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.
Baltimore needed to give Lamar Jackson a reliable downfield weapon, and WR Rashod Bateman (first round) should be the perfect fit.
Ravens receivers caught only 63% of Jackson’s catchable throws 15 or more yards downfield last season, which ranked 29th out of 35 quarterbacks. Bateman had a 78% catch rate on catchable targets at that distance during his college career.
With former left guard Bradley Bozeman moving to center, OL Ben Cleveland (third round) is likely to start at left guard.
Cleveland spent his entire career at Georgia on the right side of the line (both guard and tackle) but free agent addition Kevin Zeitler is likely to remain at right guard, where he’s played his entire career.
The 6’6”, 343-pound Cleveland played a key role in Georgia’s running game over the last few seasons, and looks like an ideal fit for Baltimore’s run-heavy offense.
Due to a well-constructed roster, it’s tough to envision anyone else from this class making a substantial impact. EDGE Odafe Oweh (first round) will likely see some reps as a pass-rush specialist, though he is raw and survived on elite athletic traits at Penn State. Much has been made of Oweh’s zero sacks in 2020, but don’t read too much into that number. Versus three-step dropbacks, Oweh generated an incredible 27.9% pressure rate一a strong indication his sack numbers will rise as the coaching staff refines his technique.
Baltimore may have leaned more heavily on a needs-based approach to the draft than usual, but none of their selections can be considered an unjustifiable reach. This draft class appears capable of contributing in 2021, while also offering some long-term developmental value.
Since WR Ja’Marr Chase (first round) is the only offseason addition to the Bengals receiving corps, and he’s already familiar with Joe Burrow from their days at LSU, it’s safe to assume he steps right into A.J. Green’s role in the offense.
Green looked like a shell of his former self in 2020, but he still commanded a 19.2% target share from Burrow.
OL Jackson Carman (second round) spent the past two seasons protecting Trevor Lawrence’s blindside, but will shift inside to guard for the Bengals. The former five-star recruit has impressive traits, but never fully met expectations at Clemson. In pass protection, Carman had a team-high blown-block rate of 2.2% last season and led the ACC with four holding penalties. Carman likely competes with Michael Jordan, Xavier Su’a-Filo, and Quinton Spain for a starting spot.
EDGE Joseph Ossai should help replace Carl Lawson’s pass-rush production. Lawson accounted for 32% of the team’s QB pressures a season ago. Ossai split his snaps between playing in a two and three-point stance, so he’ll bring some valuable versatility to Cincinnati’s front seven.
DL Cameron Sample (fourth round) primarily played as a pass-rushing linebacker at Tulane, but at 273 pounds is more likely to play a traditional defensive end role in the Bengals rotation.
DT Tyler Shelvin (fourth round) is a pure nose tackle who offers zero value as a pass-rusher. Even in the fourth round, that was a moderately surprising selection given the diminished value of the immobile, space-eating nose tackle in today’s pass-heavy game. Expect Shelvin to be used in certain run-stopping packages immediately.
Presumably, the Bengals envision K Evan McPhearson (fifth round) beating out Austin Seibert for the starting job. If he doesn’t produce immediately, it’s an inexcusable waste of a pick.
This was a solid overall haul for the Bengals, who landed a couple of players who should produce as rookies and a few others with long-term potential. However, this class will ultimately be graded based on Chase’s production and a comparison between him and OT Penei Sewell (Lion’s first-round selection).
The Bengals needed to improve the offensive line and receiving corps, and they opted to address the far more volatile position group first. It could pay off given Burrow’s familiarity with Chase, but it was undeniably the greater risk.
Knowing they have to face Lamar Jackson at least twice per season likely factored into the selection of LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (second round). Browns linebackers were ill-equipped to contain Jackson, who ran for 169 yards on just 16 carries against them in 2020.
While Owusu-Koramoah didn’t run the 40-yard dash this offseason, it’s safe to say his speed will be an upgrade over Sione Takitaki (4.63 in the 40), Anthony Walker (4.65), Jacob Phillips (4.66) and B.J. Goodson (4.69).
