2021 NFL Draft Recap


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Connor Easterday

All seven rounds of the 2021 NFL draft took place from Thursday to Saturday night, this past weekend. Per usual, there was no shortage of surprises across the three days. Some players heard their names called earlier than expected, others much later. Established quarterbacks were left squirming at the prospect of a rookie coming for their job. Coaches and general managers lobbying for security by taking massive swings. For hundreds of young men, the NFL draft is a place where dreams come true. But for many others, it’s just the opposite. From the first selection to the last, we’ll be breaking it all down here.


Throughout the years, NFL teams have come to the realization that winning a Super Bowl without a top-tier quarterback is a next-to-impossible task. Time and time again, this theory has been proven correct. In ten of the past thirteen NFL draft’s, the top selection has been a quarterback. Since 2012, 22 have gone in the top ten picks. Simply put, the position has seen a major increase in value, and it’s never been reflected greater than in the draft. This year is no exception.

With Trevor Lawrence going first overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Zach Wilson going second overall to the New York Jets, and Trey Lance going third overall to the San Francisco 49ers, a quarterback was selected with each of the top three picks for the first time since 1999. While this outcome came as no surprise on Thursday night, in the grand scheme of things, it’s quite the occurrence.


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Lawrence, the prized jewel of this draft class, had a wildly successful tenure with the Clemson Tigers. Amassing 10,000 passing yards, 90 touchdowns, and winning a national championship as a true freshman, Lawrence maintained golden status as the premier passer in college football across his three seasons. By the time draft night rolled around, it was a foregone conclusion who the Jaguars were going to select first. Paired with the newly-hired head coach, Urban Meyer, Jacksonville’s future is as bright as it’s ever been.


Zach Wilson of BYU came onto the scene later in the 2020-21 college football season. Had you polled the sports community a year ago, most wouldn’t have been familiar with the name. Now, just a few days removed from the draft, Wilson is drawing comparisons to Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers. While his collegiate career may not be underwhelming, the acclaim is well-warranted. The Brigham Young product may even be the most talented thrower of football that we’ve seen enter the draft since Andrew Luck in 2012. Lawrence went first overall for good reason. He’s been under the spotlight for years, has proven himself in three college football playoffs, and even has a ring on his finger. However, solely as an on-field talent, Wilson rivals Lawrence in every facet of the game. It will be fascinating to see these two careers unfold in front of our eyes, and will surely be compared for many years to come.


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Though he may be in a tier below the first two picks in terms of talent, Trey Lance is no third wheel. The former North Dakota State Bison has the least amount of experience as any quarterback who heard their name called on Thursday night, yet in that little amount of time, he proved himself to be worthy of a top-three selection. Leading his team to an FCS national championship while posting phenomenal numbers, Lance is heralded for his leadership abilities. Both teammates and coaches praise the player as being a natural commander of men and ultimately bringing them to the top of the mountain. He isn’t without his physical abilities as well. In terms of arm talent and raw athleticism, Lance ranks near the top of the class. He’s got good size and moves well, with the ability to throw deep. However, there are some major concerns that teams surely wrestled with within the evaluation process. First, is the priorly noted lack of experience. Not only does Lance have limited reps under center, but they all came in 2019, as his conference canceled the 2020-21 season. The sample size shrinks even further when you examine the number of throws he had in each of those games, averaging 17.9 attempts per outing. It could be seen as a red flag that his own team never let him fully unleash his abilities and air it out, as most schools do with NFL-caliber quarterbacks. Another concern that teams may have had with Lance is the lack of competition. Playing in the Football Championship Subdivision, he never got to see Power-5 talent, and it was rare to run into future NFL players game-in and game-out. Having never proven himself against top-tier competition, there could be questions about whether Lance’s game can translate to the NFL.


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After the top three picks saw quarterbacks going off the board, a run on pass-catchers began, starting with a tight end out of Florida, Kyle Pitts. Due to the complex multitasking of the position — having the responsibility of acting as a blocker and a receiver on a play-to-play basis — it’s difficult for even the most talented college tight ends to translate to the NFL, which makes it rare when one is selected in the top ten, let alone top five. However, Pitts is the exception to the rule. With elite athleticism (ran a 4.44 40-yard dash; ranking in the 98th percentile among tight ends according to mockdraftable), Pitts is often referred to as “a wide receiver in a tight end’s body.” Having the versatility to line up out wide and beat cornerbacks one-on-one or in-line to block and create short-yardage plays makes Pitts a generational talent. He’ll be in an ideal situation with the Atlanta Falcons, who have two high-end receivers in Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley to take the defensive attention off of him. Let alone, a former MVP at quarterback with Matt Ryan. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kyle Pitts had a monster year in his rookie season and works his way into the conversation of the best tight end in football right away.


