Your team may be bad now, but every draft brings the potential of getting better - or worse. Signing Tom Brady and few other free agents put Tampa Bay over the top in 2020, but it’s the work that GM Jason Licht put in during the three or so drafts prior that lifted his franchise into the upper echelon.
From the top 5 of Round 1 to the reaches of Round 6, the Bucs unearthed talent and put it in positions to succeed.
If you do not accomplish this task on a consistent basis, it can snowball and you might struggle to find traction for years. Look to the Browns, who up until very recently had the dubious title of worst drafting team in the NFL by a country mile for most of the 2000s. Their misfortune crested the flood walls in 2016 when they made 14 (!!!) picks and now have just one (!!!!!) of them still on the roster (shoutout, Rashard Higgins).
So whether you’re riding high on avocado tequila and throwing the Lombardi across the Hillsborough River during a raucous boat parade or fantasizing about having the No. 1 overall pick before your team even commits its first mistake of the regular season, we can all find common ground in the vital nature of the NFL Draft.
I’ve got a first-round mock all lined up for you, one of two. With free agency winding down and some colossal trades solidified, we can at least play around with potential fits and whatnot.
*This mock does contain hypothetical trades
1. Jacksonville Jaguars - Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
Not like we needed any additional confirmation before Draft Day, but the Jags posted a freaking Twitter hype video for Trevor Lawrence’s Pro Day and then have been basically silent about any other prospect. He’s the guy.
2. New York Jets: Zach Wilson, QB, Brigham Young
After Friday’s flurry of activity, including Wilson’s Pro Day, several signs now heavily point toward Wilson being the odds-on favorite to be this pick. It makes sense, given Wilson’s impeccable ability to create outside of structure while still performing well within it. He needs work with the latter still, but the Jets reset again with a much better base than when they started over with Sam Darnold.
Text from an NFL scout who was at the BYU pro day:— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) March 26, 2021
"Draft starts at 3. Wilson going 2."
3. San Francisco 49ers (via Houston through Miami): Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State
GM John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan decided to push all their chips to the center of the table with this trade, giving up two first round picks and swapping with the Dolphins to position themselves for their QB of the future.
I can’t see this massive move being for Mac Jones, someone with a clearly limited ceiling compared to someone like Lance or Justin Fields. Shanahan will look to evolve his offense to be more multidimensional at the signal caller position as Lance possesses incredible potential as a passer and runner.
4. Atlanta Falcons: Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida
The Falcons serve as the keystone of the draft now, and it’s fairly difficult to predict where they go. If insiders are to be believed, Atlanta’s love for Lance was one of the worst kept secrets in NFL circles. It makes sense why the 49ers felt compelled to trade up so far.
Without Lance, does Atlanta love Fields enough to hold him over for 2 years while they ride out the worst of Matt Ryan’s contract? I’m going to say no for now, and instead they take arguably the best weapon in the draft. It is critical to not get hung up on the fact he’s listed as a tight end, as Pitts might be one of the freakiest players we’ve ever seen.
Arthur Smith hung his hat on creative multi-tight end sets in Tennessee, and got he incredible production out of them. This addition to an already strong offensive core could be lethal.
5. Carolina Panthers (trade with Cincinnati): Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
The Panthers might not be so inclined to get a QB if they know they’re out of the Wilson sweepstakes, but Fields is personally my QB2 and they’d be getting a great player to groom while Teddy Bridgewater holds onto the reins for a while longer.
The mental side of the game still needs seasoning, sure, but that’s true of basically every rookie. His top-tier athletic traits, accuracy, and leadership ability would make him a No. 1 overall pick in most drafts. The Panthers pay a small ransom to the Bengals to secure their guy.
6. Miami Dolphins (via Philadelphia): Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Louisiana State
The Dolphins transforming Laremy Tunsil into an unconscionable trove of draft picks should get its own ESPN 30 for 30 someday. Some masterful maneuvering nets Miami considerable capital for the future while remaining in prime position to add the best receiver in the draft.
Chase is an absurdly good receiver prospect with the physical profile, smooth movement ability, and ball skills to immediately contribute.
7. Detroit Lions: Devonta Smith, WR, Alabama
It’s really simple for new GM Brad Holmes: take the receiver Miami doesn’t. They’ve already loaded up on speed with Breshad Perriman and Tyrell Williams, but Jared Goff needs a reliable short and intermediate target or else this offense will be a disaster.
In spite of his frail frame, Smith is a nuanced route runner and technician who can get open versus anybody and create yards after the catch. His speed and burst are more than good enough to hang at the pro level, and he can devour targets in the slot or at the Z.
