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NFL Draft

5 Lessons 2021 NFL Draft Taught Us

  • The Draft Network
  • May 12, 2021
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It’s hard to believe that after months and months of watching film, tracking pro days, and following every draft rumor imaginable that the 2021 NFL Draft is a thing of the past. It’s now been roughly two weeks since the top players in the 2021 NFL Draft class took the stage in Cleveland, Ohio and saw their dreams become a reality. For us evaluators, it’s a bittersweet feeling.

On one hand, it's the culmination of a year-long process that sees us spend hours and hours on end scouting these players and creating content that draft fans will love. It’s almost sad in the sense that we spend so much time getting to know these players' journeys, understanding their strengths and weaknesses, and projecting them to a specific team all for it to be over the moment that they are drafted. These prospects are no longer prospects, but now NFL players and we get the luxury to watch and study them as they take their game to the next level. But with every ending comes a new beginning and we evaluators can now turn our attention to what’s next and get started with prep for the 2022 NFL Draft class.

Before we begin to truly dive into next year’s class, I believe it’s important for us to take a step back and look at the 2021 NFL Draft holistically and see if we can learn anything from what transpired over draft weekend. They say that history is the best teacher, so any wise evaluator should look at the 2021 NFL Draft from a standpoint of what they can take away from this draft to help prepare one's self to be a better evaluator for next year, to be able to get their board to be more accurate, or score higher on their mock draft. Spending a few weeks sitting back and studying where players went in relation to where the media expected them to go can give us a snapshot of what the league as a whole values in today’s NFL. 

Here are five lessons that the 2021 NFL Draft taught us, and if we remember these lessons as we begin the evaluation process for the 2022 class, we should be able to improve our accuracy in getting these players graded and slotted correctly. 

1. NFL Decision Makers Will Bet On Traits at Quarterback

After about two months of speculation, we finally received an answer about who the San Francisco 49ers were taking at No. 3 overall. Even though the prevailing thought when the 49ers traded three first-round picks to move up to the No. 3 pick was that they were targeting Alabama’s Mac Jones, something just quite never added up. Why would the 49ers make such an aggressive move up the board for a player who has a similar skill set to Jimmy Garoppolo? Both Jones and Garoppolo are average athletes with average-to-above-average overall arm strength and velocity. It just wouldn’t make sense and I never bought into it.

In the end, the 49ers took the young and inexperienced passer who has perhaps the best physical tools and traits in the class in North Dakota State’s Trey Lance. This was my overall belief the entire time. Teams are seeing these quarterbacks who have elite size, athleticism and arm talent come into the league and succeed early in their career because it’s never been easier to make life easy for a young quarterback, especially if they can move around. Quarterbacks like Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, and Kyler Murray all have elite athleticism and physical tools and have all had a fairly easy transition to the NFL. Even though Lance was raw and played very few games versus any sort of real competition, his physical attributes were just too obvious to pass up and that’s a trend that’s here to stay. 

2. The NFL Loves Length

One of the lessons I learned very early in my time as an NFL scout was just how much the league values length. It truly is something that can move a player up and down the board in a big way. That’s always why when a player has good length, it catches the NFL’s attention.

A few players in this year’s class who have outstanding length stick out to me and are just more examples of how the league values this particular trait. Starting with South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn, who went No. 8 overall as the first corner and defensive player off the board. Horn has ridiculous arm length for a corner with 33-inch arms, and he knows how to use them. Horn is excellent at tight press-man coverage and a big reason is that his length allows him to get in the receiver’s chest and disrupt the release at the line of scrimmage. His length also allows him to be a second quicker in dislodging the ball at the catch point as well as when he’s competing for 50/50 balls.

Players such as Zaven Collins and Payton Turner were drafted higher than expected and they both have outstanding length for their respective positions. However, the best example that illustrates just how much the NFL values length is Gregory Rousseau being a first-round pick.