Following Pitts was LSU wide receiver, Ja’Marr Chase, who’ll be reunited with his former college quarterback, Joe Burrow as a Cincinnati Bengal. Chase opted out of the 2020 college football season, so there is a lack of reps. However, he didn’t have anything to prove after his dominant 2019 outing, where he cemented his place as the best wideout in the nation. Alongside talented running back Joe Mixon, the Bengals should be a fun and dynamic offensive firework show next season.


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A pair of Alabama receivers — Jaylen Waddle and Devonta Smith — were both selected in the top ten, going sixth and tenth overall, respectively. Waddle is the quick-as-lightning speed threat, who should see the majority of his action coming from the slot, due to a smaller frame. This should naturally be a perfect fit with the Miami Dolphins, who value smaller, shifty receivers a-la Julian Edelman and Wes Welker with the New England Patriots. Smith, who heard his name called four picks later, was the more acclaimed college player. Making history as the fourth wide receiver to win the Heisman trophy, and the first to do it since 1991, Smith was a force from the outside for the Crimson Tide all year. Despite a slender build, Smith bullied smaller cornerbacks with his play-strength at the line of scrimmage and over the middle of the field and torched slower corners who couldn’t keep up. Both should have an immediate impact on their new teams.


Following the run on pass-catchers, a pair of defensive backs quickly went off the board, in South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn and Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II. The Carolina Panthers selected Horn an aggressive corner who relishes the physicality of the game, eighth overall. While the Denver Broncos selected Surtain — a nuanced technician with elite athletic traits — ninth overall. Neither player is known for their deep speed, however, they should both provide value on zone schemes where they are asked to play off-the-ball and defend one designated area of the field.


(Photo by: Chicago Sun-Times)

Rounding out the highlights of the draft is yet another run on quarterbacks. Starting with an Ohio State product, Justin Fields. Despite intense scrutinization in the pre-draft process, Fields proved his worth as a college quarterback time and time again. Despite suffering a loss, many argued that the Ohio State quarterback out-dueled Trevor Lawrence in their matchup in the college football playoffs. Wielding rare athleticism and a powerful arm, Fields has drawn comparisons to former number one overall picks such as Cam Newton. The Chicago Bears felt boldly enough to trade away next year’s first-round pick so that they could put themselves in a position to draft Fields. And that they did, selecting the two-time Heisman award finalist with the eleventh overall pick in the draft. While there are some valid concerns about Fields’ throwing motion and decision-making, it’s undeniable that he has untapped potential and could become a superstar in the NFL.


The New England Patriots selected Alabama quarterback, Mac Jones, just four picks later at 15 overall. Jones put on a masterclass in the 2020 season, eventually leading his team to a national title. He’s renowned for his leadership skills and football IQ. Oft-compared to Tom Brady, Jones’ ability to break down defenses and make the right decision, followed by an accurate pass, may rival former number one overall pick, Joe Burrow. Despite limited mobility outside of the pocket, Jones can slide up and down the passer’s box, avoiding pressure for as long as he needs to find a target to throw to. He may have some waiting to do, as Cam Newton is still in New England. However, Jones will surely be the quarterback of the future for the New England Patriots, and possibly the exact right successor to Tom Brady.


All in all, the draft came with no shortage of action. Five quarterbacks in the top fifteen picks,  a tight end going fourth overall, trade-ups, trade-downs; it’s hard to ask for much more. However, what makes the draft a special event, is the promise of what could be. 259 men heard their names called on that stage in Cleveland, Ohio. Some will never see an NFL field, others will end up in the hall of fame. Some will flame out after a year, others will have a collection of trophies on their shelves. After rigorous months of examination and criticism, these players’ fates are now in their own hands. They get to choose their own destiny. The draft is a springing-off point for the careers of hundreds, and it’s why I find it to be truly inspirational.