As we inch toward Thursday night’s first round of the NFL draft, I wanted to brain dump some thoughts in one space. I’ll publish my final mock late on Wednesday.
Note: Odds provided are based on DraftKings Sportsbook’s Tuesday night listings and are obviously subject to change. Odds differ sportsbook to sportsbook.
1. I’m siding with the 1-2-3-4-5 chalk.
That is, Jacksonville selecting Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson going to the Jets, Mac Jones landing in San Francisco, Kyle Pitts joining the Falcons, and Ja’Marr Chase reuniting with Joe Burrow in Cincinnati.
The first two picks have seemed locked in for months. Rather than dual-threat playmakers Justin Fields and Trey Lance, Kyle Shanahan prefers an in-structure distributor dealing to post-catch gamebreakers George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, and Brandon Aiyuk. Pitts is the No. 1 non-quarterback on most teams’ draft boards. Although Cincinnati’s primary need is offensive line, word on the street has Bengals ownership granting Burrow his wish to draft Chase over Penei Sewell.
2. Identifying Justin Fields’ landing spot could fortify fortunate sports bettors’ bankrolls.
No one knows where Fields is going.
But I suspect he’ll be selected in the Nos. 7-9 range. You can get plus odds on arguably the draft’s second-most talented signal caller landing in any destination.
I like the Broncos (+400) and Lions (+500) as shorter-odds propositions. But I wouldn’t discourage risk takers from shooting shots on teams like the Bears (+1000), Steelers (+2500), and Eagles (+3300) to target Fields in aggressive trades up.
Hitting a longshot Fields bet could make your draft weekend.
3. I think at least six cornerbacks will go in the first round.
Cornerback is a premium position in a passing league, and three corners are virtually assured of landing in Round 1. They are Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II, Jaycee Horn of South Carolina, and Northwestern’s Greg Newsome.
Virginia Tech CB Caleb Farley’s medicals are problematic, but I’ve heard at least one team drafting late in the first is confident enough in Farley’s health to trade up for him should Farley fall within striking distance. Florida State’s Asante Samuel Jr. is a Round 1-caliber ballhawk. Georgia’s Eric Stokes blends plus size (6’0/194) with elite speed (4.31), intercepted four passes in nine games last season, and was a consistent cover man as a 26-game starter versus SEC competition. Stokes’ college teammate, Tyson Campbell, garnered the fifth-highest poll position among cornerback prospects in longtime NFL journalist Bob McGinn’s survey of scouts and executives.
Beginning with Arizona at No. 16, 14 of the final 16 teams scheduled to draft in the first round are cornerback needy.
4. This is the worst running back class I’ve ever seen.
For a variety of reasons – foremost, the Pandemic – this draft is one of the thinnest we’ve encountered in some time. And running back is among its weakest position groups.
I watched highly-rated RBs Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, and Javonte Williams early in draft season. After also considering their production and athletic profiles, all three checked out as probable NFL starters.
More recently, I dove into this year’s lower-tier backs. I couldn’t possibly have been less impressed.
Position scarcity should benefit Harris, Etienne, and Williams’ draft slots. And there’s a “safety” element to NFL decision makers investing early-round picks on running backs.
I’m betting that more than 1.5 running backs will be drafted in the first round.
But long term, I’m betting against this running back class panning out as a whole.
5. If the 49ers don’t draft Trey Lance, I’m struggling to peg his destination.
And I don’t think Lance is going to San Francisco.
Similar to Fields, this scenario presents betting opportunities to connect Lance to teams at long odds. The Bucs (100 to 1), Steelers (20 to 1), Eagles (20 to 1), Saints (16 to 1), and Bears (11 to 1) stand out here.
6. These are my best-bet teams to trade down in Round 1.
The Dolphins at No. 6 have a trade-down mentality and are positioned directly ahead of a potential quarterback run with Detroit at No. 7, Carolina at No. 8, and Denver at No. 9, giving the Fins leverage should a QB-needy club like the Bears, Patriots, Football Team, or Steelers offer a viable package to move up.
At No. 7, the Lions are in desperate need of talent restoration and could use an influx of picks.
The Eagles at No. 12 have seemingly embraced a soft rebuild.
The Ravens at No. 31 figure to be open for business after executing their initial first-round selection at No. 27.
7. A glut of groupthink-driven first-round mock draft commonalities don’t make much sense.
Wide receivers are most commonly mocked to the Giants, even after Dave Gettleman’s team invested a four-year, $72 million deal with $40 million guaranteed into Kenny Golladay. Golladay, Darius Slayton, and Sterling Shepard represent a formidable three-receiver package. The Giants are getting back elite pass-catching RB Saquon Barkley from injury, retained receiving TE Evan Engram, signed TE Kyle Rudolph, and have far bigger needs at offensive line and on defense.
The Dolphins are popularly connected to Round 1 running backs despite being one of the NFL’s most analytically-aware teams. Analytics suggest early-round running backs are poor investments.
The Browns are often linked to first-round linebackers. Albeit in a limited sample, Cleveland’s front office has shown no affinity for investing heavily into this position.
8. I’m throwing 80-to-1 and 50-to-1 darts at Matt Ryan to win 2021 NFL MVP.
This may not seem like a draft-related take, but it is to an extent. Especially since the Falcons are heavily favored to draft unicorn TE Kyle Pitts, supplementing an offense that already boasts Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Hayden Hurst, and an above-par offensive line.
And I think Arthur Smith will prove a substantial upgrade on Dirk Koetter in terms of offensive design.
Some players with shorter MVP odds than Ryan: Jalen Hurts (40 to 1), Deshaun Watson (33 to 1), Carson Wentz (33 to 1), Christian McCaffrey (33 to 1), Derrick Henry (33 to 1), Ryan Tannehill (25 to 1).
9. My sleepers to sneak into the back half of Round 1.
Generating comparisons to Patriots LB Dont’a Hightower, Tulsa’s Zaven Collins is rumored to be in consideration as early as No. 16 to the Cardinals.
I mentioned Georgia CB Eric Stokes previously.
NFL Network draft insider Daniel Jeremiah recently pinpointed Houston EDGE Payton Turner as a late first-round sleeper.
Long armed and battle tested with 41 career starts, Alabama LT Alex Leatherwood offers ideal dimensions and crushed his Pro Day.
The Steelers at No. 24, Saints at No. 28, and Bucs at No. 32 could all be in the quarterback market. I think Stanford’s Davis Mills will be the sixth QB off the board.
On Wednesday, NFL Network’s Lance Zierlein named Louisiana Tech DT Milton Williams as a late first-round sleeper. Williams destroyed his Pro Day and stands to benefit from position scarcity; this draft is exceptionally thin on defensive tackle talent.
10. These are the players often considered first-rounders that I think might miss the top 32.
Miami (FL) EDGE Gregory Rousseau hasn’t played since December of 2019, allegedly carried nearly 30 fewer pounds that season than he measured this year, and failed to impress at the Hurricanes’ Pro Day after adding weight.
Alabama DT Christian Barmore’s evaluation is nebulous. I get the sense NFL teams like him less than Draft Twitter and NFL Media.
LSU WR Terrace Marshall has been medically flagged to the extent that I don’t think Marshall will be drafted until the second- to third-round turn.
Florida WR Kadarius Toney seems to be more highly regarded by media than teams. I don’t think he’ll make the top 32.