2021 NFL Draft Fantasy Takeaways: Unpacking the first two days

Scott Pianowski
·6-min read

I don’t know about you, but I felt the buildup to this year’s NFL Draft was longer than ever. The waiting truly is the hardest part. But the reveal of the NFL Draft, the actual event, never disappoints. It’s a time of hope and a time of intrigue and a time of change. Let’s unpack some takeaways and observations covering the first two days and opening three rounds. Let’s open up the notebook.

Steelers prioritize RB help over offensive line issues

• Everyone knew the Steelers wanted to upgrade their running game, but taking a back in the first round as opposed to an offensive lineman was likely putting the cart before the horse. Pittsburgh’s ground attack went nowhere last year, but that was more about the blocking problems than it was an issue with the backfield talent. Najee Harris is also one of the older prospects to come into the league, having turned 23 in March. I’m more bullish on second-rounder Javonte Williams, a power back who’s two years younger. At least neither back was overworked in college, as both teams had deep backfields and used a platoon system.

Draft brings several reunions

• Maybe it’s coincidence or maybe it’s more by design, but a number of teams grabbed playmakers who are already familiar with their quarterbacks. Obviously Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne were running mates at Clemson; Joe Burrow certainly stumped for his old LSU buddy, Ja’Marr Chase; and Tua Tagovailoa and Jaylen Waddle were together two years at Alabama. DeVonta Smith and Jalen Hurts didn’t share a ton of on-field time with the Crimson Tide, but their time overlapped there, and that’s a start.

Jaguars curiously invest in ground game early

• I was surprised to see the Jaguars make the Etienne play, however, given that Jacksonville is coming off a 1-15 season and needs help at just about every position. James Robinson proved a capable bell cow as a rookie last year, and underscored how talented running backs can be found almost anywhere, be it later in a draft or through the pool of undrafted players. It’s perfectly reasonable for new coach Urban Meyer to want a strong running game, but this wasn’t the ideal way to assemble it. It could have been a secondary objective.

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JANUARY 01: Trevor Lawrence #16 of the Clemson Tigers and Travis Etienne #9 of the Clemson Tigers warm up before the game against the Ohio State Buckeyes during the College Football Playoff semifinal game at the Allstate Sugar Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 01, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The Jaguars taking Travis Etienne at the end of Round 1 keeps him with Trevor Lawrence, but Jacksonville would have been better served to address running back later in the draft. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Good to see teams get out of comfort zones

• It was refreshing to see teams playing against type. The Patriots, who almost never trade up, traded up. The Giants who almost never trade down, traded down twice. We know one thing about Bill Belichick, he definitely has an SEC subscription package.

49ers' misdirection works to perfection

• The betting markets were all over the place as the Niners ostensibly weighed their options between three quarterbacks — Mac Jones, Justin Fields, and Trey Lance. If you saw Lance coming long before the first night of the draft, you could have made a pretty penny. Be mindful of this — NFL teams have no real incentive to inform us or tell us the truth, and while some teams are more calculated about this than others, all teams seem to understand the danger of telling the truth.

Size could limit WR class upside

• It’s been common for second and third-round receivers to pop in recent drafts, and plenty of talented pass-catchers landed in those areas Friday night. But take note that it was mostly the speedy but smaller receivers falling into those pockets this year; slot receivers, gadgety players, prospects who might also return punts. This is not to diminish their talent, but if you’re looking for this year’s A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, or Terry McLaurin from a Day 2 pick, I think you’re going to be disappointed.

Raiders with another head-scratching pick

• Leave it to the Raiders to put a first-round grade on a player, OL Alex Leatherwood, that almost no one else evaluated so highly. I wish we could put Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock on Family Feud, throw them into the fast money. They’re clearly on a page of their own. What’s the lowest score anyone’s ever received in that bonus round?

Giants' first-rounder not a fit for Garrett's style

• As excited as I was to see Dave Gettleman move back in the first round, Kadarius Toney was a curious pick at No. 20. Toney is a raw prospect who needs creative scheming to unlock his talents, and Jason Garrett is reluctant to use bells and whistles before the snap. Either Toney’s game needs to polish up awfully quick, or Garrett needs to get comfortable with a type of game-planning he’s basically eschewed for his entire career.

Keep an eye on Terrace Marshall Jr.

• Upside becomes more important than floor as you meander into the late-second round, and I loved the Panthers taking a shot at LSU wideout Terrace Marshall Jr. Medical concerns, not talent, are what pushed Marshall down to the 27th pick of the round, but he has first-round ability, probably the highest upside of any receiver in Day 2. Sam Darnold was set up to fail by almost everything the Jets did for him in New York, but he’ll at least have a strong supporting cast in Carolina. He has a chance. Remember, Darnold came into the league at a tender age, he’s still younger than Joe Burrow. I’m not giving up on Darnold.

Bills still class of AFC East

• As optimistic as the Dolphins, Jets, and Patriots feel about the past two days, I’d still be shocked if the Bills didn’t win the AFC East in 2021, perhaps by multiple games. Buffalo’s offensive infrastructure set up a repeatable success model — it was clutch to retain OC Brian Daboll for at least another season — and I dare the Buffalo defense to be as mediocre as it was last year, given the personnel and coaching here.

Vikings have sleeper appeal

• If you want an early NFC semi-sleeper to put a chip on, check out Minnesota. The Vikings defense should bounce back, and they’ve always been value-driven drafters who get the most out of their picks. The Packers are still the NFC North favorites, but obviously they’ve locked into some turmoil at the moment, and they’ve also out kicked their pythagorean coverage the last two years. Chicago and Detroit are in unmistakable rebuilds. Explore Minnesota in the futures markets.

Chargers building winner around Herbert

• As far as crowded bandwagons go, there’s no good seating left on the Chargers bus. But they have the right quarterback — on an inexpensive rookie deal — and a new coach (Anthony Lynn is a swell guy, but was never the right fit), and talent on all levels, both sides of the ball. Justin Herbert picked up two valuable pieces the last two days, a much-needed lineman and another strong target in WR Josh Palmer. The Chargers look like a 2021 playoff team to me, and I give them a puncher’s chance at winning the AFC West.

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