Even for an event defined by uncertainty, this year's NFL draft could produce an uncommon number of surprises.
With the coronavirus pandemic prompting massive shifts throughout college and the NFL, the scouting process has already been significantly disrupted. Teams will need to account for prospects who have opted out of this year's season, and scouts' access to players who are participating has been curtailed. Should such complications continue, intel might be at even more of a premium than usual.
But with the NFL's regular season reaching its midway point and multiple teams already in dire straits, it's only natural to look ahead to next year. USA TODAY Sports used the occasion to unveil its first mock draft for 2021, using the current tentative first-round order.
NFL MIDSEASON GRADES: Who's aced the early slate?
Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) walks off the field after the game against the Louisville Cardinals at Cardinal Stadium. (Photo: Brian Spurlock, Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports)
1. Jets — Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson: Amid all the hype of "Tanking for Trevor," it's easy to lose sight of what exactly makes Lawrence such a player at this stage in his career. Displaying an almost unparalleled poise for his age, the 6-6, 220-pound passer already operates at a pro level in his ability to work the entire field and make tight-window throws on the run. Regardless of whether he's the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck — maybe something more, maybe something less — there's little question that he's a singular prize. For a Jets team off to its worst franchise start in history, he would offer one of the biggest needs of all: a path forward.
2. Jaguars — Justin Fields, QB, Georgia: Jacksonville appears to have reached a point of clarity in conceding the limitations of Minshew Mania. Even if the Jaguars don't leapfrog the Jets for a shot at Lawrence, Fields is no mere consolation prize. More than a dual-threat quarterback, he is comfortable picking apart defenses with precision or dialing up deep passes. Fields is an outstanding starting point for an organization seemingly facing an imminent reset.
3. Giants — Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon: Trending toward their fourth top-six pick in as many years, the Giants have an immense decision to make on Daniel Jones' future. Regardless of GM Dave Gettleman's future, New York might find it difficult to move on from the second-year quarterback unless Lawrence or Fields is within reach. Sewell is the elite left tackle the Giants hoped they had landed when they took Andrew Thomas with the No. 4 pick this year. The Outland Trophy winner can be a cornerstone, whether for Jones or his potential replacement.
4. Cowboys — Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama: There's no solace for Dallas in a lost season, but the draft will provide the opportunity to address one of the many shortcomings that became evident even before the team's wave of injuries hit. While the returns of Dak Prescott, Tyron Smith and La'el Collins could get the offense back on track next season, the defense seems due for a significant reshuffling. Surtain, who has established himself as one of the most difficult defenders to shake in man coverage, is an alluring option for a secondary that could pair him with former Crimson Tide teammate Trevon Diggs.
5. Washington — Zach Wilson, QB, BYU: Though Ron Rivera said this week Washington had to determine whether its quarterback of the future is on the roster, almost any outsider would find it hard to believe such a player is in place. Perhaps no player at the collegiate level has made greater strides this season than Wilson, who has thrown 22 touchdowns with just two interceptions. With a Patrick Mahomes-like penchant for connecting on deep strikes and making plays outside the pocket, Wilson is worthy of top-five consideration.
6. Chargers — Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State: Selecting linebackers in the first round for two consecutive years might seem like a luxury for a franchise with as many holes as the Chargers, but Parsons is no run-of-the-mill player at his position. Arguably the class' premier defender, he brings nearly unmatched athleticism and playmaking potential, though he's still honing his skills in coverage.
7. Dolphins (from Texans) — Ja'Marr Chase, WR, LSU: Miami's stockpiling of picks has already paid off handsomely, and more rewards are to come with four selections in the first two rounds of 2021. The Texans' tailspin seems bound to position the Dolphins in the top 10 for a potential go-to target for Tua Tagovailoa. Chase opted out of this season, but he had little to prove after dominating future top picks throughout last year en route to 1,780 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns.
8. Bengals — Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech: Important as it will be to invest in better protection for Joe Button, Cincinnati could also stand to address cornerback with William Jackson III set to hit free agency. Farley's size, speed and ball skills are that of a potential lockdown presence.
9. Falcons — Kwity Paye, DE, Michigan: The firings of head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff would seem to signal a forthcoming rebuild, but Atlanta seems at least a year away from a full teardown given Matt Ryan's and Julio Jones' contracts. In the meantime, the Falcons might focus on their undeveloped pass rush by taking on Paye, a blur off the edge who's strengthening his case for a place in the top 10.
10. Panthers — Wyatt Davis, G, Ohio State: Year 1 of Matt Rhule's run in Carolina has been marked by several encouraging signs for the future. After spending all of their 2020 picks on defense, the Panthers can serve the offense by bringing on Davis, who projects as a steadying presence on the interior of any line.
11. Lions — Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama: Even if Detroit brings back Kenny Golladay on a hefty extension, bolstering the receiving corps should remain a point of emphasis. Prior to having his season cut short by a broken ankle, Waddle established himself as college football's pre-eminent big-play threat by record 22.3 yards per reception.
12. Broncos — Shaun Wade, CB, Ohio State: Denver is a long way from the "No Fly Zone" years, with A.J. Bouye looming as a potential cut candidate in 2021. Wade still has to demonstrate he can operate as comfortably on the outside as he did in the slot, but his physical profile will attract teams.
