Cynthia Frelund 2021 NFL mock draft 1.0: Who teams should draft to win now

Welcome to my first official Round 1 simulation of the 2021 NFL Draft! My analytics-based mock is based solely on a contextual, data-driven model that aims to do one thing: maximize each team's potential to win as many games as possible in 2021. So, before you read any further, take note:

I am NOT attempting to predict or divine what teams will ACTUALLY DO on draft day.

For this particular file, the model considered current rosters, the overall market of potential free agents and 2021 draft prospects. How, exactly? Well, here's how my mock works ...

I use my draft prospect model, explained at the top of this article, to create a numerical value for each player. These ratings can be compared across years. Then I use my NFL model, which considers the market of potential free agents at each position, to create projected win-contribution metrics by player, position group and side of the ball. These get added up to predict win totals for the season. (Here's an example of these metrics for WRs.) The results quantify strengths and weaknesses of current NFL rosters. My model also factors in as many known elements of coaching philosophies (of the current staffs) as possible, and each team's 2021 opponents. Then, my model "selects" the draft prospect that would yield the highest win total for each team in the coming season.

Here's the part that's extra: I have projections and results for all teams and the draft prospects they selected over the past 15 seasons. I examine each season's on-field results, objectively analyzing what happened while identifying the trends and strategies that led to success or failure. I also ask coaches, front office executives and even players to help me understand why results occurred. These subjective inputs help shape the results, meaning the model gets "smarter" each season.

There are a lot of real-life efficiencies that could be realized via draft-pick trades. I can't help but to note them in certain cases. Still, for the sake of this particular mock, I did not allow for trades. If I worked for an individual team, an analysis like this could aid in creating a strategy for identifying potential trade partners, as well as vulnerable spots where other teams are most likely to scoop up particular players -- especially given free agency.

Finally, another change to this year's mock is a real refinement of how the on-field computer vision weighs on the predictions. Normally, it's a huge factor, as a prospect's most recent season-long on-field performance is the most valuable ingredient. This college season was odd (to say the least); the number of games played, when they were played and even situations/contexts faced were quite different from in years past. So I had to look for factors over longer periods of time (and their trajectories) and normalize all past measurements (like we'd get from the combine) for all 15 seasons using computer vision to make sure every comparison was as apples to apples as possible.

Pick
1
Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville Jaguars
Trevor Lawrence
Clemson · QB · Junior

Absent Deshaun Watson somehow falling into the Jaguars' laps, Lawrence would do the most of all options available to immediately change the fortunes of a franchise that has finished with an offensive ranking of 27th or worse in six of the past 10 seasons. One factor driving this: Lawrence should be ready for the step-up in defensive intensity he'll face in the pros. Pro Football Focus counts Lawrence as the only QB in this draft class who has faced the blitz over 200 times in the past three seasons.

Pick
2
New York Jets
New York Jets
Penei Sewell
Oregon · OT · Junior

Ahead of free agency, this forecasts as the draft slot that is most likely to be traded; the Jets have many needs, and they should have no trouble finding a trade partner willing to hand them multiple picks, given that leap-frogging the Dolphins at No. 3 seems like a smart and necessary strategy for QB-needy teams. But since we are not allowing trades in this mock, we'll focus on the best choice the Jets could make at No. 2. Sewell is the player who would give the Jets the most added wins, even more than any free agent veteran offensive lineman. He’s extremely young, but his improvement from 2018 to 2020 shows the top pass- and run-blocking win-share projection in the class. One note: This projection does assume linebacker C.J. Mosley is returning on defense after opting out of the 2020 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Interestingly, edge rusher Kwity Paye and cornerback Caleb Farley show up here, too, based on need and fit with the coaching strategy new head man Robert Saleh’s history suggests he'll implement.

Pick
3
Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins
Ja'Marr Chase
LSU · WR · Junior

Chase opted out of the 2020 season, but in 2019, he was the most open receiver in college football (that is, when viewing the percentage of targets where he had at least 3 yards to work with) on passes intended to travel more than 10 air yards. His speed on yards after the catch featured the least erosion (which is a measurement of fatigue) between game start and game end in the SEC -- and that conference boasted some really great receivers that season.

