The 2021 NFL Draft was a doozy, mostly due to the intrigue about the quarterbacks who went near the top, beginning with No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence.
While it’s inevitable that’s what most of the major storylines will focus on going forward, it’s worth looking into which teams got phenomenal value with their other picks. The draft is all about teams getting their targets at the best possible spot, as opposed to reaching, like the Las Vegas Raiders did for Alex Leatherwood at 17th overall.
Here’s a look at which teams got the most underrated single pick of each round, with a couple honorable mentions tossed into each subsection.
First round, 27th pick: Rashod Bateman, WR, Baltimore Ravens
Ranked 12th on the Sportsnaut top 100 big board, Rashod Bateman saw his stock drop this year mainly because he contracted COVID-19 during the 2020 campaign. That caused him to lose weight and not play to his full abilities.
With that adverse setback behind him, Bateman is going to step into Baltimore’s offense with expectations to be a go-to receiver for MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson. If his 2019 game tape especially is anything to go off of, there’s reason to believe Bateman can be just that.
Bateman is an excellent route-runner with underrated speed, tenacity at the catch point and doesn’t shy away from defenders in the open field. He’s going to be yet another prospect who fell to the Ravens where everyone around the league goes, “Shoot, how did that happen?”
Honorable mentions: Christian Darrisaw, OT, Minnesota Vikings (No. 23), Greg Newsome II, CB, Cleveland Browns (No. 26)
Second round, 40th pick: Richie Grant, DB, Atlanta Falcons
We all know that Alabama defensive tackle Christian Barmore fell further than he should’ve, and the fact that New England traded up to get him in Round 2 precludes him from this conversation.
Richie Grant, on the other hand, wasn’t widely viewed as an early Day 2 pick, yet the Falcons had the foresight to get him before anyone else did.
Grant is even more versatile than the safety who Miami drafted before him in Oregon’s Jevon Holland. Although he faced lesser competition than Holland at UCF, Grant is a more experienced college player who split his time quite evenly across multiple years at the free safety, box safety and slot cornerback positions.
For a Falcons defense in dire need of playmakers on the back end to give its lackluster pass rush more time to get home, there are few better prospects they could’ve drafted than Grant, who also brings plenty of wood versus the run.
Honorable mentions: Walker Little, OT, Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 45), Carlos Basham Jr., EDGE, Buffalo Bills (No. 61)
Third round, 83rd pick: Tommy Tremble, TE, Carolina Panthers
Pro Football Focus gave Notre Dame standout Tommy Tremble the highest run blocking grade among college tight ends in 2020, and he also had an 80% contested catch rate.
Usually, tight ends chosen in the first two days of the NFL Draft have serious pass-catching prowess and need to polish up their blocking. While Tremble does have sure hands and was underutilized in the passing game with the Fighting Irish, he built his reputation on blocking tenacity.
Not only have the Panthers bolstered their offensive line with the additions of other rookies in Brady Christensen and Deonte Brown — they’ve also landed a versatile chess piece in Tremble who’ll bring so much value to Carolina’s offense.
Sam Darnold was running for his life as member of the New York Jets. Tremble can stay in during max protection play-action passes to add extra blocking. He can also serve as a lead blocker for stud tailback Christian McCaffrey in the running game. Then, he’s a legitimate red-zone weapon who’ll draw favorable matchups in that part of the field.
Tremble brings some necessary attitude and physicality to the Panthers offense and should be ready to make a huge impact in his maiden pro campaign.
Honorable mentions: Dyami Brown, WR, Washington Football Team (No. 82), Elijah Molden, DB, Tennessee Titans (No. 100)
Fourth round, 115th pick: Jabril Cox, LB, Dallas Cowboys
When the Cowboys selected Penn State’s Micah Parsons — off-field question marks and all — with the 12th overall pick, it was a little baffling. They already have Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch on the roster, and could’ve addressed a different position.
