Grading the 2021 NFL Draft: AFC South 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.
Here are my report cards for the four teams in the AFC South.
Houston Texans – Grade: B-
As with other teams that traded away draft picks to acquire veteran talent, any analysis of the Texans’ 2021 class has to start with the acknowledgment that their first- and second-round selections provided the team with a Pro Bowl left tackle in Laremy Tunsil.
It is both sad and ironic, however, that Tunsil was brought to Houston in large part to protect the blindside of star Deshaun Watson, whose future with the organization was made only muddier this past Saturday, with the club investing its top pick this year in Stanford quarterback Davis Mills.
With just 11 career starts at Stanford, there is no denying that Mills is a roll of the dice, but – with all due respect to Watson – I like the selection. No one knows what the future holds for Watson, and the franchise had to protect itself. Further, Mills is legitimately talented, with his repeated knee issues — not a lack of arm strength, experience or upside — the reason for his slipping to No. 67 overall. His ceiling is that of a legitimate franchise quarterback, and that is fantastic upside, given where he was selected.
While Watson is a transcendent talent, obviously the best player on Houston’s roster and a perfect schematic fit in what new head coach David Culley helped create in Baltimore with Lamar Jackson, Mills is the classic drop-back passer who continues to win more consistently in today’s NFL. If the Texans must move on at quarterback, there is plenty of evidence that Mills can be their guy.
Whoever is taking the snaps in Houston will be aided by a strong supporting cast drafted by general manager Nic Caserio, including prototypically built split end Nico Collins (Michigan) and one of the few polished tight ends in this class, Brevin Jordan (Miami).
Trading Benardrick McKinney to Miami for Shaq Lawson boosted the Texans’ pass rush and physicality along the line of scrimmage but left a significant hole at inside linebacker. TCU’s Garret Wallow, like Mills, was underrated nationally but is a savvy, reliable player who will outplay his selection (No. 170). Arizona’s Roy Lopez, who jumped up in competition while others stepped away in 2020, has the competitiveness and raw talent to surprise as well.
With just five picks, the Texans couldn’t reshape the roster the way the new regime might have wanted, but strides were made with this class, which was boosted with draftable Texas A&M offensive linemen Carson Green and Ryan McCollum as UDFAs.
Indianapolis Colts – Grade: B
If the Colts’ trade for quarterback Carson Wentz did not demonstrate general manager Chris Ballard’s guts, his willingness to overlook one of the better offensive tackle classes of the century certainly did.
This isn’t to say that I don’t like the talent Grigson brought to Indianapolis in this class.
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In fact, I love the two defensive linemen the Colts added at the top of the draft, with Michigan’s Kwity Paye, my top-rated defensive end overall, and Vanderbilt’s Dayo Odeyingbo both exactly the kind of blue-collar workhorses who will excel alongside superstar DeForest Buckner.
Even when the Colts won Super Bowl XLI with Peyton Manning in 2007, this was a club known more for its skill position talent than its toughness along the line of scrimmage. This version of the Colts is more plowhorse than thoroughbred, however, and despite what many fans might think, football is still won or lost in the trenches. Ballard and head coach Frank Reich clearly understand that, with this club built to bully opponents with its offensive and defensive lines.
Perhaps veteran addition Sam Tevi will be the answer in 2021 as the replacement for retired Pro Bowler Anthony Castonzo, or maybe the team will bring in someone else prior to the start of the season. After starring early in Philadelphia, however, Wentz was unloaded by the franchise because his composure turned to compost after he took a lot of hits.
The Colts added to Wentz’s weapons (and competition) later in the draft, nabbing one of the more intriguing H-backs in Kylen Granson and vertical threats in Michael Strachan on Day 3, as well as a tough guy, dual-threat quarterback in former Texas standout Sam Ehlinger, who will push last year’s rookie quarterback, Jacob Eason, aside if the latter isn’t fully committed.
