2021 NFL Draft: 1st-Round Grades & Recap

As it always does, Thursday night’s first round of the 2021 NFL Draft once again satisfied the craving all of us football fans have had since the Super Bowl. Months of mock drafts, while fun to look at as they provide a rough blueprint as to how the draft may unfold, proved once again to be just a collection of guesses.

Didn’t see too many mocks with Jaycee Horn to the Panther or Justin Fields to the Bears. Hell, I did four mock drafts this offseason and I never even considered the Giants selecting Kadarius Toney. But we’ve reached the conclusion of day one, so that means it’s time to prematurely judge players that haven’t even been assigned a uniform number yet for their new team.

So before we all fall back into draft mode Friday evening with the second and third rounds, let’s dive into the first-round picks with recaps and grades for all 32 picks!

1. Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson

Once the Jets beat the Rams in Week 15 of the 2020 NFL season we knew it would be the Jaguars – not the Jets – selecting Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. The prototype quarterback, who also has the ability to tuck and run, projects to be the Jags’ signal caller for the next 15 years. Lawrence will step in as a day-one starter with an up-and-coming set of skill players that includes James Robinson, DJ Chark, Marvin Jones, and last year’s second-round pick, Laviska Shenault Jr.

Grade: A+

2. New York Jets: Zach Wilson, QB, BYU

The nearly-consensus QB2 entering the 2020 college football season was Ohio State’s Justin Fields. However, as the college season played out and BYU’s Zach Wilson proceeded to total 43 touchdowns compared to just three turnovers, it became clearer by the day that Wilson would be the Jets’ pick at No. 2. Wilson has the arm strength and mobility that general managers crave in today’s NFL, and pairing him with last year’s first-round pick, Mekhi Becton, is an ideal way to kick off the Robert Saleh era. The main reason for my grade on this pick is due to the fact that we only saw one standout season out of Wilson, and it came against some relatively weak competition. I tend to be a bit leery of QB’s that have a small sample size of elite production.

Grade: B+

3. San Francisco 49ers (via trade w/ Mia): Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota St.

Just 17 career college starts, but Lance settles the debate between himself and Alabama’s Mac Jones as to who the 49ers would turn to as the team’s future signal caller. He’s got prototypical QB size, he’s extremely athletic with his ability to create with his legs, and his decision making is unmatched as he had just one interception throughout his collegiate career. The biggest knock on Lance is the competition he faced at NDSU, but he’s setup for success with Kyle Shanahan and the skill players the 49ers already have assembled.

Grade: A-

4. Atlanta Falcons: Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida

Arguably the best prospect in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Falcons selected a fool-proof tight end in Kyle Pitts. Not only is he a freak athlete that creates mismatches for himself regardless of where he lines up, but he’ll also create additional opportunities for Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, which they didn’t even need. Being tied to Matt Ryan for the next couple of years likely dictated this pick, but you won’t find too many that will complain about it. Congratulations, Falcons fans, you landed a unicorn.

Grade: A

5. Cincinnati Bengals: Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU

The Bengals opted to go with the receiver over the protector. It would have been hard to pass on the skill set that Chase possesses, but there was a huge argument to be made for Oregon’s Penei Sewell. Look no further than that glaring scar on Joe Burrow’s surgically-repaired knee. However, Chase gives Cincinnati yet another dynamic pass catcher to pair with Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins. This offense has the potential to be elite, but there’s no denying the fact that we’ll all continue to be worried about the health of Burrow after passing on Sewell.

Grade: B+

6. Miami Dolphins (via trade w/ Phi): Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama

With both Pitts and Chase off the board, the Dolphins opted to go with Waddle over Alabama teammate, DeVonta Smith. No. 6 overall feels a little early for Waddle, but you could make the argument that he’s one of this year’s draft’s most electric players and he’ll fit in extremely nice as the team’s slot receiver; a position of need after signing Will Fuller to compliment DeVante Parker this offseason. Tua Tagovailoa gets his former teammate and should have no excuses for not performing at a high level in 2021.

Grade: B+

7. Detroit Lions: Penei Sewell, OL, Oregon

Definitely not a position of need, but Sewell would have been hard to pass after falling to No. 7 overall. Sewell projects to protect Jared Goff’s blindside until the team eventually moves onto their next signal caller. I’m assuming there will be quite a few Lions’ fans that would have preferred either a wide receiver or a trade back to accumulate additional draft picks, but this pick is about as safe as it gets when it comes to the 2021 NFL Draft.

