September 19, 2021

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2021 NFL Draft Report Card Report

16 min read
2021 NFL Draft Report Card Report

Spring has officially sprung. It’s starting to get warm outside again. The trees are budding. Flowers are blooming. Is that a bird I hear in the distance? No, that not it. It’s … it’s the sound of thousands of people booing Rodger Goodell! Live! In person! Music to my ears.

As we slowly progress toward a sense of normalcy, this year’s NFL Draft really felt like the first taste of a post-pandemic world. Zoom was all but phased out. Coaches and front office personnel left their makeshift home setups and returned to their war rooms. Players hugged the commissioner as fans booed loudly by the thousands. This draft had a little bit of something for everyone: smokescreens, trade-ups for quarterbacks, franchise-altering drama from a veteran passer, and fans wearing pumpkins and proposing on stage all kept us entertained for three straight days. We even got some Tim Tebow news to start our Thursday off, almost like tuning into the Puppy Bowl on Super Bowl Sunday. This draft was truly one for the ages.

Now that the dust has settled and we’ve all had a few days to digest all 259 selections made this past weekend, it is time for us to get to the fun part: wild speculation. We have consolidated draft grades from the most prominent sports sources and football minds all into one place. Today, we’ll break down the consensus best, worst, and most polarizing draft classes of 2021. This is … the 2021 Draft Report Card Report.

This is the 18th edition of our NFL Draft Report Card of other report cards. Previous NFL Draft Report Cards can be found here: (2020), (2019), (2018), (2017), (2016), (2015), (2014), (2013), (2012), (2011), (2010), (2009), (2008), (2007), (2006), (2005), (2004).

As always, let’s go through our panel of football minds. Every year we try our best to make this as all-encompassing of an exercise as we can. This year sees a slight shuffle in our panel of graders, with several new faces. This year’s list includes new contributions from Sheil Kapadia of The Athletic, Charles McDonald and Steven Ruiz of For the Win (a subsidiary of USA Today), Danny Kelly of The Ringer, Ben Rolfe of Pro Football Network, and Ryan Fowler of The Draft Network.

Along with these new additions come some changeups and (hopefully temporary) departures. Rotoworld has rebranded to NBCSports Edge, and their draft grades have been delivered to us by Thor Nystrom. Bleacher Report has kept up their time-honored tradition of changing their grader on a yearly basis; this year, their grades come to us from Brad Gagnon. Connor Orr has taken over the draft grades at Sports Illustrated, and Mark Schofield has joined our old pal Doug Farrar in the grading process for USA Today. Unfortunately, Evan Silva of Establish the Run has yet to finish grading this year’s draft and will not be included this year. Dan Kadar will also not be publishing grades this year because, per his Twitter, “I give every team an A+. Way to go!”

These new graders join our usual cast of characters, adding up to a total of 20 sets of grades:

Keep in mind that while these grades are a lot of fun, Benjamin Robinson found last year that they are largely meaningless. That said, they are a lot of fun. Before we get into the highlights (and lowlights), let’s take a look at the results…

Highest Draft Grades

Chicago Bears
GPA: 3.91 (Highest GPA since Cincinnati, 2012)
Highest Grade: A+ (5 total)
Lowest Grade: B+ (4 total)

It’s tough to make the most talked-about move of Round 1 without earning a superlative in our Report Card Report. In 2017, the Chicago Bears’ decision to move up from No. 3 to No. 2 overall and select Mitchell Trubisky earned them the lowest-graded draft class of the year. This year, on the contrary, may have resulted in the Bears walking away with the steal of the draft. The pundits we polled almost universally agree that the Bears’ decision to trade up with the New York Giants and take Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields 11th overall is a move that can change the trajectory of the franchise. Chicago added some protection for Fields as well, trading up again to select Oklahoma State tackle Teven Jenkins at 39 overall. Jenkins was seen by many as an immediate starter at right tackle, although it turns out Chicago plans on starting him at left tackle.

