The Winners and Losers of the 2021 NFL Draft’s First Round

2022 #NFLDraft Round 1: Reaction and analysis for every pick and trade | NFL on ESPN
2022 #NFLDraft Round 1: Reaction and analysis for every pick and trade | NFL on ESPN

The first round of the NFL draft is in the books! Which players will be superstars, and which will be busts? Hell, we don’t know. The draft happened hours ago, and we’re gonna need to see them play in the NFL first, to be honest. Anyway, here are some winners and losers.

Winner: The 49ers’ Smoke Screen

This edition of the NFL draft really started with the no. 3 pick. We all knew the Jaguars would take Trevor Lawrence first—congrats, Jacksonville! And we knew the Jets would draft Zach Wilson—a slightly smaller congrats to Jets fans! But the third pick? That’s been a mystery throughout the entire draft process, dating back to when it belonged to the Dolphins.

When the Niners sent a wheelbarrow of picks to Miami in late March in exchange for the no. 3 pick, we still didn’t know exactly whom they were eyeing. Probably a quarterback, right? Would they take Justin Fields, who was widely regarded as the second-best player in this class? Would they take tight end Kyle Pitts and pair him with George Kittle, creating Kittle Kong and Pittzilla? Recently, most rumors centered on the premise that they would take Mac Jones out of Alabama. But earlier this week, other reports came out that the Niners still didn’t know whom they’d be taking.

Clearly, the Niners relished the mystery. On Thursday, team CEO Jed York sent a series of overly cheeky tweets about how he didn’t know whom the team’s actual brain trust had decided on. During a press conference last week, head coach Kyle Shanahan said he liked five quarterback prospects in this year’s draft. (He didn’t name them, just to throw people off the scent. Maybe one of them was Ian Book from Notre Dame!) Rather than comment on a potential QB move, Shanahan commented that he couldn’t be sure that he or anybody else would even be alive after the draft.

Can Kyle Shanahan guarantee Jimmy Garoppolo will be on the roster Sunday?

— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) April 26, 2021
“I can’t guarantee that anybody in the world will be alive Sunday.”

Clearly, the Niners had a strategy to make sure nobody knew what they were going to do. When you predict an apocalypse rather than say you know whom you’re picking, you really want to sell the idea that anything could happen.

And it worked! Even as I refreshed Twitter incessantly Thursday evening, I didn’t know who the pick would be until Roger Goodell said the words “Trey Lance, quarterback, North Dakota State.” Following the selection, Shanahan indicated that he and general manager John Lynch had secretly prioritized Lance all along. He added that for all York’s tweets, the CEO had known who the pick was on Wednesday, but that they hadn’t told any coaches or scouts to prevent a leak.

There is, hypothetically, a good reason for all this subterfuge. In 2017, the Niners were successfully able to conceal their desires with the no. 2 pick, goading the Bears into trading up from no. 3 to take Mitch Trubisky even though the Niners had absolutely no interest in taking Trubisky.

But this year, they didn’t really need to do this. Lawrence and Wilson were locks at nos. 1 and 2. The Niners could’ve done whatever and ended up with their guy! But it’s always fun to catch people off guard. I feel confident knowing that if Kyle Shanahan ever decides to throw me a surprise party, I will be mortified when it turns out all my friends are secretly hiding inside my living room.

Loser: Mac Jones’s Draft and Talent Slide

Mac Jones was one of this year’s most controversial draft prospects. Some analysts swore by his intelligence and accuracy; others believed that leading an impossibly talented Alabama team was too easy a gig to truly discern how good he was and felt that his lack of top-tier athletic ability gave him less upside than the other quarterback prospects in this draft. Rumors flew that he’d be picked third by the Niners, whose head coach, Kyle Shanahan, apparently craved a Big Mac. But if the Niners didn’t pick him, who would?

The answer? The New England Patriots, who in typical Belichickian fashion sat and waited as chaos unfolded above them. Jones fell into their laps with the 15th pick.

The Pats haven’t been a big part of draft-day conversations in recent decades, on account of all the Super Bowls they’ve won. (Plus, they’ve forfeited a few first-round picks as a result of various scandals.) But ever since Tom Brady left for Tampa Bay ahead of the 2020 season, the Pats have been looking for his replacement—and in Jones, they’ve found something of a replica. Jones was frequently compared to Brady throughout the draft process because of his accuracy, processing ability, and awareness when navigating the pocket. Plus, he had a similar potbelly to the one Brady sported in his infamous 2000 combine photo.

But even taking into account the Patriots’ winning reputation, I can’t help but feel like Jones will be a bit disappointed upon arriving in New England. Jones just played for one of the best teams in college football history. Six Alabama players were taken in the first round of the draft—tied for the most ever from one team in a first round. Two of Mac’s receivers were drafted ahead of him on Thursday—Jaylen Waddle went sixth to the Dolphins; DeVonta Smith went 10th to the Eagles. And in 2019, he played with two other wide receivers who were first-round picks in the 2020 draft—Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy—and you can expect John Metchie III to be a first-round pick in 2022. (The 2019 Alabama receiving corps may be the most talented of all time.) If you watch Jones’s highlight tape, he threw to a lot of wide-open guys.

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Meanwhile, the Patriots have less wide receiver talent than just about any other team in the league. The Pats’ receiving corps combined for three total touchdowns in 2020, and their leading receiver in terms of yardage was Jakobi Meyers, who went undrafted in 2019 and is best known for having the same name as Cellino and Barnes’s biggest competitors. (Between Jakobi Meyers and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the Pats love law firms.) To help remedy this, the team focused on the position in free agency and added Nelson Agholor—don’t laugh! He had a career year last year!—and Kendrick Bourne, as well as tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. As a result, the Pats probably don’t have the worst receiving corps in the NFL anymore, but they still don’t have any players that have ever finished in the top 20 of the NFL in receiving.

So the good news for Mac Jones is that he gets to play for the most successful franchise in the league and the greatest coach in NFL history. But on Thursday night, he lost about $13 million falling from no. 3 to no. 15, and now instead of throwing to four first-round picks like he did at Alabama, his WR1 will be a guy most famous for being the subject of a viral video criticizing his catching ability. It’s a drop-off in more ways than one.

Winner: The Draft-Day Industrial Complex

In a surprising twist, the story of Day 1 of the NFL draft wasn’t an incoming rookie, but rather a player who’s been in the league for 16 years. On Thursday afternoon, multiple outlets reported that Aaron Rodgers has told the Green Bay Packers he won’t play for them next year. It’s pretty much the biggest news imaginable. How can we get excited about the draft status of some player who may, if we’re lucky, turn out to be an All-Pro, when the reigning MVP wants out of the only organization he’s ever played for? It’s also a particularly juicy story because of Rodgers’s public displeasure with several Packers moves, and—I can’t believe I’m typing this—the fact that he could be the next host of Jeopardy! The news felt less like an NFL trade rumor and more like celebrity gossip—especially since it features 10 times more reality TV drama than anything that happened when Rodgers’s brother was actually on reality TV.

This story went on to fully overshadow the first round of the draft—which is odd, because nothing actually happened on Thursday between Rodgers and the Packers. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Packers’ team president, head coach, and general manager have all made individual trips to visit Rodgers in California this offseason—a process that presumably took weeks. Fox Sports’ Trey Wingo reported that the Packers promised to trade Rodgers earlier in the spring, and that an ultimatum from Rodgers came “within the last week.” NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that contract negotiations with the Packers have been going on over the past month, though the two sides have failed to come to an agreement. Many of the public signs of Rodgers’s discontent—his comments after the team drafted Jordan Love in the first round last year, his displeasure with the end of the Packers’ season, his bemused response to an anti-Packers zing on Jeopardy!—happened long ago. For all intents and purposes, the Rodgers rumors and the draft were almost entirely disconnected.

But these details didn’t leak until a few hours before the first round. Why? Did Schefter, Wingo, and Rapoport all learn about these old developments on Thursday? Or did someone who knew about the situation choose to hold onto the rumors until they would have maximum effect? This is something that happens during football season: Reporters like Schefter and Jay Glazer save their best nuggets for their appearances on Sunday morning pregame shows. Yeah, it’d be nice to share info on Tuesday and create a week of content out of it, but it’s more valuable for them to entice viewers to tune in on Sunday morning by doling out their exclusive info. I suspect the same was true today: I turned on ESPN and the NFL Network hours before the draft because I wanted to hear Schefter and Rapoport discuss their scoops.

The NFL has always wanted draft day to be an event—something you can make a movie about. Literally: Hollywood made a movie called Draft Day about the NFL draft, and it didn’t even bother to tell you whether the players turned out to be good in the end. Even though the draft is, by nature, an open-ended occasion whose effects won’t be fully understood for years, the league wants you to believe there’s enough spectacle on this one day to make a whole movie, even when it’s an event you can more or less understand by looking at Wikipedia the next day.

Thursday, it was all that and more. Sure, Rodgers is still a Packer, and the draft was relatively calm in comparison to past years. But I feel like I just got done riding a tornado.

Loser: Roger Goodell’s Stupid Chair

It sounds strange to say, but when I look back on the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ll always remember the 2020 NFL draft. Before the NBA played in its bubble, even before European soccer leagues returned to play in empty stadiums, the NFL held its draft remotely, with Roger Goodell delivering draft picks from his basement. It was one of the first big events that had tweaked its setup to adjust to pandemic life—and as The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis wrote, it was a success from a presentation perspective.

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The 2020 draft was filled with memorable moments—like Bill Belichick putting his dog on camera, Kliff Kingsbury making sure the world saw his massive Arizona bachelor pad, and the revelation that Bears head coach Matt Nagy lives in a horrible den devoted to his play-sheets. We got to crack jokes online about it, and like that first Zoom happy hour you had with your far-flung friends, it felt like a moment when we realized we could find joy in new ways of doing things. It was the most fun I’ve had watching a draft in years.

The 2021 NFL draft, though, was business as usual. Roger Goodell stood on a big stage in Cleveland, Ohio, in front of tens of thousands of fans who shouted and/or booed when their teams made a pick. He hugged the players as they were picked, and there was an extended live performance from Kings of Leon. (I guess every single band that has released popular music since 2010 wasn’t quite ready for live performances.) For the most part, the pandemic went unmentioned. In the same way the 2020 draft felt like the first big event tweaked for the sake of the pandemic, the 2021 draft felt like the first big event that was meant to be roughly identical to pre-pandemic events.

However, the NFL decided it wanted to remind us of its quasi-historic 2020 draft by bringing back one of those quirky moments we would all remember. And so, they chose … Roger Goodell’s chair.

Remember Roger Goodell’s chair? No, you probably don’t. Of all the memes from the 2020 draft, it was probably the least memorable. Here’s the gist: As the 2020 draft went on and things got later and later on the East Coast—where Goodell lives—the commissioner started announcing picks from a chair. There was nothing particularly unusual about the chair. It truly underscores how unlikable and unrelatable Goodell is that “owning and using a chair” felt like the most outrageous thing he’d ever done. The absolute madman!

And so the NFL built an entire “Roger Goodell has a chair” publicity campaign ahead of the 2021 draft. Fans were told that Goodell’s chair would make an appearance on Thursday—HOLY CRAP, they expected us to yell, like a new superhero had just shown up in Avengers: Infinity War—and sure enough, the chair was placed on the stage and prominently featured on the broadcast. With every pick, fans of the selecting team were brought up out of the crowd to sit in it.

April 30, 2021

All in all it was a strange gimmick, and more than anything showed that the NFL took all the wrong lessons from its 2020 draft. Instead of trying new things, it literally brought back an old thing that wasn’t particularly memorable and hoped we would clap because we recognized it. One of the worst things about the NFL is its pompousness. What better manifestation of that than thinking fans would be honored to share the leather that rests beneath the NFL’s highest-paid asshole?

Winner: Allen Robinson II

NFL fans have spent the past four years laughing at the Chicago Bears for trading up for Mitchell Trubisky in the 2017 draft when Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson were still available. Obviously, we don’t know whether anybody in this class will be as good as Mahomes (or as disappointing as Trubisky), but on Thursday night, the Bears seemed to karmically reverse their history of ineptitude with their first-round selection. When Justin Fields, the no. 2 prospect on Kelly’s big board, was still available after Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, and Trey Lance had been taken, the Bears traded up and took Fields with the no. 11 pick. Instead of making the third-best QB into the first QB off the board, they made the second-best QB into the fourth QB off the board.

Whether Fields turns out to be better than Wilson or Lance is something we can revisit in a decade. For now, let’s just point out the obvious: Fields is a hell of a player, and a lot of the supposed reasons he fell were bogus. Everybody in Chicago can celebrate—but one man can celebrate more than most: Allen Robinson II, who has lived one of the most cursed lives of any NFL receiver. Here are the quarterbacks Robinson has played with in his collegiate and pro careers:

  • 2012: Matt McGloin, at Penn State
  • 2013: Christian Hackenberg, at Penn State
  • 2014-2017: Blake Bortles, with the Jaguars
  • 2018-2019: Mitch Trubisky, with the Bears
  • 2020: Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles, with the Bears

Despite this (and missing almost the entire 2017 season after tearing his ACL), Robinson has recorded the 18th-most receiving yards in the NFL since 2014. Having the 18th-most yards isn’t particularly impressive—but when you’ve been playing with Bortles, Trubisky, and Foles, it’s a damn miracle. Being toward the top of the league in receiving stats when your QB is Mitch Trubisky is like running a Burger King and getting a Michelin star. How the hell did you do that with the ingredients available to you? What’s the Trubisky-to-Fields conversion rate? Should we automatically pencil in Robinson for 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2021?

Loser: Limited-Attention-Span Jon Gruden

The NFL draft features NFL teams drafting former college football players. This presents an annual challenge, because the NFL season happens at the same time as the college football season. How can NFL head coaches and front office staffers both prepare for their own games week after week and keep up with the players they may be interested in drafting in real time? Luckily, there is a work-around. Through the miracle of digital video recording, NFL teams can watch videos of college games that happened months earlier, allowing them to prepare in the months between the end of the season and the draft.

