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.
AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West
NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West
It’s widely believed the Cowboys hoped to land a cornerback in the first round (either Patrick Surtain II or Jaycee Horn) but were forced to adjust when neither was on the board. As a result, they may not get as much production from this draft class as originally planned.
LB Micah Parsons (first round) could see immediate playing time, but the extent of his role may depend on the health of Leighton Vander Esch, who has missed 13 games over the last two seasons.
Parsons played defensive end in high school and only played two years at Penn State (he opted out in 2020), and is understandably still raw in his coverage ability. During his final college season, Parsons blitzed on 20.5% of snaps and he’s clearly more comfortable in that role.
If Vander Esch is healthy, we may see Parsons used more frequently in sub-packages as a pass-rusher, while he develops the rest of his game.
Parsons may also have competition for playing time from LB Jabril Cox (fourth round) who excels in coverage. Cox allowed 0.2 yards per coverage snap last season at LSU after transferring from North Dakota State, and had almost as many passses defensed and interceptions (eight) as completions allowed (12).
Due to the Cowboys depleted secondary CB Kelvin Joseph (second round) may take on a starting role, but immediate expectations for the developmental prospect should be held in check.
On throws at least seven yards downfield, Joseph allowed a deserved catch rate (the rate at which DBs allow catches on catchable targets, accounting for drops) of 81.8%, among the worst rates in the SEC.
Surprisingly, the rookie with the most obvious path to playing time might be DT Quinton Bohanna (sixth round) at nose tackle.
Last year Dallas primarily used Dontari Poe (released in October) and Antwuan Woods (released after the draft) when lining up with a true nose tackle on the defensive line.
New defensive coordinator Dan Quinn relied on Tyeler Davison for that role with the Atlanta Falcons last season, with Davison playing 402 snaps in either a 0- or 1-tech position (nose tackle). So it’s safe to assume someone will need to step up to fill that spot in Dallas.
DT Osa Odighizuwa (third round) weighed in at just 282 pounds at his pro day, so he’s ill-suited for nose tackle. However, The 6’4”, 327-pound Bohanna is the nose tackle prototype and played 429 snaps as the zero or one-tech in Kentucky’s defense in 2020.
DE Chauncey Golston (third round) could factor into the pass-rush mix, potentially helping to replace Aldon Smith and Tyrone Crawford. Golston generated a 16% pressure rate versus three and five-step dropbacks, ranking seventh in the Big Ten.
CB Nahshon Wright (third round) was a surprising name to hear called on Day 2, but has the ideal profile of a cornerback in Quinn’s defense. With his size (6’4”), Quinn will hope to develop him into a physical outside corner.
While Dallas was probably disappointed to miss out on Surtain and Horn, they were smart to trade down from their original spot and acquire some extra picks. There are some decisions to quibble with一primarily whether any off-ball linebacker has value worthy of a top-12 pick一but the sheer quantity of potential starters helps balance out the risks in this draft class.
New York Giants
Training camp battles will determine how often EDGE Azeez Ojulari (second round) gets on the field but at a minimum, he should play a significant role as a pass-rush specialist and appears to be the Giants rookie with the best chance to impact the 2021 season.
Last year, Giants pass-rushers lined up from the 5-tech spot or wider (typically what we would classify as an edge-rusher), generated a pressure rate of 11.8%, ranked 24th in the league.
Enter Ojulari, who led the SEC with a pressure rate of 24.8% in those roles.
It’s also possible Ojulari will be used to blitz from a more traditional linebacker spot—the role Kyler Fackrell and others played in 2020. While that wasn’t his primary pass-rush position at Georgia, he also generated a 22% pressure rate as a traditional linebacker.
WR Kadarius Toney (first round) could step into an immediate role, but there will be competition for snaps in the slot.
Toney was primarily used in the slot and the backfield at Florida, and struggled in limited reps on the outside. Only 13% of his targets came on the outside in 2020, where he averaged a dismal 4.0 yards per target.
In the slot, Toney will likely be competing with Sterling Shephard (53% of his routes from the slot in 2020) and possibly newcomer John Ross (55% from the slot in 2019 with the Cincinnati Bengals).
CB Aaron Robinson (third round) could compete for the starting slot corner job, where he played on 76% of his snaps at UCF. Although it’s worth noting GM Dave Gettleman mentioned Robinson’s ability to play on the perimeter in his post-draft press conference.
DE Elerson Smith (fourth round) is also worth mentioning, but don’t expect to see much of him this fall. Smith is an exciting athlete with elite length, who definitely has the traits to develop into a premier edge rusher. The Northern Iowa product is coming from the FCS level and was unable to suit up in 2020 due to the pandemic, so it’s tough to expect anything from him immediately.
Gettleman deserves praise for his uncharacteristic trades down in the first and second rounds. The Giants will enter the 2022 draft with 11 selections, including two first-round picks and six in the first three rounds.
So while this class isn’t particularly exciting, Gettleman finally used his assets wisely and put the team in position to alter the direction of the franchise in next year’s draft.
