Recapping the 2021 NFL Draft
Favorite and least favorite picks; plus best selections from each round
259 picks later, the 2021 NFL Draft is in the books. Before getting into division-by-division team breakdowns of each draft and hitting on items like best scheme fits, fantasy players to watch and more; we’re taking a look at the draft as a whole. Here’s the 10,000 foot look at everything that went down from Thursday through Saturday.
49ers Select Trey Lance
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of here. I was wrong about who the 49ers would select. The poeple I was hearing information from were either lying to me or were lied to themselves. I tend to think that the decision in San Francisco actually change and not that anyone was being purposefully misleading. That happens in this business and the important thing as a reporter is to learn from it.
Throughout the week leading up to the draft, my sources around the league started cooling hard on Mac Jones to San Francisco. I think you’ll notice that reflected in my writing and television work as the information changed.
Here’s what I know for a fact: When San Francisco traded up to No. 3 overall, everyone was hearing that it was for Mac Jones. Adam Schefter reported this. Every draft analyst had them going there in their mock drafts. It was good intel, but it changed over the course of the final month. And that’s the lesson to learn from this: a front office hell-bent on enforcing their “we don’t leak” mentality let people be wrong.
As for the actual selection, Lance was my pick as the best fit in San Francisco. The 49ers are getting a very talented, very smart quarterback. The potential is through the roof for Lance in that offense.
Biggest Round 1 Winners
The Minnesota Vikings were on the clock at No. 14 overall having just watched Rashawn Slater come off the board. They could reach for Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw, roll the dice on a pass-rusher who would also be a reach, or they could trade down.
They traded down and picked up two additional third round picks while still managing to select the player many had connected them to in Darrisaw. Managing the board and still getting the player you were likely to take at your original selection is smart drafting.
Biggest Round 1 Surprise
The Las Vegas Raiders shouldn’t surprise us when they reach for players, but it happened again with the selection of Alabama offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood at No. 17 overall. It’s not that Leatherwood is a bad player—he’s talented and an easy fit at right tackle for them—but that his value didn’t match the selection. The same argument for Clelin Ferrell and Damon Arnette from previous drafts.
The Raiders could have traded back and still landed Leatherwood, who was projected as a Round 2 player. There is something to be said for drafting your guy despite what draft analysts say, but smart teams play the board and gather intel on other team’s boards (this is where looking at draft analysts’ rankings can be valuable to get a consensus on a player’s grade) and then trade back if possible to land their player.
The Raiders didn’t do that. They don’t do that. And it leads to odd values in Round 1 year after year.
Favorite Round 2 Selection
Elijah Moore somehow made it to Round 2 of the draft but the New York Jets turned down plenty of trade offers to select the Ole Miss wide receiver. After grabbing Zach Wilson and Alijah Vera-Tucker in Round 1, this was a brilliant move for the Jets. Moore is an electric, fiery wide receiver who will give this offense the juice it so badly lacked heading into the draft.
Moore was a great value with the No. 34 overall pick (my No. 25 overall player) and a heck of a team need. Joe Douglas had a fantastic second draft as the team’s new general manager.
I’m cheating and picking a runner-up. The Cleveland Browns’ selection of Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah at No. 52 overall was a great value. I reported on Friday night why he was slipping down boards, but there is no doubting his ability as a playmaker. The No. 14 overall player on my board, Owusu-Koramoah has all the tools to be an excellent nickel hybrid defender and tough-as-hell special teams player as a rookie.
Favorite Round 3 Selection
The Carolina Panthers had a very good draft and the selection of tight end Tommy Tremble in Round 3 is a huge part of that. Tremble, while not a very productive pass-catcher at Notre Dame, is an ascending talent with excellent blocking ability and the athleticism to become a bigger part of the passing game in Carolina than he was at Notre Dame. Ranked No. 46 overall on my board, Tremble was a steal at No. 83 overall on the board.
Favorite Round 4 Selection
The Los Angeles Chargers methodically checked off needs with high-value picks throughout the 2021 draft. In Round 4, the selection of pass-rusher Chris Rumph II from Duke gives them a situational pass-rusher with the talent to become an every down player as he develops. Rumph is a little undersized at 6’3” and 244 pounds, he has excellent length and uses his hands like a veteran pass-rusher.
