NFL Draft 2021 Results: The Biggest Steals, Reaches & Surprises from Day 1

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistApril 30, 2021

NFL Draft 2021 Results: The Biggest Steals, Reaches & Surprises from Day 1

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    If you're an NFL draft viewer, three short phrases likely dominate your living room during Round 1 every year. 

    1. "That's a steal!"

    2. "That's a reach!"

    3. "That's a surprise!"

    Steals, of course, are players who should have come off the board earlier than they did. Reaches are players in the opposite circumstance. Surprises are, well, surprises—sometimes positive, sometimes negative, always unexpected by definition. 

    With that in mind, let's review the opening round of the 2021 draft through those lenses. 

Steal: Atlanta Falcons Select Florida TE Kyle Pitts Fourth Overall

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    David Dermer/Associated Press

    A tight end is drafted in the top four for the first time in modern NFL history, and we're calling it a steal? Yup, because Kyle Pitts is so much more than a typical tight end. He's arguably the top non-quarterback in this class. 

    That's exactly how the folks in the B/R NFL Scouting Department view him. They ranked the Florida product second on their final big board, behind only No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence. 

    At 6'6", 245 pounds with speed in the 4.4 range, the 2020 John Mackey Award winner is the complete package. He immediately becomes a matchup nightmare for the Atlanta Falcons, and he won't likely be limited to a typical tight end role. 

    "He's got a completely different physique compared to everyone else at the position," Bleacher Report's Brent Sobleski wrote in handing the Falcons an A grade for the pick. "There's not a linebacker or defensive back who can properly cover the 20-year-old target."

    The only reason Pitts wasn't taken second or third is because everybody is so thirsty for potential franchise quarterbacks. The reality is he's much more likely than Zach Wilson or Trey Lance to become an NFL superstar. 

Reach: San Francisco 49ers Select North Dakota State QB Trey Lance Third Overall

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Speaking of that devil, Lance very well could wind up paying off for the San Francisco 49ers because the draft is a well-established crapshoot and he's got a hell of a lot of raw talent. Importantly, he's also joining a quality, supportive system. 

    Still, we're talking about an FCS quarterback who barely played football in 2020, threw just 319 passes in his college career and attempted only 113 throws in high school. He's got the arm, size, mobility and processing skills you want in a young quarterback, but the fact is that the 20-year-old is much more of a wild card than Ohio State product Justin Fields

    As it turns out, Fields wound up dropping outside of the top 10 and likely could have been had by the 49ers for a lot less draft capital had they not traded away two future first-round picks and a third-rounder for the right to move up from the 12th slot to take Lance third overall. 

    This is a team that played in the Super Bowl just 15 months ago with Jimmy Garoppolo, who remains on the roster. Committing three first-round picks and a Day 2 selection to another quarterback is far too significant a risk under those circumstances, especially with the more proven Fields still on the board.

Surprise: Cincinnati Bengals Select LSU WR Ja'Marr Chase Fifth Overall

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    Matt Shiffler/Associated Press

    OK, this wasn't a jaw-dropper, but it was the first somewhat unexpected move of the draft. And the stakes are so high in the top five that it still makes the cut. 

    After all, young Cincinnati Bengals franchise quarterback Joe Burrow was routinely roughed up behind a weak offensive line during his abbreviated rookie season, and remarkable offensive tackle prospect Penei Sewell was still on the board. 

    The odds at most sportsbooks were pretty close to even between Sewell and Ja'Marr Chase in this spot, but that also factored in the possibility the Falcons might take Sewell fourth overall (which was much more likely than them taking Chase). 

    Sobleski, who gave this pick an F grade, considers the mild surprise to be a bad one. I disagree, because Cincinnati's offensive line woes have a lot more to do with the interior than Jonah Williams and Riley Reiff at the tackle spots, but also because Burrow and Chase made sweet music together at LSU in 2019 and he's a perfect replacement for A.J. Green outside. 

    Both Chase and Sewell look special, but the gap between Sewell and Day 2 offensive line targets Samuel Cosmi, Teven Jenkins and Liam Eichenberg isn't as large as the gap between Chase and lingering receivers Terrace Marshall Jr., Elijah Moore and Rondale Moore. 