Pick
4
Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta Falcons
Kwity Paye
Michigan · EDGE · Senior

Paye flags as someone who will have a greater need for strong coaching than some of the other edge rushers to come out of the Big Ten recently; that is, he didn't have as many consistently productive reps on every down as, say, Chase Young did. That said, pairing Paye with new Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees (who had great success in the past creating unique and efficient fronts for the Ravens, Pats and Titans) changes Atlanta's ability to pressure pass-happy quarterbacks -- like the ones they'll face in the NFC South -- A.S.A.P., with a lot of upside as the season goes along. Paye's average burst when left unattended (measured by the time it takes him to travel 2 yards from the line of scrimmage) was the second-fastest in the NCAA this past season at his position (0.64 seconds).

Pick
5
Cincinnati Bengals
Cincinnati Bengals
Rashawn Slater
Northwestern · OT · Senior

I have no 2020 data on Slater, who, by opting out of a season that turned out to be a strong one for Northwestern, might have missed a great opportunity to put on film more proof that he's best utilized as a tackle rather than as a guard. (Some might feel Slater is undersized for the tackle position, based on his traditional measurements.) Even so, Slater was the third-most effective O-lineman in the Big Ten at stopping or preventing QB pressure in 2019. Linebacker Micah Parsons and cornerback Caleb Farley would add a lot of value to the Bengals, here, as well, but reinforcing Joe Burrow's protection maps to the most success for Cincinnati in 2021.

Pick
6
Philadelphia Eagles
Philadelphia Eagles
Kyle Pitts
Florida · TE · Junior

I'm assuming here that a certain 30-year-old tight end will not be on the Eagles' roster for the 2021 season -- if Zach Ertz sticks in Philly, that will throw this projection off. Otherwise, my model likes Pitts as a sure-handed, high-probability pass-catcher. On snaps where Pitts ran routes, he displayed a faster burst (that is, the time it takes him to travel 2 yards from the line of scrimmage) than all but three FBS wide receivers in 2020. 

Pick
7
Detroit Lions
Detroit Lions
Micah Parsons
Penn State · LB · Junior

Parsons, who opted out in 2020, had the best marks in my college model in 2019 for run-game efficiency (measured by how many yards opponents gained on run plays while within 10 yards of Parsons). He also has strong blitz and pressure potential, as measured by how often he got past the defensive front when asked to blitz (he was in the top 10 percent among LBs of his type when blitzing). 

Pick
8
Carolina Panthers
Carolina Panthers
Zach Wilson
BYU · QB · Junior

OK, I'm making another assumption here -- prodded along by Teddy Bridgewater apparently unfollowing the Panthers' Instagram account -- that Carolina will be looking for a new quarterback, although there has been so much buzz about potential moves this team could make that I can easily see the Panthers' top choice at No. 8 changing come Mock Draft 2.0. Wilson fits here based on his ability to connect with receivers on off-platform throws (that is, throws where his feet, hips and shoulder alignment aren't set in the most kinetically efficient manner). Ask the pass-catchers working with Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen Deshaun Watson about what a difference this makes. This trait would surely be maximized in Carolina by head coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady, two of the most progressive offensive architects in the league. 

Pick
9
Denver Broncos
Denver Broncos
Justin Fields
Ohio State · QB · Junior

The Broncos have a need at cornerback, but -- presuming free agent safety Justin Simmons returns -- Fields' ability to make use of Denver's pass-catchers gives the Broncos about 0.8 more wins than they would add by selecting the best CB prospect and slotting either incumbent Drew Lock or any of the available free agents in at QB. PFF notes that 69.9 percent of Fields' college passing yards came through the air, and my models add that his time to throw took 0.45 seconds less on non-primary reads in his final three college career games than in his first five. Between offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur's play design and teaching ability and Fields' ability to run the ball, the QB will have the chance to learn and adapt to NFL speed quickly.

