The 2021 NFL Draft is in the books and it certainly lived up to the hype. Many will remember this draft for the picks that helped shape it, from the surprising selections to the draft-day steals. But there is so much more we can learn that will have an influence on the 2021 NFL season and far beyond.
In a league defined by quarterbacks, it’s no surprise that the position also played a central role in the three-day spectacle. New franchises welcomed players who they hope can lead their teams to a future Super Bowl. On the other end of the spectrum, a few clubs seemingly made things worse for their quarterback.
While the 2021 NFL Draft is over and the biggest event on the offseason calendar is behind us, many of the things that unfolded will have a huge impact on the summer. With that in mind, let’s dive into our takeaways from the NFL Draft.
Dallas Cowboys are losers of the 2021 NFL Draft
The Dallas Cowboys needed starting-caliber cornerbacks and offensive line help entering the draft. When Jaycee Horn and Patrick Surtain II came off the board, Jerry Jones seemed to panic. After trading down with the Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas drafted linebacker Micah Parsons. He is going to be a great linebacker, potentially an All-Pro defender, but the Cowboys already made huge investments in Kaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. The pick rightfully drew skepticism, but the Cowboys were given a chance at redemption on Day 2.
Yes, the Cowboys drafted a cornerback. While Kelvin Joseph is an intriguing prospect, he is not ready to start as a rookie. If Dallas puts him on the outside early, matching him up against No. 2 receivers, he will get exposed. But it’s not like they have a ton of options, since Anthony Brown allowed a 108.2 passer rating when targeted, per PFF, and Trevon Diggs didn’t fare much better (96.9).
To make matters worse, the Cowboys didn’t address the offensive line until late in Round 4. Maybe Tyron Smith and La’el Collins will be healthy to begin the 2021 season, but you can bet they won’t stay that way. There is no depth on the offensive line and the front office should have recognized that after the 2020 season. But, even after paying Dak Prescott, Jones ignored insurance for his franchise quarterback.
Houston Texans will trade Deshaun Watson
Deshaun Watson demanded a trade in January and more than a quarter of the league wanted him, but Houston wouldn’t even answer the phone. It’s a decision the franchise will live to forget. The ongoing civil suits and investigation into Watson put him in jeopardy of landing on the Commissioner’s Exempt List. Even if he comes out of the process relatively clean, the Texans’ draft decisions tell us everything.
Tyrod Taylor will be Houston’s starting quarterback in 2021. As for the future, that seems to belong to Davis Mills. The Texans used their first pick of the 2021 NFL Draft, No. 67 overall, on a developmental quarterback. Given Mills’ lack of mobility and pedestrian arm strength, it’s not like the Texans are going to strike gold. But spending that first pick on a quarterback signals Watson’s tenure in Houston is over. Whenever the trade comes, likely months from now, it will be for far less than the mammoth offers Houston received in January.
Cleveland Browns are a legit Super Bowl contender
Not only did Cleveland put on a nice show for the 2021 NFL Draft, the Browns might have been the biggest winners. They dominated in free agency, striking quickly to find the right fits at specific areas of need. It created flexibility when they were put on the clock and general manager Andrew Berry knocked it out of the park.
Greg Newsome II, the No. 26 pick, is everything Cleveland needs in a No. 2 cornerback. The prototypical size, the instincts and he has the athleticism to shadow receivers and break on the football to make plays. With John Johnson III behind him and Denzel Ward on the opposite side, the secondary is strong. The Browns’ front seven is stronger too. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, another draft-day steal, can plug in at linebacker and be used as a blitzer or drop back in coverage. The Browns can now get after the quarterback (Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney< match up with top receivers and make life a bit difficult for Patrick Mahomes and Co.
Offensively, there shouldn’t be any questions. Kevin Stefanski is an outstanding play-caller, the rushing attack is one of the best in the NFL and Baker Mayfield took a huge step forward behind a great offensive line. The Browns are a top-five team heading into the summer.
Pittsburgh Steelers in serious trouble
The Steelers’ top draft picks are baffling. Yes, running back was a need and Najee Harris is the consensus top back in the draft class. But Pittsburgh viewing that as a more urgent area to address than any position along the offensive line is dumbfounding. The front office is so unconcerned with its play in the trenches that it drafted tight end Pat Freiermuth in Round 2.
It’s not like Ben Roethlisberger is the beacon of durability. He dealt with a knee issue late in the year and his play dipped significantly. The 39-year–old will be playing behind an offensive line that has Chukwuma Okorafor, PFF’s No. 70 tackle, and Zach Banner, 52.1 pass-blocking grade in 2020, protecting the edges. Oh, there’s also a huge liability at center.
Harris ran behind a dominant offensive line in college and will be playing in much worse conditions with the Steelers. To make matters worse, Pittsburgh’s defense lost multiple starters this offseason and also will be operating with less depth. With the defense taking a step back and the offense a huge concern, the Steelers might have a top-10 pick in 2022.
Cincinnati Bengals failed Joe Burrow
There’s a world where the Cincinnati Bengals get a pass for drafting Ja’Marr Chase over Penei Sewell. The 2021 NFL Draft was very deep at offensive tackle and there were quality blockers (Teven Jenkins, Liam Eichenberg) available at the 38th pick. Instead, Cincinnati traded down and drafted Jackson Carman.
Here’s the problem with Carman. He’s being converted to guard, despite having no experience at the position and he’s not even good enough with his hand placement and technique to start immediately. The Bengals could have drafted a generational talent, prioritizing the health of Joe Burrow and recognizing that offensive tackles are far more valuable than receivers. Instead, they continue to demonstrate why Burrow landed in a terrible situation and there should be worries about his shelf life in Cincinnati. The 2021 NFL Draft might haunt the Bengals for a few years.
Aaron Rodgers played his final snap for the Green Bay Packers again
The Green Bay Packers would never choose a player over their general manager, even if that means a divorce with an all-time great quarterback. Brian Gutekunst wanted to prove a point in the 2020 NFL Draft, so he traded up for Jordan Love. The decision pissed off Aaron Rodgers, drew criticism from rival GMs and set the wheels in motion for a pending disaster.
While the Love pick damaged Rodgers’ trust with the front office, it wasn’t the biggest problem. Gutekunst never communicated with the face of the franchise about the looming pick. No explanation or reassurance, just a surprise pick for the future with the team seemingly in win-now mode. Rodgers responded by winning NFL MVP and expected a contract extension and long-term commitment from the team.
Instead, Green Bay offered a simple restructure and wouldn’t budge off its plans for Love to take over. At that point, any hopes of salvaging this broken relationship went out the window. Rodgers wants out of Green Bay and while the Packers are refusing, their MVP passer seems ready to do whatever it takes to get out. A solution might be trading Love, like the New England Patriots did with Jimmy Garoppolo, and firing Gutekunst. But neither of those things are going to happen. Once Rodgers is gone, this might be one of the worst teams in the NFC and it won’t take long before the heat is on Gutekunst.