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2021 NFL Draft Review - NFC South

Hello and welcome to the second 2021 installment of my annual NFL Draft Review. You can read the AFC South review here.

Every year after the draft, I write a way-too-long review of each team’s draft. The purpose of this draft review is to give predictions for the careers of each team’s drafted players.  The vast majority of 4th-7th round picks don't amount to much, so I stick to the first three rounds.  I’ve watched film of each player I’m commenting on and have over seven years NCAA coaching experience. Draft grades are overly optimistic and unrealistic. Unlike the majority of post-draft coverage out there, I will pick busts. Keep in mind that 19% of all first-round picks bust.

Over the years I've had some impressive hits (like picking both Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota to underwhelm) and embarrassing misses (like underestimating Justin Jefferson).  I stick to my process and usually hit on some unpopular predictions.  I enjoy arguing the contrarian opinion, but will only do so when my evaluations allow me to.

Be sure to check all of our fantasy football rankings for 2024 fantasy football drafts:

 

Overview

Each player will receive their career prediction in parentheses following their name. For example: Kyle Pitts (5). Here's how the picks break down:

5 – All-Pro: Starter who has performed at an elite level at his position.
4 – Above-Average: Starter who has been among the best at his position.
3 – Solid: Starter or valuable back-up with significant positive production.
2 – Replacement Level: Below-average starter or back-up who made minor contributions.
1 – Bust: Player who didn’t amount to anything positive.

Next up, the NFC South.

 

Atlanta Falcons

New GM Terry Fontenot came into the draft with a huge decision to make.  Take one of the QBs in one of the best top-five QB groups ever?  Or stay put and go BPA?  I wouldn’t have faulted him for taking Justin Fields, but drafting the best TE prospect of all time wasn’t the wrong move.

I’m seeing a lot of misinformed backlash for drafting a tIgHt EnD at No. 4 especially when the Falcons had sO mAnY bIgGeR nEeDs.  First of all, Kyle Pitts is not a tight end.  He’s an offensive weapon who can play literally anywhere a skill position player has ever lined up (he played QB in high school).  Outside, slot, H-back, inline, backfield – he played all over the formation at Florida and will do the same in Atlanta.  Second of all, drafting for need - especially at the top of the draft – is just not smart.  NFL rosters change so much, careers are short, injuries mess everything up, and there aren’t many positions where you only need one, so going strictly BPA is the +EV move over time.  Obviously, there are some exceptions like at QB, but there isn’t a team in the league that has enough weapons where their OC would say “you know what, I don’t really think we need Kyle Pitts.”

As for Pitts the player, you’ve probably heard it all by now.  He does not compare to Vernon Davis or Kellen Winslow Jr.  He’s a much better prospect than those guys.  If you’re worried about his position, ask yourself if you’d take Travis Kelce at No. 4 overall – not if you’d take Vernon Davis.  Pitts is a go-up-and-get-it freak with incredible speed for his size.  He projects as a decent blocker as well.  His suddenness compares to Kelce.  When you look up “Matchup Nightmare” in the dictionary you see his picture.  He's going to score double-digit TDs or eclipse 1000 yards in all but one year in which he plays 15 or more games.  Read my full Prospect Profile with film clips of Pitts here.

In the second, the Falcons did address the defense with Richie Grant (2) of UCF.  Grant had a lot of hype from the internet draft community as possibly the best safety in the draft.  Aggressive and physical, Grant plays with an edge and pops off the screen at times.  He submarines ball carriers, made some nice plays as a blitzer, and stopped TDs by squeezing the edge on the goal line.  His film is that of a confident veteran, with 10 career picks.  He has the right mentality and pre-requisite speed and tackling skills to make it in the NFL.  However, I thought he was a little tight, and that showed in his one-on-one reps at the Senior Bowl.  He also takes longer than you want to get downhill and was taken advantage of as a read key on a bunch of RPOs versus Cincinnati.  The Cincy TE also dragged him for extra yardage and Grant somehow didn’t run with No. 2 on a corner route.  Maybe I’m being overly critical, but that film was filled with mistakes like getting picked by his own guy against mesh.  I thought he was OK, but his tightness has me questioning if he’s anything more than a JAG pro safety.

