The late, great Tom Petty summed it up pretty well 40 years ago this month when we first heard him sing, “The waiting is the hardest part.” Kind of encapsulates where we are in the NFL’s pre-draft season with the main event still 10 days away.
But before that happens, Trey Lance will throw again for scouts, some medical evaluations will continue to await resolution – all as the 32 teams finalize their boards – and the annual, late-stage smokescreens will begin to billow.
One recent rumor that’s gained traction stems from an ESPN report claiming that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is “infatuated” with uber-talented Florida tight end Kyle Pitts. Is that true? Is it counterintelligence? Is it legit even if Jones doesn’t plan a bold move up from No. 10? Hard to know.
But this much is sure: The longtime Dallas head honcho is always intimately involved with his organization’s football operations and desperately wants to win another Lombardi Trophy more than a quarter-century after the franchise won its fifth following the 1995 season. Given that, let’s give it some credence – for now – and bake it into this latest first-round projection of the 2021 draft:
1. Jacksonville Jaguars – Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson: Legitimate case to be made this is the least-suspenseful selection in NFL draft history. Even as Lawrence’s quotes in a recent “Sports Illustrated” article get parsed – to the point he felt compelled to clarify them on social media – there is no doubt he will be headed to Duval County in short order. And he deserves the No. 1 overall honorific. Lawrence is a winner, operates effectively in the pocket and out, has the athleticism to make plays on his own and seems as ready as any 21-year-old to handle the franchise quarterback mantle. Newly married, he’s clearly not cowed by long-term commitments, either.
2. New York Jets – Zach Wilson, QB, BYU: Legitimate case to be made this is the least-suspenseful No. 2 overall selection in NFL draft history now that the Jets have dispatched QB Sam Darnold to Carolina just three years after tabbing him No. 3 overall. Wilson makes plenty of highlight-reel throws, which explains the (ridiculous) comparisons he’s garnered to Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers. Hopefully he can polish his fundamentals and make easier plays in the NFL given the NYJ finally seem sufficiently resourced to put a nice supporting cast around Wilson – something Darnold didn’t benefit from.
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3. San Francisco 49ers (from Houston Texans via Miami Dolphins) – Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State: The Niners have been widely linked to Alabama QB Mac Jones almost from the moment they acquired the No. 3 selection from Miami last month for a package that included three first-rounders. And, sure, maybe Jones could run this offense better than incumbent Jimmy Garoppolo and on par with former Kyle Shanahan disciples like Matt Schaub, Kirk Cousins and 2016 league MVP Matt Ryan. But who’s trading three Round 1 selections for those guys, none consistently able to excel outside the framework of this offense? Fields, who completed better than 68% of his collegiate throws (including 70.2% in 2020), could provide the precision Shanahan’s scheme demands while adding mobility that could take it to another level. Don’t forget how well Robert Griffin III fared during his 2012 offensive rookie of the year campaign under Shanahan in Washington.
4. Dallas Cowboys [PROJECTED TRADE with Atlanta Falcons] – Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida: For starters, yes, it would be an expensive move for Jones – maybe even costing him next year’s first-rounder. But one could forgive his purported infatuation. Some draft evaluators and scouts have deemed Pitts the greatest tight end prospect they’ve ever studied. As badly as Dallas needs defensive upgrades, adding a 6-6, 246-pounder who can cover 40 yards in fewer than 4.5 seconds might add an insane offensive dimension not even seen for a franchise that’s benefited from tight end stars like Jason Witten and Jay Novacek over the years. And if Pitts helps the Cowboys score 40 points a week, who needs defense?
5. Cincinnati Bengals – Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU: Strong case to be made that they should take an offensive tackle in the aftermath of the ACL injury that prematurely ended 2020 No. 1 pick Joe Burrow’s rookie season. But an equally compelling case to reunite Burrow with his main weapon from LSU’s 2019 title team, when Chase established himself as the best wideout in college football. Widely regarded as the premier receiver in this draft, Chase’s built-in chemistry with Burrow could take this offense up a few notches given what Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, both very capable targets themselves, already provide.
6. Denver Broncos [PROJECTED TRADE from Philadelphia Eagles via Miami Dolphins] – Mac Jones, QB, Alabama: If new GM George Paton wants to get into the quarterback arena, he probably can’t afford to stick and pick at No. 9. By leapfrogging Detroit in this scenario, he’d get to choose between Lance and Jones. The latter could have real appeal given all the weapons already in place on Denver’s offense, one undermined last season by QB Drew Lock’s league-high 15 interceptions.
