Two NFC North rivals won the first round of the 2021 NFL draft. The Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears got their opening picks just right and gave themselves every chance to dethrone the dysfunctional Green Bay Packers this season.
Things played out a little differently for two former Super Bowl rivals, though. The New York Giants and New England Patriots both ended the opening night of this year’s draft on the losing end. Daniel Jones got a new wide receiver, but it’s hard to believe Big Blue took pass-catcher they truly wanted.
Meanwhile, New England’s attempts to luck into Tom Brady 2.0 left me unconvinced and with more than a few questions about the direction of Josh McDaniels’ offense in 2021.
No team hit the bullseye quite like the Vikings in Round 1. General manager Rick Spielman traded down nine spots by moving from 14th to 23 in a deal with the New York Jets. The Vikes also got two third-round picks, the 66th, and 86th selections, as part of the trade.
Adding volume is always smart during the draft, but the main benefit of this deal was the Vikings getting Christian Darrisaw in the first round. The former Virginia Tech left tackle is a zone-blocking monster who will fit Minnesota’s offense like a glove.
New #Vikings OT Christian Darrisaw had a 95.3 zone blocking grade in 2020.
— PFF MIN Vikings (@PFF_Vikings) April 30, 2021
Running back Dalvin Cook likely cheered the loudest when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell read Darrisaw’s name aloud. Cook was already ultra-productive, but he’s on for a career year with Darrisaw leading the way on those stretch runs offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak and line coach Rick Dennison will call.
The Bears gave up a lot to move from 20 to 11. In all, GM Ryan Pace sent his first- and fifth-round picks this year, along with first- and fourth-round selections in 2022, to the New York Giants. He did it all to take Justin Fields off the board.
Teams pay a premium for talented quarterbacks for a reason. You don’t win championships without one. There are exceptions, like Trent Dilfer and the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, but those are anomalies. The Bears don’t have a generational defense like those Ravens, nor a running back as gifted as Jamal Lewis. What the Bears do have is an ideal situation for Fields to make the grade at his own pace.
The presence of Andy Dalton means Fields could sit for a year and work on refining his pro game away from the pressure cooker of starting on Sundays. It’s worked in the past. Guys as good as Joe Montana and Steve McNair were made to wait before finally getting the nod.
Even if Fields starts immediately, he’ll have a pretty big safety net thanks to an experienced backup able to provide advice or pick up the slack when needed. Fields will also be able to throw passes to Allen Robinson II and Jimmy Graham, or split carries between Damien Williams, Tarik Cohen, and David Montgomery.
Regardless of when Fields plays, just his presence alone will create enthusiasm about Chicago’s quarterback situation for the first time in a long, long while. Start or sit, this pick is a win-win for Pace and head coach Matt Nagy.
The Indianapolis Colts didn’t need to move around the board to win Round 1. Indy stayed put and landed a dream pick in the form of edge-rusher Kwity Paye. The former Michigan standout is the ideal game-wrecker to pair with awesome defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. Their double act will make an already capable Colts’ defense formidable.
Paye wasn’t the first edge-rusher taken on Day 1. That distinction belonged to Jaelan Phillips, who gets to swap life with the Miami Hurricanes for life with the Miami Dolphins. Phillips is a talent, but there’s reason to believe the Colts got the better player. What I like most about Paye is how he packs a wallop when he gets to a quarterback. He’s not the cleanest rusher in this class but certainly the most tenacious. Trevor Lawerence beware.
Winner: Trey Lance
All that Trey Lance or Mac Jones speculation was for naught. The San Francisco 49ers did what most expected when they traded into the third-overall pick on Lance’s pro day. Few players taken in the first round landed in a better situation than the former North Dakota State quarterback.
“It was crazy to watch where it all went,” Shanahan said.
— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoNBCS) April 30, 2021
Lance’s dual-threat skills are perfect for the offense run by 49ers’ head coach Kyle Shanahan. He likes moving pockets, particularly off of play-action. Lance is mobile enough and has the arm strength to roll out and target the hi-lo route concepts Shanahan loves.