Jalen Mayfield (2) was another prospect I wasn’t as high on as some.  Mayfield showed a good kickslide but is an awkward athlete otherwise.  He also didn’t flash as particularly strong, catching defensive contact too often.  Blocking with shoulders on a downblock is a red flag that makes me question balance.  He can be a guy as a guard and maybe swing outside if needed but I actually like the value of Drew Dalman (3) better.  While studying the value of draft picks, it became pretty clear to me that the majority of late-round (4th-7th) hits were at C, K, and P.

 

Carolina Panthers

One thing became crystal clear after this Panthers draft – they believe in Sam Darnold.  Carolina had a chance to add Justin Fields or Mac Jones to their QB room but instead opted to exercise Darnold’s 5th-year option and give him a shot as QB1.  In the past, I’ve seen teams without a franchise QB commit multiple resources to finding one, even if that means doubling up at the position.  Washington drafted RGIII and Kirk Cousins and Seattle signed Matt Flynn to a huge contract while also drafting Russell Wilson.  I love Jaycee Horn, but it’s fair to wonder if simply taking Fields would have given them more “outs” at the most important position in sports.  In that scenario, if Darnold turns out to be good, then maybe you shop Fields and it probably means you won some games.  By committing to Darnold this year, there’s a lot of pressure on this regime to win now.

So I’m not as sold on Darnold as Matt Rhule is.  I would have taken Fields and let the two young QBs battle it out in camp.  I still will predict Jaycee Horn (4) to be a terrific pro.  Horn was my CB1 and the 12th overall player on my board.

Horn is a dog, having gone toe-to-toe with some of the draft's best receivers. He has the innate coverage ability of a Pro Bowl corner, showcasing his ability to run routes for opposing WRs on film. He dominated Auburn's Seth Williams, proving that he can perform against size. He also showed an ability to cover the whip route, one of the most difficult routes to match in man, twice on film. Fluid and long with great eyes, Horn has the potential to excel in a man or zone scheme.  There's more of an edge to his game than Patrick Surtain II.

Stealing Terrace Marshall Jr. (3) in the late-second was a terrific move.  The Rams and Seahawks somehow passed on him, which led me to worry about injury concerns.  Marshall was my 30th-ranked overall player for a reason, and I think the league just whiffed.  Remember, the Eagles passed on Justin Jefferson last year also.

Marshall is a freakish talent in his own right, running a 4.40 40 at 6-3, 205 at LSU's pro day. The Tigers didn't exactly have Joe Burrow throwing the ball in 2020, and Marshall still scored 10 touchdowns in just seven games. His film shows rare traits as a fast, big-bodied receiver who excelled inside. He can run by people, get in and out of breaks quickly, and shows natural strong hands. My only issue with Marshall is that his play strength is not where it needs to be for the pro game.  I also wonder how Joe Brady will divvy up slot reps between Marshall, D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson.  One thing is for sure – Sam Darnold has some legit weaponry for the first time in his career.

Brady Christensen (2) was not the steal some in the media may have led you to believe.  I wasn’t surprised by his “fall” and don’t think he’ll be more than a replacement-level OL at the next level.  He struggled with quickness against Houston.  He’s not particularly powerful.  He has short arms and his hand placement was too far outside at times.  Any time an OL is on the ground a lot it’s a red flag.  I wasn’t impressed with a lot of the second-tier OL in this class.

Tommy Tremble (3) on the other hand shows translatable blocking traits.  He has explosive hips on contact and plays with good balance, understanding angles and leverage.  Notre Dame chose to feature a different TE in the passing game, but Tremble is skilled and fast enough.  I expect him to be a starting TE by his third year.  He was one of the best picks of the third round.

Chuba Hubbard (2) might have his moments as a backup to McCaffrey but his lack of power was noticeable on film.  He has thin ankles, balance issues, and ball security questions.  There’s nothing wrong with taking a chance on his athleticism in the fourth though.  Daviyon Nixon (3) falling did surprise me.  I had a 2nd-round grade on him after noting his strength and ability to reset the line of scrimmage.  His body looks more like an OT and he actually juked out a QB on a pick-6.  He might settle in as more of a JAG but falling all the way to the 5th was a surprise.

