Grading the 2021 NFL Draft: NFC North 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 NFC North.
Thank you for being a loyal user of the FOX Sports app and helping to make it a 2021 Webby Award nominee for Best Sports App. If you're enjoying the experience, we'd love your vote so we can take home the hardware.
Chicago Bears — Grade: B-
Long-suffering Bears fans, your wait for a franchise quarterback appears to be over.
On the same day the rival Green Bay Packers were scrambling to quell concerns that reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers might be on his way out of town, Chicago general manager Ryan Pace pulled off a blockbuster trade to land falling Ohio State star Justin Fields. The move signals a potentially sudden and dramatic shift of power at quarterback in the NFC North division.
Fields is not a perfect quarterback – still relying on his running skills too often – but he is a colossal leap in raw talent from the quarterbacks Chicago has fielded in the modern era, justifying the cost Chicago paid (four selections total, including first- and fourth-round picks in 2022) to move up nine spots to get him.
Now coach Matt Nagy "simply" has to help Fields live up to all that talent, something easier said than done, given that the move up left the Bears with one more pick (No. 39 overall) among the top 150 selections this year.
While fans (and Fields) likely were clamoring for a pass-catcher to pair with franchised wideout Allen Robinson, the Bears’ selection of brawling right tackle Teven Jenkins from Oklahoma State was a sound investment.
Former Missouri offensive tackle Larry Borom plays heavier than his workout numbers suggested, making a move inside to guard likely, but he also is a highly physical player with starting potential. As much as I like the addition of Khalil Herbert and Khyiris Tonga, both are similar to players already on Chicago’s roster.
The bold trade might have bought Pace and Nagy another season. The bigger question now might be whether the Bears can resist playing him long enough for Fields to develop behind Andy Dalton (or Nick Foles). Just as importantly, even a special talent such as Fields can’t succeed in the NFL without Chicago developing more playmakers at receiver.
Detroit Lions — Grade: A
While Chicago pinned its hopes on a new-age, dual-threat quarterback, the Lions took a time machine back a generation, investing their first three picks on equally unique difference-makers along the line of scrimmage.
Describing any offensive tackle as a difference-maker might sound like hyperbole, but Penei Sewell is different. I’ve been evaluating offensive and defensive linemen in the Pac-12 my entire career – and working in an official capacity with the conference’s Morris Trophy for the past five years – and the only offensive linemen I’ve seen this dominant were future All-Pros Tyron Smith and Alex Mack.
New Lions quarterback Jared Goff was fortunate to be protected by one of the league’s best in Andrew Whitworth while playing for the Rams. Soon, he’ll get similar protection from Sewell, who is even better as a run-blocker.
New Lions coach Dan Campbell is likely just as excited about the 1-2 punch coming at defensive tackle in Levi Onwuzurike, a classic penetrating three-technique, and burly, run-stuffer Alim NcNeill, who combines shocking initial quickness with sheer power.
During his introductory media conference, Campbell infamously explained that his team would "bite the kneecap off" opponents. The focus on linemen early reinforced Campbell’s proclamation.
What I like about the rest of new general manager Brad Holmes’ first draft, however, is that the search for extremely competitive players didn’t end with their big guys. Detroit’s final four picks – Syracuse cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu, USC wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, Purdue linebacker Derrick Barnes and Oregon State running back Jermar Jefferson – play with similar intensity.
Even better, Detroit also has one of the league’s better undrafted free-agent hauls with Kentucky center Drake Jackson, Marshall linebacker Tavante Beckett and wide receivers Javon McKinley (Notre Dame) and Sage Surratt (Wake Forest) all real candidates to make the roster.
This isn’t a draft likely to be celebrated by pundits … except this one. However, this is the type of class that helps establish a new culture in Detroit and gives the Lions some of the teeth they’ve long been missing.
Green Bay Packers — Grade: B-
It feels like piling on to criticize Green Bay general manager Brian Gutekunst, given the shrapnel he and his staff were dealing with on draft day after the shocking report that Rodgers no longer wants to play for the Packers. After a second consecutive odd draft, however, the Packers might have even more to worry about than "just" mending the relationship with their star quarterback.
