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Steve Luciano/Associated Press
Around the league, NFL front-office executives and coaches high-fived each other as they landed preferred prospects. Yet a handful of clubs should feel absolutely elated this weekend.
Some of us believe teams build Super Bowl contenders through the draft and the three-day selection process holds the utmost importance in roster-building strategy.
Let’s apply that concept to teams that missed the playoffs last year.
We’ll highlight five clubs that accomplished three main objectives, which include picking up blue-chip talent in the early rounds, finding high-upside prospects in the middle-to-late rounds and addressing pressing needs.
Which teams made the biggest improvement through the 2021 draft?
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Carolina Panthers cornerback Jaycee HornMark Humphrey/Associated Press
Draft picks: CB Jaycee Horn, WR Terrace Marshall Jr., OT Brady Christensen, TE Tommy Tremble, RB Chuba Hubbard, DT Daviyon Nixon, CB Keith Taylor, OG Deonte Brown, WR Shi Smith, LS Thomas Fletcher DT, Phil Hoskins
With the eighth pick, the Carolina Panthers selected Jaycee Horn, who generated a lot of buzz after his impressive pro day.
Horn should start on the boundary, solidifying the Panthers’ cornerback group with Donte Jackson and A.J. Bouye on the roster. Carolina needed playmakers on the back end with quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Tom Brady in the division.
Carolina added Daviyon Nixon in the fifth round, another playmaker for its defense. He’s an ascending interior pass-rusher who finished with 5.5 sacks this past season. The Iowa product can play on all three downs and looks like an absolute steal on Day 3.
Quarterback Sam Darnold had to like what he saw between Days 2 and 3 of the draft. The Panthers added weapons and pass protection.
Brady Christensen should push for the starting left tackle spot, which puts Greg Little’s future in jeopardy if he’s not able to move inside. The Panthers’ offensive line could have its bookend pass-blockers in the rookie and Taylor Moton.
At 6’3″, 344 pounds, Deonte Brown isn’t going to seal off defenders with combination blocks, but he can earn a starting job as a massive interior roadblock at guard. Carolina picked him in the sixth round.
Terrace Marshall Jr. went into the draft with some medical question marks. Teams “cooled” on him, per The Athletic’s Jeff Zrebiec. However, once he steps on the field, Darnold will have a reliable red-zone target. The 6’3″, 205-pounder hauled in 23 touchdown passes over his last two years at LSU.
If running back Christian McCaffrey struggles with injuries as he did during the previous campaign, the Panthers can hand off to Chuba Hubbard, who led the FBS in rushing yards (2,094) for the 2019 term. The 6’0″, 210-pounder can absorb and push through contact on early downs with the ability to churn out tough yardage if he secures the ball.
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Detroit Lions offensive tackle Penei SewellRon Jenkins/Associated Press
The Detroit Lions bolstered both sides of the line with their first three picks, which will help them win battles in the trenches next season.
Penei Sewell slipped outside the top five to Lions, who had the seventh pick. He’s an experienced zone blocker who can match up one-on-one with defenders. At 6’5″, 331 pounds with smooth footwork, the Oregon product will drive smaller edge-rushers into the ground and mirror athletic pass-rushing ends. He’ll bookend Detroit’s front five opposite Taylor Decker.
Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill solidify the middle of Detriot’s defensive front with Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara on the end.
Onwuzurike is an athletic interior tackle who may not have flashy sack numbers, but quarterbacks can feel his presence in the pocket. McNeill should rotate in on early downs as a solid run-stopper, though he’s capable of developing some pass-rushing moves.
The Lions may have snagged a pair of starters in Rounds 3 and 4.
With a new regime in place, third-rounder Ifeatu Melifonwu could eventually push Amani Oruwariye for a starting job opposite Jeff Okudah. At 6’3″, 205 pounds, he’s a long athletic cornerback who can challenge wide receivers with press coverage.
Amon-Ra St. Brown could slide into three-wide receiver sets with Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman. He can line up on the outside or in the slot, which may allow him to play most of the offensive snaps in the upcoming season, which says a lot for an early Day 3 pick.
St. Brown doesn’t have top-end speed, but quarterback Jared Goff will appreciate the rookie wideout’s ability to adjust to off-target passes and pull in contested catches.
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Jacksonville Jaguars running back Travis Etienne (left) and quarterback Trevor Lawrence (right)Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
The Jacksonville Jaguars took the obvious layup, selecting Trevor Lawrence with the No. 1 overall pick. He’s an athletic quarterback with an impressive three-year body of work as a starter at Clemson.
Aside from Lawrence throwing for 10,098 yards and 90 touchdowns with only 17 interceptions, he has star potential because of his pre- and post-snap intelligence. He reads defenses, makes adjustments and scans the entire field.