Owusu-Koramoah played a hybrid safety/linebacker role at Notre Dame, so DC Joe Woods will have some flexibility in how he uses his new defensive weapon. Expect to see him used strategically depending on the matchup.
CB Greg Newsome (first round) will compete with Greedy Williams for the starting job opposite Denzel Ward. Newsome’s inexperience in man coverage (19% of his coverage snaps in 2020) may have been an issue for certain teams, but shouldn’t hinder his ability to get on the field in Cleveland. The Browns were in man coverage 21% of the time in DC Joe Woods’ first year, among the league’s lowest rates.
DT Tommy Togiai (fourth round) should have an opportunity to compete for playing time due to the departures of Larry Ogunjobi and Sheldon Richardson. Togiai played nose tackle at Ohio State, lining up in the zero or one-tech position on 46% of his snaps. Cleveland rarely used a true nose tackle (Ogunjobi typically played the role when they did), so Togiai will likely get more reps as a three-tech as a rookie.
Though it wasn’t his primary role, Togiai was Ohio State’s most effective interior pass-rusher when lined up over a guard, generating a pressure rate of 8.5%.
WR Anthony Schwartz (third round) was a strange selection. He’s a track star with a limited route tree一58% of his targets came within five yards of the line of scrimmage last year. Presumably, Cleveland has an immediate plan to incorporate Schwartz into the offense on jet sweeps and screens, but there’s limited upside to a player who needs to be given the ball in space to have an impact.
While Schwartz was probably a reach to fill a need, GM Andrew Berry otherwise was able to plug holes while still getting good value throughout the draft. Owusu-Koramoah was not expected to be available in the late second round, and could have been a justifiable first-round selection for Cleveland.
This looks like another strong class for the Browns, with multiple immediate impact players and future starters.
Based purely on opportunity, Najee Harris (first round) is the safe bet to be the Steelers’ most impactful rookie. However, Harris’s level of production may rely more on Pittsburgh’s rebuilt offensive line than his own talent.
When contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage in 2020, Harris averaged 1.7 yards per carry, which ranked 26th out of 78 qualifying running backs. In other words, when the offensive line didn’t do its job, Harris remained reasonably productive, but not to such a level we should expect him to carry the Steelers’ run game on his own.
Steelers running backs were contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage on 42% of their carries in 2020. For that reason, Harris’s ability to make an immediate impact may be partially reliant on center Kendrick Green (third round). Green has just four career starts at center, but he’ll compete with J.C. Hassenauer and B.J. Finney for the starting job.
Though Green is inexperienced, Illinois averaged 3.7 yards before contact when running to Green’s gap assignment in 2020. If he proves to be a capable run blocker in training camp, he’ll likely win the job in what could be a more run-heavy offense than we’ve seen from Pittsburgh in recent years.
Given the state of the Steelers’ offensive line, OT Dan Moore Jr. (fourth round) should also be considered a contender to get on the field as a rookie. Moore was a three-year starter at left tackle at Texas A&M and, with 34.5” arms, has the length Pittsburgh typically covets at tackle. Chukwuma Okorafor likely gets the first shot at left tackle, but his production on the right side in 2020 gives no indication he’ll get the job without a challenge.
With Pittsburgh potentially becoming more run-heavy, TE Pat Freiermuth (second round) could also see a substantial role despite the presence of veteran Eric Ebron.
Ebron has never been known for his run blocking, while Freiermuth was an asset at Penn State. In 2020, Penn State averaged a respectable 2.7 yards before contact when running to Freiermuth’s gap.
Punter Pressley Harvin III (seventh round) should probably be considered the favorite to land the starting job. Jordan Berry has held the position for six years, but teams typically don’t draft special teams players unless the plan is for them to start.
There’s no doubt Pittsburgh improved their run game through the draft. But does that make them a better football team? It would be difficult to script a less impactful start to the draft than running back, tight end, center. While the Steelers landed some talented players at those positions, they likely won’t have a substantial impact on the team’s ability to win now or in the future.
This does not appear to be a class capable of altering the downward spiral Pittsburgh entered late in the 2020 season.