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2021 NFL draft order projections: Predicting top 10 picks, why Panthers are favorite for No. 1

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Rhule wanted to focus on defense in first draft with Panthers (2:29)

Trey Wingo speaks with new Carolina coach Matt Rhule, who explains why the Panthers chose to pick only defensive players in the 2020 draft. (2:29)

As soon as one NFL draft ends, we're all looking forward to the next NFL draft. Each year, we do an early set of projections, and the aftermath of the 2020 NFL draft is no different.

Every fan wants to have hope for his favorite team going into a new season. That hope takes a bit of a hit if you see your team forecast with a top-10 draft pick. So we wanted to go through the teams we have projected with the top 10 picks in the 2021 draft, and explain a little bit about those predictions. The projections are created by forecasting a range of possibilities for each team's offense, defense and special teams based on numerous factors including personnel changes, three-year performance, standard regression toward the mean and schedule strength.

There's a lot of year-to-year change in the NFL, and prognostication is difficult. For each team, we've listed a best-case scenario of what would take our prediction of a top-10 pick and turn it into a playoff season. Here are our projections for the top 10 picks of the 2021 NFL draft:

1. Carolina Panthers

The biggest problem for the Panthers is going to be their defense, which has the worst DVOA projection in the league. Carolina already ranked 25th in defensive DVOA a year ago, but from that defense the Panthers have subtracted nine different players with at least 4 approximate value (explained here) last season according to Pro Football Reference. That group is led by seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly and two members of the starting secondary, James Bradberry and Eric Reid. In addition, while pass defense may be more important than run defense in the modern NFL, run defense is the stronger factor in predicting the next year's overall defensive rating. And the Panthers had the worst run defense in the league in 2019.

We forecast that the Panthers' offense will improve a little bit with Teddy Bridgewater as the starting quarterback. But the Panthers also have the worst special-teams projection in the league; punting is the element of special teams that is most consistent from year to year, and the 2019 Panthers ranked last in the league in net punting value. As an added bonus, the Panthers currently have the hardest projected schedule by our numbers. The other three NFC South teams all have mean projected DVOA in the top 12, including No. 1 New Orleans.

Best-case scenario: The Panthers get strong results out of their all-defense draft, making up for the loss of so much veteran talent. First-round rookie Derrick Brown and the returning Kawann Short dramatically improve the run defense. Bridgewater improves the offense even more than expected, at least making the Panthers wild-card contenders in what is admittedly a transitional year.