Steals: Penei Sewell at 7, Rashawn Slater at 13 and Christian Darrisaw at 23

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    But that doesn't mean Sewell didn't present extremely good value when the Detroit Lions took him off the board two selections after Cincinnati passed. Few would argue that the 6'6", 331-pound dominant blocker isn't one of the top three or four players in this class, so he qualifies as a steal anywhere outside of the top five. 

    And yet the first round was loaded with steals at that position. After Sewell, a pair of cornerbacks came off the board before three NFC East teams jockeyed around with the focus on Fields and DeVonta Smith, which eventually left the Los Angeles Chargers smiling as the dust cleared with the final piece of their rebuilt offensive line in tow. The technically sound Rashawn Slater easily could have been a top-10 pick before falling to L.A.

    Many likely expected the Minnesota Vikings to immediately follow that by selecting the physically marvelous Christian Darrisaw, but instead the Vikes traded down nine spots and ended up with...the physically marvelous Christian Darrisaw. Yours truly had Darrisaw going ahead of Slater, and the consensus big board at NFL Mock Draft Database had him in the No. 15 spot. 

    Sewell is a tremendous fit for Dan Campbell's new regime in Detroit; Slater is an ideal building block for young quarterback Justin Herbert in Los Angeles; and it shouldn't take long for Darrisaw to make a large impact in Minnesota. All three offer excellent draft value. 

Reach: Las Vegas Raiders Select Alabama OL Alex Leatherwood 17th Overall

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    But then, at the same position in the middle of Round 1, there was Alex Leatherwood—a classic Jon Gruden reach.

    Leatherwood was not ranked as a first-rounder on the B/R big board or the consensus board at the NFL Mock Draft Database, and it's unclear if he can even stick as a tackle or if he'll move to guard in the NFL, but that didn't stop Gruden from selecting the mechanical Alabama product with Darrisaw still on the board. 

    In Sobleski's words, Las Vegas "forced a pick based on need and what appear to be outdated values" and Leatherwood "would have been a better pick at least a half or even full round later."

    Suffice to say, he gave the Raiders an F. 

    And considering that Las Vegas seemingly made similar mistakes with Clelin Ferrell in the top five in 2019 and Damon Arnette in the middle of Round 1 in 2020, it's hard to give the team the benefit of the doubt right now. 

Surprise: Justin Fields and Mac Jones Drop out of the Top 10

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    At various points in the lead-up to the draft, Justin Fields and Mac Jones both looked like potential top-three picks. In fact, at one point there was talk that Fields could be the top selection, while Jones was the favorite to go No. 3 overall to San Francisco just 24 hours before the draft. 

    Instead, both the two-time first-team All-Big Ten Ohio State product and the 2020 consensus All-American from Alabama slid out of the top 10. 

    What happened? We all knew Lawrence and Wilson would go 1-2, but then the 49ers officially chose Lance over Fields and Jones, the Falcons opted to wait to draft 35-year-old Matt Ryan's successor, the Carolina Panthers apparently decided to stick with Sam Darnold when they drafted cornerback Jaycee Horn eighth overall, and the Denver Broncos surprisingly took cornerback Patrick Surtain II in the No. 9 spot. 

    It was somewhat surprising nobody traded up with Atlanta, the Miami Dolphins (at six), the Lions (seven) or the Panthers, Broncos or Cowboys (10) for Fields in particular. A trade-up finally occurred when the Chicago Bears pulled the trigger to acquire the No. 11 pick from the Giants, but by then both Fields and Jones had to be pretty disappointed. 

    It did feel as though Jones could be in for a drop if the 49ers didn't select him early, but Fields looks so well-equipped to excel in the modern NFL that it's shocking he lasted that long. 

    The Broncos are the most interesting case in this investigation. They were linked to Aaron Rodgers throughout the afternoon, but a trade never came to fruition. Still, 2020 starter Drew Lock remains on the roster along with recent addition Teddy Bridgewater. Would they have drafted Fields or even Jones if not for potential Rodgers talks? What about if they hadn't acquired Bridgewater from Carolina? 

    We may never know. 

Steal: Chicago Bears Select Ohio State QB Justin Fields 11th Overall

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Not to beat a dead horse, but even with the Bears spending an extra first-round pick and a pair of Day 3 selections (a fifth-rounder this year and a fourth-rounder in 2022), Fields outside of the top 10 is a coup. 

