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.
The Cardinals’ selection of LB Zaven Collins (first round) was somewhat surprising because it wasn’t the most glaring area of need and the team has done a poor job evaluating and developing talent at the position in recent years.
Collins is expected to start immediately as the Mike linebacker and will be expected to be the quarterback of the defense. We know Collins is an elite athlete, but a significant part of his task as a rookie will be communicating with the veterans and earning their trust.
WR Rondale Moore (second round) will bring an electric skill set to Kliff Kingsbury’s offense, likely lining up in the slot. Christian Kirk and Andy Isabella have been Kingsbury’s speedsters in the slot, but Moore’s track record at Purdue does not necessarily indicate he’ll be used in the same way.
In 2020, Kirk and Isabella each saw an average depth of target from the slot greater than 10 yards downfield. So their speed has been used to stretch the field, whereas Moore has been used almost exclusively near the line of scrimmage. Moore saw an average depth of target of 2.4 yards over his final two seasons at Purdue.
CB Marco Wilson (fourth round) might compete for playing time in a weak secondary. Wilson had a fantastic start to his career at Florida, but suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2018 and his production never recovered. Wilson was among the worst cornerbacks in the SEC in 2020, allowing 9.0 yards per target. But Arizona will obviously be hoping he returns to form now that he’s two full years removed from the knee injury.
S James Wiggins (seventh round) is another intriguing post-injury project for the Cardinals.
Based on Sports Info Solutions’ Points Saved metric (based on the EPA framework), Wiggins graded out at +12.3 in 2018. Following a torn ACL that wiped out his 2019 campaign, he checked in at -0.7 in 2020.
Wiggins was a three-time member of Bruce Feldman’s Freaks List and few players still on the board in the seventh round had as much athletic upside.
Prior to the draft, Pro Football Network’s Tony Pauline reported the Cardinals were targeting cornerbacks Jaycee Horn and Patrick Surtain or receiver Jaylen Waddle, with Zaven Collins as the backup plan.
That’s some helpful insight into GM Steve Keim’s thought process, as he appeared to be targeting impact players at their greatest positions of need, but wasn’t willing to reach for the next tier. With their top targets off the board, they settled for Collins, who they identified as the best available player一that’s a smart approach to the draft.
Los Angeles Rams
Without a first-round pick due to the Jalen Ramsey trade, and with few holes to fill, the Rams likely failed to land any significant early contributors in this draft class.
Los Angeles had an opportunity to land an impact player in the second round, but instead added 155-pound receiver Tutu Atwell.
As an undersized receiver, one would think Atwell would make a living as a dangerous playmaker on underneath routes, but that wasn’t always the case at Louisville.
In 2020, Atwell averaged just 5.2 yards per target on routes within five yards of the line of scrimmage, ranked 84th out of 127 qualified receivers. In 2019, however, he ranked fourth (behind Jaylen Waddle, CeeDee Lamb and Tylan Wallace) with 10.4 yards per target.
The obvious explanation for these differences is Atwell is a scheme-dependent playmaker. Louisville’s offense took a significant step backwards in 2020, and Atwell was no longer getting easy touches in the open field. If Sean McVay and staff can create opportunities for Atwell, he can be a productive complementary piece in the offense, but that is likely his ceiling.
LB Ernest Jones (third round) was not a particularly productive playmaker at South Carolina. His 10.4% broken/missed tackle rate in 2020 stands out as a red flag. Jones is also a significant liability in coverage. Opponents gained 0.9 EPA per target when throwing at Jones last season.
However, the Rams struggled to replace Cory Littleton after his departure last offseason so, despite these concerns, Jones could be in the mix for that job.
DT Bobby Brown III (fourth round) will provide depth behind Aaron Donald, potentially easing Donald’s workload to keep him fresh as he ages. Brown generated an 8.5% pressure rate last season, the fifth best among interior pass-rushers in the SEC.
The Rams also added some size to the receiving corps with WR/TE Jacob Harris (fourth round) and WR Ben Skowronek (seventh round). There won’t be many targets available, but there could be some select situations where the 6’3” Skowronek and 6’5” Harris are used.
Factoring in the acquisition of Jalen Ramsey, the Rams didn’t completely waste their draft capital from this class. However, it would not be shocking to look back on this class in three years and see Los Angeles failed to land a single starter.
