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NFL mock draft 2021: Carolina Panthers trade with New York Jets to upgrade at quarterback

By seemingly every account, the 2021 NFL draft's suspense truly begins at pick No. 2, currently held by the New York Jets. (If you don’t follow college football – or are emerging from a years-long coma – Trevor Lawrence, ticketed as this draft’s No. 1 pick for years, is earmarked for Jacksonville.)

But the NYJ have a fascinating variety of options. My esteemed colleague Mike Middlehurst-Schwartz had them taking BYU’s Zach Wilson in his most recent mock. I’ve had the Jets going with Oregon's Penei Sewell, then went with their best-case scenario in my subsequent mock – obtaining Houston Texans QB Deshaun Watson in a package that included the No. 2 pick.

This time, I'll send the Jets down a different path – one where they decide to give it another go with incumbent QB Sam Darnold while leveraging the pick for draft assets to hasten their resurrection. Their trade partner, the Panthers – Carolina tried to obtain Matthew Stafford and has been heavily linked to Watson – comes up to No. 2. The Panthers send the Jets the No. 8 pick, a Round 3 selection and their 2022 first-rounder.

With that, let's Keep Pounding.

1. Jacksonville Jaguars – Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson: The rehab on his surgically repaired non-throwing shoulder is going well, and he learned the Jags franchised LT Cam Robinson to protect him next season. Next? Lawrence will surely be curious to see how new coach Urban Meyer and GM Trent Baalke spend their league-high $73 million in cap space.

QB Zach Wilson was a three-year starter for BYU. (Photo: Rick Bowmer, USA TODAY NETWORK)

2. Carolina Panthers [PROJECTED TRADE with New York Jets] – Zach Wilson, QB, BYU: RB Christian McCaffrey told USA TODAY Sports this week that current QB1 Teddy Bridgewater is "a hell of a quarterback." That’s great, but coach Matt Rhule has been far more tepid, from noncommittal comments at the Senior Bowl to what he said this week. "Teddy is a tremendous professional, and a tremendous person," Rhule said. "I think he's controlling what he can control. … We're going to continue to try to improve the roster at every position, through free agency, through the draft, and through development." Wilson is a far better athlete and much more dynamic thrower than Bridgewater and could very well provide the improvement under center Rhule clearly covets.

3. Miami Dolphins (from Texans) – Ja'Marr Chase, WR, LSU: The Biletnikoff Award winner in 2019 as college football’s best receiver – when Joe Burrow was throwing to him – Chase opted out in 2020 but is still widely regarded as one of the three to five best players in this draft. A dominant receiver at every level of the field, including the red zone, his presence would certainly give QB Tua Tagovailoa a chance to succeed in his second season.

4. Atlanta Falcons – Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State: His dual threat upside is tantalizing, and it could be hard for a team like Atlanta to pass on a rare opportunity to obtain Matt Ryan’s successor. Optimally, Lance gets a year to transitions to the pros from the Football Championship Subdivision, which limited him to one game in 2020, and is ready in 2022 – when maybe the Falcons can offload Ryan, who’s still playing at a high level, for a first-round pick to facilitate their ovehaul.

5. Cincinnati Bengals – Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon: The primary mandate here should be safeguarding Burrow, whose rookie season was cut short by an ACL tear. Sewell addresses that while maybe sending 2019 first-rounder Jonah Williams to right tackle or guard.

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6. Philadelphia Eagles – Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida: Whether he’s lined up tight, in the slot or out wide, just a tremendous weapon – especially for a young quarterback. And with owner Jeffrey Lurie apparently looking for ways to help QB Jalen Hurts succeed – and with TE Zach Ertz evidently on the trade block – adding Pitts would seem to solve a lot of problems … while bolstering a receiving corps that hasn’t done much in two seasons.

7. Detroit Lions – Rashawn Slater, OT, Northwestern: They could go in any number of directions, including quarterback. But new coach Dan Campbell wants to see shredded kneecaps, and new offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn wants to run the ball. Slater, who can play anywhere on the line, would check multiple boxes for an organization in the midst of upheaval.

