NFL Draft News & Analysis

2021 NFL Draft: Perfect player fits for teams that spent big in free agency

Minneapolis, MN, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions linebacker Micah Parsons (11) celebrates after sacking the Minnesota Golden Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan (not pictured) in the second half at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2021 NFL Draft less than a month away and free agency well in the rearview mirror, now is the perfect time to analyze NFL teams' free agency moves to better understand what players in the draft can help fill in those final holes on the roster.

Let's look at the perfect draft fits for five teams that spent big in free agency. 

New England Patriots

2021 free agency spending rank: 1st
Position of need: Quarterback
Perfect Fit: QB Trey Lance (NDSU)

According to PFF’s Improvement Index, no team has improved more in free agency than the New England Patriots. Head coach Bill Belichick went on a shopping spree trying to fill as many holes in the team’s roster as he could. New England signed the second-most players (22) in this free agency period, with their contracts totaling up to $316.5 million. No other team tops $196 million.

New England signed quarterback Cam Newton to a new one-year, $5 million contract to really kick off free agency for the team. Though this signing was deemed elite by PFF’s deal grader, it is not a long-term answer for the Patriots. Newton generated a 55.8% accurate pass rate last season, which ranked 32nd of 36 qualified quarterbacks. The former MVP also posted a 70.9 PFF grade (22nd among quarterbacks).

Newton can still be a serviceable quarterback for a year or two, which is why a high-upside prospect — such as North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance — is a perfect fit for New England. Lance burst onto the scene in 2019 as a redshirt freshman, throwing for 28 touchdowns and zero interceptions while recording the seventh-highest PFF grade by a quarterback that season (90.7). 

Listed at 6-foot-3 and 224 pounds and self-reporting a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, Lance might as well have been built in a lab for the modern NFL. PFF’s Mike Renner best summarizes Lance’s upside: “He is a battering ram with the ball in his hands. … Combine that with an arm capable of slinging it 70-plus yards downfield in a flick, and it’s scary to think what he could become.”

The Patriots are hanging tight at Pick 15 as it stands, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Belichick made one final move to go up and get Lance, even if that means the NDSU product has to sit behind Newton for a season. And who better than Newton to mentor a young, athletically gifted, run-first quarterback?

Jacksonville Jaguars

2021 free agency spending rank: 4th
Position of need: Tackle
Perfect fit: OT Walker Little (Stanford)

Yes, quarterback is the biggest need and fit for Jacksonville, but Trevor Lawrence is currently -6000 on FanDuel Sportsbook to be the first overall pick, so it's all but a lock that he will be in a Jaguars uniform next season.

One of the first moves of the offseason was the Jaguars placing the franchise tag on offensive tackle Cam Robinson. So, why is that a position of need? Well, while the former Alabama star generates a ton of buzz because of his former draft status, his production on the field indicates he might not be a long-term option for Jacksonville. Robinson has yet to post a PFF pass-blocking grade above 66.4 in a single season during his NFL career. He has also allowed 40-plus pressures in every year he played 75-plus snaps since entering the league.

Stanford’s Walker Little has shot up PFF’s Big Board despite not playing much football the past two seasons due to injury. He was a five-star recruit coming out of high school and was projected as one of the top two tackles in the 2020 NFL Draft before his knee injury. He has impressed on minimal snaps, though. During his last seven games of action, he allowed just one single pressure. He also gave up only four quarterback hits on 680 career pass-blocking snaps. 

Drafting Little in the early second round could be an absolute steal for Jacksonville, as he possesses all the necessary tools to dominate on Sundays. Robinson has already signed his franchise tag, so he is locked in for at least one more season. If he doesn’t make the leap in 2021, having Little already with a year of experience and back into playing shape could be the right move for the Jaguars in the long term.

New York Jets

2021 free agency spending rank: 10th
Positions of need: Guard, Cornerback
Perfect fits: CB Greg Newsome II (Northwestern), G Alijah Vera-Tucker (USC)

PFF’s Austin Gayle absolutely nailed these picks in his latest mock draft. He has the New York Jets selecting Northwestern defensive back Greg Newsome II at No. 23 and USC offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker at No. 34.

These selections couldn’t be more perfect for where the Jets need to improve after a very solid free agency in which they signed wide receiver Corey Davis and edge defender Carl Lawson to bring some star power to other positions.

