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2021 NFL Draft: Grading the First-Round Picks

2021 NFL Draft: Grading the First-Round Picks

2021 NFL Draft: Grading the First-Round Picks

All of the picks are in and the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft is officially in the books. There are still hundreds of selections still to go but the oversized value teams get from those first 32 picks mean just a tad bit more given the impact some of the players can have on their franchise.

Which teams did the best when they were on the clock? Which reached for somebody they could have gotten later and lost value? Which whiffed completely and will have fans questioning what the front office is doing? Here's a look at how each team did with their first-round pick and why it will — or won't — work out down the road.

2021 NFL Draft: First-Round Grades

1. Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson

The Jags have been locked into this selection since the day they clinched the top pick and there has been zero wavering out of Duval. Lawrence is not a perfect prospect but he is the best to come out of the college ranks since Andrew Luck, ticking off every box in terms of physical size, arm strength, accuracy, leadership and more. It isn't a guarantee wins will follow but the franchise has their guy and now it's on Urban Meyer et. al. to not mess it up.

Grade: A+

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

The upside for Wilson is undeniable, with an electric arm and some incredible playmaking abilities. It's not hard to think there's a lower floor with him however, given his slight physical stature, injury history and the fact that he's going to an organization like the Jets (which just messed up their physically talented top-five QB to the point where they shipped him to Carolina). Gang Green can be excited for what Wilson is capable of doing while at the same time reserving judgment for him actually leading the team to wins in the Big Apple.

Grade: B+

3. San Francisco 49ers: Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State

There's no doubt this is a massive gamble by the franchise to trade two additional first-rounders, plus a third-rounder, just to develop Lance into an NFL starter. But there are approximately zero head coach/play-callers you would trust more than Kyle Shanahan to let the talented signal-caller realize his true potential. Lance should add plenty to the offense down the road but the fact remains: the bar for the former North Dakota State star in the Bay Area is to win a Lombardi after the team shipped so much draft capital for him less than two years removed from a second-half lead in the Super Bowl.

Grade: A-

4. Atlanta Falcons: Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida

Only time will tell if the new Falcons front office made the right choice in going for the best player in the draft versus ensuring a QB of the future after Matt Ryan ages out of the league. Still, there are numerous evaluators who love Pitts and it's easy to see why given the matchup advantages he provides. Atlanta fans will be rewarded with plenty of TDs and big plays from this pick either way.

Grade: A+

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

Chase is one of the best receivers to enter the NFL in the past several years and he reunites with his college QB that produced prolific results the last time they were together. Given the offensive line depth in this draft, you can understand the ceiling being higher with that pair than with either of the top-tier tackle options. The team's offense never was the same once A.J. Green started to get injured and now they finally have somebody to fill his old shoes in a pretty big upgrade.

Grade: A-

6. Miami Dolphins: Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama

The Dolphins felt like they would go with adding more weapons for Tua Tagovailoa so not a huge shock they team him up with his old buddy from Tuscaloosa. Waddle will have to learn a few nuances with his route-running but has a chance to be a dynamic playmaker on both offense and in the return game. Add in Will Fuller and Waddle together? Good look stopping that combo going deep.

Grade: B

7. Detroit Lions: Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon

Jared Goff was not a QB who dealt with pressure well and the Lions have had plenty of issues up front. Sewell helps in both areas and the Detroit gets a youngster just scratching the surface of what he can do. New coach Dan Campbell will love the Oregon product's competitiveness and the way he finishes blocks. In terms of being a safe pick, this is a pretty good one in the Motor City and one of the few you would feel comfortable in predicting will be an All-Pro for many years to come.

Grade: A

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

Taking a corner this high in the draft is always a risk but Horn has a chance to follow in the footsteps of another Gamecock and become just as good as Stephon Gilmore. Being the son of an NFL receiver means he's plenty prepared for the league and his skills are able to translate to being a starter pretty much right away. The ceiling is there to be extremely high with this pick and could be a great fit in how Matt Rhule wants to play defense.

Grade: A-

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

The thought of Surtain stepping in right away in Vic Fangio's defense is a scary thought. Given the AFC West features Justin Herbert and Patrick Mahomes though, it's completely understandable despite some of the free agency moves that were already made for the Broncos. Surtain's ceiling isn't quite what Horn's is but his floor is being a starter for many years to come at a high level.

