2021 NFL Draft – Grades and analysis of the first round

After months of rumors, smokescreens, and seventeenth editions of your neighbor’s mock draft, the NFL Draft is finally here. Draft day is always full of surprises, but this time there are even more questions than usual. Who will be the third quarterback off the board? How many receivers will go in the first round? Is Trevor Lawrence’s forehead even bigger than Peyton Manning’s?

Oh, and if you haven’t heard, Aaron Rodgers might be on the trade block.

This page will be updated throughout the night with grades and analysis for every selection and trade.

1. Trevor Lawrence – Jacksonville Jaguars – QB – Clemson

The future has finally arrived in Jacksonville.

The only thing crazier than the expectations being placed on Lawrence is the fact that he may actually meet them. He has everything you could ask for in a prospect and then some, but he’ll be considered a bust if he’s anything less than the best player in franchise history. The Jaguars likely received some tempting trade offers throughout the offseason, so kudos to them for staying the course.

Grade: A+

Big Board Ranking: 1

2. Zach Wilson – New York Jets – QB – BYU

I get it. Wilson is athletic, he’s flashy, and he has the mobility to keep up with the modern game. But his draft value is based on what he could be, not what he is. After decades of failures, the Jets need a sure thing, and Wilson is not that; Justin Fields was the safe pick. There’s a very good chance Wilson becomes a star, but it’s equally likely that he’ll be just another name in the long list of Jets draft busts.

Grade: A-

Big Board Ranking: 6

3. Trey Lance – San Francisco 49ers – QB – North Dakota State

This was the most debated pick of the draft, and the Niners got it right. Lance doesn’t have the experience of Justin Fields. He doesn’t have the football IQ of Mac Jones. But the Niners already have Jimmy Garoppolo, a quarterback capable of taking them back to the Super Bowl. If Lance lives up to the potential his ridiculous athleticism gives him, great. Worst case scenario: San Francisco runs it back with Garoppolo

Grade: A

Big Board Ranking: 16

4. Kyle Pitts – Atlanta Falcons – TE – Florida

There wasn’t any way to screw this one up. Lost among the fuss over Trevor Lawrence is the fact that Pitts is one of the best offensive prospects we’ve seen in years. He’s a historic tight end prospect coming into a league with a historic lack of talent at tight end. Pitts will be able to contribute immediately alongside Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, giving Atlanta a receiving corps reminiscent of Matt Ryan’s 2016 MVP season.

Grade: A

Big Board Ranking: 2

5. Ja’Marr Chase – Cincinnati Bengals – WR – LSU

Let’s put it all together. Cincinnati used the No. 1 pick last year on Joe Burrow, who tore his ACL while playing behind a subpar offensive lineman. So with the opportunity to draft a plug-and-play left tackle, the Bengals took … a wide receiver? Chase is the best wideout in this class, but it won’t matter if Burrow can’t stay on his feet.

Grade: B-

Big Board Ranking: 4

6. Jaylen Waddle – Miami Dolphins – WR – Alabama

This pick is a disappointment after coming so close to drafting Chase, but that isn’t the Dolphins’ fault. Waddle is a better prospect than Devonta Smith and gives Tua Tagovailoa a true playmaker to grow with. Even though the Dolphins have improved over the past few years, they haven’t been exciting to watch. That just changed.

Grade: B+

Big Board Ranking: 7

7. Penei Sewell – Detroit Lions – OT – Oregon

This draft could not have played out better for Detroit. The Lions were expected to trade down, but there’s no reason to when you can draft someone this talented at No. 7. Sewell is a plug-and-play tackle with the potential to play 15 years at a high level, the most important piece of a rebuild besides a quarterback. In another draft, he could have been the No. 1 pick.

Grade: A+

Big Board Ranking: 3

8. Jacyee Horn – Carolina Panthers – CB – South Carolina

I don’t have nearly as much faith in Sam Darnold as the Panthers apparently do. Justin Fields should have been the pick here. But putting that aside, Horn wasn’t even the best cornerback on the board; that’s Patrick Surtain II. Still, the Carolina defense has been a nonfactor for some time now, and Horn has the intensity and drive to finally give them an identity.

Grade: C

Big Board Ranking: 13

9. Patrick Surtain II – Denver Broncos – CB – Alabama

It doesn’t get much easier: Surtain II is arguably the best defensive player in the draft and fills Denver’s biggest need. They could have justified taking a chance on a quarterback, but frankly, the Broncos aren’t making the playoffs any time soon. They’ll have plenty of high draft picks in the coming years if they decide that Drew Lock isn’t the guy.

