2021 NFL Draft: Ranking the Top 7 Candidates to Land the No. 1 Overall Pick

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistJuly 28, 2020

2021 NFL Draft: Ranking the Top 7 Candidates to Land the No. 1 Overall Pick

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    David Dermer/Associated Press

    The first pick in the 2021 NFL draft could be historic.

    Last year, the debate was between whether the Miami Dolphins or Cincinnati Bengals would have the top selection and if the squad picking first would take Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa or LSU's Joe Burrow.

    In 2021, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is expected to be the top prize, and a handful of teams appear to be on serious downswings going into a season of unknowns.

    The most likely candidates for the first pick in 2021 didn't just finish last season near the bottom half of the league. They've also had notable talent exoduses and a direction that screams "rebuilding plan."

    These teams will likely be the front-runners for the first pick by late in the 2020 season.            

7. New York Giants

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Two teams in the Big Apple have questionable outlooks. 

    The New York Giants rolled out a 38-year-old Eli Manning for four games in 2019 despite many believing it was a bad idea. Sixth overall pick Daniel Jones got on the field for 13 games, completing 61.9 percent of his passes with 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. 

    The Giants won four games, finishing under .500 for the sixth time in seven seasons. They went 2-4 in the NFC East and had a minus-110 point differential. 

    New York did add offensive tackle Andrew Thomas with the fourth overall pick in this year's draft after finishing in the bottom half of the league in sacks allowed, but the organization overpaid linebacker Blake Martinez (three years, $30.8 million) and corner James Bradberry (three years, $43.5 million) to join its 25th-ranked defense.

    Pro Football Focus only gave Martinez a 58.9 grade last year, while Bradberry received a score of 61.7

    Straddling the line between contention and long-term gain, the Giants didn't seemingly do enough to stay out of the danger zone for the top pick.        

6. Carolina Panthers

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    Bill Feig/Associated Press

    Like Cincinnati in 2019, the Carolina Panthers are bound to experience growing pains under a new head coach (Matt Rhule) and his staff.

    And the Panthers don't have the benefit of an experienced veteran quarterback. Carolina signed Teddy Bridgewater to a three-year deal in free agency after he flashed when filling in for Drew Brees in New Orleans last year. But he hasn't attempted 200 passes in a season since 2015. 

    The Panthers did use a top-10 pick on defensive tackle Derrick Brown in an attempt to help a unit that played a part in the team's 1-5 record against the NFC South and minus-130 point differential. But even Carolina's "big" moves feel like rebuilding ones.

    The trade for Russell Okung might seem like it addresses an offensive line that allowed a league-high 58 sacks last season, but the 31-year-old tackle only had a 62.4 PFF grade in 2019 and is due $13 million in base salary on the final year of his deal.

    If the pieces around Bridgewater struggle in a new system, the 27-year-old signal-caller might end up holding the gig for a rookie at the top of the draft.                     

5. Los Angeles Chargers

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Chargers are one of two notable teams that seem hesitant to hand the reins to a rookie first-round passer.

    For the Chargers, it is sixth overall pick Justin Herbert, who might be learning from the sidelines while veteran Tyrod Taylor gets the nod. But Taylor would be tasked with trying to revive a team that regressed from 12 wins to five in 2019 with Philip Rivers under center.

    Taylor has completed just 61.6 percent of his career pass attempts and has a 23-21-1 record as a starter. He hasn't attempted any meaningful passes since the beginning of 2018. The organization tried to fix a 34-sack line from a season ago in patchwork fashion with Trai Turner and Bryan Bulaga.

    The Chargers will experience growing pains under center either way, especially with the unconventional offseason due to the coronavirus pandemic. And they play in the brutal AFC West, which is projected to get even better after L.A. went 0-6 in the division last year.

    If the Chargers end up with the top pick, they won't move on from Herbert so early. But they could be in a position to trade the top selection and accelerate the rebuild.                

