The first round of the NFL’s 2021 draft is in the books and it certainly was a memorable one not just because it represented a return to a somewhat normal setting.
After the first two selections, which seemed to be set in stone before the event even began, the draft picked up steam. We saw the usual big trades, reaches and some intriguing decisions being made. We also saw the New England Patriots pick their potential quarterback of the future when they invested the 15th overall selection in Alabama prospect Mac Jones.
Please click here for a full pick-by-pick recap of Thursday’s action. In the meantime, let’s clean out the notebook from what happened over the course of the first 32 picks.
Patience pays off for the Patriots...
All week long there was speculation that New England would maybe continue its aggressive offseason by trading up in the first round to get a new quarterback. However, they did not have to make such a move. Once both Jones and Ohio State’s Justin Fields made it past the three-pick wall that was the Detroit Lions (No. 7), Carolina Panthers (No. 8) and Denver Broncos (No. 9) there was a realistic chance that one would be available at No. 15.
While Fields was eventually nabbed by the Chicago Bears in a trade up the board — more on that in a second — the other top-five passer in this year’s class remained standing. When the New York Jets then traded up to No. 14 to select offensive tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker, it was clear: Jones would be available when the Patriots were on the clock all without having to trade up.
Head coach/general manager Bill Belichick pointed out that there was no need to worrying about anything happening around his team, because New England did not have any chance to impact that at all.
“We couldn’t really control any of that, so, I mean, when you’re a 15, you’re a 15, so somebody’s got to be a 14, somebody’s got to be a 13. So unless you move there’s the same number of teams that are going to pick in front of you,” Belichick said. “We try to grade the players, evaluate the players, and take a look at the board and make the best decisions we can. I wouldn’t say we were in the most flexible position today anyway, so staying a 15 kind of seemed like the best thing for to us do and it worked out fine for us.”
There was some speculation that the Patriots would still go in a different direction even with Jones available, because nobody outside of One Patriot Place knows how the team was seeing his value relative to that of other players still on the board or potential trade offers. In the end, however, New England stayed put and was able to get its guy.
...and they are still in a good position for Days 2 and 3
The fact that the Patriots did not have to sacrifice any resources (other than their first-round pick, of course) in order to get a top-five quarterback can certainly be considered a win for the team. As a a result, New England is still in a pretty good position heading into the second and third rounds on Friday. The team may have only two picks — 2-46 and 3-96 — but the ammunition in the later rounds to make additional moves as well.
Despite the biggest need on the roster being addressed, after all, there are other holes. New England would benefit from potential long-term developmental options at offensive tackle and cornerback, with the linebacker and wide receiver positions also in need of additional depth.
Belichick was, however, took a matter-of-fact approach when speaking about the Patriots’ outlook heading into the second day of the college player selection meeting.
“We’re going to have a pick in each round, have some extra picks the third day of the draft, so we’ll see how all that plays out,” he said during his post-Round media conference call. “But just kind of go back tonight and tomorrow, reset the board and get ready for tomorrow just like we did today. So that’s kind of where we are.”
The AFC East arms race is on
Over the last few years, the Patriots’ division has seen considerable personnel turnover. Not only did Tom Brady leave New England after dominating the AFC East for almost two decades, all four clubs invested first-round picks in the quarterback position: the Buffalo Bills picked Josh Allen seventh overall in 2018; the Miami Dolphins drafted Tua Tagovailoa with the fifth overall selection in 2020; and now the Patriots and New York Jets have also added passers.
While Jones came off the board at No. 15, the Jets decided to make BYU quarterback Zac Wilson the second player selected this year. Filling the shoes of another highly-drafted QB — Sam Darnold, who was picked third in 2018 but traded to the Panthers this offseason — Wilson has the same expectation as the other three guys: become the face of the franchise and lead his team to the promised land.
Only Allen has proven himself capable of doing that so far, with the other three (still) being major question marks. That said, their teams are trying the best to surround them with talent.
After selecting Wilson, the Jets made a move up the board to the 14th overall selection to pick offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker. No matter if they have him slide into the starting right tackle spot or will insert him at one of the two guard spots, the goal is clear: creating the best possible environment for Wilson.
The Dolphins and Patriots did the same for their young QBs. While New England already made some massive free agency moves to upgrade at wide receive rand tight end, Miami selected one of Tagovailoa’s former teammates at No. 6: ex-Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle will become the team’s next WR1 and form a potent duo together with DeVante Parker.
The AFC East arms race is officially on.
Offense rules the day early, defense rules the day late
The expectation turned into reality. Given the impressive prospects available on the offensive side of the ball, it took until the eighth overall pick for a defensive player to come off the board. That player was South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn, who was picked by the Panthers — a team seen as either in the market for a quarterback itself or at trade-down to allow another club to pick a sliding passer.
Horn was the first of 14 defensive players drafted in Round 1. While only four of them came off the board in the first half of the day, there was a late run on defensive talent late. With the exception being Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman going to the Baltimore Ravens at No. 27, six of the final seven picks of the first round were invested into defensive players. Among them also was the biggest reach of Round 1 in the form of Houston linebacker Payton Turner (to New Orleans at No. 28).
Chicago wants to right some quarterback wrongs
As noted above, the Bears traded up for one of the two quarterbacks falling out of the top 10: they jumped from the 20th to the 11th overall selection to grab Justin Fields. The price to pay may have been a steep one — No. 20 pick and No. 164 this year plus first- and fourth-round picks in 2022 — but Chicago had to make a move given that its quarterback room was previously led by offseason addition Andy Dalton.
The Bears are therefore trying to right some wrongs. Four years after trading three total draft picks to the San Francisco 49ers to move up one spot and select Mitchell Trubisky second overall, Chicago is making another move — one that could very well cost general manager Ryan Pace his job if it yields similar results than the failed Trubisky experiment.
And so, the Bears ended up with one of the highest-upside players in this years draft. Unfortunately, this also means that one of the best Tweets of the offseason is likely no longer relevant:
Farewell, Andy Dalton QB1 era. We hardly knew ye.
There were a few reaches in Round 1
As was mentioned above, New Orleans made the biggest reach in the first round. The Saints were rumored as candidates to trade up as far as the top-10, but instead stayed put at No. 28 to pick Payton Turner. While he is a solid linebacker, no doubt, he also was projected as a late second-round pick at best.
That pack was not the only questionable one in terms of pre-draft evaluation versus eventual selection. The Las Vegas Raiders drafting offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood (Alabama) at No. 17 also qualifies as a surprise, as does the Jacksonville Jaguars going for Travis Etienne (Clemson) at No. 25. And then, there are the Green Bay Packers, who seemingly reached for cornerback Eric Stokes (Georgia) at No. 29.
Alabama is still college football’s premier talent factory
The Patriots’ selection of Mac Jones 15th overall was one of six for the University of Alabama. The team of head coach Nick Saban also saw wide receivers Jaylen Waddle (No. 6 to Miami) and DeVonta Smith (No. 10 to Philadelphia), cornerback Patrick Surtain II (No. 9 to Denver), running back Najee Harris (No. 24 to Pittsburgh) and the aforementioned Alex Leatherwood (No. 17 to Las Vegas) come off the board on Day 1.