July 24, 2021

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Pre-Free Agency Mock Draft | Football Outsiders

16 min read
Pre-Free Agency Mock Draft | Football Outsiders


Guest column by Benjamin Robinson

“Sure, I’ll write a mock draft! It can’t be that hard.” Famous last words!

Last year, as the 2020 NFL draft approached, Football Outsiders editor-in-chief Aaron Schatz reached out to me to see if I had any interest in writing a mock draft for the site. I had never published my own mock draft, but it made complete sense that I would. After all, as the founder/creator of Grinding the Mocks (a project where mock drafts, data science, and the wisdom of crowds combine to predict the NFL draft), I’d like to believe that I have about as good insight into how the NFL draft might unfold as anyone in the football analytics community. If you’d like to read more about the project, I wrote an explainer on it in this very website last year.

Well, it turns out that while I may know how to write R code to scrape mock drafts and run statistical models, writing an accurate mock draft is much easier said than done. Out of the 269 first-round mock drafts that were published within two weeks of the draft in 2020, my Grinding the Mocks’ Meta-Mock Draft projections had a pick-adjusted mean squared error around the 50th percentile (it probably didn’t help that I listed six players as first-round picks that ended up as second-round picks, including a pretty late second-rounder) and even two players who ended up being drafted in the third round. That type of effort this year will do me no favors. I will say that my raw top 32 Expected Draft Position (EDP—the average point where each prospect is selected in our sample of mock drafts) rankings did very well this past year (in the 90th percentile), putting me in very good company.

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So this year, I’m coming back with another mock draft that mainly takes into account a few things:

  • a player’s EDP;
  • the drafting team’s most mocked players and positions;
  • and the drafting team’s history of selecting players earlier or later than expectation.

A couple of quick rules: I’m not projecting any trades. I know that’s kind of a cop-out, but we have enough problems predicting the draft as it is. Last year, I thought that there would be at least one trade in the top 10 by a team targeting one of the top quarterbacks, but that failed to materialize in what was a pretty chalk draft. Was this a product of teams navigating the new virtual draft environment, or was it reflective of something else about last year’s class? We’ll probably never know. Either way, I’m hopeful that this year’s top 10 will be more eventful than 2020’s given the multiple quality quarterback prospects available for teams to select.

Now that the ground rules have been laid, let’s get into it. May the Force be with me!

1. Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson

I called this pick in the midst of the second half of the Super Bowl. That’s how inevitable this pick is (and has been since the 2020 draft ended).

2. New York Jets: Zach Wilson, QB, BYU

The Sam Darnold experiment is officially over and a trend continues. In each of the past three draft classes, a quarterback has come from relative obscurity to be a top pick (Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow). And while Zach Wilson couldn’t quite make it four years in a row at No. 1, it still goes to show that the quarterback position is quite unpredictable: players who we never could have imagined would be top-five picks a year ago suddenly are.

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3. Miami Dolphins: Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU

The Dolphins used three of their 11 draft picks last year on offensive linemen and recently added disappointing Tennessee Titans 2020 first-round pick offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson via trade. That’s a lot of offensive linemen! To help balance out an offense that lacked a top receiving threat, the mock draft marketplace thinks a wide receiver is the Dolphins’ biggest need, and they address it with the top offensive receiver (see what I did there) in the draft.

4. Atlanta Falcons: Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State

Justin Fields had been QB2 for most of the draft process until Zach Wilson passed him early on this year. At 7.5 Pythagorean wins, the Falcons underperformed their expected record in 2020 given their fundamentals, and with regression next year they likely won’t be picking in the range where they could draft a top-of-the-line quarterback prospect such as Fields. And when you have that opportunity with an aging quarterback, like the Chargers did last year, you pretty much have to take it.

5. Cincinnati Bengals: Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon

As a Bengals supporter myself, I can tell you that Cincinnati fans have been rooting for Penei Sewell to be the selection for the Bengals here as the team works to build around Joe Burrow and give him the time and weapons he needs to succeed, especially after he recovers from the wicked ACL/MCL tear he sustained against Washington this year. Somewhere he’s hopefully smiling.

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6. Philadelphia Eagles: Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama

I very much wanted to mock Florida tight end Kyle Pitts to the Eagles here, especially since he’s a Philly native, but in my data from Grinding the Mocks the Eagles have targeted wide receiver much more often than any other position. With Ja’Marr Chase off the board at Pick 3, this selection comes down to the fact that the next wide receiver whose EDP is rising is Jaylen Waddle. Don’t be fooled by his name—Waddle can scoot.

