No matter how many mock drafts are done before an actual NFL draft goes on the clock, it’s impossible to predict all the trades that will happen in the first round.
The Dolphins made recent moves with the 49ers and Eagles that already shook up this year’s order. Last year, the Buccaneeers, Chargers, 49ers and Packers all moved up at certain points between Nos. 13 and No. 30 overall during the draft, while the 49ers, Patriots, Vikings and Dolphins all moved down.
When a team trades down, it isn’t locked into one particular player at its initial selection and would prefer to increase its volume of picks. When a team trades up, it is targeting a specific player it doesn’t want to risk losing to another team picking or trading up ahead of it.
Although 2020 didn’t have any early movement, the 2021 NFL Draft figures to be different because of quarterback demand vs. supply. Knowing the Jaguars, Jets and 49ers are locked into QBs 1-2-3, here’s a look at the most likely trade scenarios developing right after those picks:
NFL MOCK DRAFT 2021: Patriots, Broncos, Bills make bold trades up; Falcons, Panthers enjoy payoff
Five most likely trade-down candidates
Falcons, from No. 4
This becomes a much harder decision should North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance still be on the board, as Atlanta is enamored with him as a potential successor to Matt Ryan. Regardless if the 49ers take Lance ahead of them, the Falcons need to think more about stockpiling across positions for a rebuild with Arthur Smith and Jerry Fontenot.
For non-QB options, Florida tight end Kyle Pitts also will be tempting to put in the offense with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. But edge rusher, tackle, outside linebacker and cornerback are all key defensive needs and the Falcons can flip this pick and still get good value at one of those positions later while adding draft capital. Between future in Lance and luxury in Pitts, there’s a strong medium available as there are enough teams wanting their pick of the fourth QB to give the Falcons great return.
Dolphins, from No. 6 or No. 18
The Dolphins first ended up three spots lower, with the 49ers picking in their old spot at No. 3 and the Eagles going down to No. 12. But the Dolphins still can use either their extra pick from the Texans or their own later pick to manipulate the board further.
Miami can still have its pick at wide receiver at No. 6, but it may better off flipping that for even more capital knowing it still holds No. 18. Or, the team can enjoy the best player available at No. 6 and use No. 19 to get a second-rounder while also still getting a player it needs near the bottom of the first round.
Panthers, from No. 8
The Panthers have freed themselves from going after a QB with the Sam Darnold trade, leaving several possibilites in the top 10. Staying put, wide receiver, offensive tackle, Pitts or a cornerback can be very helpful. But they also should realize they pick a spot ahead of the Broncos, the team set for now to take the fifth and final first-round caliber QB. Depending on where Lance goes and the Bengals, Dophins or Lions not trading down with a QB-needy team ahead of them, the Panthers can be positioned to maximize return.
Really, it’s not only a QB. Pitts, the remaining top-two tackle (Oregon’s Penei Sewell or Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater) and the presumed third wide receiver (Alabama Jaylen Waddle) all could cause any number of teams to go hard after No. 8 with the Cowboys, Giants and Eagles looming behind the Broncos at Nos. 10 through 12.
Cowboys, from No. 10
The Cowboys are starting to warm up to taking Pitts instead of addressing their pressing defensive need and taking the best cornerback available, either Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley or Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II. But should both corners be off the board, Dallas would be smarter to trade out of its pick vs. going luxury in the passing game. It’s more of a no-brainer for Jerry Jones to trade down should Farley, Surtain and Pitts all get selected in the top nine.
Under Jones, the Cowboys tend to let the draft come to them, much like jumping on falling wide receiver CeeDee Lamb last year. Dallas picks next at No. 44, so flipping this pick for selections in the 20s and 30s would work well in using three picks on a corner, edge rusher and safety vs. sticking with two picks where the first might be a reach, anyway.
Patriots, from No. 15
There is some buzz about the Patriots trading up for Lance, Ohio State’s Justin Fields or Alabama’s Mac Jones. But that’s not been in their DNA with Bill Belichick as they have much more often been shrewd trade-down partners. If the five QBs are long gone, New England won’t be locking into one prospect as many could define “best player available” for the team.
Someone is bound to fall unexpectedly who will have great value to another team. The Patriots got the Chargers to trade up for Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray last year, and a either a coveted edge rusher for a particular scheme or Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons can cause a simliar proactive reaction from another team. The Patriots have 10 picks but only three in the first rounds, so they should think about strengthening capital via quality over quantity.
Five most likely trade-up candidates
Broncos, from No. 9
The Broncos’ clear-cut path to a top-five QB also clarifies what other teams need to do to become obstacles toward that, jumping somewhere between No. 4 and No. 8. There’s also the chance the 49ers take Jones and the Falcons pass on Lance, and the Broncos may not want to settle for who’s left between Lance and Fields.
Denver in a sense would be making a preemptive definitive trade for a QB, much like San Francisco did when it shot up to No. 3. In that scenario, Atlanta, at No. 4, and Miami at No. 6 before the Detroit-Carolina run, would be the most feasible as Cincinnati needs to be more dialed into a top-five non-QB talent.
Chargers, from No. 13
The Chargers could use Sewell or Slater at left tackle. They could use Pitts to replace Hunter Henry. They could be desperate to upgrade No. 2 wide receiver with an immediate-impact elite starter opposite Keenan Allen. With Justin Herbert coming off an impressive rookie season, it makes sense to be a little aggressive to ensure one of those three picks happens.
Sitting around for the best defensive player available or reaching for a tackle or wide receiver doesn’t feel right. The Chargers can be contenders with one or two big moves with Herbert in mind and the talent at offensive positions of need is just too valuable early. Between the Lions, Cowboys, Giants and Eagles, those plans can be ruinted in the top-dozen picks.
Washington Football Team, from No. 19
Washington signed Ryan Fitzpatrick as a bridge QB for one year and has former Panthers youngsters Kyle Allen and Taylor Heinicke behind him. The Football Team could hope to land Florida’s Kyle Trask at No. 51 overall in Round 2, but it also could want to attack to make amends for the awful first-round picking of Dwayne Haskins in 2019. Don’t be surprised if new GM Martin Mayhew makes a power move with say, the Lions (his one-time employers) at No. 7 to make Washington beat Denver to the punch.
Like the Chargers in the AFC but flipped, with WFT coming off a playoff berth and strong free agency, it could think it’s a young upside QB from turning into a consistent NFC contender. That could make landing a desired franchise QB while the class is strong well worth giving up a a future first-rounder.
Bears, from No. 20
The Bears have the same reasoning as Washington, although they might be a little less desperate now as they were following the Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson disappointments. Andy Dalton is their bridge and they might be fine adding a later-round developmental option.
Beyond making a big move up for a QB, which they have done before with GM Ryan Pace — see for Mitchell Trubisky in 2017 — the Bears might have their eye on defensive player or an offensive tackle to slide up a few notches.
Buccaneers, from No. 32
The Super Bowl 55 champions have won another offseason after nailing their “all in” work with Tom Brady last year. They are playing with house money at this point with no real immediate needs. Would they jump to stash a QB behind Brady? How about a key defensive reinforcement or near-future replacement? With Antonio Brown not re-signed yet, a luxury wide receiver pick can also be in the works.
Tampa Bay has been aggressive with GM Jason Licht with the present in mind so it makes sense it would push for one more key piece of choice instead of sitting on the last first-rounder.