They say it takes three years to be able to fully appreciate an NFL draft class. So let’s jump the gun by a full two seasons and evaluate what should have happened differently in the 2021 NFL Draft after what we have seen from the group’s rookie debuts.
After only one season, the priors we had on each player still carry a lot of weight, particularly in the case of someone like Trevor Lawrence. The 22-year-old QB wasn't just seen as the best quarterback of his draft class but as the best prospect to enter the league since at least Andrew Luck (2012) and perhaps as far back as Peyton Manning (1998) or even John Elway (1983!).
Original Pick: QB TREVOR LAWRENCE
I’m not going to argue that Lawrence had a spectacular, or even a good, rookie season, but we know that the situation around him in Jacksonville was a dumpster fire. Urban Meyer’s tenure didn’t last the season and ended in a lawsuit. The supporting cast was far from a strength, and Lawrence was one of the highest-rated prospects to enter the league in years. Jacksonville needed a quarterback, and there’s probably still none they’d rather have based on a year of evidence.
2. New York Jets: QB Zach Wilson
Original Pick: QB ZACH WILSON
The Jets have some decisions to make with hindsight. Wilson’s PFF grade was 59.3 during his rookie season, and he missed some time injured. He had just 10 big-time throws in 13 games and averaged 6.1 yards per attempt, showing little of the special ability he did as a prospect. The Jets could have given Robert Saleh a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Micah Parsons, but ultimately that would leave them still needing a quarterback with no obvious path to one. Could they be persuaded to grab Mac Jones given his superior rookie year? Ultimately, they stick with their original call and hope it comes good.
3. San Francisco 49ers (via MIA, via HOU): QB Mac Jones
Original Pick: QB TREY LANCE
There were reports at the time, and have been since, that Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers traded up to No. 3 overall with the intention of taking Jones before changing their mind somewhere along the process. If there is any truth to that, they would flip the pick based on new information. Jones posted an 80.4 PFF grade as a rookie, by far the best of the first-year passers. He showed he can execute an offense in the NFL effectively and efficiently and likely would have looked even better in the 49ers' system. Trey Lance couldn’t take the job from Jimmy Garoppolo in his first year, but Jones would have on merit.
4. Atlanta Falcons: LB/EDGE Micah Parsons
Original Pick: TE KYLE PITTS
The Falcons were a team that could have been in the quarterback market in 2021 but decided not to go there. Jones is the only passer who has enhanced his stock relative to expectations, and he isn’t available in this re-draft. Parsons drew comparisons with Lawrence Taylor for the degree to which he dominated as a rookie, earning the highest pressure rate of any player. He had 70 total pressures including the playoffs from 319 rushes and acquitted himself well as a traditional off-the-ball linebacker. He looked like a transcendent player on defense.
5. Cincinnati Bengals: WR Ja’Marr Chase
Original Pick: WR JA'MARR CHASE
No need to overthink this one. Cincinnati’s pick was the subject of a huge amount of discussion heading into the draft, but Chase vindicated their decision with one of the best rookie seasons of all time as the team went all the way to the Super Bowl. Including that playoff run, Chase had over 1,800 yards and 14 touchdowns, gaining 2.44 yards for every time he ran a pass pattern and coming up big in some of the team’s most critical moments throughout the season.
6. Miami Dolphins (via PHI): OT Rashawn Slater
Original Pick: WR JAYLEN WADDLE
Miami needed a lot of things in this draft, but their biggest mistake was believing their young offensive line would turn things around. They were historically bad up front, so a pick like Slater would move the needle in a big way. He allowed just 26 pressures across more than 700 pass-blocking snaps and was one of only four tackles in the NFL to earn PFF grades above 80.0 as both a run-blocker and pass-protector.
