2021 NFL Draft winners & losers

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(AUDACY) After an eventful three days, the NFL Draft concluded Saturday. While we won’t know who truly “won” or “lost” until the 259 players selected take the field this fall and assess them years down the line, that obviously didn’t stop Audacy Sports from sharing its early impressions of the league’s post-draft landscape, highlighting which teams came out of the draft smelling like roses and which underachieved, squandering their chance to improve. Here are our winners and losers from a hectic weekend in Cleveland.

WINNERS

Atlanta Falcons
People are raving about the Falcons’ draft -- and rightfully so after Atlanta added Kyle Pitts, a once-in-a-generation athlete at the tight end position with superstar potential. Former MVP quarterback Matt Ryan isn’t coming off one of his better seasons, but he's set up for a bounce-back 2021 with Pitts, Julio Jones (the subject of recent trade rumors), Calvin Ridley and Hayden Hurst headlining a potent Atlanta receiving corps. Richie Grant, a three-time all-conference selection who finished his UCF career with 10 interceptions in 46 games, should improve an Atlanta secondary that was among the sport’s worst last season, while Michigan tackle Jalen Mayfield was a steal where the Falcons got him at No. 68 overall. These improvements may not put the rebuilding Falcons on equal footing with their division rivals in a loaded NFC South, but Atlanta’s first draft under rookie coach Arthur Smith should be considered a resounding success. — Jesse Pantuosco

Chicago Bears
After failing in their pursuit of Seahawks star Russell Wilson on the trade market, it looked like the Bears would have to make do with Andy Dalton as their starting quarterback in 2021. Instead, general manager Ryan Pace pulled a rabbit out of his hat, working some magic by trading up for Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, a tantalizing dual threat who ran circles around Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence in the national semifinals this past season despite playing through a painful rib injury. Third in the Heisman voting as a sophomore in 2019, the 6-foot-3 Fields finished his career in Columbus as the Buckeyes’ highest-rated passer in school history (179.1). On Day 2 of the draft, the Bears staged an all-time heist by landing Oklahoma State offensive tackle Teven Jenkins, a first-round talent who inexplicably fell to the 39th pick. Jenkins should slot in as Chicago’s starter at right tackle in Week 1 following Bobby Massie’s departure in free agency and could soon become a fixture on Fields’ blind side with Charles Leno Jr. entering the final year of his contract. — Pantuosco

Cleveland Browns
The Browns beefed up their secondary by selecting Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II with their first-round pick at No. 26 overall. It was a good pick both in terms of talent and fit, and Newsome should be a meaningful contributor early on. They then stole hybrid linebacker-safety Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah of Notre Dame in the second round. He's a fast, explosive player who was pegged as a first-round talent on the majority of big boards. He might be a bit of a project, and sometimes hybrids never find their niche, but I wouldn't bet against him. Auburn receiver Anthony Schwartz, whom the Browns took in the third round, is said to be the fastest player in the draft and could serve as a speedy downfield weapon in the mold of Arizona Cardinals deep threat Christian Kirk. There's a lot to like with Cleveland's first three picks. — Dan Mennella

Denver Broncos
Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II -- for my money, the best at his position in this draft -- coming off the board at No. 9 had a domino effect, prompting the Eagles to leapfrog the Giants for Heisman winner DeVonta Smith, which in turn facilitated New York’s trade back to No. 20 and Chicago's move up to No. 11 to take Fields. Denver also aced its second-round pick, landing a future workhorse in North Carolina bruising running back Javonte Williams, who ranked sixth in the nation in rushing yards in 2020 despite sharing a backfield with Michael Carter. A 220-pound battering ram who broke 51 tackles en route to a school-record 22 touchdowns (19 rushing, three receiving) in 2020, Williams should immediately push Melvin Gordon for early down reps. The Broncos didn’t draft a quarterback in the early rounds as many had anticipated, but they’re still in the running for Packers malcontent Aaron Rodgers, with Teddy Bridgewater and 2019 second-rounder Drew Lock both available as fallback options. With foundation pieces Von Miller and Courtland Sutton returning to full strength after lost years in 2020, the Broncos could surprise people as a dark-horse (no pun intended) playoff team this season, even in a stacked AFC West. — Pantuosco

