2021 NFL Draft: 11 Perfect Team-Player Pairings
While there are still 10 weeks remaining in the 2020 NFL season, it's already time for some teams to start thinking about the 2021 draft.
Seven teams currently have one win or fewer. Another six have only two wins. While it's too early to say all of their seasons are over—especially in the NFC East, where the 2-4-1 Philadelphia Eagles are in first place—a top-10 selection is a more realistic goal than a playoff berth for many of them.
Here, we're going to take an early look ahead to the 2021 draft and pair some of the league's worst teams with their ideal prospects. We'll be looking at 11 of the teams with two wins or fewer—excluding the first-place Eagles and the Houston Texans, who don't have a first-round pick—and basing our choices on factors like team need, prospect potential scheme fit.
This isn't a mock draft, so fit will be more important than draft order. However, we will be matching only one team with each prospect, so projected pick order—according to Tankathon—will come into play in some instances. Teams are listed in alphabetical order.
Atlanta Falcons: Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama
It's hard to know what the Atlanta Falcons will prioritize in the 2021 draft.
While they currently have a longtime quarterback in Matt Ryan and two star receivers in Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones, they're likely headed for an offseason rebuild. The Falcons could decide to trade veterans such as Ryan and Jones, especially if the new regime is keen on bringing in its own guys.
If the new front office is happy to inherit Jones and Ryan, the Falcons will likely turn their attention toward their 31st-ranked defense. That defense has cost them multiple wins this season, which makes it a must-fix in the offseason.
Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II is one of the top defenders in the country and would fill a massive hole for the Falcons. While Atlanta has notched five interceptions on the season, it has also allowed an average of 333.4 passing yards, second-most in the NFL.
Surtain, who has 18 tackles and five pass breakups through five games, could be a longtime starter opposite 2020 first-round pick A.J. Terrell. That should give Atlanta a functional secondary moving forward.
Cincinnati Bengals: Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon
The Cincinnati Bengals appear to have found their franchise quarterback in Joe Burrow. The reigning Heisman winner has been plenty impressive through his first seven games, though the Bengals have to be concerned about keeping him upright for the final nine.
Cincinnati's pass protection has been atrocious thus far, and Burrow has been pressured on 20.4 percent of his dropbacks. The Cleveland Browns sacked him four times Sunday, bringing his total to a league-high 28 sacks on the year. That puts him on pace for a whopping 64 sacks over a full 16-game season.
While Oregon's Penei Sewell opted not to play this season, he may have already established himself as the best tackle prospect in this class. The 2019 Outland Trophy winner could be the franchise left tackle that Burrow desperately needs.
Although the Bengals used their 2019 first-round pick on Jonah Williams to be that anchor, he has struggled to stay healthy. He missed his entire rookie season with a shoulder injury, and he suffered a neck injury Sunday.
The Bengals should not be afraid to draft Sewell even though they already have Williams.
Dallas Cowboys: Gregory Rousseau, Edge, Miami
There's a slim chance that the Dallas Cowboys will be in the market for a quarterback near the top of the 2021 draft. A lot will hinge on Dak Prescott's recovery from a fractured ankle and how willing the Cowboys are to re-sign or franchise-tag him again.
Assuming the Cowboys are still sold on Prescott, it would behoove them to address their disastrous defense. Dallas has allowed a league-high 34.7 points per game, ranks last in run defense and has produced only 13 sacks in seven games.
Adding Miami edge-defender Gregory Rousseau could help fix things on that side of the ball.
Like Sewell and several other top prospects, Rousseau opted out of the 2020 season. However, he showed in 2019 that he can be a dominant force against both the run and the pass. He finished that campaign with 54 total tackles, 15.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss.
Dallas has gotten solid production from reclamation project Aldon Smith (4.0 sacks) but needs more help in the pass-rushing department. DeMarcus Lawrence could be a cap casualty in 2023—the team would save $18 million by dumping him after the 2022 season—while Everson Griffen is already not long for the Cowboys.
