Ranking the Top 7 Candidates to Earn the No. 1 Pick in 2021 NFL Draft
As most NFL teams prepare to chase a Super Bowl berth, rebuilding squads may already be looking ahead to the 2021 NFL draft.
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is the front-runner for the No. 1 overall pick, but Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields and Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell are among the prospects who could also fly off the board early.
Which teams might have a chance at landing one of the top prospects in the 2021 draft class? While injuries will likely add a few playoff hopefuls to this mix, the following squads are the early candidates to sit atop next year's draft based on where they are in the team-building process.
7. New York Jets
The New York Jets sit at a crossroads and realistically could go in either direction.
They got off to a miserable 1-7 start last season, but they finished with a 6-2 second-half surge. Quarterback Sam Darnold missed three games because of mononucleosis, which didn't help matters.
The Jets played well down the stretch, particularly on defense. However, they're a candidate to land the No. 1 overall pick in 2021 for two main reasons.
First, general manager Joe Douglas invested heavily in the offense this offseason, particularly the front five. The Jets could have new starters at four if not all five positions along the offensive line. How will it hold up?
This unit must try to come together in the midst of the current global circumstances. Incorporating a mostly new offensive line and the offseason additions of wide receivers Breshad Perriman and Denzel Mims may be too much for the maturing Darnold to overcome.
The AFC East also features the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots, both of whom made the playoffs last season. The Miami Dolphins showed last year that they can exceed expectations, too.
The Jets aren't without talent, but they could nevertheless crater in head coach Adam Gase's second season.
6. Los Angeles Chargers
The Los Angeles Chargers made some excellent offseason moves. Will that be enough to remove them from the AFC West's basement?
Longtime starting quarterback Philip Rivers is no longer with the organization after 16 seasons. Will Tyrod Taylor prove himself to be anything more than a stopgap, or will 2020 No. 6 overall pick Justin Herbert emerge as a solid rookie starter?
Los Angeles acquired veteran offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga and five-time Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner this offseason to solidify the right side of the offensive line. Will either Trey Pipkins or Sam Tevi hold up at left tackle?
The AFC West is a difficult division with the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs at the top. Have the Chargers improved more than the Denver Broncos or Las Vegas Raiders?
It's too easy to answer "no" to each of these questions.
The Chargers feel like they're in a transitory stage rather than being capable of competing for the postseason, especially as they await Herbert's emergence.
5. Detroit Lions
The Detroit Lions are trending in the wrong direction under head coach Matt Patricia.
Jim Caldwell's teams finished 9-7 during his final two seasons with the Lions. It wasn't good enough. Since then, Detroit posted 6-10 and 3-12-1 records under Patricia.
Matthew Stafford's back injury played a huge part in Detroit's downturn last season, as he wound up playing only eight games. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell's system seems suited to his skill set, so his return should help the Lions significantly.
Detroit put together a solid offseason, too. The additions of linebacker Jamie Collins Sr., cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Jeffrey Okudah and running back D'Andre Swift should make their respective positions better.
At the same time, Detroit was inherently flawed in three key areas last season.
The Lions finished in the bottom half of the league in sacks surrendered per game. They also struggled to create pressure, managing only 28 sacks. They ranked last in pass defense, too.
A healthy Stafford, two new cornerbacks and a reworked right side of the offensive line should help, but it likely isn't enough to remove the Lions from being among the league's worst squads.
4. Washington Redskins
The Washington Redskins will go as far as second-year quarterback Dwayne Haskins takes them.
Haskins' natural ability isn't in doubt. He was the 15th overall pick in the 2019 draft for a reason. However, he failed to master Washington's offense as a rookie.
The Washington Post's Les Carpenter reported Haskins struggled to learn the system from the onset of his career. NFL Network's Mike Garafolo added that Adrian Peterson told Haskins to "get [his] nose in the playbook and learn these plays."
It's particularly difficult for rookie quarterbacks to transition to the NFL since so much gets placed on their shoulders. Haskins showed legitimate potential late in the 2019 campaign with a 72.1 completion percentage and four touchdowns and zero interceptions during his final two games.
However, Washington now has a new scheme in place under head coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Scott Turner. Haskins won't be starting from scratch, but he must reset and hunker down.
Washington also remains unsettled at left tackle and tight end and has a young wide receiver corps, which likely won't help matters.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
Since the NFL draft began in 1936, the same team has landed the No. 1 overall pick in consecutive years only seven times. The Cincinnati Bengals were one of those teams when they chose Dan Wilkerson and Ki-Jana Carter with the first picks in the 1994 and 1995 drafts, respectively.
Cincinnati could repeat as the league's worst squad depending on how rookie quarterback Joe Burrow fares.
This isn't to say Burrow is doomed to become a bust. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner has the requisite skill set to eventually develop into a successful NFL quarterback.
But a rookie is a rookie, and he's bound to make mistakes.
Furthermore, the Bengals didn't do enough this offseason to address their offensive line and protect their investment. It's also unclear whether veteran wideout A.J. Green can return to his Pro Bowl form after missing all of last season with an ankle injury.
The Bengals did bolster their defense in free agency and the draft after the unit finished 29th in yards allowed and 25th in points allowed last season. But they may have six or seven new starters on the field this season with little time to work together beforehand.
2. Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers will almost certainly get worse before they get better. But new head coach Matt Rhule is known as a program-builder.
"I think Matt Rhule can come in here and build an organization for the next 30 or 40 years," Panthers owner David Tepper said after making the hire, per Max Henson of the team's official site. "He can build it."
Rhule left the NFL coaching ranks to successfully build sustainable programs with the Temple Owls and Baylor Bears. Those turnarounds didn't take place overnight, though. Temple and Baylor finished 2-10 and 1-11, respectively, during Rhule's initial campaigns at each school.
The Panthers have some significant pieces in place with star running back Christian McCaffrey, wideout D.J. Moore and the offseason additions of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and receiver Robby Anderson, which should place the offense much further ahead of the defense.
Carolina spent all of its draft picks on defensive prospects after losing veterans such as Luke Kuechly, Mario Addison, Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe and Eric Reid this offseason.
The Panthers are now facing an unorthodox offseason with a first-time NFL head coach and first-time NFL coordinators leading the way. It's bound to be an uphill battle.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jacksonville Jaguars appear to be embarking upon a strip-it-to-the-studs rebuild.
In October, they shipped star cornerback Jalen Ramsey to the Los Angeles Rams prior to the NFL trade deadline. A few months later, team owner Shahid Khan fired executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin.
Khan retained general manager David Caldwell and head coach Doug Marrone, who continued to remove pieces this offseason by trading Calais Campbell, Nick Foles and A.J. Bouye to the Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears and Denver Broncos, respectively. Franchise-tagged defensive end Yannick Ngakoue could soon be on his way out, too.
Outside of linebacker Joe Schobert, the Jaguars didn't make any significant free-agent signings, either.
They're now moving forward with sixth-round quarterback Gardner Minshew II, who received the highest grade of any rookie quarterback from Pro Football Focus last season. However, it's unclear whether Minshew Mania is here to stay. If he falls flat during his sophomore campaign, Jacksonville would likely have to look for a true franchise signal-caller in the 2021 draft.
Tanking for Trevor or failing for Fields fits the Jaguars' current standing more than any other organization.