2021 NFL draft: Round 1 instant grades

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Eric Edholm
·14 min read
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1) Jacksonville Jaguars: QB Trevor Lawrence, Clemson — First pick, top prospect. Until we have a reason to doubt him, Lawrence looks like a star in the making. How will it work with Urban Meyer? No one knows. But Lawrence has just about everything you could hope for in a franchise QB. Even Tim Tebow can’t take away from the glitz of this pick. Grade: A

2. New York Jets: QB Zach Wilson, BYU — Surprising this heavily speculated pick hasn’t received a bit more security to this point. Wilson has a tremendous arm, matched only by his confidence. He could be a really nice fit in the Shanahan-steeped system of Mike LaFleur, but Wilson could get in trouble with his fast-and-loose style early. He’ll be compared to the QBs who go after him — namely Justin Fields — for the next several years. Grade: B-.

3) San Francisco 49ers: QB Trey Lance, North Dakota State — Our first stunner. There has never been a pick quite like it this high up in the draft. Perhaps you can go back to Steve McNair from Alcorn State for a comp. But the 49ers are banking on the tremendous upside of Lance — he of the 318 college pass attempts — over the steadiness of Mac Jones. When will Lance see the field? Another huge mystery. Grade: B.

CLEVELAND, OHIO - APRIL 29: Kyle Pitts speaks onstage after being selected fourth by the Atlanta Falcons during round one of the 2021 NFL Draft at the Great Lakes Science Center on April 29, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OHIO - APRIL 29: Kyle Pitts speaks onstage after being selected fourth by the Atlanta Falcons during round one of the 2021 NFL Draft at the Great Lakes Science Center on April 29, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

4) Atlanta Falcons: TE Kyle Pitts, Florida — A grand slam. No matter what Julio Jones’ fate is, the Falcons are adding a rare weapon in Pitts, who is just scratching the surface of his potential at age 20 (he turns 21 this fall). New head coach Arthur Smith is a former TE coach, and he elevated the position in Tennessee as offensive coordinator there. With Pitts, Calvin Ridley and Hayden Hurst, the options are pretty exciting for Smith and QB Matt Ryan. Grade: A.

5) Cincinnati Bengals: WR Ja'Marr Chase, LSU — They’ve been on Chase for a while now, with team owner Mike Brown reportedly stamping the final decision. Chase gives Joe Burrow three excellent wide receivers — Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd — similar to what he had in college. Chase was his go-to guy, and it looks like a great match … if the protection holds up. Grade: A-.

6) Miami Dolphins: WR Jaylen Waddle, Alabama — Miami gets another weapon for Tua Tagovailoa in the electric Waddle, who can attack every part of the field and change the way teams defend them in the same way that Tyreek Hill does for the Chiefs. Waddle’s ankle injury isn’t considered serious anymore, and pretty soon he will be adding some major speed — on returns as well — to the roster. Getting our No. 5 overall prospect and landing trade-down assets in the 49ers deal is a win-win. Grade: A-.

7) Detroit Lions: OT Penei Sewell, Oregon — The Lions are set at left tackle with Taylor Decker, but Sewell could be the Day 1 starting right tackle — at age 20. He won’t turn 21 until a few weeks into the season, and there could be an adjustment to a new position and NFL-caliber speed rushers. But the upside here is tremendous. New GM Brad Holmes is building the infrastructure first. The glitz can come later. Grade: B+.

8) Carolina Panthers: CB Jaycee Horn, South Carolina — A mild upset here, as Horn is the first defensive player off the board — and the Panthers resisted the QB option here, too. Horn going over Patrick Surtain II is a long play; in time, the son of Joe Horn could be a Stephon Gilmore-caliber defender as a press-man corner. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow loves long, athletic corners, and he gets one here. Grade: B.

9) Denver Broncos: CB Patrick Surtain II, Alabama — Denver has made major upgrade at corner this offseason with Kyle Fuller and now Surtain, something Vic Fangio has to be thrilled about. But leaving one of the two quarterbacks, Justin Fields and Mac Jones, on the board will be highly debated (if they don’t, um, land Aaron Rodgers, we suppose). Surtain is a rock-solid future Pro Bowler, though. Grade: B+.

10) Philadelphia Eagles (via Dallas Cowboys): WR DeVonta Smith, Alabama — With the top two corners off the board the previous two picks, this was a tough spot for the Cowboys. So they trade out with … their division rivals? Why, yes! To get ahead of the division rival Giants, of course. Philly must have thought that the Giants were dead set on Smith, sending a third-rounder to Dallas to move up two slots. Smith’s weight (170-ish pounds) will be all the talk, but his play was downright special — for most of the past three years. A fascinating pick. Grade: B-.

11) Chicago Bears (via New York Giants): QB Justin Fields, Ohio State — GM Ryan Pace was handed a golden ticket when two quarterbacks fell outside the top 10. His time was now, and there was no reason to hesitate. The cost (next year’s first and fourth, plus a fifth this year and No. 20) wasn’t too cumbersome to pull the trigger. This has to feel like Christmas on Michigan Avenue for Bears fans. Fields will have every chance to push Andy Dalton out of a job. Grade: A.