New England Patriots
There's no telling if any of the players the Patriots took in this draft will pan out, but it's hard to argue with the process. Bill Belichick stood pat in the first round, laying low amid a flurry of trade activity, and correctly anticipated he'd get his quarterback — or at least a quarterback — with the 15th pick. He did, and Mac Jones' development will be fascinating to watch as Belichick looks to restore the Patriots to greatness after struggling to turn the page on the Tom Brady era. Belichick turned to another Alabama product in the second round, defensive tackle Christian Barmore, which represented a solid value pick. Barmore was projected to go as high as the middle of the first round in some mock drafts. Getting Oklahoma defensive end Ronnie Perkins in the third was a similarly good value. Perkins was pegged as a late-first or early-second round talent by some scouts but reportedly slid due to a failed drug test that cost him six games in 2019. At least one prominent critic said it was obvious, lazy drafting, but to me, it seemed like a sound strategy. — Mennella

New York Jets
The Jets came into the draft aiming to infuse some talent into their anemic offense, and they did that with each of their first four picks — two first-rounders, a second-rounder and a fourth-rounder. The run was a first in franchise history. Time will tell on Zach Wilson after they took him at No. 2 overall, but taking a quarterback became a necessity when the team decided to move on from Sam Darnold. Wilson promises to bring an electric style of play rarely seen before in Jets history, though there are questions about his injury history and the quality of competition he faced playing for BYU. The Jets then traded up to take highly touted USC offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker and might have gotten a mini-steal in standout Ole Miss receiver Elijah Moore with the second pick of the second round. The Jets later took well-regarded but diminutive North Carolina running back Michael Carter early in the fourth round, finishing their run on offensive players. Turning to arguably their next-biggest need — the secondary — they then took defensive players with six consecutive picks, the first five of which, amazingly, were defensive backs. General manager Joe Douglas and new coach Robert Saleh had a sensible plan coming in and appeared to execute it. — Mennella

LOSERS

Cincinnati Bengals 
Biletnikoff winner Ja’Marr Chase enjoyed one of the greatest individual receiving seasons in college football history in 2019. Reuniting him with former LSU teammate Joe Burrow — whom he won a national championship with — makes for a sexy narrative, though on the heels of Tee Higgins' strong rookie season, did the Bengals really need another wide receiver? Don’t get me wrong — Chase is an absolute force of nature and as close to a ready-made star as you can find at the position. But wouldn’t it have been more prudent to protect their knight-in-shining-armor Burrow -- who absorbed 32 sacks in just 10 games before an ACL tear spelled an abrupt end to his rookie season -- by drafting Penei Sewell, the consensus top offensive lineman in this class? Whether that crossed Mike Brown’s mind, we can all agree Clemson tackle Jackson Carman (who was rated 102nd on Mel Kiper’s big board) was an egregious reach at No. 46. — Pantuosco

Green Bay Packers
To be fair, some of the Packers' individual picks have been well-received by scout. Cornerback Eric Stokes made sense in the first round given their defensive shortcomings, but center Josh Myers was pretty underwhelming in the second round. Gadget receiver Amari Rodgers, taken in the third round, looks like a potentially interesting weapon for coach Matt LaFleur, but it might be too little, too late. And that's the issue here — the uncertainty surrounding Rodgers hangs over this team like a dark cloud. Are the Packers coming or going? Rodgers and the Packers had a great year together in 2020, but they appear to be irreparably at odds about his future in Green Bay. Which is pretty much where they were at this time a year ago, in the aftermath of taking quarterback Jordan Love in the first round, only now it's uglier. And around and around we go. If these are the picks of a team rebuilding in anticipation of the departure of a legendary player, then OK. If not, I got nothing. — Mennella

Jacksonville Jaguars
It seems strange to brand the Jaguars as “losers” after landing the draft’s top quarterback prospect in Lawrence, but many of their subsequent picks made little sense. Drafting Travis Etienne was a clear concession to Lawrence, his teammate of three seasons at Clemson. Not only did the Jaguars have bigger needs to fill than running back, but now coach Urban Meyer plans to employ Etienne as a third-down specialist behind committee backs James Robinson (who rushed for 1,070 yards as an undrafted rookie last year) and Carlos Hyde. Under no circumstance should a 1-15 team be drafting a running back in the first round, especially one who will initially be limited to passing-down work. Walker Little, who has played a grand total of one game since the start of 2019, at No. 45 was another head-scratcher. Georgia corner Tyson Campbell undoubtedly fills a need for the Jaguars, who were absolutely pulverized through the air last season, but he’s not a favorite of Kiper, who described him as “frustrating” to watch on film. Asante Samuel Jr., whom the Chargers drafted later in the second round, would've been a much safer selection. — Pantuosco

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