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NFL Draft 2021 results: Pick-by-pick grades for Round 1

Let’s grade every first round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

The speculation is over. The 2021 NFL Draft is here, and now we get to see where football’s most promising young prospects will begin their career, and how NFL teams have been viewing this class throughout the entire pre-draft process.

I’ve long been an advocate that the draft itself isn’t about players “sliding or rising,” but rather everyone playing catch up to how teams have been viewing these players all along. That doesn’t mean teams are infallible, but rather learning the disconnects between independent scouts and pundits, and how NFL executives and front office staff are looking at these same players. We’ve seen plenty of examples in the past of the sweetheart “can’t miss” draft pick who ends up being terrible, and we’ve also see the “ludicrous reach” that’s mocked on draft night proving everyone wrong and shaping the league as a result.

The inherent idea of “draft night grades” is tricky. Yes, we’ll need a full three years to really get a sense of how these will pan out. We simply don’t know enough about the process, the players, and the fit to formulate accurate opinions moments after a name is announced. However, we can take a deeper look at these players and judge, based on everything about them, teams needs and organizational culture, whether they’ve been put in the position to succeed, or whether this could be a problem moving forward.

It’s time. Now let’s see how the draft plays out.

No. 1: Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
We knew this pick was coming for months, and the Jaguars didn’t do something wild, or overthink this process at the last second. Lawrence has been pegged as a future No. 1 pick for years, and was the prize for a bad team in 2020. He offers a steady hand, leadership, and much-needed identity to a team that had very little to be excited about. In a draft class where quarterbacks range from NFL-ready to boom or bust upside, Lawrence threads the needle. He will be a guy who can start right away, and has plenty of room to grow in the league.
Grade: A+

No. 2: New York Jets: Zach Wilson, QB, BYU
The Jets fell in love with Wilson during the pre-draft process and I get it. There’s a lot of skills you see and imagine them translating to the NFL like Aaron Rodgers or Pat Mahomes, improvising, turning plays into jazz, and free-forming his way into eye-popping moments. Personally, I’m not nearly as high on Wilson. He played a lot of bad competition and threw too many 50/50 balls. I think this is a bigger risk than it needed to be, and the Jets are in dire need of “sure thing” superstars.
Grade: B

No. 3: San Francisco 49ers: Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State
Thank God this team dodged a bullet. I truly believe there was equal chance the team could have taken either Lance or Mac Jones, and of those two players the team made the right choice. That said, this is a big, big, big risk. It’s not about spending a third overall pick on Lance, it’s about spending THREE first round picks on him. There’s a chance that pans out, but part of me will wonder forever if the 49ers needed to move up to No. 3 so early in the process instead of waiting and seeing if they could have given up less to make this pick.
Grade: B-

No. 4: Atlanta Falcons: Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida
I think Kyle Pitts is going to help revolutionize offense in the NFL as the purest extension of modern play calling and concepts. He’s a tight end in name, but plays a pure hybrid who’s basically a massive wide receiver who can do everything. Atlanta seemed happy continuing with Matt Ryan a little longer instead of finding his replacement now, and they’re giving him the best weapon in this draft.
Grade: A

No. 5: Cincinnati Bengals: Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU
This pick was always going to be about getting Joe Burrow a weapon, and in the end the Bengals went for the LSU handcuff of giving Burrow his former teammate. I don’t like the pick though. The Bengals were one of the most sacked teams in the NFL a year ago, and it led to an injury that cut short Burrow’s season. Penei Sewell was sitting RIGHT THERE and made all the sense in the world. Chase is great in his own right, but this was not the right choice.
Grade: C-

No. 6: Miami Dolphins: Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
Two picks, two handcuffs in a row. The Dolphins reunite Waddle with Tua Tagovailoa and give him a shifty receiver who can mesh really well with their first round pick a year ago. Miami needed a top-end weapon, and they got it here. The offense will be better as a result, and considering the bevy of picks the Dolphins have, getting a player widely regarded to be the best WR in this draft was a great choice. Now they can address other issues later.
Grade: B+

No. 7: Detroit Lions: Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon
The Lions had been linked to a defensive player for much of the pre-draft process, but the value here was just too good to pass up. Sewell was the No. 2 prospect on my draft board after Trevor Lawrence, and best player available matters. Sewell is a violent blocker who will maul anyone trying to get to his QB, and whether that’s Jared Goff right now, or a new player in the future, Detroit has a 10+ year cornerstone.
Grade: A+

No. 8: Carolina Panthers: Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina
You know the Panthers are devastated by getting thiiiis close to Penei Sewell and missing out. It’s almost like the shock spooked them into making a pick, and it’s the wrong one. I don’t care if there’s an argument to putting Horn above Patrick Surtain II, the Panthers just put all their faith in quarterback in a Sam Darnold reclamation project and left Justin Fields on the board. Taking Fields would have been a tough choice too, but this was unquestionably a bad one. Not trading out of the pick, not gambling on upside. It was safe, and Carolina needed to take a swing.
Grade: D