Pick
10
Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys
Gregory Rousseau
Miami · EDGE · Sophomore (RS)


Rousseau opted out in 2020, but his 2019 data was some of my favorite to track that year; he lined up all over the defensive front and generated pressures from every spot he was used in. He also improved his average time to pressure (adjusted for alignment) from the beginning of the season. Why does my model project someone with no 2020 data this high at this position? Well, Rousseau possesses pretty much every key upside marker: size, along with an improving ability to stay low in his center of gravity. He also played offense and safety in high school, meaning we haven't likely seen his best pass-rushing stuff yet.  

Pick
11
New York Giants
New York Giants
DeVonta Smith
Alabama · WR · Senior

Smith is my WR2because his consistent route running and ability to earn separation give him the highest projected floor and ceiling in this class. The Heisman Trophy winner had the highest percentage of receptions in which he had more than 3 feet of separation at the time of the catch despite a defender being within 3 feet of him on the path of the route. This vision carries over into yards after the catch; his ability to increase his speed once he had the ball in his hands was the third-best in the FBS this season.

Pick
12
San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers
Caleb Farley
Virginia Tech · CB · Junior (RS)

PFF credits Farley with allowing a passer rating in coverage of just 26.8 in 2019 (he opted out in 2020). My model shows the Virginia Tech product had the best pursuit speed of any available corner in this draft. Combine him with that nasty Niners front, and new defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans will get off to a great start.

Pick
13
Los Angeles Chargers
Los Angeles Chargers
Jaylen Waddle
Alabama · WR · Junior

PFF counts Waddle in the top five in yards per route run (3.6) and in yards after the catch per reception (11.5) over the past two seasons. My model says his speed when open (when no defenders are closer than 3 yards) is the fastest in this draft class.

Pick
14
Minnesota Vikings
Minnesota Vikings
Alijah Vera-Tucker
USC · G · Junior (RS)

I project Vera-Tucker at guard, though he has experience at USC at both that position and tackle. His ability to stay low in his stance through contact helps project him as a very reliable (that is, possessing a high projected floor) in both passing and rushing situations, as well as in play-action, which is extremely helpful for the Vikings' scheme.

Pick
15
New England Patriots
New England Patriots
Trey Lance
North Dakota State · QB · Sophomore (RS)

I don't love the small sample size (Lance has 17 starts to his name), but there are many indicators of positive upside, including his ability to take care of the ball. He had the lowest percentage of throws that were either picked off, batted down or thrown closer to a defender than the target. He has formation diversity (both out of the shotgun and under center) as well as strong results with alternate arm angles.

Pick
16
Arizona Cardinals
Arizona Cardinals
Christian Darrisaw
Virginia Tech · OT · Junior

Darrisaw's improvement from 2018 to 2019, and then to 2020, was the best amongst tackles in the FBS, which is even more impressive, considering the level of edge-rushing talent he faced. 

Pick
17
Las Vegas Raiders
Las Vegas Raiders
Jayson Oweh
Penn State · EDGE · Sophomore (RS)

From a pure speed standpoint, on plays where he was not touched, Oweh had the fastest burst among edge rushers in the FBS last season, as measured by the time it took him to travel 5 yards from the line of scrimmage.

Pick
18
Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins
Jaelan Phillips
Miami · EDGE · Junior (RS)

Phillips has an injury red flag, having suffered several before leaving UCLA, but he had an outstanding 2020 season at Miami. He boasted the third-best burst from snap to 5 yards out from the line of scrimmage in the FBS last season.

Pick
19
Washington Football Team
Washington Football Team
Patrick Surtain II
Alabama · CB · Junior

Ooh, my model likes Surtain, especially in the NFC East, where currently only the Cowboys pose a big threat to Washington. Per PFF, over the past two seasons, no receiver covered by Surtain earned more than 65 yards in a single game.

Pick
20
Chicago Bears
Chicago Bears
Rondale Moore
Purdue · WR · Junior

Assuming the Bears find a way to keep receiver Allen Robinson on the team, adding a slot presence will help whomever is under center in Chicago. Over the past three seasons, Moore maintained his speed after contact on inside routes at the highest rate of any receiver in the FBS.

Pick
21
Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis Colts
Jaycee Horn
South Carolina · CB · Junior

PFF shows that Horn allowed just eight catches on 24 targets for 116 yards in seven games in 2020. 