12) Dallas Cowboys (via Philadelphia Eagles): LB Micah Parsons, Penn State — The Cowboys have to be worried about the health of LBs Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, as they take Parsons here. He certainly fits the mold of the hyper-athletic playmaker the Cowboys tend to seek, and the defense was a major problem last season. Where and how Parsons fits in will be interesting, but at the least he adds outstanding juice and pass-rush talent to that unit. Still, there’s risk with this pick, and they still need a corner. Grade: B-.

13) Los Angeles Chargers: OT Rashawn Slater, Northwestern — The Chargers absolutely needed to add to their bulwark in front of Justin Herbert, and they get a super-athletic tackle (or is he a guard?) to help that effort. Slater opted out last season but had three seasons of starting experience for the Chargers to view — at both OT spots. They also had good intel on Slater from Cody Cejda, who joined the staff from Northwestern. A really nice pick here. Grade: A-.

14) New York Jets (via Minnesota Vikings): OT-OG Alijah Vera-Tucker, USC — The feeling all draft season was that the Jets would draft a QB at No. 2 and either an edge rusher or a blocker with their second first-rounder. They went with the former/latter, trading up from No. 23 to make sure they got their man. Vera-Tucker has experience at both guard and tackle, and he’ll be joining a line that has promising left tackle Mekhi Becton. GM Joe Douglas likely wants to recreate what Zach Wilson had at BYU last season: great pass protection that allowed him to create. Grade: B+.

15) New England Patriots: QB Mac Jones, Alabama — Two months ago, this was a popular pairing. But it felt unlikely the more we heard talk of Jones landing with the 49ers at No. 3. But for the Patriots to get Jones at No. 15 without trading up is a scenario we were not sure would happen. Jones is now Bill Belichick’s highest-drafted QB ever. What a wild result. Jones might not be great, but he could be in a pretty perfect setup in New England. Grade: B+.

16) Arizona Cardinals: LB Zaven Collins, Tulsa — Everyone knew the Cardinals were in love with Collins, but the glaring need at cornerback still remains. Collins instantly will step in as the Haason Redick replacement and can provide that same caliber of pass-rush ability, as well as a surprising aptitude for coverage for a 260-plus pounder. This is a fascinating addition following last year’s first-rounder, Isaiah Simmons, and the addition of J.J. Watt. Kliff Kingsbury has a defense? Grade: C+.

17) Las Vegas Raiders: OT-OG Alex Leatherwood, Alabama — Some teams felt he was a late first-rounder. Others had third-round grades on him. So this makes it a classic Mike Mayock pick in that it’s going to be widely considered a reach. In a perfect world, Leatherwood steps in as the Day 1 right tackle — a bit of a void in the desert. He’s big, long and athletic but can be a little stiff at times. His big-game experience will help, but Leatherwood might never be dominant. Grade: C.

18) Miami Dolphins: EDGE Jaelan Phillips, Miami — A really big swing for the fences. Phillips is the most talented edge player in this class, but there were some major concerns about his health after he was advised to medically retire following multiple concussions at UCLA. Transferring to Miami brought out Phillips’ pass-rush juice, as he was arguably the best edge defender in college football for a stretch last season. But Brian Flores’ no-nonsense approach could go one of two ways for a player who had some character questions. Grade: B.

19) Washington Football Team: LB Jamin Davis, Kentucky — This is a huge rise for Davis, who started one game prior to last season. He came on with a great 2020 campaign and tested through the roof at his pro day, which led to many in the league speculating he could be a late first-round pick. But we can’t help but wonder if the WFT wouldn’t have preferred Ali Vera-Tucker or Zaven Collins, both of whom came off the board a few picks earlier.. Grade: C+.

20) New York Giants (from Chicago Bears): WR Kadarius Toney, Florida –Well, this is one we didn’t expect. The Giants slid back nine spots and — with edge rushers on the board — took the Gators’ Swiss Army knife weapon. Toney is an electric threat with the ball in his hands on schemed-up touches but isn’t yet a complete receiver. Daniel Jones and the offense got some real juice, but Toney needs work as a receiver. Grade: C+.

21) Indianapolis Colts: EDGE Kwity Paye, Michigan – This was a big need for the Colts, finding more pass-rush power to fuel an emerging defense. Paye remains a little raw in this department, but his ceiling is high because of his non-stop motor and tremendous athletic talent. Will it all come together on Matt Eberflus’ defense? We shall see. Not taking Christian Darrisaw to fill the left-tackle void is interesting, but the Colts have time to get a left tackle if they don’t plan on shuffling their OL. Grade: B.