Grade: A

8. Carolina Panthers: Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina

The first “shocker” of the first round, but Horn projects to step in as a starting corner from day one in Carolina. He’s played against some elite competition in the SEC, and ultimately got the call as the first CB off the board over fellow SEC’er, Patrick Surtain. Rashawn Slater seemed likely, in my opinion, but the report was that it came down to Horn and Ohio State QB, Justin Fields. With Sam Darnold already in the mix, Horn was the choice and he’ll be a cornerstone of the Panthers’ up-and-coming defense – after a defense-only draft in 2020.

Grade: B+

9. Denver Broncos: Patrick Surtain Jr, CB, Alabama

The Broncos were one of the teams drafting in the top 10 that could have went multiple directions with their pick, and they opted to take arguably the best cornerback in the draft in Alabama’s Patrick Surtain. Surtain can play in a variety of defensive schemes, he’s got good speed, and he’s got a lot going for him playing for both his father – a former standout for the Miami Dolphins – and Nick Saban who specializes in working with defensive backs. He’ll see action sooner rather than later in Denver’s defensive backfield.

Grade: A-

10. Philadelphia Eagles (via trade w/ Dal): DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama

The first trade of Thursday’s opening round included divisional rivals as the Eagles traded up to No. 10 with the Dallas Cowboys. The trade only cost the Eagles their third rounder, and it turned into Smith being selected to give Jalen Hurts a weapon in year one as a full-time starter. Smith is an absolute talent that deserved to be selected in the top 10. His only true knock is his size, but the true data shows that Smith was rarely injured, he didn’t struggle with press coverage, and he was an absolute monster in contested catches. The Eagles make it back-to-back drafts with WR being selected in the first round.

Grade: A

11. Chicago Bears (via trade w/ NYG): Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State

Andy Dalton may be the Bears’s QB1 in 2021, but it appears Fields will assume that role in ’22 and beyond. It’s hard to hate this move as the Bears were in desperate need for a quarterback, especially since Dalton was clearly just a bridge-QB signing, but the foreseeable future of the Bears is now in Fields’ hands. Enjoy this one, Bears fans, securing Fields at No. 11 is solid value.

Grade: A-

12. Dallas Cowboys (via trade w/ Phi): Micah Parsons, LB, Penn St.

Often injured Sean Lee retired… insert Micah Parsons. After trading back two spots following a trade with the Eagles, the Cowboys landed the draft’s most-talented linebacker in Parsons. However, Parsons comes with plenty of off-field concerns, which made several draft analysts believe he may slip outside the top 20. Despite these concerns, the Cowboys’ infatuation with linebackers continues as Parsons joins Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith in Dallas. He can cruise sideline to sideline while also being able to rush the passer, but the success of this pick will likely come down to whether or not Parsons can keep it together off the field.

Grade: B

13. Los Angeles Chargers: Rashawn Slater, OL, Northwestern

Landing Slater at No. 13 is likely one of the biggest steals so far in the draft. Many thought the Chargers would have to trade up to land one of the draft’s top-two tackles, but they read the board correctly, stayed put, and got their guy in Slater. Unlike the Bengals, the Chargers opted to protect their young signal caller by selecting the ultra-athletic and powerful Slater. He projects to grow and develop alongside Justin Herbert for years to come, and Chargers fans have to be thrilled with this selection.

Grade: A

14. New York Jets (via trade w/ Minn): Alijah Vera-Tucker, OL, USC

The strategy of protecting Wilson has already started as the Jets traded up to select USC’s Vera-Tucker. Often mocked to select a running back at No. 23, the Jets did the smart thing and took a solid offensive lineman that has the ability to play either guard or tackle. It’s not sexy, but it’s the right move as there’s no way Vera-Tucker was going to last No. 23 overall. Go and get your guy, I like the strategy.

Grade: A-

15. New England Patriots: Mac Jones, QB, Alabama

Despite numerous reports that this would be the year that Bill Belichick would trade up to grab a quarterback, the Patriots were able to stay put and grab their future quarterback in Mac Jones. He likely won’t contribute in year one, but that’s fine as he’ll have the opportunity to learn and grow behind veteran QB, Cam Newton. Belichick will put Jones in a position to succeed in ’22 and beyond, and despite Jones not being uniquely athletic or having one elite skill, the overall package he possesses translates nicely in New England.

