The NFL’s 2021 pre-draft buildup will suffer from an obvious void: the league opting not to hold the annual scouting combine lest it become a COVID-19 super spreader.
However, this year’s hot stove season is off to a tremendous start, with three big-name quarterbacks already packaged in soon-to-be consummated trades that will become official next month.
So why not toss more dry kindling into that scalding stove and – devoid of star college prospects tearing up Indianapolis’ Spandex Olympics and forcing mock draft revisions – propose a trade of our own as a way to shake up our newest first-round projection?
Let’s do what the NFL world is breathlessly anticipating and orchestrate a deal for disenfranchised Houston Texans superstar Deshaun Watson. We’ll send him to the New York Jets, thus giving the Texans two first-rounders this year (including No. 2 overall) as part of the compensation – and maybe creating the first mention you’ve seen of Houston in a 2021 mock draft – while arming them with the ability to pick anybody they want … save that cat from Clemson.
With that, the Houston Texans are on the clock … as soon as the Jags make one of the least-suspenseful picks in draft history official:
1. Jacksonville Jaguars – Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson: He pretty much aced his pro day before undergoing surgery on his left (non-throwing) shoulder … and neither of those considerations will have an iota of impact on the reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year’s draft status. Regarded as one of the most surefire prospects since the turn of the century, Lawrence is the next projected cornerstone of a franchise overhaul that began with the Jags’ hiring of coach Urban Meyer.
2. Houston Texans [PROJECTED TRADE with New York Jets for Deshaun Watson] – Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State: The Texans have been steadfast (so far) that they will not move the face of their franchise. Yet Watson has expressed his wishes to leave and a reported desire to play for the Jets and their new head coach, Robert Saleh. If Houston ultimately acquiesces, the Jets, who hold four first-round selections in the next two drafts, could be an ideal partner … though, in this scenario, they won’t include incumbent QB Sam Darnold as part of the freight. Dealing Watson would put Houston in the market for a quarterback, and Fields seems like a sensible alternative with exciting upside. An athletic passer whose skill set resembles Watson’s, Fields’ mobility would enable him to make plays outside the structure of the offense – and survive while the Texans’ rebuild is ongoing over the next few years.
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3. Miami Dolphins (from Texans) – Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon: Another team with the resources to make a strong play for Watson – including ownership of Houston’s original Round 1 choice. But if the Fins can’t get him, then their objective will be to acquire talent to help second-year QB Tua Tagovailoa. Obtaining a receiver would be one way to do it, but adding a rare, young power blocker like Sewell might be a better alternative. Placing the 20-year-old Ducks star opposite 2020 first-rounder Austin Jackson, who struggled as a rookie, could vault a 22nd-ranked offense.
4. Atlanta Falcons – Zach Wilson, QB, BYU: He’s been steadily rising and could be the Jets’ choice at No. 2 if they decide against chasing Watson or keeping Darnold. Wilson, who has exceptional arm talent, blossomed as a junior, completing 73.5% of his passes, 33 going for TDs with just three picked off. A solid athlete, he also ran for 10 scores. Matt Ryan is still playing at a high level in Atlanta. But he’ll be 36 in May, and this may be the new regime’s best shot at getting a worthy successor.
5. Cincinnati Bengals – Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State: They’d surely love to get Sewell after watching the No. 1 pick of last year’s draft, QB Joe Burrow, go down with a knee injury after 10 games. But Cincy’s defense is arguably in much worse shape than the offense, and a versatile defender like Parsons – he’s a very capable run defender in a division where the Browns and Ravens like to keep the ball on the ground – would help remedy that.
6. Philadelphia Eagles – Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU: There’s already speculation that they could take another quarterback to compete for the starting job following the decision to part with Carson Wentz. But it makes more sense to give second-year passer Jalen Hurts a fair shot to flourish, and no better way to do that than by enlisting the supremely gifted Chase – he averaged 21.2 yards per catch in 2019 while playing with Burrow and is a weapon at every level of the field. Teaming him with 2020’s first-round wideout, Jalen Reagor, who isn’t nearly the player Chase is, helps the entire unit.