7. Detroit Lions: OT Penei Sewell
Original Pick: OT PENEI SEWELL
Sewell was the best tackle prospect to enter the draft in a while, and he didn’t do anything to suggest he will fail to live up to that in the NFL. After some preseason struggles at right tackle, Sewell had to flip back to the left side to cover for an injured Taylor Decker before moving back to the right side after Decker’s return. He performed well at both tackle spots, dominating in the run game and holding up well enough in pass protection. The Lions would be tempted by Waddle, but they’d stick with Sewell.
8. Carolina Panthers: CB Jaycee Horn
Original Pick: CB JAYCEE HORN
The Panthers would have to give serious consideration to going offensive line here the way Miami did, with Creed Humphrey the best-graded center in the game as a rookie, but taking a center in the top-10 would be unprecedented in the modern era. Ultimately, they stick with their decision and re-draft Horn. Horn looked impressive right out of the gate, allowing just one catch in three games before he was lost for the season.
9. Denver Broncos: QB Justin Fields
Original Pick: CB PATRICK SURTAIN II
The Broncos desperately needed a quarterback, and even though their path ultimately led to getting Russell Wilson, the team could have solved the issue with fewer people being fired if they it just addressed the most important position in the game here rather than drafting a stud on defense. Fields was a mixed bag as a rookie, but his flashes of talent were mesmerizing. With a much stronger roster around him in Denver, he could have put himself in a position to be a true breakout candidate in 2022.
10. Dallas Cowboys: CB Patrick Surtain II
Original Pick: LB MICAH PARSONS
With one of the top cornerbacks on the board, Dallas doesn’t need to trade back in panic in this re-draft, sticking at 10 overall and running the card for Surtain in to the podium. Surtain allowed a passer rating of 67.9 on targets into his coverage as a rookie and showed some very high level play throughout the season. Dallas wanted a corner to pair with Trevon Diggs, and this would have been an exceptional result for them.
11. Chicago Bears: QB Trey Lance
Original Pick: QB JUSTIN FIELDS
With Fields gone in this re-draft, the Bears take Lance instead. Lance showed the least of the rookie passers in Year 1 but has a phenomenal skill set with elite athleticism and a cannon for an arm. The Bears knew they needed a new direction at quarterback and roll the dice to see what Lance can give them.
12. Philadelphia Eagles (via SF): WR DeVonta Smith
Original Pick: WR DEVONTA SMITH
The Eagles still get Smith without needing to trade up with Dallas to make it happen. This time they would have had the option of pivoting to Smith’s Alabama teammate, Jaylen Waddle, but decide to stick with their man. Both players earned similar PFF grades as rookies, with Waddle having significantly more catches, 99 more yards and an extra touchdown while being force-fed targets by Miami’s offense. This feels like a pick where there wouldn’t be a bad decision between those players.
13. Los Angeles Chargers: TE Kyle Pitts
Original Pick: OT RASHAWN SLATER
With the top two tackles off the board, the Chargers decide to move in a different direction and give Justin Herbert more weaponry to play with. Jaylen Waddle would be an option here, but Kyle Pitts presents tantalizing potential in this offense. Pitts gained 2.02 yards per route run last season and lined up in-line on just 21.8% of his snaps on offense. Teamed with Herbert, that's a scary combination.
14. New York Jets (via SEA): C Creed Humphrey
Original Pick: OG ALIJAH VERA-TUCKER
The Jets would be happy enough with the rookie season they got from Vera-Tucker, but Humphrey played at an All-Pro level for the Chiefs in his first season. He allowed 10 pressures in 17 games and had a run-blocking grade of 92.5. The Jets would need a reshuffle along the offensive line but may well be better off for it long-term.
15. New England Patriots: CB Greg Newsome II
Original Pick: QB MAC JONES
With Jones gone this time around, the Patriots would go in a completely different direction. I don’t think Davis Mills did enough as a rookie to warrant this kind of confidence in a re-draft, so Bill Belichick would instead future-proof the cornerback position, anticipating the departure of J.C. Jackson. Newsome may not have had an interception as a rookie, but he had eight pass breakups and showed some really sticky coverage all season.