While the Chicago Bears clearly won the weekend with quality over quantity, those who particularly gushed over Chicago’s draft class praised the amount of depth the Bears were able to add in Round 5 and beyond. North Carolina wide receiver Dazz Newsome and Oregon cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. are viewed by some to be quality rotational pieces out of the gate, while BYU defensive tackle Khyris Tonga has a build that creates matchup difficulties for any offensive lineman. It may not be an exaggeration to say that Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace saved his job this weekend.

Cleveland Browns
GPA: 3.84
Highest Grade: A+ (4 total)
Lowest Grade: B (Kiper, Kapadia)

It’s always nice to see the host team do well at their own draft. The draft board fell in Cleveland’s favor during the first round, allowing the Browns to address one of their biggest needs and select Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome III. Those high on the Cleveland Browns draft class often note Auburn wide receiver Anthony Schwartz as a particular high point, citing his ability to stretch the field and to operate as a gadget player as perfect complementary qualities for Kevin Stefanski’s offense. One of the main sticking points in Browns grades comes from Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, a bit of a defensive tweener. Opinions from our graders fall one of two ways: either Cleveland risked a second-round pick on a player with no real position, or the Browns just added the perfect do-it-all guy to an already formidable defense.

Los Angeles Chargers
GPA: 3.65
Highest Grade: A+ (PFF)
Lowest Grade: B (Nystrom, For the Win)

Drafts work out differently for every team. Some teams, such as the Chicago Bears, need to approach the board aggressively to ensure their biggest needs are addressed. Others, such as the Los Angeles Chargers, have the luxury of having the board fall so perfectly that their most glaring holes get addressed by players falling right into their lap. The Chargers entered the weekend with one goal: find a left tackle to protect Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert, who was pressured on 28.7% of his dropbacks last season (per Pro Football Reference). Instead of sacrificing draft capital to ensure they get the protection they need, they held and got their guy in Northwestern tackle Rashawn Slater. In the very next round, the Chargers once again found themselves with talent at a position of need right in their grasp. This time, Los Angeles selected Florida State cornerback Asante Samuel Jr., bolstering what was a middling pass defense in 2020. Patience is a virtue, especially on draft day.

Baltimore Ravens
GPA: 3.51
Highest Grade: A+ (Dunleavy)
Lowest Grade: C+ (Edholm, Davis)

Lamar Jackson must be one happy camper after this weekend. The Baltimore Ravens kicked off the draft by nailing both of their first-round picks (the second of which was acquired after trading tackle Orlando Brown to the Kansas City Chiefs). Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman was described by some as the perfect fit for a pass-catcher in the Baltimore offense, while Penn State edge rusher Odafe (Jayson) Oweh has the physical tools to dominate if schemed into the right spot. Georgia guard Ben Cleveland was specifically cited by the For the Win crew as someone who excels blocking downhill in the run game, perfect for the Baltimore offense. Oklahoma State’s Tylan Wallace, a second quality receiver taken in the fourth round, was the cherry on top of the sundae.

Miami Dolphins
GPA: 3.50
Highest Grade: A+ (Dunleavy)
Lowest Grade: C+ (Nystrom)

If nothing else, the Dolphins have given Tua Tagovailoa as much support as they can heading into his sophomore season. Taking Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle was one of four draft reunions between former college offensive teammates; Waddle has incredible upside and thrived alongside Tagovailoa at Alabama. There is a general consensus amongst evaluators that selections such as Miami edge rusher Jaelan Phillips and Oregon safety Jevon Holland are going to be instant impact players. Even Nystrom, our most critical grader for Miami, believes the Dolphins may have walked away from this weekend with four or five starting-caliber players. His C+ grade, one of only three grades below a B for the Dolphins draft class, stems from injury concerns for Waddle and Phillips.

Lowest Draft Grades

Houston Texans
GPA: 1.63
Highest Grade: B- (4 total)
Lowest Grade: F (For the Win)

This will be my fourth time writing up the annual Report Card Report. Since 2018, the Houston Texans’ GPA has ranked 24th, 31st, and 31st in the league. They have finally taken home the crown for consensus worst draft after back-to-back years of finishing runner-up. Take a bow, Houston!

