NFL Draft 2021: Reviewing This Year's Biggest Steals, Reaches and Surprises

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistMay 2, 2021

NFL Draft 2021: Reviewing This Year's Biggest Steals, Reaches and Surprises

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Steals, surprises and reaches are what drives the intrigue of the NFL draft.

    If everything went according to consensus, the draft wouldn't be the most-watched offseason event in all of sports. Broken down to its most basic element, it's about the commissioner (or sometimes celebrities, former players and fans) reading the names of players who are being selected.

    The intensity, though, comes in the battle between what we expect and what actually goes down. Perceived value drives what we consider to be steals, players who weren't expected to be available.

    Conversely, perceived value also makes us respond with a visceral "What?!" when other picks are announced earlier than expected: the reaches. Then there are the surprises, when there isn't necessarily a positive or negative vibe but just a momentary break from what was expected.

    These three types of outcomes happen every year. Here's a look back at some of the top moments in each category from the 2021 draft.

Steal: Lions Get Penei Sewell Outside the Top 5

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Penei Sewell was the top tackle prospect in the draft. Rashawn Slater made a late push to claim that spot, but Bob McGinn of The Athletic's annual survey of NFL scouts backed up what most big boards stated: The Oregon product was No. 1.

    His movement skills, size and production stood out in such a way that his opting out of the 2020 season didn't seem to hurt his draft stock.

    Protecting the quarterback is incredibly important, so it didn't seem likely Sewell would be available to the Detroit Lions at No. 7. The first three picks were always going to be quarterbacks, and the Atlanta Falcons didn't need a tackle, but both the Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins had young passers who could use improved protection.

    Instead, those franchises opted for receiving weapons. The Bengals reunited Joe Burrow with his college teammate Ja'Marr Chase, while the Dolphins did the same for Tua Tagovailoa with Jaylen Waddle.

    The Bengals' and Dolphins' controversial decisions opened the door for the Lions, who drastically improved their offensive line. With Taylor Decker already manning the left side, Detroit will have the luxury of two high-caliber tackles, guaranteeing a certain level of protection for Jared Goff, whose success with the Los Angeles Rams was tied to the quality of the offensive line.

    As Danny Kelly of The Ringer noted, this was a perfect pick to kick off the Dan Campbell era in Detroit.

    "For a new front office and coaching regime that has preached toughness and, as head coach Dan Campbell put it, a bite-off-knee-caps mentality, going offensive line with their first pick just makes too much sense," Kelly wrote.

Surprise: Cowboys Pull Off Trade Within Division, Still Get Micah Parsons

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    The Dallas Cowboys were widely expected to select a cornerback with the No. 10 pick in the draft. According to NFL Mock Draft Database, 64.1 percent of mock drafts had Dallas taking one of the top three corners.

    As it turned out, Jaycee Horn and Patrick Surtain II were picked just before the Cowboys went on the clock. But what started as a nightmare scenario actually went fairly well for Dallas and gave us our first surprise of the evening.

    The Philadelphia Eagles struck a deal with the Cowboys to move ahead of the New York Giants at No. 11 so they could choose wide receiver DeVonta Smith. In a tight division with multiple heated rivalries, it was surprising for two NFC East teams to trade with one another so one could skip a third division foe.

    Regardless, the Cowboys found a taker and still wound up with Micah Parsons, the second-ranked linebacker. They also acquired the 84th selection, which they used to select defensive end Chauncey Golston out of Iowa. Finding an outside corner to pair with Trevon Diggs would have been nice, but Dallas landed a player who may be the best defender in the draft.

    Only Surtain was a higher-ranked defensive player on the consensus board, and that was without Parsons playing in 2020.

Surprise (and Steal): Bears Trade Up for Justin Fields

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Ryan Pace entered Thursday with Andy Dalton as his starting quarterback and the 20th pick in a draft in which it looked like the top five quarterbacks could be gone after the first seven picks.