8. Cincinnati Bengals (trade with Carolina): Penei Sewell, OL, Oregon
After 2020’s No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow suffered what might’ve been the most predictable injury in recent history, the Bengals must completely focus on reinforcing the trenches with an elite offensive line talent. Whether they want to play Sewell at guard or tackle, it doesn’t much matter.
The 20-year-old is a mound of partially refined clay containing unlimited potential, and that’s far better than what the Bengals currently have at either guard spot or right tackle.
9. New England Patriots (via Denver): Mac Jones, QB, Alabama
While I don’t think Mac Jones will see the top 5, top 10 certainly seems likely. He’s not an electric prospect like his peers, but he’s arguably the most refined from a processing perspective.
He has the talent to step in and orchestrate an NFL offense, but how effectively? That will be the question, but the Patriots are a team that need to take the chance. They can continue stop-gapping with Cam Newton, but he’s not the long-term answer. Jarrett Stidham definitely isn’t the answer.
They’ve totally overhauled their roster, and it’s tailor-made to succeed for a QB on a rookie contract. After so many years of being passive with free agency and draft trade backs, it’s time to go on the attack.
10. Dallas Cowboys: Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama
The first defensive player finally comes off the board at No. 10, the first time one has failed to go inside the top 5 since 2012. Ironically, that was when the Cowboys selected Mo Claiborne at No. 6 overall.
Dallas needs to get its secondary into fighting shape if it hopes to be a serious contender with its elite offense. After drafting Trevon Diggs from Alabama last year, they go back to the well for Surtain II. With the mix of NFL pedigree, elite length and size, and impressive athleticism, Surtain II is everything you desire when making a top 10 pick at defensive back.
11. New York Giants: Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State
Parsons is an infuriating projection. You look at his explosive traits, diverse skill set, highlight reel, and physical build, and he’s a no-doubter top 10 pick.
However, serious questions about his past loom large, and his draft position is going to largely depend on how comfortable a front office is with his maturation as a human being. If we hypothetically say this change occurs, the Giants should be highly interested. New York has lacked a dynamic presence at the second level for years now, and Parsons is the optimal prospect to address that.
12. Philadelphia Eagles (via San Francisco through Miami): Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina
The Eagles made the right move in shifting down the board in exchange for more capital. With QB off the board, the Eagles could go with Jaylen Waddle here, but it would be redundant with their first-round receiver last year, Jalen Reagor.
Instead, they could emphasize improvements to their porous secondary, which lacks a legitimate running mate for Darius Slay. Horn isn’t the cleanest fit for their defense, presuming they carry over zone-heavy principles from Indianapolis under new DC Johnathan Gannon, but him being an absolute freak will make it easier to pull the trigger. He was arguably the best defensive player in the SEC last year.
Jaycee Horn is a CB prospect in the 2021 draft class. He scored a 10 RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 1 out of 1748 CB from 1987 to 2021.— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) March 24, 2021
Splits projected, times unofficial. Another contender for a top spot emerges.https://t.co/TJ155mBS7N #RAS pic.twitter.com/xi3YxOTlxY
13. Los Angeles Chargers: Rashawn Slater, OL, Northwestern
In the same vein as Cincinnati, the Chargers can’t afford to imperil franchise QB Justin Herbert. One of the worst offensive lines by all metrics will do that, so they’ve got to get better fast. Slater is arguably the best lineman in this class when considering his eye-popping agility and processing speed.
While he lacks the desired measurables for left tackle, he has the talent to make up for it. And if he doesn’t excel there, you can likely plug him in at guard and get a Pro Bowl caliber player.
14. Minnesota Vikings: Kwity Paye, EDGE, Michigan
Minnesota struggled to rush the passer without stalwarts Danielle Hunter (injury) and Everson Griffen (free agency). The team ranked last in Pro Football Focus’s ratings for the year, and it also lost team pressures leader Ifeadi Odenigbo.
Most edge prospects this year are more tools and potential than production, but Paye strikes me as someone HC Mike Zimmer will appreciate.
He possesses a similar build to Hunter and offers the NFL-ready build to produce significant snaps immediately.
15. Denver Broncos (trade with New England): Gregory Rousseau, EDGE, Miami
The Broncos are a difficult team to peg, as they actually seem to have a well-rounded roster that’s waiting on QB Drew Lock to show he’s worthy of a long-term starting stint. Insider buzz has them heavily favored to seek a trade down and acquire more assets, so that might signal a willingness to go the best player available route.
The idea of giving Vic Fangio a physical marvel like Rousseau and seeing what he can create is mighty intriguing. In his limited college snaps, Rousseau lined up throughout the trenches and simply overwhelmed most college lineman with his pure speed and bend. With Von Miller likely past his peak and limited depth behind him and Bradley Chubb, the Broncos would benefit from Rousseau in a rotational role.