Grade: A-

10. Philadelphia Eagles: DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama

What a bizarre world we live in with the Eagles trading with the Dallas Cowboys. It only cost the team a third-rounder to land the Heisman Trophy winner and a good friend of their new starting QB so it's completely worth the move up. Smith's size is certainly a long-term concern but goodness what a potential weapon on every single third down for the next half-decade at the Linc.

Grade: A-

11. Chicago Bears: Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State

Was it a lot to move up to nab Fields? NO. NO IT WAS NOT. Chicago finally has a quarterback everyone can get excited about for the first time since Jim McMahon was shuffling. It may even be enough to allow Bears fans to take back all those bad words about GM Ryan Pace for drafting Mitchell Trubisky.

Grade: A+

12. Dallas Cowboys: Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State

Jerry Jones had some decisions to make after the top two corners went off the board and you could argue that still getting a guy they would want at No. 10 while also netting an additional third-rounder is certainly worth it. Either way, Parsons is a unique talent that has a chance to be a really special player in Dallas' defense. It still feels strange that Jones is making savvy moves with first-rounders the last couple of years but this seems like another.

Grade: A-

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

The Chargers probably didn't expect Slater to still be there at this point in the draft. This selection is music to Justin Herbert's ears and addresses a huge area of need for a team that already has a ton of talent. The debate between Slater and Sewell was closer than most think and GM Tom Telesco finally can solidify the left tackle spot for years to come. The worst-case scenario is him being a Pro Bowl guard in LA.

Grade: A+

14. New York Jets: Alijah Vera-Tucker, OL, USC

Given the draft capital on hand, not a huge price to move up to land a premier offensive lineman to protect that new quarterback in New York. Vera-Tucker is Pro Bowl-caliber at a number of positions and could form quite the tandem with Mekhi Becton in that downhill rushing attack too.

Grade: A-

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

Bill Belichick didn't have to move up at all and still landed his QB in an uncharacteristic drafting of a signal-caller in the first round. Jones was often compared to Tom Brady during this draft process so no pressure being the guy to replace him long term. He'll be a nice fit with what Josh McDaniels wants to do offensively and will have the benefit of not being rushed completely into the starting lineup. The question about Jones will be about the talent surrounding him as he'll go from a host of weapons and a stud group of offensive linemen to a much more middling group in Foxborough.

Grade: B-

16. Arizona Cardinals: Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa

You wonder if the Cardinals could have slid back a few spots and still landed Collins. He's a fascinating fit in the division but seems well suited to facing the Rams/49ers/Seahawks' run games and their use of tight ends. Between him and Isaiah Simmons, the front seven has a ton of interesting pieces that can move around the field.

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Grade: B

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

Yet another Mike Mayock reach for a player who played for Alabama or Clemson. Leatherwood slots in as Trent Brown's replacement and the way he handled SEC pass rushers with ease gives him a high floor. Still, there are some inherent physical limitations that pushed Leatherwood to Day 2 on most draft boards and the fact that Vegas didn't move down to still land their guy compounded some of the issues with this selection. The Bama star feels like a 10-year guy who plays at a high level but still is overdrafted.

Grade: C+

18. Miami Dolphins: Jaelan Phillips, EDGE, Miami

Phillips has as much upside as any pass rusher in this year's draft class and the fact that he played ball just down the road is a big plus for all involved. This is one of those selections that could turn out to be an absolute steal in a few years or one that's forgotten about quickly as Phillips fades at the next level. Given how good the Miami defense has been though, he's a versatile piece that can help the group take the next level.

Grade: A

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

Davis was one of the fastest risers in the draft process and has all the physical tools to be a star in the league. He'll get fantastic coaching from Ron Rivera and Jack Del Rio to help him reach that potential and lands in a defense that is already stellar. There's a bust aspect to somebody so unproven but with the top QBs off the board, an understandable selection.

Grade: B

20. New York Giants: Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida

Dave Gettleman traded back! What a shock to the system that was but the Giants' GM did well in getting those picks. The selection of Toney is an interesting one as he'll be a nice slot weapon for an offense that continues to add talent but such receivers could offer better value on Day 2. This only increases the pressure to perform for Daniel Jones going forward and makes you wonder about his long-term future with the G-Men.

