Everything after the separator is the opinion this article’s author
The highly anticipated 2021 NFL Draft has come and gone, and while many questions have been answered, just as many new ones have resulted from the events in Cleveland. One of the most talented draft classes in recent history has now been divvied up amongst 32 NFL teams who are hopeful that their draftees will one day make an impact on their roster. After months of speculation, mock drafts, and rumors, analysts now pivot towards an examination of a somewhat more cemented future. But no matter the sport, it takes time for rookies to grow into their role on a professional team. With their whole career ahead of them, it often takes a long time before one can say with certainty whether or not they were a good selection, and football is certainly no exception. Talent and skill are obviously huge factors in the success of a player in the NFL, but what is often overlooked is the equal importance of their supporting cast. So with the draft now over and the futures of the 2021 rookie class a bit more clear, here are my guesses for who will end up being the best and worst picks in the most recent draft.
- Rashawn Slater, 13th overall, Los Angeles Chargers
I’m really high on Slater as a player, in fact I would have taken him over Penei Sewell if I were the Panthers at 8. I don’t necessarily think Sewell is a bad pick at all- he’s got tremendous athleticism for such a big guy, and I think he becomes one of the league’s premier edge blockers with time. I just think Slater is better. And at 13? Highway robbery for the Chargers. Slater is a prototypical left tackle. He doesn’t get off balance, never gets beat, and most importantly he’s amazing with his feet and hands. He doesn’t get called for penalties, and in case Los Angeles has other plans in mind for offensive tackle, Slater has offensive guard and maybe even center flexibility. Just drafting an offensive lineman alone was an excellent choice by the Chargers; the fact of the matter is that you have to protect your golden boy. In order for the Chargers to succeed you have to keep Justin Herbert upright. Slater was brought in to do just that, and in 5 years this is going to be one of the best value picks in this draft.
- Jaelan Philips, 18th overall, Miami Dolphins
Jaelan Philips is my number one edge defender in this class, maybe even my favorite defensive player period. He’s an elite talent with amazing use of his hands and great size. Maybe he’s not as twitchy as the likes of the Bosa brothers in years past, but his explosiveness is often undervalued and his breaking speed is grossly underrated. Like Rashawn Slater, he is technically solid in every way. Not only does he have a high ceiling but he is the most pro ready edge player in this class right now. I’m also a huge fan of the Miami Dolphins defense, and I trust that Brian Flores will mold Philips into a consistent threat to the opposing backfield on a play-to-play basis. The Dolphins defense established itself as one of the league’s most dominant forces last year despite trading superstar safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, and with the offseason additions of reigning league-leader in tackles Benardrick McKinney and now Philips it is primed to make yet another leap. The only concern with Philips is his history with concussions. He was forced to medically retire from UCLA’s program after two documented cases with the team, but transferred to Miami soon after and continued his dominance against lineman across the country. As long as he stays healthy this is a great pick for the Dolphins and one of the best of the entire draft.
- Najee Harris, 24th overall, Pittsburgh Steelers
Najee Harris is yet another player at the top of my positional rankings. He has everything you could ever need in a player of his size: decent blocking with the potential to improve, scheme versatility in the ground game, pro-level hands out of the backfield, and above all, a unique combination of speed and power that makes him impossible to ignore. He can hurdle, juke, spin, and run you over whenever he deems necessary. If you watch Alabama tape from this year you’ll see that every time Najee is in the game the box on the other side of the line of scrimmage is loaded with 7-8 players minimum. Defenses would actually adjust to extra personnel packages in order to plug up the middle of the field. You simply cannot leave this guy unaccounted for, and the fact that college defenses knew that and still couldn’t stop him should tell you something about his abilities. I know that a lot of analysts have a problem with taking a running back this high in the draft with other needs to address like the offensive line, but I think Harris has enough talent to overcome all that and kickstart Pittsburgh’s ailing offense, similar to Saquon Barkley two years ago. If the Steelers are finally willing to admit Big Ben just isn’t what he used to be and adjust to his aging skill set, a new RPO style offense could suit him well and allow Harris to dominate on the second level. Despite the value concerns, running back has actually been the projected pick for Pittsburgh for a while now. The only question was which one they were going to choose, and I think they chose right.