 

New Orleans Saints

Everyone is picking on the Saints but I think the anger is misplaced.  While two of their first four picks were weird reaches, their first round selection made sense to me.  Payton Turner (3) was my 41st ranked overall player and I tweeted that he’d be a hot name closer to draft day.  I also called him “possibly the most underrated player in the entire draft.”  So I don’t hate taking him in the first.

Turner has an outstanding get-off at 6-6, 270. He showed the ability to dip, rip, and win with speed on the EDGE against Tulane and UCF. He's active, has a great first step, plays hard, and makes a lot of plays. His balance and technique need some work, but there's a lot to work with. A 6.98 3-cone, the most predictive test for defensive ends, also bodes well for his future.

In the second, the Saints made one of the more head-scratching picks in the entire draft by selecting Ohio State’s Pete Werner (2).  Werner clearly fits in as a starting Will linebacker with special teams value, after blowing up his pro day with a 4.58 40 and explosive jump numbers.  His film shows an instinctive wrap-up tackler with a nice closing burst, the ability to line up a defense, and urgency.

Unfortunately, it also shows some processing issues, especially against play action, and an inability to take on blocks.  Nebraska’s pulling guards got after him.  He doesn’t play to his 4.58 speed in terms of tracking down ball carriers, as I saw him miss angles against Nebraska as well.  The Saints didn’t draft him to take on offensive linemen, and being kept clean he will probably be productive, whether that’s on defense, specials, or both.  Clearly, they felt he fit their Will position, but there were better players on the board.

Paulson Adebo (3) is tough to predict.  He’s the opposite of Janoris Jenkins and is more of what the Seahawks look for in their outside corners.  He theoretically has the speed (4.42 40) to play man on the outside but he plays high and there’s always concern with a long-limbed CB moving against ultra-quick NFL WRs.  The film shows he can stick with Pac-12 WRs – especially showing a knack for defending in-breaking routes.  His burst and ball skills are obvious, so he’s worthwhile as a developmental pick in the 3rd.  I just don’t know if his feet are quick enough to play man consistently.

Finally, the Saints took Ian Book (2) in the 4th Round for some reason.  He’s not Dak Prescott.  But then again, I didn’t think Dak Prescott could be Dak Prescott.  Maybe Sean Payton is smarter than the rest of us when it comes to QBs.  Or maybe he just wants to have a package with Book, Taysom Hill, and Jameis Winston all in the backfield.  We will see that at some point, I guarantee it.  Book had a tremendous career at Notre Dame and played well enough to drive down the field and beat Clemson in the regular season.  He has good pocket presence and is athletic enough to be a change-of-pace backup.  The placement and accuracy issues cap his ceiling.

 

Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The World Champs return all 22 starters after a super-impressive postseason run.  Their QB might actually be good.  In this draft, they really had the luxury of going BPA and I was as high on Joe Tryon (4) as anyone.

Tryon was my EDGE2 and 25th overall player.  His 2019 film was spectacular, as the 6-5, 262-pound pass rusher flashed rare traits for Washington. Tryon is super explosive with long arms and dismissive hands. He had dominating reps against the Boise State right tackle, walking him back into the QB's lap. His good first step, agility, and athleticism give him the potential to develop into a Pro Bowl-caliber pass rusher at the next level.  With Todd Bowles and JPP teaching him, I expect Tryon to start making splash plays as a rotational pass-rusher as a rookie.

In the 2nd the Bucs took the QB6 in Kyle Trask.  Trask put up big-time numbers with a ridiculous supporting cast at Florida, but his film doesn’t exactly show a future franchise QB.  There’s a three-play span against Alabama where he should have been picked off all three times.  He’s an interception machine waiting to happen, and his receivers made him a draftable prospect.  Accuracy is important, but it’s not the only trait that matters, and Trask’s decision-making and lack of elite arm will likely be his downfall.  Maybe the Bucs sincerely drafted him to be a back-up for the next seven or eight years of Tom Brady’s career.

Robert Hainsey (3) is a little bit of a waist-bender but he has some translatable traits as a solid developmental tackle.  When he gets his hands placed inside as a run-blocker he’s very effective, but I wonder how he’ll handle quick edge rushers on an island.  Worth it in the late third.

Jaelon Darden (1) has elite quickness but very little else about his game translates.  He was too fast for Charlotte but slipped and had balance issues in other games.  There were some drops and body catches also.  Just free Tyler Johnson, Bruce.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the other divisions in the coming days.



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