According to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, Dallas has made Griffen available for a trade.
Denver Broncos: Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State
The Denver Broncos rank ninth in total defense and 16th in points allowed, but linebacker Micah Parsons is still a logical fit for them early in Round 1. The Penn State standout is a do-it-all linebacker who can become Denver's new defensive field general.
While Parsons opted not to play in 2020, his 2019 season speaks volumes. He finished the year with 109 total tackles, 5.0 sacks, 14.0 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and five passes defended.
Had the Broncos not invested heavily in the offense this past offseason, a wide receiver or running back could be a consideration. However, they added running back Melvin Gordon III in free agency and drafted pass-catchers Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler in the first and second round, respectively.
Assuming the Broncos still believe in second-year quarterback Drew Lock, it makes perfect sense for them to turn their attention to the defense, where a good unit could become an elite one in short order. With quarterbacks like Herbert, Patrick Mahomes and Derek Carr in the division, adding a defensive playmaker like Parsons could be the type of move that helps Denver compete in the NFC West.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State
While Gardner Minshew II has not been the Jacksonville Jaguars' biggest issue, he isn't the sort of dynamic, dual-threat quarterback that is becoming the holy grail of the modern NFL. However, North Dakota State's Trey Lance might be.
Lance was phenomenal during the 2019 season, passing for 2,786 yards, rushing for 1,100 yards and scoring 42 total touchdowns with zero interceptions. He played his one and only 2020 game against Central Arkansas earlier this month and once again impressed.
Although Lance did finally toss an interception, he also threw for 149 yards and two scores while rushing for 143 yards and two touchdowns.
"He's somewhere in the range of [Andrew] Luck (former No. 1 overall pick and four-time Pro Bowl selectee) to [Dak] Prescott (two-time Pro Bowl selectee and former Offensive Rookie of the Year who's on pace to throw for more than 6,000 yards right now)," NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah wrote in early October. "In other words, Trey Lance is really good."
Lance could be the sort of elite, multifaceted passer that Blake Bortles never became.
Los Angeles Chargers: Alex Leatherwood, OT, Alabama
Like the Bengals, the Los Angeles Chargers appear to have found their franchise quarterback. But like the Bengals, the Chargers have also struggled to protect him.
Sixth overall pick Justin Herbert has been surprisingly reliable, but his pass protection has not been.
Coming into Week 7, Herbert had been pressured on an alarming 31 percent of his dropbacks. While he's done a better job of avoiding sacks than Burrow—he's been dropped 10 times in five games—his pass protection is still an issue.
That's where Alabama offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood enters the equation. The anchor of one of college football's most prolific offenses, Leatherwood has played both guard and tackle—for left- and right-handed quarterbacks—and could provide Los Angeles with options along the line.
More importantly, Leatherwood could be the blindside protector that the Chargers gave up when they traded Russell Okung to the Carolina Panthers in the offseason.
Minnesota Vikings: Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech
While the Minnesota Vikings might love to turn the page on quarterback Kirk Cousins, that probably won't happen next year. He will still have $41 million in dead money remaining on his contract, which could prevent Minnesota from targeting a quarterback in the draft.
Instead, look for the Vikings to address their 29th-ranked pass defense. With Patrick Surtain II already paired with the Falcons here, Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley could be the Vikings' ideal target.
Farley opted out of the 2020 season, but he finished 2019 with an impressive stat line. He racked up 20 tackles to go with four interceptions and 12 pass breakups in 11 games. He has the potential to be the sort of shutdown corner Minnesota is missing and a long-term running mate of 2020 first-round pick Jeff Gladney.
While the Vikings have invested heavily in the cornerback position in recent years—they also used a first-round pick on Mike Hughes in 2018—pass defense remains their biggest defensive weakness. Adding Farley could help change that.
