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Mock Draft Madness: predicts the first three rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft

In less than two weeks, the 2021 NFL Draft will begin, and the endless prognostication will come to an end. We'll finally find out who the Broncos will take with the ninth-overall pick — or if they're destined to trade up or down.

Before we get to April 29, the staff members decided to engage in one of our favorite exercises of the season: Mock Draft Madness.

With the help of Pro Football Network's mock draft simulator, Aric DiLalla, Sydney Jones, Phil Milani and Ben Swanson each completed a three-round mock draft simulation. General Manager George Paton will take the reins in a couple of weeks, but for a few minutes, we each got to pretend we ran the show.

The rules were simple: Draft for the Broncos for the first three rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft without any do-overs. Did a player come off the board earlier than expected? Too bad. Did one of our analysts give up too much in a trade and then regret it? That's a shame. We also ran the simulations independently, so none of us knew how the others fared until after all four drafts were completed.

The four of us got one shot at our mock — and you get to vote on who did it best.

Without further ado, we present the 2021 edition of Mock Draft Madness:

Phil Milani:

No. 14: LB Micah Parsons, Penn State

via trade with Minnesota

Denver receives: Pick No. 14

Minnesota receives: No. 40, No. 71, 2022 first-round pick

If Ohio St. quarterback Justin Fields was available at No. 4, then I was going to approach a trade with the Falcons. Unfortunately in my mock, the 49ers took him with the third pick. My new plan was to see if I could trade back because I think there is good mid-to-late first-round talent in this draft. Luckily, the Steelers called and I traded back from No. 9. Pittsburgh ended up taking Patrick Surtain II. More on that trade in a minute.

As the draft proceeded, my priority was at inside linebacker and Penn State's Micah Parsons was starting to fall, perhaps due to some character concerns. When he was still available at No. 14, I decided I should call our friends in Minnesota. I traded No. 40, No. 71 and my 2022 first-rounder for No. 14. With Parsons, the Broncos are getting a player who can make this a top three defense in the NFL. He can do it all on the field: stop the run, blitz the quarterback and cover tight ends and running backs. He has versatility that is so crucial in today's game, especially in the AFC West.

No. 24: RB Travis Etienne, Clemson

via trade with Pittsburgh

Denver receives: No. 24, No. 55, 2022 second-round pick, 2022 third-round pick.

Pittsburgh receives: No. 9

Holding the 24th pick from my earlier trade with Pittsburgh, I was hoping that Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II would be available, but the Patriots took him at 19. So I switched gears and did something that might surprise some people — I took a running back. Ahhhh! But Clemson's Travis Etienne is special. He is explosive, with 16 career touchdowns of 44-plus yards. He can stay on the field all three downs and can catch the ball out of the backfield. You need two running backs in this league and I think he will be a perfect complement to Melvin Gordon III.

No. 76: S Jevon Holland, Oregon

Via trade with New York Giants

Denver receives: No. 76, 2022 second-round pick

New York receives: No. 55, 2022 fourth-round pick

After trading away next year's first round pick, I thought maybe I should try to acquire some future capital just in case. So I moved back in the second round, trading No. 55 and my 2022 fourth-rounder to the Giants for No. 76 and their 2022 second-rounder. This means the Broncos will have three second-round picks in 2022, which is plenty of ammo to move up if needed next year.

I was holding my breath in the third round because I had my eye on a safety from Oregon. The Vikings at No. 71 and the Cowboys at No. 75 both went with different safeties, and I was able to take Jevon Holland. NFL Network analyst and former Pro Bowl running back Maurice Jones-Drew thinks Holland is the best defensive player in the entire draft. Holland opted out of the 2020 season, but he had nine interceptions during his two seasons in Eugene. I think he will provide depth at safety behind Justin Simmons, who was also a third-round pick, and Kareem Jackson, while also contributing on special teams as a rookie.

Aric DiLalla:

Pick No. 4: QB Trey Lance, North Dakota State

Via trade with Atlanta

Denver receives: No. 4

Atlanta receives: No. 9, No. 40, 2022 second-round pick

Don't just talk about it, Phil! Be about it! I had hoped that the 49ers would take Mac Jones with the third pick to give me some added flexibility with my first pick, but when they selected Justin Fields at No. 3, I sprang into action.

It's nearly a coin flip for me whether I'd have Fields or Lance — I think both have the potential to be top-tier NFL starters. And while I preferably would've gotten Lance at No. 9 if he fell that far, I couldn't take that chance. The Broncos hopefully won't be picking again in the top 10 any time soon, so this was my opportunity to go up and get a quarterback for a reasonable price.

Lance has played just one full season as a starter, but he threw for 28 touchdowns, no interceptions and 2,786 yards while completing 66.9 percent of his passes in 2019. He added another 1,100 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. A unanimous FCS All-American, Lance has received comparisons to Josh Allen and Steve McNair, among others.