4. Miami Dolphins

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    The Miami Dolphins are one of the most encouraging upward-trending teams, but that doesn't mean they'll immediately get into the win column.

    They seem unlikely to put No. 5 overall pick Tua Tagovailoa on the field as a rookie, which makes plenty of sense given his injury history, his lack of reps this offseason and the elimination of the preseason amid the pandemic. But that means Ryan Fitzpatrick will starting under center after recording a 5-8 record last season—he's 55-83-1 overall—with 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He was sacked 40 times.    

    Miami did have some wins in free agency, notably the signings of cornerback Byron Jones and linebacker Kyle Van Noy, but the organization used its other two first-round picks on offensive tackle Austin Jackson (No. 18) and cornerback Noah Igbinoghene (No. 30).

    The moves appear to be for the long term as the roster turnover continues and the culture is rebuilt, which means the Dolphins could be flirting with the No. 1 selection yet again.            

3. Washington

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    The overhaul of the Washington Football Team this offseason suggests short-term struggles.

    New head coach Ron Rivera is the right man for the rebuilding job, but he's not going to be able to turn things around in a single season—and that would be true under normal circumstances. The jury remains out on 2019 first-round pick Dwayne Haskins, which is the biggest issue.

    Haskins showed promise late last year after the organization fired head coach Jay Gruden in October, but he recorded just a 58.6 percent completion rate with seven touchdowns and seven interceptions in nine appearances.

    It's going to be tough sledding in 2020. Washington managed just three wins last year and permanently lost left tackle Trent Williams, who was granted his request for a trade. The offensive line allowed 50 sacks last season as Williams sat out.

    The front office was quiet in free agency, and while No. 2 overall pick Chase Young is joining what could be a sneaky-good defense, it won't matter if the lack of talent around Haskins drags everything down.

    A transitional year under a new coaching staff could mean Washington flirts with the top overall pick, which could in turn lead to questions about Haskins.             

2. New York Jets

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    It didn't take too long for the New York Jets to go from looking like intriguing upstarts to a team that could contend for the first pick again.

    Adam Gase's first season as head coach resulted in an upswing to seven wins, but the Jets have only cracked above .500 twice since 2010. Sam Darnold, the third overall pick in 2018, will be eligible for an extension after the 2020 campaign, yet he hasn't thrown 20 touchdowns in a season.

    Most notable, of course, is the departure of star defensive back Jamal Adams via trade. New York picked up a pair of first-round selections in the deal, but that just helps the team's long-term outlook, as Darnold's supporting cast took a big hit.

    The Jets lost top wideout Robby Anderson in free agency and are hoping rookie second-rounder Denzel Mims can immediately pick up the slack. They're also banking on No. 11 overall pick Mekhi Becton to help solve issues for an offensive line that allowed the fourth-most sacks (52) in 2019 in an offseason in which the line won't have the usual amount of reps to jell.   

    The Adams trade also opens up the possibility of the Jets leveraging assets to move to No. 1 in 2021. If a regime change happens after Darnold struggles with a so-so supporting cast, the quarterback's seat could get quite warm.          

1. Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

    The Jacksonville Jaguars remain one of the most obvious rebuilders in the NFL.

    While the organization has indicated it's all-in on second-year passer Gardner Minshew II, the team has lost a massive amount of talent ever since that AFC title game appearance in 2017 (the Jags' lone season above .500 since 2007).

    Minshew only completed 60.6 percent of his passes last year, throwing 21 touchdowns and six interceptions. This year, he's returning to a roster that traded five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell in March and has yet to move disgruntled star pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue, who has made it clear he wants out of Jacksonville.

    The organization also dealt cornerback Jalen Ramsey to the Los Angeles Rams prior to the October trade deadline last season.

    None of this is to say the future isn't bright. The Jaguars used three of their four top-100 picks in 2020 to stop the bleeding defensively. But it clearly isn't a win-now season, and looking at things through the long-term lens, limping to a record bad enough to land Trevor Lawrence wouldn't be the worst thing.