16. Washington Football Team (trade with Arizona): Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech
Washington’s flurry of free agency moves, which includes the likes of Curtis Samuel and Ryan Fitzpatrick, signals that the team is ready to make another honest go at the NFC East after unexpectedly claiming the title nobody wanted last year.
With a strong defense already in place, they choose to get aggressive and move up a few spots to secure their left tackle of the future in Darrisaw. He needs to continue developing his processing speed and footwork, but Darrisaw is currently an aggressive road grader who can win with dominant hand technique, pure power, and great movement skills.
17. Las Vegas Raiders: Trevon Moehrig, S, Texas Christian
The Raiders struggled in basically every area of the defense, and Gus Bradley has been charged with molding the unit into something respectable. The team currently lacks any legitimate option at free safety, which is a critical position in Bradley’s heavy Cover-3/Cover-1 scheme.
This spot might be a little high for Moehrig, but that hasn’t stopped the Raiders lately. He easily carries the best mix of skill and readiness at the position to step into a prominent role right away.
18. Miami Dolphins: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB/S, Notre Dame
Najee Harris is a popular pick here, but the Dolphins just jettisoned Kyle Van Noy because they want a versatile linebacker at a more affordable price point.
Brian Flores implements a scheme that seems ideal for a rangy weapon like Owusu-Koramoah, who profiles as that movable chess piece who can take snaps at linebacker, strong safety, and even the slot.
19. Arizona Cardinals (trade with Washington): Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
Every year, players who we expect to be locked into certain positions don’t go quite where we expect. Last year, most people had CeeDee Lamb as receiver No. 1 and a top 15 lock. He went No. 17 as WR3 to a team no one projected in the Cowboys.
I feel like it’s possible to see a similar scenario play out with Waddle, who is coming off a significant injury, lacks the size most teams prefer, and may suffer from teams prioritizing other positions. Only one receiver 5-foot-10 or under has gone within the top 15, and that was Tavon Austin. Waddle is a game-breaking weapon though, better as an actual receiver than Austin, and this should be his absolute floor.
The Cardinals could use his game-breaking speed at all levels of the field to complement DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green.
20. Chicago Bears: Jalen Mayfield, OL, Michigan
The Bears have to improve along the trenches, and I could see them being attracted to a freaky, versatile player like Mayfield. He shares an existing relationship with line coach Juan Castillo, who worked at Michigan as an offensive analyst in 2019. Mayfield should immediately step in at guard or tackle to improve a unit that struggled pass and run blocking.
21. Indianapolis Colts: Samuel Cosmi, OT, Texas
The Colts seem like an obvious taker in the Orlando Brown sweepstakes, but they’re reportedly not showing much interest. It makes sense, as Brown is due an extension soon and Indy is saving to eventually hand out big-money deals to their homegrown stars, like Darius Leonard.
It would seem that GM Chris Ballard is content with finding Anthony Castonzo’s heir through the draft, and Sam Cosmi is a fantastic option. One of my favorite prospects in the entire class, the 6-foot-7, 300 lb. Cosmi put together his impressive toolkit to emerge as an elite left tackle at Texas in 2020.
22. Tennessee Titans: Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech
Farley has top 10 talent and physical traits, but he’s dealing with a back injury that has seemingly lingered for an extended period and culminated in recent surgery — always scary for any football player. Along with opting out of 2020, Farley faces some serious question marks about readiness ahead of April 29.
At this point, the Titans might find it hard to resist the potential when they’re currently almost barren at the position. If the medicals check out alright, he could help to improve a defense that held an exceptionally efficient offense back last season.
23. New York Jets (via Seattle): Alijah Vera-Tucker, OL, Southern California
Protect the young QB at all costs — that’s the theme of this draft for several teams. Jets screwed up with Darnold in part because they refused to surround him with adequate protection, despite spending tens of millions on improvements last year.
The difference was not particularly stark, so it’s time to stop fooling around with players like Alex Lewis and invest in someone like Vera-Tucker, who brings tremendous potential at left guard. He could easily be a tackle as well with his movement skills, so the Jets get an upgrade either way.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers: Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa
The Steelers are one of those teams that follow the beat of their own drum, and it works with mixed results. The offense line tracks as their most pressing need, but they haven’t drafted any of those positions in the first round since David DeCastro in 2012.
In that same time frame, they’ve invested five picks in linebackers. I’m just playing the odds here. A well-rounded, throwback linebacker who can wear different hats and form a nasty duo with Devin Bush? I’d say Collins is firmly in the conversation to be drafted at this spot.
25. New Orleans Saints (trade with Jacksonville): Greg Newsome II, CB, Northwestern
The Saints don’t trade down. This year they absolutely should, given that they’ve had to gut their roster at several positions for salary cap reasons, but I’m betting you’re more likely to see them move up if they see a player they really like.
