The top 10 most memorable moments of the 2021 NFL Draft
By Rob Rang
FOX Sports NFL Draft Analyst
When it comes to the 2021 NFL Draft, the only thing more predictable than the Jacksonville Jaguars making Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence the first pick was the flood of grades generated before any of these prospects sign their rookie contracts, much less play a down for their new teams.
Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy evaluating the draft classes for each of the league’s 32 teams as much as the next analyst. We will be unveiling deep-dive report cards by division all next week.
But in the meantime, rather than simply brand the teams that drafted the most highly touted prospects as immediate "winners" from this draft, let’s take a broader approach and extend some well-deserved congratulations elsewhere with a tongue-in-cheek reflection of the 10 most memorable moments and victories from the 2021 NFL Draft.
10. "Macho Man" signals Cleveland’s resurrection
Given all of the talent brought to the Browns’ organization the past three days by general manager Andrew Berry, it would be easy to list Cleveland as a big winner for its draft haul. But the congratulations go further than that, with Berry and his wife, Brittan, welcoming a daughter, Eden, prior to the draft on Thursday, and palpable excitement from the fan base that could be felt through the television screen.
Perhaps nothing captured the passion of the Dawg Pound better than the center-stage, spot-on impersonation of late wrestling superstar Randy "Macho Man" Savage by one zealous Browns fan. Any city fortunate enough to host the NFL draft has a big opportunity, and Cleveland pulled it off in style.
They wear rings, not belts, to signal champions in the NFL, but for the first time in a long time, it felt like Cleveland’s draft day wins in the spring might actually translate to victories in the fall and winter.
9. Speaking of the football-loving state of O-H-I-O ...
How about some credit to Ryan Day, head coach at Ohio State, as no college team produced more NFL draft picks this year than the Buckeyes’ 10 overall selections, which tied them with their national title game opponent, Alabama.
Day’s predecessor – Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer – certainly deserves plenty of acknowledgement as well for turning Columbus into a hotbed of burgeoning NFL talent. Leading off with quarterback Justin Fields at No. 11, the Buckeyes had a player selected in each round of the draft.
8. Diamonds sparkle wherever they're found
With the pandemic making the evaluation of small-school players much more difficult this year, one couldn’t have blamed NFL teams for focusing exclusively on talents from the Power 5 teams. However, starting with the San Francisco 49ers gambling on the immense upside of North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance with the third overall pick, nine players from outside the 130 teams that make up the FBS were selected this spring, reinforcing that NFL scouts will find the diamonds in the rough.
Joining Lance from this year’s truly small-school programs were new Titans tackle Dillon Radunz (North Dakota State), Bills tackle Spencer Brown (Northern Iowa), Broncos center Quinn Meinerz (Wisconsin-Whitewater), Giants defensive end Elerson Smith (Northern Iowa), Rams cornerback Robert Rochell (Central Arkansas), Vikings tight end Zach Davidson (Central Missouri), Colts wideout Michael Strachan (Charleston), Dolphins offensive tackle Larnel Coleman (Massachusetts) and Rams rusher Chris Garrett (Concordia-St. Paul).
7. Quarterbacks (at least for now) live up to the hype
The "Big Five" lived up to the hype, with BYU’s Zach Wilson and Alabama’s Mac Jones joining the aforementioned Lawrence, Fields and Lance in being selected among the top 15 picks of the draft, marking the earliest this many quarterbacks have been selected this century.
It wasn’t just top-end talent at the position that had scouts excited this year, however. The depth was also very good, with eight passers being selected in the first three rounds, something never before seen in an NFL draft.
6. Stealing the center of attention
Needless to say, this record-breaking quarterback class is going to generate plenty of attention. But this year’s center class also deserves some of the limelight. I believe at least six centers from this class will earn starting jobs in the NFL, which means that in a few seasons it could be that nearly 20% of the starting pivots in the NFL were selected in 2021.
NFL teams clearly agreed with these grades, with Landon Dickerson (Philadelphia), Josh Myers (Green Bay), Creed Humphrey (Kansas City), Kendrick Green (Pittsburgh) and Quinn Meinerz (Denver) all earning top-100 picks and Drew Dalman (Atlanta) gone with the ninth pick of the fourth round. In the modern history of the NFL, only one class – 2018 – had more centers drafted this early.
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5. Jets like Michael Carter so much, they draft him twice
Given the sheer number of players eligible for the draft, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised each year when there are a few with similar or even the same names. It was only last year, after all, that the New York Jets signed Nebraska cornerback Lamar Jackson to a free-agent deal just a few months after his namesake won NFL MVP honors while dazzling at quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens.
The Jets did themselves one better this year by nabbing flashy North Carolina running back Michael Carter 107th overall and then taking the Duke cornerback of the same name 47 selections later. Fortunately for the Jets’ broadcasters and fans, the defender already goes by Michael Carter II.
4. Slot receivers and nickel cornerbacks all the rage
Today’s NFL offenses attack as much horizontally as they do vertically, and that switch coincided with a terrific class of diminutive and speedy slot receivers and nickel cornerbacks this year. Given how many receivers and defensive backs make up a typical roster, it should come as no surprise that these positions ranked first and second, respectively, in the number of players drafted in 2021.
However, what is unusual is that a disproportionate number of them measured 5-foot-10 or shorter. Take the NFC West, for example. The Arizona Cardinals (Rondale Moore), Rams (Tutu Atwell) and Seattle Seahawks (D’Wayne Eskridge) all took slot receivers with their second-round selections, mirroring what the 49ers did a year ago in the first round, with Brandon Aiyuk.
The NFL remains a big man’s game, but the little guys are catching up quickly.
3. Little guys not needed in Detroit
While much of the NFL seems to be shrinking, the Lions roared throughout this draft with a completely different philosophy than in prior years, placing heavy emphasis on physicality and the line of scrimmage.
It began with Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell in the first round and continued with back-to-back Day 2 defensive tackles in Washington’s Levi Onwuzurike and North Carolina State’s Alim McNeill. Even the team's receiver (Amon-Ra St. Brown, Southern California) and cornerback (Ifeatu Melifonwu, Syracuse) rank among the most physical players at their respective positions, as does Purdue linebacker Derrick Barnes.
New head coach Dan Campbell famously declared during his introductory media conference that his Detroit squad would "bite a kneecap off" as a sign of how aggressive they’d be in 2021. The Lions are bringing in the brawlers to match that attitude.
2. Bills’ speedy offensive tackles worth noting
While Detroit is building a bruising mentality, this mindset already exists in Buffalo, with a franchise that – like Cleveland – appears to have taken another step toward a Super Bowl run with its 2021 draft class. I highlighted the interesting duo of defensive linemen drafted by the Bills in yesterday’s Day 2 takeaways, but it's a new set of "twins" on the offensive side of the ball on Day 3 who could play a surprising role for the Bills moving forward.
As most NFL fans realize, the Bills boast one of the more unique quarterbacks in the league in Josh Allen, a 6-foot-5, 238-pound monster who not only threw 37 touchdowns with just 10 interceptions in his third season but also led Buffalo with eight scores on the ground. The Bills nabbed Northern Iowa’s Spencer Brown (93rd overall) in the third round and Miami Ohio's Tommy Doyle (161st overall) in the fifth, two exceptional athletes whose ability to climb and corral defenders could make Allen even more of a weapon on the ground.
1. The value of all-star games demonstrated yet again
With the NFL’s annual scouting combine (or at least the athletic testing) canceled this year, clubs took full advantage of the apples-to-apples comparisons provided by evaluating players from the Senior Bowl, NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, Hula Bowl and College Gridiron Showcase. The Senior Bowl, of course, is well known as the preeminent all-star game in the industry, with virtually all of the players selected to compete in Mobile, Alabama, drafted or signed as free agents.
Kudos to the scouts working at the NFLPA and Gridiron this year, as well, however. The first handful of players selected this year who were not among those invited to the combine took part in these all-star games. Had players such as Wisconsin-Whitewater’s Meinerz (Senior Bowl), Boise State’s John Bates (Collegiate Bowl), Texas Tech’s Zech McPhearson (Hula Bowl), Purdue’s Tyler Coyle (Tropical Bowl) or Pittsburgh’s Jason Pinnock (College Gridiron Showcase) not been able to participate in those venues, they might not have heard their names called this weekend.
That fact – especially after a year such as this one – is very much worth celebrating.
One of the most recognized names in the industry, Rob Rang has been covering the NFL draft for more than 20 years, with his work found at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others.