Pick
22
Tennessee Titans
Tennessee Titans
Christian Barmore
Alabama · DT · Sophomore (RS)

His ability to stop the run and pass are the best at the position in the FBS, and his results steadily improved from season's start to finish. In his final two collegiate games, he had 12 pressures and eight stops (per PFF), which is even more impressive, considering his opponents were Notre Dame and Ohio State.

Pick
23
New York Jets
New York Jets
Greg Newsome II
Northwestern · CB · Junior

Talk about a trajectory uptick -- Newsome's production and results in 2020 shot up the most from 2019 for any corner in the FBS (not just among draft-eligible players). PFF counts him as only allowing 12 catches on 34 targets for 93 yards all season.

Pick
24
Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers
Dillon Radunz
North Dakota State · OT · Senior (RS)

One of my favorite things to measure is how far back O-linemen get pushed -- or don't get pushed, rather -- by the defensive players trying to pressure their QB. Radunz's results place him in the top 12 percent amongst tackles over the 15-season sample. It's necessary to factor in the level of competition, but this is still the kind of result that usually equates to a career of 10-plus years.  

Pick
25
Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville Jaguars
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah
Notre Dame · LB · Junior (RS)

Versatile linebackers (he also played safety and slot corner) are extremely valuable in today's game. No draft-eligible LB was faster (as measured by game speed) last season. Also a plus: His blitzing burst was the third-best at the position.

Pick
26
Cleveland Browns
Cleveland Browns
Trevon Moehrig
TCU · S · Junior

Moehrig led all college safeties in pass break-ups in each of the past two seasons. His 2019 data was most impressive, and the fact that he can defend slot receivers adds to his upside.

Pick
27
Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore Ravens
Jalen Mayfield
Michigan · OT · Sophomore (RS)

The percentage of times he was pushed back on passing downs in 2020 compared to 2019 was significantly improved. On run-blocking snaps, Mayfield handled blitzes and athletic moves by defenders at the third-most consistent rate in the Power Five.

Pick
28
New Orleans Saints
New Orleans Saints
Kadarius Toney
Florida · WR · Senior

Interesting that a college player who lined up in the slot as much as Toney did lands here, joining a pro in Michael Thomas who crushes from the slot. Well, the paring is driven by Toney's YAC and tackle-braking ability. PFF counts that he broke more than 30 tackles over the past two seasons.

Pick
29
Green Bay Packers
Green Bay Packers
Rashod Bateman
Minnesota · WR · Junior

Route-running precision is a metric my model values likely more than most, and Bateman thrives at it, especially when aligned on the outside. I've found that route-running precision leading to separation in college is correlated to the same things in the NFL. Bateman ranked No. 3 amongst wide receivers in terms of route-running efficiency (as measured by reliable timing and the ability to create separation) on routes run from outside alignment in the FBS over the past two seasons 

Pick
30
Buffalo Bills
Buffalo Bills
Teven Jenkins
Oklahoma State · OT · Senior (RS)

When it comes to a great fit at right tackle, the Bills and Jenkins at 30 feels almost too good to be true. PFF counts only four total pressures allowed on 211 pass-blocking snaps. What he can do in the run game, though, is what makes this pairing work so well. Jenkins held his block and prevented pushback on rushing downs at the fourth-highest rate in the FBS over the past two seasons.

Pick
31
Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City Chiefs
Azeez Ojulari
Georgia · EDGE · Sophomore (RS)

I think Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo would be very pleased with this one. Ojulari is fast. His burst (to 2 yards past the line of scrimmage) was the fastest in the FBS last season. He's versatile in alignment use, which means Spags can be creative and not have to rely on coverage as much as he did in 2020. 

Pick
32
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Levi Onwuzurike
Washington · DT · Senior (RS)

Should free agent Ndamukong Suh no longer be a Buc (which is my assumption), Onwuzurike could add production immediately. He opted out in 2020, but in 2019, his run-stopping ability and ability to quickly move laterally stood out. At the defensive tackle position, he ranked fifth in terms of pushing O-linemen back on rushing downs in 2019 in the FBS.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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