7. Detroit Lions: Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida

Kyle Pitts doesn’t have to wait much longer. I don’t think the Lions will pass on Pitts if he’s available. The Lions are fairly consensus drafters in my data from Grinding the Mocks, and Pitts is already a consensus top-10 player and could be top-five by draft night. Pitts and T.J. Hockenson would make for a very tight end-centric attack.

8. Carolina Panthers: Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State

I want to be clear that I personally have a lot of questions about Trey Lance’s evaluation as a quarterback prospect. However, one question I don’t have is that Lance is likely to be a top-10 draft pick. In fact, if we end up with the type of trade activity I’m hoping we’ll have, Lance could be a top-five pick.

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9. Denver Broncos: Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech

Denver would have to consider taking one of the top quarterback prospects if they were to fall, but in this scenario, the top offensive players have already been selected. Leaning on mock draft needs data from Grinding the Mocks, we can glean that cornerback is the top need for the Broncos. Picking between the top two cornerbacks becomes the next step, which is complicated by how close the two players’ EDPs are. With Caleb Farley’s stock going in the slightly opposite direction from Patrick Surtain’s, the Virginia Tech cornerback gets the nod here.

10. Dallas Cowboys: Rashawn Slater, OT, Northwestern

In 2020, the Cowboys shocked the NFL draft world by selecting wide receiver CeeDee Lamb from Oklahoma after he fell to their pick at 17 (he was the 13th-ranked player in the class). The Cowboys are shrewd drafters whose weakness at offensive line was exploited last year. Draftniks have honed in on defense, defense, and defense as the Cowboys’ biggest needs … but they also did that last year, and we saw that the Cowboys are willing to draft the player who provides the best value to the team. So drafting an offensive lineman such as Rashawn Slater (whom many experts view as a top-10 talent in the draft) to help shore up protection for Dak Prescott and make holes for Ezekiel Elliott is a sound move.

11. New York Giants: Gregory Rousseau, DE, Miami

This is another selection that is dictated in part by the team’s history of drafting players earlier than expected in recent years. For example, last year the Giants took Andrew Thomas fourth overall even though by EDP he was the 10th-ranked player; in 2019, they took Daniel Jones sixth overall even though he was the 15th-highest player by EDP. Digging into the team needs data from first-round mocks, pass rush was listed as a top need, so grabbing Gregory Rousseau seems like a move worthy of Dave Gettleman. Rousseau is one of the opt-outs in this year’s draft class, starting the process with a top-five EDP since sliding down into the middle of the first round.

12. San Francisco 49ers: Mac Jones, QB, Alabama

The 49ers attacked their most-mocked positions with their two first-round picks in 2020 by drafting South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw and Arizona State wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk. This year, cornerback and quarterback are their most-mocked positions, and the 49ers tend to be fairly heterodox in their draft selections when it comes to picking above or below expectation. Mac Jones is another ascending quarterback (along with Zach Wilson) in this class, and he had a great Senior Bowl week as well. Five quarterbacks in the top 12? You betcha!

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13. Los Angeles Chargers: DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama

The Chargers have found their quarterback in Justin Herbert. Now it’s time to arm him with the weapons to continue to grow and succeed going forward. Offensive line is a consideration, but wide receiver is a sneaky need with the inconsistency of Mike Williams and the aging of Keenan Allen. The Chargers are not strangers to drafting top-end talent later than their EDP: they did the same thing with Derwin James in 2018.

14. Minnesota Vikings: Patrick Surtain, CB, Alabama

The Vikings might be my favorite team stylistically when it comes to the draft. They don’t tend to reach on players when it comes to their EDP, and they love accumulating draft capital. They have needs on the offensive line but have drafted enough lineman with high selections in recent drafts—including Ezra Cleveland in 2020—that I think they’ll use their first-round selection in 2021 on a player ranking highly on their board: Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain. They can always attack the interior offensive line later in the draft or in free agency, where options abound in this second COVID offseason.

15. New England Patriots: Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota

The Patriots are a hard team to pin down. Despite re-signing Cam Newton, they remain in the market for a starting quarterback, and they have very few quality options to target on offense. They also tend to draft players higher than their EDP. In 2020, they were last in the NFL in the difference between expected and actual draft position. Rashod Bateman has had an interesting draft process, starting out as a mid-first-rounder, then seeing his stock decline throughout the strange 2020 COVID college football season and finally having a rebound as the draft creeps closer and closer.

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16. Arizona Cardinals: Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina

The Cardinals are another team that drafts well by my team draft surplus value rankings. On a pick-by-pick basis, it can be argued that by that metric they had the best draft in 2020 despite having only six picks. Targeting another NFL legacy to help improve their depleted secondary seems like the way to go here, passing the torch as Patrick Peterson is at the tail end of his career and could be playing elsewhere in 2021.

