A team’s own NFL draft board isn’t the only one that matters to them on draft night. A key ingredient to draft success is also understanding the other 31 competitors, and accurately determining the likely ranges where prospects should be selected based off of that.
Why? First, a failure to recognize a prospect’s likely range means a team could draft that player far earlier than it needs to take him. The Raiders taking cornerback Damon Arnette at 19th overall and the Seahawks selecting Jordyn Brooks at 27th last year are perfect examples. Second, it can inform trade decisions. How far do we need to trade up to land this linebacker? Can we afford to drop back eight spots and still have a good chance to nab that corner? It all plays in. We might not have a war room ourselves, but we still want to answer those questions.
We’ll look to ESPN’s Draft Day Predictor, a statistical model that relies on industry mock drafts (from Mel Kiper Jr., Todd McShay, and others), team needs and Scouts Inc. grades to forecast the range of outcomes for every prospect. It gives percentage chances of each prospect being available — and being selected — at each draft slot, which of course leads to a likely range of picks in which he could realistically come off the board. The Rams have a house in Malibu, we have a massive table of probabilities … we’re all enjoying draft week in our own way.
Let’s dive in to some big storylines heading into the 2021 NFL draft. We’ll take a look at how potential trades might play out, possible QB outcomes, the first-round running back market and what the Cowboys and a handful of other teams could do on Day 1. Note that these scenarios are based on an update to the model over the weekend, and the predictor will make one final update on Thursday morning based on final mock drafts ahead of Round 1.
For more on the Draft Day Predictor:
Our Round 1 matchmaker
Do the Denver Broncos have to trade up for a top-five QB within the top 10?
In short, they don’t have to in order to have a shot at a quarterback, but they do have to in order to have a good shot at one.
The Draft Day Predictor is operating in a world where Alabama’s Mac Jones is very likely the No. 3 overall pick, fueled by his frequent placement there in mock drafts. (Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and BYU’s Zach Wilson are near locks to go 1-2.) The Niners’ apparent preference doesn’t help the Broncos’ chances of landing one of the five because Justin Fields (Ohio State) and Trey Lance (North Dakota State) are generally regarded as better prospects than Jones. In other words, there might be more of a rush for those two than there would have been for Jones if he were still around.
Still, either Fields or Lance could fall to No. 9. We give Lance a 23% chance to reach the ninth overall pick, and Fields gets a 25% chance. The predictor does factor in the possibility of trades. So, for example, even though Miami has seemingly signaled it is out on the rookie QBs, a quarterback could still be taken at the No. 6 pick via a trade.
So if the Broncos like only one of Fields and Lance, their guy has a one-in-four shot to reach them. That’s quite a risk to take without taking a stab at a trade up. If the Broncos would take either, there’s a 38% chance at least one of them reaches No. 9. A trade up to No. 6 or No. 7 should give them an excellent opportunity to land one of the two, though. Our model says each has about a 70% chance of being there at No. 7.
This, by the way, should be informative for other teams that could be eyeing a trade up (New England? Chicago?) for a quarterback in a world where Jones goes at No. 3. Speaking of which …
What about the New England Patriots? Could a top-five QB fall to them at No. 15? And if not, how far would they have to move up to ensure landing one?
Same deal here, as this is working under the assumption that Mac Jones is very likely to be the selection at No. 3. If the Patriots would be interested in only Justin Fields or Trey Lance if they free-fall all the way to No. 15 … well, miracles do happen. But they’ll need one — there’s only a 6% chance one of Fields or Lance makes it all the way to No. 15.
There’s a slightly higher 17% chance either QB reaches pick No. 10, where the Patriots could potentially make a deal with Dallas. But if New England wants to aggressively pursue one of these quarterbacks and come away with a higher probability of landing one, it’s going to need to trade up into the single digits.
Again, if the 49ers surprise and do not take Jones, these dynamics could change.
Field Yates says Trey Lance has a higher ceiling than Mac Jones and believes Lance is a better fit for the Patriots.
After the Philadelphia Eagles’ trade back to No. 12, what are the chances a top-four pass-catcher is still available when they are on the clock?
Well, they have a better chance than you might think! Sure, they can forget about Florida tight end Kyle Pitts and LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. But Alabama’s DeVonta Smith or Jaylen Waddle? There’s a 53% and 54% chance they are available at the No. 12 pick, respectively.
And get this: There’s an 80% chance at least one of the top four pass-catchers lasts until No. 12. (Again, this is basically just pointing to Waddle or Smith.)