8. Jets [PROJECTED TRADE with Panthers] – Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama: New York has finished last in total offense each of the past two seasons and hasn’t had a 1,000-yard receiver since Brandon Marshall in 2015. So how about giving Darnold help, pairing Waddle with 2020 second-round WR Denzel Mims and reasonably giving the young QB a shot to succeed with bona fide weapons in new OC Mike LaFleur’s offense.

9. Denver Broncos – Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech: Wouldn’t be a shock to see new GM George Paton dip his toe into the QB waters. But it’s sensible to consider prime talent to bolster the corners of Vic Fangio’s defense, more so given the release of A.J. Bouye.

10. Dallas Cowboys – Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama: Everyone is over the moon in Big D with Dak Prescott finally under contract – and that investment warrants reinvestment in an aging offensive line. But bolstering a deficient defense is also a priority, and a top-line corner like Surtain makes sense given the way this board falls and this team’s lack of secondary depth.

11. New York Giants – DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama: What is it about Broadway’s teams not putting supporting casts around their leading men? QB Daniel Jones could certainly use better protection after getting sacked 45 times in 14 games last season, but giving him an electric wideout like Smith might also make teams think twice about blitzing.

12. San Francisco 49ers – Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State: GM John Lynch seems committed to Jimmy Garoppolo yet also understands he needs better insurance behind the injury-prone passer, who’s only started more than six games in a season once. Fields could use developmental time but may eventually blossom into a much better option for this team under Kyle Shanahan’s tutelage.

13. Los Angeles Chargers – Alijah Vera-Tucker, OL, USC: Whether he's deployed at guard or tackle, where the Trojans used him in 2020, Vera-Tucker solves a problem for the Bolts, who better start protecting QB Justin Herbert.

14. Minnesota Vikings – Kwity Paye, DE, Michigan: Coach Mike Zimmer has converted vast potential into vast production before – look no further than Vikes DE Danielle Hunter. Lining Paye opposite Hunter would give him a chance to thrive while theoretically adding juice to what was the NFC’s worst pass rush in 2020 and a poor defense Zimmer deemed the "worst one I've ever had."

15. New England Patriots – Mac Jones, QB, Alabama: It didn't go so well in Year 1 post-Brady. Jones, who flourished under Bill Belichick's close friend Nick Saban in 2020, could be the best option if this team goes back to deploying a capable point guard who won’t necessarily make plays outside the pocket. Jones completed 77.4% of his passes and threw 41 TDs in 2020 but had the benefit of outrageous talent all around him – a luxury New England doesn’t presently afford.

16. Arizona Cardinals – Greg Newsome II, CB, Northwestern: An outrageous pro day performance including a 4.38 40-yard dash. Newsome also looks like a plug-and-play prospect who could suit a team that seems poised to move on from free agent Patrick Peterson.

17. Las Vegas Raiders – Gregory Rousseau, DE, Miami (Fla.): Rousseau, who's only 20, had 15½ sacks in 2019, winning Atlantic Coast Conference defensive rookie of the year honors before opting out in 2020. His 6-7 frame also makes him a threat to bat down balls when he can't get to the quarterback – much like Maxx Crosby. But the Silver and Black really need guys who can create pressure given 25% of their regular seasons for the foreseeable future will be played against Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert.

18. Dolphins – Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Notre Dame: His stock seems to be rising … and being a highly athletic defender who can fulfill a variety of roles will do that for a prospect. And the Fins can use reinforcements at linebacker – or is it safety? – after parting with Kyle Van Noy, who apparently wasn’t the right fit for this unit.

19. Washington Football Team – Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State: Their defense finished second overall in 2020 but could improve with upgraded linebacker play. A former linebacker whose best defenses in Carolina were anchored by MLB Luke Kuechly, coach Ron Rivera might be the perfect guy to unlock Parsons’ vast abilities while also monitoring his maturation process.