- Micah Parsons, 12th overall, Dallas Cowboys
After opting out of the 2020 CFL season, Parsons has been widely regarded as one of the top defensive players in this draft. He has been leading defensive picks in mock drafts for months, drawing comparisons to elite linebackers such as Luke Keuchly and Patrick Willis. I don’t see it at all. He’s best as an off the ball linebacker, but simply doesn’t have the instincts to be your MIKE style field general. He’s a freak athlete sideline to sideline, but also doesn’t have the body type to play the weak side. He’s not good off the edge and can’t play the safety-hybrid role that someone like Jeramiah Owusu-Koramoah can. Lastly, he just lacks football IQ. He relies on his athleticism to excel in man coverage (which won’t be sustainable in the NFL where even tight ends are running a 4.60 these days) and has consistently shown an ineptitude for zone coverage. This combined with his concerns off the field bring me down a lot on Parsons. I understand the need to fill the hole of recently retired Sean Lee, but I think you either trade down again or take a lineman here. Rashawn Slater, almost indisputably the most technically polished lineman in the entire draft, was sitting there, as was inside guard Elijah Vera-Tucker. You could also address the secondary, one of the weakest points on the Cowboys roster. I just don’t see Parsons succeeding in Dallas’ scheme. He will be underwhelming in his rookie season, and unless Jerry Jones gets him some help on the defensive line, his progression as a player will be dramatically depressed.
- Mac Jones, 15th overall, New England Patriots
I’ve seen the tweets. “Patriots reloading!” “Belichick does it again” “He’s Tom Brady 2.0”. Except he’s not. Brady was a fluke, and a legendary, once in a lifetime one at that. Just because he has similar measurements and play style as Brady doesn’t mean he’s going to be good. You can’t recreate success just based on surface similarities, something NFL teams fail to grasp year after year. The NFL has become an increasingly quarterback-centric league, and Jones just isn’t the answer at QB. He’s a smart player, but his deep ball needs work and above all he simply isn’t a dynamic playmaker. The Patriots receiving corps is still one of the worst in the league despite the additions of Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry during free agency, and although Mac Jones had great statistical success at Alabama, it’s obvious to everyone with a brain that he relied on surrounding talent to win. In my opinion Jones isn’t even worth a first round selection at all. Without dominant pass catchers like Jaylen Waddle and Devonta Smith to rely on, not to mention Najee Harris, Jones will quickly sink below NFL competition and will be viewed as one of the worst picks in the first round of this draft 5 years from now.
- Alex Leatherwood, 17th overall, Las Vegas Raiders
I don’t dislike Leatherwood as a player, but I just don’t get the pick here. I realize that this list is supposed to be more focused on the future as opposed to a more immediate view on the pick, but just look at who was on the board still at the time. I have no idea why Jeramiah Owusu-Koramoah dropped out of the first round, but even if you had something against this ultra-athletic hybrid linebacker that was a perfect scheme fit for your defense, Tevin Jenkins and Christian Darrisaw were right there at the top of the best available. I just don’t see this working out for either party. The dismantled Raiders offensive line that saw the departure of 4 of their starting 5 in the offseason has now been supplemented with the 4th or 5th best offensive tackle in the draft. And he might not even end up playing tackle. His lack of length and strong base are more built for a guard role. Regardless of where he’s played, he’ll be thrown into the pool before he even knows how to swim. The kid was set to sink from the beginning since the Raiders basically threw away three elite lineman in Rodney Hudson, Gabe Jackson, and Trent Brown over the offseason. Any one of the three could have provided excellent mentorship for the prospect, but it seems Las Vegas is trusting in its mediocre coaching staff to do that. Leatherwood is going to be all alone and he’s going to be eaten alive, which is going to look bad on him and also Las Vegas as an organization. Again, Leatherwood is a fine player with power and quickness that will probably serve him well, but if you’re going to select an offensive lineman why not go with someone who is simply better? Both Darrisaw and Jenkins have much more experience playing tackle on a high level, and considering that the commissioner announced Leatherwood as a tackle I’m guessing their plan is to play him there. Both of the aforementioned other options are bigger, more technically advanced, and simply more talented than Leatherwood is. The two of them had been mocked in the first round for weeks before the draft, oftentimes reaching as high as 13th overall, while Leatherwood barely saw the top of the second round. When Darrisaw and Jenkins both become top 20 lineman in 5 years, and Leatherwood is still trying his best to keep the Raiders line together, this will be looked back on as a pick full of should-of could-of would-ofs.