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NFL draft 2021 predictions: the stars, the surprises, and the lower-round gems

Our writers look at the best prospects coming out of college and which teams need to get it right in the coming days. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell (bottom left) will welcome Kyle Pitts, Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, and Jaycee Horn into the league in the coming days. Composite: AP; The News & Observer via AP; USA TODAY Sports Trevor Lawrence has the potential to be the next … Andrew Luck. Both are/were smart, and athletic quarterbacks can play within the rhythm and flow of the system or create off-script. Luck was never quite able to hit his Elway-like potential.

His body had given out when the team around him was good enough to compete for six seasons (particularly the first three). He dragged a rotating cast of mediocrity into playoff contention. Lawrence has similar talent. OC Justin Herbert. They are both tall, athletic playmakers who can hurt defenses with their arms or legs. TF Tom Brady. Lawrence’s blend of athleticism, quick processing time, and precision is so unique that comparing his skill set to anyone is unfair. So I’ll choose the most successful quarterback because Lawrence is a bonafide winner. MJ A luckier Luck? When the Indianapolis Colts selected Luck, he was expected to be the next Peyton Manning. There was no way to live up to those expectations, but he was one of the better quarterbacks in the league before an injury led him to retire at age 29.

Lawrence’s ceiling feels like Luck’s career minus the early retirement, which I’m sure the Jacksonville Jaguars would take in a heartbeat. HF The best quarterback not named Trevor Lawrence is … Zach Wilson, BYU. OK, so the answer is Justin Fields, but let’s give Jets fans some hope and say, Wilson. Did he play against a poor schedule last season? Sure. But did he show a knack for improvisation? Absolutely. Wilson’s lack of traditional stick-slide-throw mechanics makes his projection as a pro prospect tricky. But it was the same with Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen entering the league. OC Justin Fields, Ohio State. He has all the arm strength, accuracy, toughness, and intangibles you could want from a franchise quarterback and has done the job on the biggest stages. His ability as a runner sets him apart from every other top quarterback in this year’s class – including Trevor Lawrence.

TF Fields. He has a rocket arm and can craft plays out of nowhere. Whatever team drafts him is landing a prospect with a Patrick Mahomes-like ceiling. MJ Talent-wise, it’s Fields, although he will certainly not go second (possibly not even third). It’s possible that the disclosure that his impressive college run happened while he was managing epilepsy could make some teams less likely to consider him—their loss. HF, The best non-quarterback in the draft is… Jaycee Horn, cornerback, South Carolina. Horn is an aggressive cornerback with the size to match against outside receivers and tight ends, flex into the slot, or even line up as a safety. For the sake of diversity, let’s look away from Kyle Pitts.

OC Kyle Pitts, tight end, Florida. He may be listed as a tight end, but at 6ft 5in and 245 lbs, he moves like a wide receiver and will create nightmares for any defense. Pitts are too fast and agile for linebackers to keep up with but too big and strong for cornerbacks to stop. TF Pitts. Forget about being the best receiving tight end in this draft by a mile; Pitts is the best receiver in this class, period. He has great hands and jaw-dropping speed (a 4.4sec 40 at his Pro Day ). Pitts will be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. MJ Everyone will mention Pitts, and rightfully so, but what if the best non-quarterback in the draft isn’t going to be chosen because of their ability to catch touchdowns but for the far-dirtier job of protecting the quarterback? Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell isn’t going to be a fantasy stud like Pitts, but he could be invaluable in real-game situations.

HF One bold prediction … The Dallas Cowboys trade up to No 4. Team owner/GM Jerry Jones is “infatuated” with Kyle Pitts (something he denies). The tight end will be on the board at No four and Atlanta will be more than open to making a deal for the right price. OC Justin Fields will be the most successful quarterback in this year’s class. Not only does he have the skills above as a passer and as a runner, but he will most likely land in the best situation for immediate results based on most mock draft predictions. TF The NFL is letting a collection of current and former players announce their teams’ day-two selections. At least one of them will be visibly disappointed when announcing the pick. MJ The New England Patriots will trade up. Things have gone topsy-turvy in the NFL since Tom Brady won a ring in Tampa Bay.

The Patriots broke the bank in free agency and are now stacked at every position except (presuming an unlikely Cam Newton resurgence) the most important one. They normally trade down, but they could (and should) be looking for a first-round QB on Thursday. HF Which team most needs a good draft? Zach Wilson is likely to be the cornerstone of the Jets’ rebuild. Photograph: Rick Bowmer/AP Seattle Seahawks. There are four basic rules to having a good draft in the 2020s: don’t overdraft running backs; don’t overdraft off-ball linebackers; don’t overdraft old players; don’t overdraft tweeners. The Seahawks have fallen foul of every rule in recent years, sometimes multiple times within the same draft. With Russell Wilson’s future on the line, they must get it right this year. The New York Jets are starting a major rebuild, and the pressure is on general manager Joe Douglas to construct a winning team.

The Jets have ten draft picks, six of which are in the first 110 picks. After trading away cornerstone players Jamal Adams, Leonard Williams, and Sam Darnold, it is time for Douglas to begin a new era in New York, and that starts with which quarterback the team takes with the No 2 overall pick. TF San Francisco 49ers. They traded away future first-round picks to move up nine spots. It still seems insane. Simply put, the quarterback Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch selected must work out. MJ The draft isn’t all about those sexy top picks; it’s about reloading for the future. The Philadelphia Eagles have the most choices in this draft, although many of them are in the later rounds, and they’re going to need to hit a lot of them if they don’t want to get stuck like Sisyphus in the “under construction” portion of a perpetual rebuild.

HF is A lower-round gem to watch … Jordan Smith, edge, UAB. A former big-time recruit, Smith moved to a small school UAB after being suspended by Florida. In Alabama, he blossomed into one of the most ferocious pass-rushers in the country. All arms and burst, he is a classic dip-and-rip pass-rusher wrapped up in a 6ft 7in the body. He is expected to be a third-round pick and could prove a steal for a team looking for more pass-rushing oomph. OC Quinn Meinerz, center, Wisconsin-Whitewater. He will likely be a day-two pick but can be one of the better offensive linemen in this year’s class. Meinerz held up against some of the top defensive players in the country at the Senior Bowl, and many linemen from small schools have had very successful careers: TF Cade Johnson, wide receiver, South Dakota State. Highly productive but already under the radar thanks to the size of his school, Johnson skipped 2020 due to Covid-19. But then he swooped back into the draft season by winning the one-on-ones at the Senior Bowl.

Does MJ want to feel old? Available in this year’s draft is Florida State’s Asante Samuel Jr, who has inherited the skills of his father, Asante Sr, a first-team All-Pro cornerback back in 2007 and 2010. The problem is that he’s considered undersized in the modern NFL, at 5ft 10in and 184lb. If he gets drafted into the right system, expect him to flourish. The Chiefs, Bucs, and Washington deserve plaudits for finding top-line stars and quality depth, the hallmark of a strong draft. HF The team that drafted best last year was … Cincinnati Bengals.

The Baltimore Ravens drafted multiple players that made an impact as rookies, most notably linebacker Patrick Queen and running back JK Dobbins. But the Bengals managed to pair both of those while finding a true franchise quarterback in Joe Burrow, provided the Cincy can add the tools to keep him healthy during his prime. TF Washington. Chase Young will be tormenting quarterbacks for the next decade. Third-round rusher Antonio Gibson had a productive season with 11 touchdowns. But it is seventh-round safety Kamren Curl, increasingly disruptive in 11 starts, which may steal the 2020 draft.

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