The Cowboys’ selection of linebacker Jabril Cox (LSU) also deserves mention. Cox fell in the draft due to medical concerns from teams and also a belief that he might be limited to passing downs only as a linebacker, but I’d take the risk on a “passing down only” linebacker over one that can’t get on the field in coverage situations. Even with the addition of Micah Parsons in Round 1, the Cowboys doubling-down on athletic linebackers was a solid move.
Favorite Round 5 Selection
The Denver Broncos aggressively targeted their secondary throughout the 2021 NFL draft and went double-duty at the safety position in the fifth round with Texas’ Caden Sterns and Indiana’s Jamar Johnson.
Johnson had a Round 3 grade on my final board (No. 72 overall) as one of the better coverage safeties in the class. He’s not an elite tackler, but his instincts and range are ideal. And right off the bat he should contend for a third safety position and nickel role.
Sterns, who was an elite freshman as a starter for the Longhorns, didn’t develop in Austin as expected due to injury and tons of staff turnover, but he’s a talented athlete with the tools to be a steal if he can stay healthy. To land two players with starting-caliber traits in Round 5 is a home run for first-time general manager George Paton.
Favorite Round 6 Selection
Trey Smith was at one time a five-star recruit and freshman starter at left tackle. Then doctors found blood clots in his lungs, causing him to miss a season (2018). He returned in 2019 and started to shake off the rust from missing a season, but medical concerns obviously pushed him way down the board. The Chiefs believe they can get him back to where he was in 2017 with a better conditoning plan and more focus on his development. If he can remain healthy and at the playing weight assigned to him, Smith could be the steal of the round.
Favorite Round 7 Selection
You never expect seventh-rounders to do much; hell, making the team is a gigantic accomplishment. But Kylin Hill is a different kind of running back. In 2019 he showed the power to push the pile and truck defenders. In 2020, under new head coach Mike Leach, he flashed improved pass-catching ability before opting out of the remainder of the team’s season. That could have ultimately hurt his stock, but it shouldn’t have. Hill also fought alongside lawmakers to have the Mississippi state flag altered to remove racist imagery while getting ready for a college football season. The combination of person and player the Packers picked up in Round 7 is intriguing and promising.
Sometimes it’s better to be an undrafted free agent than it is to be drafted in the sixth or seventh round. That’s what played out for former Florida State defensive tackle Marvin Wilson. Seen as a potential top 50 selection heading into the 2020 season, Wilson opted out due to Covid-19 and saw his stock fall greatly as teams tried to fill in information gaps. But Wilson signed an undrafted free agent deal ($192,000 guaranteed) that was better than most sixth-rounders and all seventh-rounders will receive. He also comes in at a position where the Browns do need depth if not starters.
Most Improved Team — Carolina Panthers
Factoring in the trade for quarterback Sam Darnold, the Carolina Panthers leave the 2021 NFL Draft with five and maybe six new starters. Darnold will start, as will cornerback Jaycee Horn and wide receiver Terrace Marshall, Jr. will see a ton of play-time as a rookie. It also wouldn’t surprise if offensive tackle Brady Christensen, tight end Tommy Tremble and defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon all see major reps as rookies and eventually become starters. Add in long snapper Thomas Fletcher and there’s another rookie starter.
Every fanbase dreams of their team finding starters in the middle and late rounds of the draft. This year the Panthers may have done just that.
Best Overall Draft — Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns entered the 2021 NFL Draft without many needs on paper. They were a very difficult team to make picks for in a mock draft because of this. And general manager Andrew Berry seemed to understand this as he had a “best player available” draft while improving key positions, drafting for future need, and plugging the few question marks on this roster.
One year after making the playoffs and winning a postseason game, the Browns look like AFC title contenders thanks to their additions in the draft.
Here’s the team’s haul:
Rd 1 — CB Greg Newsome II, Northwestern
Rd 2 — LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame
Rd 3 — WR Anthony Schwartz, Auburn
Rd 4 — OT James Hudson, Cincinnati; DL Tommy Togiai, Ohio State
Rd 5 — LB Tony Fields II, West Virginia; S Richard LeCounte, Georgia
Rd 6 – WR Demetric Felton, UCLA