NFL Draft 2021: Round 1 Grades for Every Pick
The future is now as the NFL holds its annual entry draft in Cleveland.
Nothing hits quite like the promise of potential. The potential of selecting an elite talent or adding a capable veteran through trade or acquisition of future assets to build toward sustainability.
This year is a little different than any other, even beyond the obvious restrictions brought on by COVID-19.
The Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are counted among the league’s best and picking near the bottom of each round. Conversely, the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots are much higher in the order than normal. Slotting helps dictate each team’s approach and the accompanying expectations.
Follow along as Bleacher Report updates with analysis and grades for every selection.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars
Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
Strengths: Complete package, unflappable, leadership qualities
Weaknesses: Slight frame, decision-making
The pantheon of quarterback prospects over the last 40 years starts with these four names. Maybe the hype has been overblown to some degree regarding the Clemson product, but he's deserving of being placed into the highest possible category regarding quarterback evaluations.
The 6'6" signal-caller became a starter as a true freshman and led his team to a national title. The Tigers played in another championship game and made college football's final four during Lawrence's other two seasons on campus. The 21-year-old never let the pressure of being a prized recruit in pressure situations affect him. His poise on and off the field make him the future face of a franchise.
Any perceived deficiencies should be considered nitpicky.
Two seasons ago, Lawrence struggled with his decision-making and identifying coverage, particularly during the first half of the 2019 campaign, though he greatly improved in this area. Also, the two-time first-team All-ACC performer could add some bulk to his frame. How he handles the physicality of professional football will be an indicator of his career arc. Currently, he is recovering from labrum surgery in his non-throwing shoulder.
Lawrence now sits in a similar position to Sam Wilson's throughout Disney's The Falcon & The Winter Soldier. He's been chosen, and the mantle of savior isn't easy to handle.
"But this is a decision that...it's gonna define us, certainly for the rest of my life," Jaguars owner Shad Khan told Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer.
The organization hasn't had a true franchise quarterback since the team benched Mark Brunell in favor of Byron Leftwich in 2003. Leftwich, Blaine Gabbert and Blake Bortles all failed. The Jaguars have never truly had an elite talent behind center. Lawrence changes everything.
It may take some time before things start to click with a rookie quarterback. But everything should work out in the end because the Jaguars have the right guy for the job.
2. New York Jets
Zach Wilson, QB, BYU
Strengths: Explosive passer from multiple arm angles, excels when throwing on move/off-platform, threatens every blade of grass
Weaknesses: Lack of production against elite competition, durability, non-captain
No prospect improved his stock more this past season than BYU quarterback Zach Wilson.
Earlier in his career, the (listed) 215-pound quarterback struggled through injuries. Wilson suffered labrum tears to both shoulders and a broken thumb on his throwing hand, which cost him multiple games during the 2019 campaign.
He recommitted himself last offseason, began working with former BYU quarterback John Beck and added a little bulk. The on-field results were stunning.
The previous starter wasn't guaranteed his spot when he entered fall camp, but Wilson looked and played differently. He emerged as college football's best natural passer. The junior finished second in completion percentage (73.5), third in passing yardage (3,692), posted a 33-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio and became the nation's highest-graded deep passer.
More importantly, Wilson developed into a legitimate playmaker. BYU used him on the move and allowed him to create outside of structure. He thrived in these situations, though he never really had a chance to do so against elite competition. The Cougars didn't face a single Power Five opponent in 2020.
Inevitable questions arise about Wilson's temperament too. He wasn't a team captain. Yes, some arrogance can be seen in his style of play, but he shouldn't be viewed as a Bo Callahan (for Draft Day fans out there). Wilson is clearly committed to his craft, as seen by his 10-hour road trips just to work with Beck.
The context of this selection will always have the backdrop of what the Jets chose to do before announcing their choice. General manager Joe Douglas traded the 2018 third overall pick, Sam Darnold, to get his guy behind center.
To Douglas' credit, he didn't become a prisoner of the sunk-cost fallacy. Wilson is an ideal fit in the zone-stretch scheme offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur brings to the Jets based on how well the quarterback throws when working outside the pocket.
At the same time, Wilson isn't a guaranteed home run by any stretch of the imagination. His improvement and 2021 performance notwithstanding, the Jets are investing in a 21-year-old quarterback with one good season against suspect competition.
Wilson's translatable traits are tantalizing. The ball explodes out of his hand. Still, one has to wonder if the Jets may have been better off sticking with what they had at the position and continuing to build the rest of the roster.
3. San Francisco 49ers
Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State
Strengths: Easy velocity, high-end athleticism, risk-averse passer
Weaknesses: Experience, inconsistent mechanics, lack of tight-window throws
Trey Lance is simultaneously the draft class' biggest enigma and its most polished quarterback prospect.
From an evaluation standpoint, Lance is only 20 years old with one full year of starting experience. He attempted 318 passes. For comparison, Alabama's Mac Jones is the next lowest among projected first-round quarterbacks with 556 career passes.
To be fair, Lance fully capitalized on his 17 starts. During that span, the Bison didn't lose a game and won a national championship, while he posted a 30-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and earned the distinction of being the FCS' best player by winning the Walter Payton Award.
As an athlete, Lance has a thickly built lower half. He creates significant power through his thighs and hips. As such, he generates significant velocity on his throws while simultaneously being capable of running by or through defenders. He is a significant threat as a passer and runner (1,325 career rushing yards and 18 touchdowns).
The bonus of Lance playing for the Bison program is he's a true pro-style quarterback. He already understands pre- and post-snap reads. He was consistently asked to make all of the necessary drops and rely heavily on play action. The class' youngest quarterback shouldn't be overwhelmed by an NFL playbook.
While Lance doesn’t have the experience at the highest level everyone prefers, he’s the most ready prospect to take over San Francisco’s offense. North Dakota State’s attack lends well to what head coach Kyle Shanahan wants to accomplish.
Lance worked extensively from under center, played in a heavy play-action scheme and will add a completely different dynamic to the offense.
When San Francisco traded up, many immediately looked toward Alabama’s Mac Jones as the likely selection. But Jones never made sense because he would have been a cog in the machine. Lance adds so much more from an athletic perspective.
“On film, you don’t realize how big he is because he is so athletic,” a coach told The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman. “He was much bigger than we thought he was. That size, athleticism and arm are so rare at this level.
Once Lance is ready to take over the offense, the 49ers will feature the most unstoppable unit.
4. Atlanta Falcons
Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida
Strengths: Instant mismatch,scheme-flexible, reliable red-zone target
Weaknesses: In-line blocking
Today's NFL is a mismatch league. Every team is searching for offensive weapons capable of creating chunk plays on a consistent basis. Enter Florida's Kyle Pitts.
Pitts is the class' best offensive weapon.
At 6'6" and a listed 246 pounds, he's a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators. The reigning John Mackey Award winner has a catch radius that would make a pterodactyl envious. He works all over the formation as a slot receiver, wing, H-back and even in-line. He doesn't drop passes, either. Linebackers aren't athletic enough to handle Pitts in space, and he's far too big for defensive backs to cover.
How good is Pitts? He's one of the best that Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban ever faced.
"Creates a lot of issues and problems for you, no doubt," Saban told reporters. "Probably as well as anybody we played against for a long time."
Even as a blocker, Pitts improved in his final season on campus. Granted, he'll never be in the same category as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Rob Gronkowski or San Francisco 49ers' George Kittle when it comes to well-rounded tight ends.