13. Patriots — Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida: Careening toward what could be its first losing season since 2000, New England has had several deficiencies come to light, though some are related to the team's COVID-19 opt-outs. As a matchup nightmare likened to Raiders standout Darren Waller, Pitts is a Bill Belichick pick through and through.
14. Vikings — Gregory Rousseau, DE, Miami (Fla.): What was supposed to be a formidable pass rush in Minnesota never materialized this season, as Danielle Hunter was lost for the year after neck surgery and Yannick Ngakoue was traded to the Ravens. At 6-7 and 265 pounds, Rousseau is still raw given his shortage of experience — the former high school wide receiver and safety is sitting out this season after recording 15 1/2 sacks in his lone year of collegiate work — but he could be special if he utilizes his length and flexibility properly.
15. 49ers — Rashawn Slater, OL, Northwestern: In a year of volatility, the 49ers would be well served by the stability Slater brings to the line. His height (6-3) and arm length might prompt his future team to move him to guard, but Slater has the skill set to be a long-time stalwart on the interior.
16. Bears — Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State: The half measure of trading for and then starting Nick Foles was one that Chicago's moribund offense couldn't afford, as the veteran's struggles have made clear. With only 17 games' experience at the Football Championship Subdivision level, Lance is still somewhat of a project. But the 6-3, 225-pounder has playmaking prowess too considerable for the Bears to overlook.
17. Colts — Kyle Trask, QB, Florida: Philip Rivers was merely a stopgap solution for Indianapolis, but the 38-year-old has barely kept the offense afloat. The 6-5, 240-pound Trask has elevated his play this season and shown he can attack defenses downfield, though he still might have more to prove to solidify himself as a first-round pick.
18. Browns — Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Notre Dame: Undersized but instinctive and explosive, Owusu-Koramoah could be put to quick use by Cleveland, whether covering tight ends or working downhill.
19. Eagles — Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina: The son of former Saints receiver Joe Horn doesn't give opponents much room to operate from the line of scrimmage to the catch point. Pairing him with Darius Slay could give Philadelphia the peace of mind at cornerback it has long lacked.
20. Cardinals — Jayson Oweh, DE, Penn State: Chandler Jones' season-ending biceps injury highlighted how much Arizona is in need of a player like Oweh, who Penn State coaches said ran a 4.33-second 40-yard dash last year at 6-5 and 257 pounds.
21. Jaguars (from Rams) — Sam Cosmi, OT, Texas: Cam Robinson isn't cutting it as a blindside protector. Cosmi or another fleet-footed left tackle should draw Jacksonville's eye here if the team wants to provide a proper support system for its quarterback of the future.
22. Dolphins — Alex Leatherwood, OT, Alabama: Despite using one of its first-round selections on left tackle Austin Jackson and two later picks on rookie starters (Robert Hunt and Solomon Kindley), Miami has more work to do before it can be comfortable with its front. Adding Leatherwood would allow the Dolphins to move Hunt inside, where he might be a better fit.
23. Raiders — Christian Barmore, DT, Alabama: Mike Mayock's affinity for Crimson Tide products could point him toward Barmore, who could be a disruptive force for a Las Vegas line looking for a jolt on the interior.
24. Buccaneers — Joseph Ossai, OLB, Texas: A relentless pass rusher like Ossai no doubt would be of great value to Tampa Bay, especially with Shaquil Barrett's future still unclear as he plays on the franchise tag.
25. Packers — Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota: One year after surprising even Aaron Rodgers by not selecting a receiver in the draft, Green Bay stands to have several options in a deep and talented class of pass catchers. Bateman consistently outwits defenders with clean releases and refined routes, making him a natural No. 2 to Davante Adams.
26. Jets (from Seahawks) — Trey Smith, OL, Tennessee: Even if they land Lawrence at No. 1, the Jets can't expect the quarterback to single-handedly turn around an offense that GM Joe Douglas has said he hasn't properly built out. Smith's medical outlook will be closely evaluated by teams after he was sidelined in 2018 when doctors found blood clots in his lungs, but his power and versatility should earn him plenty of looks.
27. Titans — Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue: An outlier at just 5-9 and 180 pounds, Moore defies expectations for receivers with his electric play in the open field. After Tennessee turned down Corey Davis' fifth-year option, the Titans could be on the hunt for a new running mate for A.J. Brown.
28. Saints — Trevon Moehrig, S, TCU: A well-rounded and savvy defender in coverage, Moehrig would fill a key hole in New Orleans if Marcus Williams does not return.
29. Ravens — Terrace Marshall Jr., WR, LSU: A target with Marshall's aggressiveness on jump balls and contested catches would add a new facet to the Ravens' languishing passing attack.
30. Bills — Derion Kendrick, CB, Clemson: Steadying the secondary by investing in the spot opposite Tre'Davious White should be a top priority for Buffalo, and Kendrick offers considerable upside in just his second year at the position after converting from wide receiver.
31. Chiefs — Dylan Moses, LB, Alabama: The well-stocked defending champions can afford to take a gamble on a talent like Moses, who hasn't played like a first-round pick in his return from a torn anterior cruciate ligament but stands as one of the class' most athletic defenders.
32. Steelers — Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech: Alejandro Villanueva, Matt Feiler and Zach Banner are all set to hit the market, leaving plenty of reason to look at Darrisaw, an ascendant blocker with a rugged style.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.
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