NFL Draft 2021 results: Pick-by-pick grades for Round 1

The speculation is over. The 2021 NFL Draft is here, and now we get to see where football’s most promising young prospects will begin their career, and how NFL teams have been viewing this class throughout the entire pre-draft process.

I’ve long been an advocate that the draft itself isn’t about players “sliding or rising,” but rather everyone playing catch up to how teams have been viewing these players all along. That doesn’t mean teams are infallible, but rather learning the disconnects between independent scouts and pundits, and how NFL executives and front office staff are looking at these same players. We’ve seen plenty of examples in the past of the sweetheart “can’t miss” draft pick who ends up being terrible, and we’ve also see the “ludicrous reach” that’s mocked on draft night proving everyone wrong and shaping the league as a result.

The inherent idea of “draft night grades” is tricky. Yes, we’ll need a full three years to really get a sense of how these will pan out. We simply don’t know enough about the process, the players, and the fit to formulate accurate opinions moments after a name is announced. However, we can take a deeper look at these players and judge, based on everything about them, teams needs and organizational culture, whether they’ve been put in the position to succeed, or whether this could be a problem moving forward.

It’s time. Now let’s see how the draft plays out.

No. 1: Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
We knew this pick was coming for months, and the Jaguars didn’t do something wild, or overthink this process at the last second. Lawrence has been pegged as a future No. 1 pick for years, and was the prize for a bad team in 2020. He offers a steady hand, leadership, and much-needed identity to a team that had very little to be excited about. In a draft class where quarterbacks range from NFL-ready to boom or bust upside, Lawrence threads the needle. He will be a guy who can start right away, and has plenty of room to grow in the league.
Grade: A+

No. 2: New York Jets: Zach Wilson, QB, BYU
The Jets fell in love with Wilson during the pre-draft process and I get it. There’s a lot of skills you see and imagine them translating to the NFL like Aaron Rodgers or Pat Mahomes, improvising, turning plays into jazz, and free-forming his way into eye-popping moments. Personally, I’m not nearly as high on Wilson. He played a lot of bad competition and threw too many 50/50 balls. I think this is a bigger risk than it needed to be, and the Jets are in dire need of “sure thing” superstars.
Grade: B

No. 3: San Francisco 49ers: Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State
Thank God this team dodged a bullet. I truly believe there was equal chance the team could have taken either Lance or Mac Jones, and of those two players the team made the right choice. That said, this is a big, big, big risk. It’s not about spending a third overall pick on Lance, it’s about spending THREE first round picks on him. There’s a chance that pans out, but part of me will wonder forever if the 49ers needed to move up to No. 3 so early in the process instead of waiting and seeing if they could have given up less to make this pick.
Grade: B-

No. 4: Atlanta Falcons: Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida
I think Kyle Pitts is going to help revolutionize offense in the NFL as the purest extension of modern play calling and concepts. He’s a tight end in name, but plays a pure hybrid who’s basically a massive wide receiver who can do everything. Atlanta seemed happy continuing with Matt Ryan a little longer instead of finding his replacement now, and they’re giving him the best weapon in this draft.
Grade: A

No. 5: Cincinnati Bengals: Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU
This pick was always going to be about getting Joe Burrow a weapon, and in the end the Bengals went for the LSU handcuff of giving Burrow his former teammate. I don’t like the pick though. The Bengals were one of the most sacked teams in the NFL a year ago, and it led to an injury that cut short Burrow’s season. Penei Sewell was sitting RIGHT THERE and made all the sense in the world. Chase is great in his own right, but this was not the right choice.
Grade: C-

No. 6: Miami Dolphins: Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
Two picks, two handcuffs in a row. The Dolphins reunite Waddle with Tua Tagovailoa and give him a shifty receiver who can mesh really well with their first round pick a year ago. Miami needed a top-end weapon, and they got it here. The offense will be better as a result, and considering the bevy of picks the Dolphins have, getting a player widely regarded to be the best WR in this draft was a great choice. Now they can address other issues later.
Grade: B+

No. 7: Detroit Lions: Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon
The Lions had been linked to a defensive player for much of the pre-draft process, but the value here was just too good to pass up. Sewell was the No. 2 prospect on my draft board after Trevor Lawrence, and best player available matters. Sewell is a violent blocker who will maul anyone trying to get to his QB, and whether that’s Jared Goff right now, or a new player in the future, Detroit has a 10+ year cornerstone.
Grade: A+

No. 8: Carolina Panthers: Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina
You know the Panthers are devastated by getting thiiiis close to Penei Sewell and missing out. It’s almost like the shock spooked them into making a pick, and it’s the wrong one. I don’t care if there’s an argument to putting Horn above Patrick Surtain II, the Panthers just put all their faith in quarterback in a Sam Darnold reclamation project and left Justin Fields on the board. Taking Fields would have been a tough choice too, but this was unquestionably a bad one. Not trading out of the pick, not gambling on upside. It was safe, and Carolina needed to take a swing.
Grade: D

No. 9: Denver Broncos

No. 10: Dallas Cowboys

No. 11: New York Giants

No. 12: Philadelphia Eagles

No. 13: Los Angeles Chargers

No. 14 Minnesota Vikings

No. 15: New England Patriots

No. 16: Arizona Cardinals

No. 17: Las Vegas Raiders

No. 18: Miami Dolphins

No. 19: Washington Football Team

No. 20: Chicago Bears

No. 21: Indianapolis Colts

No. 22: Tennessee Titans

No. 23: New York Jets

No. 24: Pittsburgh Steelers

No. 25: Jacksonville Jaguars

No. 26: Cleveland Browns

No. 27: Baltimore Ravens

No. 28: New Orleans Saints

No. 29: Green Bay Packers

No. 30: Buffalo Bills

No. 31: Baltimore Ravens

No. 32: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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