However, there's nothing wrong with being a Travis Kelce-like threat in the passing game.
Shivers went down the spine of every NFC South defensive coordinator (and the rest of the league too) while thinking about having to defend both Pitts and Julio Jones, if the veteran wide receiver is still with the team beyond this weekend.
Pitts is the tight end equivalent to Jones. He’s got a completely different physique compared to everyone else at the position. There’s not a linebacker or defensive back who can properly cover the 20-year-old target. He’s pure nightmare fuel for whoever faces him on a weekly basis.
With the tight end in tow, the Falcons are committed to quarterback Matt Ryan for the foreseeable future. Head coach Arthur Smith once revived Ryan Tannehill’s career. He can do the same for the former league MVP.
Throwing to Pitts and Jones will make any quarterback look good. Ryan is now the NFL’s happiest person.
5. Cincinnati Bengals
Ja'Marr Chase, WR, LSU
Strengths: Acceleration, play strength through the catchpoint, ball-tracking
Weaknesses: Nuance within route running, combating press coverages
LSU's Ja'Marr Chase took a year away from the football field after opting out of the 2020 campaign, only to find himself in the same place when he left: as the best available wide receiver prospect.
Sure, arguments can be made in favor of either Alabama wide receiver—DeVonta Smith or Jaylen Waddle—but Chase's all-around physical tools and skill set make for a truly special combination.
Other wide receivers will be better in certain areas. Some will be bigger, faster and more sudden. Yet Chase is the complete package when it comes to size (6'1", 200 lbs), downfield speed, recognition of leverage and body control. The 2019 Biletnikoff Award winner proved to be nearly unstoppable in one-on-one coverage during the Tigers' national championship run.
The underclassman caught 84 passes for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns during his final season on campus.
NFL defensive backs will be more physical than those Chase faced at the collegiate level, but the receiver's powerful frame should allow him to overcome any potential issues previously seen, especially when he's working incessantly on his release and overall route running.
He immediately enters the lineup as WR1.
Joe Burrow is now the living embodiment of the GIF picturing Jon Snow standing alone against the oncoming onslaught of an opposing army at "The Battle of the Bastards."
The Cincinnati Bengals decided it was more important to pair last year's No. 1 overall pick with his favorite collegiate target than properly protect the quarterback.
What does a great target matter when the passer is being consistently harassed or put on his back? The issue with this selection doesn't involve Chase's talent. He's clearly the class's best wide receiver. Cincinnati's mistake involves prioritization.
Penei Sewell is an elite offensive line talent. He has Hall of Fame-caliber ability. The 2019 Outland Trophy winner plays a premium position. Yet, the Bengals think they can get a solid option later while getting the weapon now. Cincinnati has officially taken the backward approach to building a roster.
6. Miami Dolphins (from PHI)
Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
Strengths: Explosive, change of direction, separation for days, creativity in space
Weaknesses: Lingering ankle injury, lack of reps and contested catches
Jaylen Waddle might have played alongside Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith, but the former never played in the latter's shadow. In some ways, Waddle is as exciting of a prospect, if not more so, than Smith.
Waddle brings a different dynamic to an offense because he's such an explosive target. His releases and breaks off his stem are so sudden and smooth that collegiate defensive backs never stood a chance.
When Waddle was on the field—whether as a receiver or returner—he forced opponents to account for him at all times. He became a big play waiting to happen. The special teams standout produced at least one scoring play of 90 or more yards in each of his collegiate seasons.
Today's NFL favors the offense. Defensive backs can't be as physical. Once Waddle is in space, he'll leave plenty of defenders in the dust, as long as he stays healthy.
Currently, he continues to recover from a fractured ankle he suffered in October during a contest against the Tennessee Volunteers. He tried to play through the injury during the National Championship Game, but it clearly hampered his performance.
The Miami Dolphins chose Tua Tagovailoa’s former target. Maybe the team didn’t choose the prospect many expected.
Waddle immediately adds yet another playmaker in the passing game to complement DeVante Parker and Will Fuller V. All three are different types of targets, though.
Parker is more of a true X-receiver with his size and body control. Fuller is a speed demon. Waddle’s quickness and burst allow him to create ungodly separation.
The only issue with this selection is whether Miami chose the correct Alabama wide receiver. The Dolphins had their choice between Waddle and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, DeVonta Smith. The two will be compared for the rest of their careers. Miami better hope it chose wisely.
Unlike the Bengals, the Dolphins are further along in their building process with an offensive line that's not Swiss cheese. Receiver was Miami's biggest need entering the offseason.
7. Detroit Lions
Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon
Strengths: Unbelievable movement skills, lateral agility, powerful upon contact
Weaknesses: Balance, hand placement, pad level
The growth potential found in Oregon's Penei Sewell is staggering, and the 6'6", 325-pound blocker dominated college football. He captured the Outland Trophy and became a unanimous All-American before opting out of the 2020 campaign.
A year off did nothing to stymie excitement. His previous play provided plenty of highlight-reel blocks mostly centered around his movement skill, which belie his ample size.
Sewell isn't simply a dominant blocker at the point of attack. Oregon regularly asked him to pull in front of screens, act as a lead blocker in space and crush linebackers at the second level. He did all of these things like a much smaller lineman, though he could get overaggressive and lose his balance on occasion.
He's certainly not a perfect prospect. His pass set still needs work. He's better moving forward than backward. But the athleticism is present for Sewell to become an elite pass-blocker. Mostly, he must finish consistently in all areas.
One thought overrides everything: Sewell is only 20 years old. He won't turn 21 until October. He's not even close to realizing what he could become as long as he concentrates on the little things.
How could the Lions pick anyone other than Sewell with the seventh overall pick?
“So, this team is going to be built on, we’re going to kick you in the teeth,” new head coach Dan Campbell told reporters at his introductory press conference. “And when you punch us back, we’re going to smile at you. And when you knock us down, we’re going to get up. And on the way up, we’re going to bite a kneecap off.”
A bone-jarring blocker with unlimited upside to play opposite Taylor Decker is the ideal selection.
Sewell will immediately become a tone-setter for the rest of the offense. The Lions will build an identity through their offensive front into their backfield since the team still features the league’s worst wide receiver corps.
8. Carolina Panthers
Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina
Strengths: Man coverage, highly competitive, physical, prototypical athlete
Weaknesses: Overaggressive, technique falls apart at times, effort as a tackler
Two traits are critical to becoming a successful cover corner at the professional level.
First, the defensive back must have the physical skill set necessary to handle some of the world's best athletes at wide receiver. Second, a different kind of mental toughness is needed knowing even the best will get beat, but the individual must come right back and shut the intended target down again and again after the fact.
South Carolina's Jaycee Horn presents arguably the best combination of these two traits.
Horn is a superb athlete. The 6'0¾", 205-pound defensive back excelled during South Carolina's pro day with a 4.39-second 40-yard dash, 41.5-inch vertical jump and 11'1" broad jump. Horn is physical in coverage and athletic with the capabilities of matching up against any target.
Joe Horn's son doesn't lack confidence, either.
"When I say I'm the best player in the draft, that's not a statement to get teams to say, 'Oooh.' I actually feel that way," Jaycee Horn told reporters.
Some of his strengths turn into weakness. Because Horn is so competitive and aggressive, wide receivers can use his attitude to their advantage. Also, the corner managed only two interceptions in three seasons.
