The 2021 National Football League draft is set to begin Thursday in Cleveland, Ohio, and to celebrate Loudon County’s football-rich tradition, News-Herald sports writer Nick Davis devised what a mock draft could look like that includes varsity football players from Greenback, Lenoir City and Loudon high schools.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars — Keaton Harig, QB, Loudon
The Jacksonville Jaguars hold the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and are in desperate need of a franchise quarterback following an abysmal 1-15 record last year. Gardner Minshew has the swag, the arm and the mustache, but he’s more than likely not going to be the face of the program moving forward.
Loudon High School junior quarterback Keaton Harig is a sure-fire pick here at No. 1 to replace Minshew after earning his way to the Tennessee Football Coaches Association All-State first team by accumulating a 69.7% completion rating after throwing for 1,896 yards and 22 touchdowns. He also proved a versatile, winning, dual-threat quarterback by rushing for 630 yards and three touchdowns on the ground to help lead the Redskins to a second consecutive 10-win season and Class 3A quarterfinal appearance.
2. New York Jets — Micah Franklin, QB, Greenback
The New York Jets cleaned house this offseason and following the trade of former first-round pick Sam Darnold, new head coach Robert Saleh will be looking for a dynamic field general.
Greenback School junior Micah Franklin started half the season at running back for the Cherokees before making the switch to quarterback, where he rejuvenated a stalling offense by throwing for 820 yards and four touchdowns for a 70% completion rating.
Franklin was also named the Region 2-1A Athlete of the Year and should fit into Saleh’s aggressive scheme.
3. San Francisco 49ers — Brett Cortez, QB, Lenoir City
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s future in San Francisco appears to be up in the air. Head coach Kyle Shanahan loves young quarterbacks and is an offensive guru, so it makes sense to take a flier here on Lenoir City High School freshman quarterback Brett Cortez.
Cortez was forced into action early last season, and although he didn’t light up the stat sheet, he impressed by throwing for 1,004 yards and four touchdowns in eight appearances. He will need to continue to grow and bulk up, but he could be a valuable asset for the 49ers’ hopes of returning to the Super Bowl.
4. Atlanta Falcons — McKenzie Lunsford, ATH, Loudon
Atlanta is trying to reload the roster to the level it had four years ago after fumbling what was going to be the franchise’s first Super Bowl, which is why owner Arthur Blank will want to invest in an explosive athlete in the first round.
Loudon High School senior McKenzie Lunsford did it all for the Redskins by serving as the team’s leading rusher, defensive back and kick returner. Lunsford was named to the Tennessee Sports Writers Association and TnFCA All-State first teams as an athlete and possesses elite speed.
5. Cincinnati Bengals — Jayse Lorenz, DE, Loudon
The Cincinnati Bengals went with quarterback Joe Burrow in the first round last year, but head coach Zac Taylor will now turn his attention to the defense.
The Bengals are in need of a solid pass rush after posting a league-low 17 sacks last season, which is why LHS senior defensive end Jayse Lorenz will be a nice addition. Lorenz capped his final season as a Redskin with 35 tackles, 19 assists and one sack en route to being named to the All-Region 3-3A first team.
6. Miami Dolphins — Colton Alexander, OL, Greenback
The Miami Dolphins’ biggest priority in this year’s draft is protecting former first-rounder Tua Tagovailoa, and a reasonable solution would be to select Greenback senior offensive lineman Colton Alexander. Alexander earned his way to the TSWA All-State first team with a mix of size, strength and ability to drop back in pass protection or create running lanes on rushing plays.
7. Detroit Lions — Semy Turner, WR, Loudon
After trading away Matthew Stafford for Jared Goff in the offseason, the Lions would do their new quarterback a favor by drafting a talented weapon on the perimeter. Loudon’s Semy Turner possesses elite speed, good hands and has an uncanny ability to get open downfield. Turner finished second on the team with 21 receptions for 265 yards and three touchdowns, but he also played an important role on defense as a starting cornerback, where he recorded 34 tackles, one interception and two fumble recoveries.
8. Carolina Panthers — Tucker Yancey, OL, Lenoir City
The Carolina Panthers spent all of their picks last year on defense, so now it’s time to work on building the offense starting at the line of scrimmage. Lenoir City senior offensive lineman Tucker Yancey has a quiet demeanor, but his play on the field says otherwise. He graded out as the team’s top lineman last season and was selected to the All-Region 4-5A first team and Blue-Grey All-American Bowl.
9. Denver Broncos — Jesse Robinson, OL, Loudon
The Broncos are rumored to be looking around for another potential quarterback to push Drew Lock, but head coach Vic Fangio will need to provide some protection up front first. Loudon senior offensive lineman Jesse Robinson would be a perfect fit in offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s philosophy after demonstrating a consistent ability to protect the quarterback and run block.
