Five quarterbacks were taken in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Five more were taken over the next two days.
That was the biggest storyline of the 2021 NFL Draft, but there were more than enough surprises to go with it over the three days. In the AFC, the Browns, Dolphins and Jaguars were among the teams that had strong drafts. In the NFC, the Packers had an up-and-down draft after the news that Aaron Rodgers wants out, and the Cowboys made bold moves early that might pay off later.
Which teams had the best draft? Which teams flopped? Sporting News looks at the winners and losers from the 2021 NFL Draft:
NFL Draft winners & losers 2021
Cleveland continued to find value on the final day.
It added depth to the offensive line with Cincinnati tackle James Hudson, a Michigan transfer. Ohio State defensive tackle Tommy Togiai was a fifth-round steal, and West Virginia linebacker Tony Fields II and Georgia safety Richard Lecounte could be training-camp surprises. The Browns used five of their eight picks on defense, and all of those players could contribute.
This was a great weekend for the NFL Draft host city, and general manager Andrew Berry worked the board all weekend.
Denver didn’t have a fourth-round pick but it unearthed a few fifth-round sleepers in the secondary with Texas’ Caden Sterns and Indiana’s Jamar Johnson. LSU cornerback Kary Vincent is another potential contributor, and remember that Denver picked up Patrick Surtain II in the first round.
The Broncos closed their weekend with a pair of pass rushers in Ohio State’s Jonothan Cooper and Mississippi State’s Marquiss Williams. They didn’t trade for Aaron Rodgers, but they piled up enough talent to leave with a strong draft.
Winners: Ian Book and Sam Ehlinger
Quarterbacks were the story all weekend, and a pair of college veterans were the last two QBs taken in 2021. Book (Notre Dame) went in the fourth round to the Saints and Ehlinger (Texas) went in the sixth round to the Colts.
Book landed in the better spot, given the uncertainty for the franchise after Drew Brees’ retirement. Book won’t start, but he will get enough time to develop around Sean Payton that he should stick for a while. Ehlinger gets to work with Frank Reich and will be a serviceable backup behind Carson Wentz.
Book and Ehlinger dealt with heavy expectations in college. A backup role in the NFL might be easy money.
The Dolphins took Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle and Miami defensive end Jaelen Phillips in the first round, which was solid.
Miami built on that with a pair of second-round picks. Oregon safety Jevon Holland should be an immediate contributor and Notre Dame tackle Liam Eichenberg is another potential Week 1 starter.
Boston College’s Hunter Long was a third-round value pick who can contribute in double-tight end sets involving Mike Gesicki.
Coach Brian Flores is surrounding Tua Tagovailoa with exciting new pieces, and the team’s showing Friday was solid.
Jacksonville is in rebuild mode with one of the most successful college football coaches of all time, and Urban Meyer is off to an encouraging start with general manager Trent Baalke, beginning with the Clemson tandem of Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne in the first round.
How would Meyer work the board on Day 2? He started with cornerback Georgia’s Tyson Campbell in Round 2 and Syracuse safety Andre Cisco in Round 3. The Jaguars also took tackle Stanford’s Walker Little in the second round. He’s an All-America lineman who missed the last two seasons.
Meyer is taking impact players with high upside. That’s a good start.
Houston did not have a first- or second-round pick, which increased the urgency in the third round.
The Texans spent their first pick of Day 2 on Stanford quarterback Davis Mills. The franchise has not traded Deshaun Watson yet, but Mills would be a huge dropoff if he is thrust into a starting role as a rookie. The pick will also heighten the drama around Watson in the short term.
The Texans then grabbed Michigan receiver Nico Collins, who opted out of the 2021 season. Collins is a potential starter, but he was inconsistent with the Wolverines in 2019.
This was an interesting message sent by a franchise that bottomed out in 2020, but it might not be the one its fan base wants to hear.
Winner: Kyle Trask
Trask fell to the second round and was the lone quarterback taken in that round. The good news? Trask will get to learn from Tom Brady in Tampa for at least one season.
Trask enjoyed a stellar season with Florida in 2020. He finished with 4,283 yards, 43 touchdowns and eight interceptions. The 6-5, 240-pound quarterback is not known for mobility, but neither is Brady. Trask can take advantage of being in a backup role, and he won’t face the same pressure as the five quarterbacks who were taken in the first round.
This is a win-win situation for Trask early in his career.
Loser: Kirk Cousins
The Vikings had four picks in the third round, and they spent the first one on Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond. That at least has to send a message to Cousins, who signed a bloated contract and is entering his fourth year as a starter with Minnesota.
Cousins is 25-21-1 as the Vikings’ starter and has taken an average of 35 sacks per season in that stretch. Mond is a more mobile option and an intriguing development project who could be the starter down the line.
There is more pressure than ever for Cousins to deliver in a division where he would be the most-tenured starter if the Packers do move on from Aaron Rodgers.
Winners: Christian Barmore and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah
Two defensive players with first-round projections slid down the board, but they still landed in ideal situations.
Barmore was the first defensive tackle taken in the draft, and the Patriots moved up through a trade with the Bengals to get the 6-5, 310-pound interior defender with the 38th overall pick.
Barmore, who led the Crimson Tide with eight sacks last season, gives New England a much-needed inside presence. Chase Winovich led the Pats with 5.5 sacks in 2020. The Pats added Oklahoma edge Ronnie Perkins in the third round.