As part of the Carolina Panthers secondary, Horn immediately enters as the unit's top corner. Don’t be surprised if he immediately follows opposing No. 1 wide receivers. Donte Jackson struggled last season, and A.J. Bouye will enter the 2021 campaign under suspension.
The confidence this year’s eighth overall pick exudes is second-to-none. He’s built to be a superstar at a premium position, spending his time locked onto and possibly shutting down whomever he faces. Amazingly, Carolina has drafted eight straight defensive players through two different classes.
With Horn’s selection, the Panthers bypassed Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. The organizational decision shows how committed the team is to Sam Darnold. The franchise has yet to pick up Darnold’s fifth-year option, but its choice indicates which direction Carolina will go.
Really, the thought with this pick is simple: Is Horn better for the team long term, or should the Panthers have taken their potential franchise quarterback? At the very least, one premium position has been addressed.
9. Denver Broncos
Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama
Strengths: Technician, length, route recognition, comfortable working in zone
Weaknesses: Lacks twitch, handsy, can be exposed some in man coverage
Patrick Surtain II was born to play cornerback at the highest level. The fact that he's the son of an 11-year NFL defensive back is readily apparent in how the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year approaches the game.
The 20-year-old's recognition at this stage of the game is stellar. He understands what offenses are trying to accomplish in the passing game and reacts accordingly. He'll drive on the ball with better anticipation than some quarterbacks throw it.
His natural feel for the game is backed up by technique that's been taught by a former All-Pro and one of the best secondary coaches ever in Nick Saban. Surtain is rarely caught out of position or off-balance. Yes, he likes to hand-fight his way down the field—which could result in a few penalties in the pros—but leverage and angles are his friends.
Today, bigger and longer cornerbacks are mostly preferred. In Surtain's case, he's 6'2" and 208 pounds and can shut down passing lanes and help against the run. The side effect is those defensive backs aren't quite as quick, particularly when matched up man-to-man against smaller receivers. Surtain can be exposed slightly in these situations.
The Denver Broncos sure like their Alabama prospects. A year ago, the team chose Jerry Jeudy in the first round. It doubled down by taking Surtain with this year’s ninth overall pick.
Granted, John Elway called the shots last year, and George Paton now serves as the general manager. But a team can’t go wrong with plucking talent from college football’s premier pipeline program.
Denver invested a lot in the position this offseason with the signings of Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller, though the latter only agreed to a one-year deal. Surtain is well-coached and capable of moving in from day one and won't be overwhelmed. Eventually, he’ll take over for Fuller if the Pro Bowl defensive back signs elsewhere after this season.
Like those teams in front of them, the Broncos will have to answer for not taking a quarterback when they’re clearly not settled at the position.
10. Philadelphia Eagles (from DAL)
DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
Strengths: Stickum-like hands, graceful route-runner, acceleration, brilliant at recognizing and exploiting coverages
Weaknesses: Slight build
The Alabama Crimson Tide program will have produced four first-round wide receivers in the last two draft classes. DeVonta Smith is the best of the bunch. Smith may not be as fast as Henry Ruggs III (4.27 40-yard dash), as precise as Jerry Jeudy or as explosive as Jaylen Waddle, but college football's best all-around player presents the most complete game.
In fact, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner led the team in receiving yards in each of the last two seasons, culminating with a 1,856-yard, 23-touchdown performance as a senior. Smith's single-season yardage output ranks sixth all-time.
Size is the only lingering issue. The 6'1" wide receiver told reporters last month that he weighed 170 pounds at Alabama's pro day.
"I know a lot of people bigger than me that have more problems than me," Smith told reporters. "I'm not worried about it at all."
Opponents will be, though. Longer and more physical corners at the professional level will try to bully Smith. To be fair, there's no denying the receiver's skill, tenacity and toughness. But Ted Ginn Jr. and Tavon Austin are the only sub-180-pound receivers drafted in the top 10 this century, and neither worked out as expected.
The Philadelphia Eagles grew impatient and somehow pulled off the unimaginable.
Philly actually executed a trade with the hated Dallas Cowboys to select Smith. We’ve apparently reached the stage of the draft where Thanos is willing to work with the Avengers.
More importantly, the Eagles leaped over yet another NFC East rival, the New York Giants, and it only cost them a third-round draft pick to get the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
Philadelphia desperately needed a quality wide receiver to help in Jalen Hurts’ development. Travis Fulgham was the team’s leading receiver last season with only 539 yards. Smith may not be a traditional X-receiver, but his route running, quickness and reliability will make him the Eagles’ top offensive threat.
The Slim Reaper can now slay the rest of the division for years to come.
11. Chicago Bears (from NYG)
Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
Strengths: Efficient operator, protects the football, top-shelf athleticism, toughness
Weaknesses: Inconsistent play speed, pre- and post-snap blitz recognition, eye manipulation
An old adage states, "If you see a player do it once, you can coach him up to do it again."
In Justin Fields' case, NFL evaluators have seen him play at a high level throughout the majority of his two seasons as the Ohio State Buckeyes' starting quarterback. Although, inconsistencies can be found during the evaluation process.
At his best, the 22-year-old is as efficient, athletic and tough as any prospect in this year's class. Fields' absolute best came in the Sugar Bowl against the Clemson Tigers when he threw for 385 yards (a career high) and six touchdowns despite suffering a hip pointer early in the contest.
But questions about how he works through progressions and the speed of his decision-making continue to make the rounds despite obvious examples found on film of his doing both quickly and precisely. Yet, shaky performances against Indiana and Northwestern are worth noting.
Fields completed 68.4 percent of his passes, including 70.2 percent last year. The 6'3", 228-pound signal-caller adds another dynamic as a runner with 4.41-second 40-yard-dash speed.
Fields is a great example of a multiyear starter being overanalyzed when the good clearly outweighs the questionable aspects of his game. His traits show a quarterback capable of excelling in the pros.
And the Chicago Bears took notice.
In an offseason when it looked like the Bears would be blocked from acquiring a high-end quarterback, the board fell in Chicago’s favor and general manager Ryan Pace made an aggressive move to acquire an elite talent.
Fields is exactly what the franchise so desperately needed. Andy Dalton was never going to be the answer. Maybe the veteran could have been place holder for a playoff-caliber roster.
But that possibility no longer matters. Fields was shamefully torn apart throughout this process despite everything he accomplished and his level of performance throughout 2019 and most of his final season on campus.
Pace and head coach Matt Nagy should breathe easier now, because they just pulled off the type of move absolutely necessary to propel the organization forward after years of floundering at the game’s most important position.
12. Dallas Cowboys (From SF Through MIA and PHI)
Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State
Strengths: Ferocious downhill defender, closing speed, edge presence
Weaknesses: Coverage, off-field concerns
Very few prospects can make an argument they bring a unique skill set compared to everyone else in the class. Penn State's Micah Parsons can. The early entrant, who opted out of the 2020 campaign, told reporters he's "the most versatile player in the draft."
While somewhat true, his traits don't necessarily translate into what teams are searching for in top linebacker prospects. Parsons is an off-ball linebacker who excels in rushing the passer. True three-down linebackers are tasked with working in space often. In Parsons' case, he's still a work in progress as a coverage defender.
The raw athleticism is present to excel in this specific area, and the 21-year-old flashed during his two seasons with the Nittany Lions. The area simply isn't a strength at this juncture.
A plan is necessary to fully realize Parsons' potential. His natural instincts playing downhill coupled with creativity in pressure packages will place Parsons, who played defensive end at the high school level, in immediate NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation. If he's used as a traditional linebacker, some of his best talents will go to waste.