16. Arizona Cardinals: OG Trey Smith
Original Pick: LB ZAVEN COLLINS
Collins may well end up a fine player, but the Cardinals just didn’t play him much as a rookie, leaving him behind Jordan Hicks. Collins played just 220 snaps all season, and Arizona’s offensive line was still a major problem. Trey Smith slid to the sixth round over concerns about a medical condition, but he was arguably the best rookie guard all season. He would be a significant upgrade for Arizona, particularly in the run game.
17. Las Vegas Raiders: OG Alijah Vera-Tucker
Original Pick: OL ALEX LEATHERWOOD
Leatherwood was seen as a reach at the time, and he was one of the worst-performing rookies in the NFL. At right tackle, he opened the season with three-straight PFF pass-blocking grades of 34.1 or worse before moving inside to guard, where he had another three grades that poor over the course of the season. Vera-Tucker was far better in Year 1 and has position flexibility to man either right guard or right tackle for the team.
18. Miami Dolphins: WR Jaylen Waddle
Original Pick: EDGE JAELAN PHILLIPS
With the Dolphins focusing on the offensive line with their first pick, they luck into a dream scenario here and see Waddle slip all the way to them at their second first-round pick. Waddle saw 138 targets as a rookie, the 11th-most in the NFL across all positions. He was a dynamic playmaker who showed he can move the chains for the offense, but he also clearly had the explosive playmaking ability to be much more.
19. Washington Football Team: OT Samuel Cosmi
Original Pick: LB JAMIN DAVIS
Washington sticks with one of igx draft picks but in a different spot with the benefit of hindsight. Cosmi was the team’s second-round pick but performed extremely well until injury struck. He allowed 16 pressures in nine games and had a PFF run blocking grade of 81.3. He didn’t have the challenges of switching sides of the line mid-season, but Cosmi’s PFF grade breakdown compares very similarly to that of Penei Sewell’s.
20. New York Giants: DI Christian Barmore
Original Pick: WR KADARIUS TONEY
Barmore was the best interior defensive lineman in this draft, but he slid to the second round for a reason that wasn’t obviously apparent from his tape. As a rookie, he had 48 total pressures — 11 more than any other first-year interior player. Barmore looks set to have a huge second season, and the Giants could have used a presence like him on their defensive line even with the talent they already have there.
21. Indianapolis Colts: QB Davis Mills
Original Pick: EDGE KWITY PAYE
Mills surprised a lot of people with his play as a rookie. It’s important not to get too carried away with it (his overall PFF grade was 58.5, just behind Zach Wilson and Trevor Lawrence), but he was dealing with a poor situation in Houston and made some nice plays. He showed that his physical skill set still works at this level, and with improvement he has the potential to be a long-term starter — something not many people believed at draft time. The Colts would have the ability to redshirt him and develop him from the bench, giving them real contingency for when the Carson Wentz experiment didn’t work out.
22. Tennessee Titans: CB Eric Stokes
Original Pick: CB CALEB FARLEY
Tennessee rolled the dice on a player with a concerning injury past only to see him go down hurt after 60 snaps and miss the rest of the season. Stokes had some of the stickiest coverage of any young corner all season for the Packers, allowing 51% of passes thrown his way to be caught and operating as the team’s top corner for much of the season. Stokes showed huge potential and elite athleticism — some of the same traits the Titans were chasing when they drafted Farley.
23. Minnesota Vikings: OT Christian Darrisaw
Original Pick: OT CHRISTIAN DARRISAW
The Vikings look to have secured a good tackle in Darrisaw and happily make that pick again. Darrisaw took a while to make the field, but once he was out there he was visibly different from the players he replaced for Minnesota in recent years. Darrisaw allowed 22 pressures in 11 games, and many of those were longer-developing pressures where he was on good position early. The Vikings will have high expectations for him going into Year 2.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers: OG Landon Dickerson
Original Pick: RB NAJEE HARRIS
Pittsburgh is certainly happy with the performance of Harris after his rookie season, but the overall performance of the offense is proof positive of how little it mattered. The team needed to overhaul an offensive line if they expect to reestablish their run game, and Dickerson is the first step toward that. A college center, Dickerson filled in at guard for the Eagles as a rookie, earning a 69.7 PFF grade as a run-blocker and dramatically improving as the year wore on.