Newsome II could easily be that guy, as he sports an athletic profile the Saints historically prefer while showcasing flexibility in coverage assignments. Cornerback is one of those spots that took a beating during cuts, and Marshon Lattimore is now facing criminal charges that could complicate his future.
26. Cleveland Browns: Azeez Ojulari, EDGE, Georgia
The Browns have done an excellent job shoring up a porous secondary through wise free agent spending, and that frees them up to add talent in the trenches to help out Myles Garrett and Sheldon Richardson.
Getting speed on the edges seems like the most logical bet, and Ojulari is a smart investment at this stage. With an explosive first step and defined body control, Ojulari represents one of the more polished edge rushers in the class. He’s a good, not elite athlete and he’s undersized, but he has the skill to minimize those deficiencies.
27. Buffalo Bills (trade with Baltimore): Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
The Bills Mafia will ready the folding tables in record time if Harris falls this far, but we’re definitely in the range where teams will consider trading up or even back into the first round to secure that fifth-year option.
A small jump with the Ravens, who love trading down, will secure the Bills the final piece of their offense. Harris is a three-down bellcow who will offer the reliability that Devin Singletary and Zack Moss could not.
28. Jacksonville Jaguars (via New Orleans): Christian Barmore, DT, Alabama
New HC Urban Meyer recently emphasized building through the trenches, and the Jaguars have more work to do there despite spending in free agency. Taven Bryan has proven to be a marginal player at three-technique, so the team can afford to seek an upgrade.
Barmore offers some intriguing upside after completely taking over down the stretch for the Crimson Tide. He has plenty of work to do, but he stands out in a weak defensive tackle class.
29. Green Bay Packers: Creed Humphrey, OC, Oklahoma
Elgton Jenkins dramatically raised his profile in 2020 by playing snaps at every position along the offensive line for Green Bay, though he did his best work at guard. The All-Pro will remain the stalwart on a line that currently has more questions than answers.
After losing Corey Linsley to the Chargers, the team has to replace him with someone other than Jenkins. Humphrey sticks out to me as the best center this year, and he’d be a wise investment at the end of Round 1. Explosive, mobile, and intelligent, Humphrey has all the makings of a productive starter at the keystone in a zone-based scheme like Green Bay’s.
30. Baltimore Ravens (trade with Buffalo): Teven Jenkins, OT, Oklahoma State
The Ravens bringing in Sammy Watkins seems to alleviate the pressure of finding more targets for Lamar Jackson, so the team might instead focus on the trenches.
While there’s time to adjust course, right tackle Orlando Brown remains adamant that he be traded so he can play left tackle. The Ravens would need to plug a major hole if a trade materializes, and it shouldn’t be with Tyre Phillips, who struggled immensely in his rookie year.
Jenkins provides much higher upside as a high-mobility tackle who looks to crush his opposition on every snap.
31. Kansas City Chiefs: Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota
Chiefs’ offense is a well-oiled death machine when the offensive line isn’t Swiss cheese, that’s a well-established fact. However, the line wouldn’t be as much of an issue with a more diverse receiving corps.
Everyone knows how elite Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce are, but the Chiefs operated at their apex when Sammy Watkins functioned as a high-end No. 3. Players like Byron Pringle, Demarcus Robinson, and Mecole Hardman aren’t consistent enough to fill that role, which is why the Chiefs have reportedly been hot in pursuit of players like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Josh Reynolds.
Bateman presents an ideal replacement for that Watkins role. He’s a polished route-runner who can wreak havoc as a big slot and eat in the intermediate part of the field.
32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jaelan Phillips, EDGE, Miami
Compared to my last Bucs 7-round mock, this iteration takes a different approach. The team has officially secured all 22 of its starters since then, which puts it in elite company.
The Buccaneers are set to return all 22 starters from the 2020 Super Bowl season.— Andrew Holman (@andrew_holman2) March 26, 2021
Last team to return Week 1 starters of Super Bowl season: 1979 Steelers (repeated as SB Champs).
Last team to return Super Bowl starters: 1977 Raiders (reached AFC title game).
The Bucs can do quite literally anything they want here. Someone who can contribute sooner rather than later is always preferred, and Phillips would represent the ideal blend of present and future. He’s dealt with injury and commitment issues in the past, and he’ll have to satisfy teams in interviews, but 2020 showed a man totally refocused on the game.
Judging solely off last season, he should be a top 20 pick. He’s an explosive athlete who plays with elite body control and leverage. He’s a fluid mover who positions himself all around the field, and he showcases plus instincts on top of it all.
His past struggles and a noticeable lack of bulk might not make him every team’s preferred target, but he could easily fit into Todd Bowles’s defense as the primary backup behind Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul. With the latter’s age, Phillips would likely ascend to a starting role within the next couple years.