Welcome to Football Outsiders' pick-by-pick coverage of the first three rounds of the 2021 NFL draft! Over the next 29 hours or so, we'll provide you with…
- Laser-accurate quarterback comparisons (only Football Outsiders dares to compare one of this year's prospects to Drew Stanton);
- Heartwarming tales of offensive linemen destroying their childhood homes with their siblings and preteen quarterbacks getting publicly shamed by their fathers;
- Lots of statistical nuggets about teams and prospects (this is Football Outsiders after all);
- Visits from special guests like Emo Howie Roseman and Death Metal Shanahan;
- Actual scouting observations, occasionally;
- Tons of insights, analysis, asides and fun.
This is my 20th draft providing some form of live pick-by-pick coverage for outlets from Bleacher Report to The New York Times, but it's my first time doing so for the home team here at Football Outsiders. I'm thrilled to be able to spend the next two nights with you. Welcome aboard what's always a wild ride! Refresh often for updates!
If you're looking for the usual "Open NFL Draft Discussion Thread," there isn't one this year. Feel free to get the discussion going in the comment thread below.
And don't forget to check out the first-ever Football Outsiders Draft Recap Twitch Livestream, tonight starting at 11:30 p.m. Eastern on the Football Outsiders Twitch channel. Aaron Schatz will be hosting the discussion along with Scott Spratt, Derrik Klassen, and Benjamin Robinson of Grinding the Mocks, plus I'll be joining the discussion once the first round of the draft is fully in the books.
11. Chicago Bears
Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
When Fields got a "C" on his report card in sixth grade, his father punished him by making him wear a shirt that was two sizes too small for him to school for three weeks. "That's kind of what's made me into the man I am today," Fields later said.
As a former teacher and father of two sons in their teens, I must make it clear to readers that publicly shaming a sixth-grader by making him or her wear weird clothes is unlikely to turn the child into an NFL quarterback. It's much more likely to produce a seventh-grader who rips the wings off houseflies for fun. Please just take your child's video games away until their grades improve. Thank you.
Anyway, a little junior high public humiliation may have inoculated Fields against what has happened to him over the last few months. Fields may have faced the toughest overall schedule in the nation over the last two years. He led the Buckeyes to the National Championship Game. He played injured at times. He was even at the forefront of the effort to keep playing college football during the pandemic. What did he get for his efforts? Anonymous whispers about his work ethic and passion for the game, naturally.
Fields became this draft's official Quarterback Prospect NFL Insiders Just Don't Like for Reasons They Swear Have Nothing to Do With Implicit Bias. As such, intense scrutiny of his game film is almost beside the point. Fields has the tools of an elite NFL starter and flaws typical of a prospect from a top program: pressure right up the middle takes him by surprise and often finds him without a plan, for example. But his NFL future will likely boil down to whether the Bears commit to him and give him a legitimate shot, or whether they start fiddling around with Garfunkel and Oates (Andy Dalton and Nick Foles) at the first sign of trouble. Given how much time they gave Mitch Trubisky to gestate, there's hope.
I had lots of Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy jokes pre-written, and the Bears just ruined them. This was a great decision at a critical moment for that organization.
12. Dallas Cowboys
Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State
Mike McCarthy said recently that the Cowboys need more "speed and energy," per Jon Machota of The Athletic. Plum tuckered out by the utterance, McCarthy then scheduled appointments at his favorite mid-practice day spa, then took to bed with the vapors.
When someone said the Cowboys needed more speed in the early 1990s, three VTOL helicopters immediately took off for Columbia.
(I'd like to thank McCarthy for the soundbite. I didn't have any really good Cowboys gags entering Thursday, because they have been acting rather normal lately).
Parsons reminds me of Bobby Wagner. He has almost telepathic recognition and reaction skills. He sometimes shoots interior gaps and brings down ball-carriers so quickly that I have a hard time processing what happened when watching film. ("OK, I found Parsons on the screen, it's first-and-10, the offense is in the Pist—oh snap, the play is over.")
Parsons is also a high-impact blitzer with a spin move and the agility to beat offensive tackles around the corner. He should adjust quickly to NFL coverage responsibilities.