17. Las Vegas Raiders: Carlos Basham, DE, Wake Forest

I have a love-hate relationship with the Raiders—they’re the type of team whose drafts I love to hate. They have mostly shown complete and utter disregard for positional value and how the mock draft marketplace values prospects. The past two drafts have seen the Raiders double down on that strategy after acquiring the Chicago Bears’ 2019 and 2020 first-round picks as part of the Khalil Mack trade and using them in exasperating ways. But let’s not focus on the past right now. A pass-rusher could be in the cards here, but it would have to be someone who is kind of out of left field, a player with a late first-/early second-round EDP. Carlos Basham had a good final season, but not as strong as his junior year for Wake Forest, then redeemed himself at the Senior Bowl. Now he’ll pair with overdrafted 2019 defensive end Clelin Ferrell to try to breathe some life into new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s scheme.

18. Miami Dolphins: Micah Parsons, OLB, Penn State

If you had told me at the start of the draft process that I would be slotting Micah Parsons at pick 18, I would have laughed a little bit. Parsons started the draft process as a top-10 player, but his stock is on the decline. He plays a non-premium position and, while eminently talented, opted out of the 2020 college football season. The run on offensive players has Parsons falling in this scenario.

19. Washington Football Team: Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech

Washington got the “prize” for winning the NFC East this year: a spot in the purgatory section of the first round of the 2021 NFL draft, too low to get one of the top five quarterback prospects, but low enough that trading up for one, which is complicated to begin with, suddenly becomes a lot more pricey. So they do the next best thing, build an offensive line capable of protecting their next quarterback, whether it be Taylor Heinecke, Kyle Allen, or someone else. Free agency has plenty of wide receiver options available, so I assume that Washington will look there for some offensive firepower to complement Terry McLaurin.

20. Chicago Bears: Alijah Vera-Tucker, G, USC

Like Washington, the Bears are in purgatory here, needing a quarterback and an offense that can help whomever they insert behind center next season. Alijah Vera-Tucker from USC played guard most of his career but switched over to playing left tackle this year and shined. So while I’m listing him as a guard, many believe he has tackle potential, which the Bears have a definite need for. I contemplated a wide receiver here but ultimately decided on a player with an EDP closer to the Bears’ spot in the draft.

21. Indianapolis Colts: Kwity Paye, DE, Michigan

According to Pro Football Focus’s Timo Riske, the Colts are the best-drafting team in the NFL since 2017, so I give them a little slack when they come in closer to the bottom of my Draft Surplus Value rankings. Being relatively unpredictable and trading down in the draft are two hallmarks of general manager Chris Ballard’s tenure in Indianapolis. Athletic pass-rusher Kwity Paye is my selection for the Colts. He’s being selected below his EDP by a little bit here, which speaks to the quality of the edge rusher class overall, but that doesn’t mean that Paye isn’t worthy of the selection or that he couldn’t thrive in the Colts defense with his elite athleticism and technique.

22. Tennessee Titans: Greg Newsome, CB, Northwestern

The Titans are one of the best-drafting teams by my Draft Surplus Value metric, which means that on average they love drafting rated highly players who have fallen to them. They have consistently done this with players such as Harold Landry, A.J. Brown, and Kristian Fulton, whom they all drafted in the second round. In the first round, they have drafted players at or around EDP. Newsome is a player on the rise so this might be a bit early, but I think his stock could wind up pretty close to this by draft night. A real riser as you can see from the chart below:

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23. New York Jets (from Seattle Seahawks): Najee Harris, RB, Alabama

I feel that Najee Harris is deserving of a Round 1 choice given his 22nd-ranked EDP, even though Javonte Williams is the top choice of “expert” draftniks by EDP, and in recent years running backs have been drafted earlier than expected on average relative to their EDP. I think only one running back if any goes in Round 1, and I’m struggling where to place him in this first round. This slotting makes about as much sense as any.

24. Pittsburgh Steelers: Teven Jenkins, OT, Oklahoma State

The Steelers have used relatively high picks on running backs in the past, including a third-rounder in 2017 (James Conner) and fourth-round selections in 2019 (Benny Snell) and 2020 (Anthony McFarland). However, with Ben Roethlisberger coming around for one more go-around with the team and given the state of the Steelers’ offensive linemen in recent years, protecting him has to be a top priority. The Steelers love big, attacking linemen, so I thought about mocking them Alex Leatherwood, but Teven Jenkins is a prospect on the rise, so I think by draft time he’ll have a late first-round EDP. Both Leatherwood and Jenkins could be guards, too, if the Steelers decide to address the offensive line in free agency.

