UPDATE: Follow along HERE for day 2 draft grades.
Welcome to the 2021 NFL Draft! The buildup has us all on the edge of our seats and no matter what happens, there will be plenty of surprises. This draft season hasn’t been as perilous as last year, as we were in the thick of a pandemic, but COVID-19 is still with us. The pandemic has translated into another year without a combine and restricted scouting. Groupthink might not be as prevalent as it has been in years past, and that could lead to some picks you’d never imagine. So strap yourself in and let’s grade some picks!
Editor’s note: We published this before the draft started and we’re comfortable calling the Jags now.
Rapid reaction pick grades for Round 1
No. 1 Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
The inevitable has happened. The Jaguars get their man. Unless you’re Phil Simms’ son, you likely agree that Trevor Lawrence was the no-brainer pick and for good reason. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s accurate, he’s mobile and he’s now the center of Jacksonville’s rebuild. And the Jaguars aren’t done. With the most draft capital this year by far, they’ll now bring in more foundational pieces to help Lawrence get his career off to a fast start.
No. 2: New York Jets: Zach Wilson, QB, Brigham Young
Wilson has all the attributes you need to win at the next level, but it is hard to not think of what could have been for the Jets. Winning two of their last three games in 2020 pushed them out of contention for Trevor Lawrence and at this point, Wilson just isn’t Lawrence.
No. 3: San Francisco 49ers: Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State
The 49ers paid a fortune to move up to No. 3 and they got their man. Trey Lance is green, but there’s no doubt he is talented. Shanahan is the perfect coach to get him through the transition. And best of all, it isn’t Mac Jones.
No. 4: Atlanta Falcons: Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida
The Falcons will wait to rebuild with a new quarterback, as Kyle Pitts is instant offense for Matt Ryan and crew. He is a player that would have been hard to pass on and Falcons fans must be elated the he’ll be with them for years to come.
No. 5 Cincinnati Bengals: Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU
The only other pick here would have been an offensive lineman, which would have gotten an A grade as well, but Chase is the guy if you’re looking for offensive upside and you know Joe Burrow loves him. Make your franchise quarterback happy while making your team better. Well done.
No. 6 Miami Dolphins: Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
The Dolphins have good receivers in Devante Parker and Will Fuller, but Waddle brings a Tyreek Hill vibe that you can’t teach. Last season Dolphins receivers had trouble separating, but Waddle should give them a new dynamic and help Tua Tagovailoa take the next step.
No. 7 Detroit Lions: Penei Sewell, OL, Oregon
When you are rebuilding, you start at the base and Sewell is as sturdy a foundation as you’ll find. They need a wide receiver, but it would have been tough to pass on Sewell.
No. 8 Carolina Panthers: Jaycee Horn, CB,
Horn is an awesome talent and I can’t give this pick a bad grade, but when Justin Fields is still on the board and Sam Darnold is your starter, well, I can’t be completely behind it either.
No. 9 Denver Broncos: Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama
Wow. Wow. It sure seemed like this would be a quarterback, but the Broncos went with Surtain, who in many estimations was the best cornerback in the draft. This sure keeps the dream alive for an Aaron Rodgers trade while giving Vic Fangio an amazing secondary. Patrick Mahomes is on notice.
No. 10 Philadelphia Eagles: Devonta Smith, WR, Alabama
With the two best cornerbacks gone, the Eagles were determined to get one of their guys and traded up with the Cowboys to select Smith. Smith very likely would have gone to the Giants with the 11th pick, so the move seems to have paid off. Smith is light, but has a 6’1” frame and is the best route runner in a stacked wide receiver draft. I think the Eagles got this pick right, unlike with their receiver picks of late.
No. 11 Chicago Bears: Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
The Bears finally did something right. Fields had dropped far enough and Ryan Pace pounced by trading up with the Giants. By many estimations, Fields was the second best quarterback in the draft and the Bears very much needed a quarterback. Maybe Andy Dalton starts off under center, but Fields will likely pass him by quickly. Well done Chicago!
No. 12 Dallas Cowboys: Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State
The Cowboys look to have played this correctly, as they were sniped at cornerback and decided to trade back and get a little more draft capital while still getting their next target Parsons. I’d like to have seen an offensive lineman here, but Parsons is an impact player and the Cowboys defense need his range, especially now that Sean Lee is gone.
No. 13 Los Angeles Chargers: Rashawn Slater, OL, Oregon
The Chargers had Slater or Alijah Vera-Tucker to choose from, so they really couldn’t have gone wrong. They’ve done well upgrading the offensive line already by bringing in Corey Linsley and now adding Slater puts them in a great spot to keep Justin Herbert protected.
No. 14 New York Jets: Alijah Vera-Tucker, OL, USC
The Jets hit on offensive lineman Mekhi Brecton last year and double down on Vera-Tucker this year after selecting Zach Wilson with the No. 2 pick. He was neck-and-neck with Rashawn Slater in many evaluations and should be a quick help in protecting the rookie Wilson. The Jets have a good base to work from.
No. 15 New England Patriots: Mac Jones, QB, Alabama
Man, I sure give out a lot of A’s, but even if you aren’t sold on Jones, the fact that the Patriots didn’t need to trade up and still got a Top 5 quarterback is a win. Belichick will have Cam Newton and Jones to work with and we know what he can do.
