Grading the 2021 NFL Draft: AFC West report cards
By Rob Rang
FOX Sports NFL Draft Analyst
Every day this week, division by division, I’m taking a close look at each team’s rookie class, including a few of the undrafted free-agent signings I believe could surprise.
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Denver Broncos – Grade: A-
The 2021 NFL Draft was George Paton’s first as a general manager, but his 20 years working in the front offices at Miami and Minnesota were on display over the weekend, and he came away with one of the most complete rookie hauls in the NFL.
A few days after acquiring a steady veteran quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater to push talented but inconsistent incumbent starter Drew Lock, Paton held fast to the ninth overall selection, filling a clear need with steady Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II, the best player available.
Addressing positions of concern while getting incredible value was the theme of Denver’s 2021 draft, with Paton engineering three trades on Day 2 that netted him the best runner through contact in this class in North Carolina’s Javonte Williams, self-made Senior Bowl star Quinn Meinerz and speedy Ohio State outside linebacker Baron Browning.
Back-to-back selections of safeties Caden Sterns (Texas) and Jamar Johnson (Indiana) might be questioned by some, but I like it. Both players flashed in their college careers, and they possess the raw talent to pair nicely with Pro Bowler Justin Simmons, with the grittier but less experienced Johnson capable of overtaking Sterns for playing time in a competitive situation similar to the one created at quarterback a few days earlier.
A receiver corps blessed with terrific speed and size got more physical with the selection of Auburn’s Seth Williams in the sixth round and the signing of former Colorado State standout Warren Jackson as an undrafted free agent. Even Paton’s seventh-round selections made sense, with the general manager giving the Broncos’ defensive-minded head coach, Vic Fangio, a top-100 talent in former LSU cornerback Kary Vincent before capping the impressive class with tough-guy defensive linemen Jonathan Cooper and Marquis Spencer.
Kansas City Chiefs – Grade: B+
As with any team using its draft picks to acquire veterans via trade, when evaluating the two-time reigning AFC champion Chiefs’ 2021 draft class, it is important to acknowledge that they invested their first-round pick in offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. from Baltimore. Trading the 31st overall selection for a proven commodity such as Brown, already a two-time Pro Bowler, makes both sense and cents, given the critical nature of protecting Patrick Mahomes (who is still operating on a rookie deal) and the fact that Andy Reid, as a former offensive line coach, knows exactly what he wants in a blocker.
Reid’s recognition of what it takes to be successful up front was also key in the late second round, when the Chiefs selected another former Oklahoma Sooner in Creed Humphrey, a former teammate of Brown’s. While Humphrey did not allow a single sack during his college career, he was a bit polarizing among scouts, with some questioning whether his relatively short arms might catch up to him when he faces the burliest nose guards in the NFL.
Chiefs general manager Brett Veach is surely well aware that other than his team's star Chris Jones, the AFC West is relatively void of dominant interior defensive linemen. The Chiefs and their up-tempo, heavy-shotgun attack are a perfect schematic match for Humphrey, who joins free-agent acquisition Austin Blythe as the only true centers on the roster.
Of course, the rookie expected to make the most immediate impact for the Chiefs this year is heavy-hitting fan-favorite Nick Bolton, who played his college ball just two hours east in Columbia. A heat-seeking missile joining a defense that, frankly, needed one, Bolton is a legitimate Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate.
The Day 3 selections of H-back Noah Gray (Duke), wide receiver Cornell Powell (Clemson) and guard Trey Smith (Tennessee) help further diversify the league’s most dangerous offense, though Kansas City is already so stacked at these positions that it appears unlikely that any will see much playing time as rookies.
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Las Vegas Raiders – Grade: C-
Somewhere along the way, the Raider Mystique became the Raider Mystery.
Like many of their decisions this offseason, the Raiders’ 2021 draft raises more questions than it provides answers. I am higher on first-round pick Alex Leatherwood than many – I did project him as a first-round pick – but his selection at No. 17 overall felt too early, especially given the rare depth and talent along the offensive line this year and the Raiders’ variety of other concerns.
Leatherwood’s selection follows the trend for the Raiders since Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock began working together of prioritizing prospects from blue blood programs with their early picks. Although Josh Jacobs has eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark in each of his two NFL seasons, the Raiders simply have not received enough out of their four other first-round investments from the past two drafts: DE Clelin Ferrell (No. 4 overall in 2019), S Johnathan Abram (No. 27, 2019), WR Henry Ruggs III (No. 12, 2020) and Damon Arnette (No. 19, 2020) – at least not yet.
Similarly, I like the raw talent of all three of the safeties drafted by the Raiders this year, and given the passing attacks in the AFC West, I am not opposed to the strategy of loading up on defensive backs, especially when one of them is the reigning Thorpe Award winner (TCU’s Trevon Moehrig).
However, four of the team’s seven total picks were invested in DBs, which suggests that the Raiders are not pleased with the development of Arnette or Abram and might be on the verge of shipping them off the same way they did the majority of their starting offensive line this spring.
Edge rusher Malcolm Koonce has juice, and I love the range former Missouri safety Tyree Gillespie shows in coverage. It was hard not to have Kam Chancellor flashbacks when watching the similarly built Divine Deablo make big plays for Virginia Tech the past few years.
Also, the Raiders have one of the more intriguing UDFA classes with former West Virginia defensive tackle Darius Stills, BYU tight Matt Bushman, Louisiana running back Trey Ragas and Boston College linebacker Max Richardson, among others. Still, when adding it all up, this seems like a draft that Las Vegas should ask to be reshuffled.
Los Angeles Chargers – Grade: B
After nabbing a young, star quarterback in the first round last year, there was little that Chargers general manager Tom Telesco could do in 2021 that would generate the same electricity among the fan base. However, the class he and his staff put together carries plenty of juice, with smart picks made throughout the weekend to protect the investment made in Justin Herbert.
Top pick Rashawn Slater faces the unenviable task of protecting Herbert’s blindside against the frightening collection of edge rushers in the AFC West. But he possesses the light feet, heavy hands and steady technique to do so, providing both a clean schematic fit and a value match at No. 13 overall.
One of the knocks on Slater is that he doesn’t have elite arm length. There was a similar concern with Nebraska’s Brenden Jaimes. Both make up for this with quickness, balance and smarts. Given how much the Chargers have struggled with durability up front over the years, the positional versatility each of these two should provide makes them especially wise investments.
Of course, protecting Herbert is only half of the solution. The Chargers needed to add more pass-catchers for him as well. Josh Palmer is a classic possession receiver with the size and strength to be much more effective in the red zone in the NFL than he was at Tennessee. His seven career touchdowns were a reflection of the Vols’ inconsistent quarterback play more than his own shortcomings.
Palmer is not, however, a particularly dynamic runner after the catch. Given that this draft was full of those types, the Chargers might have missed on an opportunity in this regard, though former Georgia tight end Tre McKitty offers some potential as a seam threat.
The wild cards in this class are the linebackers. Duke’s Chris Rumph has enough burst and bend to be an effective rusher and Iowa’s Nick Niemann could surprise in this capacity, as could highly productive UDFA signee Amen Ogbongbemiga.
One of the most recognized names in the industry, Rob Rang has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others.