But then again, Dallas probably didn’t expect Cox to still be on the board at this point in Round 4.
Vander Esch’s fifth-year option was declined after the draft, and Smith isn’t living up to his sizable contract. It looks like a faster, more versatile and hopefully less injury-prone era is coming for the Cowboys’ linebacker corps.
Cox was the best coverage linebacker in the 2021 class aside from Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, to the point where he could be deployed as a safety in the NFL. The LSU product’s skill set complements Parsons’ run-thumping and blitzing skill set extremely well.
New Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn might’ve liked more to work with in the secondary, but Cox’s rare skills to play pass coverage give him more schematic creative latitude for 2021.
Honorable mentions: Michael Carter, RB, New York Jets (No. 107), Cameron Sample, EDGE, Cincinnati Bengals (No. 111)
Fifth round, 164th pick: Jamar Johnson, S, Denver Broncos
Baffling to see someone with Johnson’s physical tools plummet down draft boards. Denver had already bolsters its secondary with No. 9 overall pick Patrick Surtain II at cornerback, but with Johnson available this late, the Broncos may have landed another starter.
That’s not to say Johnson will hit the NFL gridiron right away. He’s a little raw and would have to beat out a veteran in Kareem Jackson. Then again, Johnson was a key player on Indiana’s elite defense last year, racking up 42 total tackles, four passes defensed and four interceptions in just eight games.
Johnson’s ball skills are flat-out special. If he played in a secondary with Surtain, Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby and Justin Simmons, he could definitely hold his own. If Denver coach Vic Fangio can coach up Johnson on the fundamentals and how to play the run better, he should easily start in Year 2.
Honorable mentions: Brevin Jordan, TE, Houston Texans (No. 147), Ihmir Smith-Marsette, WR, Iowa (No. 157)
Sixth round, 226th pick: Trey Smith, iOL, Kansas City Chiefs
Injuries and medical red flags caused Trey Smith to go from a potential first-round prospect to darn near undrafted as the third-to-last pick in Round 6.
What better situation to go to than Kansas City, though? The Chiefs took a calculated risk here, as they continued to prioritize protecting Patrick Mahomes in the draft. Even after trading for Orlando Brown Jr. and signing Joe Thuney and Kyle Long, KC landed Smith on Day 3 and Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey in Round 2.
With Thuney and Long in the fold, Smith faces no pressure to play right away, and has two phenomenal mentors to learn from. There’s no telling how much longer Long will play since he’s coming out of retirement, but he’s also versatile enough to play right tackle if he’s still around in 2022 and Smith catches on fast.
In any event, this is a low-risk, high-reward pick for the Chiefs, because as long as Smith checks out health-wise, he has the ceiling to be a Pro Bowl guard.
Honorable mentions: Deonte Brown, iOL, Carolina Panthers (No. 193), Thomas Graham Jr., CB, Chicago Bears (No. 228)
Seventh round, 234th pick: Patrick Johnson, EDGE, Philadelphia Eagles
Competition level concerns and the fact that his teammate, Cameron Sample, got drafted a few rounds earlier probably contributed to Patrick Johnson falling to the last round. Having said that, the Tulane standout is a phenomenal player.
Versatility has been a theme in this article, mostly pertaining to Grant, Tremble and Cox. As a defender, Johnson fits that paradigm as well.
Johnson is a polished, consistent winner as a pass-rusher with over 2,200 college snaps under his belt. He made the absolute most of his experience and opportunities in college, and could get himself into the mix as a situational player for the Eagles sooner rather than later.
In the increasingly pass-happy NFL, you can never have enough defenders who can get after the opposing quarterback. That happens to be Johnson’s specialty, and he’ll be a name to remember as Philadelphia’s incumbent defensive ends Derek Barnett and Josh Sweat hit free agency next offseason.
Honorable mentions: Jonathon Cooper, EDGE, Denver Broncos (No. 239), James Wiggins, S, Arizona Cardinals (No. 243)