AP photo by Tony Dejak / Workers prepare the site Tuesday for the 2021 NFL draft, a three-day event that starts Thursday night in Cleveland and will be closer to past drafts than last year's pandemic-altered virtual show.

Return To Normalcy!

That's not exactly the slogan for the NFL draft being staged Thursday night through Saturday afternoon in Cleveland. It's more at the top of the league's wish list as it allows some prospects and fans to attend the festivities — yes, those are going on by the shores of Lake Erie.

Sure, the draft is the NFL's most popular event other than the Super Bowl and the opening week of the season. And it being held virtually in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic was a most emphatic sign that very little would be normal for pro football last year.

Yes, that draft was a big hit thanks to commissioner Roger Goodell's "come join me" style of hosting from his man cave, as well as the honest, unstaged reactions by so many players when they were selected. The NFL is incorporating some of that into this year's proceedings, though Goodell will be on hand in Cleveland to hug or bump fists with the dozen or so prospects in attendance.

Still, the key for the league is that, just as last season was completed on time, and the Super Bowl — albeit scaled down from a mega event — was held on schedule, this draft will be as close as currently possible to the real thing.

"We have to do this," said Jon Barker, the NFL's head of live event productions. "We need to get people out and back to live events and to experience things like this, and the draft is one of those great events that can bring everybody together and do that."

Another sign of business as usual is that many of — perhaps all — the clubs will be back at their facilities to conduct the selections. There are requirements and coronavirus protocols in place, of course.

"We're going to be back in the building, which is a good thing," said New York Jets general manager Joe Douglas, who has the second overall spot and is expected to take BYU quarterback Zach Wilson after the Jacksonville Jaguars open up by grabbing Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

"Right now, through the league mandate, we're going to have 15 individual tables set up and we're going to be in there with masks. And the group that won't be allowed in the draft room, or we won't have enough room for in the draft room, we're going to have them logged into the (Microsoft) Teams call so that they're still part of it."

Also somewhat routine will be the laser focus on one position: quarterback, naturally.

The top three selections figure to be Lawrence, Wilson and then either Ohio State's Justin Fields, Alabama's Mac Jones or Trey Lance of Football Championship Subdivision powerhouse North Dakota State to the San Francisco 49ers. The two not selected almost certainly will go in the top 15, with a potentially wild scramble by clubs in need of a quarterback seeking to trade up.

San Francisco sent three first-round picks and a third-rounder to move up to what was the Miami Dolphins' position.

"You've got to take risks. This is a risk we were willing to take," 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said of the massive cost of moving up to the third spot. "We looked at how our four years have gone. We looked at how we want the next four years to go, and we'll look to where we're at in the draft and the options that are there. We felt pretty strongly we were going to get left at the altar sitting there at 12."

The Atlanta Falcons have the No. 4 selection and a wide range of options for how to use it, while the Tennessee Titans have their own brand of picking pressure at No. 22 in the first round.

Left out of Thursday's picking will be the Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams — none of whom are in the market for a quarterback right now anyway. Selecting twice because of deals with those teams will be Miami (sixth and 18th), Jacksonville (first and 25th), the Jets (second and 23rd) and the Baltimore Ravens (27th and 31st).

Wide receiver, for the second successive year, is the strength of this draft crop, with three possibly going in the top 10: Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and teammate Jaylen Waddle of national champion Alabama and Ja'Marr Chase of LSU, another Southeastern Conference program.

Chase opted out of the 2020 college season and is one of several players projected to be selected early despite their layoffs. Not too many teams are fearful of grabbing the players who sat out part or all of the pandemic-altered season.

"You're projecting, it's probably a bigger projection than when you studied a guy that's played three years of college football," said Duke Tobin, director of player personnel for the Cincinnati Bengals. "That's our job, to project them into our league, into our system and scheme, and into our division and what we do. It's a year like no other."

some text
AP file photo by LM Otero / NFL commissioner Roger Goodell


April 29-May 1 at Cleveland

Thursday’s First Round

1. Jacksonville Jaguars

2. New York Jets

3. San Francisco 49ers (from Houston Texans)

4. Atlanta Falcons

5. Cincinnati Bengals

6. Miami Dolphins (from Philadelphia Eagles)

7. Detroit Lions

8. Carolina Panthers

9. Denver Broncos

10. Dallas Cowboys

11. New York Giants

12. Philadelphia Eagles (from San Francisco 49ers)

13. Los Angeles Chargers

14. Minnesota Vikings

15. New England Patriots

16. Arizona Cardinals

17. Las Vegas Raiders

18. Miami Dolphins

19. Washington Football Team

20. Chicago Bears

21. Indianapolis Colts

22. Tennessee Titans

23. New York Jets (from Seattle Seahawks)

24. Pittsburgh Steelers

25. Jacksonville Jaguars (from Los Angeles Rams)

26. Cleveland Browns

27. Baltimore Ravens

28. New Orleans Saints

29. Green Bay Packers

30. Buffalo Bills

31. Baltimore Ravens (from Kansas City Chiefs)

32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers