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.
Predictably, the GM/HC duo on the hottest seat went all-in on their 2021 draft class, but came away with a strong class after a series of aggressive moves.
Even if QB Justin Fields (first round) doesn’t take over immediately, we’ll almost certainly see him on the field this fall. He brings a level of athleticism the franchise has never seen at the quarterback position. Bears fans should be thrilled to have Fields as their quarterback of the future, but they should keep immediate expectations in check.
One concern with Fields is his inability to handle pressure. In 2020, Fields took a sack or threw an interception on 22.3% of his dropbacks versus pressure, easily the worst rate of the first-round quarterbacks.
If the Indiana and Northwestern defenses were giving him trouble, he’s going to make some rookie mistakes in the NFL.
An area where Fields should immediately excel is on the deep ball. On throws 20 or more yards downfield, he generated an on-target rate of 67.7% last season. For some context, Mitchell Trubisky’s rate during his final collegiate season was 57.3%.
OT Teven Jenkins (second round) likely has the left tackle job locked up, following the release of longtime starter Charles Leno.
This is a surprising development, as Jenkins was a three-year starter on the right side at Oklahoma State. However, Jenkins tested extremely well for his size, indicating he has the athleticism teams prefer on the left side. With Jenkins shifting to left tackle, OT Larry Borom (fifth round) may also have a shot at a starting job at right tackle.
Borom is coming off a breakout year一his first full season at right tackle一and could prove to be a late-round steal. Against Missouri’s toughest opponents, Alabama and Georgia, Borom committed just one blown block in 74 snaps in pass protection.
WR Dazz Newsome (sixth round) was a productive slot receiver at North Carolina, averaging 13.9 yards per target on 167 targets in the slot over the last two seasons.
Anthony Miller has been rumored to be on the trade block this offseason, which could create an easy path to playing time for Newsome if Miller is eventually moved.
This has the potential to be a franchise-altering draft class for Chicago, mostly because of Fields. However, a valid criticism of their process would be the cost of trading up for Fields and Jenkins, which left them with only five draft picks in 2022.
If things go sideways in 2020, the Bears will be in a terrible position next offseason. That said, that feels more like a failure on the part of ownership than by GM Ryan Pace.
It has been widely assumed Pace and head coach Matt Nagy are fighting for their jobs this season, so it’s entirely understandable they would go all-in and sacrifice the future for the 2021 season.
The trade up for Fields was justified, but if Pace and Nagy had more job security, perhaps they would have handled the rest of the draft differently and protected their future assets.
The Lions likely had OT Penei Sewell graded as the top non-quarterback on their draft board, so to land him seventh overall was an incredible steal. Sewell will be making the transition from left to right tackle, so there may be some growing pains. However, he got an early start and was already training to play on the right side prior to the draft, likely anticipating a position switch if he landed in Detroit.
Between LT Taylor Decker and Sewell on the right side, the Lions’ offensive line has an elite ceiling in the years to come, which could be critical to the development of a new franchise quarterback if Jared Goff’s career doesn’t quickly take off again.
DT Levi Onwuzurike could potentially take a significant step forward now that he’ll be playing in a better system for his skill set in Detroit. In 2019 at Washington (he opted out in 2020), the 290-pound Onwuzurike played 46% of his snaps out of position at nose tackle.
Detroit also plans to play Onwuzurike at defensive end, shifting him inside in sub-packages. Presumably, this means we’ll primarily see him on the edge versus the run, and inside on passing downs. In his limited opportunities lined up as a 3-tech, Onwuzurike was a productive pass-rusher, generating a 7.4% pressure rate.
To help ensure Onwuzurike sticks at a more natural position, the Lions also added NT Alim McNeill (third round). McNeill played 91% of his snaps at nose tackle for NC State in 2020.
Based on Sports Info Solutions’ Points Saved metric (based on the EPA framework), McNeill graded out at +16.1 versus the run, making him the second most valuable nose tackle in the Power 5 conferences. McNeill likely plays a significant role on defense, possibly coming off the field on passing downs when Onwuzurike shifts inside.
DB Ifeatu Melifonwu (third round) was a traits-based selection (9.69 Relative Athletic Score) but is probably too raw to impact the team in 2021.
In 2020 at Syracuse, Melifonwu allowed a 50% completion rate when targeted at least 10 yards downfield (ranked 36 out of 41 qualified ACC DBs).
Detroit also landed one of the most promising Day 3 steals in WR Amon-Ra St. Brown (fourth round). St. Brown primarily played in the slot in 2019 at USC before shifting outside in 2020, and thrived in both roles. He’s an efficient route runner with excellent hands (5.6% drop rate in 2019-20 seasons) and should be able to fill any role asked of him in Detroit.
There’s not much more GM Brad Holmes could have done in his first draft at the helm in Detroit. He landed at least three immediate contributors and laid a solid foundation for the team’s rebuilding process.
Green Bay Packers
Buccaneers WR Scotty Miller burning CB Kevin King down the field at the end of the first half of the NFC Championship game was probably the last straw that convinced Green Bay an upgrade was needed at cornerback.
Though King was re-signed, his one-year contract doesn’t indicate much support and CB Eric Stokes (first round) will likely be given every opportunity to win the starting job opposite Jaire Alexander.
Stokes’s speed and ability to locate the ball made him a strong downfield defender at Georgia. Over the last two seasons, when in coverage 10 or more yards downfield, Stokes’s Ball Hawk Rate (percentage of targets on which the DB makes a play on the ball) matched his completion rate allowed (31.8%).
Meanwhile in Green Bay, King allowed a completion rate of 57.9% in coverage 10+ yards downfield, with an astonishing 0.0% Ball Hawk Rate in 2020.
C Josh Myers (second round) is likely to replace Corey Linsley at center, though he’s also being given work at guard this offseason to give Green Bay some flexibility in figuring out their revamped offensive line.
Myers may be joined on the offensive line by OG Royce Newman (fourth round), who is expected to be given an opportunity to compete for a starting job at right guard. Newman has experience at both guard and tackle (10 career starts at RT, 12 starts at OG), so he’ll provide valuable depth at both positions if he doesn’t win a starting role.
OL Cole Van Lanen (sixth round), who played left tackle at Wisconsin, may also factor into the offensive line competitions. However, he’s more likely to provide depth at multiple positions along the line.
WR Amari Rodgers (third round) is also likely to see the field immediately, likely playing a role in the slot similar to Randall Cobb when he was a favorite target of Aaron Rodgers.
In 2020 at Clemson, 33% of Rodgers’s targets came on screens and jet-sweeps (see heat map of Rodgers targets). During Cobb’s final season in Green Bay, he saw 28% of his targets on screens and jet-sweeps.
So while Rodgers enters the league with an underdeveloped route tree, that may not be an issue given what Green Bay likely expects from him.
Green Bay landed a solid haul in this class, with as many as four players potentially playing significant roles as rookies. However, one of the goals of this class should have been upgrading the weapons around Aaron Rodgers, and an undersized slot receiver with mediocre speed wasn’t enough.
So while this class was not a failure by any means, it also didn’t do anything to quell Rodgers’s understandable frustrations with the organization.
The Vikings needed a new left tackle and managed to trade down while still landing their guy, Christian Darrisaw (first round). There doesn’t appear to be any serious competition for Darrisaw on the roster; he should start immediately. Darrisaw was a one-year wonder, which is always a red flag, but his dominant performance in 2020 demonstrated an elite ceiling.
It’s also worth pointing out Virginia Tech was an extremely run-heavy offense (Darrisaw only had 269 reps in pass protection), so his dominance came in a relatively small sample size.
Darrisaw could be joined on the left side of the line by fellow rookie OG Wyatt Davis (third round). Davis was a two-year starter at right guard at Ohio State, but is likely to be given an opportunity to compete for the job at left guard.
QB Kellen Mond (third round) was a bizarre selection given his skill set and the presence of Kirk Cousins, who has two years remaining on his contract.
Mond is far from ready to compete with Cousins for a starting job and, given his weakness as a downfield passer, it’s hard to envision him taking over for Cousins when his contract runs out after 2022.
Mond was one of the worst downfield passers in college football and showed zero development throughout his career. Here’s Mond’s on-target rate at throws 15+ yards downfield during his career at Texas A&M:
2017 – 50.9%
2018 – 54.8%
2019 – 53.5%
2020 – 49.2%
Mond’s 49.2% on-target rate in 2020 ranked 63rd out of 79 qualified quarterbacks.
LB Chazz Surratt (third round) likely won’t start immediately, but he’ll provide some depth and could contribute as a pass-rusher in some sub-packages. In 2020, Surratt generated an incredible 37.9% pressure rate on blitzes.
Minnesota’s recent track record of developing front-seven talent certainly bodes well for Surratt who is only a few years removed from playing quarterback at North Carolina.
DE Patrick Jones II (third round) and DE Janarius Robinson (fourth round) will likely factor into the defensive line rotation, but they’re two vastly different types of prospects.
Jones did not test well and lacks ideal length, but was extremely productive at Pitt, tallying 91 QB pressures over the last two seasons (4.1 per game). His ceiling might be as a backup, but he’s ready to contribute.
Robinson is an impressive athlete (9.33 Relative Athletic Score) with rare length (35.25” arms), but did not consistently produce, generating only 48 QB pressures over the last two years (2.2 per game).
Perhaps Mike Zimmer and staff can develop Robinson in the same way they did Danielle Hunter, who was also a dominant athlete with underwhelming college production.
Ignoring the Kellen Mond selection, this looks like a strong class for Minnesota. GM Rick Spielman has often played the game of the draft well, and never more so than with his trade down to acquire Darrisaw, a player they were targeting all along.
The Vikings likely landed multiple immediate starters and some exciting developmental projects.
The selection of Mond, however, is a bit of a dark cloud hanging over this draft. The list of Day 2 quarterback busts is long, and there’s good reason to believe Mond will join it. It was likely a wasted pick at a time when Minnesota did not need to draft Cousins’s replacement.