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.
There didn’t appear to be a single draft analyst down on TE Kyle Pitts (first round), who has been widely praised as one of the greatest tight end prospects of all time.
One of the reasons Pitts is special is his ability to line up as an in-line tight end (49% of his targets in 2020), in the slot (24%), and out wide (27%). That flexibility will allow Atlanta to use unique alignments to create mismatches.
New head coach Arthur Smith relied heavily on play-action with the Titans (35% of their pass attempts in 2020). And on those play-action throws, tight ends saw a 24% target share. So expect Pitts to see significant action in the passing game immediately.
Safety Richie Grant (second round) should also see the field, with very little competition. Duron Harmon is the most experienced safety on the depth chart, and even he only has one full year of starting experience in the league.
Grant has experience in both safety roles, but is at his best in the deep secondary.
New DC Dean Peas relied heavily on a mix of Cover 1 and Cover 3 at his most recent job in Tennessee in 2019. That matches UCF’s system, which used those coverages 54% of the time last season.
Though it’s unclear what role Grant will play, it would make sense to use him as the deep safety in those formations.
OL Jalen Mayfield (thirrd round) could compete for the starting role at left guard, but his inexperience probably makes him a long shot to win the job. Mayfield effectively has just one year of experience under his belt, playing 13 career games at Michigan (only two in 2020), all at right tackle. OL Drew Dalman (fourth round) should also compete for a starting job on the line, likely challenging last year’s third-round selection, Matt Hennessy, at center.
Hennessy made two unimpressive starts at the end of last season, and if Atlanta felt confident in him as Alex Mack’s successor, Dalman would likely not have entered the equation.
Due to Atlanta’s mess of a secondary, CB Darren Hall (fourth round) and CB Avery Williams (sixth round) can’t be ruled out as contenders for playing time either. Both corners have multiple years starting experience on the outside, though Williams’s size may dictate a shift to the slot.
WR Frank Darby (seventh round) appeared to be only battling for a roster spot on draft day. The recent trade of Julio Jones, however, suddenly creates a training camp battle between Darby, Christian Blake, Olamide Zaccheaus, and possibly a few others, to help replace Jones along with Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage.
On draft day, the Falcons’ selection of Kyle Pitts made sense. Pairing Pitts with Jones and Ridley in an effort to build one last dominant offense around Matt Ryan seemed like a reasonable plan. With Jones gone, however, it raises some questions.
Without Jones on the roster, would anyone have tried to justify Atlanta passing over Justin Fields on draft day? It seems unlikely.
And even if Atlanta simply wasn’t high on Fields, rebuilding the offensive line with a prospect like Penei Sewell would have put Ryan’s eventual replacement (possibly their 2022 first-round pick) in a better situation.
New GM Terry Fontenot did well to come away with a few immediate starters and some quality depth pieces. However, Since Atlanta’s ability to win now is compromised without Jones, delaying the selection of a franchise quarterback seems ill-advised in hindsight.
After an entire draft of defensive players in 2020, the Panthers went back for more with CB Jaycee Horn (first round).
Horn will start immediately, but it won’t necessarily be an easy transition to DC Phil Snow’s defense. Horn dominated at South Carolina in man coverage, which accounted for 60% of his career snaps. Carolina, however, played man at the lowest rate in the league in 2020.
Perhaps the selection of Horn signals a desire to incorporate more man coverage into the defense, but zone was heavily favored by Snow and head coach Matt Rhule during their time together at Baylor also.
In zone coverage, Horn allowed an unimpressive 6.7 yards per target over the course of his career, likely because it diminishes his ability to overpower receivers with his physical style of play.
WR Terrace Marshall Jr. (second round) primarily lined up in the slot at LSU and could help fill the void left by Curtis Samuel, who was in the slot on 77 percent of his routes last season.
WR Shi Smith (sixth round) could also help replace Samuel, and is actually a better comparison to Samuel in terms of his size and skill set. South Carolina focused on getting Smith the ball in space, with 25% of his targets coming on screens and jet sweeps, while Marshall saw just 8% of his targets on those routes at LSU.
TE Tommy Tremble (third round) could also compete for playing time, although his best role in the NFL remains somewhat unclear. At Notre Dame, Tremble was primarily used as a blocking tight end in the run game. When on the field on passing downs, however, he ran routes 85% of the time. He’ll compete with Ian Thomas and Dan Arnold for snaps, and could emerge as the best pass-catching weapon of the underwhelming group.
OT Brady Christensen (third round) will likely begin his career providing depth at both guard and tackle. Although Rhule has stated a belief he’s ultimately a better fit a guard.
With Christian McCaffrey coming off multiple injuries in 2020, the selection of RB Chuba Hubbard (fourth round) potentially carries some significance. Last year’s backup, Mike Davis, is gone, so Hubbard will compete for that role and, given McCaffrey’s recent injuries, could see a decent workload to keep McCaffrey fresh.
