After the Falcons, the Cowboys and Patriots are among NFL Draft's biggest wild cards
By Rob Rang
FOX Sports NFL Draft Analyst
After blockbuster trades that netted the San Francisco 49ers the No. 3 overall selection and the Carolina Panthers former New York Jets top pick Sam Darnold, it became pretty obvious that for the first time since 1999, quarterbacks would be the first three picks of this year's NFL draft.
That's because everyone knows quarterbacks are going there ... so the draft really begins with the Atlanta Falcons at No. 4 overall.
Atlanta could go in a lot of directions with its pick. One couldn’t blame the Falcons for opting to protect 2016 NFL MVP Matt Ryan with a generational talent such as Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell. Inserting a superstar such as Kyle Pitts, on the other hand, could perhaps add years to the careers of Ryan and fellow aging stars Julio Jones and Todd Gurley.
With new general manager Terry Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith lacking a previous connection to the soon-to-be-36-year-old Ryan, the Falcons could also opt to draft his successor at No. 4 overall — as I forecast in my three-round mock draft two weeks ago.
With so many options so early in the draft, the Falcons could even decide to peddle the selection to another club and use the bounty of picks gained via trade to speed up the rebuild in Atlanta.
The Falcons are just the earliest and perhaps most obvious wild-card team in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Below are four other clubs — listed in order of their current selections — whose decisions will wind up shaping the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
MIAMI DOLPHINS (No. 6, No. 18)
With two picks in the first and second rounds (No. 36 and 50) of this draft, as well as two more in the opening frames in 2022 and 2023, general manager (and apparent magician) Chris Grier has put Miami in the rare position of being able to take the best players available for the next several years.
If the club is convinced that last year’s top pick, Tua Tagovailoa, is the club’s long-term answer at quarterback, Grier and head coach Brian Flores could attack this year’s draft like a shopper at the grocery store, simply checking off the ingredients for a Super Bowl run.
If not, no team is in better position to trade for embattled Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson or position itself for a top signal-caller in one of the upcoming drafts.
By trading with Philadelphia up to No. 6 just a few hours after landing three first-round picks in the deal with San Francisco, the Dolphins appear to be focusing on adding weapons for Tagovailoa, however. Pairing pending free agent Mike Gesicki with the draft’s most unique player — Pitts — would certainly make sense. Opposing defenses looking to send any extra pressure on Tagovailoa or Miami’s young offensive tackles with blitzes would be risking a lot with Gesicki and Pitts each capable of turning short throws down the seam into big plays.
Former Biletnikoff Award winner Ja’Marr Chase is a popular mock draft pick for the Dolphins, and there is no denying that his beastly style would complement the length and speed of current Miami pass-catchers DeVante Parker and free-agent addition Will Fuller V. It is worth noting that according to the salary-cap aficionados at Spotrac.com, however, the Dolphins already dedicate more money to wide receivers ($39.6 million) than any other club in the NFL.
Miami’s short-lived (but low-risk) gamble on troubled former Tennessee Titans’ 2020 first-round pick Isaiah Wilson suggests that the club might also consider Sewell, pairing him at tackle with last year’s No. 18 overall pick, Austin Jackson, who quietly allowed four sacks in 13 starts at left tackle.
Running back and center are Miami’s clearest positions of need. The Dolphins are in an excellent position, at No. 18 overall, to take their choice of this year’s top talents at RB, particularly because reuniting Najee Harris with his old Alabama buddy, Tagovailoa, seems like a match made in Miami heaven.
DALLAS COWBOYS (No. 10)
Given all of the talent Dallas has returning on offense and some fairly clear-cut needs on the defensive side of the ball, it would appear obvious that the Cowboys will be focusing on defenders with this selection. Of course, that is what most thought last year, but when star wideout CeeDee Lamb fell into his lap at No. 17, Jerry Jones adjusted accordingly.
The optimum match for Dallas would be Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II, the most pro-ready defender in this class. Speedy and smooth, South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn might have even greater upside, but he isn’t yet the consistent ballhawk or tackler most would expect of a top-10 pick. The depth at cornerback is good enough this year that the Cowboys will be able to address this position of need with one of their other three picks in the top 99, should Surtain be off the board.
Speaking of those picks, Dallas has the ammunition to trade up for Pitts if Jones is truly infatuated with the playmaking tight end, as reports (and my sources) suggest. To be clear, though, Dallas would need to move up to get Pitts.
Given the Cowboys’ talent at receiver, no other pass-catcher would make sense — at least not as much as fortifying an offensive line that saw starting tackles Tyron Smith and La’el Collins miss virtually all of last season. Smith, while one of the league’s best when healthy, has missed at least three games in each of the past five years. Sewell could wind up falling to Dallas just like Lamb did a year ago, and Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater is an even cleaner fit in Kellen Moore’s offense, with more positional versatility and technique.
The Cowboys invest in their offensive line like few other NFL teams — and for good reason. The pass-rushers in the NFC East are downright terrifying, especially in Washington, home of the reigning divisional champs, who thumped an injury-depleted Cowboys squad by a combined score of 66-19 last season.