The Dallas Cowboys aren’t afraid to take a risk on a premium talent.
Parsons immediately helps in two areas. The linebacker can fill the void left by the now-retired Sean Lee. The defender doubles as a standout blitzer/pass-rusher. He can be moved all over the field and provide the Cowboys with a much-needed boost among their pressure packages after they finished in the bottom half of the league with 31 sacks.
The only real question about the incoming linebacker is how he handles a professional atmosphere. The Cowboys viewed him as worth the risk, and the team traded down, added an extra third-round pick and still landed an elite prospect.
The Cowboys desperately needed to get better on the defensive side of the ball, and Parsons certainly makes the unit better.
13. Los Angeles Chargers
Rashawn Slater, OT, Northwestern
Strengths: Fundamentals, play strength, quickness
Weaknesses: Lacks length, positional fit
Prospects can build a reputation based on a singular outing. Rashawn Slater is a prime example.
In 2019, the Northwestern left tackle put together the best performance against future No. 2 overall pick and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young. The Ohio State Buckeyes may have demolished the Wildcats on that October day, but Slater more than held his own against the nation's best defensive player. Young did register a sack, but it came against Northwestern's right tackle.
To be fair, Slater's status as a first-round talent is based on more than a specific performance.
The 6'4", 304-pound blocker is the class' best technician. He moves his feet well with a smooth pass set. He is an excellent overall athlete with a 4.88-second 40-yard dash and 1.68-second 10-yard split. He fires off the ball, easily works to the second level and excels as a backside cut off. His grip strength is particularly impressive.
However, some concerns arise about his viability as a blindside protector. Slater has 33-inch arms. Some teams almost certainly had him projected inside, though he clearly has the skill set to stay at offensive tackle.
Slater is the final piece of the puzzle to the Los Angeles Chargers offensive line.
This offseason, the Chargers moved on from Mike Pouncey, Trai Turner, Dan Feeney, Forrest Lamp, Sam Tevi and Cole Toner.
Fast-forward a few months, and Slater will take over Justin Hebert’s blind side. The rookie will anchor a front that now includes free-agent additions Corey Linsley, Matt Feiler and Oday Aboushi. Bryan Bulaga will be the lone holdover.
The Chargers made the smart decision by properly protecting the reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year after featuring last season’s worst offensive line, according to Pro Football Focus. Justin Herbert is great at making plays on the move. Hopefully, he won’t have to do it as much during his sophomore campaign.
14. New York Jets (from MIN)
Alijah Vera-Tucker, OG, USC
Strengths: Versatility, lateral agility, second-level blocking
Weaknesses: Might be forced to play guard, power in run game, overall pad level
USC's Alijah Vera-Tucker played left tackle at a high level during his final season on campus. He graded as college football's best offensive tackle from true pass sets, according to Pro Football Focus. He can absolutely continue playing the blind side and find some success as a professional left tackle.
But he may not even get a chance to do so since his arms measured 32⅛ inches long at USC's pro day. As such, he'll automatically project to guard, where he did thrive prior to bumping out to tackle in 2020. Everyone can joke about arm length, but the measurement matters to some teams.
At guard, Vera-Tucker played as well or better than any of the interior prospects from the previous draft class. He particularly showed outstanding fits in the run and pass game with the agility to consistently hook or scoop defenders and get to the second level.
The 308-pound blocker isn't going to uproot and drive defenders off the ball, but he can be a day-one starter, especially for teams that heavily employ zone schemes. The fact that he can play tackle in a pinch (or maybe even on a full-time basis if given a shot to do so) only adds value because of roster limitations.
The New York Jets followed the Los Angeles Chargers by making another smart, albeit unsexy, move with Vera-Tucker’s selection.
A move up nine spots didn’t come cheap, though. The Jets handed the Minnesota Vikings a pair of third-round picks on top of the 23rd overall selection to get class’ best interior blocker, per The Athletic’s Connor Hughes.
Vera-Tucker’s addition solidifies New York’s left side after picking tackle Mekhi Becton with last year’s 11th overall pick.
The guard helps on two fronts. First, the Jets are smartly building a strong front five for their newly minted quarterback, Zach Wilson. Second, Vera-Tucker has the lateral agility to excel in Mike LaFleur’s offensive scheme.
So far, the Jets have prioritized fit as much as talent. Usually, the combination tends to work out well for everyone involved.
15. New England Patriots
Mac Jones, QB, Alabama
Strengths: Precision, timing, touch, pre-snap awareness
Weaknesses: Limited mobility, average arm talent, lacks significant upside
A clear delineation exists between this year's top four quarterback prospects and Alabama's Mac Jones, though the reigning Johnny Unitas Golden Arm winner is certainly deserving of his first-round status.
Jones is a throwback to when quarterbacks weren't considered the primary playmakers within the scheme. He's a distributor who works almost exclusively from the pocket.
As a first-time full-time starter in 2020, Jones showed how effective he can be in Alabama's loaded offense while serving as its facilitator. The 22-year-old posted the most efficient season in major college football history with a record-shattering 77.4 completion percentage and a 203.1 quarterback rating (to top Joe Burrow's Heisman Trophy-winning campaign). A 41-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio isn't too shabby, either.
Certainly, Jones' standout performance was buoyed by Alabama's superior surrounding cast. At the same time, a quarterback's primary job is to execute the offense as it's devised, and Jones did so wonderfully.
Other options may be bigger, more athletic and have better natural throwing ability, yet Jones can be relied upon to step into an NFL offense tomorrow and serve as a point guard who delivers the ball to his playmakers.
After weeks of being projected to the third overall pick, Jones landed exactly where he should have gone.
The New England Patriots didn’t have to do a damn thing other than be patient and allow the draft to come to them as the Emperor-like Bill Belichick awaited his version of Luke Skywalker. We can all hear the cackling emanating from the Northeast.
In this particular case, Jones has a much better chance of turning to the dark side, as the Patriots dynasty still has embers flickering and is thus capable of igniting into a full-blown inferno.
The match made sense all along. Compared to the other quarterbacks in this year’s class, Jones best fit the dropback passing attack the Patriots employed with Tom Brady behind center. Obviously, Belichick has close ties to the Alabama program after coaching alongside Nick Saban long ago. They remain close today.
Cam Newton remains on New England’s roster, but the Patriots are now the Mac Jones show.
16. Arizona Cardinals
Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa
Strengths: Unbelievable range, fills and shuts down throwing lanes, consistent
Weaknesses: Sometimes lets athleticism take over instead of making proper reads, not as physical upon contact as expected
Comparisons are inherently unfair to the prospects being mentioned in the same breath as established professionals. So it's with great trepidation that the following statement is made: The NFL hasn't seen a linebacker quite like Tulsa's Zaven Collins since Brian Urlacher roamed Soldier Field.
Before going any further, an understanding must be reached. The comparison isn't to what Urlacher became. He's one of the best middle linebackers of all time and a Hall of Fame inductee. But go back and remember what he was at New Mexico. Urlacher came into the NFL as a 6'4", 258-pound safety. His combination of athleticism and range were truly unique.
Fast forward 21 years and watch Collins. The reigning Bronko Nagurski Trophy winner is 6'4" and 260 pounds. Sometimes, his athleticism shows when he scrapes down the formation, has to throttle back a bit and still beats the running back to the hole. The linebacker tied for eighth overall last season with four interceptions.
