The 2021 NFL Draft is finished, and after a few days to digest what’s happened, in tandem with how teams’ free agency periods played out, there are a few franchises in particular who could experience the thrill-inducing rise from worst to first in their divisions this season.
Whether it was acquiring a game-changing quarterback, finding quality depth in the draft or just fine-tuning a talented roster, the strategies deployed by three teams really helped them stand out as ideal worst-to-first candidates.
Let’s take a closer look at who they are.
San Francisco 49ers, NFC West
The NFC West is a really tough division, and the San Francisco 49ers sacrificed lots of assets to move up from 12th to third overall for North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that Lance will sit behind Jimmy Garoppolo, and based on that fact alone, how could the Niners possibly have cemented themselves as a worst-to-first candidate after the draft?
Well, San Francisco didn’t only pick Lance. It’s about what the team did after that, too. But first, the Lance selection is going to either elevate Garoppolo to play his best football, or result in Lance eclipsing all expectations and lighting up the scoreboard in Kyle Shanahan’s offense right away. Whatever the case, it’s a huge win for the iconic franchise.
Beyond the QB situation, though, the 49ers got to address some areas of their roster where they needed help. Most notably, they picked Notre Dame guard Aaron Banks in Round 2. Given the recent track record of successful Fighting Irish offensive linemen such as Zack Martin and Quenton Nelson, hopes are high for Banks to at least be a solid starter, if not a perennial All-Pro like those two.
Shanahan is reuniting with an elite center in Alex Mack from his days in Atlanta, and now has a sturdy blocker in Banks to round out the inside of the line with Laken Tomlinson at the other guard spot.
Oh, and even though the Niners had tons of free agents to deal with this offseason, they deftly handled the situation, retaining elite left tackle Trent Williams and a stud cornerback in Jason Verrett, who’s among the NFL’s best as long as he stays healthy. Rookie third-round pick Ambry Thomas also has a chance to help San Francisco’s secondary immediately despite rather modest draft status.
Stud pass-rusher Nick Bosa is returning from a torn ACL to anchor the defense, and the last time Garoppolo was healthy for a full season, he led the team to a Super Bowl berth.
With the Los Angeles Rams’ secondary losing multiple pieces in free agency, the Arizona Cardinals largely unproven and the Seattle Seahawks dealing with a disgruntled Russell Wilson, the 49ers seem to have the most stability and strongest nucleus in place to reclaim the NFC West title in 2021.
Jacksonville Jaguars, AFC South
No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence and new head coach Urban Meyer are the obvious catalysts for this big jump in Jacksonville, as is the fact that the AFC South just isn’t that good, period.
The Indianapolis Colts are deploying a shaky QB in Carson Wentz, the Houston Texans are a mess, and the Tennessee Titans’ offense could be in trouble without Arthur Smith dialing up the plays.
Beyond Lawrence, though — everyone knew he was headed to Duval County — the Jaguars had the most cap space in the NFL entering the 2021 offseason, along with their enviable surplus of draft capital.
Jacksonville wisely added a veteran to the secondary in cornerback Shaquil Griffin, brought in a viable mentor to the receiving corps in Marvin Jones and added Malcom Brown to the defensive line, a solid starter for the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots in his previous stops.
Through the draft, Jacksonville kicked off Day 2 by selecting Georgia corner Tyson Campbell, who boasts great physical tools and is a sure tackler for a secondary that previously struggled to step up in run support. Between Campbell, Griffin and 2020 first-round pick CJ Henderson, that group figures to be a lot better.
Joining undrafted free agent gem James Robinson in the backfield is Lawrence’s Clemson teammate Travis Etienne, a legitimate home-run hitter who has the explosiveness the gritty Robinson lacks.
The Jaguars now have a two-headed tailback monster to support Lawrence, a stellar line on both sides of the ball, new leaders at multiple key positions and a culture-changing force in Meyer who’s won immediately at all his previous stops. Sure sounds like a worst-to-first formula.
Andrew Luck was the first pick in the 2012 draft and took the Colts from 1-15 to first place. That’s who Lawrence is often compared with, and he could very well pull off a similar feat almost a decade later.
Philadelphia Eagles, NFC East
It’s genuinely weird that Howie Roseman and the seemingly dysfunctional Eagles had one of the NFL’s best draft classes. Instead of shying away from the receiver position after passing on Justin Jefferson in favor of Jalen Reagor last year, Roseman traded up for reigning Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith to headline Philadelphia’s incoming rookies.
Smith is reuniting with Jalen Hurts, and has the skill set to be an immediate go-to target, not to mention innate chemistry with his new QB. That’ll help Hurts build confidence, too, after dealing with the nightmarish situation in 2020 when Wentz got benched and ultimately forced his way out of town.
Another former Alabama star in second-round pick Landon Dickerson will shore up the offensive line. Remember, too, the key players returning from injury after missing 2020 in guard Brandon Brooks and left tackle Andre Dillard. Right tackle Lane Johnson was also out for nine games last season.
Nick Sirianni didn’t win over any doubters with his disastrous opening press conference, yet if he can get the offense on track, he already has a stellar defense to work with. Getting the ball in Smith’s hands and making Reagor an effective secondary option seems easy enough.
One of the draft’s more underrated picks was Memphis tailback Kenneth Gainwell in Round 5. When he last suited up in 2019, Gainwell had 1,459 yards rushing and 610 yards receiving on 51 receptions. If he can produce anywhere near there as a pass-catcher, boom, there’s another weapon for Hurts in the backfield along with Miles Sanders.
Now back to that Iggles defense. A freak athlete like Milton Williams should have an early chance to shine on a defensive line headlined by Fletcher Cox, and even early Day 3 cornerback Zech MacPherson has a chance to push for playing time, because Philadelphia can literally do no worse by Pro Football Focus’ metrics than Avonte Maddox as a starting corner.
In a horrible NFC East division, the Eagles are built better than you’d suspect to go from 4-11-1 to besting Washington, Dallas and the New York Giants for the crown.