No. 16 Arizona Cardinals: Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa
The Cardinals get their Hassan Reddick replacement. It isn’t flashy, but it was needed. With the offensive pieces fairly stable, this pick makes sense. I think they could have traded back and still grabbed Collins later, but he’ll keep the Cardinals defense where they were last season, which was above average.
No. 17 Las Vegas Raiders: Alex Leatherwood, OL, Alabama
This was a needed pick after the Raiders traded Trent Brown to the Patriots. He’s going to be good and they needed his position, but it is early for him. They could have gotten him later. But that is the Raiders way I guess.
No. 18 Miami Dolphins: Jaelan Phillips, Miami, EDGE
Phillips adds some beef to the Dolphins pass rush and should be a full time starter by next season. This isn’t the best draft for pass rushers, so his talent level might not be 18th overall pick worthy, but it’s a position they needed to fill.
No. 19 Washington Football Team: Jamin Davis, Kentucky, LB
This pick is about upside and Washington believes that Davis has more longterm upside than Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Feels like a bit of a reach, but Riverboat Ron is building a defense that will be the best in the league by the time they get their franchise quarterback.
No. 20 New York Giants: Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida
Toney is risky, as he missed time due to injuries in two of his three college seasons. He also needs to be more disciplined as a route runner. But, he has the skills to be a productive receiver in the league and upside to improve a lot. I like other receivers more personally, so I’m not in love with this pick.
No. 21 Indianapolis Colts: Kwity Paye, EDGE, Michigan
Paye could be the best edge rusher to come out of this draft based on testing, but the tape doesn’t show the dominance needed for a breakout player at the next level. But, if he can be coached up, his physical traits are perfect for the job. I don’t doubt he’ll be a starter, but he has work to do.
No. 22 Tennessee Titans: Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech
Farley is big for a cornerback and uses that size to his advantage. He doesn’t have the technique of Surtain or Horn, but he makes up for it with instincts and length. His back injury is probably the biggest concern about his longevity in the NFL, but the talent is right up there with the top defensive players in the draft.
No. 23 Minnesota Vikings: Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech
The Vikings get their man after trading back and adding a third and second round pick to boot. You can nitpick at Darrisaw, but his ability is evident on the field. The Vikings needed help up front and they got a player poised to be a top talent in the league.
No. 24 Pittsburgh Steelers: Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
I can’t give a running back in the first round an A, but if we were in 1983, I’d give this pick an A+++++. Harris is going to be an instant impact back for a team that had no semblance of a running game last season. I think they should have gone offensive line here, but Harris will help out the line that they end up with.
No. 25 Jacksonville Jaguars: Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson
Hey, I like Etienne and expect him to be an upgrade over James Robinson, but why use a first rounder on him? Yes, they’re building around Trevor Lawrence, but Etienne isn’t a superb receiver, just an okay one. They have the draft capital to grab Lawrence’s college back without hurting them, but I’d like to have seen a more substantial pick here.
No. 26 Cleveland Browns: Greg Newsome, CB, Northwestern
The Browns are stacked across the board, but their secondary was their biggest concern coming into this season. That concern has been taken care of with the pick of Newsome. They get a player who can play all over the field who plays with great technique. He will help this team from day one.
No. 27 Baltimore Ravens: Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota
Bateman fills a need at wide receiver for the Ravens, who have had inconsistency there for the last couple years. He’s not going to take over the league from the get-go, but he has good hands and plenty of speed. He is more potential than day one production, but I think he gets there.
No. 28 New Orleans Saints: Payton Turner, DE, Houston
The Saints probably reached a bit here, but they got a massive human with potential to truly turn into a top defensive player in the league. He is still developing into his frame and skill set, but he’s going to get there. The Saints love their linemen and he’ll fit right in.
No. 29 Green Bay Packers: Eric Stokes, CB, Georgia
Hey, if I wanted to get on my quarterbacks good side, I’d draft a, uh, cornerback. Poor Stokes, he doesn’t deserve the drama around this pick, but it’s there and apparently very real. Stokes is a versatile corner, but his frame is slight and he’s going to get pushed around early in his career. Until he can at least slow down a running back, he’s going to have trouble staying on the field.
No. 30 Buffalo Bills: Greg Rousseau, DE, Miami
Rousseau only has one season of work under his belt, but all the traits to develop into an impact starter are there. The man knows how to get to the quarterback, but did most of his damage on the interior versus the edge. He has the ability to do both, but he’ll need to improve his technique.
No. 31 Baltimore Ravens: Jayson Oweh, EDGE, Penn State
Oweh is poised to develop into a great edge rusher, but his talent is still raw. The Ravens are taking a bit of a risk here, but they see the bigger picture, which is a long and productive career for Oweh. They’ll need patience, but they know that.
No. 32 Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Joe Tryon, EDGE, Washington St.
The Buccaneers are set at all their starting positions going into 2021, but they will likely need a replacement for Jason Pierre-Paul with this being his last year on this contract. Tyron might not be ready to start 17 games next year, but he should be well on his way. He has all the physical traits to be a a 10 sack per year rusher and cover running backs in the flat. He’ll need some work on run defense, but he’ll learn from the best in Tampa Bay.