Collins is a big man playing a small man's game.
However, the plan in Arizona isn’t quite clear after the Cardinals chose Collins with this year’s 16th overall pick.
This time last year, Isaiah Simmons became the eighth overall pick. He really didn’t find a comfort level in the Cardinals’ defensive scheme, nor did Arizona’s coaching staff take full advantage of the defensive weapon’s complete skill set.
Collins' fit is concerning. He can be used in several different ways, but there are capable options throughout the Cardinals' front seven. Ultimately, Collins is positioned to take over for Jordan Hicks as the ultimate complement to Simmons. Hicks turns 30 next year, and the Cardinals can save $6 million by releasing him after this season, per Spotrac.
Until then, Collins can play off the ball or rush the passer. He should be featured all over the defensive front.
17. Las Vegas Raiders
Alex Leatherwood, OT, Alabama
Strengths: Length, good initial pass set, position flexibility
Weaknesses: Stiff hips, struggles with quickness and redirection
A decision will be forthcoming regarding Alex Leatherwood's status as tackle prospect.
"Some teams like me at tackle, some at guard," Leatherwood told reporters. "It just all depends on what team you're talking about and their team needs, but I feel like most of them think that I can play anywhere on the offensive line."
The reigning Outland Trophy winner initially started at right guard for the Alabama Crimson Tide before moving to left tackle during his final two seasons on campus.
Leatherwood excelled at both spots, though some questions will arise regarding his viability as a blindside protector.
The 6'6", 312-pound blocker wins with a fundamentally sound initial pass set and his pterodactyl-like 85⅝-inch wingspan. However, the tackle still sets a soft edge because he lacks the lower body flexibility to readjust after his initial set. He simply tries to push defenders around the ring.
And here we go again, Raiders.
Two years ago, the organization made the mistake of overvaluing intangible traits and selected Clelin Ferrell with the fourth overall pick. Last year, Las Vegas chose Damon Arnette with the 19th selection due to need. The Raiders are now repeating those mistakes with Leatherwood’s selection.
To be fair, Leatherwood is the reigning Outland Trophy winner and has guard and tackle versatility. But Las Vegas painted itself into a corner by deconstructing its offensive line this offseason. It then forced a pick based on need and what appear to be outdated values.
Leatherwood should take over right tackle immediately. He would have been a better pick at least a half or even full round later.
18. Miami Dolphins
Jaelan Phillips, EDGE, Miami
Strengths: Fluid and flexible edge-rusher, explosive first-step quickness, high-motor guy
Weaknesses: Injury history, breadth of pass-rush moves
The only thing really holding back Miami's Jaelan Phillips is the unknown.
In an offseason when the accumulation of important medical data was more difficult than ever, Phillips' injury history and how it's assessed from a team-by-team perspective became one of the biggest sticking points among the draft class.
Physically, the 6'5", 266-pound edge-defender is impressive. No one can deny his get-off, length, explosiveness to beat an offensive tackle off the snap, the flexibility to turn the corner and his final burst toward opposing quarterbacks.
In Phillips' only season with the Hurricanes, he registered 15.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks and 42 quarterback pressures in 10 games.
Concerns begin with the start of his career, not its ending. Phillips signed with the UCLA Bruins as the nation's No. 1 overall recruit, as rated by 247Sports. He then medically retired after dealing with concussions. He also underwent multiple wrist surgeries after a scooter accident.
Questions about ability don't exist for Phillips, but a clear projection based on his past injuries certainly raises red flags.
Because of his natural ability, Phillips became the first edge-rusher off the board to the Miami Dolphins with the 18th overall pick.
Purely from a talent perspective, the selection is a home run. The team now has an elite rusher to play opposite Emmanuel Ogbah, who experienced a breakout campaign in 2020. The Dolphins also traded Shaq Lawson to the Houston Texans this offseason.
Natural pass-rushers bring a premium. If not for Phillips' vast injury history, there's no way he would have been on the board for the Dolphins. His selection was well worth the risk.
19. Washington Football Team
Jamin Davis, LB, Kentucky
Strengths: Premium athlete with prototypical size, range and burst, comfortable in space despite limited reps
Weaknesses: One-year starter, slow processor, lacks pop at point of attack despite size
Kentucky linebacker Jamin Davis is the type of prospect scouts dream about when they evaluate the position. Davis' athletic traits are nearly off the charts.
First, he's built exactly how the position should look with a chiseled 6'4", 234-pound frame. At Kentucky's pro day, the linebacker's 40-yard-dash times ranged from 4.37 seconds to 4.49, according to reports. Either way, he can fly. To further prove that point, he posted an outstanding 42-inch vertical jump and 11-foot broad jump.
The workout numbers show how explosive Davis is. It falls on his next position coach to fully realize his potential.
The early entrant started only one full season for the Wildcats. During last year's campaign, Davis led the UK defense with 102 total tackles and finished second with three interceptions. The latter stat is important because Davis' true value derives from his fit in today's pass-first league.
With his exceptional speed, burst and range, Davis will be asked to play in space quite a bit. He has the physical tools to match up against the league's top tight ends. The fluidity and balance for a man his size is simply astounding as long as it's harnessed properly.
An argument can be made in Davis’ favor as the class’ best linebacker prospect. He is an elite athlete with true three-down capabilities, and the allegations against Micah Parsons and the fit for Zaven Collins raise questions.
“He’s by far my No. 1 linebacker,” a scout told The Athletic’s Bob McGinn before the draft. “Plays hard. Can run. Not the greatest take-on guy, but who is nowadays? He’s tough. He can slip and dip. In coverage stuff, they never take him off the field.”
The final point is most important. Davis won’t be a mismatch in the passing game. He can handle tight ends one-on-one and not look out of place.
Washington is so good along its defensive line. The team now has a legitimate sideline-to-sideline playmaker working behind its ferocious front.
20. New York Giants (from CHI)
Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida
Strengths: Magician working in space, short-area quickness/burst, continued improvement
Weaknesses: Wasted motion in releases and breaks, not a traditional outside target, injury history
Multiple different skill sets exist at wide receiver. The best units mix and match those traits to make them difficult for opposing defenses to handle. In Kadarius Toney's case, he's often viewed as a gadget player.
While a play-caller will manufacture touches for Toney, the wide receiver grew with each passing week during his best season on campus.
Yes, Toney is spectacular in space. He'll take bubble screens, fly sweeps and simple plays near the line of scrimmage and turn them into chunk or even scoring plays. His maneuverability working after the catch is special. Pro Football Focus had the first-team All-SEC performer with the second-highest missed tackle rate per touch among wide receivers last season.
Toney must refine his releases and stems in the pros, but the 5'11", 193-pound target progressed dramatically in 2020. Of Toney's 984 receiving yards, 443 came in Florida's final three games against Tennessee, LSU and Alabama. He then showed out during Senior Bowl week.
"He keeps, really, erasing every question about him everywhere he goes," Gators head coach Dan Mullen told reporters.
The wide receiver goes to the New York Giants with this year’s 20th pick. His addition to the Giants’ skill players creates a basketball team within the wide receiver room.
What does that mean? Each of the unit’s targets brings different traits. Kenny Golladay is a true X-receiver capable of making an amazing catch at a moment’s notice. Sterling Shepard is an excellent slot receiver when healthy. Darius Slayton provides a vertical presence.
Toney is different in that he’s a playmaker in space. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett can manufacture touches for the rookie and let him work—whether the staff implements fly sweeps, some routes, etc.