If Atwell adds a new dynamic to the offense and others provide valuable depth on a championship team in the next few seasons, this class could be viewed as a success. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine Los Angeles feeling satisfied with this underwhelming haul.
Due to a number of trades, most notably the acquisition of safety Jamal Adams, Seattle ended up with only three selections in this draft class.
WR D’Wayne Eskridge (second round) is the only rookie with an obvious path to the field in 2021. He could be the third option in the passing game, replacing David Moore, who saw 47 targets a season ago.
However, the 5’9”, 190-pound Eskridge probably can’t be deployed in the same way as the 6’0”, 215-pound Moore.
Eskridge primarily lined up on the outside at Western Michigan (79% of his targets) but at his size, he’s probably better suited for a role in the slot. Unfortunately, Tyler Lockett is locked into the slot role, where he lined up on 75% of his routes last season.
In 2020, Moore lined up in the slot on just 35% of his targets. So finding room for Eskridge on the field may be more difficult than simply inserting him into Moore’s vacant role.
CB Tre Brown (fourth round) might factor into the mix in the secondary out of necessity due to a lack of talent and depth at cornerback in Seattle.
Brown has strong athletic traits (4.42 in the 40, 38” vertical) but his production at Oklahoma was underwhelming. In 2020, Brown allowed 5.7 yards per target and committed four pass interference penalties in 10 games.
OT Stone Forsythe (sixth round) will likely be treated as a developmental prospect by Seattle, especially given their offseason emphasis on improving the run game.
Forsythe was consistently effective in pass protection at Florida, but often a liability in the run game.
In addition to these three draft picks, Seattle’s draft capital contributed to the acquisitions of Jamal Adams, guard Gabe Jackson, and safety Quandre Diggs. So while this rookie class is underwhelming, they likely used their assets to acquire at least three starters.
This veteran-heavy plan could set Seattle up for a rough stretch in the future, but it’s a somewhat understandable risk to take with Russell Wilson entering his age-33 season.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers obviously view Trey Lance (first round) as their quarterback of the future, but it’s unclear if he’ll have any role in 2021. Obviously, most rookie quarterbacks get on the field early these days, but if San Francisco is winning with Jimmy Garoppolo, perhaps they’ll buck that trend.
If the 49ers make the switch to Lance, it will likely be due to his mobility. Excluding sacks, sneaks, and kneel downs, Lance averaged 7.9 yards per carry during his college career.
Lance also attempted 26% of his throws from outside the pocket, compared to just 9% by Garoppolo in San Francisco last season.
So when Lance gets on the field, expect to see quite a few new wrinkles in Kyle Shanahan’s offense.
OG Aaron Banks (second round) might be the team’s best bet to contribute immediately, as he’s expected to compete for the starting job at right guard, where he could start next to his college teammate Mike McGlinchey. Banks started for 2.5 years at left guard for Notre Dame.
RB Trey Sermon (third round) might have an easy path to playing time given the mediocre talent in San Francisco’s backfield, but Shanahan’s revolving door approach to the position makes it difficult to predict a significant role for anyone on the depth chart.
Sermon is an incredibly dangerous runner in the open field, but isn’t the type of back who can consistently create for himself without help from the offensive line. At Ohio State, Sermon averaged 10.9 yards per carry when he was untouched after two yards (ranked 11th in nation). However, he gained 0.4 yards when touched at or behind the line (ranked 108th).
CB Ambry Thomas (third round) fills a need in the secondary, but he might be more of a developmental prospect than an immediate starter. Thomas has speed (4.41 in the 40) and good length (32.25” arms) which is likely what attracted San Francisco.
However, Thomas was only a one-year starter (opted out in 2020) and will have to transition to a new coverage scheme. Michigan played a high rate of man coverage (42% of Thomas’ snaps), while San Francisco used man just 24% of the time in 2020.
S Talanoa Hufanga (fifth round) won’t challenge for a starting role, but could get on the field in some sub-packages. Hufanga’s coverage skills are lacking, but he was a dominant in-the-box run defender一a skill set which should also make him a valuable special teams contributor.
The success of this class ultimately lives and dies with Trey Lance, especially considering the cost (three first-round picks). Shanahan and GM John Lynch are extremely secure in their jobs at the moment, but those seats will get hot if Lance doesn’t pan out.
Outside of Lance, this still looks like a solid draft class, giving San Francisco a solid mix of immediate value and developmental talent.