These Teams Were the Biggest Winners and Losers of the 2021 NFL Draft

NFL Draft
The Chicago Bears drafted Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields at No. 11 overall.Jamie Lamor Thompson / Shutterstock

The NFL Draft presents a dichotomy. On the one hand, it’s one of the biggest annual events on the sports calendar, and there’s a natural desire to evaluate how teams did as soon as it ends. On the other, it’s an inherently long-term exercise, and it doesn’t become fully clear how teams fared until these players actually get onto the field. Players need time to adjust to the league and demonstrate whether they were worth their selections or not.

 

 

Even so, we can make some educated guesses based on which teams appeared to get good value and which players have already provided reason to think they’ll be successful in the NFL. Below, a handful of the biggest winners and losers from this year’s NFL draft.

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Winner: Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars spent the No. 1 overall pick on Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence, who is as close to a surefire superstar as the draft will ever produce. Getting Lawrence means the Jags had an extremely successful draft. They didn’t have to do anything else after that. Lawrence instantly takes Jacksonville from a moribund franchise that can’t do anything right to a team that might be around the corner from a playoff chase. He single-handedly changes the franchise’s long-term outlook and maybe, eventually, the league’s balance of power.

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Loser: Green Bay Packers

It wasn’t exactly draft-related news, but it dominated draft weekend more than anything except the Jaguars picking Lawrence at No. 1: The Packers have upset franchise QB Aaron Rodgers. ESPN reported that Rodgers had told members of the Packers organization that he was so disgruntled with the team that he didn’t want to return in 2021.

Why is Rodgers so angry? It’s not entirely clear, but a few strong theories suggest that he’s annoyed the Packers drafted a quarterback (Utah State’s Jordan Love) in the first round of last year’s draft and he wanted the Packers to have extended his contract by now. (The team says it has offered to do so.) If Rodgers doesn’t return to Green Bay, the team would lose the reigning league MVP and one of the best passers ever.

Winner: Chicago Bears

The Bears share the NFC North with the Packers, so Green Bay’s misfortune with Rodgers stands to make Chicago a big winner. Beyond that, they made one of the strongest picks of the NFL draft when they took Ohio State QB Justin Fields at No. 11 overall. Everything about Fields’ track record suggests he should have been the second pick in the draft, one pick behind Lawrence, but he was somehow the fourth quarterback taken, behind Lawrence, BYU’s Zach Wilson, and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance. The Bears traded up in the draft to get Fields, probably because they realized he could be their best QB in decades.

Loser: Detroit Lions

The Lions are also in the NFC North, so they benefit from any Rodgers-Packers drama as well. But their draft strategy might hurt them. With the seventh pick in the NFL Draft, the Lions selected Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell. Listing the Lions as a loser here is not any knock on Sewell, who is one of the best offensive line prospects to come through the draft in years. Detroit will have one of the best QB protectors in the league, and he’s a solid fit for the team’s rushing strategy.

The problem is, who’s the QB? I think it will sting in the long haul that the Lions let a division rival come away with a star QB like Fields. But maybe, with Jared Goff at quarterback, the Lions will be so bad in 2021 that they’ll get another high pick and can nab a long-term quarterback in the 2022 draft. Still, Fields could’ve been that guy.

Winner: Atlanta Falcons

Florida tight end Kyle Pitts, whom the Falcons took at No. 4 overall, is one of the most talented pass catchers I’ve ever seen. His highlights speak for themselves (see the video above).

Some of the Falcons’ late-round picks are interesting, too. I really like their second-rounder, University of Central Florida safety/linebacker/slot cornerback Richie Grant. He can play many roles for Atlanta’s defense, and that versatility is important in the modern NFL, where a defensive back who can’t defend both the run and the pass is increasingly hard to put on the field.

Loser: Las Vegas Raiders

The Raiders took Alabama offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood with the 17th pick. It’s not the most outrageous pick in draft history––Leatherwood was a four-year contributor for Alabama, and he played on the most talented O-line in college football––but few, if any, expected him to get picked that early.

Even if he wasn’t an enormous reach for the Raiders at that spot, it’s hard not to think they could have traded backward a few picks (thus gaining extra selections) and still wound up with the player they wanted. From that standpoint, this pick feels a little wasteful, even if Leatherwood turns out to be effective.

Winner: Running backs

Two running backs (Alabama’s Najee Harris and Clemson’s Travis Etienne) got picked in the first round, at No. 24 and No. 25 respectively. Last year’s draft only had one running back in the first round, and it took until the final pick of the round for the Chiefs to take LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire.

NFL teams have increasingly come to view running backs as interchangeable and generally don’t use premium draft picks to acquire them. Teams have also cooled considerably on giving RBs expensive free agent contracts—none landed more than a $5.5 million salary or anything beyond a two-year contract this offseason. Harris and Etienne are unlikely to change those dynamics, but their selections are a proud moment for the position regardless.

Winner: New York Giants

First-round wide receiver Kadarius Toney out of Florida (No. 20 overall) is one of the most electric players in the NFL draft––as shown in the video above, where he embarrassed South Carolina’s defense for one of the best touchdowns of 2020. In the second round, at No. 50 overall, the Giants also landed Georgia pass-rusher Azeez Ojulari, who was widely expected to be a first-round pick himself.

Loser: New England Patriots

The Patriots were rumored to be interested in Fields at quarterback, but instead they wound up with a lesser QB in Alabama’s Mac Jones. But because this is the Patriots and Bill Belichick is still at the helm, it’s impossible to rule out Jones somehow winning multiple Super Bowls during his time in New England.

In order to take both Jones and his new team down a peg, it’s on the rest of America to insist this was a bad pick until we’ve spoken it into existence. (Unless you’re a Pats fan, of course.)

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