Biggest surprises, questions of the 2021 NFL draft

May 1, 2021

  • Kevin SeifertESPN Staff Writer


    • national NFL writer
    • NFC North reporter, 2008-2013
    • Covered Vikings for Minneapolis Star Tribune, 1999-2008

By most measures, NFL offenses last year produced their best season in the history of pro football. Never had the collective environment been more conducive to scoring, especially via the pass, and new records were set for points, touchdown throws and completion percentage. So after taking three months to analyze their rosters and project trends, decision-makers voiced a full-throated response during the 2021 NFL draft: We need more!

Teams loaded up on quarterbacks, receivers and offensive linemen during the early portions of the three-day affair. Never had there been more passers (eight) or offensive tackles (14) selected during the first three rounds. The total of 15 receivers drafted over that period was tied for fourth most since the common draft era began in 1967.

A reasonable person might suggest a focus on defensive players to counter the trend, but there has been nothing equitable or organic about the NFL’s shift toward the pass over the decades. The 2020 season produced a new twist — a significant increase in tolerance for offensive holding — and most decision-makers accept that the league is willing and able to maintain the inherent competitive imbalance between the two sides of the ball.

General managers dipped into a deep cornerback class, drafting a record 16 of them through the first three rounds. But let’s face it: By the end of the second round, they had moved on to snatching backup quarterback prospects. No lie. A mini-run on passers between pick Nos. 64 and 67 crystalized how far the league had shifted.

NFL quarterback curation has undergone a massive swing during the past few decades, moving almost exclusively to the first round of the draft. In 2020, 80% of teams played at least one quarterback who was originally a first-round pick, according to Elias Sports Bureau research. A similar percentage can be projected for 2021.

This draft’s top five quarterbacks — Trevor Lawrence (Jacksonville Jaguars), Zach Wilson (New York Jets), Trey Lance (San Francisco 49ers), Justin Fields (Chicago Bears) and Mac Jones (New England Patriots) — all sailed off the board before the midpoint of the first round.

History tells us that some of them will fail. But the now-annual stampede to corral anyone who might have a chance to succeed ensures bleak odds of finding a good starter at any point afterward. Of the past 36 quarterbacks drafted in the second or third rounds, dating to 2006, only four have made the Pro Bowl.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans can dream all they want about a moment when Kyle Trask (No. 64 overall) takes over for starter Tom Brady. The Minnesota Vikings can certainly hope that Kellen Mond (No. 66) might one day challenge Kirk Cousins. And the Houston Texans might well love Davis Mills (No. 67). But based on recent trends, ESPN analytics suggest there is no more than an 11% chance that any of them will become a starter, much less someone who can win games.

For all practical purposes, that means the Buccaneers, Vikings and Texans all drafted backups in spots where teams historically have expected to find starters at any other position. We would all be smarter, and less disappointed in the coming years, if we viewed them through that lens.

High-end starters such as the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, drafted in the 2012 third round, are the rare exception. Brady, famously selected by the Patriots in the sixth round of the 2000 draft, is a relic of long-gone roster-building structure. The NFL has moved so far toward the passing game that backup quarterbacks are worth more draft capital than all but the best defensive prospects.

So goes my big takeaway from the 2021 draft, which largely returned to its traditional format after a homebound detour in 2020. Commissioner Roger Goodell’s iconic leather chair traveled with him to a stage constructed off Lake Erie in Cleveland, but the thousands of (masked) fans and celebrity appearances signaled the NFL’s continuing emergence from COVID-19 protocols. What follows are the remainder of my thoughts on this draft, in rapid-fire fashion.



Marty Smith gives a live hit from Trevor Lawrence’s draft party and is interrupted by Trevor Lawrence himself.

Fact: Jaguars coach Urban Meyer has won everywhere he has coached, except the NFL, where he has never coached.

Opinion: He’ll struggle to win at this level if he thinks that loading up on running backs is smart team building. Running back Travis Etienne, selected No. 25 overall, will join a backfield that already includes 1,000-yard rusher James Robinson and newly signed veteran Carlos Hyde. Meyer said he envisions Etienne in the kind of hybrid role that Percy Harvin filled for him at Florida and later in the NFL. But as exciting as Etienne is, that’s an incredibly high bar to reach at the pro level. Harvin was one of the most explosive athletes in a generation of pro football.

Fact: New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman traded down for the first time in his career as a GM. He actually did it multiple times, including in the first round, when he ultimately drafted receiver Kadarius Toney at No. 20 overall.

Opinion: I’m going to stop short of awarding him a Nobel Prize. But accepting lower value now in exchange for more value next year, at a time when his tenure with the Giants might depend on a much-improved 2021 season, is admirable. You would be fooling yourself to think every general manager would do it. You might even call it noble.

Fact: A great meme circulated on social media on whether the Bengals should give quarterback Joe Burrow another receiving weapon or better pass protection in Round 1.

Opinion: I’ll argue that the decision wasn’t as obvious as some would suggest. Receiver Ja’Marr Chase will be a big-time playmaker, and Penei Sewell will be a really good offensive tackle. The Bengals decided on Chase to reunite with Burrow, his college teammate, and then circled back and used a second-round pick to select tackle Jackson Carman while continuing to attack the position later in the draft. Ultimately, though, I would have taken Sewell. The drop from the first offensive lineman off the board (Sewell) to Carman (10th) was bigger than the drop from Chase to whichever receiver the Bengals might have focused on in the second round. I didn’t leave this draft with much more confidence in Burrow’s safety than I did when it began.

