The 2021 NFL Draft is in the rear-view mirror but evaluating the 259 picks will be a years-long process. The following will list the smartest selections in each round, with the criteria listed below.
With the 2021 NFL Draft in the books, months of analysis, prognostication, and speculation will continue to occur. The following will list the “best” picks from each round, but evaluation of the different rounds requires some nuance, since teams should alter the criteria in how they approach drafting as the rounds progress.
In the early portions of the draft (first and second round), teams should look at impact. Who has the potential to start their rookie year, and deliver a productive impact in both the near term and the long-term? There are other considerations such as scheme fit and need that can play a part, but the biggest factors to consider in the early portions of the draft are “who are the best players available?” and “is their position valuable so they can deliver the greatest impact?” Impact players at a premium position are in short supply in the NFL.
The middle rounds, late day 2 early day 3, are even more about finding value. Every year there are players that slip in into later rounds of the draft. Quality starters with some level of upside can be found. There is less of an emphasis on positional value since finding any player of starting caliber can be viewed as a win. To look at it from another perspective: take the 2010 draft class. Over the following 5 years, the median percentage was 67.5% for games started among players drafted in the first round, according to research done by Patrick Rishe with Forbes. That percentage drops by almost half in the third round. Teams here should look to fill the holes on their roster at any position among the starting caliber players left available or players with starting upside.
In the late rounds of the draft, finding a starter let alone an impact player becomes exceedingly rare. Teams here look for players with strong developmental or athletic traits, or players with very narrowly defined and specific strengths, that could fill a role on a team-largely based on scheme or add that can depth.
These rules are not universal and there are always exceptions, as each team finds themselves in unique situations; but these are common principles that should lead to better outcomes.
With this in mind, let us jump to what I think were the smartest picks in each round.