Veterans in both the AFC and NFC watched the first and second nights of the NFL Draft 2021 intently. Some like Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers waited to see if their teams would get them the help they need. Other veterans waited nervously to find out if their teams would be upgrading to a younger, sleeker version. And there were even some NFL veterans who were completely blindsided by the moves their teams made. Here are the top 5 veteran winners and losers of the draft.
One thing to note, I targetted third-year veterans as opposed to second-year sophomores for the sake of narrowing down the field. This is why players like Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow don’t appear on the following lists.
5 Winning Veterans
1. Sam Darnold/Christian McCaffrey – Carolina Panthers
The Panthers did everything they could do to give their new franchise QB, Sam Darnold as much help as possible. In doing so they also made veteran RB Christian McCaffrey’s return from injury that much easier too.
The addition of OT Brady Christensen gives Darnold strong blindside protection and CMC a monster blocker. Christensen isn’t CMC’s only help that was added, however, he also picked a punishing, run-blocking TE in Tommy Tremble. Tremble was the top blocking TE in college.
Darnold also picks up a huge target in possession WR Terrace Marshall Jr. Tremble and Marshall joins CMC, DJ Moore, and Robby Anderson in what should be a high flying offense. Darnold has every tool he needs to live up to the hype he brought from college. CMC should return to his form as the top RB in the NFL again.
2. Matt Ryan – Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons did a lot to beef up their offense through the draft, but it was the two moves they didn’t make that really sealed Matt Ryan’s fortune. First of all, they did not trade away one of the team’s top veterans in WR Julio Jones. There were many rumors that he would be traded during the draft, but none came to fruition.
The other move that didn’t happen was that the Falcons did not select his heir apparent at QB in the draft. This shows that the Falcons are putting all of their confidence in Rayn yet again, at least for this season.
Now let’s talk about what they got him. With the fourth pick overall, the Falcons drafted the top rookie in the draft, TE Kyle Pitts. In Pitts, they added a monster weapon who is going to be the next superstar TE in football. I really look forward to the career this guys is going to have, and I’m sure Ryan is far more excited than I am.
The vote of confidence, combined with the addition of Pitts and retention of Jones would have been enough to make Ryan happy. The Falcons gave him more, however, by drafting one of my favorite OL prospects in Jalen Mayfield in the third and adding some more OL help in Drew Dalman in the fifth. Though I don’t like what the Falcons did with their team overall in this draft, there’s no arguing that Ryan will love it next season.
3. Myles Garrett – Cleveland Browns
The Browns have been strengthening their defense this whole offseason, making it much easier for Garrett to see fewer double and triple teams once the season begins. They helped Garrett and their veterans on defense even more with what they did in the draft.
In the first round, they selected CB Gre Newsome, who should come into the league as a stingy CB from his very first game. This should help give Garrett and the rest of the pass rush the additional second it takes to bring down the QB. Add this to the addition of LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in the second and now Garrett can rush with a little more reckless abandon. With a guy like Owusu-Koramoah backing you up, you can take a few more sots at the big play each game. Garrett could be looking a Defensive Player of the Year award with this defense behind him.
4. Washington Football Team DL (Sweat, Young, Payne, Allen)
Montez Sweat, Daron Payne, Jonathan Allen, and Chase Young were already proficient at stuffing the run, knocking down the QB, and creating the big play, and that was without a potential superstar LB in behind them. LB Jamin Davis gives them a force that will protect the line behind them so that they can clean up and make even more plays in the backfield.
CB Benjamin St-Juste gives them another strong piece in the secondary who should help keep them fresh and one of the better lockdown units in the league. If opposing QBs try to force the play they will find themselves in trouble with turnovers. That DL will improve all around, look for a monstrous sack, stuff, and forced fumble numbers at the end of the season.
5. Ben Roethlisberger – Pittsburgh Steelers
Big Ben, like Ryan, was one of the NFL veterans at QB who received the vote of confidence from their team by not drafting a rookie QB. Not that Ben needed that, he already knew the Steelers were committed to him after his stellar comeback season in 2020. The Steelers were already committed to Big Ben and proved it even more so in this draft.
They used the first three rounds to give Big Ben a potentially final shot at a title. In the first, they added an amazing weapon for Ben in RB Najee Harris. He should come in and make an immediate impact, combining the traits of two of Big Ben’s best RBs from earlier in his career (Bettis and Bell).
They followed this move up by getting the second-best pass-catching TE in the draft in Pat Freiermuth. In the third, they got him some decent protection in G Kendrick Green. Overall, Big Ben has been given the tools to help him make a deep postseason run and a shot at his second Super Bowl title.