Like Kevin King, the cornerback he was drafted to challenge, the Packers’ first-round pick, Eric Stokes, is absolutely loaded with talent but has struggled with consistency. Picking Stokes at No. 29 overall is similar to the direct challenge Gutekunst gave Rodgers a year ago with the selection of Utah State quarterback Jordan Love. Prior to this weekend’s reported fallout, Rodgers, 37, responded with the best statistical season of his NFL career. If King (or Stokes) reacts similarly and Rodgers returns, Gutekunst’s bold decision could prove genius.
While I’m a little skeptical about their choice at cornerback, I like many of their remaining selections.
Given where he was selected, as well as the club’s clear-cut need at center, with Pro Bowler Corey Linsley signing with the Chargers, the Packers’ second-round selection of Josh Myers makes a lot of sense. The Packers shouldn’t have to worry about center for a long, long time with Myers, a brick wall of a human being with rare size for the position. Interestingly enough, however, Myers is currently better as a run-blocker than pass-protector.
I’m also a big fan of the versatility and grit of guard Royce Newman, especially given how much Green Bay has historically struggled with injuries up front.
Of course, the easy favorite pick in this class for Green Bay, however, is former Clemson receiver Amari Rodgers. While his name is eerily similar to that of the Packers’ disgruntled quarterback, his game will bring back nightmares of a young, healthy Randall Cobb for rival defenders – except this young man is even better at breaking tackles.
Of Green Bay’s remaining picks and undrafted free agents, former All-SEC running back Kylin Hill shines the brightest. If focused, he’ll easily outperform his 256th overall selection – perhaps even overtaking last year’s surprise second-round pick, A.J. Dillon, as the primary backup to Aaron Jones.
Minnesota Vikings — Grade: B-
While cohosting on our former NFL draft-oriented "Instinctive Scouting Podcast," former Washington and San Francisco general manager Scot McCloughan would mention an analogy that he and some of his scouting buddies used with draft picks, comparing them to throwing darts, with the team with the most throws holding a huge advantage.
With 11 draft picks this year, Rick Spielman and the Minnesota Vikings had as many darts as any NFL team.
I’m not convinced they had any bull's-eyes, though.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the overall collection of talent Spielman is bringing to Minnesota. I just don’t know that this crop puts the Vikings in the pole position to take the NFC North, even with the division suddenly up for grabs, given the drama in Green Bay.
Critical to the success of this class is first-round pick Christian Darrisaw living up to his potential. Darrisaw has all of the traits scouts look for in a left tackle, including durability, but his level of play waned at times at Virginia Tech. Given the pass-rushers in this division (especially in Green Bay and Chicago), he’ll need to play well to help keep Kirk Cousins calm and at his best.
Even the Vikings seemed skeptical about that, with the club using its next pick on Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond – who also plays a bit too frenetically for my taste – with post-draft reports that the club tried to trade up to land Justin Fields.
The Vikings did land an ultra-physical guard in Wyatt Davis and one of the more explosive running backs in this class with Iowa State sleeper Kene Nwangu. Given the talent ahead of them on this roster, however, barring injuries, it might be difficult for either midround pick to see much action.
I like the additions to Mike Zimmer’s defense better.
Most intriguing is the trio of defensive linemen added by the Vikings. While still more technically raw than their statistics suggest, Patrick Jones II (Pittsburgh) and Janarius Robinson (Florida State) both offer the initial burst, length and motor that Zimmer helped Danielle Hunter blend into stardom. Jones’ teammate at Pitt – defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman – is better than his late-sixth-round selection, though again, he isn't as polished as his statistics (and hype) suggest.
Third-rounder Chazz Surratt is an athletic, instinctive linebacker who should compete with last year’s fourth-round pick, Troy Dye, to take over for free-agent defection Eric Wilson, the Vikings’ leading tackler a year ago.
Camryn Bynum isn’t as athletic as many of the cornerbacks drafted ahead of him, but he’s among the smartest, and no one is going to outwork him.
The Vikings added a similarly competitive receiver in undrafted free agency in Indiana’s Whop Philyor, as well as one of this year’s better kickers in Memphis’ Riley Patterson, giving Minnesota yet a few more darts to throw at the board.
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.