Surprises, Reaches and Steals From the 2021 NFL Draft

The 2021 National Football League (NFL) Draft took place over the weekend with 259 college players finding new homes with one of 32 professional teams. From first overall pick Trevor Lawrence of the Jacksonville Jaguars to the final selection and “Mr. Irrelevant,” Grant Stuard of the reigning champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cleveland, Ohio proved to be a wonderful host for one of the most-watched drafts ever. It’s never easy to assign grades for each team — only time will tell how well the draft classes hold up. Nonetheless, there were plenty of interesting picks that demonstrate how certain teams view themselves now and where they believe they are headed in the future. In lieu of grades, I’ll analyze a surprise, a reach and a steal from the first round, and add in one pick that I liked and one that I didn’t. 

Surprise: Trey Lance (Quarterback, North Dakota State), third overall pick to the San Francisco 49ers

 As covered in last week’s article, it wasn’t at all surprising that the 49ers took a quarterback. After all, they traded away three first-round picks to move up nine spots, knowing that the top two quarterbacks, Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson, would be off the board after the first two picks. The question was who did San Francisco see as the third-best quarterback: Mac Jones, Justin Fields or Trey Lance? Despite initial rumors that Jones was the preferred choice of Head Coach Kyle Shanahan, the Niners decided to go with athleticism and upside over statistical production and level of competition in their selection of Lance. It was just the second time in the past 25 years that a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) player was taken in the top-three picks, with Lance joining North Dakota State alum Carson Wentz in that exclusive club. Now, Jimmy Garoppolo’s status as the starting quarterback for San Francisco is tenuous as trade rumors swirl. The 49ers are in win-now mode, as they have a playoff-caliber roster, and while Jimmy G. might get the first crack at leading the team, it won’t be long before Lance is under center, likely for years to come.

Reach: Jaycee Horn (Cornerback, South Carolina), eighth overall pick to the Carolina Panthers

The Panthers deserve some praise for believing in their new quarterback, Sam Darnold. They gave up their second, fourth and sixth round picks to the New York Jets in order to acquire Darnold, so it wouldn’t have made much sense to draft a quarterback in the first round. Although they were linked with Justin Fields, they thought better of it and chose to draft based on a positional need. They had just missed out on offensive tackle Penei Sewell, who the Detroit Lions nabbed one spot earlier, but taking a cornerback fills a necessary hole on the Panthers’ defense. Still, the decision to select Jaycee Horn surely raised some eyebrows. Horn has NFL bloodlines, as his father, Joe Horn, was a standout wide receiver for the New Orleans Saints. The younger Horn tied for the team lead in interceptions for the South Carolina Gamecocks and was named Second Team All-SEC for his efforts. However, Patrick Surtain II — whose father was a two-time NFL All-Pro at corner — was the consensus top cornerback in the draft and went one spot later to the Denver Broncos. Horn was commonly thought of as the second-best cornerback in the class, but some rankings had him third or even fourth. The Panthers’ scouting department will feel confident that they found the right guy, but don’t be surprised if Surtain winds up being the better player of the two.

Steal: DeVonta Smith (Wide Receiver, Alabama), 10th overall pick to the Philadelphia Eagles

When the Eagles gave up a third-round pick to the Dallas Cowboys to leapfrog the New York Giants at 11, the hearts of Big Blue fans across the nation sank. DeVonta Smith nearly fell into the Giants’ lap, so their NFC East rivals in Philly conspired with their rivals in Dallas to stop that from happening. Even though Smith was the third receiver selected, he has the chance to be the best of the bunch. He put up prolific numbers last season for the Crimson Tide, hauling in 117 passes for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns. He was the first wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy since 1991 and capped off his phenomenal year by being named the Offensive MVP of the National Championship game. There are worries about his slim frame, as he weighs just 166 pounds and stands 6 foot 1, but he should fill out once he starts an NFL training regimen. There’s no denying his potential, as he made college defenders look silly on a weekly basis. He’ll be paired with his former quarterback at Alabama, Jalen Hurts, and will receive lots of playing time right off the bat. The Eagles did well to obtain a number-one wide receiver for years to come. 

One pick that I liked: Mac Jones (Quarterback, Alabama), 15th overall pick to the New England Patriots

It just makes too much sense, doesn’t it? While he didn’t show it on his face, General Manager Bill Belichick must have been smiling internally when Mac Jones kept falling all the way down to the 15th spot. Originally expected to go third overall to the 49ers, Jones wound up as the fifth quarterback drafted in the first 15 picks, the only time that has happened in the 21st century. The last time the Patriots drafted a quarterback in the first round was all the way back in 1993, when Drew Bledsoe was picked first overall. It’s Bledsoe’s successor, Tom Brady, to whom Jones will inevitably be compared, not only for their similar physiques, but also because of their pocket-passer styles of play. He’ll compete with Cam Newton for the starting job, but if last year is any indication, Jones should be QB1 in New England before the end of the season. Filling Tom Brady’s shoes is one of the most difficult jobs in NFL history, but Belichick trusts that his good friend and Alabama head coach Nick Saban produced a worthy replacement. 

One pick that I didn’t like: Travis Etienne (Running Back, Clemson), 25th overall pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars

I understand the logic of the pick. The Jaguars were blessed with a surefire franchise quarterback in Trevor Lawrence when they finished with the worst record in the NFL. The next step is surrounding Lawrence with weapons so that he has all the tools to meet his vast potential and become a superstar. What better way for the Jags to do that then to get Lawrence his friend and teammate at Clemson, two-time Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year Travis Etienne? Unfortunately, Etienne just came off the worst statistical season of his collegiate career. After back-to-back 1600+ yard seasons, Etienne barely eclipsed 900 yards and his yards per carry dropped by almost 2.5 full yards. The running back position is increasingly devalued in today’s NFL, as they average the shortest careers of any position. But while the Jaguars have numerous holes in their roster, running back isn’t one of them. Underscoring the replaceability of the position, undrafted free agent James Robinson had an incredible rookie year with more than 1400 yards from scrimmage and 10 total touchdowns. The Jaguars should prioritize helping Lawrence, and this pick was about making him feel comfortable in his transition to the NFL. Nonetheless, a running back is rarely worth a first round pick, and they would have been better served by filling a need elsewhere, like Gregory Rousseau at defensive end or Jevon Holland at safety.