NFL mock draft 2021: Justin Fields, Zach Wilson among five QBs in first-round projection

Even with the regular season complete, early January can be an odd time to declare anything firm about the NFL draft.

The Senior Bowl, scouting combine and free agency are all still ahead, and several teams are without coaches and/or general managers. Meanwhile, the order for the full first round has not been set, as the playoffs will determine the final 14 slots. All of those developments are sure to shape the outlook for many organizations and prospects, leaving considerable doubt about how the first 32 picks might pan out. 

But the conversation about the draft is already ongoing and will only intensify in the coming weeks. And while predicting the early picks this far out can be precarious, some early projections prove insightful. At this time last year, for instance, USA TODAY Sports correctly forecasted the first six picks of the 2020 draft.

Justin Fields of the Ohio State Buckeyes runs with the ball in the first half against the Clemson Tigers during the College Football Playoff semifinal game at the Allstate Sugar Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 01, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo: Kevin C. Cox, Getty Images)

With all that in mind, here's our first-round NFL mock draft for 2021, based on the current order for the top 18 picks and projected order of finish for playoff teams.

1. Jaguars — Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson: We've already reached nitpicking season in the first week of January. Yes, Lawrence was outplayed by Justin Fields in the College Football Playoff semifinal that ended the Clemson star's decorated collegiate career. And the Jaguars should — and will — comb over all of their options, including Fields, at this spot. But this shouldn't be a difficult decision. Lawrence is every bit the singular quarterback and franchise-changing prospect he has been billed as for years. Any drama about this selection in the coming months is likely to be merely for show.

2. Jets — Zach Wilson, QB, BYU: For some time, the Jets' choice here will be depicted as a consolation prize for a franchise that squandered its inside track on landing Lawrence. Yet there are several options poised to amount to far more than that in the long run. Bypassing one of the top quarterbacks to stick with Sam Darnold for another year seems like a tough sell, especially given that Wilson and Justin Fields likely would be seen as deserving No. 1 picks in a different year. For now, a slight edge goes to Wilson, a dynamic downfield thrower who frequently makes dazzling completions look easy.

3. Dolphins (from Texans) — Ja'Marr Chase, WR, LSU: Afforded this selection thanks to the Laremy Tunsil trade with Houston, Miami once again finds itself faced with a quarterback decision. Though Tua Tagovailoa didn't enjoy the same personal highs as classmates Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow, the Dolphins will be hard-pressed to take another passer this high unless they're bowled over by one that falls to this slot. Equipping Tagovailoa with Chase, who torched elite opposition en route to multiple Southeastern Conference records last year before opting out in 2020, might stand as the savviest way to return the quarterback to a more freewheeling form.

4. Falcons — Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State: As Atlanta looks to hire a new coach and general manager, the true measuring stick for the extent of the team's rebuild will be the steps it takes toward replacing Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. The Falcons might be a year away from moving on from either one, but Fields can help start a new chapter for the franchise whenever it chooses to turn the page. 

5. Bengals — Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon: Whether chalked up to shoddy protection or merely a stroke of bad luck, Joe Burrow's torn anterior cruciate ligament in Week 11 affirmed that Cincinnati's current setup along the offensive line is untenable for its franchise centerpiece. If Sewell is still available at this point, the 2019 Outland Trophy winner would be a no-brainer for the Bengals, as he would afford Burrow some much needed peace of mind upon the quarterback's return.

6. Eagles — DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama: The quarterback situation is murky. The defense needs reinforcements. Why, then, would the Eagles take a wide receiver, let alone a 175-pound one with a ho-hum physical profile? Simple: Smith is a well-rounded and refined target capable of elevating a Philadelphia passing attack that otherwise looks to be in disrepair.

7. Lions — Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State: Where does Detroit start with overhauling a defense that ranked last in yards and points allowed? Given the Lions' modest cap space before addressing wide receiver Kenny Golladay, investing early and often in the draft has to be a priority. Parsons has a strong claim to the title of the draft's most explosive defender, and he's a standout in almost any assignment.

8. Panthers — Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State: Teddy Bridgewater's viability as Carolina's starter took a significant hit when Matt Rhule left the team's outlook at quarterback open after benching the veteran in the season finale against the Saints. The 6-3, 224-pound Lance would change the face of the offense with his deep-throwing prowess and ability to burn teams on designed runs and scrambles. Given that Lance has started just 17 games at the Football Championship Subdivision level, Bridgewater could stay on as a starter and mentor until it's time to hand over the reins to the Panthers' attack.

9. Broncos — Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech: It's a new day in Denver as John Elway cedes control of the roster to a forthcoming hire at general manager. Though adding a quarterback to compete with Drew Lock should be a consideration somewhere along the way, the Broncos would be wise to grab Farley, who has an ideal combination of size (6-2, 207 pounds) and speed to match up with NFL receivers.

10. Cowboys — Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama: A defense that yielded 473 points, a franchise-worst, can't be expected to make significant progress with simply another year in Mike Nolan's system. Despite being seldom tested late in his career at Alabama, Surtain is one of this class' most proven entities given his track record of sticking with top receivers.

11. Giants — Kwity Paye, DE, Michigan: After getting by with a lackluster pass rush, the Giants are due for an infusion of athleticism off the edge. With his head-turning blend of burst and power, Paye would be an immediate standout for Big Blue. 