7. Detroit Lions – Rashawn Slater, OT, Northwestern: Given the state of their rebuild – which is pretty much at square one – and new QB Jared Goff’s restructured deal, they could be out of the quarterback sweepstakes for now. A receiver makes sense after Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones signed elsewhere. But adding a quality blocker like Slater, who can play anywhere on the O-line, seems to align with new coach Dan Campbell’s personality and new OC Anthony Lynn’s desire to run the ball – something the Lions have rarely done effectively since Barry Sanders retired.
8. Carolina Panthers – Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon: Darnold will be wowed by the firepower surrounding him in Charlotte. But if the Panthers want to help their new QB finally reach his professional potential, bolstering his protection seems like the most sensible approach. Sewell is a freakish athlete, even at 6-4 and 331 pounds, and should even widen the holes All-Pro RB Christian McCaffrey is accustomed to seeing.
9. Dolphins [PROJECTED TRADE with Broncos] – Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama: Miami began the year with the No. 3 pick before hopscotching around the board, clearly secure with second-year QB Tua Tagovailoa heading into 2021. But with Pitts and Chase claimed in this scenario before the Fins can get ahold of either stud pass-catcher, why not potentially pick up an extra second-rounder to help a team desperate for a passer with plenty of good options still available? Reuniting Tagovailoa with former Crimson Tide teammate Waddle would certainly supercharge the Dolphins’ passing game and maybe their special teams, too, given the wideout’s return capabilities.
10. Falcons [PROJECTED TRADE with Cowboys] – Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State: Imagine if they could drop down the board to acquire future draft assets and still get a potential successor for QB Matt Ryan. It would definitely be an ideal outcome for Atlanta’s new brain trust of GM Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith, who fielded some exceptional offensive game plans with Ryan Tannehill, a multi-threat QB like Lance, in Tennessee.
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11. New York Giants – Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State: He recently addressed some of the off-field concerns that have attached to his draft stock, something that should be of particular interest to the Giants after they were burned by 2019 first-rounder Deandre Baker. But from a talent perspective, Parsons could be awfully tough to bypass given his estimable all-around abilities and what they could mean for a solid defense – but one that could really use a playmaker.
12. Eagles (from 49ers via Dolphins) – DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama: Another former Crimson Tide quarterback, Jalen Hurts in this instance, gets to team anew with one of his Tuscaloosa targets. Smith, last year’s record-setting Heisman Trophy winner, could thrive in an offense given opponents can hardly afford to double cover him given the running threat posed by Hurts.
13. Los Angeles Chargers – Alijah Vera-Tucker, OL, USC: Whether he’s deployed at guard or tackle, where the Trojans used him in 2020, Vera-Tucker addresses a problem for the Bolts, who must continue to invest in bodyguards in front of offensive rookie of the year Justin Herbert.
14. Minnesota Vikings – Kwity Paye, DE, Michigan: His potential is as compelling as any pass rusher’s in this draft … and Mike Zimmer’s struggling defense definitely needs another guy who can get to the QB after posting an NFC-low 23 sacks in 2020.
15. New England Patriots – Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama: This isn’t meant to signal a slide for Surtain, arguably the most polished defensive player in this draft, just a circumstance in which he might hear his named called a bit later than expected. Bill Belichick would surely love to get his hands on one of ‘Bama coach Nick Saban’s more decorated talents in this “best player available scenario” – though Surtain would also provide insurance given Pats CBs Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson are unsigned beyond 2021 … and might even allow New England to move Gilmore for future considerations.
16. Arizona Cardinals – Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina: The son of former Saints Pro Bowl WR Joe Horn might be as good as anyone coming out this year in terms of shutting down receivers. As the Cards transition at the position following Patrick Peterson’s departure, they could certainly use a mainstay in a division where the ball is so frequently airborne.
17. Las Vegas Raiders – Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Notre Dame: They could address the offensive line after GM Mike Mayock traded away 60% of it. They could address the defensive line, even after Mayock signed DE Yannick Ngakoue … but dumped DT Maurice Hurst, DE Arden Key and DL Maliek Collins. But Owusu-Koramoah could fill an entirely different role, a dynamic, three-down chess piece at the second level … and the type of player who could be a headache for Herbert and Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes for years to come.
18. Dolphins – Jaelan Phillips, DE, Miami (Fla.): Miami’s offseason, including its trade of DE Shaq Lawson and release of OLB Kyle Van Noy, are indicative that the pass rush still needs significant work. Staying local to bring in a QB hunter like Phillips could be a boon to a franchise with a mandate to target Bills star Josh Allen if they’re going to dethrone the AFC East champs.
19. Washington Football Team – Jamin Davis, LB, Kentucky: Spectacular as this defense was in 2020 and could be in 2021, the WFT could use a difference-maker behind its fierce D-line. Davis’ 4.37 speed and 42-inch vertical hint at the damage he might do operating in conjunction with this pass rush.