22) Tennessee Titans: CB Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech – The Titans let Malcolm Butler, Adoree’ Jackson and Desmond King walk, so corner was a huge need. If Farley is healthy, it’s a home run. He’s a long, highly athletic man-cover talent. But multiple teams we spoke with in the lead up to the draft expressed concern about the fact that he’s now had multiple microdisectomies and that his back issues could linger. After whiffing on Isaiah Wilson hard last year, this is quite the risk this time around. They must feel good about his medical eval.. Grade: C+.

23) Minnesota Vikings: OT Christian Darrisaw, Virginia Tech – It’s back to back Hokies as the Vikings slide down and grab a player who routinely was mocked in the teens. GM Rick Spielman typically lands good value, and this fits the bill. We weren’t quite as enamored with Darrisaw’s upside as others, but he's a very nice player with the athletic traits to be a Day 1 starter at left tackle. Grade: B+.

24) Pittsburgh Steelers: RB Najee Harris, Alabama – All the pre-draft buzz was on Harris, and it certainly fit what the Steelers look for in their backs: He’s big, he’s an excellent receiver and he can make people miss at 232 pounds. Harris just doesn’t hit home runs, and that’s fine if — and it’s a big if — the Steelers can find some better blockers up front. Right now, that’s their biggest need. Grade: B.

25) Jacksonville Jaguars: RB Travis Etienne, Clemson – Congrats to all who bet over 1.5 running backs in Round 1. The Clemson-to-Jacksonville pipeline continues with Lawrence at No. 1 and Etienne here. That’s a hell of a backfield now, with James Robinson handling the dirty work and Etienne as the weapon in space. With those receivers, a solid line and two quality backs, the Jaguars suddenly have some real offensive juice. Grade: B-.

26) Cleveland Browns: CB Greg Newsome II, Northwestern – This is a coup for the Browns, nabbing a player whom many believed would've been gone before now. Newsome is a bulldog-caliber competitor, and a tremendous athlete. That secondary could be really strong now with Denzel Ward, Newsome, Grant Delpit and Greedy Williams all young and highly talented. Wanna stop the Bills and Chiefs? Beef up that secondary. Grade: A-.

FILE - In this Nov. 9, 2019, file photo, Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman (13) runs the ball down the field for a touchdown against Penn State during an NCAA college football game, in Minneapolis. Bateman initially opted out of the season on Aug. 4, citing concerns about playing amid the coronavirus pandemic, instead signing with an agent and focusing on the NFL draft. But he changed his mind when the Big Ten returned Sept. 16 with daily testing and earned special reinstatement from the NCAA. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs, File)
Rashod Bateman projects as a nice future target for QB Lamar Jackson. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs, File)

27) Baltimore Ravens: WR Rashod Bateman, Minnesota – This was a pick widely speculated, as Bateman is an outside receiver who will battle for balls. One thing we noticed on tape (that will work very well with Lamar Jackson): Bateman is really good at coming back to the ball on scramble drills. This pick will work, even with the need on the offensive line. Grade: B-.

28) New Orleans Saints: EDGE Payton Turner, Houston – The Saints losing Trey Hendrickson opened a void at the pass rush spot. Here they land a high-character, high-floor player who started rounding into form last season. Turner was lower on our board, but there’s a lot to like about his massive, long frame as a base end. We don’t believe he’ll provide a lot of sacks right away. Grade: C+.

29) Green Bay Packers: CB Eric Stokes, Georgia – Aaron Rodgers has to be pumped. Stokes ran a blistering 40-yard dash (4.29 seconds), is regarded as smart and versatile. But he also needs some technique work, can be grabby and isn’t yet a finished product. Stokes going ahead of Tyson Campbell, his Georgia teammate, is interesting. Other teams had it the other way around and gave Stokes mostly second- and third-round grades. He has potential but might start out in a sub-package role. Grade: C-.

30) Buffalo Bills: EDGE Gregory Rousseau, Miami – After a 15.5-sack redshirt freshman season, Rousseau opted out in 2020 and became one of the bigger 2021 draft mysteries. He’s ultra-talented and has sky-high potential. But how fast will it come? The Bills’ pass rush metrics landed in the middle of the pack, and Rousseau can help. Even so, most of his production came when he played inside and rushed against slower guards and tackles. His edge rushing needs work but boy, he’s a gifted player. Grade: B-.

31) Baltimore Ravens: EDGE Jayson Oweh, Penn State – The offensive line can wait. Oweh is a true 1% athlete, even by NFL standards. He’s raw as a pass rusher, finding his way into the backfield with his rare traits and very hot motor. The Ravens typically put a lot of stock into sack production in their projections. Oweh had zero in seven games in 2020 and only seven in 24 college games. Will he harness his skill? Grade: C+.

32) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: EDGE Joe Tryon, Washington – The champs enter the draft with an interesting project who one day might replace Jason Pierre-Paul or Shaq Barrett. Tryon opted out in 2020 and remains raw overall (nine sacks in 25 games). But his phenomenal traits are a great starting point and his high-effort style is a fit on this defense. Grade: C+.

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