While defensive options like Patrick Surtain II and Micah Parsons are intriguing, this is a quarterback-driven league. And while I'm hopeful Drew Lock can turn things around and play more consistently if he is the guy in 2021, I couldn't resist Lance's upside — especially for the price it took to move up.

I wasn't going to break the bank here and give up a future first rounder. I first offered No. 9, my 2021 second-round pick (No. 40) and a 2021 third-round pick, and the Falcons declined. I then countered by offering my 2021 second-rounder and a 2022 second-rounder — and they took the deal. Had they passed, I would've tried to work out a deal with Detroit or Carolina, but I don't think Lance would've gotten by the Falcons. In my mock, they ended up selecting Mac Jones with the 14th pick.

I ended up being glad I made the move, as tackles Penei Sewell and Rashawn Slater went off the board at No. 5 and No. 8, respectively. Surtain, meanwhile, went unexpectedly early to Detroit at No. 7. If the board fell the same way had I stayed at No. 9, I would've traded back.

Pick No. 71: LB Baron Browning, Ohio State

I'm glad I got my quarterback of the future, but, man, it felt like forever until I picked again.

It was difficult to watch some intriguing prospects go off the board in Round 2, but I didn't want to sacrifice much more of my draft capital after moving two second-rounders.

I made a couple of trade offers during the wait, and the first was prompted by a fall down the board by Miami rusher Jaelan Phillips and Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley. I would've been pleased with either player, so I decided to make a trade offer when one of them was left on the board. Phillips finally went at No. 43 to the 49ers, so I sent the Cowboys an offer for my 2021 third- and fifth-round picks (No. 71 and No. 152) for the 44th-overall selection. I wasn't surprised that they declined — it wasn't a great offer — and they took Farley with the pick.

I tried to make the same offer late in the second round to acquire the No. 62 pick from Green Bay. Wake Forest edge rusher Carlos "Boogie" Basham Jr. and LSU linebacker Jabril Cox were still on the board, and I would've been happy with either player. The Packers declined my offer, though, and Basham and Cox went off the board at No. 66 and No. 69.

That left me with a decision between Ohio State linebacker Baron Browning and North Dakota State tackle Dillon Radunz. It was tempting to keep the Bison teammates together in Denver — what a great story line for the media! — but I had a couple of concerns. First, Radunz played left tackle for NDSU, and I was a little too uncertain about his ability to slide over to the right side. I also wasn't sure about the value, thinking I could pick up a tackle on Day 3 to provide depth behind Ja'Wuan James. It's a deep class, and I wanted to add a defender.

That led me to Browning, who some mocksters have suggested could go in the second round. Browning has all the physical tools, but critics say he needs to improve his instincts. I'm hoping Vic Fangio can help him in that area and turn this pick into a steal. He played both inside and outside linebacker at Ohio State, which would give the Broncos needed depth.

One other note: The Seahawks picked up the phone when I was on the clock at No. 71 to offer me the No. 129 pick in this year's draft, a 2022 third and a 2022 fourth in exchange for No. 71 and a 2022 seventh. I appreciated the offer, but I didn't want to move down 60 spots — and certainly not for that value. Waiting 125 picks between selections wasn't for me.

Sydney Jones:

No. 16: LB Micah Parsons, Penn State

via trade with Arizona

Denver receives: No. 16, No. 49, 2022 third-round pick

Arizona receives: No. 9

I decided to trade back from No. 9 after the Arizona Cardinals offered me their No. 16 pick, their No. 49 pick and a 2022 third-round pick. Since this year's top four quarterbacks were already off the board and given the depth at linebacker and offensive tackle still available, it felt like a good decision to pursue either Virginia Tech tackle Christian Darrisaw or Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, while gaining additional draft capital. The Chargers ended up selecting Darrisaw at No.13 overall, so when I was back on the clock at No. 16, it was a no-brainer to select Parsons. Parsons seemed like the best option due to his explosive speed and NFL-ready frame. I think he could make an immediate impact as an inside linebacker here in Denver.

No. 26: CB Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech

via trade with Cleveland

Denver receives: No. 26

Cleveland receives: No. 40, No. 71, 2022 third-round pick

Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley was someone I had my eye on early in the pre-draft process due to his size and the way he utilizes his length and strength to beat out receivers. With the additional draft picks I received from Arizona, I knew I had flexibility, so I decided to trade down back into the first round. I traded with the Browns, giving them pick No. 40, pick No. 71, and the 2022 third-round pick I acquired from the Cardinals. While Farley did opt out of the 2020 college football season and did not participate in Virginia Tech's pro day this year due to a back injury, he's reportedly on track to be ready for the 2021 season. Broncos General Manager George Paton did address the team's need at the cornerback position during free agency with the additions of Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller, but I felt it was necessary to add depth at this position since Fuller and Callahan only have one year left on their deals. Farley is a great prospect that could develop his game working with Denver's veteran corners and could emerge as a top cornerback in his second season.