10. Dallas Cowboys — Kaylob Wolever, OL, Loudon
This year’s draft class is loaded with talented offensive lineman, and the Cowboys will need all the help they can get upfront thanks to a shaky situation surrounding injury prone quarterback Dak Prescott. Kaylob Wolever graded out as one of the best offensive lineman in Region 3-3A last season and possesses good strength and awareness in blocking schemes.
11. New York Giants — Kade Dixon, DE, Lenoir City
Giants head coach Joe Judge desperately needs an effective edge rusher, which is why New York will more than likely turn to Lenoir City’s Kade Dixon. Dixon, a linebacker turned defensive end, led the Panthers with 85 tackles, five sacks, nine tackles for loss and an interception in 2020. The Region 4-5A first-team selection would handle his own in The Big Apple.
12. Philadelphia Eagles — Blake Fields, WR, Greenback
The Philadelphia Eagles parted ways with big-time receivers Alshon Jeffrey and DeSean Jackson following the 2020 season and will need another playmaker opposite Jalen Reagor. Blake Fields made an immediate impact for the Cherokees after transferring from William Blount High School in 2019 and proved one of the best athletes in Region 2-1A the last two seasons. Fields’ speed, hands and size on the outside will be a potent threat.
13. Los Angeles Chargers — Trey Wilhite, DB, Lenoir City
The Chargers’ secondary is thinning out, and Lenoir City’s Trey Wilhite seems to be the perfect fit here for first-year head coach Brandon Staley. Wilhite led the team with 104 total tackles, two interceptions, a tackle for loss and was named to the All-Region 4-5A first team. He has a knack for always being around the ball at the right time, can lay into opponents and possesses a natural kick return ability to make an impact on special teams.
14. Minnesota Vikings — Max Marcum, OL, Loudon
The Vikings will need to prioritize offensive tackle after finishing 7-9 last season. Loudon offensive lineman Max Marcum is a versatile athlete and can play multiple positions along the line. His size, strength and footwork are positive traits head coach Mike Zimmer is looking for upfront.
15. New England Patriots — Kaden Dockins, ATH, Loudon
The New England Patriots didn’t look the same last season following Tom Brady’s departure to Tampa Bay, and All-Pro quarterback Cam Newton could use some extra help to fill the void. Kaden Dockins is arguably the smallest player in this year’s draft, but he makes up for it in speed, athleticism and toughness. Just like his time at Loudon, Dockins could potentially be a two- or three-way player for the Patriots.
16. Arizona Cardinals — Brennen Duggan, DB, Greenback
Brennen Duggan started half the season at quarterback for Greenback last season before making the transition back to receiver and defensive back. The athletic sophomore is quick, good with his feet and showed he could smother opposing receivers despite their size. Duggan still has a lot to prove, but taking a flier at No. 16 seems to be in head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s wheelhouse.
17. Las Vegas Raiders — Devan Nichols, LB, Loudon
Loudon linebackers Devan Nichols and Haden Houser are interchangeable as far as being rated the top linebackers in this county draft, but the Raiders are in need of a talented inside linebacker that can command the defense. Nichols starred at inside linebacker for the Redskins the last three seasons and is a two-time All-Region 3-3A selection. His awareness, strength and athleticism are three critical components the Raiders are needing right now.
18. Miami Dolphins — Eli Rittenhouse, DL, Lenoir City
Eli Rittenhouse is arguably the largest defensive lineman in this class, and that’s exactly what Miami needs if it wants to get over the hump and advance in the playoffs. Rittenhouse was an opposing force against offensive linemen last year and has the ability to disrupt rushing lanes and pressure the quarterback. Rittenhouse recorded two sacks and eight tackles for loss en route to being named to the All-Region 4-5A second team.
19. Washington Football Team — Logan Haggas, OL, Loudon
The Washington Football Team acquired Ryan Fitzpatrick this offseason and will need some help protecting the veteran quarterback. With Loudon offensive lineman Logan Haggas still available, Washington will need to strike on the All-Region 3-3A selection to help provide depth, especially with the departure of talented left tackle Trent Williams.
20. Chicago Bears — Justin Farmer, WR, Loudon
The Bears have experienced offensive shakeups this offseason, but the departure of Mitch Trubisky and signing of Andy Dalton leaves Chicago fans more questions than answers. Loudon receiver Justin Farmer has a big frame but possesses good speed and hands, which would make him a viable target for Dalton. If he continues to fill out, Farmer could end up playing tight end and provide run support for David Montgomery and Tarik Cohen.