Grade: B

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16. Arizona Cardinals: Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa

Make it back-to-back years with the Cardinals going with a defensive playmaker as Collins comes off the board at No. 16 overall. Collins is a statistic-producing machine and will give the Cardinals’ defense an immediate boost as a do-it-all linebacker. With the top-two corners off the board, Collins was a shoe-in at No. 16 and should contribute in this defense already in year one. Collins flew a bit under the radar as a linebacker out of Tulsa, but talk to anyone that analyzes the draft for a living and they’ll tell you that the Cardinals got a good one.

Grade: A-

17. Las Vegas Raiders: Alex Leatherwood, OL, Alabama

There were definitely some mocks that had Leatherwood going in the first round, but I’ve got to admit that I didn’t see him coming off the board this early. He has the ability to play either guard or tackle, and after Trent Brown left to go to New England, the Raiders decided to fill the gap with Leatherwood. He’s a sturdy player with the ability to be a quality starter for numerous years, but this one is a bit of a head scratcher.

Grade: C+

18. Miami Dolphins: Jaelan Phillips, EDGE, Miami

Phillips was a top-ranked edge rusher coming out of high school, but injuries plagued him during his collegiate career, which pushed him back to No. 18 overall. There’s no denying that edge rusher was one of Miami’s top needs this offseason, but I’m a bit concerned that the Dolphins went with Phillips, who medically retired while attending UCLA, over another competent edge rusher such as Kwity Paye.

Grade: B-

19. Washington Football Team: Jamin Davis, LB, Kentucky

A player that was climbing draft boards over the course of the last month, Washington decided to add Kentucky’s athletic linebacker with the 19th-overall pick. He only started one year in Kentucky, but his comparisons to Darius Leonard had teams craving his unique ability. He’s 4.4 fast and still has the ability to shed blocks and impact the run game. He truly is do-it-all as he can also drop in coverage, proven by his three interceptions in 2020. We knew he’d come off the board in the first round, and Washington made it happen making him a top-20 pick.

Grade: B

20. New York Giants (via trade w/ Chi): Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida

A bit of a shocker after the Giants spent big dollars on free-agent WR, Kenny Golladay, but there’s an argument to be made that Toney is the best after-the-catch receiver in this year’s draft. Rarely brought down by a single defender, Toney has the ability to score every time he touches the ball in the open field. The Giants are clearly looking to surround Daniel Jones with talented skill players to make him prove that he’s the guy, so 2021 seems to be a make-or-break year for the former first-round signal caller. I love Toney as a playmaker, but I honestly didn’t see him as a first rounder.

Grade: B-

21. Indianapolis Colts: Kwity Paye, EDGE, Michigan

The second edge rusher off the board, the Colts secured a solid prospect in the form of Kwity Paye. Explosive off the edge but still having the ability to push through interior offensive lineman, Paye has the motor that coaches crave from edge rushers. Paye has the ability to take over games and will be a handful for opposing team’s offensive tackles for years to come. It wasn’t an outstanding edge-rusher class, but there was an argument that Paye should have been the first off the board at the position.

Grade: A-

22. Tennessee Titans: Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech

Despite a recent back surgery, Farley remained in the first round after being selected No. 22 overall by the Tennessee Titans. In desperate need of a cornerback after losing Adoree’ Jackson earlier this offseason, Farley was the best CB left on the board (in my opinion) despite the back surgery and opting out of the 2020 college football season. He’s big, fluid, and allowed just a 36% pass completion percentage for the Hokies in 2019. You could say that Tennessee filled a huge position of need while still drafting the best player available.

Grade: A-

23. Minnesota Vikings (via trade w/ NYJ): Christian Darrisaw, OL, Virginia Tech

Congratulations to the Vikings for trading back and still getting their guy in Darrisaw. It was no secret that the Vikings were targeting an offensive lineman, and Darrisaw at No. 23 is a bit unexpected. He projects as the team’s long-term solution at left tackle, with the ability to play guard if needed. He has the athleticism to get to the next level on blocks and he didn’t a single sack last season at Virginia Tech. Darrisaw at No. 23, after a trade back, is true value.

Grade: A

24. Pittsburgh Steelers: Najee Harris, RB, Alabama

One of the worse-kept secrets in the 2021 NFL Draft came to fruition Thursday night when the Steelers made Harris the 24th-overall selection. Harris is a great RB prospect in today’s NFL as his pass-catch ability is uncharacteristically good for a guy his side. The Steelers are going all in this season in an attempt to make a final run with Ben Roethlisberger as Harris provides the Steelers with a much-needed workhorse running back. I’m never a huge fan of selecting a running back in the first round, but I can’t help but love this pick.

