Some teams should be more excited than others when it comes to how they fared in the 2021 NFL Draft. How strong and deep their rookie class is depends on a variety of factors.
For instance, the Denver Broncos are widely praised for the haul of picks they brought in, yet they decided, at least for now, not to upgrade the quarterback position on the off chance a blockbuster trade for Aaron Rodgers might come to fruition.
That sounds like kind of a moon shot, and passing on Justin Fields could actually haunt Denver for years to come. That’s just one example where a class that might otherwise qualify for this list doesn’t make the cut.
Here’s a look at who this author believes emerged from the NFL Draft with the best five rookie classes.
5. Los Angeles Chargers
Talk about a power trio. Northwestern left tackle Rashawn Slater filled a huge need for Pro Football Focus’ worst offensive line from 2020. Cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. has a phenomenal football IQ and can start right away in new coach Brandon Staley’s defense. Then, a serious third wideout in Tennessee’s Josh Palmer at 77th overall.
Making sure Justin Herbert was better protected and had another viable weapon were two points of emphasis the Chargers addressed out of the gates. They lucked into a legitimate first-round prospect in Samuel so late in the proceedings, too, at No. 47 in Round 2.
Los Angeles added depth to the tight end room with Georgia’s Tre’ McKitty, and acquired a crafty pass-rusher in Chris Rumph II. In the sixth round, two notable picks in Iowa linebacker Nick Neimann and Missouri ball-carrier Larry Rountree III rounded out this class to make it one of the NFL’s best.
4. Carolina Panthers
Selecting South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn eighth overall was a bold move, as he was a polarizing prospect leading up to the draft. Some thought his physical style of play, tenacity and NFL pedigree would lead to him thriving. Others believed his grabby press coverage would draw tons of flags in the pros.
Obviously this team has a plan for how best to deploy Horn, and with an ascending front seven in front of him, that should only help his NFL transition.
But even after Round 1, the Panthers found a ton of value. LSU wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. was a savvy choice at 54th overall. He’s reuniting with former Tigers passing game coordinator Joe Brady, who now calls the plays for Carolina’s offense.
In the third round, new general manager Scott Fitterer really made his mark. He got an excellent pass blocker in BYU left tackle Brady Christensen, and a tight end weapon in Notre Dame’s Tommy Tremble, who’s fiercely competitive as a blocker.
The Panthers’ next three picks of Oklahoma State tailback Chuba Hubbard, Iowa defensive lineman Daviyon Nixon and Washington cornerback Keith Taylor all added depth at key positions. That’s how you crush a draft right there.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
Jalen Hurts had to deal with a quarterback controversy at Alabama. He was the encore act to No. 1 overall picks in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray on his one-year transfer to Oklahoma. Then, the Eagles drafted him in the second round last year, only for their QB situation to unravel as Carson Wentz imploded.
The instability in Philadelphia suggested that maybe Hurts wouldn’t be given a fair shot to start in 2021. Instead, GM Howie Roseman traded up from 12th to 10th overall to reunite Hurts with reigning Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, who provides desperately needed juice to the Eagles’ pass-catching group.
But that was hardly the only impressive pick by Roseman and the team’s personnel department. USC defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu and versatile Tulane edge defender Patrick Johnson were projected to go way earlier than the sixth and seventh round in many draft circles. They’re going to be able to contribute earlier than most late picks are reasonably expected to.
In the fifth round, Philly added a unique backfield weapon to help Hurts out even more in Memphis’ Kenneth Gainwell, who ran for 1,459 yards and caught 51 passes when he last played in 2019. Another steal.
The three picks not mentioned so far? Spent on a fantastic interior offensive lineman in Alabama’s Landon Dickerson, a transcendent athlete in the defensive trenches in Milton Williams and a ballhawk cornerback in Zech McPhearson.
It’d be a lot to ask of this class to all come in and contribute, but make no mistake, the Eagles are far deeper and more explosive at multiple positions than they were entering the draft.
2. Minnesota Vikings
When a report came out that the Vikings might’ve had a crack at acquiring Fields on draft night, it was hard to look past. One could argue, though, that given Minnesota’s situation, its QB selection was actually a better fit.
After trading back with the New York Jets, Minnesota still got the player it was probably going to select at No. 14 at 23rd anyway in Virginia Tech left tackle Christian Darrisaw.
Bolstering the o-line with Darrisaw and Ohio State guard Wyatt Davis were phenomenal moves. Davis’ performance declined amid the bizarre 2020 season, but he was one of the NCAA’s most dominant guards the year before.
Another great get for Cousins? Iowa wideout Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who could eventually be the No. 2 option opposite Justin Jefferson once Adam Thielen’s heyday expires. That’s the type of potential we’re talking about with him.
Finally, Florida State’s Janarius Robinson and Pittsburgh Panthers teammates Patrick Jones II and Jaylen Twyman present a trio Vikings coach Mike Zimmer can deploy for depth on the defensive line. Zimmer will also love to mold the raw but immense talents of linebacker Chazz Surratt.
Now that is a killer 2021 NFL Draft class.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars
Trevor Lawrence first overall was a no-brainer and holds a lot of weight as to why the Jaguars are No. 1 in these rankings, but what happened thereafter is extremely noteworthy.
Many criticized the selection of Lawrence’s teammate Travis Etienne at 25th overall, mainly because he’s a running back. Jaguars coach Urban Meyer didn’t help when some took his words out of context to imply Etienne would be a niche third-down player.
However, Meyer expounded upon Etienne’s role, and it’s pretty compelling.
“He’s as good outside as a receiver as he is as a running back. So, [he’s a] high-end character guy that has elite speed, that — really, really excited [to have him],” Meyer said of Etienne, per CBSSports.com’s Jeff Kerr.
More than just a mere running back, in other words.
To kick off Day 2, the Jaguars addressed their secondary with Georgia cornerback Tyson Campbell, one of the surest tacklers and most physically gifted in terms of coverage skills in the whole 2021 class.
Then came some risk-reward picks in Stanford offensive tackle Walker Little and Syracuse safety Andre Cisco. Yes, make your Trent Baalke ACL jokes. The reality is, Little and Cisco could start very soon.
Little just needs to get his football sea legs back under him after opting out of 2020 and missing most of 2019 with a torn ACL. Cisco’s injury happened on a freak accident, and he’ll be almost a full year out from that ACL tear once the regular season starts.
Adding Jay Tufele and Jordan Smith in the fourth round to the mix on the front seven marked a couple more great moves by this new Jaguars regime. They picked up Ohio State tight end Luke Farrell at a position of need in the fifth round at great value as well, and gave Lawrence another high-ceiling target in Georgia Tech wideout Jalen Camp to cap their rookie group.
Lawrence obviously inflates the Jaguars’ ranking, but among the teams who chose new franchise QBs in the 2021 NFL Draft, they seemingly made the most of the picks they had more so than the other teams did. That’s part of the advantage of picking first overall.
As memorable as the 2021 NFL Draft will be for Jaguars fans due to Lawrence coming aboard, this class as a whole may be what swings Jacksonville from the league’s basement to sustainable contention in the AFC South.