5 biggest first-round winners of 2021 NFL Draft

Sportsnet Central runs down the early and most prominent picks of the first round of the NFL draft and how things turned out with many trades taking place.

Round 1 of the 2021 NFL Draft is officially in the books, and it was a pretty eventful night.

Thursday saw 32 young football players get their winning moments in the spotlight after so many years of hard work, and with a deep pool of quarterbacks and offensive weapons available, we knew the stage was set for some great highlights.

Here’s a look at five of the biggest winners from the first night of the draft, plus five additional highlights.

Matt Ryan

When you’ve got a talented franchise quarterback who’s getting up there in years but still very much your No. 1 guy, you can do one of two things: You can do what the Green Bay Packers did last year and reach for your MVP’s successor, or you can take the approach we saw from Atlanta Thursday night and get your guy a new weapon to extend his career and window of contention. The addition of tight end Kyle Pitts at fourth overall, making the 20-year-old Gator the first non-QB selected this year and the highest-ever drafted TE, makes the Falcons’ offence downright dangerous.

Going into Round 1, we knew we’d have a little run on QBs to open things up – and with Trevor Lawrence finally fulfilling his top-pick destiny in Jacksonville, the Jets taking Zach Wilson, and Trey Lance heading to San Francisco at No. 3, that’s exactly how things played out.

That put the Falcons in prime position to take the best overall draft prospect, but it also put them in position to perhaps jumpstart a rebuild by picking a young QB from a deep class of gunslingers with the thought that this might be their last best chance to pick this high. Reports of teams calling about the availability of star wide receiver Julio Jones only perpetuated the idea of a potential rebuild.

So, now that Pitts is part of this crew and the Falcons are making it clear they’re pushing forward with their top guy, let’s just take a moment to admire Ryan's offensive options: Pitts, Jones, Calvin Ridley and Mike Davis. This could be really fun.

Miami Dolphins

When the Miami Dolphins traded back from third to sixth via a pair of deals with the 49ers and Eagles a few weeks ago, they accrued a bunch of future draft capital while still putting themselves in prime position to land an elite offensive weapon for Tua Tagovailoa. And that’s exactly what they did, landing Jaylen Waddle at sixth overall.

A deep class of QBs and an even deeper group of pass-catchers available meant Miami could rest easy knowing that even with tight end Kyle Pitts and top-rated receiver Ja’Marr Chase scooped up ahead of them – a bit surprising, considering many experts projected the Bengals to take offensive lineman Penei Sewell over Chase – the Dolphins could still land a WR1.

That deep class of offensive players helped Miami again 12 picks later when they were able to take the top-rated edge rusher in Jaelan Phillips 18th overall, just the fifth defensive player off the board. Past draft classes have been rich in elite defensive ends, but this year was different so landing Phillips at 18 feels like a bit of coup. Bringing in two top-rated prospects, one on either side of the ball, has the Dolphins primed to contend for many years to come.

Justin Herbert

That run on offensive position players meant there were steals to be had. The first six players taken were either throwers or catchers, and by the time the Chargers’ pick came around at No. 13, eight of the players taken were offensive position players.

The Chargers sat and waited and got exactly what they needed: offensive tackle Rashawn Slater,  who is now tasked with keeping second-year QB Justin Herbert on his feet. Herbert put together a really impressive rookie campaign, but found himself knocked around too often. He was sacked 32 times last season, ninth-most in the league. We’re reminded every year of the importance of offensive linemen to a team’s winning foundation, and now with their star QB in place, a strong (when healthy) defence, and some smart offensive weapons, Slater makes this team a much better and more complete squad by allowing Herbert the time to shine.

New England Patriots

Patience so often makes a draft winner, and sometimes it feels like fate plays a role, too. The Patriots have long been linked to Mac Jones, so much so that many wondered if New England would trade into the top 10 to get him.

In the end, though, they didn’t need to. Because of course – it’s about time the Pats caught a break, right?

By all accounts, Jones plays the exact kind of game that could finally make him the guy who actually manages to take over the position in the wake of Tom Brady. Big shoes to fill, of course, but… he certainly looks the part.

While Jones and the Patriots are the real winners here, Football Twitter is a clearly close second.

Everyone but the Packers

Last April, the Green Bay Packers stunned the football world when they traded up to draft quarterback Jordan Love. One year later, things just got way worse with the breaking news that reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers, still deeply unhappy with Green Bay's front-office business, wants out.

The news, which broke Thursday afternoon just hours before the draft, brought instant mayhem (and too many jokes about Jeopardy). It also brought insistence from Packers management that they wouldn’t be trading their long-time face of the franchise.

One of the biggest stories of last year’s draft just became the biggest story of this off-season, and it’s probably not going away any time soon. Speculation increased when Denver, a team as QB-needy as they come, did not select a quarterback after rumours emerged of their potential candidacy to land Rodgers in a trade…

More highlights from Night 1

Detroit Lions: The early run on offensive position players meant Penei Sewell landed in the laps of the Detroit Lions at No. 7. This was a surprise, considering the Bengals’ desperate need to protect Joe Burrow made it feel like Sewell would be Cincinnati-bound at No. 5. Detroit’s need for a wide receiver went out the window when Sewell was sitting there for the taking at No. 7, however – a foundational franchise player like that rarely makes it out of the top five. Reviews of Sewell are sparkling – the consensus top OL of 2021 is in a class of his own.

Sam Darnold: A new home after landing in Carolina via trade from New York earlier this off-season, and some new-found job security after Thursday night.

Chicago: Might the Bears finally have their true QB1? Trading up from 20 to 11 to grab Justin Fields says yes. While the move was highly-praised – by all accounts, they’ve got themselves a winner in Fields – they paid a hefty price once again and cannot afford to lose on another QB bet.

Giants: The Bears’ trading partner picked up a nice haul of draft capital (this year’s 20th and 164th overall picks, plus Chicago’s 2022 first-round pick and 2022 fourth-rounder) and still managed to pick up an exciting prospect in wide receiver Kadarius Toney.

Steelers: Pittsburgh needed to bring their run game back to life, and they did that at No. 25 with the addition of Najee Harris. While his film is really fun to watch, his personal story – and his dedication to his community – is truly exceptional.

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