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.
Based on Denver’s roster construction this offseason, it appears as though the team might be trying to build around a strong defense and a power running game. If this is the case, Javonte Williams (second round) fits in perfectly as the downhill runner, while Melvin Gordon still offers some burst on the outside.
In 2020, Gordon averaged 3.8 yards per carry between the tackles—below the NFL average for running backs of 4.3 yards per attempt. Meanwhile at North Carolina, Williams picked up 6.1 yards per carry between the tackles, which ranked ninth in the nation.
Williams’s Rookie of the Year odds (+2900) might be worth taking a chance on. He’s likely to see more goal line touches than Gordon and these awards are driven by stats.
Patrick Surtain II (first round) is also likely to compete for immediate playing time in a crowded secondary. Denver played the 10th highest rate of man coverage last year, and Surtain played 47% of his college snaps in man, among the highest rates in this year’s draft class.
As good as Surtain might be this season, don’t bet on him to win Defensive Rookie of the Year. His odds (+1100 on FanDuel) might look interesting, but cornerbacks only win when they post gaudy interceptions numbers—which requires a bit of luck. Surtain had just four interceptions in his college career, and a corner hasn’t won the award with fewer than five since Willie Buchanon in 1972.
Guard/center Quinn Meinerz (third round), linebacker Baron Browning (third round), and slot CB Kary Vincent Jr. (7th round) also appear to have an inside track to valuable backup roles.
Overall, this looks like one of the strongest draft classes in 2021 for both immediate and long-term production.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs might not get much immediate production from this draft class because there just weren’t many holes to fill, but Nick Bolton (second round) should at least be in the rotation at linebacker.
Bolton’s strength is his run defense, making him a strong complementary addition to last year’s second-round selection Willie Gay, who excels in coverage. In the short term, Bolton is likely to back up Mike linebacker Anthony Hitchens—potentially being groomed as his replacement.
Four Chiefs linebackers played at least 250 snaps last year, and Damien Wilson is not returning, so there should be room for Bolton to see the field, even in a reserve role.
Creed Humphrey (second round) also has the potential to compete with Austin Blythe for the starting center job, and may be Kansas City’s long-term solution there.
Trey Smith (sixth round) slid due to injury risks, but the former five-star prospect has elite potential and could be Kyle Long’s eventual replacement at right guard.
Since the Chiefs primarily drafted for depth at positions of need, there isn’t a ton of upside in this draft class, but there weren’t any glaring mistakes either. It looks like a solid middle-of-the-pack draft haul.
Las Vegas Raiders
Mike Mayock has already stated a desire to start Alex Leatherwood (first round) at right tackle and he draws a strong endorsement from offensive line coach Tom Cable.
While working for the Seattle Seahawks, Cable also talked the team into reaching for James Carpenter in the first round—a very similar player to Leatherwood—so that’s not exactly an endorsement you want, but at least we know the coaching staff is invested in his development.
Prior to the draft, Mayock mentioned 2020 undrafted free agent Jaryd Jones-Smith, as a candidate to start at right tackle. Jones played 14 snaps, all on special teams, so Leatherwood should have no issue locking down that job.
Malcolm Koonce (third round) played almost exclusively in a two-point stance on the edge at Buffalo, which should make the transition to Gus Bradley’s defense easier. Koonce has some comparable traits to Melvin Ingram, who excelled as a stand-up pass-rusher for Bradley the past few seasons with the Chargers.
Between Trevon Moehrig (second round), Divine Deablo (third round), and Tyree Gillespie (fourth round), Las Vegas probably found a starting safety (most likely Moehrig in the free safety role). But this was a comical overinvestment in the position, especially considering the free agency addition of Karl Joseph.
Mayock and Gruden simply don’t know how to play the draft game to maximize the value of their draft capital. They’ll get some production from this class, but given their poor use of resources, the overall haul easily falls in the bottom tier of 2021 draft classes.
Los Angeles Chargers
Prior to the draft, Chargers GM Tom Telesco stated he was “bullish” on Trey Pipkins, but it now appears that may have simply been an effort to project confidence in case the draft didn’t fall their way.
Head coach Brandon Staley has already stated a desire to keep Rashawn Slater (first round) on the left side, where he started in 2019 at Northwestern.
Justin Herbert was pressured on 35.6% of his dropbacks when the defense brought four or fewer pass-rushers, the fourth highest rate in the league. So improved stability at left tackle should allow Herbert to remain more comfortable in the pocket this fall.
Asante Samuel Jr. (second round) was also a strong selection, but is probably best suited to play in the slot, where Chris Harris Jr. currently resides. It was a smart pick, but less likely to provide instant production.
Josh Palmer (third round) should also see some playing time as a deep threat for Herbert. 38% of his targets came at least 15 yards downfield in 2020 at Tennessee, so this is a role that will be comfortable for him.
Chris Rumph II (fourth round) will likely get on the field as a situational pass-rusher, after leading the ACC in pressure rate a season ago.
Los Angeles did a fantastic job blending value and need in these selections. This was easily among the top-10 classes of 2021.