Indianapolis also added a legitimate head hunter in safety Shawn Davis in the fifth round, and he might bring back some memories of another Colts’ great, Bob Sanders, with his tenacity and physicality in the fifth round. Davis is so physical that he might fit right in along the Quenton Nelson, Forest and the Colts’ brawlers at the line of scrimmage, though at 199 pounds, his upside is better at safety and special teams than left tackle.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Grade: A-
Let's begin by stating the obvious: It is easier to draft for teams that, frankly, lack talent and have two first-round picks, including No. 1 overall.
This is especially true when drafting in a year when there is a consensus top quarterback and with a head coach who recruited many of the best players, giving his club a unique perspective in the most unprecedented draft class in NFL history.
With all of that on the table, the Jaguars still deserve one of this year’s top grades for a draft class that stands apart from top to bottom.
So much has already been said and written about Trevor Lawrence. He is a remarkable talent, with the poise on and off the field that teams are searching for in a franchise quarterback to go with his prototypical height, effortless arm strength, accuracy and mobility. Make no mistake about it, as excited as the four other teams that took a QB in the first round are about their rookie passers, all of them would have happily taken Lawrence if he’d been available.
Better yet for Jacksonville, Lawrence is a sublime fit in Urban Meyer’s offense, which has been upgraded to more of a pro-style with former Seattle offensive coordinators Darrell Bevell and Brian Schottenheimer, who know something about molding young, dual-threat quarterbacks, also on the staff.
Moving past Lawrence (in a way), the Jaguars greased his transition to the NFL by bringing along his exceptionally productive running mate, Travis Etienne, at No. 25 overall. While this selection felt a bit luxurious, given the other needs for a franchise that finished with one win a year ago, it is worth remembering that Meyer has no built-in loyalty to last year’s stellar rookie running back, James Robinson. Meyer, of course, is used to five-star recruits — not undrafted free agents — at running back.
If there is a red flag with some of Jacksonville’s other selections, it is that Syracuse safety Andre Cisco and Stanford left tackle Walker Little are coming off major injuries. Both of them, however, are top-notch talents at premium positions in today’s NFL. The same could be said for cornerback Tyson Campbell and former Southern California defensive tackle Jay Tufele, each of whom has flashed first-round-caliber talent at one point or another in his college career.
The Jaguars went all-in by signing Meyer in the first place. The selections that he and general manager Trent Baalke made in 2021 followed that same aggressive approach. With its massive upgrade in talent and a last-placed schedule, the Jaguars appear poised to leap into AFC South contention immediately.
Tennessee Titans – Grade: A-
Give Titans general manager Jon Robinson a lot of credit. The strikeout with last year’s first-round pick, Isaiah Wilson, did not stop him from swinging hard again, with another risky player in Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley at No. 22 overall.
Farley’s medical issues were more documented than the maturity issues that forced Tennessee (and Miami) to cut ties with him last year, but they are nonetheless frightening. I thought Wilson’s tape warranted his first-round selection a year ago, however, and I feel the same way with Farley, who might have been a top-10 selection if not for his medical red flags. There are not many cornerbacks in the NFL with Farley’s blend of size, speed and ball skills. Those who are – such as the Rams’ Jalen Ramsey and Ravens’ Marcus Peters – are annual All-Pro candidates.
Rather than gamble just on Farley, however, Tennessee reinforced its secondary with the most instinctive (and durable) defensive back in this class in Washington’s Elijah Molden with the 100th overall selection. There could be TSA warnings in Tennessee in the near future with these two cornerbacks joining Janoris Jenkins, Kristian Fulton and, of course, star safety Kevin Byard behind a pass rush boosted by the signing of Bud Dupree in the offseason.
While second-round pick Dillon Radunz might lack Wilson’s aforementioned raw traits, his positional versatility and competitiveness were on display at North Dakota State and throughout a terrific week of practice at the Senior Bowl.
Speaking of competitiveness, former Georgia linebacker Monty Rice is as physical as it gets, which certainly will be appreciated by head coach Mike Vrabel, who, of course, knows a little something about tenacity at this position.
Farley has to live up to expectations for this class to pay off big, but Tennessee hit a home run last time it gambled on a player with medical red flags, with defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons coming off a torn ACL prior to being selected 19th overall in 2019. With a little luck – including Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry continuing their stellar play – this could be a class that pushes Tennessee to the Super Bowl.
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.