No. 49: S Richie Grant, UCF

via trade with Arizona

I decided to add more strength to the Broncos' secondary with the No. 49 pick and selected Richie Grant, a safety from the University of Central Florida. As this pick was approaching, I knew I wanted to add another value player to the defensive backfield, specifically at safety, a position where the Broncos lack depth. I had my eye on Grant and TCU safety Trevon Moehrig. Grant was still on the board when I was on the clock again, so I knew I had to grab him. He led UCF in tackles last season, had 10 interceptions over his last 34 games and five career forced fumbles. He's a versatile safety that can continue to develop into an impact player learning under Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson, arguably one of the best safety duos in the league.

Ben Swanson:

No. 9: QB Trey Lance, North Dakota State

As you'll see, I went through my draft without completing any trades, though it wasn't for lack of consideration or effort. When I saw San Francisco opt for Justin Fields at No. 3 over Mac Jones, I figured Atlanta would take Trey Lance. Since I'm not super high on Mac Jones, I was comfortable with just waiting for No. 9, at which point perhaps I'd have to decide between linebacker Micah Parsons and cornerback Patrick Surtain II. However, Atlanta bucked expectations and went with tackle Penei Sewell, which gave way to a run on receivers for Cincinnati, Miami and Detroit before Carolina took Surtain. I fielded trade offers for the No. 9 pick from three teams — Washington, Atlanta and Indianapolis — but only Washington's made me hesitate, as they offered the 19th-overall pick and their 2022 first-round pick (the other two dropped me either further down in the first or out of it completely). However, I worried that most, if not all, of my top prospects would be gone by the time 10 more picks passed. Plus, that 2022 pick could be closer to the end of the first round than I'd like, considering they'd be about to add a top-10 prospect.

All that said, I felt I couldn't pass up this opportunity to draft a top quarterback. Who knows if the Broncos will be in position to get a player like him in 2022 or beyond, so I stayed at No. 9 and took Lance, whom many people don't expect to fall this far. The knocks against Lance are fairly well-known at this point: He started fewer than 20 games for the Bison and the competition he faced was less than ideal for making confident NFL projections. Still, I look at the arm strength, the mobility, how he reads defenses and how he avoids costly mistakes (he went the entire 2019 season without throwing an interception). I like Lance to immediately add competition at quarterback, and his potential going forward is tantalizing.

Later, I attempted to make a trade to get back into the first round as linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah fell into the late teens and early 20s. However, my efforts were rebuffed, as I wanted to retain at least one Day 2 pick over the next two drafts. One of my trade packages for the No. 19 pick was estimated to deliver a draft value increase between 10 percent at the very worst and 60 percent at the very best, but still that didn't secure the pick. So, I let it go. I'm comfortable heading into training camp with Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell as the presumed starters and a healthy Justin Strnad adding to the competition. I'd probably draft another linebacker on Day 3 to bolster the position.

No. 40: CB Kelvin Joseph, Kentucky

In the second round, I opted to draft for defense by adding cornerback Kelvin Joseph out of Kentucky. Joseph picked off four passes in 2020 and has plenty of potential to grow, which appears to be a great fit with Denver's secondary boasting solid starters in Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby and Bryce Callahan (in a nickel subpackage). With Fuller on a one-year contract and Callahan entering the last year of his deal, Joseph gives me more young talent at the position and more flexibility for the future. Also, I think all Broncos fans know by now just how necessary depth at cornerback is, so adding a player like Joseph on Day 2 could pay dividends even this season.

No. 71: OL Jaylen Mayfield, Michigan

I have no idea why Michigan's Jalen Mayfield fell all the way out of the second round, much less to me at No. 71, but I secured a top tackle in the third round.'s Daniel Jeremiah has him as the 27th-best overall prospect and calls him a "Day 1 starting right tackle." He might not be pressed into that role as a rookie with Ja'Wuan James set to return for the Broncos, but with Elijah Wilkinson departing in free agency, Mayfield should have an immediate role as a reserve tackle. And if he does need to become a starter as a rookie, I'll be confident in his ability. At the very least, the Broncos should be set at their left and right tackle positions for years to come. 

Looking at my first three picks as a group, I feel like I managed to mostly pick based on "best player available." I don't think the roster had any gaping holes coming into the draft, which is a great luxury. You could look at certain spots and think, Well, I'm not sure what happens after this season, so let's try to plan ahead here, which lets you draft with a lot of flexibility. And as we've seen in the past two years in Denver, sometimes those holes don't become apparent until the season begins. So I feel good with my group; they may not be relied upon from the get-go, but I also don't think they're necessarily "projects." At each spot I found a player that I think can be a starter, and in Lance, perhaps a quarterback who can revolutionize Denver's offense.

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