no longer be satisfied with just making the playoffs; they want to engulf the entire enchilada. Bolton is a similar interior playmaker to Devin Bush, whom the hated-rival Steelers traded up for two years ago. Cleveland will send Indy one of its two fourth-round picks and a sixth-round selection in the deal.
School: Georgia | Year: Sophomore (RS)
It's tough to see Jadeveon Clowney and Tennessee re-upping on a deal this spring. Ojulari is not the tallest edge defender available (listed at 6-3), but he has the quickness to handle all assignments while possessing strong hands as a pass rusher.
School: Alabama | Year: Senior
Frank Gore is an all-timer, but the Jets cannot rely on the 37-year-old to be their primary ball carrier in 2021. Harris' combination of size, agility and toughness makes him the most likely running back to go in Round 1.
School: USC | Year: Junior (RS)
The Steelers are looking to get tougher up front. Vera-Tucker will certainly do that at left tackle, if Alejandro Villaneuva leaves as a free agent.
PROJECTED TRADE WITH JAGUARS
School: South Carolina | Year: Junior
If the Patriots can't get the quarterback they want in the first round, they could trade back, add some assets and then probably address their defense. With Jason McCourty a free agent this year, and Stephon Gilmore potentially on the market in 2022, picking up another former Gamecock in Horn makes sense.
PROJECTED TRADE WITH BROWNS
School: Florida | Year: Senior
It seems unlikely the Colts will find a quarterback in the 20s who can step in and immediately replace the retired Phillip Rivers. If T.Y. Hilton hits the open market, Toney's quickness off the line of scrimmage and elusiveness with the ball in his hands will make him a solid replacement.
School: Michigan | Year: Senior
In typical Ravens fashion, they patiently wait for the process to play out and a player of value becomes available. Paye has the agility to play standing up and fits a major area of need for Baltimore, with Matt Judon, Yannick Ngakoue, Pernell McPhee and Tyus Bowser all set to become free agents.
School: Washington | Year: Senior (RS)
Sheldon Rankins, the Saints' first-round pick five years ago, could be replaced by another if the veteran finds greener pastures elsewhere in free agency. Onwuzurike's clearly the top 3-technique tackle in this draft.
School: Syracuse | Year: Junior (RS)
The Packers had one of the best offenses in the NFL despite not drafting a receiver last year, so let's assume they stick with that approach and instead try to find a physical, long corner to replace probable free-agent loss Kevin King.
School: Washington | Year: Junior (RS)
Tryon's a big-bodied edge rusher who can also move well in space for his size. The Bucs need youth in the front seven, especially if pending free agent Shaq Barrett finds a new address.