This looks like a solid draft class for the Panthers. The decision to draft Horn in the first round, however, may have sent them down the path of drafting for need on Day 2, especially in the third round with Christensen and Tremble.
If the offensive line struggles to protect Sam Darnold, and OT Rashawn Slater thrives with the Chargers, they may regret the decision to pass over Slater in the first round.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints are unafraid to ignore the consensus and reach for their guy, and this year was no different. DE Payton Turner (first round) was unlikely to land in the first round if New Orleans didn’t take him, due to a history of injuries (most notably a torn ACL) and limited production in college.
Turner generated a career-high 14.9% pressure rate in five games in 2020. However, seven of his 13 pressures came against lowly Tulane. Against the more formidable BYU, UCF, and Memphis, Turner’s pressure rate was a disappointing 9.3%.
Given his size and length (6’5”, 35” arms), you would expect to see more dominance against Group of Five competition. As a rookie, Turner will likely provide depth behind Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport, while the staff tries to develop his impressive raw traits.
LB Pete Werner (second round) played a hybrid safety/linebacker role during his time at Ohio State. His lack of speed often caused issues in coverage, but he does have a blend of size and athleticism which could prove valuable in coverage versus most tight ends. Werner was also tremendously effective on blitzes, generating a 33.3% pressure rate last season. Even if Werner technically isn’t a starter this season, expect the Saints to use his versatility to their advantage and find ways to get him on the field.
CB Paulson Adebo (third round) was a traits-based selection for the Saints, who were likely drawn to his nice blend of speed (4.45 40-yard dash) and height (6’1”). Adebo was dominant as a redshirt-freshman in 2018, but struggled the following year and then opted out in 2020. It’s possible the Saints landed an elite steal if they can get him back to his early-career production.
In 2018, Adebo generated a 36.4% Ball Hawk Rate in man coverage, while allowing just 4.4 yards per target. The Saints played the highest rate of man coverage in the league last season, so it’s possible they were intrigued by that performance and want to further develop those skills.
QB Ian Book (fourth round) is a dual-threat quarterback who will be the third-string quarterback in 2021. He probably lacks the accuracy and arm strength to be anything more than a backup in the league.
It was surprising to see New Orleans wait so long to land an offensive weapon before finally drafting WR Kawaan Baker (seventh round). Baker played in the slot at South Alabama, where 49% of his targets came within five yards of the line of scrimmage. He’ll be in the mix to replace Emmanuel Sanders in that role for the Saints. With the injury to Michael Thomas that could force him to miss time early in the season, there is a more open path, and a potential need, for playing time at receiver.
The Saints landed plenty of talent with their first three selections, but both Turner and Adebo probably need time to develop before making an impact.
Since teams are rarely able to develop every high-upside prospect they gamble on, it seems likely New Orleans will, at best, come away with only one or two impact players from this class.
Considering they’re entering a semi-rebuilding mode in the post-Drew Brees era, this was a disappointing haul that doesn’t appear to have improved the roster in a meaningful way.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
With no holes to fill, the Bucs had an opportunity to draft the best available player and set themselves up for an easy transition for post-Tom Brady life. They chose a different path.
With Jason Pierre-Paul hitting free agency after this season, Tampa appeared to force a selection of his replacement, DE/LB Joe Tryon (first round). Tryon is an explosive athlete, but he’s 22 years old with just 14 career starts under his belt (he opted out in 2020).
In 2019, Tryon often lined up in the wide-nine position, where he generated 33% of his QB pressures. The Bucs’ pass-rushers collectively only played 121 snaps in the wide-nine position last year, so Tryon will likely need to prove he can be productive in a more traditional role that requires him to win with his hands more than pure speed.
Tryon was a risk with high upside, but the selection of QB Kyle Trask (second round) was pure risk with almost no upside. This was an inexcusable missed opportunity to add more talent to a potential Super Bowl roster.
Trask is an immobile pocket passer who greatly benefitted from a receiving corps that featured five NFL draft picks over the last two seasons (Kyle Pitts, Kadarius Toney, Van Jefferson, Freddie Swain, and Tyrie Cleveland). Trask will be the third-string quarterback this year and, based on the bust rate of Day 2 quarterbacks, is highly unlikely to be Brady’s heir.
OL Robert Hainsey (third round) was a three-year starter at right tackle for Notre Dame and will likely provide depth at multiple positions on the offensive line. Many believed Hainsey’s best long-term position is guard, so he may compete for a starting job there down the road.
WR Jaelon Darden (fourth round) is an undersized (5’7”) speedster, who was one of just seven receivers to average at least 10 yards per target from the slot last season.
There won’t be many targets available this year, but Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown both hit free agency after 2021, so this was a smart selection to give Tampa some insurance when they likely lose at least one of those two contributors next offseason.
Even for a team without any immediate holes, this was a disappointing class. Tryon is the only prospect with high-end upside, making it likely Tampa came away with, at best, one long-term impact player from this class.