These future assets are especially important given the uncertain future of Daniel Jones. If Jones fails to take a step forward, the Giants have the picks necessary to acquire his replacement. And if Jones does take a leap forward, they’ll be in position to load up on talent around him.
Taking targets from the likes of Greg Ward and Travis Fulgham shouldn’t be hard, and the Eagles will likely move WR DeVonta Smith (first round) around to make him the focal point of the passing game.
35% of Smith’s targets at Alabama came from the slot, so he has plenty of experience inside and outside, giving the Eagles some flexibility in lining him up to find the ideal matchup.
At +1400, Smith is an interesting betting option for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. This award is historically dominated by running backs, but only one (Najee Harris) has better odds than Smith, and there’s reason to believe the Pittsburgh Steelers’ porous offensive line limits Harris’s rookie-year potential.
If you’re a believer in Jalen Hurts, taking a shot on Smith is justifiable. In his three full games, Hurts attempted 30, 39 and 44 passes一and Smith is likely to see a significant portion of those targets this fall.
OL Landon Dickerson (second round) is coming off a torn ACL and had four of his five college seasons ended by injuries (two ACLs, two ankles) but is likely to start for the Eagles when healthy.
The long-term plan, presumably, is to have Dickerson take over for Jason Kelce at center一the 33-year-old is on a one-year contract.
In the short term, Dickerson could compete with Isaac Seumalo for the starting job at left guard. Dickerson started 15 games at guard in college (four at left guard, 11 at right guard).
DT Milton Williams (third round) is an exciting interior pass-rusher, but this was a strength of the Eagles defense last season. Players lined up on the interior defensive line generated a 15.2% pressure rate for Philadelphia, the third best rate in the league.
The departure of Malik Jackson opens up some snaps at defensive tackle, so expect Williams to compete for that role as part of the defensive line rotation.
The Eagles secondary needed help at cornerback, but they didn’t address the position until Day 3 with Zech McPhearson (fourth round).
McPhearson lacks ideal length (30” arms) so he might be best suited for the slot. However, he did play well on the outside at Texas Tech last season, allowing just 3.4 yards per target.
RB Kenneth Gainwell (fifth round) will be a fun weapon for head coach Nick Sirianni to incorporate into the offense. In his final season at Memphis in 2019, Gainwell saw 61 targets, with 26 of them coming while lined up in the slot or out wide.
The success of this draft class rests on Smith’s shoulders. Given his dominance at Alabama, it’s easy to be optimistic, but it’s worth mentioning the league as a whole has been terrible at identifying which undersized receivers will pan out.
Since 2000, the list of receivers drafted in the top 40 who weighed under 180 pounds is horrifying: Marquise Brown, Tavon Austin, Ted Ginn Jr., R. Jay Soward, Dennis Northcut, Dexter McCluster, and Todd Pinkston.
Hopefully, Smith proves to be an outlier and not Philly’s next Pinkston.
Washington Football Team
Head coach Ron Rivera said the position flexibility of LB Jamin Davis (first round) played a role in Washington’s first-round choice, and we could see him line up at any of the three linebacker spots in the defense.
Davis was rarely used to blitz at Kentucky (only 20 pass-rush snaps in 2020) so expect to see him in coverage at a high rate. His athleticism and size could potentially make him an ideal matchup against tight ends—Washington has Kyle Pitts (Falcons), Travis Kelce (Chiefs), and Darren Waller (Raiders) on the schedule this fall.
Due to the recent releases of Morgan Moses and Geron Christian, there appears to be a path to immediate playing time for OT Sam Cosmi (second round) at right tackle. Cosmi’s closest competition is likely to be journeyman Cornelius Lucas, who started eight games at left tackle for Washington last season.
Cosmi spent his final two seasons at Texas on the left side, but was a starter at right tackle during his freshman year in 2018.
WR Dyami Brown (third round) is also likely to see the field, though he’ll be competing with Cam Sims, Kelvin Harmon, and Antonio Gandy-Golden for snaps.
Brown saw 40.4% of his targets at least 15 yards downfield at North Carolina last season. His ability to stretch the field is a perfect fit with new quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has been among the most aggressive downfield passers in recent years.
Brown and WR Dax Milne (seventh round) each finished among the top five in the nation in receptions on targets 15 or more yards downfield last season, so it appears Washington was interested in adding a specific skill set to the receiving corps.
CB Benjamin St-Juste (third round) likely does not have an immediate path to the field, but the 6’3” defensive back brings intriguing size and athleticism to the table as a developmental prospect.
Among the expected starting corners, 6’0” William Jackson is the tallest of the group, so St-Juste’s size brings something new to the position group and could be valuable in certain matchups.
Washington may have landed two immediate starters, and Brown and St-Juste both appear to have the talent grow into larger roles. This could turn into a strong class down the road.
However, it was a questionable decision to draft an off-ball linebacker 19th overall一one who struggled to get on the field prior to his redshirt-junior year, no less. Davis’s raw athletic talent is obvious and Rivera has a strong track record developing linebackers, but it was certainly among the riskiest selections of this draft.