    The efficient, athletic, tough, smart and accurate former Ohio State star has every ingredient required to become a difference-making quarterback at the NFL level, but it seems he got lost in the draft shuffle early on and the Jets and 49ers fell in love with less accomplished but slightly more physically intriguing signal-callers. 

    That's just fine with the Bears, who were likely going to crash and burn by going all-in on Andy Dalton and/or Nick Foles in what is almost certainly a make-or-break year for the current regime. 

    If Fields is a mess as a rookie, they're without a first-rounder next year and probably screwed. But they were likely screwed regardless, and now there's a chance Fields, Allen Robinson, a solid line and a strong defense come together to get them back to the playoffs, in which case the extra first-round pick they sent to New York isn't a primo selection anyway. 

    Teams that picked in the 6-10 range—and teams that might have had a chance to trade into that range for Fields—might soon wonder why they didn't pull the trigger on a player many once thought could have been the No. 2 overall pick. 

Reaches: Running Backs Najee Harris at 24 and Travis Etienne at 25

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    Brian Blanco/Associated Press

    This dead horse has been collecting flies for quite some time more broadly, but I'm not going to pass up a chance to dedicate a portion of this review to the silliness associated with not one but two teams drafting running backs in the top 25. 

    And there's really no offense intended toward new Pittsburgh Steelers back Najee Harris or new Jaguar Travis Etienne. The former is coming off back-to-back 1,200-plus-yard campaigns in which he scored a total of 50 touchdowns at Alabama, while the latter registered two consecutive 1,600-plus-yard seasons and 65 total touchdowns during the past three years at Clemson. 

    This is the most pass-happy era in NFL history, the running back position contains the shortest shelf life in the sport, quality backs are comically easy to find outside of Round 1, and far too many first-round backs go bust to justify drafting one that early. 

    Just seven backs went off the board in the top 25 in the previous eight drafts for a reason. Teams have learned from top-five disaster cases like Darren McFadden and Trent Richardson, and they've also taken note of non-Round 1 success stories like Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, Nick Chubb and Aaron Jones. 

    Heck, none of the league's top seven rushers last season were first-round picks, and—incredibly—that list included undrafted Jacksonville Jaguar James Robinson. 

    Yes, the Jags, still with many holes as they rebuild following a one-win season, felt they had the luxury to use a first-round pick on a running back despite the fact that they already have a 22-year-old 1,000-yard rusher who costs practically nothing because he was passed on 255 times in last year's draft. 

    When's the last time a team used a high draft pick on a running back and then won a Super Bowl thanks in large part to said back's exploits? You really have to go back to Jamal Lewis with the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. Even the best players in the league at that position just don't make much of a difference, and if they do it's usually not sustainable. 

    I guess the Steelers and Jaguars will have to learn that the hard way now too. 

Surprise: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah Slides out of Round 1

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    Robert Franklin/Associated Press

    According to 247Sports, ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. called Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah one of the "best pure football players in this draft" in February. The B/R Scouting Department ranked him as the second-best defensive player in the entire class, and the consensus at NFL Mock Draft Database had him in the top 20 overall. 

    But on Thursday night, JOK wasn't drafted at all. 

    Most lists of remaining top-notch players entering Day 2 contain Owusu-Koramoah's name right at the top, and for good reason. Sure, he's an off-ball linebacker/safety who might be getting dinged for the fact that he isn't a lock at a premium position, but the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year and Butkus Award winner is simply an elite playmaker with top-of-the-line explosiveness and superb coverage skills. 

    You'd also think that heroic performances from Lavonte David, Devin White and Antoine Winfield Jr. during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' recent Super Bowl run would inspire teams to invest in defenders away from the edge and corners, but not a single safety or interior defensive lineman went off the board Thursday, and only three off-ball linebackers were selected. 

    Still, few would have expected that the extremely versatile Owusu-Koramoah wouldn't have been one of those names. But the Cowboys took Micah Parsons, the Arizona Cardinals opted for Zaven Collins and the Washington Football Team went with Jamin Davis. 

    Don't expect him to wait long on Friday evening.