The Texans are still reaping what former head coach/GM Bill O’Brien had sown prior to his exit. This is evident in where the Texans draft officially began: the 96th overall pick. At some point, trading picks for veterans will leave your team making their first selection just on the outermost fringes of the top 100.

Now, starting your draft this late is already a problem, but that only gets exacerbated when the only players you select with those late picks are developmental guys with traits. Stanford quarterback Davis Mills should be in a situation where he can sit behind a veteran, learning and developing for several years. With Deshaun Watson’s future in limbo, Mills does not have that luxury. Michigan wide receiver Nico Collins and Miami tight end Brevin Jordan are both prospects who scream “potential” while the Texans roster is begging for competent starters.

Seattle Seahawks
GPA: 1.80
Highest Grade: B (Reuter)
Lowest Grade: D (Nystrom, Prisco, For the Win)

Most of our graders agree: this was never going to be a revolutionary draft for the Seattle Seahawks. Entering the weekend with just three picks, there was never much opportunity for the Seahawks to achieve much higher than middling grades. Chad Reuter has given Seattle the benefit of the doubt, including the acquisitions of safety Jamal Adams (2021 and 2022 first-round picks) and guard Gabe Jackson (2021 fifth-round pick) as parts of this year’s draft “haul,” boosting their grade because of it.

In terms of the players Seattle actually drafted, graders have universally chided the reach for 24-year-old Western Michigan receiver D’Wayne Eskridge, who has never had more than 38 catches in a season. Oklahoma cornerback Tre Brown, measuring in at 5-foot-10, is atypical for the corners we so often associate with Pete Carroll and Seattle. The brightest spot of this draft class comes from the sixth round, where Florida tackle Stone Forsythe finally came off the board. Sheil Kapadia sees Forsythe as a high-upside tackle who particularly excels in pass protection, perfect for the oft-battered Russell Wilson.

Las Vegas Raiders
GPA: 1.90
Highest Grade: B (Reuter)
Lowest Grade: F (Nystrom)

It almost feels inappropriate to critique the Las Vegas Raiders draft because it is so blatantly evident that the Raiders’ process for evaluating is so distinct from everyone else’s. Avoiding groupthink has long been the calling card of the Mike Mayock-Jon Gruden administration, and this year was no different. Graders were left scratching their heads and double-checking their big boards as Alabama tackle Alex Leatherwood was taken off the board at 17 overall.

Nearly every grader, however, cites the decision to trade up for TCU safety Trevor Moehrig as a steal, nullifying the reach for Leatherwood. Moehrig was one of three safeties selected by the Raiders this past weekend, another head-scratching decision.

Los Angeles Rams
GPA: 2.10
Highest Grade: A (Reuter)
Lowest Grade: D- (Rolfe)

It is widely accepted that the NFL is slowly adopting the small, speedy receiver as a way to stretch the field and take the top off defenses. After the Rams took 5-foot-7, 155-pound receiver Tutu Atwell in the second round, it may be safe to say they have taken this too literally. The upside of Atwell’s blazing speed and elite acceleration is offset by the fact that a stiff breeze could tackle him for a loss. The selection of South Carolina linebacker Ernest Jones has been met with praise from some graders, but Brad Gagnon considers him to be “stiff” and “one-dimensional.” Beyond these two picks, there is a clear lack of surefire upside players. Considering that the Rams carry a lot of big-name star power on their roster, it may not come as a surprise that their draft selection is full of role guys with developmental upside.

New Orleans Saints
GPA: 2.13
Highest Grade: B (Davis)
Lowest Grade: D- (Nystrom)

The New Orleans Saints are officially in the post-Drew Brees era, but I am not quite sure if they are drafting like it. There was certainly a clear theme to the Saints draft: athletic upside. Thor Nystrom notes that outside of Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book, every prospect the Saints drafted had at least a 90th-percentile size-adjusted athletic composite. Despite the upside, New Orleans often passed up on talent to take a developmental player with a high ceiling. Houston edge rusher Payton Turner is a prime example of this. Danny Kelly had Turner outside of the top 50 on his big board, as did many others. New Orleans drafted him at 28 overall. These types of players feel like perfect candidates for a team in Super Bowl contention looking to add depth. Considering the departure of Brees and coupling that with improvements made by division in Atlanta and Carolina, can one even be confident in playoff contention?