Parsons was allegedly involved in a 2018 hazing incident which bears mentioning. You can read about it here. Penn State coach James Franklin comes off far worse than anyone, frankly, which is par for the course for college football. The incident sounds just a little too wild to be brushed off as "boys being boys" but not wild enough to make me fear I will be forced to someday write one of *those* thinkpieces about Parsons.
The Cowboys astutely slid down when the top cornerbacks were off the board and got the sort of player Jerry Jones loves. This is a very "Cowboys" pick. It's also a solid pick.
13. Los Angeles Chargers
Rashawn Slater, T, Northwestern
Watch Slater do more than hold his own against Chase Young in 2019 and you will fall deeply in love with him (unless you are the frost-hearted sort who cannot fall deeply in love with a left tackle). Slater may be quicker getting out of his stance than Penei Sewell, is athletically smooth, has great eyes when reading blitzes, and finds plenty of trouble when he climbs out to the second level.
Sports Info Solutions charged Slater with just one sack and one pressure allowed in 2019 (he opted out in 2020), which is remarkable considering the level of competition. Slater was charged with four holding penalties and could have been charged with more, so he will have to ditch some of his grabby tendencies.
I have heard some "Slater will have to move to guard" talk, but I don't see it. He may be getting held to the famous Orlando Pace standard: scouts of a certain age assume any college left tackle who is not Orlando Pace has no hope of succeeding at the position in the NFL. Frankly, he's a little lean to be an ideal guard, and his footwork and backpedal would be less of an asset inside.
Slater has some elite traits and should develop quickly into an NFL starter. A solid pick for a team that needs to get younger on the offensive line.
14. New York Jets
Alijah Vera-Tucker, T/G, USC
The Jets offensive line currently consists of Mekhi Becton and four compromise solutions. Their offense finished 29th in adjusted line yards, in part because Adam Gase was almost willfully sabotaging his own team, but also because the Jets thought players such as George Fant were capable starters and Josh Andrews were adequate backups. (And yes, Fant and Andrews were part of that willful sabotage.)
Vera-Tucker started at both left tackle and left guard for the Trojans but projects as an NFL guard. He has a wide frame but a somewhat lumpy build. He has quick feet but a choppy backpedal. His biggest technical issue is that he's a huggy blocker whose arms often end up outside his defender's frame. He needs to move his hands inside and improve his punch.
Sheer size, good eyes when picking up blitzers, and an ability to just get the job done in pass protection should make Vera-Tucker a starting-caliber guard who could slide outside in an absolute pinch.
Still, I don't love the idea of trading up for Vera-Tucker, especially with Christian Darrisaw still on the board.
15. New England Patriots
Mac Jones, QB, Alabama
Upside: Eli Manning
Downside: Zach Mettenberger
Best Comparison: Derek Carr
Before we get to Jones, Football Outsiders is proud to announce this year's winner of the Bill Belichick Offseason Fanfic Award!
First, the runners-up:
- Aloysius Twentytoo, "The 2011 New England Patriots are Back Baby!" (The Inscrutable Pigskin Jargon blog, 3/23/21). Using 97 scribbly diagrams of two-tight end passing concepts and 153 GIFs and YouTube clips guaranteed to cause every browser on earth to crash, the author explains how Belichick will use Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry to restore a 2011 version of his offense without mentioning Tom Brady, Bill O'Brien (who was the coordinator then, not Josh McDaniels), or you-know-who.
- Nathaniel Navelgazer, "The New Economy: Belichick Teaches Us That Overspending is Now Good. (Journal of Misapplied Pollster Science, 3/22/21). If Belichick is now doing things the Jets used to do in their worst offseasons, it can only mean that the NFL and basic economics underwent a 180-degree polar magnetic shift over the last 12 months, that dropping big bucks on No. 3 receivers is now the BEST way to run an organization, and tighty-whiteys should also be worn outside our trousers!
- Seamus McVrabelfluffer, "Belichick's Best Trait Has Always Been His Humility" (Manchester by the Sea Courier & Times, 3/19/21). A wicked-smart column about Belichick's renowned and unassailable emotional honesty, which he expressed in 2021 free agency by admitting that the Patriots have been drafting like a drunken uncle picking names out of a Phil Steele annual for the last decade.
And now the winner:
- Screamin J. Posthoc, "It was Belichick All Along!" (Cue the Agatha song!) Belichick knew the cap would drop in 2021. He knew his veterans would opt out in 2020. Heck, he knew COVID was coming years ago. So he tanked on purpose last year so he could catapult to greatness with the help of Kendrick Bourne and Devin Godchaux this year! WHAT. A. GENIUS.
Here to award post hoc his prize (an unpaid internship at the Boston Globe) is last year's winner: Homer Wishcaster, who wrote "Jarrett Stidham is the next Brady, and Everyone Knows It" back in May of 2020.
And now, onto the pick...
Hearing the name "Mac Jones" after three months of pre-draft histrionics makes me want to take a power drill straight to my right temple. Reading that name makes me want to wash my eyes out with grapefruit juice. Typing it makes my fingers seize up in arthritic protest.
Jones, as you probably know, was this year's Josh Allen or Daniel Jones. Opinions about him became almost politically polarized, especially in comparison and contrast to Justin Fields. NFL insiders (and those who bask in their wisdom) drooled and gushed over Jones' intangibles. DraftTwitter reacted, predictably, like an agitated beehive, treating Mac Jones as though he were Fake Captain America, in contrast to Fields' Sam Wilson. It all became noisy, dreary, and ultimately uninformative.
Here is what it all boils down to: NFL evaluators love system quarterbacks because they love the systems they built for those quarterbacks.
When an offense-oriented coach watches Jones make fine-but-not-extraordinary decisions in a fully optimized environment, he doesn't see distortions or limitations. He sees validation of an offensive coordinator's vision, and he imagines himself enjoying that same success. Defensive coaches, meanwhile, see a "safe, coachable" choice. All but the most forward-thinking coaches define "intelligence" as a quarterback's ability to parrot back what they are taught at a whiteboard. It's a closed loop with implicit bias baked right into the batter.
Therefore, the NFL's self-fulfilling prophecy is destined to fulfill itself once again, in fulfillment of the prophecy. Kyle Shanahan may have blinked when staring into the abyss, but Jones will still get an outstanding opportunity to be an NFL starter, because outstanding NFL starting opportunities are custom-tailored to quarterbacks like him.
I think Justin Fields is a better prospect than Jones. Heck, I think Daniel Jones was a better prospect than Mac Jones. That said, I don't think Jones is the stumblebum he's made out to be when the draft hipsters work themselves into a lather. Jones will succeed, to some degree, because he's designed to succeed in a culture that has designed for him to succeed.
This selection will be hailed as a Belichick coup. In fact, it's a continuation of an offseason that sees the Patriots building towards a 9-8 record.
Worst of all, the name "Mac Jones" is just going to keep causing me migraines for the next four years or so.
16. Arizona Cardinals
Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa
Collins won just about every award a college linebacker can win in 2020: the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (best defensive player in the nation), the Chuck Bednarik Award (same honor, different voters) and the Lombardi Award (the Heisman, but with character and leadership factored in).
The film shows why: Collins has superior range, makes sideline-to-sideline plays, and flows very naturally in pursuit. He's also capable of handling Tampa-2-style coverage assignments up the seam, times his jump well to bat down passes, and has a sudden burst when playing close to the line of scrimmage that will make him a useful situational blitzer.
There are some quibbles in Collins' game, including a habit for getting steamrolled when blockers get their mitts on him and the occasional coverage lapse. But he could have a Devin White-like impact in the NFL.
Not a bad pick, but I am still processing the Patriots. Do you think Bill Belichick manipulated the market to make Mac Jones OVER-rated, so he would drop due to the backlash? Of course not. Do you think someone will seriously suggest that on a talk show? Stay tuned if you dare.
17. Las Vegas Raiders
Alex Leatherwood, T, Alabama
Leatherwood was a two-year starter for the Tide at left tackle who also saw time at guard. He's a massive dude with excellent upper body strength, a punishing run-blocker and finisher. His backpedal is a little jerky, and he can be beaten by speed, which sometimes forces him to wrap a big left meathook around his defender.
Leatherwood is not a superior athlete like Penei Sewell, Rashawn Slater, or Christian Darrisaw, but he can get the job done at left tackle with size, strength, and technique.
The Raiders needed help on the offensive line, but I think Darrisaw has higher upside. This is one of their "sit still and grab a big program dude" selections.
18. Miami Dolphins
Jaelan Phillips, ER, Miami
One Team. One Tua. One ton of draft capital. One chance to finally return to relevance. THIS is DolphinQuest 2021.
The Problem: The Dolphins led the NFL with 29 takeaways last season. That's a problem because takeaways are an extremely volatile statistic. If the Dolphins don't continue building on their defensive gains from last year, a few bad bounces could send them tumbling back to the middle of the pack.
The Solution: Edge rush help.
Phillips had significant concussion issues when playing for UCLA and briefly considered retirement. He instead transferred to Miami, where he replaced opt-out Gregory Rousseau last season and notched 8.0 sacks. He went on to upstage Rousseau and Quincy Roche (another Hurricanes edge rusher likely to hear his name called this weekend) at Miami's pro day. SackSEER took notice, projecting 30.5 sacks through five seasons, the highest figure in this class.
Phillips can practically teleport away from blockers with his spin move, wins often in his first three steps, and generates a lot of pressure with his second move. He also hustles in pursuit and doesn't need a GPS to drop into shallow zone coverage. The concussions are his only question mark, and it's a huge one for the middle of the first round.
19. Washington Football Team
Jamin Davis, LB, Kentucky
The Washington Football Team's offseason so far has been a mixed bag:
The Bad: Dan Snyder bought off minority shareholders and taking full ownership of the team. That may result in Snyder building a football field on his yacht, sailing into international waters, renaming them the Washington [insert unprintable and unconscionable slur here] and ordering them to play wearing spiked gauntlets and bladed cleats for his amusement.
The Good: Washington is replacing their cheerleaders with a coed dance team. That's an undeniable sign of progress, though it may honk off some older male fans who cling to gender-normative traditions like wearing granny dresses with pig masks.
The Bad: Washington replaced quarterback Alex Smith, an inspirational figure because he overcame gruesome and potentially life-threatening injuries, with Ryan Fitzpatrick, an inspirational figure because he overcame getting benched in favor of Tua Tagovailoa with only a moderate amount of public whining.
The Good: Washington added YAC machine offensive weapons such as Curtis Samuel, Adam Humphries, and Lamar Miller, meaning they can build a semi-credible passing game even though their Air Yards would better be measured in centimeters.
The Hawaiian-born Davis is a natural Mike linebacker who emerged as a starter for the Wildcats last season. He's always around the ball because he diagnoses plays quickly, runs well in the open field, and can dip his shoulder to crash through would-be blockers. Davis also intercepted three passes last season, including a highlight-reel pick-six against Tennessee, and can handle basic coverage assignments over the middle of the field.
This is a meh pick—I have several linebackers graded higher than Davis—and Washington drew the short straw as the first team in need of a quarterback to be left out in the cold.
20. New York Giants
Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida
Dave Gettleman traded down? And drafted an offensive playmaker when the pool is loaded with offensive and defensive linemen? Will wonders never cease?
Toney raps under the name "Yung Joka." Here's an NSFW video of Toney performing "Keep it Real" while wearing a Slayer T-shirt and getting pushed around what appears to be his hometown of Mobile, Alabama, (I think I recognize the skyline in the background) in a shopping cart.
Wait … getting pushed around Mobile in a shopping cart wearing a Slayer tee-shirt? Toney should just change his name to #DraftTwitter and become the official house band at Veets.
Do you think anonymous scouts have questions about Toney's rap career? You bet your sweet bippy they do. Maybe Toney needs a more football-approved offseason hobby, like hosting game shows.
Anyway, Toney was one of the stars of the Senior Bowl this year, where he looked much more physical than his listed 5-foot-11, 189-pound measurements would suggest. The Gators used him as a slot weapon and sometime-Wildcat quarterback, and he probably fits best in a similar slash role in the NFL. That said, some of his Senior Bowl reps suggest he has untapped potential as a traditional receiver who can take care of himself when beating jams and running traditional routes.
Toney is a better overall prospect than Laviska Shenault, the Colorado slash player who caught 58 passes last year for the Jaguars. As for his rap career, well, I've been shopping-carted around parking lots in heavy metal T-shirts once or twice in my life. If 50-year-old white chonk dads can relate to your rap stylings, chances are you are doing it wrong.
The Giants offense is definitely going to be interesting this year. Whether "interesting" turns into "good" remains to be seen.
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