That might be surprising, but if five quarterbacks, Pitts, Chase and Oregon tackle Penei Sewell all go in the top 10, then we’re already eight players down with a variety of options to go after that. Northwestern tackle Rashawn Slater, Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II, Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons and South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn are all legitimate possibilities to go off the board before No. 12. The Eagles likely need just two of the three picks between Nos. 9 and 11 to come from that group to have at least one of Waddle or Smith slide to them at No. 12.
Will the Baltimore Ravens land a WR and OT in the first round?
Baltimore’s need for a wide receiver is well documented, and after shipping Orlando Brown Jr. off to the Chiefs, the Ravens could use a replacement at offensive tackle, too. Fortunately for them, there’s a plethora of receivers and tackles slated to go off the board in the late first round or early second. So which ones will be available at each spot? Let’s assume that Ja’Marr Chase, DeVonta Smith, Jalen Waddle, Penei Sewell, Rashawn Slater and Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw are all off the board by pick No. 27, the first of Baltimore’s two Day 1 selections.
To summarize, unless the Ravens have a particular fondness for Teven Jenkins, it would certainly make more sense for them to take their pick of the receivers remaining at No. 27 before having most — if not all — of the non-Jenkins options on the tackle list above still available at No. 31. This is of course assuming the Ravens did indeed want to address both positions early in this draft. Baltimore could probably trade down from No. 31 and still have a pick of several second-round tackles to choose from.
What is the most likely team to take the running back plunge in Round 1?
The Draft Day Predictor says Alabama’s Najee Harris is the most likely running back to both come off the board first and to go in the first round. But it also believes Clemson’s Travis Etienne and, to a lesser degree, North Carolina’s Javonte Williams, have a decent chance at the first round as well.
Who would take a running back on Day 1? There’s a clear favorite: The Pittsburgh Steelers are the most likely landing spot for Harris at No. 24. That’s driven by not just mocks, but also Pittsburgh’s need at running back. The Steelers did not bring back James Conner in free agency, and Benny Snell Jr. is the current starter on the depth chart.
Where will Najee Harris be selected?
Here’s his full range of outcomes, per ESPN’s Draft Day Predictor. There’s a 12% chance he’s selected at No. 24 — currently the Steelers’ pick.
There’s no other slot where he has more than an 8% chance to be selected. pic.twitter.com/loABUPtcDl
— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) April 27, 2021
Harris has a 12% chance to be the selection at No. 24, while he has no more than an 8% shot to be selected at any other spot. The model says that he ultimately has an 84% chance of coming off the board in Round 1. In comparison, Etienne’s likelihood of going on Day 1 is 49%, and Williams’ is 18%.
How far could the Dallas Cowboys trade back and still land a top-two cornerback?
Honestly, not that far. Patrick Surtain II is logically linked as a possible pick by the Cowboys at No. 10. And the Alabama corner has a 93% chance to reach the 10th pick before those odds immediately drop. He is just 77% likely to be there at No. 11, and 59% likely to still be available at No. 12.
But Dallas needs to fill plenty of holes on its defense, so a trade down is surely tempting, particularly if it could still land Jaycee Horn. But there’s a problem. The Draft Day Predictor says Horn won’t last long either.
If Dallas managed to trade back three spots to No. 13 (where the Los Angeles Chargers are currently slotted), there would be a 72% chance Horn would be available. If it moves back to New England’s spot at No. 15, that number drops to 52%.
In fact, the No. 15 spot is the latest that the model says the Cowboys could move back to and still have a better than 50% chance to land either Surtain or Horn.
Where will the Tier 2 quarterbacks go?
We might not know when Trey Lance and Justin Fields are going to be selected on Thursday night, but we do know it will almost definitely be between pick Nos. 3 and 9. For the second tier of quarterbacks, a group that includes Stanford’s Davis Mills, Florida’s Kyle Trask, Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond and Georgia’s Jamie Newman, that range is far larger. There’s a ton of uncertainty here, which means teams eyeing one of these four — perhaps the Washington Football Team and Chicago Bears, among others — will need a strong sense of their risk tolerance.
Below is what we’ll call each quarterback’s “80-20” range. That refers to the pick where that player will have an 80% chance to be on the board, and the pick where there will be just a 20% chance he is still available. Overall, there’s a 60% chance these players will be selected in these ranges, which gives us a pretty strong sense about the vastness of possibilities.
And don’t mistake that chart above as the guaranteed order. The wide ranges mean the QBs could come off the board in any order, and Mills isn’t a lock to be QB6. For example, there’s still a 14% chance Mond is selected before Mills.