More than scheme fit, Lance has joined a team talented enough to rebound in a big way in 2021. The offensive line was already strong but got better thanks to the arrival of center Alex Mack during free agency. Retaining left tackle Trent Williams also helped.
Lance can target Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, Kyle Juszczyk, and George Kittle in the passing game. He can also hand off to Raheem Mostert and free-agent sleeper Wayne Gallman. The defense will welcome back key pass-rushers Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead after injuries wrecked their 2020 season.
If any rookie QB is ready for the playoffs in year one, it’s Lance.
There’s something just a little too neat about the Patriots tabbing Jones as the successor to Brady they missed last season. Jones displayed Brady’s efficiency and savvy during his time at Alabama. He knows how to read defenses and is an accurate spot-thrower. Those traits are ideal for a timing-based passing game.
The problem is Jones may not be working in one of those in New England. There are still some useful intermediate receivers who will turn short passes into long gains the way Julian Edelman used to do for Brady. Players like the returning James White and free-agent signing tight end Hunter Henry will make life easier for Jones. Yet the Pats appear ready to move on from the era of Edelman after also acquiring Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor, two burners who will stretch the field at wide receiver.
Honestly, the bigger headscratcher about this pick involves Cam Newton. He may have re-upped on another cheap deal, but Newton didn’t come back to New England to sit on the bench. If he plays, it’ll be a very different offense to anything Jones might run.
“The New England Patriots select, Quarterback, Mac Jones”
Cam Newton: pic.twitter.com/dnTbqozNxY
— Emmanuel Acho (@EmmanuelAcho) April 30, 2021
McDaniels can call the right game for each signal-caller, but what about the supporting cast the Patriots invested in so heavily this offseason? Will some of those players, including Agholor and Bourne, prefer the run-first, read-option, and play-action game Newton likes? Will the likes of White and Henry back themselves to see more targets in the traditional, dropback system that favours Jones?
The Patriots have given themselves options at football’s most important position. They’ve also ensured an almighty transition if/when they have to change quarterbacks this season.
Okay, so the Giants can feel good about getting another receiver to help Jones progress in his third year. But was Kadarius Toney truly the apple of general manager Dave Gettleman’s eye? Probably not since the Giants were pretty keen on Alabama wideouts Jaylen Waddle and Devonta Smith. Both were off the board by the time the Giants were slated to pick 11th overall. It must have been galling to see NFC East rivals the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles engage in a trade that let the latter leapfrog Big Blue and select Smith with the 10th pick.
In this context, the decision to take Toney feels like the Giants simply settled for the first receiver listed after their primary targets. There’s even more credence to this when you consider Toney is something of a project. His hands aren’t the most reliable, while his route-running could also use some work.
There’s no doubt Toney is a threat when he gets the ball in his hands, but Jason Garrett isn’t creative enough as an offensive coordinator to put those skills to full use the way an Eric Bieniemy or Brian Daboll would.
Loser: Christian Barmore
Even in a year when most deemed the defensive tackle class a weak one, Christian Barmore was still expected to go in the first round. Instead, the former Alabama linchpin is one of the biggest names waiting to hear his name called on Day 2. Quite why is something of a mystery.
A couple teams told me that it would get their attention if the Ravens passed on Alabama DT Christian Barmore, given Baltimore's connections in Tuscaloosa and the question marks Barmore's carrying.
They've now passed on him twice.
— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) April 30, 2021
The Baltimore Ravens weren’t the only team that could have used Barmore. He’d solve a susceptibility to the run that’s plagued Bill Belichick’s Patriots defenses in key games in recent years. Belichick’s friendship with Alabama head coach Nick Saban made this seem like a safe pick.
Saban defended Barmore after reports emerged some NFL teams are concerned about an apparent “resistance to coaching.” Smart franchises ought to take Saban at his word considering the success his defensive tackles have had at the pro level. Jarran Reed, Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, and Brandon Williams have become impact players in the trenches.
Barmore should similarly reward a front office prepared to take a risk on Day 2.