Grade: B-

21. Indianapolis Colts: Kwity Paye, EDGE, Michigan

GM Chris Ballard has a strong draft record and only adds to it with this pick. Paye provides plenty of juice off the edge for a team that keeps stocking that defense with quick athletes capable of moving around to a few different alignments.

Grade: A

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

The Titans love them some uber-talented defenders with medical concerns, don't they? If the back checks out okay, Farley can be a home-run selection as a top-10 talent this late in the first round. He fills a big need on that defense and is so good already despite being fairly inexperienced. Can't complain about that for a team that's become a regular in the postseason.

Grade: A

23. Minnesota Vikings: Christian Darrisaw, OL, Virginia Tech

Darrisaw has a handful of flaws but managing to trade back and still land that OL help is a smart move by the Vikings' front office. His athleticism should fit that scheme the team runs and you can just see Dalvin Cook enjoying making cuts off the big tackle out in space.

Grade: B+

24. Pittsburgh Steelers: Najee Harris, RB, Alabama

This pick was seemingly telegraphed for weeks and nobody in Pittsburgh seems to mind. Harris is a complete back who can run between the tackles 25 times, catch a dozen passes out of the backfield and produce one jaw-dropping highlight every single game. There are really only a handful of backs worth that first-round pick and this is one of them.

Grade: A-

25. Jacksonville Jaguars: Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson

James Robinson is great but Etienne is an ideal complement to him who can slide over into the slot and allow the team to use two backs on a ton of snaps. The familiarity with Trevor Lawrence is certainly nice to have but the amount of dynamic playmakers who can take it to the house on any given play is definitely a good way for Urban Meyer to start this rebuild in Duval.

Grade: B

26. Cleveland Browns: Greg Newsome II, CB, Northwestern

Another high-upside defender heads to the Lake. The franchise probably didn't expect him to be here given the premium put on corners but Newsome has a chance to step in right away and find the football more than a few times as a rookie.

Grade: B+

27. Baltimore Ravens: Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota

Lamar Jackson needed weapons and while Bateman isn't going to blow you away with his speed, he can be a workhorse as a third-down option over the middle of the field. His play trailed off during that strange 2020 campaign but it would not surprise one Big Ten fan who saw him two years ago if Bateman turned into a consistent 1,000-yard receiver at the next level.

Grade: B

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

The Saints picked up Marcus Davenport's fifth-year option yet the team seems to have just drafted a potential replacement for him in Turner. His rise to the first round isn't quite a surprise as he's got plenty of tools matched with his size to develop into a double-digit sack type of guy.

Grade: B-

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

The Aaron Rodgers situation dominated the draft run-up and you have to wonder what he was thinking seeing them reach a bit for a corner. Stokes' speed gives him a chance to become a really good player once he gets a bit of seasoning under his belt. This checks off a box in terms of team need but won't help at all with the franchise QB in a precarious situation so it remains to be seen if it's worth it.

Grade: C+

30. Buffalo Bills: Gregory Rousseau, EDGE, Miami

Rousseau's opt-out might have cost him some draft position but he remains a first-rounder that lands in a fantastic spot. Buffalo's done a great job developing guys like this as pass rushers and he's got the most physical talent of anybody they've drafted off the edge in several years. Potential top-10 talent in the 30s is terrific value and a potential cornerstone piece for a defense that has to improve for the team to take the next step.

Grade: A

31. Baltimore Ravens: Jayson Oweh, EDGE, Penn State

The physical talent is there for days with Oweh and if anybody can help him get the production to match, it's a defense like Baltimore's. There's a boom/bust aspect with this selection but it's also the Ravens' luxury pick in this round too. Add it together and you can understand the upside of this move.

Grade: B

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

Ahh to have the roster of the Bucs and the opportunity to sit around and nab one of the best players available. Tryon ticks all the boxes physically in somebody rushing the quarterback but still has plenty to learn about the craft. He'll get a grad level course in Tampa given all the vets in the building and should be a weapon in third down and sub-packages early as a rookie. It might take two or three years to really pay off but this could be an extremely savvy pick by the front office.

Grade: A-

— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.

(Screengrab courtesy of @NFL)