No. 9: Denver Broncos: Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama
There’s been swirling rumors all afternoon about the Broncos potentially being in on a trade for Aaron Rodgers, and not taking a quarterback here seems to lend that some credence. Surtain II is a great all-around corner, my top player at the position in the draft, and I think it makes a lot of sense in a division with Pat Mahomes. He’ll come in and be able to make an impact from day one, and when you get one of the best players at your position of greatest need you made a good choice. If this doesn’t lead to a deal for Rodgers and the Broncos left Fields on the board it’ll be interesting.
Grade: B

No. 10: ***TRADE*** Philadelphia Eagles: DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
The Eagles made a move to jump up to the No. 10 spot, giving up the No. 12 overall pick and their third round selection this year. Dallas had been linked to a CB for much of the draft, and seeing two go in a row likely pushed them out.
DeVonta Smith is the best receiver in this draft for my money, and a brilliant choice to give weapons to Jalen Hurts. There are concerns about his frame being too lean, or that he’s more of a generalist in an era of specialists — I don’t care. Smith is an elite player who will make noise in Philly.
Grade: A+

No. 11: ***TRADE*** Chicago Bears: Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
The Bears make a big splash, trading the No. 20 pick, their fifth round pick, and a 2022 first and fourth round picks to get their guy. This is precisely why I said teams should wait to make a pick instead of trading early. The 49ers had to give up three first round picks to get Trey Lance, the Bears gave up two and a mid rounder to get a player who I think will be better. There’s room for Fields to develop, and he is an elite player in the making who has been compared to Dak Prescott. That’s a good thing.
Grade: A+

No. 12: Dallas Cowboys: Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State
There’s a pretty clear through line here. With Chicago jumping up for a QB it’s clear the Cowboys weren’t comfortable going down to No. 20 and still getting a player like Parsons. Widely regarded as the best defensive player in the draft, it might not be a position of huge need for the Cowboys, who desperately needed a cornerback — but it’s a BPA pick on defense.
Grade: B+

No. 13: Los Angeles Chargers: Rashawn Slater, OT, Northwestern
This pick made too much sense, and the Chargers have to be thrilled. Getting protection for Justin Herbert was a priority to build off his stellar rookie season, and Sewell sliding down a little led to Slater being taken now, rather than earlier. He’s a steady pass blocker who deserves to be the highest-drafted Northwestern player of all time.
Grade: A-

No. 14 ***TRADE*** New York Jets: Alijah Vera-Tucker, OG, USC
The Jets felt the need to get some protection for Zach Wilson and get a hell of a blocker in Alijah Vera-Tucker. I had him mocked to the Vikings at this spot, but obviously they want a tackle rather than a guard. Vera-Tucker was USC’s left tackle last season, but he projects better into a guard, and his versatility will be an asset. That said, if the Vikings didn’t want Vera-Tucker, I’m not sure the Jets needed to bite to move up.
Grade: B

No. 15: New England Patriots: Mac Jones, QB, Alabama
This was the pick I had in my very first mock because there were two logical landing spots for Jones: San Francisco or New England. Jones is the most NFL-ready quarterback in this draft who may have a limited athletic ceiling, but if there’s ANYONE who knows how to coax incredible play out of people who don’t have ideal measurables, it’s New England. This is a great spot for Jones, a great pick for the Patriots. Now we’ll see if he can become the next franchise quarterback for the team.
Grade: B+

No. 16: Arizona Cardinals: Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa
A truly remarkable athlete with a great story, the Cardinals decide to address their needs on defense. The issue is that he doesn’t really have an established position in the NFL, he’s more of just a weapon. I’m not going to call this pick a “reach,” because you could justify any pick from top 10, to the early second round. It’s a solid pick, but doesn’t make a ton of waves.
Grade: B

No. 17: Las Vegas Raiders: Alex Leatherwood, OT, Alabama
A mountain of a man, Leatherwood played left tackle at Alabama, but I just don’t know if he has the speed to play tackle in the modern NFL. Jon Gruden loves size, and things that can’t be taught — and Leatherwood has that, I just don’t like this pick or the value here. There is a chance for potential and development, but if you wanted a tackle Christian Darrisaw was on the board.
Grade: D+

No. 18: Miami Dolphins: Jaelen Phillips, DE, Miami
The Dolphins went with the local guy here, and Phillips becomes the first defensive end off the board. A long, lean pass rusher with amazing moves — Phillips is the prototype for the modern position. He has pursuit speed to chase down agile quarterbacks, and hitting power to make an impact. There are some potential injury concerns, but make no mistake: If those concerns weren’t there he’d be a top 10 pick.
Grade: B+

No. 19: Washington Football Team: Jamin Davis, LB, Kentucky
This was ... something. It’s an extremely Ron Rivera pick, and in this case I’m not sure it’s a great thing. Davis is extremely raw and untested with just 11 starts in his college career, and that doesn’t mean he won’t be great, it’s just the kind of raw potential pick we see on day two, not in the top 20.
Grade: C