The durability issues of 2018 first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch could also put Penn State’s Micah Parsons in play if he is still on the board. Parsons comes with some questions after opting out of the 2020 season, but his 2019 tape, Penn State linebacker pedigree and physical upside are exactly what one expects of a top-10 selection.
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NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (No. 15)
After an uncharacteristic spending spree in free agency that immediately reset the roster, Bill Belichick appears to be in prime position to tie a bow on New England’s offseason by simply drafting a quarterback in the first round.
Here's the problem, though — in nearly a quarter-century as a head coach in the NFL, Belichick has never done so, with the 64th overall selection of Jimmy Garoppolo back in 2014 the earliest the Belichick-led Patriots (or Browns) have ever invested a draft pick at the position.
It would seem wise to trust the past with Belichick, a noted historian. However, should Alabama’s Mac Jones be available, his sharp mind and terrific accuracy from the pocket are, indeed, Tom Brady-like. The Patriots brought back Cam Newton, but only on a one-year deal, and Jarrett Stidham has seen mostly mop-up duty in his first two seasons in the NFL, with a total of 256 passing yards and two touchdowns in five games last season, four of which were losses.
Three of the 18 first-round picks used by New England during Belichick’s 21-year reign, on the other hand, have been on offensive linemen, and the Patriots are in very good position to nab one of this year’s top tackles. Slater could still be on the board, as could the similarly gifted Alijah Vera-Tucker from Southern California or Virginia Tech’s still-ascending Christian Darrisaw.
Most view Vera-Tucker as likely to move inside to guard in the NFL due to his less-than-ideal length (32 1/8" arms), but, like the Patriots’ most recent first-round pick on the offensive line, Isaiah Wynn, Vera-Tucker compensates for average length with impressive quickness, balance and power, perhaps allowing him to remain outside in New England’s scheme. That is what the Patriots have attempted to do with Wynn (6-foot-2, 310 pounds), who has been available in just 18 of 50 career games for New England since he was drafted 23rd overall back in 2018.
A tried-and-true believer in the Best Player Available strategy, we also can't put it past Belichick to take advantage of a sliding defender. Even with the reinforcements in free agency and young talent already on the roster, a twitchy edge rusher (Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari), versatile cornerback (Northwestern’s Greg Newsome II) or toolsy linebacker (Tulsa’s Zaven Collins) could catch Belichick’s eye.
Even a true three-down running back (Alabama’s Harris, Clemson’s Travis Etienne) would certainly adhere to the Patriot Way, especially with the division-rival Dolphins likely to be targeting one of them just three picks later.
CHICAGO BEARS (No. 20)
Like the Patriots, the Bears would seemingly jump at the chance to land a quarterback if one of the top five passers were unexpectedly still available at this point. Even with veteran Andy Dalton added to the roster during the offseason (albeit on a one-year deal), it should surprise no one if general manager Ryan Pace gambles on another passer in this draft — perhaps even in the first round for Stanford’s Davis Mills or Florida’s Kyle Trask.
Doing so would be panned by many as a monumental reach given that other, better players will be available then. But what kind of impact might they have over a potential long-term solution at quarterback? The value of young stars at the position has never been higher, given the extravagant cost of veteran quarterback contracts. If the Bears are legitimately interested in using their second (No. 52 overall) or third-round pick (83) on a quarterback, it would make more financial sense to use their top pick and have the relatively cheap fifth-year option on the rookie contract.
Of course, Pace and head coach Matt Nagy would need to be right on that quarterback selection, which is why the more traditional strategy of boosting the Bears’ depth and talent at cornerback, wide receiver or offensive tackle all seem likelier.
If Pace and head coach Matt Nagy wanted to appease the home crowd some way other than getting a top-flight quarterback, nabbing Chicago native Newsome from Northwestern might do the trick. A true cover corner whose tape is well worth a top-20 pick, Newsome would give the Bears a boost in a secondary facing the unenviable tasking of slowing down Green Bay’s Davante Adams — the NFL’s touchdown receptions leader (18) last year — and Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson, who finished fourth among all NFL pass-catchers in receiving yards (1,400) as a rookie.
The Bears boast their own star at receiver in Allen Robinson II, of course, but no long-term deal has been made since Chicago slapped the franchise tag on him. The Bears aggressively pursued former divisional rival Kenny Golladay, reportedly offering him a lucrative deal before he chose the New York Giants instead, and Chicago might see Florida’s Kadarius Toney or Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman as the playmaker to complement or even one day replace Robinson as the Bears’ primary target.
Despite their other issues on offense a year ago, the Bears got underrated play from tackles Charles Leno, Jr. and Germain Ifedi in 2020. With Leno’s remaining contract voidable and Ifedi re-signed to another one-year deal, however, the Bears might want to take advantage of this year’s stellar offensive tackle class, with Darrisaw, Oklahoma State’s Teven Jenkins and North Dakota State’s Dillon Radunz particularly good schematic fits.
One of the most recognized names in the industry, Rob Rang has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others.