7. Detroit Lions – Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama: QB Matthew Stafford is on the way out and Jared Goff is inbound … for however long he’s here. But with new coach Dan Campbell admittedly looking beyond 2021 and maybe even 2022 as this team resets, it could make sense to be in “best player available mode” as opposed to immediately enlisting a successor for Goff. And a fair evaluation of the QB would entail having a No. 1 target on board – Waddle seems better suited to that role than slightly built Crimson Tide teammate DeVonta Smith – and Detroit could desperately need help with Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones unsigned.
8. Carolina Panthers – Mac Jones, QB, Alabama: While coaching at the Senior Bowl, Panthers head man Matt Rhule seemed to take quite a shine to Jones, whom he described as an “Alpha.” Jones may not be the multi-dimensional threat that Fields or Trey Lance is, but he also doesn’t seem like much of a project and could pretty quickly step in as a point guard – as he was at Alabama – to distribute the ball to Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore, Robby Anderson and Curtis Samuel (if he’s re-signed). And a more ready-made product like Jones could be preferable for Carolina, which could take a step up in class with the NFC South power structure potentially changing if the Saints’ Drew Brees retires.
9. Denver Broncos – Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech: Wouldn’t be a shock to see new GM George Paton dip his toe into the QB waters. But it’s also sensible to consider prime talent to bolster the corners of Vic Fangio’s defense, more so with the release of A.J. Bouye.
10. Dallas Cowboys – Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama: Assuming, of course, QB Dak Prescott isn’t going anywhere, this defense must reload at corner with Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis set to leave a year after Byron Jones’ departure.
11. New York Giants – Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida: One way to spark QB Daniel Jones’ development would be to bring in O-line help. Another would be to add a game-breaking talent like Pitts, who can line up anywhere and supplant Evan Engram, who’s heading into the final year of his contract and just hasn’t shown enough consistency after four seasons.
12. San Francisco 49ers – Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State: He’s a highly intriguing prospect, perhaps a (slightly) smaller version of Cam Newton given Lance’s size (6-3, 224) and ability to make plays with his arm and legs. However, given the level of competition he played against in college, where the pandemic limited him to one game in 2020, sitting behind a steady veteran like Jimmy Garoppolo for a year seems reasonable for all parties.
13. Los Angeles Chargers – Rashawn Slater, OT, Northwestern: The Bolts have to put better protection around 2020 offensive rookie of the year Justin Herbert in 2021.
14. Minnesota Vikings – Gregory Rousseau, DE, Miami (Fla.): The Vikes had an NFC-low 23 sacks in 2020, longtime coach Mike Zimmer saying of his defense: “worst one I’ve ever had.” Rousseau, who’s 20, had 15½ sacks in 2019, winning ACC defensive rookie of the year honors before opting out in 2020. His 6-7 frame also makes him a threat to bat down balls when he can’t get to the quarterback. He and Danielle Hunter could form scary bookends in a division ruled by Aaron Rodgers.
15. New England Patriots – DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama: Always fun to connect players to Bill Belichick after they’ve excelled under his good friend, ‘Bama coach Nick Saban. Talented and explosive as Smith is, he’ll have to prove he can sustain NFL punishment off the line and downfield. That said, the Pats know how to maximize a player’s strengths while masking weaknesses (literal or figurative) … and they desperately need a game breaker of Smith’s caliber to upgrade a lacking receiving corps.
16. Arizona Cardinals – Alijah Vera-Tucker, OL, USC: They’re in the same boat as the Chargers – 2019 offensive rookie of the year Kyler Murray got a little too beaten up in 2020 – and need O-line reinforcements even if RT Kelvin Beachum returns.
17. Las Vegas Raiders – Kwity Paye, DE, Michigan: He’ll have to convert the vast potential he flashed with the Wolverines into production. But teaming Paye with fellow youngsters Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby might finally enable a defense that can’t finish to start hitting blackjack.
18. Dolphins – Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida: They forego Chase, Waddle and Smith at No. 3 here but still wind up with a difference maker to line up opposite WR DeVante Parker. Toney put it all together as a senior, scoring 11 of his 14 career TDs with the Gators.
19. Washington Football Team – Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota: Appears they’ll have myriad options at quarterback – Alex Smith, Kyle Allen, Taylor Heinicke … maybe they’ll even make a play for Darnold. But it doesn’t appear the WFT will get a shot at a top passing prospect in this spot. Yet securing Bateman, who averaged more than 20 yards per catch and hauled in 11 TDs in 2019, would diversify an attack that got scant output from wide receivers not named Terry McLaurin in 2020.