The moment I turned on Rousseau’s film in the summer I knew he was a special player that the league would like. His length at 6-foot-7 with 34 ⅜-inch arms jumped off the screen and he really knew how to use his length with his rush as well as when he played the run. Length is so important as a defender because that extra half-inch in your arms could be the difference between getting home for a sack or a completed touchdown pass. It may seem crazy, but it truly is extremely important and that’s why Rousseau was able to get home so often in his one season in 2019.

Throughout the process, Rousseau’s stock supposedly fell and many in the media were saying he would be a second- or even third-round pick. I never bought into it as I know someone with that length and movement skills will intrigue NFL evaluators so much that there was no chance he would fall out of round one. When we attempt to separate players for our big boards or make accurate mock drafts for 2022, remember length is important. 

3. Corners Go Early and Often

Before the draft, the over/under for first-round corners was 4. If you follow me on Twitter, (@Brentley12) you would have seen me say to bet the over. Look, corners go high. It’s a passing league where the rules have been tailored to the offense to make life easier in order to complete passes and big plays. Teams need players who have a chance to cover these receivers on the outside and since they need multiple ones who can play on their roster, the position is of extremely high importance. We ended up having five corners off the board in round one with two in the top 10. We also had a corner go with the very first pick in the second round with Tyson Campbell going 33rd to the Jacksonville Jaguars. My overall point is if you are on the fence if a corner is a late-round-one or mid-round-two kind of guy, lean the higher grade because that’s what the NFL does. 

4. Linebackers Need to Be Able to Play In The Box

I felt like this was one of the best coverage linebacker drafts in recent memory. This is music to NFL defensive coordinators' ears as they look to figure out ways to match personnel with these spread concepts that allow an offense to have all sorts of athleticism spreading the field. NFL offenses have been able to shred opposing defenses by catching the defense in base with a linebacker having to be walked out onto a third receiver where it’s clearly a mismatch. Having an athletic linebacker like a Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, or a Jabril Cox, or even a Cam McGrone or Baron Browning would make life a lot easier for a defense as they are all outstanding in coverage and would be able to excel in that assignment.

That being said, all of these players had significant draft day falls in relation to where we all expected to hear their name. These players fell for all different reasons and I hate to generalize them all like this, but I do believe that all of these players are more of that new-age coverage linebacker who is best in space and not necessarily great at stacking and shedding and being physical inside the box. It’s only a matter of time until NFL offenses begin to audible to a more physical style of attack to adjust to these new-age linebackers. We have already seen Kyle Shanahan acquire players whose skill sets are best suited in a power and gap scheme in this year’s draft.

NFL evaluators want a linebacker who can be firm and physical defending the run just as much as the value coverage ability. We as evaluators can’t get too excited over what a linebacker does well in coverage or in space if his play in the box defending the run is below average.

5. Unless You're A Rare Talent, Tight Ends Need to Block

The league is in the midst of a tight end renaissance with three potential Hall of Fame tight ends in their prime dominating the league. Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Darren Waller are all of their team’s best weapons on offense and are some of the best overall players in the league. We also just welcomed a generational prospect at the position into the NFL with Kyle Pitts going fourth overall to the Atlanta Falcons.

Kittle is the only player in that group that is truly excellent as a blocker and the rest are just average to below. Being average at blocking as a tight end is OK if you are a physical freak like Pitts or Waller or a route technician with incredible hands and body control like Kelce, but if you are just a good receiving tight end who can’t block, then you aren’t getting drafted high. A tight end that can contribute to the running game is extremely valuable to an offense as it will give you numbers in the box to have advantageous opportunities. The best is when you have multiple tight ends who can block well because that gives you the ability to run 12-personnel and really stress the defense in the running game.

Players such as Tre' McKitty, Tommy Tremble, and Hunter Long aren’t necessarily as fluid and smooth as Brevin Jordan was in the passing game, but they were much further along in the running game and were more physical at the point of attack. The ability to block in the run game as a tight end should not be undervalued.

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