Instant offense is a good thing at any level. In New York’s case, Daniel Jones doesn’t have any excuses. The wide receiver position has been greatly improved, and the Giants' passing game should be far more potent.
21. Indianapolis Colts
Kwity Paye, EDGE, Michigan
Strengths: Drive, impressive athlete, motor, powerful at point of attack and as pass-rusher
Weaknesses: Pass-rush diversity, developmental awareness
Everyone should want Michigan's Kwity Paye on their team. Seriously. Not only is he the class' best edge-rushing prospect, but he's also the type of person organizations want in their locker room.
The son of a refugee from war-torn Liberia, Paye has a different type of drive and incentive than many athletes.
"She never asked for anything in this life," the three-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree said of his mother, "but for me I take it personally to make sure she gets everything that she never had. I feel like that's why I work so hard just because I know what she's been through. I want to make sure she never has to lift a finger again. I'll hold my promise to her."
From an evaluation standpoint, Paye is both a standout athlete and an ever-improving pass-rusher. He's a 270-pound defensive lineman with sub-4.6-second 40-yard-dash speed. He ranked first among Big Ten defenders last season with a 25.8 pass-rush win percentage, per Pro Football Focus.
More importantly, his off-field drive translates to his on-field performance. Paye doesn't give up on plays. His pursuit and effort are relentless.
Aside from a groin injury that ended the defensive end's senior season, the question marks about his game are few and far between as he continues to mature into a premium pass-rusher.
The Indianapolis Colts had two major issues to address. Both needs fell among the premium positions.
Since the top offensive tackles came off the board earlier, general manager Chris Ballard just waited and landed arguably the class’s best edge-defender (depending on how you feel about Jaelan Phillips’ injury history) with Kwity Paye on the board at No. 21.
Paye will outwork everyone yet presents the athletic profile to become a ferocious pass-rusher at the professional level.
For Indianapolis, the team didn’t re-sign its top edge-rusher, Justin Houston. A thought existed the veteran could return. Maybe he will. But the need is no longer there. Paye has all the makings of a top defensive end who can average double-digit sacks throughout his career.
DeForest Buckner will collapse the pocket as Paye screams off the edge. And the Colts can address Carson Wentz’s blind side during Day 2.
22. Tennessee Titans
Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech
Strengths: Closing speed, overwhelms receivers with his size and length, natural identifying and playing ball
Weaknesses: Medical evaluation, transition through backpedal, open-field tackling
Risk assessment plays a large role in a prospect's evaluation, especially if the individual in question has an extensive injury history.
Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley is arguably the best all-around cornerback prospect in the class. He has everything a team wants at the position. He's 6'2" and 207 pounds with no glaring deficiencies in his game. He's one of the best natural athletes at his position. Farley can thrive in both man and zone coverages. In 23 career games, the 22-year-old posted 25 combined defended passes and interceptions.
Farley is a first-round talent all day long, except for his string of medical concerns.
He sat out Virginia Tech's pro day after revealing he needed a second back surgery to clean up an issue that caused him to miss time in 2019. This is problematic on two levels. First, back injuries are always worrisome. Secondly, he opted out of the '20 season, yet the issues still cropped up during training.
Back concerns only add to the fact that Farley suffered a torn ACL at the onset of his collegiate career.
Eventually, talent trumps trepidation. But a sliding scale exists when the value becomes too much to pass up.
For the Tennessee Titans, they couldn't let Farley pass with this year’s 22nd pick. Amazingly, the organization chose one of the class’s riskiest prospects after already moving on from last year’s first-round selection, right tackle Isaiah Wilson.
Wilson’s issues were completely different than Farley’s, but the uncertainty swirling around the cornerback can’t be overlooked. His medical profile is downright frightening.
Still, before Farley’s addition, the Titans planned to move forward with Kristian Fulton, a 32-year-old Janoris Jenkins and Kevin Johnson trying to handle slot duties. The group wasn’t pretty
As such, general manager Jon Robinson had to make a move.
23. Minnesota Vikings (From SEA Through NYJ)
Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech
Strengths: Powerful base, lower-body flexibility, comfortable in space
Weaknesses: Soft outside hand, opens in pass set early, doesn't always finish blocks
An offensive lineman's power derives from his hindquarters. No one needs to look any further than Virginia Tech's Christian Darrisaw for a prospect who defines this particular trait.
The 6'5", 314-pound blocker plays with the best base of anyone in the class. He keeps his feet under him, plays with leverage and arrives with nasty intentions. He can drive defensive linemen off the ball and blow up linebackers and defensive backs when working in space. However, he doesn't always keep his feet moving after contact.
Virginia Tech's usage became more of a problem than anything since the Hokies didn't always employ deep pass sets. Even so, the first-team All-ACC performer looked comfortable and fluid. Yet Darrisaw showed a tendency to give up an easy edge, particularly to speed rushers.
The physical tools are clearly present for Darrisaw to become a long-term left tackle. His next offensive line coach must concentrate on technique, particularly in his pass set, to fully harness his power while simultaneously making him a reliable blindside protector.
Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman masterfully navigated this year’s first round. The team’s commander moved down nine spots, added a pair of third-round picks and still landed a top offensive tackle prospect.
Darrisaw can immediately move into the starting left tackle spot left by Riley Reiff when the front office released the nine-year veteran.
The choice makes the team’s plans much clearer. The possibility that right guard Ezra Cleveland would move back to left tackle was in play. Cleveland is a natural blindside protector, but he found a home along the Vikings’ offensive interior. Darrisaw can immediately take over blindside capabilities and solve one of Minnesota’s two issues along the front five.
Finding a prospect to fill the other guard spot should be the Vikings’ next step.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers
Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
Strengths: True three-down back, swivel hips, combination of power and shiftiness
Weaknesses: Lacks top gear, doesn't explode through cut, impatient runner at times
The Alabama Crimson Tide program has become an assembly line for outstanding NFL running backs. The lineage includes Mark Ingram II, Josh Jacobs and Derrick Henry, who won back-to-back NFL rushing titles the last two seasons. Yet Najee Harris leaves Alabama as its all-time leading rusher, albeit in four seasons.
"I think he is the best back they've had there under [Alabama head coach Nick] Saban, either him or Derrick Henry," an anonymous coach told The Athletic's Bruce Feldman. "He's quick enough to beat DBs, but he's also very physical. He's got a good trunk with really good balance, so he can bounce off guys."
To the coach's point, Harris might be the most well-rounded prospect.
At 230 pounds, Harris has the size to run through attempted tackles. At the same time, the reigning Doak Walker Award winner has outstanding vision and nimble enough feet to make defenders miss in the hole. He's also a threat in both phases of the game.
Harris is a natural pass-catcher out of the backfield. He can line up as a receiver and snags balls outside his body. In fact, he caught 70 passes over the last two seasons.
Obviously, Henry is the standard. Harris can be another workhorse, though.
The Pittsburgh Steelers value the running back position more than most and made Harris this year’s 24th pick.
Devaluation of the position aside, the Steelers now have a focal point of the offense.
That may sound silly. However, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is 39 years old and clearly in decline. The wide receivers are talented, but there’s absolutely no way the Steelers should lead the league in passing attempts again. The offensive line is still a mess.
Harris can create on his own and serve as a threat at all times after Pittsburgh finished dead last in rushing offense last season.
Don’t let anyone say running backs don’t hold first-round appeal. The Steelers just proved otherwise. Whether they should have gone that route remains in question. But the position couldn’t continue to be a vacuumous hole.