The Jaguars will win a handful of games just because of their new quarterback’s decision-making in the pocket. However, as the Clemson product told NFL Network’s James Palmer, he cannot do it alone.
In the first round, Jacksonville selected Lawrence’s college teammate, running back Travis Etienne, who’s going to join James Robinson and Carlos Hyde in the backfield. The rookie tailback has reliable hands. He caught 48 passes for 588 yards and two touchdowns this past season. The 5’10”, 215-pound ball-carrier can also rip off chunk yardage with a little bit of space on the ground.
On the other side of the ball, the Jaguars have a young cornerback pair in CJ Henderson, a 2020 first-rounder, and rookie second-rounder Tyson Campbell. They could develop into a stingy dynamic duo on the boundary.
Andre Cisco should compete for a starting safety role after a full recovery from a torn ACL. He’s an aggressive playmaker who gambles, but his ball-tracking skills often pay off. The Syracuse product recorded 13 interceptions through three collegiate terms.
With a pair of fourth-round picks, the Jaguars added to their rotation on the defensive line. Jay Tufele could find his niche as a stout run-stopper on early downs while Jordan Smith attacks offensive lines on the edge. The latter logged 12.5 sacks in two seasons at UAB.
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New York Jets quarterback Zach WilsonDavid Dermer/Associated Press
Draft picks: QB Zach Wilson, OL Alijah Vera-Tucker, WR Elijah Moore, RB Michael Carter, S Jamien Sherwood, CB Michael Carter II, CB Jason Pinnock, S Hamsah Nasirildeen, CB Brandin Echols, DT Jonathan Marshall
New York Jets general manager saw quarterback Sam Darnold struggle with a below-average sporting cast over the last two years. He’s not going to make the same mistake with his new starting quarterback, Zach Wilson.
After the Jets selected Wilson with the No. 2 pick, they moved up to the 14th spot for Alijah Vera-Tucker. He’ll likely start alongside Mekhi Becton to provide strong pass protection and run blocking on the left side of the offensive line.
At BYU, Wilson put together a highlight reel through the 2020 season, throwing for 33 touchdowns and just three interceptions with some jaw-dropping completions. In New York, he’ll likely have a new slot receiver in Elijah Moore, who’s shown precision in his routes and breakaway speed downfield.
Wilson doesn’t have to go for the deep shot with Moore, he can take advantage of catch-and-run situations and give the Ole Miss wideout a chance to make defenders miss in open space.
Michael Carter could contribute right away in the backfield as a complement to running back La’Mical Perine. He’s a dual-threat playmaker who logged 3,404 yards and 22 touchdowns on the ground and caught 82 passes for 656 yards and six touchdowns through four seasons at North Carolina.
Because of Carter’s skill set, he could become the featured weapon on all three downs. The Jets found a tailback who fits offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur’s system in Round 4.
On Day 3, Gang Green loaded up on defensive backs to fill holes on the back end. Jason Pinnock (6’0″, 205 lbs) draws some intrigue because of his size and ball production (six interceptions and 19 pass breakups). He fits head coach Robert Saleh’s mold of an ideal defender in the secondary.
Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich could turn Pinnock, a late fifth-round pick, into a starter.
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Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeVonta SmithTony Dejak/Associated Press
The Philadelphia Eagles landed one of the best picks in the draft, moving up to the No. 10 spot for DeVonta Smith. They found a lead wide receiver who could produce in the league for a decade or more.
While skeptics may have concerns about Smith’s size (6’0″, 170 lbs), he’s a clean route-runner and beats defenders routinely in one-on-one situations. Assuming Jalen Hurts wins the quarterback battle over Joe Flacco, he should feel excited about reuniting with his former Alabama teammate.
Landon Dickerson comes into the league with a big “if” attached to his name. He suffered injuries in four out of his five collegiate terms at Florida State and Alabama, but he’s worth the risk in the second round. If the 2020 Rimington Trophy winner can stay healthy, the Eagles have a potential Pro Bowl guard.
As a fourth-rounder, Kenny Gainwell won’t threaten Miles Sanders’ job security. Yet the Memphis product can easily carve out a role. In 2019, he recorded 51 receptions for 610 yards and three scores as one of the best-catching running backs in college football.
Most NFL teams feature two contributing tailbacks, so look for Gainwell to push Boston Scott for a complementary role in the backfield.
In the sixth round, Philadelphia added a high-upside pass-rusher in Tarron Jackson.
Coming out of Coastal Carolina, Jackson could be an under-the-radar steal in the draft. As a collegian, he consistently collapsed the pocket, logging 24.5 sacks through four terms.
Jackson needs to add on to his pass-rushing toolbox, but he has an athletic foundation and an NFL build (6’2″, 254 lbs) with enough quickness and strength to win on the edge or beat interior offensive linemen in sub-packages.