With the 2021 NFL draft now in the rearview mirror and most of the rookies having already taken the practice field, we’re starting to get an idea of how these draft classes will impact each roster this fall.
In this series, I’ll break down the most likely instant-impact rookies from each class, while also providing some insight into why certain early picks may not see the field.
And while I won’t assign a specific grade to each draft class, I will offer a quick assessment of the overall draft haul for each team and some thoughts on their draft process.
All stats mentioned are from Sports Info Solutions, unless otherwise noted.
Without a pick until the third round, it wasn’t reasonable to expect much from this Houston draft class.
WR Nico Collins (third round) likely has the inside track to take over the Will Fuller role as the deep threat starting opposite Brandin Cooks. When active, Fuller commanded a 27% target share on throws 15 or more yards downfield in 2020.
During his final season at Michigan in 2019, Collins saw 25 targets (just over two per game) at 15-plus yards downfield, including five touchdowns.
At 6’4”, Collins also brings some much-needed size to the Houston receiving corps. He hauled in eight of 10 catchable targets in the end zone during his career at Michigan, and will likely be used as a weapon near the goal line for the Texans as well.
TE Brevin Jordan (fifth round) appears to have a path to immediate playing time, but he’s a tough player to project due to his role in the Miami offense. His most commonly targeted route in 2020 was a screen pass (21% of his targets)—an unusual role for a tight end. Jordan may have a steep learning curve at a position that is already difficult for rookies to adjust to in the NFL.
QB Davis Mills (third round) might be the long-term answer at quarterback, but don’t bet on being impressed if he gets on the field this fall. Mills made just 11 career starts in David Shaw’s ultra-conservative offense at Stanford. Mills had an average depth of throw of just 7.3 yards downfield last season, which ranked 12 out of 14 qualified Pac-12 quarterbacks. Deshaun Watson ranked fifth in the NFL with an average depth of 8.7 yards.
Houston essentially punted on this draft when it traded a massive haul of picks in the Laremy Tunsil/Kenny Stills trade. The merits of that trade have been debated at length elsewhere, but it clearly put the organization in a terrible spot this offseason.
However, the most absurd decision the Texans made on draft weekend was trading three picks (two fourths and a fifth) to move up for Collins in the third round. The arrogance required to believe you’ve identified a player so valuable in the late third-round that he’s worth parting with three mid-round picks—while you’re in the middle of a full rebuild, no less—is astonishing.
Factoring in these transactions, no team gained less from their 2021 draft capital than Houston.
It looks like the Colts stuck to their board rather than reaching for needs, which resulted in a draft class that may not generate much immediate production.
DE Kwity Paye (first round) is the exception, as he will likely be their most effective pass-rusher as a rookie.
In 2020, the Colts brought just four pass-rushers 82% of the time, so having a dangerous threat on the edge is critical. Paye fits the bill, as he led the Big Ten with a 25% pressure rate when rushing as one of just four pass-rushers in his final year at Michigan.
DL Dayo Odeyingbo (second round) is rehabbing from a torn Achilles in January, so it’s unclear if he offers any immediate help. In the long term, he likely plays in the defensive line rotation, possibly shifting to the interior line on passing downs.
WR Mike Strachan (seventh round) is easily the most exciting Day 3 pick from this class. He posted impressive workout numbers for a 6’5” receiver. The transition from D-II Charleston won’t be easy, but he looks like a fun prospect for the coaches to groom alongside Michael Pittman Jr.
With only one prospect from this class who appears destined for a starting role, it’s tough to be excited about this draft haul for Indy. This looks like a bottom-tier class, unless some Day 3 picks shock us and develop into impact players.
Trevor Lawrence (first round) will obviously have the most significant impact, good or bad, on the Jaguars 2021 season.
As talented as Lawrence is, he doesn’t have a ton of experience making decisions in the pocket—24% of his throws last season were screen passes. Ideally, head coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell take what Lawrence did well at Clemson and make that a significant portion of the playbook during his rookie year.
At +270, Lawrence is the Rookie of the Year favorite, but that’s probably not a smart bet to place at those odds. Six of the nine quarterbacks to win this award won at least seven games, and Jacksonville doesn’t look like a team ready to flirt with a .500 record.
Meyer’s track record of creating touches in space for his playmakers (Percy Harvin, Curtis Samuel, Braxton Miller, etc) bodes well for Travis Etienne (first round) having a nice rookie year. Etienne averaged 4.4 yards per carry when the defense stacked seven or more defenders in the box last season, compared to 6.3 with six or fewer. Expect James Robinson to maintain his role as the downhill runner, while they create ways for Etienne to touch the ball in more favorable situations.
Many others in this class look strong as well, but are unlikely to see significant playing time early this fall. CB Tyson Campbell (second round), OT Walker Little (second round), and DT Jay Tufele (fourth round) are particularly exciting high-upside prospects, but lacked the college production to indicate they’re ready for an impact role as a rookie.
Jacksonville likely landed multiple starters from this class, but the decision to take a running back in the first round—when it wasn’t even a glaring need—certainly raises some questions about their process. Additionally, they selected multiple players with a recent history of injuries, most notably Little and Andre Cisco (third round).
So while there’s a lot of talent in this class, Meyer and GM Trent Baalke also took a lot of unnecessary risks and probably didn’t maximize the value of their draft capital.
The Titans are hoping Dillon Radunz (second round) will win the starting job at right tackle and help fans forget about the Isaiah Wilson embarrassment from a season ago. He’ll compete with Kendall Lamm, but likely has an edge over the 29-year-old career backup.
Elijah Molden (third round) is also likely to make an immediate impact in coverage in the slot. In 2020, Tennessee allowed 8.6 yards per target to slot receivers, which ranked 24th in the league.
If everything goes well, Caleb Farley (first round) will be one of Tennessee’s starting outside cornerbacks at some point. But as he’s still recovering from offseason back surgery—due to an injury that ended his 2019 season (he opted out in 2020)—it’s impossible to bet on him winning that job before Week 1.
Tennessee may have landed three immediate starters, so it’s tough to criticize this class too much. However, following up the Wilson disaster with another risky first-round pick (albeit for other reasons) was a questionable decision. Additionally, Rashad Weaver (fourth round) was arrested days before the draft, which other teams reportedly knew while Tennessee did not.
The Weaver issue, coupled with last year’s obviously poor evaluation of Wilson’s character and work ethic, raises questions about Tennessee’s pre-draft vetting process.
In total, this looks like a middle-of-the-pack draft class, but has the potential to develop into a strong haul if the risks pay off.