New England Patriots: Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
It's hard to envision the New England Patriots being bad enough to land one of the top three or four quarterbacks in the 2021 draft, so we may again see some combination of Cam Newton and Jarrett Stidham next season.
Regardless of who is under center, the Patriots need more weapons on offense.
New England ranks 28th in passing and doesn't appear to have a reliable wideout on its roster aside from the 34-year-old Julian Edelman. Second-year wideout N'Keal Harry and fifth-year journeyman Damiere Byrd have shown some promise, but neither has a catch rate above 65 percent or is the sort of playmaker for whom opposing defenses need to game-plan.
Alabama wideout Jaylen Waddle could be.
"Alabama coaches told us he has the fastest first step they've ever seen, and Jerry Jeudy told me last spring that Waddle is unbeatable in a 20-yard dash," Bleacher Report draft analyst Matt Miller wrote in September.
Waddle has been nearly unstoppable this season, catching 25 passes for 557 yards and four touchdowns in five games. He's the sort of game-breaking deep threat that the Patriots have lacked since the Randy Moss days, and he could help New England make a swift return to relevance in the AFC East.
New York Giants: Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
Would the New York Giants really move on from Daniel Jones after only two seasons? If a quarterback like Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields is there for the taking, the answer is probably yes.
Jones is the signal-caller whom head coach Joe Judge inherited, and he's done little this season to suggest that he's the long-term answer under center. If Judge wants the opportunity to hand-pick his own answer, Fields could be the guy, since we're paring Lawrence with the winless Jets below.
Fields is the quarterback who's most likely to challenge Lawrence for the Heisman Trophy and the No. 1 draft slot this year. He finished third in Heisman voting last season and has already gotten into the race after just one game.
Against Nebraska, Fields completed 20 of his 21 attempts for 276 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 54 yards and a score. In 2019, he racked up 51 total touchdowns and just four interceptions.
Big, powerful, athletic and armed with a high football IQ and arm talent to boot, Fields is the total package. It isn't hard to envision him becoming the NFC East's top signal-caller in short order.
New York Jets: Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence remains the ultimate prize in the 2021 NFL draft, and the New York Jets remain the ultimate landing spot for him. They've yet to win a game, and there's almost no chance that head coach Adam Gase remains in power following the season.
It's unclear whether the Jets still believe in quarterback Sam Darnold, especially after his offense produced only four total yards in the second half against the Buffalo Bills in Week 7. However, the Jets' new regime should jump at the chance to land Lawrence if he declares for the draft.
Lawrence has been on a collision course with the No. 1 pick since his freshman season, and he's done nothing to change his trajectory this year. He's passed for 1,833 yards with 17 touchdowns and only two picks through six games while adding 71 yards and four scores on the ground.
The Jets' ongoing rebuild figures to be painful, but Lawrence can provide the franchise with its most important building block. The biggest question right now might be whether Lawrence is worried enough by the Jets' ineptitude to return to college if they hold the No. 1 pick.
Washington Football Team: Kyle Trask, QB, Florida
The Washington Football Team appears to be done with 2019 first-round pick Dwayne Haskins, so it could go back to the quarterback well in 2021. However, head coach Ron Rivera's team may be too competitive to vie for one of the top three quarterbacks in this draft class.
That's where Florida's Kyle Trask comes into play. A big, physical prospect with arm talent to spare, he could be the franchise pocket-passer that Washington thought it was getting in Haskins.
"He can make every throw, from showing touch on short routes to showing strength on go routes," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. wrote of Trask, his No. 4 QB prospect, in early October. "... Still a long time to go, of course, but I like what I see so far."
Through three games, Trask has thrown for 996 yards with 14 touchdowns and only one interception. If he continues putting up gaudy numbers in the SEC, he's likely to end up a mid-first-round pick, which is where Washington could be selecting if it doesn't overtake first-place Philly in the woeful NFC East.
This is assuming that current starter Kyle Allen doesn't play his way into the job permanently.
Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference.