2021 NFL Draft Day 1 Recap

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Patrick Daugherty
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The chalk hits with the first two picks

Lauded as a future No. 1 overall pick since he first set foot on the Clemson campus in 2018, Trevor Lawrence started packing his Jaguars bags as soon as the Jets went on an inexplicable two-game winning streak in December. BYU’s Zach Wilson was less heralded but no less locked into his draft slot, with the Jets making it known for months he would be the one replacing Sam Darnold. Lawrence and Wilson speak to the difference even one draft slot makes. Whereas Lawrence is an Andrew Luck-ian level “can’t miss” — we know there’s really no such thing — prospect, Wilson arrives with more questions than answers. Is he a natural-born playmaker or a Manziel-ian shooting star? It’s a gamble under center for a franchise that’s taken a lot of them.

49ers throw curveball at No. 3 overall, bet the farm on Trey Lance

Speaking of gambles under center, there is taking a 21-year-old (next month) FCS prospect whose lone 2020 appearance was an exhibition game against Central Arkansas. It was COVID restrictions rather than injury that kept Lance sidelined in the fall, but he’s arriving in San Francisco with only 17 career starts all the same. In Lance’s lone season (2019) as starter he: Went 16-0, won a national championship, and threw 28 touchdowns without getting picked off. If you’re going to be a small-school prospect with only one real season of experience, you better be perfect, and Lance was. This year’s top dual-threat, Lance can be brought along slowly as a passer as he tries to iron out an uneven deep ball under one of the game’s pre-eminent quarterback gurus, Kyle Shanahan. If the downside is through the floor, Lance’s Dynasty league upside is limitless.

Falcons make the pick everyone expected at No. 4 overall

Although GM Terry Fontenot was almost literally begging to trade down, he didn’t do it just for the sake of it, and took the draft’s best skill player in Florida TE Kyle Pitts. A mutant receiver/tight end hybrid, 6-foot-6 Pitts is a terror in the red zone who can scarcely be contained by man coverage at any level of the field. He plays like a receiver, but he also looks like one, which could be a problem for his early-career blocking. Pitts can’t afford to get battered off the line of scrimmage and lose his confidence as a rookie. Pairing up with a coach in Arthur Smith who excelled at putting his talent in the best position to succeed in Tennessee, Pitts should get to do what he does best in 2021 while being brought along slowly in the areas where he needs more work. Tight end is a notoriously difficult first-year position, but it is impossible to regard Pitts as anything other than an instant TE1.

Ja’Marr Chase first of three receivers to go in the top 10

Although Chase opted out of 2020 amidst the coronavirus pandemic, he went ahead of the first Heisman Trophy winning wideout in 29 years. In fact, Devonta Smith might have been named college football’s best player, but he wasn’t even the first receiver off the board from his own team. That would be Jaylen Waddle, who will be reuniting with ex-Bama QB Tua Tagovailoa in Miami. Capable of playing both inside and out, Waddle provides a badly needed speed complement to box-out artists DeVante Parker and Preston Williams. A technician, Smith will be pairing up with dual-threat Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia. You could argue Waddle and Smith might have been better served by switching landing spots. The spot doesn’t matter for Chase, who is probably the best overall receiver prospect since at least Amari Cooper.

Bears move up for Justin Fields

It finally happened: Ryan Pace did something good at quarterback. Pace’s latest mortgage the future gambit is by far his boldest, as well as most sensible. Fields arrives with plain-to-see superstar upside, though his supporting cast will make it difficult to achieve as a rookie. The plan is to pray for Allen Robinson’s good health and for sophomore breakouts from Darnell Mooney and TE Cole Kmet. It won’t be impossible, but there is no slack in the Bears’ line. Slack is going to be necessary for a big-play hunting dual threat prone to exposing himself to unnecessary hits.

Patriots stop Mac Jones’ “slide”

The 49ers and Bears moved up for their quarterbacks. The Patriots were content to let theirs come to them, making Jones the organization’s first first-round signal caller since Drew Bledsoe in 1993. Bill Belichick is going against the grain with a player whose threat is decidedly not dual. Jones posted the highest QBR in NCAA history last season on the strength of his wits and execution, not to mention historically good supporting cast. Aside from his coach, he is not going to have one of those in New England. Everything went right for Jones in 2020. That will have to be the story of his NFL life for him to swim with this era’s running sharks.

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Najee Harris and Travis Etienne the only running backs to come off the board

It is hard for the No. 24 overall pick to feel preordained, but so it was with the Steelers and a runner. They chose Harris over Etienne, and the 6-foot-2 dynamo will get every opportunity to carve out a three-down role after the Steelers grew tired of their ineffective post-Le’Veon Bell committees. Subtle for his size, Harris had the looks of a back who could truly do it all at Alabama. The same was true for Etienne at Clemson, but whereas Harris is being thrown into the every-down fire, Etienne is greeted by a committee. Coach Urban Meyer went as far as to claim Thursday evening that he views Etienne as his third-down back behind “one-two punch” James Robinson and Carlos Hyde. Hyde’s mention makes it hard to take that statement seriously, but Robinson is a legitimate roadblock. Meyer, for his part, used running backs every which way in college. In fantasy, Etienne could be a victim of his own pass-catching success, developing in that role while Robinson dominates early-season looks near the goal line.

Kadarius Toney and Rashod Bateman last but not least in loaded skill group

A game-breaking athlete still relatively new to the receiver position, Toney gives Daniel Jones another explosive deep threat opposite Darius Slayton. The speed demons will complement sideline dominator Kenny Golladay and slot man Sterling Shepard, giving the Giants one of the deeper, more well balanced receiver corps in the NFL. Bateman, meanwhile, arrives as a 6-foot-2 formation rover whose 20.3 yards per catch in 2019 were the most in the Big 10 since 2001. He will provide outside size and YAC ability while relieving over-the-middle pressure on Mark Andrews. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Bateman ends up the draft’s best receiver.