2021 NFL Draft: Predicting the five biggest surprises, including six QBs going in Round 1

We’ve been doing mock drafts every week dating to the start of the 2020 college football season. And in that time, a lot has changed, starting with Zach Wilson and Mac Jones taking the Joe Burrow train from obscurity into presumed top five picks. After a run on quarterbacks with the first three selections, the expectation is that the top offensive linemen, wide receivers and a unicorn playing tight end will all make their way into the top 10.

But what are some potential shockers we could see once the actual draft gets under way on Thursday? Here are our five biggest surprise predictions ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft.

1. A defensive player isn’t among the top 10 selections

We hinted at it above but this could be watching history unfold on Thursday should there be a run on offensive players to begin the draft. We all know the Jaguars are taking Trevor Lawrence, Wilson appears destined for the Jets and the 49ers will take a quarterback at No. 3. Then at No. 4, the Falcons could choose to trade down (presumably allowing another team to trade up for the two remaining QBs) or stay put (where they could grab tight end Kyle Pitts, offensive tackle Penei Sewell, or even a QB). The Bengals are at No. 5 and they should take Sewell, but very well could end up with all-world wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. The Dolphins are at No. 6 and while they don’t need a quarterback, they desperately need a deep threat or O-line help.

Things get interesting at No. 7, where the Lions target a cornerback, like Patrick Surtain II or Jaycee Horn, or even linebacker Micah Parsons. It’s more likely that they find Jared Goff some playmakers, perhaps even target a QB here if Justin Fields is on the board, or trade down to allow another team to land a QB. The Panthers sit at No. 8 and even though they’ve recently traded for Sam Darnold, we’ll repeat what we said above: If Fields or Trey Lance is staring you in the face, you’ll think long and hard about taking him here. Other options are offensive line or cornerback. The Broncos at No. 9 — and like a lot of other teams in the top 10 — could be in the QB business here, and trading down is also an option. That brings us to the Cowboys, who sit at No. 10. They desperately need defensive help and this is the first time where it feels like defense is more likely than offense to be the selection … assuming Dallas doesn’t trade down.

2. Jamin Davis is the first LB off the board

NFL teams have known about Davis for a while but the Kentucky linebacker didn’t make his way onto the media’s radar until relatively late in the process. Davis starred for the Wildcats in 2020 and while he’s only been a one-year starter, that one year was pretty special. That’s why Davis found his way onto our colleague Pete Prisco’s “Better-Than” team earlier this month. Prisco is on record as saying that Davis is going to be the best linebacker in this class, better than Parsons, better than Zaven Collins, better than whomever’s name you choose to insert here. And NFL teams like Davis a lot, too, so it won’t be surprising if he ends up going ahead of Parsons (there are maturity concerns) or Collins (is he a LB, does he play edge?) or Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (is he a safety or a linebacker?). Davis is currently +1000 at William Hill to be the first linebacker off the board.

3. There are no trade-ups until pick No. 9 at the earliest

We went through the top 10 above when talking about a possible run on offensive players and we’ll do it again here to highlight how we could see a trade-free top of the draft. 

1. Jags are taking Lawrence, duh.
2. Jets are taking a QB, almost certainly Wilson
3. The 49ers didn’t trade up from No. 12 to No. 3 and give up three first-rounders to trade out of this pick on Thursday. They’re taking a QB.
4. The Falcons could choose to roll with 36-year-old Matt Ryan for another year or two, and if so, why trade down and miss out on Pitts, who wouldn’t get past the Dolphins at No. 6.
5. The Bengals don’t have a history of moving around in Round 1, and they’ll have their choice of Chase and Sewell here.
6. The Dolphins traded from No. 3 to No. 12, then back up to No. 6 because they want to get Tua Tagovailoa playmakers. Should they move down, the top three wide receivers and top tight ends could all be gone.
7. The Lions could stay put and take a quarterback, offensive lineman or wide receiver. Hell, they could also target a cornerback or linebacker here, too.
8. The Panthers may want to move down to stockpile picks, but would they be comfortable falling into the second half of the round? Probably not, especially with needs at offensive line and cornerback, and possibly quarterback should the right player fall to them at No. 8.
9. That brings us to the Broncos, who could actually move up to get a player of need, whether it’s a quarterback, cornerback or offensive lineman.

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4. Two running backs could go in Round 1

You only have to go back three years to find the last time at least two running backs went in the first round (in 2018, Saquon Barkley, Rashaad Penny and Sony Michel were all top-32 picks) but from 2011-2020, only four times have at least two running backs gone in the first round. When you look at the 2001-2010 drafts, however, multiple first-round backs happened every year. And while it was something of a surprise to see Clyde Edwards-Helaire make his way into Round 1 a year ago, the expectation was that no more than one running back would be among the first 32 picks. This year, Najee Harris is our RB1, though we could just as easily see Travis Etienne — or even Javonte Williams — sneak into the first round. There are reports that the Dolphins could consider Harris at No. 18, reuniting him with Tagovailoa, and our CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora has reported previously that the Steelers are high on Harris (and Williams), who could be the target if he’s still on the board at No. 24. In addition to Miami and Pittsburgh, the Jets, Jaguars, Bills and Buccaneers could all be in the RB business on Thursday though it’s more likely that the Jets and Jags could choose to target the position with their early second-round picks.

5. Six QBs go in Round 1

This feels like the least likely scenario but at this point in the proceedings, with the smoke screens and obfuscations, who knows where the truth lies. What we do know, however, is that five quarterbacks are bona fide first-rounders, and likely off the board by pick No. 14 or so. But what happens after Lawrence, Wilson, Jones, Fields and Lance are gone? The two most popular names remaining: Stanford’s Davis Mills and Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond. We have Mond as our QB6, and we think he has a chance to be a good NFL player. Mills, meanwhile, possesses a lot of the “NFL QB traits” we hear so much about this time of year but the reality is that he’s only started 11 games for the Cardinal (while Mond has 44 career starts, and had his best season in ’20). If a team likes either player enough to take them in the first round, they’ll get that fifth-year option, too. In our weekly mock drafts, we’ve routinely had Mond and Mills going to the Bears, Washington Football Team, the Steelers, the Buccaneers or the Saints — but always in Round 2. On Thursday, there’s a chance one of these teams — or one we haven’t even considered! — ends up with Mond or Mills, most likely by having to trade back into the bottom of the round, to get them.

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