Grade: A-

25. Jacksonville Jaguars (via trade w/ LAR): Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson

The Urban Meyer era is off and running as the Jaguars leave day one with Lawrence and Etienne. This feels like a bit of a luxury pick as the Jaguars received unexpected production out of James Robinson last year, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Meyer will find multiple ways to get Etienne involved in the offense as early as year one. I personally will downgrade this pick since I believe the Jaguars should have went another direction, but time will be the ultimate judge as to whether or not Etienne was a player that helped put the Jaguars over the top.

Grade: B-

26. Cleveland Browns: Greg Newsome, CB, Northwestern

The position of cornerback was commonly mocked to the Browns, and it came to fruition Thursday night when the Browns selected Northwestern’s Greg Newsome. He has some durability concerns, but he’s very fluid with above-average ball skills. He’ll also contribute in assisting the run game, but he was drafted by Cleveland to help provide depth in the secondary. Newsome has recently been mocked as a top-20 player, so staying put and landing an impact corner at No. 26 is a nice value pick by Cleveland.

Grade: B

27. Baltimore Ravens: Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota

If the Ravens weren’t going to get one of the big-three receivers (Chase, Waddle, Smith), Bateman was my favorite pick for the them. They already have their speed guys, but they truly needed a do-it-all receiver that can serve as an additional security blanket on the outside. Bateman’s 2020 tape didn’t scream first rounder, but his 2019 film showed me plenty to believe that he more than warrants being the 27th-overall selection. Lamar Jackson needed a reliable receiver on the outside that is solid across the board, and Bateman is the perfect man for the job at this point in the first round.

Grade: A-

28. New Orleans Saints: Payton Turner, EDGE, Houston

Recent reports hinted to the fact that numerous teams saw Turner as a first-round talent, and the Saints were obviously one of them after making him the pick at No. 28. I thought Asante Samuel may be the pick here, but I don’t mind Turner. He had a very nice showing at the Senior Bowl, which definitely helped propel him into the first round. There were numerous reports of teams targeting Turner early in the second round, but the Saints made that a mute point after selecting a player that reminds quite a few draft analysts of current Saints’ edge rusher, Marcus Davenport.

Grade: B

29. Green Bay Packers: Eric Stokes, CB, Georgia

There’s a lot to be said about the Packers right now due to the Aaron Rodgers situation, but I’ll try to stay focused on the selection of Stokes. The Packers stayed true to form and opted not to select a wide receiver, despite a fairly glaring need for a pass catcher outside of Davante Adams, but did still go with a position of need by selecting a corner. Kevin King signed a one-year deal this offseason, but he’s far from a long-term solution opposite Jaire Alexander. Stokes may take a little while before he’s called upon as an every-week starter, but if Green Bay was going to go defense, Stokes is a nice selection

Grade: B

30. Buffalo Bills: Gregory Rousseau, EDGE, Miami

The Bills were another team that could have went multiple directions with their first-round pick. Rousseau didn’t play in 2020 after opting out due to COVID, and he didn’t have a great pro day, but he had 15.5 sacks in his one year as a starter in Miami. Is he raw? Sure. But he should have time to develop in Buffalo, and with the way the Bills’ offense allows the team to play with a lead, Rousseau should be able to focus on straight up getting to the passer in year one.

Grade: B

31. Baltimore Ravens (via trade w/ KC): Jayson Oweh, EDGE, Penn St.

The run of edge rushers has occurred as we’ve now seen three of the last four players selected come from the position. Oweh is interesting as he’s an athletic freak, but didn’t record a single sack in 2020. He clocked a 4.3 40-yard dash time, which is absurd for a defensive end, and Baltimore feels like the perfect match for an athletic edge rusher that hasn’t yet reached his potential. He’s definitely raw, but he’ll be a force off the edge for years to come in this Ravens’ defense.

Grade: B+

32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Joe Tryon, EDGE, Washington

Another edge rusher to wrap up the first round. Tryon ended up being the pick, which is now an embarrassment of riches for the Bucs as they are loaded at the position. Tampa honestly could have went multiple directions with this pick and it would have been considered a good pick, so outside of trading the pick to acquire additional draft capital, I can’t be too hard on them whichever direction they went.

Grade: B

Let us know your thoughts and grades regarding the draft’s first 32 picks either on Twitter or in the comments below!

Ben Morgan is a co-host and blogger for the Loaded Box Podcast. Check out his article archive and find more from the Loaded Box on Twitter & Facebook

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