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2021 NFL draft superlatives: best pick, biggest reach, most surprising move and more

The NFL draft is a lot to digest. There were 259 picks this year, made over the course of three days from a stage in downtown Cleveland.

To help make sense of it all, here’s a look at some of the superlatives from the weekend, starting with the big draft-night trade that defined the first round.

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Best non-Trevor Lawrence pick: Bears trade up for Ohio State QB Justin Fields

Chicago entered the draft with Andy Dalton as the presumptive starting quarterback and coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace’s days seemingly numbered. After a bold move up the board to No. 11 overall from No. 20 — at the price of a future first- and fourth-round pick — to land Fields, the Bears all of the sudden have a much rosier outlook.

Despite intense scrutiny — some of it earned, most of it not — Fields was a consensus top-five player in this class after two productive seasons at an elite program. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that he might be the most exciting quarterback in franchise history, or at the very least in the modern draft era (since 1967).

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There’s nothing more important for an NFL franchise than finding a star quarterback, and Fields has the potential to become one with his high-end traits and accuracy. For Chicago to get him and still have enough draft capital to land Oklahoma State tackle Teven Jenkins in the second round is worth celebrating. Wide receiver Allen Robinson sure will.

Biggest reach: Raiders pick Alabama OT Alex Leatherwood at No. 17

Coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock clearly dance to the beat of their own drum. By picking Leatherwood midway through the first round, the Raiders once again ignored the consensus of the draft experts. The Alabama lineman ranked No. 45 overall on The Athletic’s consensus big board, composed of the aggregated ranks of over 70 analysts. Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw (No. 14), USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker (No. 16) and Oklahoma State’s Teven Jenkins (No. 21) were still available and rated much higher by the consensus.

If Leatherwood turns out to be a good player, the Raiders deserve credit. The problem is the opportunity cost. Vegas could have traded down and still landed its top-rated lineman while adding more picks.

When the Raiders have reached recently — most notably taking Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell No. 4 overall in 2019 — it’s been a failure. The jury is still out on wide receiver Henry Ruggs III (No. 12 overall in 2020) and cornerback Damon Arnette (No. 19 overall in 2020), but Johnathan Abram (No. 27 overall in 2019) has been graded among the worst safeties in the league, and Josh Jacobs (No. 24 overall in 2019) can only do so much as a running back. This is a worrying trend.

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Most surprising move: Broncos pass on Fields, take Alabama CB Patrick Surtain II

Just before the first round got underway Thursday night, a report surfaced that a trade of Green Bay Packers star quarterback Aaron Rodgers to the Denver Broncos “was as close to done as it can be.” Days later, it appears that report was premature, though it’s clear Rodgers is frustrated enough with Green Bay to potentially walk away from the team.

If the Broncos can’t find a way to land Rodgers, it’s fair to wonder what their long-term quarterback plan is.

With Fields still on the board at No. 9, Denver instead loaded up on defense with Surtain, viewed by some as a potential Pro Bowl talent. That pick will surely make coach Vic Fangio happy as he builds one of the best defenses in the league, with Surtain pairing with newly signed All-Pro Kyle Fuller to turn a weakness into a strength. But with such a strong roster — the Broncos might have one of the league’s best pass-catching groups, too — why not take a chance on a quarterback?

Drew Lock has ranked among the league’s worst starters since being taken in the second round in 2019, and veteran Teddy Bridgewater is a journeyman for a reason. The Broncos still might be plenty good enough to win with that combination under center, but they missed a chance to raise their ceiling with a potentially elite rookie quarterback.

Second-most surprising move: Giants GM Dave Gettleman trading down — twice!

Gettleman has worked in an NFL front office since 1986 and has been a general manager for nearly a decade. Thursday’s first round was the first time he’s ever traded down.

The Giants picked up a future first-rounder from the Bears before taking Florida wide receiver Kadarius Toney at No. 20 overall. Then, in the second round, Gettleman sent the No. 42 overall pick to the Dolphins for the No. 50 overall selection and a future third-rounder, taking Georgia edge rusher Azeez Ojulari. (A player who, by the way, was a consensus top-20 prospect before late medical concerns caused him to fall.)

The Giants now have additional picks in the first, third and fourth rounds in the 2022 draft, which experts are predicting will be much more valuable than usual thanks to a deeper class and a more standard evaluating period. Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network reported that the value of the 2022 picks among league circles is “sky high,” with one executive describing them as “like gold.” That’s on top of several studies showing that teams that trade down and gather more picks receive much more value than those who trade up for a prospect they love, even if it’s a quarterback.

Maybe the “computer folks” are finally paying off in New York.

Biggest boom-bust potential: Cardinals pick Tulsa LB Zaven Collins at No. 16

There’s no question Collins is a talented player. The 6-foot-5 linebacker looked like a man among boys against college competition, which is why he was ranked No. 24 on the consensus big board.

But it’s difficult to project how that production translates to the NFL, and whether he’ll find a natural position. It sounds as if the Cardinals want Collins to play inside linebacker, which would limit his opportunities to rush the passer. Analysts also raised concerns about his weight, which shot up to 270 pounds at his last weigh-in.

Perhaps more worryingly, Arizona failed last season to get the most out of Isaiah Simmons, the No. 8 overall pick in 2020, after he was touted as a similarly versatile playmaker. It’s hard enough for linebackers to live up to their first-round billing, especially those who don’t have above-average coverage abilities. Time will tell whether this pick is a regrettable one for the Cardinals, but Collins has an uphill battle to meet expectations.

Most fun trend: Quarterbacks reuniting with college teammates

Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence will enter the NFL with his Clemson backfield partner, running back Travis Etienne. The Bengals’ Ja’Marr Chase and Joe Burrow will rekindle one of the most productive passing duos in college football history for 2019 national champion LSU. Alabama stars DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle will catch passes from their one-time college quarterbacks, Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa.

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The first round marked the reunion of some of the best college players of the past decade, and it wasn’t an accident. With rookie quarterbacks the best bargain in football, it’s imperative for teams to make their new signal-caller as comfortable as possible to hit the ground running. Teams only have four seasons of a cheap contract to work with, making the window for contention almost immediate before those rookie deals become expensive.

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Most under-the-radar draft: Lions rebuild up front

Dan Campbell’s fiery introduction as Lions coach included many memorable quotes, none more so than his commitment to biting kneecaps. If it wasn’t clear from that news conference, Detroit’s draft shows it wants to build through the trenches.

The Lions landed Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell at No. 7 overall, a prospect many view as a potential Hall of Fame player. With their next two picks, Detroit added defensive tackles Levi Onwuzurike of Washington and Alim McNeill of North Carolina State, bolstering a defense that ranked last in efficiency and sixth-worst against the run.

Just listen to Onwuzurike to get a sense of the team’s mentality.

“I like [expletive] people up,” Onwuzurike said. “I like to get off the line and just put my helmet or my hands on an offensive lineman and [expletive] up an offense’s scheme, pretty much. I like pushing them back 2, 3 yards and just making them feel like [expletive].”

Now that’s biting kneecaps personified.

Most intriguing draft: Browns load up for Super Bowl run

Based on a compilation of 18 draft grades by René Bugner, the Browns have the second-highest collective GPA at 3.89. Considering the value of their eight picks, it’s easy to see why.

Adding Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II at No. 26 gives the secondary a building block opposite Denzel Ward, an important piece after Cleveland struggled in pass defense last season. In the second round, the Browns grabbed versatile Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, a player ranked No. 17 on the consensus board.

Auburn wide receiver Anthony Schwartz ran 4.25-second 40-yard dash, the fastest of any prospect in the draft. Cincinnati’s James Hudson is a raw, but talented offensive line prospect. Ohio State defensive end Tommy Togiai can be an instant-impact interior defender. West Virginia linebacker Tony Fields II and Georgia safety Richard LeCounte have high ceilings for Day 3 picks. Even sixth-rounder Demetric Felton, a running back with wide receiver skills, is an intriguing pick.

Cleveland entered the draft with one of the most talented rosters in the league, and it came away with pieces that help both now and in the future. That’s great roster building by GM Andrew Berry and his staff.

Boldest draft: Jaguars swing for the fences

If quarterback Trevor Lawrence is the can’t-miss superstar all the experts believe he is, the 2021 draft will be a success for the Jaguars. But the new regime of coach Urban Meyer and GM Trent Baalke certainly took some risks after that no-brainer of a No. 1 pick.

While Travis Etienne is an outstanding athlete with blazing speed, we have enough evidence now that first-round running backs don’t provide enough value to justify a high selection. Georgia’s Tyson Campbell might be a solid cornerback, but he was drafted more than 20 slots above his consensus ranking of 57th. Stanford’s Walker Little could end up being an elite tackle, but he hasn’t played since Week 1 of the 2019 season. Syracuse’s Andre Cisco was one of the most productive safeties in the country, but he’s not a reliable tackler and is coming off an ACL injury. Tight end Luke Farrell, taken 145th overall, was barely a top-300 prospect.

The Jaguars need Etienne, Campbell and Little to be above-average starters, let alone see the field, for this roster to have a chance of competing for a division title. One draft won’t completely sink the Meyer regime, but it will certainly set the team back as it looks to build around its star quarterback.

Most bang for their buck: Seahawks make three picks count

It’s clear the Seahawks overpaid for Jamal Adams by sending two first-round picks to the Jets for the star safety. How they try to compensate for that lack of draft capital will determine the team’s path forward with quarterback Russell Wilson.

Count the 2021 draft as a good start. Seattle landed dangerous slot receiver and return specialist D’Wayne Eskridge in the second round, giving Wilson another weapon to work with alongside D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. In the fourth round, the Seahawks took Oklahoma cornerback Tre Brown, addressing a clear position of need after losing Shaquille Griffin in free agency. In the sixth round, they added Florida offensive tackle Stone Forsythe, a player some mocked as high as the second round who ranked 118th on the consensus board.

The Seahawks need all three to pan out to stay competitive, but there’s no question they did the most with what they had.

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