I’d like to take a moment to address Ian Book. Not a single grader likes the pick. PFF projected Book as a seventh round/UDFA candidate. Nystrom compares Book to Trace McSorley in his write-up. Ryan Fowler refers to the pick as a “criminal offense.” Luke Easterling posits that Book almost certainly would have been available as a late-round flier. With so many needs for the New Orleans Saints, there is no real explanation as to why Book was the selection made in the fourth.

Most Polarizing Grades

Green Bay Packers
Standard Deviation: 0.91
Highest Grade: A (Reuter)
Lowest Grade: F (Nystrom)

Just hours before the Jacksonville Jaguars were officially on the clock, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers hijacked our Thursday afternoon. News broke that the relationship between Rodgers and the Packers had been irreparably severed, resulting in Rodgers allegedly refusing to ever take another snap in a green and gold uniform. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that news is the main reason the Packers had the most polarizing draft of any team this year.

The news of Rodgers’ discontent may have shifted the priorities of some of the graders. Those who disregard the Rodgers news to focus on the pure content of their draft class see the selection of Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes at 29 overall as addressing a major need for the team (although Nystrom scolded Green Bay in his write-up for not trading back into the early second round and instead electing to reach on a second-tier corner). Drafting Ohio State center Josh Myers to replace Corey Linsley is a near-universally praised move.

From there, things get messy. Chad Reuter praises the versatility that Clemson wide receiver Amari Rodgers can provide to all aspects of the Green Bay offense. Rodgers, however, saw the most success when running screens in college. That does not exactly compliment Aaron Rodgers’ deep-ball accuracy and power. Amari Rodgers, along with Mississippi tackle Royce Newman, were both considered players that address positions of need. When considering the support that Rodgers wants, however, addressing wide receiver in the third and tackle in the fourth have been seen by some as too little, too late.

Los Angeles Rams
Standard Deviation: 0.88
Highest Grade: A (Reuter)
Lowest Grade: D- (Rolfe)

Trades involving high-value picks have a tendency to muddy the draft-evaluating waters down the road. Analysts can never seem to arrive at a consensus as to how the first- and second-round picks shipped out of town in exchange for a top-tier player affect the grade of those picks’ draft classes. The Los Angeles Rams are no stranger to this conundrum. Their last selection in the first round came in 2016 when they drafted Jared Goff. This past offseason, Goff was sent to Detroit along with L.A.’s 2022 and 2023 first-round picks in exchange for Matthew Stafford. The Rams were absent from Thursday night’s festivities this year because that pick was sent to Jacksonville in a deal for cornerback Jalen Ramsey.

Chad Reuter, who gave this team its highest grade of the draft, gave the Rams an A as their Day 1 grade. He states that the acquisition of Ramsey is well worth the sacrifice of their late first, factoring Ramsey’s success as a cornerstone of the Rams defense as part of the overall draft grade. Nystrom, who handed the Rams an outright failing grade, claims the Rams’ practice of constantly dealing firsts is a strategy that “appears likely to end in a dystopian future.”

Las Vegas Raiders
Standard Deviation: 0.87
Highest Grade: A (Reuter)
Lowest Grade: F (Nystrom)

The Raiders’ draft is one constructed out of nothing but mind-numbing contradictions, and it all starts with Alex Leatherwood. Leatherwood was, by the consensus of our graders, a reach. There were tackles on the board in the second round that have received higher praise from our evaluators than Leatherwood has in any single draft evaluation. Multiple analysts, however, are willing to forgive the reach for Leatherwood because of the selection of Trevon Moehrig in the second. If the picks were swapped—with Las Vegas selecting Moehrig at 17 then trading up for Leatherwood later—some of our graders may have even considered that a respectable draft. However, if Moehrig is such a universally praised selection, then why add two more rookie safeties in Virginia Tech’s Divine Deablo and Missouri’s Tyree Gillespie? If Mayock and Gruden are trying to improve the secondary, why reach on two extra safeties instead of taking at least one corner before the fifth round? Then it all comes back to you: the only reason the Raiders reached for Leatherwood in the first place was because they blew up their offensive line during the offseason, considered one of their biggest strengths in 2020.