12. 49ers — Rashawn Slater, OT, Northwestern: Any attempt to upgrade from Jimmy Garoppolo likely will have to take place via free agency or trade, whether that be for a veteran or one of the top four signal-callers in this draft. Should it stand pat in this slot, San Francisco might look to address its offensive line, especially if Trent Williams doesn't return.

13. Chargers — Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida: Call this the 2021 version of the Cowboys scooping up CeeDee Lamb. With no offensive lineman worthy of this slot, the Chargers can instead score tremendous value in Pitts, a supersized target who can flummox defenses with his speed and keep Herbert's development on track even if Hunter Henry goes elsewhere.

14. Vikings — Gregory Rousseau, DE, Miami (Fla.): Mike Zimmer's remark that this year's defense was the "worst one I've ever had" no doubt will shape Minnesota's offseason. The Vikings might have to part with some key defensive figures if they can't restructure several deals, so replenishing the roster with a disruptive talent like Rousseau looks to be a vital move.

15. Patriots — Mac Jones, QB, Alabama: Bill Belichick can't afford any more half measures at quarterback after the Cam Newton experiment fizzled in New England's first losing season in two decades. The answer might materialize in free agency or the trade market, or perhaps earlier in the draft via trade. But even though this might be considered high for Jones, his superlative accuracy and poise could entice Belichick.

16. Cardinals — Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama: An electric receiver whose 22.3 yards per catch in 2020 reflected his knack for both stretching defenses deep and taking short passes the distance, Waddle would be the perfect running mate for DeAndre Hopkins.

17. Raiders — Azeez Ojulari, LB, Georgia: A breakout performer in his redshirt sophomore campaign, Ojulari has established himself as one of the most promising edge rushers in this class and a clear asset to a Las Vegas defense that ranked 29th with 21 sacks. 

18. Dolphins — Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Notre Dame: His exact role in the NFL might be difficult to determine after he operated as a linebacker/safety hybrid, but Owusu-Koramoah should fit in nicely in Miami thanks to his ability to handle both tight ends and running backs in coverage.

19. Washington — Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech: Should Ron Rivera look to stay the course with Alex Smith at quarterback, the most reasonable route for Washington to buoy its offense might be bringing on a stalwart tackle. 

20. Bears — Jalen Mayfield, OT, Michigan: Rather than look for a Mitchell Trubisky replacement, the playoff-bound Bears now appear more inclined to provide the offense with a steady blocker, which might point them toward Mayfield.

21. Jaguars (from Rams) — Sam Cosmi, OT, Texas: Already equipped with the frame (6-7, 310 pounds), movement skills and knowhow of an NFL left tackle, Cosmi would provide an added degree of comfort for Jacksonville as Lawrence's blindside protector. 

22. Colts — Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina: Unless Indianapolis opts to move on from Philip Rivers in favor of a long-term option at quarterback, the Colts can instead bolster their already formidable defense with the pesky Horn. 

23. Browns — Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa: At 6-4 and 260 pounds with impressive coverage ability and burgeoning pass-rushing skills, Collins is the kind of playmaker Cleveland needs at the second level. 

24. Titans — Joseph Ossai, LB/DE, Texas: If Tennessee is to make the leap into the AFC's elite tier, it will need to add a hard-charging edge presence like Ossai to invigorate its flatlining pass rush.

25. Buccaneers — Jayson Oweh, DE, Penn State: Regardless of whether Shaquil Barrett re-signs, Tampa Bay should look to invest in another edge presence. Oweh did not record a sack in seven games this season, but his rare burst and closing speed signal a much more fruitful pro career.

26. Ravens — Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota: Reliability at wide receiver has long proven elusive in Baltimore. Bateman, with an aggressive-yet-polished playing style and penchant for aiding quarterbacks when a play breaks down, could become a fast favorite of Lamar Jackson.

27. Jets (from Seahawks) — Alijah Vera-Tucker, G, USC: After Joe Douglas bemoaned not equipping Darnold with the proper supporting cast, the fleet-footed and versatile Vera-Tucker would help the Jets GM set things right for his 2021 quarterback — whoever that might be. 

28. Steelers — Landon Dickerson, C/G, Alabama: As easy as it might be to connect Pittsburgh to a potential Ben Roethlisberger successor with this pick, fortifying the front with a stabilizing presence like Dickerson seems like a move more befitting the franchise, so long as the veteran quarterback returns for another year.

29. Saints — Derion Kendrick, CB, Clemson: Many tough cap decisions loom in New Orleans, with the secondary looking primed to be hit particularly hard.

30. Bills — Tyson Campbell, CB, Georgia: Adept at smothering receivers with his 6-2, 185-pound frame, Campbell has the profile that NFL teams covet in cornerbacks.

31. Packers — Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida: Aaron Rodgers finally gets his first-round receiver in Toney, who would thrive with the open-field opportunities afforded to him by playing alongside Davante Adams. 

32. Chiefs — Jaelan Phillips, DE, Miami (Fla.): Their core in place for at least the near term, the defending champions can swing big by taking on Phillips, who retired from football in 2018 due to injuries but displayed his tantalizing physical tools and skill set in his return this season.

Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.

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