    In other words, there was no reason for Chicago Bears fans to be excited about the quarterback position.

    Then Pace traded up 10 spots to secure one of the top quarterbacks.

    The phrase "highly unlikely" doesn't do it justice. Fields had to slide past the San Francisco 49ers, who tabbed the impressive but largely unproven Trey Lance; the Falcons, who could have picked the Georgia native as Matt Ryan's heir apparent; the Carolina Panthers, who instead decided to go all in on the Sam Darnold reclamation project; and the Denver Broncos, who may start Teddy Bridgewater.

    Giants general manager David Gettleman also had to agree to trade back for the first time in his nine years as a GM. It wasn't that he hadn't traded back in the first round—he had never traded back at all.

    The Bears have lived in the shadow of their decision to draft Mitchell Trubisky over Patrick Mahomes for four years now. The surprising fall of Fields out of the top 10 followed by Pace's move to get him gave the franchise the opportunity to move past that.

Reach: Raiders Make Alex Leatherwood the 3rd Tackle Selected

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

    It's becoming an annual tradition for the Las Vegas Raiders to make these lists with their first-round pick. Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden have made it clear they dance to the music in their hearts when it comes to player evaluation.

    The Bleacher Report scouting department ranked Alex Leatherwood as the 35th-best player and seventh-best offensive tackle. That's even a shade higher than the consensus big board at NFL Mock Draft Database, which had Leatherwood at No. 40 overall and sixth among tackles.

    The Raiders made him the 17th selection and the third tackle off the board after Penei Sewell and Rashawn Slater. Their second-round selection, safety Trevon Moehrig, was higher on our big board at No. 20.

    Leatherwood has some nice traits. At 6'5" with nearly 34-inch arms, he has the length to play tackle. But an NFC area scout told they wouldn't be thrilled if their team drafted him.

    "I thought he was pretty much the same player he was last year. He's long and has some athleticism, but he just doesn't get me excited even though we need a tackle," the scout said.

    In other words: good talent but not someone who should have been picked as early as he was.

Steal: Vikings Trade Back and Still Wind Up with Christian Darrisaw

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    Matt Gentry/Associated Press

    The Raiders' unconventional draft board turned out to be a boon for the Minnesota Vikings. It's hard not to love what general manager Rick Spielman did, and it started with the decision to trade back from No. 14.

    The Vikings took a gamble by dealing that pick and a fourth-rounder to the New York Jets for No. 23 and two third-rounders. They needed offensive line help and had their pick of all the non-Penei Sewell and Rashawn Slater options.

    The Jets used the pick on Alijah Vera-Tucker, while the Vikes bided their time and wound up with Christian Darrisaw, whom they could have justifiably selected at No. 14.

    "All I can speak on is we were considering [Darrisaw] strongly at 14 and still able to get him where we got him. That was a great night for us," Spielman said, per Ben Goessling of the Star Tribune.

    The B/R big board had Darrisaw at No. 18 overall and the No. 4 offensive tackle. Vera-Tucker was 13th overall and the second interior offensive lineman. That's a negligible difference, and the Vikings ended up getting Wyatt Davis (B/R's fifth-ranked interior lineman) with one of their additional third-round picks.

    This was a huge win for Minnesota because it got great value.

Reach: Jaguars Select Travis Etienne in the 1st Round

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    Brian Blanco/Associated Press

    This isn't anything against Travis Etienne. The running back is a true home run threat and put together an excellent career at Clemson.

    But using a first-round pick on a running back (whom we ranked 69th overall and fourth at his position) is controversial to begin with. When you already have an undrafted free agent who put up 1,414 yards from scrimmage with 10 touchdowns in 14 games as a rookie, it's just baffling.

    Yes, Urban Meyer's regime didn't bring in James Robinson, but the Illinois State product offers a perfect example of why first-round running backs rarely are the right decision. As good as Etienne is, how much better will he be than the player who cost the franchise almost nothing last season?