20. Chicago Bears – Azeez Ojulari, OLB, Georgia: Free agency should clear up what they’ll be working with under center and at wideout. But a defense that’s no longer elite could greatly benefit from another pass rusher to give OLB Khalil Mack much-needed help. Ojulari, who averaged nearly a sack per game in 2020, looks like the best edge linebacker in this draft.
21. Indianapolis Colts – Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech: Anthony Castonzo’s retirement leaves a void at left tackle for an otherwise stalwart line. Barring a free agent signing or shuffling All-Pro LG Quenton Nelson outside, the path of least resistance might be drafting steady Darrisaw and leaving the other four starters in place. Gotta safeguard newly secured Wentz after he was sacked a league-high 50 times (in 12 games) and eventually fell apart.
22. Tennessee Titans – Jayson Oweh, Edge, Penn State: The AFC South champions’ sack total (19) tied for the fewest ever by a playoff team – none coming from Jadeveon Clowney. At 6-5, 252 pounds, Oweh has size to match Titans OLB Harold Landry but should provide more burst – once the 22-year-old harnesses his potential after going sackless on the Nittany Lions’ underachieving 2020 squad.
23. Texans [PROJECTED TRADE with Jets, who own Seattle Seahawks’ first-rounder] – Trevon Moehrig, S, TCU: Houston has extensive issues on both sides of the ball, two of them being an inability to stop the pass or generate turnovers (league-low three INTs in 2020). A rangy playmaker like Moehrig would address the secondary of a club that won’t pick before Round 3 if our Watson trade doesn’t go through.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers – Jalen Mayfield, OT, Michigan: Free agency and the retirement of C Maurkice Pouncey mean Pittsburgh might have to replace 80% of its offensive line. Mayfield can handle guard or right tackle.
25. Jaguars (from Los Angeles Rams) – Christian Barmore, DT, Alabama: The Jags’ 31st-ranked defense is in tatters, but Barmore – a wrecking ball against Ohio State in the national championship game – can certainly hasten the rebuild as a three-down interior disruptor.
26. Cleveland Browns – Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Notre Dame: Listed at 6-2 and 215 pounds, he’s drawn comparisons to Colts All-Pro Darius Leonard. A Cleveland pass defense that ranked 22nd last season would certainly welcome that kind of range and impact.
27. Baltimore Ravens – Joe Tryon, Edge, Washington: He seems capable of Matt Judon-level production for a team that could lose free agents Judon, Pernell McPhee, Yannick Ngakoue, Tyus Bowser and Derek Wolfe.
28. New Orleans Saints – Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina: Hard to know how this team will look in a few weeks, Brees expected to walk away and several salary cap casualties likely for a team currently projected $70 million over budget. For now, let’s send them Horn, son of Saints great Joe Horn, and a guy who could add juice to a secondary that will be seeing more of Tom Brady.
29. Green Bay Packers – Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa: Off-ball linebackers who are 6-4 and 260 pounds are pretty rare in the modern, pass-centric NFL, but Collins has the athleticism and coverage ability to pull it off. And the Pack have about a 480-pound-size hole at the position after cutting Christian Kirksey loose from an already thin group.
30. Buffalo Bills – Nick Bolton, LB, Missouri: WLB Matt Milano may have to go elsewhere for a team that has little to spend in free agency. But adding a player of Bolton’s chops would be an upgrade at a position where this defense so frequently relies on two ‘backers.
31. Kansas City Chiefs – Teven Jenkins, OT, Oklahoma State: The world saw what happened to their decimated line in Super Bowl 55. Even if first-string OTs Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, both north of 30, return in 2021, it’s time to plan ahead and certainly time to bolster the depth in front of QB Patrick Mahomes.
32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Najee Harris, RB, Alabama: The champs also have a lot to sort through during free agency, so it will be noteworthy to see where things stand going into April. But for a team that may not be able to re-sign Leonard Fournette and only has Ronald Jones II under contract for one more season, an every-down back like Harris – he can get it done at the goal line while giving Brady a capable receiver out of the backfield – could be a perfect commodity.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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