20. Chicago Bears – Greg Newsome II, CB, Northwestern: Plenty of gaps to plug on this roster. But barring a hard-to-execute maneuver for a young passer, probably best to address the cornerback position after the team was forced to make Kyle Fuller a cap casualty. Newsome is confident and talented, coming off a pro day performance that included a 4.38 40-yard dash.
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 veteran acquisition or shuffling All-Pro LG Quenton Nelson outside, the path of least resistance might be drafting reliable Darrisaw and leaving the other four starters in place. Gotta bubble-wrap new QB Carson Wentz after he was sacked a league-high 50 times (in just 12 games) and eventually fell apart.
22. Tennessee Titans – Terrace Marshall Jr., WR, LSU: After losing TE Jonnu Smith and WR Corey Davis in free agency, the Titans need another red-zone threat. Marshall (6-3, 200) would instantly be that yet wouldn’t be saddled with undue expectations while settling into an offense fueled by RB Derrick Henry and WR A.J. Brown.
23. Jets (from Seattle Seahawks) – Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech: New York desperately needs reinforcements at corner. Though Farley is coming off recent back surgery, this could be a unique opportunity to snatch a player who’s arguably this draft’s top defensive back while giving him sufficient time to recover while this club resets under new coach Rob Saleh.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers – Najee Harris, RB, Alabama: Their blocking issues are apparent following the retirement of C Maurkice Pouncey and defection of G Matt Feiler. LT Alejandro Villanueva also remains unsigned. But this is a team that hasn’t run the ball effectively for a decade – and ranked last in the league in 2020 – which might explain why the Steelers are 10 years removed from their last Super Bowl trip. Harris is the type of physical runner this city adores, yet he’d also protect declining QB Ben Roethlisberger as a blocker and outlet receiver … not to mention the fact that effectively keeping the ball on the ground eases the load on Big Ben’s 39-year-old right arm.
25. Jaguars (from Los Angeles Rams) – Gregory Rousseau, DE, Miami (Fla.): The Jags’ 18 sacks in 2020 ranked only ahead of Cincinnati – and by just one. Rousseau, a healthy Josh Allen and a more experienced K’Lavon Chaisson could fix that – especially given Rousseau could line up inside on passing downs, something he frequently did for the Hurricanes in 2019 before opting out last year.
26. Cleveland Browns – Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa: Very few holes on this team, especially after the recent addition of pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney. But the 6-4, 260-pound Collins could level up Cleveland’s linebacker corps with his freakish athleticism and ability to affect all three downs as a run stuffer or in coverage, where he shines.
27. Baltimore Ravens – Azeez Ojulari, OLB, Georgia: They need to restore edge rush after saying goodbye to Matt Judon in free agency. Ojulari, who averaged nearly a sack per game in 2020, looks like the best 3-4 linebacker this year.
28. New Orleans Saints – Asante Samuel Jr., CB, Florida State: Yet another son of a former NFL star, Samuel would fill one of the few needs for the four-time defending NFC South champions. New Orleans must contend with Tom Brady and his arsenal of Bucs receivers … a task that got more challenging with Janoris Jenkins’ departure.
29. Green Bay Packers – Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota: Maybe GM Brian Gutekunst finally gets a bona fide complement to Davante Adams and more help for Rodgers? Bateman played outside and in the slot for the Golden Gophers but wasn’t as effective in 2020 after battling COVID-19. But he looked fully recovered at his pro day earlier this month, posting a 4.39 40-yard dash. His speed and versatility could be a deadly complement when paired with Adams.
30. Buffalo Bills – Jayson Oweh, Edge, Penn State: His college production (seven sacks in three seasons) was suboptimal, to be kind. But the 6-5, 257-pounder’s pro day, which included a 4.36 40-yard dash, rekindled intrigue. Also, the AFC East champs can no longer rely on Jerry Hughes to consistently generate pressure.
31. Kansas City Chiefs – Teven Jenkins, OT, Oklahoma State: The world saw what happened to their decimated O-line in Super Bowl 55. The AFC champs patched the interior during free agency, adding Joe Thuney, Kyle Long and Austin Blythe, but questions remain at tackle. Jenkins could lock down the right side following Mitchell Schwartz’s release.
32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Elijah Moore, WR, Mississippi: With their entire team coming back virtually intact, the Super Bowl champion Bucs have the luxury of doing just about anything here – maybe fishing for Brady’s heir apparent, maybe trading out to acquire picks for their inevitable rebuild in the near-ish future. But if the focus is on the short run and a repeat bid in 2021 – surely where the energies of Brady, 43, and coach Bruce Arians, 68, lie – then Moore would be a multi-threat weapon who could take over where unsigned Antonio Brown left off. Moore can play out wide, in the slot and even provide some wingback duties, while still projecting as part of the long-term plan given franchise-tagged WR Chris Godwin will likely head back to free agency in 2022.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.