    Meyer's own analysis of the pick certainly didn't make it look better, either.

    "I see Carlos [Hyde] and James the 1-2, downhill, powerful running backs," Meyer said, per John Reid of the Florida Times-Union. "And I see Travis—there are times where we could be in two backs and Travis is a guy that goes out. Or we're still playing with it, but he's certainly a third-down back and he's a guy that's a matchup issue for the defense."

    So despite getting great production out of the position last year for next to nothing, Meyer is excited about the possibility of forming a three-back rotation that includes a first-round pick and free-agency addition. Got it.

    There's some coach speak in there, and the Jacksonville Jaguars will certainly utilize Etienne, but this was too early for him—and the Jaguars had more pressing needs at more important positions.

    A successor to Marvin Jones who is 31 and signed a two-year deal or competition for K'Lavon Chaisson on the edge after he finished 104th among edge defenders at PFF last year would have been better investments.

Surprise: Packers Avoid 1st-Round Receiver Again

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    For the second offseason in a row, the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers are reportedly at odds. The top story heading into draft night was that Rodgers—fresh off his third MVP season—wants out of Green Bay. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported the quarterback told the team he does not want to return.

    Schefter noted the tension began when the Packers moved up to take Jordan Love in the first round of last year's draft and didn't inform him.

    Green Bay clearly didn't feel like it needed to assuage Rodgers with this year's pick either. With playmakers Elijah Moore, Rondale Moore and Terrace Marshall Jr. on the board, the Packers added to their defense with their first pick, taking cornerback Eric Stokes out of Georgia.

    In a vacuum, Stokes made sense from a positional standpoint, although he may not have been the best corner available. The Packers needed someone to pair with Jaire Alexander, and Stokes is a great prospect from a size and speed standpoint who had success in the SEC.

    It's surprising Green Bay continued to draft as though the chasm between the organization and its MVP quarterback doesn't exist.

Steal: Patriots Get Top Defensive Tackle in Christian Barmore

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots didn't feel the need to trade up for their quarterback of the future in Mac Jones. They did, however, deal two fourth-rounders to move up and select his Alabama teammate Christian Barmore in the second round.

    That's telling.

    The defensive tackle class was underwhelming, but Barmore is one of the few with the chance to be special. He was a bit divisive in the evaluation process. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 12th-best prospect overall and the second-best defensive player behind Micah Parsons.

    The B/R big board had him at No. 32 overall and the second-best defensive lineman.

    The disparity goes back to the inconsistency he showed on film. As PFF noted, he had zero pressures against Tennessee and Florida last season but showed up all over the place in the College Football Playoff against better competition.

    The bottom line is that Barmore was productive with eight sacks as a redshirt sophomore. Defensive tackles who can rush the passer—such as Chris Jones and Fletcher Cox (we won't compare any prospect to Aaron Donald)—are worth the investment.

    That's Barmore's profile, and there's a good chance one of the biggest questions when we look back at this draft will be how Barmore wasn't picked in the first round.

Steal: Browns Get Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in the 2nd Round

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Browns could have chosen Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah with the 26th pick and wouldn't have received major backlash. He was the 14th-ranked player on B/R's big board and the top linebacker.

    The Notre Dame product may have had the biggest disparity between where he was expected to be selected and where he actually was. According to NFL Mock Draft Database, his consensus draft spot was 17th. He fell all the way to 52nd.

    Owusu-Koramoah is an outlier when it comes to labels. In his final season, he played 88 snaps on the defensive line, 328 in the slot and 215 in the box, and he played a similar role in 2019, per PFF.

    Maybe other teams thought that made him a "tweener," but one team's tweener is another's Swiss army knife.

    Owusu-Koramoah will play both a traditional linebacker role as well as safety in sub-packages for coordinator Joe Woods. That the Browns paired him with first-round selection Greg Newsome II made them one of the biggest winners of the draft.


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