25. Jacksonville Jaguars (via LAR): WR Amon-Ra St. Brown
Original Pick: RB TRAVIS ETIENNE
Jacksonville under Urban Meyer would have grabbed Kadarius Toney in this spot, but if we take the decision out of his hands we can select St. Brown, who made the most of opportunity in Detroit to earn himself a significant role in future. St. Brown had 90 catches, trailing only Waddle among rookies, dropping only two passes all season and generating a passer rating of 107.0 when targeted.
Original Pick: DB GREG NEWSOME II
Another team to stick with one of their players but in a different draft spot, the Browns found a good one in Owusu-Koromoah, so much so that they would be happy to grab him again a round earlier. JOK looked like a defensive rookie of the year candidate early in the season before injury stalled his progress, but his all around skill set is game-changing for this defense. He had impressive PFF grades in every area except tackling, where 15 misses was more than you would like to see.
27. Baltimore Ravens: EDGE Odafe Oweh
Original Pick: WR RASHOD BATEMAN
Oweh was good enough as a rookie for Baltimore to grab him again with the first of two picks rather than the second. Oweh’s speed and burst is legitimate, and he had multiple pressures in all but four games in his first season. He finished with 49 pressures, second only to Parsons among first-year players. Oweh has big-time potential and just needs to iron out the inconsistencies going forward.
28. New Orleans Saints: EDGE Kwity Paye
Original Pick: EDGE PAYTON TURNER
Paye battled through some injuries as a rookie but made an obvious impact when he was on the field, both as a run defender as well as a pass-rusher. He also has some position flexibility with the body type to be able to kick inside and rush from an interior alignment, even if we saw little of that for the Colts. Paye lined up inside of the tackle just 45 times all season, but the Saints could have taken more advantage of that skill last year. Paye finished with 39 pressures and 19 defensive stops.
29. Green Bay Packers: LB Nick Bolton
Original Pick: DB ERIC STOKES
A season ago, the idea of De’Vondre Campbell embarking upon an All-Pro season would have seemed insane. He was coming off back-to back seasons with an overall PFF grade around 50.0 for two different teams and had never graded above 68.3 for a season. The Packers could easily have grabbed a linebacker like Bolton — a tackling machine — and even with the improvement from Campbell would have had a very dynamic duo at that level of the defense. Bolton missed only eight of his 102 tackle attempts including the playoffs and was particularly effective against the run.
30. Buffalo Bills: EDGE Gregory Rousseau
Original Pick: EDGE GREGORY ROUSSEAU
Still a work in progress, Rousseau did at least show high-end potential for the Bills during his rookie season. He finished with the best overall PFF grade among any of the edge defenders, with solid PFF grades in both run-defense and as a pass-rusher. Rousseau finished with 36 pressures and 41 defensive stops including the playoffs, with two of his best games coming in the postseason.
31. Baltimore Ravens: WR Rashod Bateman
Original Pick: EDGE ODAFE OWEH
The Ravens end up with the same two players they drafted in the first round but flip the order in which they select them. Bateman battled injury before finally getting on the field. While he didn’t set the world alight, he did show some savvy route running and ability to separate at a time when the Ravens offense was struggling overall in the passing game. Bateman averaged only 1.26 yards per route run but caught 66.7% of his contested targets and 70.8% of targets overall.
32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: RB Najee Harris
Original Pick: LB JOE TRYON-SHOYINKA
The Bucs were in a position a year ago to draft luxury players, and Harris would have been tempting. He's the type of player that offense hadn’t had up until that point — a complete running back. Harris is an excellent receiver and runner at all levels and would have given Tom Brady a reliable checkdown option, which has often eluded him in the Tampa Bay offense. Harris led the NFL in targets for a running back with 94, six more than any other back.