25. Jacksonville Jaguars (from LAR)
Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson
Strengths: Top gear, short-area burst, contact balance, receiving threat
Weaknesses: Always looking for big gainer, ball security, lateral movement
Travis Etienne leaves Clemson as one of the college football's all-time great running backs. During his storied career, he walked away as the ACC's all-time leading rusher with 4,952 yards. He ranks seventh all-time with 70 rushing touchdowns.
The three-time All-American had a chance to declare early a year ago and possibly become a first-round pick. Instead, he chose to return to school.
"I look forward to earning my degree from this great university and continuing to fight with my brothers on the team to make you proud during the 2020 season," Etienne wrote on Twitter.
Normally, an extra year of wear and tear isn't advisable for running backs. In Etienne's case, his load was slightly lessened because of the abbreviated college season. In total, he finished his career with 788 total touches. For comparison, Alabama's Najee Harris had 718.
Meanwhile, Etienne molded his body to take a beating over the long haul. Apparently, he weighed 199 going into his final season. He showed up at 215 at Clemson's pro day.
"It was a big deal ... 199 in the league, at the running back position, you won't be able to play that for long," he told reporters. "So I definitely wanted to get my body right, but get it right in the right way."
The Jacksonville Jaguars decided to keep Clemson’s backfield intact with their second first-round selection. After starting the draft with quarterback Trevor Lawrence, Urban Meyer and Co. chose Etienne.
Unlike the Pittsburgh Steelers one pick earlier, this choice didn't make much sense.
That's not a slight against Etienne, who left Clemson as the ACC’s all-time leading rusher. He’s a home run threat with tackle-breaking capabilities. He can be a featured back.
Technically, the Jaguars already had one of those after James Robinson ran for 1,070 yards as an undrafted rookie. Maybe Meyer wants to build a dynamic backfield, but the organization could have looked elsewhere to address other issues before adding another runner.
26. Cleveland Browns
Greg Newsome II, CB, Northwestern
Strengths: Zone corner, fluidity through transition, drive on the ball, ball tracking
Weaknesses: Overwhelmed by more physical targets, durability, willing tackler but struggles to get off blocks
As with any other positions, cornerbacks have different skill sets. It's not as simple as "Go and cover." While the game's best athletes reside at the position, each brings something a little different to a defense. In Greg Newsome II's case, the Northwestern product is well-versed in multiple zone coverage schemes thanks to the Wildcats' defensive approach.
"He and that entire secondary were so well-coached that they were never out of position," an anonymous coach told The Athletic's Bruce Feldman. "He always played with proper leverage and did a great job of reading the QB to get an early jump on passes. He is far more athletic than what you'd expect for Northwestern."
As an athlete, Newsome is 6'0" and 192 pounds with a 4.37-second 40-yard-dash and a 40-inch vertical. On the field, his 31.7 passer rating allowed ranked first among all Power Five defenders, according to Pro Football Focus.
Newsome's durability does come into question, though. He dealt with injuries that caused him to miss time in each of his three seasons. In coverage, his ball skills didn't translate to turnovers with one career interception.
The Cleveland Browns spent all offseason fixing a defense that simply wasn’t good enough a year ago. Coordinator Joe Woods tried a bend-but-don’t break approach only to see opposing offenses easily march the ball downfield.
So, general manager Andrew Berry had enough. After going strong with offensive upgrades last offseason, Berry did the opposite this year. The additions of safety John Johnson III, nickel Troy Hill, linebacker Anthony Walker Jr., defensive tackle Malik Jackson and defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney and Takkarist McKinley go a long way to improving the unit.
As much as Berry added, a hole still existed at outside corner opposite Denzel Ward. Greedy Williams missed all of last season with nerve damage in his right shoulder. He’ll have to prove he can stay on the field.
Newsome steps in and immediately fits the Browns’ Cover 4-heavy scheme. The Northwestern product is the class’ best zone corner and extremely smooth in coverage. He solves the last immediate need in the Browns’ projected lineup.
Yes, Cleveland features one of the game’s deepest, best rosters. Let that sink in for a moment.
27. Baltimore Ravens
Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota
Strengths: Traditional outside receiver, tough to bring down after catch, excellent body control
Weaknesses: Short-area burst, lapses in concentration, can be bodied up by bigger corners
While the 2021 wide receiver class is deep yet again, the group lacks the traditional X-receiver teams tend to like, especially among first-round possibilities. Rashod Bateman is the only first-round talent who fits the mold.
At a listed 6'2" and 210 pounds, Bateman's size and physicality allow him to win a lot of routes when working outside the numbers. He's definitely not a lumbering target and possesses good top-end speed. However, his greatest strength is overwhelming defensive backs.
Bateman is fearless when working over the middle of the field. Once the ball is in his hands, he's going to run through arm tackles with the potential to create chunk plays with every touch.
Because of his build, he is forced to throttle down a bit going into and out of his breaks. A lack of separation can be an issue when Bateman isn't schemed open. At the same time, the 21-year-old attacks the ball to make incredible catches over the top of defenders.
In a class with smaller, shiftier options, Bateman stands out because he fits the typical definition of a No. 1 wide receiver.
Maybe Baltimore Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta should have never commented about the team’s wide receivers, since he drafted Bateman with this year’s 27th overall pick.
"I'm aware that there's some fan discontent with our wide receivers and our drafting and all that," DeCosta told reporters earlier this month. "We've got some really good young receivers. It's insulting to these guys when they hear that we don't have any receivers.”
Basically, DeCosta defended his receivers only to insult them with Bateman’s inclusion.
From a talent standpoint, Bateman is a great pick. He can play outside the numbers or from the slot. He has the versatility and skill set to impact the Ravens offense as a well-rounded target for quarterback Lamar Jackson.
The only thing that slightly ruins this pick is how DeCosta handled the possibility 10 days ago.
28. New Orleans Saints
Payton Turner, EDGE, Houston
Strengths: Ideal height and weight, elite agility for size, consistent effort, continual improvement
Weaknesses: Only half a season of top-level production, plays high, knee and foot injuries
An investment in Houston's Payton Turner is an investment in the defensive end's expansive potential.
Turner played in only five games during his senior season because of pandemic-related cancellations, turf toe and opting out of the bowl game. In the small sample size, the 6'6", 268-pounder managed 10.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. He terrorized most of the offensive linemen he faced with his combination of length (35⅜-inch arms), unnatural agility for a man his size and relentlessness.
"A year-and-a-half I had pretty good production and showed versatility," Turner told reporters after a pro-day effort where he recorded a 4.33-second short shuttle and 6.98-second three-cone drill. "I see myself as an edge player in the league."
The defensive lineman improved with each season and became better at taking advantage of his natural tools. He presents inside-out flexibility depending on the defensive package. The next step is putting an entire season together.
Turner came off the board a little earlier than expected when the New Orleans Saints grabbed the defensive lineman with the 28th pick.
New Orleans has a glaring hole at cornerback after cutting Janoris Jenkins. Beyond Marshon Lattimore, the Saints have very little at the position.
What’s the best way to protect a porous secondary? By pressuring the quarterback.
With Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport already on the roster, Turner doesn’t have to enter the lineup immediately and be the unit’s top pass-rusher. He can work in a rotation, continue to develop and eventually become Davenport’s long-term bookend.