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However, it seems as if the Raiders front office takes a different approach: namely, the “get to the end of the NFL regular season and watch the one college football game that hasn’t been played yet” approach. Head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock used to work in television, detailing the nitty-gritty of the NFL draft process—remember Gruden’s QB Camp? But it seems as though, over the past three years, the team has skipped most scouting and started picking players who appeared in the last few football games of the year—often even massively reaching to make these picks.

In 2019, the Raiders picked four players who had appeared in that year’s national championship game between Alabama and Clemson, including two first-rounders (Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell and Alabama’s Josh Jacobs) and a second-rounder (Clemson’s Trayvon Mullen). Ferrell was considered a reach and wasn’t expected to be a top-10 pick; Mullen didn’t make Danny Kelly’s 100-deep big board. Then in 2020, the Raiders picked four players who had appeared in the College Football Playoff, including two first-rounders (Alabama’s Henry Ruggs III and Ohio State’s Damon Arnette). Arnette was considered another massive reach—he was the 63rd pick in Kelly’s mock draft.

Thursday night, the Raiders did it again. For the third straight year, Las Vegas used its first pick on a player who appeared in the College Football Playoff—and for the third straight year, it took a player nobody was expecting to go off the board so early. With the no. 17 pick, the Raiders selected Alabama offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood, who was listed as the 42nd player on Kelly’s big board (and the eighth best offensive lineman—tackles Christian Darrisaw and Teven Jenkins were still available). Leatherwood was 40th on the Mock Draft Database consensus big board, and projected to be a first-round pick in only 35.7 percent of NFL mock drafts. He was generally considered the second-best prospect from the Alabama offensive line, behind center Landon Dickerson.

Regardless of whether these picks turn out OK, the Raiders are not drafting well. They’re selecting players who would have been available significantly later in the draft; even if they love these guys, they should be trading down and getting more draft capital. But it’s also worth noting that their recent picks have not looked great: Ferrell has already been overshadowed by several defensive linemen picked below him, including Devin White; Ruggs does not seem like the best wide receiver from last year’s class; and Arnette looked poor in limited playing time as a rookie.

Will Leatherwood be worth the pick? Gruden had better hope so. Or else he’ll be able to focus on the College Football Playoff again next year instead of prepping for a Raiders playoff game.

Winner: College Buddies

The NFL draft is like the commencement ceremony for college football. College football’s best and brightest dress up in weird suits, take pictures with their moms and dads, and listen to the principal call their names. (There is, sadly, a disturbing lack of Vitamin C.) There’s no smart-ass valedictorian to point out that “it’s called a commencement because it’s the start of the rest of our lives,” etc., but yes, the players are heading off to start their pro careers in new places with new teammates.

In 2021, though, not everybody had to leave their old friends behind. The new trend this year? Drafting former college teammates for young quarterbacks.

This started at the no. 5 pick, where the Bengals took Ja’Marr Chase—who led LSU in receiving yardage and touchdowns (yes, he had even more than Justin Jefferson) when Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow was the team’s quarterback in 2019. Then, with the no. 6 pick, the Dolphins took Jaylen Waddle—here is Waddle hauling in a 2018 pass from Miami QB Tua Tagovailoa and taking it to the house in the SEC championship game. (Hey, uh, if we can go ahead and disregard Waddle’s I like Mac Jones more than Tua comments from the pre-draft run-up, that’d be nice. He was just trying to boost the guy who hadn’t been drafted yet!) No NFL team had ever used top-10 picks on a QB and WR who were college teammates … and then it happened twice in two picks, with the LSU Bengals and Miami Tide.

With the 10th pick, the Eagles took DeVonta Smith, who will now be catching passes from Jalen Hurts—much as he did in Alabama’s 2017 game against Mississippi State. And finally, with the 25th pick, the Jaguars took running back Travis Etienne, who just spent three ridiculously productive years playing alongside Jacksonville’s new franchise QB Trevor Lawrence.

It feels obvious that this strategy could work out—and potentially very effectively. Most of the focus will probably be on how this impacts the young quarterbacks as they ease into their roles as franchise players. But I’m actually thinking more about how this will help the three rookie receivers in this group. The hit rate on first-round receivers in recent years has been exceedingly low, with more busts than stars: So many players like John Ross III, Corey Coleman, and Laquon Treadwell have seemed like obvious NFL talents, only to fizzle with their first teams. Playing wideout in the NFL requires more than the pure athleticism highly drafted receivers used to torch college defenders, and some guys never pick up the necessary skills.

Playing with a QB who understands their timing and skill sets will almost certainly help these young receivers turn into the stars they deserve to be. And I’m sure this was an intentional choice, and not merely an indicator that only three or four college football teams have talented players at any given time.

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