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2021 NFL Draft race for No. 1 pick: How Sam Darnold will impact the Jets’ draft plans

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Sam Darnold has occasionally shown glimpses of being the quarterback the Jets envisioned when they made him the No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 draft. It was Darnold, after all, who led the Jets to a 6-2 record during the second half of the 2019 season, and it was that strong finish that led some to believe that New York could possibly contend for a playoff spot in 2020. 

Not only did the Jets fail to carry any of that momentum into 2020, they are three losses away from joining the ’08 Lions and ’17 Browns as the NFL‘s only 0-16 teams. And while Darnold’s play this season has left a lot to be desired, his poor play has been a byproduct of the the Jets’ dysfunction. This season, the Jets released Le’Veon Bell, traded Jamal Adams, Avery Williamson and Steve McLendon, and fired defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. They have also suffered several significant injuries on both sides of the ball. 

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The Jets’ upcoming game headlines the NFL’s five Week 15 showdowns that will help determine who will select where during the early stages of the 2021 draft. Before we get to the games, here’s a look at my top 10 draft pick predictions based on the current draft order. A mini-mock draft of sorts if you will.

1. Jets – QB Trevor Lawrence, Clemson 
2. Jaguars – QB Justin Fields, Ohio State 
3. Bengals –  OL Penei Sewell, Oregon
4. Chargers – OL Rashawn Slater, Northwestern 
5. Cowboys – CB Patrick Surtain II, Alabama
6. Panthers –  QB Zach Wilson, BYU 
7. Falcons –  EDGE Gregory Rousseau, Miami 
8. Dolphins – DL Kwity Paye, DL 
9. Eagles – LB Micah Parsons, Penn State  
10. Giants – WR Ja’Marr Chase, LSU 

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Jets at Rams 

4:05 p.m. (Fox, stream on fuboTV, try for free)

While most writers (including this one) believe the Jets will spend the No. 1 overall pick on Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the Jets could surprise just about everyone by deciding to stick with the still just 23-year-old Darnold for the 2021 season. Darnold recently expressed his desire to remain with the Jets, who may decide to move on from Adam Gase during the offseason. A new regime may decide to give Darnold a shot while using the No. 1 pick for either assets or another top-rated player. This scenario doesn’t seem likely, but it can’t entirely be ruled out, especially if Darnold can end the 2020 season on a positive note. 

Darnold and his teammates will have their work cutout for them on Sunday, as the Jets are going up against a Rams squad that is trying to stay ahead of Seattle for first place in the NFC West. A big reason for the Rams’ success has been the play of their defense, which is currently third in the league in scoring, first in passing, and second in third down efficiency. Darnold would be wise to avoid Rams All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who has 12.5 sacks and four forced fumbles this season. 

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Jaguars at Ravens 

1 p.m. ET (CBS, stream on CBS All Access)

Like Darnold, Gardner Minshew is also trying to put out good tape during the final three weeks of the regular season. Unlike Darnold, Minshew has significantly more weapons to work with that includes rookie running back James Robinson (1,035 yards, seven touchdowns) and receivers D.J. Chark, Keelan Cole and rookie Laviska Shenault. There’s a good chance that Minshew, who is signed through the 2022 season, may become the next Ryan Fitzpatrick while being asked to mentor whoever the Jaguars select in the 2021 draft. That quarterback is expected to be Ohio State’s Justin Fields, who will look to maintain his draft stock with a strong performance Saturday against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game. 

8:15 p.m. ET (ESPN, stream on fuboTV, try for free)

The Bengals’ once semi-competent offense has taken a nosedive after losing Joe Burrow in Week 11. Rest assured, the Bengals will use their first-round pick on a lineman to help protect their most valuable asset. Assuming they stay at No. 3, the Bengals will be in position to select the top-rated offensive lineman in the draft. That player is currently Oregon tackle Penei Sewell, who in 2019 became the first sophomore to win the Outland Trophy, the award given annually to college football‘s top interior lineman. 

Thursday, 8:20 p.m. ET (Fox, stream on fuboTV, try for free)

While the Raiders are trying to stay alive in the AFC playoff picture, the Chargers are in a position to draft in the top five for the second straight year. And while they will have to address their offensive line and several facets of their defense this offseason, CBS Sports NFL draft analyst Ryan Wilson has the Chargers taking Florida tight end Kyle Pitts in the first round in his most recent mock draft. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound Pitts would complement a Chargers’ offense that already includes quarterback Justin Herbert, receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, and running back Austin Ekeler. Through seven games this season, Pitts has caught 36 passes for 641 yards and 11 touchdowns for the Gators. 

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49ers at Cowboys 

1 p.m. ET (CBS, stream on CBS All Access)

Now that their playoff hopes have been all but extinguished, the only thing that remains unclear is where the Cowboys will draft in the first round. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), the Cowboys’ remaining schedule does not include a single game against a team with a winning record, as the Cowboys will host the Eagles in Week 16 before facing the Giants on the road in Week 17. 

Assuming the Cowboys don’t find themselves with a top-two pick, expect them to select either a cornerback or offensive lineman with their first-round pick. The safe bet is the Cowboys selecting Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II, who has made 35 consecutive starts for the Crimson Tide. Surtain would be a welcomed addition to a Cowboys defense that has allowed the most points in the NFL through 13 games. 


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