20. Chicago Bears – Trevon Moehrig, S, TCU: This defense has spent the last few years cycling through safeties to pair with steady Eddie Jackson. Moehrig could solve that problem while also helping this group generate the takeaways that made it such a scary bunch a few years ago.

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21. Indianapolis Colts – Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech: Anthony Castonzo's retirement leaves a void at left tackle for an otherwise stalwart offensive line. Barring a free agent signing or shuffling All-Pro LG Quenton Nelson outside, the path of least resistance might be drafting steady Darrisaw and leaving the other four starters in place. Gotta bubble new QB Carson Wentz after he was sacked a league-high 50 times (in just 12 games) and eventually fell apart.

22. Tennessee Titans – Azeez Ojulari, OLB, Georgia: The AFC South champions’ sack total (19) was tied for the fewest ever by a playoff team. Ojulari, who averaged nearly a sack per game in 2020, looks like the best edge linebacker in this draft.

23. Jets (from Seattle Seahawks) – Najee Harris, RB, Alabama: Did we mention getting help for Darnold, who had New York’s longest run by far (46 yards) of the 2020 season. Harris is a bruising runner, reliable pass catcher and capable in protection – all attributes that would enable the new regime to determine whether or not Darnold is the franchise savior the previous regime thought him to be.

24. Pittsburgh Steelers – Jalen Mayfield, OT, Michigan: Free agency and the retirement of C Maurkice Pouncey mean Pittsburgh might have to replace 80% of its offensive line. Mayfield should be able to handle guard or right tackle.

25. Jaguars (from Los Angeles Rams) – Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida: Keelan Cole, Chris Conley and Dede Westbrook are all headed for free agency – and all are eminently replaceable. Toney, DJ Chark Jr. and Laviska Shenault Jr. would give Lawrence a nifty trio of targets to work with over the next few seasons.

26. Cleveland Browns – Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa: Off-ball linebackers who are 6-4 and 260 pounds are pretty rare in the modern, pass-centric NFL, but Collins has the athleticism and coverage ability to pull it off – Exhibit A being the Bednarik Award winner’s game-winning, 96-yard pick-six to beat Tulane last season.

27. Baltimore Ravens – Jaelan Phillips, DE, Miami (Fla.): He replaced Rousseau for the Hurricanes in 2020, responding with eight sacks and 15½ tackles for loss. Maybe now he does the same in Baltimore for free agent Matt Judon, the Ravens’ leading sack man the past two seasons … even with a modest total of six last year.

28. New Orleans Saints – Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina: The son of former Saints WR Joe Horn might be made to order for a team that must regularly contend with Tom Brady and his arsenal of Bucs receivers … a task that got more challenging with the release of Janoris Jenkins.

29. Green Bay Packers – Terrace Marshall Jr., WR, LSU: Assuming the Pack get serious about getting QB Aaron Rodgers help – after a week when they opened the door for RB Aaron Jones to leave – Marshall might be a solution. He’s not the polished receiver Davante Adams is, but he’s got the size and downfield speed to make defenses pay consistently for rolling coverage to the All-Pro receiver.

30. Buffalo Bills – Joe Tryon, Edge, Washington: This defense has really struggled to create pressure off the edges for most of Sean McDermott’s tenure. The issue needs to be addressed, especially as Jerry Hughes’ production continues to decline.

31. Kansas City Chiefs – Teven Jenkins, OT, Oklahoma State: The world saw what happened to their decimated O-line in Super Bowl 55. And Thursday’s release of first-string OTs Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz – neither was available against the Bucs – suggests the AFC champs will be in the market for Patrick Mahomes bodyguards.

32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Jayson Oweh, Edge, Penn State: Not clear what the champs’ plan for their pass rush is after opting not to tag OLB Shaq Barrett for the second offseason in a row. They could do worse than enlisting a raw talent like Oweh while letting OLB Jason Pierre-Paul and DC Todd Bowles mentor him.

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Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.

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