Koramoah, who won the Butkus Award last season with Notre Dame, fell all the way to the 53rd pick, with the Browns trading up with the Bears to get him. He had 24.5 tackles for loss the last two seasons for the Irish and should have an immediate role on a Browns defense that has made significant upgrades in the offseason. It’s a good fit.
Winners: Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones
The 49ers’ quarterback debate was a mystery until the pick was in, and Lance was their final answer ahead of Fields and Jones.
The North Dakota State star was a top-three pick despite playing in one game for the Bison last fall, and of the five quarterbacks taken in the first round, he is in the best win-now situation with what should be a healthier San Francisco team that is one year removed from a Super Bowl appearance.
Lance will have to win the starting job from Jimmy Garoppolo — and there might be a grooming period in 2021 considering Lance made just 17 starts in college, all at the FCS level — but Lance’s dynamic talent was enough for coach Kyle Shannahan to take a gamble.
The Bears traded up to grab Fields, who faced the most scrutiny of any quarterback in this draft. Fields enjoyed a prolific two-year stretch as Ohio State’s starter, but continuous questions about his work ethic, his ability to read defenses and the revelation he is managing epilepsy led to him falling out of the top 10. Chicago general manager Ryan Pace needs this pick to pan out; Fields is a dual-threat talent with high upside.
RIVERA: Grading the mock drafts
Then there’s Jones, who was the last quarterback taken in the first round. He slipped to No. 15, but the good news for him is he landed with the Patriots and Bill Belichick. Jones will have to beat out Cam Newton to be the starter, but the conductor of Alabama’s record-setting offense in 2020 is in a winning situation.
New England could have gone back to the past and traded for Garoppolo. Instead, it will look to the future with Jones, whom it got at mid-round value.
Losers: Jimmy Garoppolo, Andy Dalton and Cam Newton
These veteran quarterbacks likely will fall into backup roles in 2021 as a result of three corresponding first-round picks.
Garoppolo started in a Super Bowl two seasons ago, but the 49ers reportedly tried to strike a draft-day blockbuster with the Packers for Aaron Rodgers before drafting Lance.
Dalton, who was signed by the Bears on a one-year deal in the offseason, now will likely be a placeholder at best for Fields. It’s a good bet the “Red Rocket” will be shuffled into a backup role like he was with the Cowboys to start 2020. Newton signed an incentive-laden deal with the Patriots last offseason, but Jones might be the better fit in New England’s offense.
The 49ers, Bears and Patriots will face pressure to make the postseason in 2021. It’s a good bet rookies will lead the respective charges.
Winners: Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith
Both Alabama receivers landed in the top 10 and they will be reunited with former Alabama quarterbacks.
Waddle, who averaged 18.9 yards per catch in three seasons with the Crimson Tide, will be a vertical threat for second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa with the Dolphins. Waddle was the most explosive player in the FBS before suffering a leg injury last season.
Smith took advantage of Waddle’s absence to turn in a record-setting season that led to him becoming the first Heisman Trophy-winning receiver since 1991. The Eagles traded up with the Cowboys to get Smith, and now he’ll be paired with second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts.
This marked the second straight year in which two Alabama receivers were taken in the first round, and it was part of a night when six Crimson Tide players were selected in the first round.
Losers: Defensive tackles
What happened to defensive tackles? A talented crop that featured Alabama’s Christian Barmore, Florida State’s Marvin Wilson and Iowa’s Daviyon Nixon was ignored in the first round.
This comes just two years after six defensive tackles were taken in the first round. Barmore, Wilson and Nixon will be among the more interesting Day 2 picks, but the position dipped in value with this class.
Dallas worked the draft board by trading down two spots with Philadelphia and picking up a third-round pick.
Dallas then grabbed Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, the top linebacker on the board. Parsons, who opted out of the 2020 season, should help a defense that allowed 29.6 points per game last season. Longtime linebacker Sean Lee retired.
Parsons should step in as a starter right away after owner Jerry Jones resisted the urge to trade up to make a splashy offensive pick. Give Dallas credit for making the right pick, and for working with a NFC East rival to do it.
The Raiders are no stranger to off-the-wall picks. They took Clelin Ferrell in 2018, and he has had 6.5 sacks in two seasons. Henry Ruggs was the pick last season, and he had an uneven rookie year at receiver.
This year, Las Vegas took Alabama tackle Alex Leatherwood, who was projected to be a second-round pick in most mocks. General manager Mike Mayock and coach Jon Gruden continue to go against the grain, and in this case they fell in with the run of first-round tackles.
Pittsburgh got its running back. Alabama’s Najee Harris should make an instant impact in a running game that was lacking in 2020. Pittsburgh averaged just 3.6 yards per carry and the offense sputtered in the second half of the season.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is back, however, and Harris’ ability to close in the red zone and catch the ball out of the backfield will be a huge plus for a unit that will look to keep pace with AFC North favorites Baltimore and Cleveland. This is a pivotal year for coach Mike Tomlin, and addressing the running game was a priority.
Let’s be honest. It didn’t matter who the Packers selected after the firestorm that grew from Adam Schefter’s report that Rodgers wants out of Green Bay. The Packers could have traded up for a receiver, but once Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman went off the board, they settled for Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes.
To be fair, cornerback was another pressing need, but the drama with Rodgers is far from over. Green Bay needs to find more immediate contributors on Day 2; it’s time to address receiver. Ole Miss’ Elijah Moore was there for the taking. Was that who Rodgers wanted?