29. Green Bay Packers
Eric Stokes, CB, Georgia
Strengths: Blazing speed, press-man coverage, plays the ball
Weaknesses: Straight-line athlete, slight frame, poor run defender
Speed matters. NFL evaluators want athletes who have the tools to autocorrect even when they do something wrong, giving them a greater margin of error.
Eric Stokes is easily one of the fastest men in this year's draft, with an unofficial 4.25-second 40-yard dash at Georgia's pro day.
His speed isn't surprising, though. The former track athlete can clearly run with any wide receiver. In fact, he excelled when locked onto a target. According to Pro Football Focus, Stokes was the fourth-best cornerback in man coverage last season.
When passes did come Stokes' direction, the first-team All-SEC performer often got his hand on the ball. He recorded 22 pass breakups over three seasons along with four interceptions a year ago.
The 6'4", 194-pound Stokes isn't the biggest or most physical defensive back. He can be a liability against the run. His transition through his backpedal is somewhat concerning as well. But no one can take away his recovery speed.
For some unknown reason, the Green Bay Packers will not draft a first-round weapon for the league’s reigning MVP, Aaron Rodgers.
Insert the Mal from Firefly confused-look GIF.
In a vacuum, Stokes makes sense with the 29th pick after Kevin King was torched by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game.
But the team doesn’t operate in a vacuum, and the front office hasn’t done enough to appease its star signal-caller.
A year ago, general manager Brian Gutekunst rationalized his continual passing on wide receivers by basically saying the board didn’t fall in Green Bay’s favor and the team liked the younger options on the roster.
That excuse no longer flies. The Packers could have chosen LSU’s Terrace Marshall Jr., Ole Miss’ Elijah Moore, North Carolina’s Dyami Brown or Purdue’s Rondale Moore.
Gutekunst is being stubborn for stubborn's sake.
30. Buffalo Bills
Gregory Rousseau, EDGE, Miami
Strengths: Length, interior pass rush
Weaknesses: Tendency to play high, stiff, limited pass-rush repertoire
Miami's Gregory Rousseau is only scratching the surface of what he can become as a pass-rusher. He exploded onto the scene in 2019 and finished second behind then-Ohio State defensive end Chase Young with 15.5 sacks. The ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year then decided to opt out of last season.
While no one could or should blame Rousseau for a very personal decision, his on-field absence robbed scouts of the ability to properly assess his maturation as a performer.
The tape shows Rousseau's potential to become something special, though he was far from a refined prospect. At 6'7" and 265 pounds, the underclassman's size immediately jumps to the forefront. He has the length to bother opposing offensive tackles and shut down passing lanes. Rousseau isn't a great athlete but does present some burst. After all, he played some wide receiver in high school.
Surprisingly, he excelled as a straight-line pass-rusher along the interior. Miami's coaching staff moved him all over the line. The edge-defender even played some 0-technique in sub-packages.
Rousseau is a work in progress, and the Buffalo Bills must develop his impressive natural skill set.
The team is old at edge-rusher. Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison are 32 and 33, respectively.
A.J. Epenesa flashed late in his rookie year and provides promise as a potential long-term starter. Rousseau can join him on the edge to get after the AFC East’s young cadre of quarterbacks.
The pick does come with risk. Like Epenesa, Rousseau slid in the draft because of a poor athletic profile. To be clear, the incoming defensive end presents an excellent natural skill set. Still, Rousseau really struggled in a couple of areas during his pro day.
But talent evaluators couldn’t overlook the fact that the 21-year-old finished second in sacks two seasons ago (behind 2020 No. 2 overall pick Chase Young) before opting out of the 2020 campaign.
“There’s still so much untapped upside with him,” a coach told The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman. “He’s still learning how to rush the passer. He’s even longer than [Jaelan] Phillips, and he has so much leverage."
31. Baltimore Ravens (from KC)
Jayson Oweh, EDGE, Penn State
Strengths: Ultra-athlete, run support, change-of-direction agility
Weaknesses: Lack of production, no pass-rush plan, slow off snap
There are excellent athletes rushing the passer, and then there's Penn State's Jayson Oweh. NFL talent evaluators had to be salivating over the possibility of molding his physical traits into something much more at the professional level.
At Penn State, Oweh never fully realized the upside that accompanies his prodigious gifts. At 6'5" and 257 pounds, the defensive lineman ran a stunning 4.36-second (unofficial) 40-yard dash at his pro day. Even if the number is generous, Oweh moves unlike any other defensive end. The potential is enormous.
However, his physical gifts never made him a dominant force on a collegiate field. In 20 career games, Oweh secured only seven sacks. He is a handful for offensive linemen and does create pressure, but those pressures eventually need to turn into sacks.
The first-team All-Big Ten performer does excel against the run. He shoots gaps with the change of direction to run down ball-carriers. So despite suspect production, Oweh can immediately contribute in a defensive line rotation.
Hopefully, he'll eventually turn into the next Danielle Hunter. Like Oweh, Hunter intrigued with his athletic profile yet managed only 4.5 sacks in college before blossoming into an elite edge-rusher as a professional.
Can you say potential? I knew you could.
The Baltimore Ravens are banking on Oweh’s immense upside. If there’s one team to fully harness his capabilities, it’s the Ravens. As a result, the team’s pass rush could be solved much sooner than expected.
Baltimore lost both Yannick Ngakoue and Matthew Judon in free agency. Tyus Bowser is expected to make a significant leap after four years of marginal production. Ten-year veteran Pernell McPhee remains in a place as an experienced edge-rusher capable of helping the team’s younger options.
Oweh has to show he’s more than just athletic numbers. Yes, his full presence in the lineup can’t be entirely determined by last year’s goose egg in the sack column. But someone of his physical prowess should be able to produce more than he did.
The Ravens have a tendency to develop each pass-rusher in the pipeline, though Oweh may be the most raw example to date.
32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Joe Tryon, EDGE, Washington
Strengths: Ideal physical traits, powerful at point of attack, sets edge
Weaknesses: Limited experience, lacks a pass-rush plan, counters
None of the prospects who enter the professional ranks are finished products. Every single one needs continued development. Some are a little further behind than others.
Washington's Joe Tryon is easily one of the class' most intriguing pass-rush prospects.
At 6'5" and 259 pounds with 34-inch arms and a well-sculpted frame, the defensive lineman certainly looks the part. Once his 4.64-second 40-yard dash and 7.18-second three-cone efforts were thrown into the mix, scouts and coaches really started salivating over his potential to get after opposing quarterbacks.
Everything is in place for Tryon to blossom into a premier pass-rusher. He must smooth out some rough edges, though.
Based on what was seen two seasons ago since he opted out of the 2020 campaign, Tryon is at his best with his bull rush or working underneath blockers. He's not a true edge-rusher, who runs the ring around offensive tackles. He's more of a straight-line defender. Furthermore, his array of pass-rush moves are limited.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could sit at the back end of this year’s first round and let the draft come to them, much like a year ago.
The organization didn’t necessarily expect tackle Tristan Wirfs and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. to be available near their slot. They were, and the team benefited greatly.
Tryon is a little different. He’s more potential than standout among his position group.
With a year away from the game, he’ll join Tampa Bay’s lineup as a rotational piece who can learn from the veterans in front of him, particularly Jason Pierre-Paul since Tryon will likely replace the 32-year-old veteran after this season.
JPP isn’t under contract beyond the 2021 campaign.
General manager Jason Licht saw how his defensive front dominated the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV. He’s building toward long-term bookends with Tryon and Shaquil Barrett.