No. 20: New York Giants: Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida
Dave Gettleman is trying to prove his concept with Daniel Jones at this point, and is getting him a really nice weapon. Whatever happened with the Giants this draft the team needed a weapon, and Toney is a weapon. He’s a receiver in the Stefon Diggs mold, and along with Kyle Pitts made the Gators’ offense a nightmare. He lacks the core abilities you want from a receiver, but has ludicrous athleticism. That should help mitigate how average Jones can be at times.
Grade: B

No. 21: Indianapolis Colts: Kwity Paye, DE, Michigan
Paye is a player who has a ton of potential. He spent a lot of time playing DT for the Wolverines this season, using predominantly short-arm power moves against interior defenders. He projects to the outside in the NFL, and needs work to develop a wider array of moves at the position. Still, he has a ton of potential and getting him at No. 21 is solid value.
Grade: B

No. 22: Tennessee Titans: Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech
I like Caleb Farley a lot, and think he fell down boards because he opted out, then had surgery. As long as he recovers he’s a hell of a cover corner who I think plays the ball in the air as well as any DB in this draft. The Titans get an incredible player if he can stay healthy, and I think when you’re a good team in the 20s like this you can afford to take a risk and hit a home run.
Grade: A

No. 23: Minnesota Vikings: Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech
This is a solid pick made great by the fact the Vikings traded back and acquired more value. It’s completely conceivable the team would have been okay staying at No. 14 and taking Darrisaw, but they were willing to take the risk and move back. Minnesota needed trench help on both sides of the ball, and Darrisaw will play RT from day one.
Grade: A

No. 24: Pittsburgh Steelers: Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
Some picks just make sense, and this is one of them. Najee Harris is the PERFECT Steelers running back who isn’t afraid of contact and can move the chains. The Steelers will hope Harris is half as good in the NFL as the player he most reminds me of: Derrick Henry.
Grade: B+

No. 25: Jacksonville Jaguars: Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson
Two running backs in a row, and a continuation of the NFL trend of drafting players who worked together in college. Etienne is a shifty, do-everything back who can be an outlet in the passing game for Trevor Lawrence from the jump. When you have a new QB you want to make life easier, but I do question this pick slightly over an offensive tackle because I think Etienne might have been there in the early 2nd.
Grade: C+

No. 26: Cleveland Browns: Greg Newsome II, CB, Northwestern
The Browns are getting a good sized cornerback who will add to their secondary and make life tougher for the talented receivers in the division. There are some questions about whether he saw enough top-end talent in college, but he’s got great skills and this is an excellent choice.
Grade: B+

No. 27: Baltimore Ravens: Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota
The Ravens needed weapons for Lamar Jackson, and they got a heck of one here. Bateman is a guy I thought could go 10 picks earlier, so landing him here AFTER a trade for a second first rounder is just gravy. Bateman has great size, and he’s a home run, big play receiver who can stretch the field.
Grade: A+

No. 28: New Orleans Saints: Payton Turner, DE, Houston
Well, I guess they believe in him. That’s kind of the nicest thing I have to say right now. This is the kind of pick you expect when a team is desperate for a pass rusher, and all the good ones have been taken. Not what happens when numerous better players are still on the board, and you go this direction. Could be good, but feels like a massive, massive reach.
Grade: F

No. 29: Green Bay Packers: Eric Stokes, CB, Georgia
Again, I’m kind of speechless here. Eric Stokes has unreal speed and could be a factor as a returner on special teams as well, but like, I don’t really get it with Asante Samuel Jr. on the board. I thought he’d be a day two pick as a nickel corner, not a first round pick for a team in need of a lot of defensive and offensive pieces.
Grade: D

No. 30: Buffalo Bills: Gregory Rousseau, DE, Miami
The Bills really don’t need a lot, which allows them to make picks like this with confidence. Rousseau is an excellent defensive end that should have gone sooner (lol New Orleans). Rousseau can be a rotational pass rusher from the jump, and coaches love his willingness to do anything. He’s a guy who will put the work in to make an impact at several positions, and this is the epitome of a good team getting a good player.
Grade: A

No. 31: Baltimore Ravens: Jayson Oweh, LB, Penn State
I thought the Ravens would go safety here, but I still love this pick ... a lot. Baltimore are great at using defensive players creatively, and Oweh is a weapon who can move around and put pressure on the quarterback. People overthink the fact he isn’t a sack finisher too much. Generating pressure is often just as valuable, and this was a great pickup here.
Grade: A+

No. 32: Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Joe Tryon, LB, Washington
This is that tale end of the 1st pick that’s a bit of a wash. People might have Tryon graded as a 2nd rounder, but he wouldn’t be around by the time the Buccaneers are picking again. They need to start thinking ahead for their future pass rush and cap solvency, and this is one of those picks. I don’t love it, I don’t hate it.
Grade: B-