Fact: No. 11 overall pick Justin Fields is the Bears’ most exciting quarterback prospect in a generation — and maybe longer.

Opinion: A full accounting of resources general manager Ryan Pace has used to acquire potential starting quarterbacks during his tenure is staggering. The Bears used a total of nine draft picks to maneuver for and select Mitch Trubisky in 2017 and later Fields. It required a fourth-round pick to acquire veteran Nick Foles from the Jacksonville Jaguars. And Foles, Mike Glennon, Chase Daniel and Andy Dalton will have earned at least $44.5 million between 2017 and 2021. That’s on top of the $29 million the Bears paid Trubisky and the roughly $19 million they will have to guarantee Fields.



David Pollack says Justin Fields faces a tough task in trying to turn around the Bears.

Fact: ESPN college football analyst Paul Finebaum said this of Patriots coach/general manager Bill Belichick: “I see him getting lazy late in his career.”

Opinion: Belichick has a long history of zigging when the rest of the league is zagging, and that includes trusting the word of an eclectic group of unofficial advisors. Alabama coach Nick Saban is one of them, and Belichick drafted Crimson Tide players with his first two picks this year: quarterback Mac Jones and defensive tackle Christian Barmore. But Belichick is approaching the line between listening to smart football people and outsourcing his draft operation. All told, Belichick has drafted 12 Saban-coached players during his tenure with the Patriots, the most between any pro-college coach combination in the common draft era.

Fact: Commissioner Goodell once again encouraged fans to boo him throughout the draft. “I didn’t come out of my basement for nothing,” he said Thursday night.

Opinion: We must stay strong with my annual plea to protect the boo as an unironic expression of displeasure. Any attempt to co-opt the boo as a term of sarcastic endearment must be stopped.

Fact: The Rams placed a portrait of Goodell on a wall of their draft house in Malibu, California. (Yes, the Rams had a draft house.)

Hang it in the L̶o̶u̶v̶r̶e̶ Rams Draft House 🤩

— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) May 1, 2021

Opinion: We can debate the quality of the Rams’ on-field performance in recent years, but it’s hard not to admire their organizational sense of humor. After all, this is the same team that personalizes contract offers with palindromes and references to jersey numbers, with the occasional haiku mixed in as well.

Fact: The Cowboys’ first six picks were defensive players, including linebacker Micah Parsons in the first round.

Opinion: It wasn’t excessive! To put it kindly, there was a disconnect last season between the Cowboys’ defensive scheme and their personnel strategy. Now they have a half-dozen new players to match with their new coordinator (Dan Quinn). While the rest of the league worked to elevate their passing games, the Cowboys knew they could not possibly field an offense that could keep up with what their defense allowed last year. Among many issues, the Cowboys allowed at least 30 points in half of their games.

Fact: Seven of the 32 first-round picks opted out of the 2020 college season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Opinion: Despite a few scattered comments from general managers in the weeks leading up to the draft, it was always difficult to believe that they would pass up on really talented players because of an opt-out. A total of eight opt-out players were rated among the 50 best players in this draft, and all but one were gone when the second round began. That list includes Chase (No. 5 to the Bengals), Sewell (No. 7 to the Lions), Parsons (No. 12 to the Cowboys) and tackle Rashawn Slater (No. 13 to the Los Angeles Chargers).

Fact: The Baltimore Ravens drafted receiver Rashod Bateman at No. 27 overall, giving quarterback Lamar Jackson a target who could be a true No. 1 receiver.

Opinion: Bateman was one of my favorite players in this draft. Big 10 receivers don’t get much attention, but he is smart, polished, much faster than you think and ready to counter whatever defenses throw his way. With all that said, however, I’m not sure fantasy managers should make a big bet on him. Over the past three seasons, the Ravens have thrown fewer passes than all but one team. Bateman will make them better, but will it take them away from the run-based offense they’ve employed since Jackson ascended to the starting job?

Fact: The Detroit Lions had a fun draft.

Opinion: From their aggressive celebration after drafting Sewell to defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike’s profanity-laced declaration about the way he hits people at the line of scrimmage, it was physically impossible for Lions fans to avoid smiling at some point over the course of the weekend. When viewed in the context of new coach Dan Campbell’s stated desire to bite kneecaps, it’s pretty clear that the Lions won’t take themselves too seriously. They’ll have some energy, which is always the first building block in improving a team. They’re already ahead of where they were at the start of the Matt Patricia regime, which was cold and lifeless from the start.

Fact: Some teams wanted nothing to do with this draft, especially on Day 3.

Opinion: There were unprecedented challenges in evaluating the 2021 class. Medical information was less fulsome because of the lack of a formal combine. Scouts couldn’t make their usual rounds during a shortened college football season. And the list of draft-declared players was much smaller than usual. As a result, the Seahawks drafted only three players. The Texans kept it to five. The most players any team drafted was 11, by the Vikings, Cowboys and Panthers. The sense by most in the league is that the 2022 draft will be more plentifully stocked, of both talent and information. Only then will we know if the Seahawks and Texans, especially, made the right call.