No other team's interior linemen allowed more pressures than the Jets' group in 2020 (125). In steps Vera-Tucker, who is likely to bounce inside because he has the ideal size for a guard at 6-foot-4, 308 pounds with 32 1/8-inch arms.

The USC standout has been one of the more consistent linemen over the past two seasons and offers a high floor to begin his career. On 927 college pass-blocking snaps, Vera-Tucker allowed just three quarterback hits. He also surrendered just eight pressures on 291 career snaps out of true pass sets.

In PFF’s latest mock, Gayle describes Newsome as “a perfect fit” for the Jets and continues on to say, “He has great click-and-close ability along with high-end balls skills that should translate to early production in New York.”

Newsome patrolled a no-fly zone last season within one of college football’s best defenses. He allowed the lowest passer rating in coverage among Power Five corners in 2020 (31.7). And among 123 Power Five corners who saw 30-plus targets in 2020, Newsome was the lone player who didn't allow over 100 yards in coverage (93). 

Washington Football Team

2021 free agency spending rank: 12th
Positions of need: Tackle, Linebacker
Perfect fits: OT Christian Darrisaw (Virginia Tech), LB Jabril Cox (LSU)

The Washington Football Team went from a laughing stock to NFC East champions to a potential contender. Washington made some fantastic moves this offseason, improving the second-most of any team during free agency. The signings of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Curtis Samuel and William Jackson III have headlined the offseason so far for the Football Team, and the potential additions of Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw and LSU’s Jabril Cox can be icing on the cake.

It is hard to find a better offensive lineman in college football last season than Darrisaw. He recorded the second-highest PFF grade among tackles last season (95.6) while being the lone Power Five tackle to earn 90.0-plus PFF run-blocking and pass-blocking grades. 

Darrisaw is a highly touted prospect, and there’s a chance he won’t be on the board by the time Washington is set to pick. The Football Team might have to settle with Oklahoma State’s Teven Jenkins (which isn’t much of a downgrade). He ranked just behind Darrisaw in PFF grade (92.0) and allowed zero sacks on 211 pass-blocking snaps.

After transferring to LSU from North Dakota State, Cox didn't skip much of a beat. Since 2018, he has posted an 83.0-plus PFF coverage grade in each season. Listed at 6-foot-4 and 231 pounds, he possesses great size as a linebacker, which allows him to play any type of coverage he’s asked to.

On PFF’s Big Board, one of his pros is his ability to mirror tight ends with ease while also being able to handle zone drops and cover the slot. Among Power Five linebackers in 2020, Cox ranked third in passer rating allowed (57.0) and tied for first among SEC linebackers with three interceptions. Cox has room to improve in the run game but has shown glimpses of being a complete package at linebacker. 

Denver Broncos

2021 free agency spending rank: 8th
Positions of need: Quarterback, Linebacker
Perfect fits: QB Mac Jones (Alabama), LB Micah Parsons (Penn State)

The Broncos have built a win-now roster littered with talent at almost every position … except quarterback.

In 2020, Drew Lock was the second-lowest graded quarterback (63.5), recorded 23 turnover-worthy plays (second-most) and posted the lowest adjusted completion percentage (68.7%). To keep a long story short, the Broncos need a new quarterback, and Mac Jones’ high floor projection could be the perfect fit.

Unfortunately, owning the No. 9 overall pick, the Broncos might be on the outside looking in for a top quarterback, leaving them stuck with Lock for another season. The top three picks of the draft are presumed to all be quarterbacks, and there’s a non-zero chance the Falcons trade back with a team that also wants to draft at the position. This likely leaves Mac Jones as the lone target left, with quarterback-needy Carolina sitting one spot ahead of Denver.

If this scenario plays out, Denver might be in a bidding war with Carolina to trade up with Miami or Detroit to get Jones, who was PFF’s highest-graded college quarterback last season (95.8).

This draft-day scenario could see Denver with its QB1 or needing to take the best player available to beef up an already stout defense. And that player is Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons. The do-it-all prospect excelled in almost every facet of the game.

He recorded a 94.8 PFF run-defense grade (the highest by a linebacker in the PFF College era), notched the highest career pass-rush win rate among 2021 draft linebackers (24%) and was timed running an unofficial 4.39-second 40-yard dash at Penn State’s Pro Day.

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