Grade: A

Big Board Ranking: 9

10. DeVonta Smith – Philadelphia Eagles – WR – Alabama

You’ve already heard that Smith may not have the size to be successful in the NFL. I don’t think that’s true, but it is still a factor. Philadelphia already has a small quarterback and running back, and holes all across their defense. It made more sense to stay put at No. 12, draft Micah Parsons, and find a taller receiver in the second round. Of course, none of that is to say that Smith isn’t an instant gamechanger for Philly’s offense. And screwing over the Giants had to feel good.

Grade: B

Big Board Ranking: 10

11. Justin Fields – Chicago Bears – QB – Ohio State

For the first time in decades, the Chicago Bears have won the draft. Fields has the athleticism and experience that Mitch Trubisky and Jay Cutler were missing from the start, and is the least risky quarterback available besides Lawrence. The Bears had to give up next year’s first-rounder to swap places with the Giants, but that will be forgotten quickly if they’re right about Fields.

Grade: A+

Big Board Ranking: 5

12. Micah Parsons – Dallas Cowboys – LB – Penn State

Grade: A-

Big Board Ranking: 8

Another outstanding pick. The Cowboys had their eye on a cornerback, but still managed to trade down and grab a top-ten prospect. Parsons has the makings of a perennial Pro Bowler and will make an immediate difference on a Dallas defense that was hard to watch last year. He only fell this far because of some personality concerns, but, well … he’ll fit right in.

13. Rashawn Slater – Los Angeles Chargers – OT – Northwestern

Grade: A

Big Board Ranking: 12

I guarantee they’re popping bottles of champagne in the Chargers’ draft room. Slater was not expected to fall to No. 13, and like Sewell, has the skills to be a starter for the next decade. Last year, Justin Herbert won Rookie of the Year and the Chargers still posted a losing record. That’s not going to happen again.

14. Alijah Vera-Tucker – New York Jets – G – USC

Grade: C

Big Board Ranking: 29

The Jets have more holes in their roster than the Browns did a few years ago, but the offensive line is not one of them. There’s obviously room for improvement, but Mekhi Becton ensures that the group will be at least competent. If Vera-Tucker was a low-risk pick I’d understand it, but he lacks the strength to be a star. They could have gone with an edge rusher. Heck, they could have taken Mac Jones considering how often they screw up at quarterback.

15. Mac Jones – New England Patriots – QB – Alabama

Grade: A

Big Board Ranking: 14

It’s rare to see a quarterback drafted below his value, but as always, the Patriots played the board perfectly,  Chicago needed to give up their future to land a quarterback, but the Patriots stayed put and got their guy. I’m not sure that he has the athleticism to succeed, but it would be arrogant of me to say I know better than Bill Belichick. I’m giving them an A just for their patience.

16. Zaven Collins – Arizona Cardinals – LB – Tulsa

Grade: B-

Big Board Ranking: 19

Kwity Paye seemed like the obvious choice here. He’s a better prospect than Collins, and the Cardinals used their first-round pick on Isaiah Simmons, a linebacker, last year. Still, Collins is an intelligent player with a work ethic that could help quell rumors of a culture problem in Arizona.

17. Alex Leatherwood – Las Vegas Raiders – OT – Alabama

Grade: D+

Big Board Ranking: 28

Ah, my two favorite draft traditions: booing Roger Goodell and watching the Raiders draft players 20 picks too early. I’m actually higher on Leatherwood than most — he’s a natural lineman with an NFL-ready skill set — but he probably would have been there in the second round. At this rate, the Raiders will be stuck in mediocrity forever.

18. Jaelan Phillips – Miami Dolphins – EDGE – Miami (FL)

Grade: B

Big Board Ranking: 22

Edge rusher was the right call here, but I don’t understand how Kwity Paye is still on the board. There may be something the GMs know that we don’t. Phillips comes with some question marks surrounding his fundamentals, but the Dolphins have been incredible in the draft over the past few years. They can afford to take a risk if they like Phillips’ upside.

19. Jamin Davis – Washington Football Team – LB – Kentucky

Grade: C-

Big Board Ranking: 39

I’m of the mind that prospects should be judged based on their college careers, not their performance at the Combine. Davis is not a first-round pick. He has potential, but there were better linebackers and much better cornerbacks that would have provided much better value.

20. Kadarius Toney – New York Giants – WR – Florida

Grade: F

Big Board Ranking: 34

This is the last straw: it’s time to fire general manager Dave Gettleman. Not only was Toney the third-best receiver on the board, he plays one of only three positions that the Giants don’t have a need at. Even if there’s something wrong with Kwity Paye, there were edge rushers available with much more talent than Toney.

21. Kwity Paye – Indianapolis Colts – EDGE – Michigan

Grade: A

Big Board Ranking: 17

The Colts badly need a wide receiver, but they never expected Paye to fall to them. The best edge rusher in the class isn’t supposed to be drafted at No. 21. If he lives up to his potential, this could be the steal of the draft. It’s a deep receiving class; they’ll find someone in the second round