The Raiders may just not be very good at drafting. At the very least, the traits they look for in players and the system they use to find “their guys” is quite different from those of the graders and media. There’s a reason why the grades for this team vary so widely: graders and analysts are trying to make sense of these decisions. It doesn’t have to all make sense. It’s Vegas, baby.

Dallas Cowboys
Standard Deviation: 0.85
Highest Grade: A (Reuter)
Lowest Grade: D (Fowler, Touchdown Wire)

While discrepancies in player evaluation amongst scouts and analysts are inherent in the draft process, that is not the reason behind such a high level of polarization in the Dallas Cowboys draft class. The wide range of grades for the Cowboys draft mostly stems from how these graders weigh the litany of off-field issues attached to this crop of players. Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons was cited in a federal court lawsuit regarding the hazing of players on the Nittany Lions football team. LSU cornerback Kelvin Joseph was suspended from the 2019 Fiesta Bowl for violating team rules and eventually transferred to Kentucky. Fourth-round offensive lineman Josh Ball left Florida State after being accused of 11 different incidents of dating violence. Those who graded the Cowboys draft highly cite the crop of high-upside defensive talent added to the team. Detractors of the Dallas draft class believe that the team leveraged too much of their class on players with problematic pasts.

Washington Football Team
Standard Deviation: 0.81
Highest Grade: A+ (Touchdown Wire)
Lowest Grade: D (Nystrom)

Unlike the previous four teams with polarizing drafts, there is no narrative through-line to explain the high standard deviation of the Washington Football Team’s draft class. There is no franchise-altering news to sway your opinion, no hypothesizing the value of a traded pick, neither mental pretzels nor ethical dilemmas. Instead, the high standard deviation is simply a result of personnel preference. The selection of Kentucky linebacker Jamin Davis is a slight reach for a non-need position to some, and a savvy addition to an already stalwart defense to others. Texas tackle Sam Cosmi is virtually loved by all for the upside he represents at the position he was drafted, while Penn State edge rusher Shaka Toney was universally praised as a steal in the seventh round. North Carolina wide receiver Dyami Brown represents another point of contention amongst graders. While some argue his deep-threat ability is a perfect complement to Terry McLaurin’s skill set and Ryan Fitzpatrick’s “YOLO” style of play, others view Brown as a one-dimensional receiver who can only win deep.

Year-Over-Year Comparisons

I began this section last year expressing my surprise at the number of “extreme” grades given out. This year, that surprise has evolved into shock. 2019’s Report Card Report featured five A+ grades and zero Fs, while last year saw 13 A+ grades and five Fs. This year’s draft has blown both of those out of the water. Not only did we match last year’s total of five F grades, but a whopping 24 A+ grades were administered. Either teams are getting better at drafting, or our graders may be getting a little soft.

The average GPA continues to rise ever so slightly. After incrementally working its way up from 2.87 in 2018 to 2.88 in 2019, then 2.91 last year, this year’s average closed at a 2.93. The average standard deviation also rose slightly, moving from 0.80 to 0.81.

The ever-generous Chris Reuter has retained his crown of most generous grader for a third straight year. His average GPA rose from 3.54 last year all the way up to 3.59 in 2021. Reuter is just over a tenth of a point shy of averaging an A- for every single team! Reuter handed out 13 As and one A+ over the course of his draft grading while also providing the highest grade for three of our lowest-graded teams and four of our most polarizing teams. NBCSports Edge’s Thor Nystrom takes home two titles this year. Not only is Nystrom the stingiest grader with a GPA of 2.44, but he also boasts the largest standard deviation at a baffling 1.34. Such a large spread of grades is bound to happen when handing out three A+ grades and two Fs. Nystrom is the only grader to hand out both an A+ and an F, let alone multiples of each.