21. Indianapolis Colts — Reece Wilburn, DB, Lenoir City
The Indianapolis Colts’ defense is full of young talent, which seems to be an ideal situation for general manager Chris Ballard. The line of scrimmage and secondary both need help, but Lenoir City defensive back Reece Wilburn is too good of an athlete to pass up. He shined last season with 49 tackles and two interceptions as a junior.
22. Tennessee Titans — Josh Gonzalez, TE, Loudon
Tennessee Titans fans were upset hearing of tight end Jonnu Smith’s decision to sign with the Patriots, which is why head coach Mike Vrabel will look to replace him with Josh Gonzalez from Loudon. Gonzalez often towered over opponents and has an ideal body at tight end, so this pick should appease the fanbase and provide an immediate target for Ryan Tannehill.
23. New York Jets — Cole Richards, LB, Lenoir City
New head coach and former 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh loves linebackers, and after spending his second overall pick on offense, he’ll fill a big hole in the linebacking corps. Lenoir City’s Cole Richards racked up 78 total tackles, two sacks and led the Panthers with 17 tackles for loss last season. His hard-hitting, ball-hawking abilities will fit into Saleh’s defensive scheme.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers — Donte Brown, RB, Loudon
Donte Brown split carries last season with McKenzie Lunsford, but his size and strength rounded out Lunsford’s quickness and playmaking ability. Standing at 6’3” and 215 pounds, Brown is the largest running back in this year’s class and would fit in Pittsburgh. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin could also move Brown to fullback in certain situations to act as a blocker or red zone bulldozer.
25. Jacksonville Jaguars — Braden Matoy, LB, Greenback
The Jaguars got their franchise quarterback with the first pick and will fill a defensive need at linebacker with Greenback’s Braden Matoy. He led the Cherokees with 38 tackles, 38 assists, five tackles for loss and one sack, which led him to being named the Region 2-1A Linebacker of the Year. He was selected to the TSWA Class 1A All-State first team.
26. Cleveland Browns — Haden Houser, LB, Loudon
The Browns will have the steal of the first round by picking up Loudon senior outside linebacker Haden Houser, who was arguably the best linebacker in Region 3-3A last season after leading the Redskins with five sacks. Houser possesses a quick twitch off the ball and makes forceful contact with any player standing in his way. He also has the versatility to play inside linebacker or rush off the edge.
27. Baltimore Ravens — Jordan Carroll, LB, Lenoir City
Baltimore is nearly bare when it comes to pass rushers and linebackers, so LCHS senior linebacker Jordan Carroll is a logical pick. Carroll is an athletic specimen that can play on both sides of the ball, and the All-Region 4-5A second team selection totaled an impressive 66 tackles, eight tackles for loss, two sacks and two interceptions last season.
28. New Orleans Saints — Dusty Clevenger, ATH, Lenoir City
Speedster Dusty Clevenger is a sneaky good and wise pick for head coach Sean Payton’s dynamic offense. After Drew Brees’ retirement in March, the next quarterback is going to need some targets. Clevenger proved a dynamic deep threat last year for the Panthers, hauling in 32 catches for 321 yards and a touchdown, but he can also effectively return kicks.
29. Green Bay Packers — Sebastian Borthwick, WR, Lenoir City
The Packers continue to consistently boast one of the league’s top offenses with All-Pro quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but who’s to say there couldn’t be one more receiver to join an already talent-filled wide receiver room? Sebastian Borthwick starred as one of Lenoir City’s top two receivers last year and possesses good speed and hands.
30. Buffalo Bills — Donavon Blankenship, DB, Loudon
After two decades of mediocrity, the Buffalo Bills looked last season like the franchise of the late 1980s. Head coach Sean McDermott has found a lot of success in leaning on younger, unproven players, which is why the front office will take a shot on Loudon senior Donavon Blankenship. Although basketball is his sport, Blankenship showed promise in one season of playing cornerback at the high school level and was named to the All-Region 3-3A honorable mention team.
31. Kansas City Chiefs — Isaac Chavez, LB, Loudon
There’s not been much to criticize about the most explosive team in the NFL the last three seasons, but the Chiefs’ defense could use a little more help from Loudon sophomore linebacker Isaac Chavez. He led the Redskins with 88 tackles and two forced fumbles last season and was named to the All-Region 3-3A first team.
32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Jackson Williams, WR, Loudon
Tom Brady pulled the impossible and won his seventh Super Bowl with the unsuspecting Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year with the help of tight end Rob Gronkowski and receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans. Since Brady and head coach Bruce Arians like to pass, look for Jackson Williams to get drafted and immediately compete for the No. 3 slot on the perimeter.