Top Five Winners of the 2021 NFL Draft
It’s been a long three days, but at last, the 2021 NFL Draft has come to a close. Throughout seven rounds, 259 players have now found a team and are likely living their childhood dreams. Many more players will be signing as UDFA’s through the course of the next couple of days. As always during the draft, there will be some teams that have made picks that look great, and some that look not-so-great. While these projections rarely come true, it’s time to look at which five teams had arguably the best drafts this year.
Before we get into the top five, some teams had some great drafts that deserve to be mentioned. The Baltimore Ravens came into the draft needing to replace their edge talent that left in free agency and get more receiving weapons for quarterback Lamar Jackson. By drafting WR Rashod Bateman and DE Odafe (Jayson) Oweh in the first round, they made it clear they were addressing those needs. They also double-dipped by drafting WR Tylan Wallace in the 4th round, who was viewed by many as a 2nd-3rd round talent.
The New York Jets also managed to do something they hadn’t done for former QB Sam Darnold. After drafting QB Zach Wilson #2 overall, they made sure to surround him with talent by going offense in their next three picks. They traded up in the first round to draft OG Alijah Vera-Tucker, to help solidify their offensive line, and early in round two they drafted WR Elijah Moore, who was seen by most analysts as a first-round talent. They then improved their runningback room by drafting Michael Carter in the 4th round, who should have immediate value for their team. The only mishap for the Jets is the first-round trade-up, where they likely overpaid by spending two 3rd round picks.
#5: The Carolina Panthers
The Panthers could have landed a lot higher on this list if they hadn’t passed up on QB Justin Fields in the first round. However, CB Jaycee Horn is an extremely physical player who has all the traits to be a pure shutdown corner in this league. Their defense was bottom-tier last season, and Horn should have immediate value for this team. However, the rest of the draft was a pure masterclass by first-time general manager Scott Fitterer. By trading back, the Panthers also accumulated draft picks for 2022, which could be used as ammunition to trade up and get a quarterback if the Sam Darnold experiment does not work out.
Speaking of Sam Darnold, the Panthers made sure to give him the best possible situation to succeed through this draft. In the second round, they took WR Terrence Marshall Jr, who was considered a top-five receiver in this deep class, to pair up with DJ Moore and Robby Anderson. They then helped out their offensive line by drafting OT Brady Christensen, who is a high upside talent, who fell due to concerns over the quality of competition he faced at BYU. They filled out their offense with other picks as well, drafting TE Tommy Tremble and WR Shi Smith later in the draft. DT Daviyon Nixon is also a high upside pick, that could immediately help out their defensive line.
#4: The Minnesota Vikings
General manager Rick Spielman knew he needed to have a home-run draft to cool down the hot seat he was sitting on in the eyes of many fans. In his tenure as general manager, he has faced constant criticisms around how he has built the offensive line, with most people believing he had not done enough. That changes in this draft, however. In the first round, he managed to make a trade with the Jets that picked up two third-round picks, and to cap it off, he selected LT Christian Darrisaw, who many thought should have been the Vikings pick at 14. In the third round, he then picked up OG Wyatt Davis, who was considered as a top-three guard in the class, and at one point was considered a first-round talent.
This alone would have been considered a great draft, but Spielman continued to navigate the draft with great ability. He picked up WR Ihmir Smith-Marsette as a deep threat who can complement the stud duo of Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson, and with his final pick, drafted DT Jaylen Twyman, who had 10.5 sacks at Pitt in 2019 before opting out of the 2020 season. By selecting QB Kellen Mond in the 3rd round, Spielman also brought in a high-upside player who gets to learn behind Kirk Cousins and possibly be the quarterback of the future in a best-case scenario. Overall this was a great draft, but some questionable picks, such as LB Chazz Surratt and RB Kenne Nwangwu keeps it from being higher on this list.
#3: The Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers drafted their franchise quarterback last year in Justin Herbert and proceeded to surround him with talent through this draft. The offensive line last year was horrid, and with the 13th pick this year, they managed to pick up the second-best OT in the draft in Rashawn Slater. They then drafted CB Asante Samuel Jr as an immediate starter for their secondary, which already consisted of Chris Harrris Jr and Derwin James. Knowing that the receiving corp outside of Keenan Allen was not great, they then drafted WR Josh Palmer and TE Tre’ McKitty. The Chargers have done a great job in improving their team and putting Herbert in the best possible situation to succeed. The Chargers are gearing themselves to be in playoff contention this year, and if Herbert’s trajectory continues up, they may be challenging Kansas City in their division soon.
#2: The Cleveland Browns
There’s not much to say about how great this Browns haul was. CB Greg Newsome II and versatile LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in the first two rounds already screamed as a home run draft for the Browns. However, they continued to build on that, with great value picks such as WR Anthony Schwartz, DT Tommy Togiai, and OT James Hudson as an excellent depth piece to their already great offensive line, make this an amazing draft for the Browns. General manager Andrew Berry has now had excellent drafts in back-back years to start his tenure, and the future in Cleveland could not be brighter than it is right now.
#1: The Chicago Bears
Hats off to Ryan Pace. After questionable decisions throughout his tenure as general manager, Pace delivered an outstanding performance with his job on the line. The trade-up in the first round to grab QB Justin Fields already set the pace for what would continue to be a great draft. While the trade up in the second round was of poor value from a trade standpoint, grabbing OT Teven Jenkins is an outstanding move to help shore up the offensive line. Pace continued to find great value in the later rounds, including a trade back that allowed for some more sixth-round picks. WR Dazz Newsome, RB Khalil Herbert, and CB Thomas Graham Jr were all expected to go much earlier than where Pace took them, which amounts to great value. This looks to be a signature draft for Pace, and one that could alter the course of the Bears franchise.