25. Jacksonville Jaguars (from Los Angeles Rams): Trevon Moehrig, SS, TCU

There’s a new regime in Jacksonville, so there’s not a lot I can say about how they’ll behave in the draft, so I’ll keep it relatively chalky by mocking TCU strong safety Trevon Moehrig to the Jaguars. He’s the top safety in the draft by a good margin.

26. Cleveland Browns: Azeez Ojulari, OLB, Georgia

Last year the Browns were mocked offensive tackles the most, and they drafted one of the top group in Jedrick Wills from Alabama. This year they’re being mocked quite an array of defensive players. However, given the Browns’ preference for young players who were productive on the college level and have good positional value, I felt that Azeez Ojulari would be a great fit for them. Ojulari was dominant for the Bulldogs, especially in the Sugar Bowl against the Cincinnati Bearcats.

27. Baltimore Ravens: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, OLB, Notre Dame

The Ravens have a simple draft philosophy: draft good players who fall to them at positions of value. One could argue, however, that last year they took a step in a different direction by drafting two linebackers, a running back, a run-stuffing defensive tackle in the first three rounds. But that’s beside the point. This is a new year, a new draft, with new priorities. So in that spirit, the Ravens draft Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, a player who profiles similarly to Derwin James from the 2018 draft class and Isaiah Simmons from the 2020 class in that they are versatile players who can rush the passer, play well in coverage, and tackle well. The main struggle is how to deploy these types of players effectively, and if any team is going to figure out a way to do that, I wouldn’t bet against the Ravens.

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28. New Orleans Saints: Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue

The Saints have been a mixed bag in my mind when it comes to draft strategy. In the first round they have been wont to trade up for players they like, forgoing future returns for present value. In my 2020 mock draft, I had them drafting linebacker Kenneth Murray from Oklahoma, but he was selected a pick earlier by the Chargers, wo had traded up with the Patriots. The Saints have similar mock draft needs that they had in 2020, when they drafted Michigan center Cesar Ruiz. Whomever the new quarterback in New Orleans will be, he will need some help on offense, and Moore is a player on the rise as he slowly creeps toward borderline first-round EDP status.

29. Green Bay Packers: Christian Barmore, DT, Alabama

The Packers again failing to draft a wide receiver again in the first round? Some things never change. Christian Barmore is the top defensive tackle in the 2021 class and would be a good value here. Cornerback could be an option as well if wide receiver isn’t the pick. All I’m saying is that the Packers are a hard team to nail down, but they tend to draft players earlier than their EDP so selecting Barmore would be somewhat of a move in the opposite direction.

30. Buffalo Bills: Jaelan Phillips, DE, Miami

The Bills are another favorite team of mine when it comes to drafting. They do tend to trade up a bit more than I would like and they have spent consecutive third-round picks on running backs but they have drafted players such as A.J. Epenesa, Ed Oliver, Cody Ford, and Tremaine Edmunds later than expected, generated a large amount of draft surplus value. They continue this trend by fortifying their pass rush with Jaelan Phillips, the teammate of Gregory Rousseau, who I have going to the New York Giants in this scenario at pick 11. Good for Miami!

31. Kansas City Chiefs: Liam Eichenberg, OT, Notre Dame

The Chiefs releasing their starting tackles from the last two years should send a big Bat-Signal to the rest of the NFL: THE CHIEFS JUST MIGHT DRAFT AN OFFENSIVE TACKLE! On the other hand, they have been quite cavalier in recent years in how they draft relative to EDP. The list is too long to mention, but needless to say, expect a little bit of the unexpected when trying to mock players to the Chiefs. Here I’m going with Liam EIchenberg from Notre Dame, who has been a solidly early-to-middle second-round pick. Eichenberg follows in the recent tradition of strong offensive linemen to come out of South Bend to the NFL.

32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jayson Oweh, DE, Penn State

The Super Bowl Champion Buccaneers addressed a top need in the first round last year with the best pick in the 2020 draft from a surplus value perspective in Iowa tackle Tristan Wirfs. They’ll need to reload on defense, and they do a decent job drafting for value by EDP, so I have them drafting Penn State defensive end Jayson Oweh, who famously had zero sacks in his final college season. He’ll be expected to fit right into the pass rush rotation in Tampa Bay as the Buccaneers look to repeat as champions.

We’ll be back with a second mock draft in April as we get closer to the actual draft date!

Benjamin Robinson is a data scientist living in Washington, DC and the creator of Grinding the Mocks, a project that tracks how NFL prospects fare in mock drafts.  You can follow him on Twitter @benj_robinson and find the Grinding the Mocks project at grindingthemocks.com.

https://www.footballoutsiders.com/nfl-draft/2021/pre-free-agency-mock-draft