Honorable Mention: Justin Herbert – LA Chargers
He doesn’t meet my qualifications for how I am defining veterans, but he does deserve a shout-out as an honorable mention. His team got him the top OT in the draft in Rashawn Slater, who will help keep Herbert upright and making plays downfield. They also got him a few potential weapons in WR Josh Palmer and TE Tre’McKitty. With a full season from Ekeler and Allen, the sky should be the limit for Herbert and this offense.
5 Losing Veterans
1. Leighton Vander Esch – Dallas Cowboys
The defense that he was supposed to be the anchor for was the laughing stock of the NFL last year. And Vander Esch wasn’t even on the field for most of it…for the second year in a row. But Leighton is a young and extraordinary talent, he will bounce back, stay healthy and lead the Cowboys’ much-improved defense next year. Or at least that was the plan.
Then, the Cowboys used their first pick in the draft to his replacement. Micah Parsons is a bruising, NFL-ready, superstar LB and he will be the one calling the shots for the defense. You don’t draft a guy like that and tell him to wait.
What about the other LB position? Jaylon Smith has that. Smith is a young and healthy playmaker who was one of the few bright spots on the Cowboys defense last year. Vander Esch will be taking his promising career to the bench, knowing that he was part of the problem with the defense and not a part of the solution.
2. Andy Dalton – Chicago Bears
After his time came to end in Cincy, Dalton realized that may have been his last chance to be a starting NFL QB. All veterans know when its their time, and Dalton knew it was his. He signed on with the Cowboys, and to his surprise was starting sooner than he thought.
When Dak went down Dalton took over, and though he was not nearly as productive he did make a case that he was still a serviceable NFL QB. Maybe some team who really needed a QB would give him a second chance in free agency.
Enter the Bears. When free agency opened in March, Chicago gave Dalton a decent contract to be their starting QB. He thought he would be starting again. Then, the Russell Wilson rumors began. Dalton had to play the waiting game yet again. The Bears were on his shortlist and were talking with the Seahawks about a potential trade.
A couple of months passed, however, and no deal was made as the draft approached. Dalton had to figure he was in the clear. The Bears were not going to trade for Wilson and had a low enough draft pick to where they weren’t in play for one of the big rookie QBs. Dalton was finally in the clear, he was going to be a starter again
Then, the Bears traded up and drafted one of the best rookie QBs in the draft in Justin Fields. Chicago committed to Fields for their present and their future. Good for both of them, bad for Dalton who will return to the bench, probably for the rest of his career.
3. Melvin Gordon – Denver Broncos
Every year, Gordon has to compete with someone for the starting RB role on his team, despite his proven track record. Ekeler sent him off the Chargers and last year he had to compete with Lindsay for the Broncos. When Lindsay left for Houston, Gordon had to finally this he had the job himself. What’s more, with the ninth pick in the draft, the Broncos were sure to get one of the stud rookie QBs to help unstack the box.
With Justin Fields on the board, the Broncos took CB Patrick Surtain II in the first. Okay, no big deal, the Broncos must believe in Bridgewater. Gordon still had the job all to himself. Then, the second round came.
With their second pick, the Broncos selected RB Javonte Willimas. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Williams is going to take Gordon’s job. Gordon will, however, have to share carries again. The thing that makes it different this time is that now he is the aging RB with the young rookie on the team, I feel like I’ve heard this story before.
4. Jared Goff – Detroit Lions
I’ve already taken a ton of shots at the Lions not drafting a WR with their first or any of their early picks. Heck, I’ve made mention of it every time I’ve mentioned the Lions in an article related to the draft. I graded them low because of it. That’s because it’s the truth.
Goff has TJ Hockenson and a bunch of unproven talent to throw to, that’s it. Yeah, they have a run game and a strong offensive line, but that helps the Lions offense, not Jared Goff individually. Goff will tell you he is okay as long as the offense is scoring and the team is winning, but we all know that every QB wants strong weapons to throw to. It had to be a major letdown for Goff.
5. Taysom Hill – New Orleans Saints
I get it, this is a strange pick, especially after all the times I commented on the Packers and the Seahawks taking their megastar QBs for granted. Those two teams have stability, however, and both gave their QBs a weapon, even if it was merely an afterthought. Taysom’s story, however, makes me wonder if the Saints set him up for failure.
I get it, Taysom has been named the starter and been given the big contract. He inherits a Saints team that made it to the divisional round of the playoffs last year. But he lost Emmanuel Sanders to free agency, there are a ton of questions about Michael Thomas and a void left by Drew Brees. Hill has a lot to overcome, especially when teams start stacking the box against Alvin Kamara. With no money to work with in free agency, they needed to give Taysom some peace of mind in the draft. They didn’t.
Instead, they spent their first three picks on questionable defensive talent. After that, they add insult to injury by drafting a QB with their fourth pick, when they already had Jameis Winston as a backup. To me, that sounds like the Saints are ready for Taysom to fail rather than trying to make him succeed.
Honorable Mention: James Robinson
This is going to sound super unprofessional but I don’t care: I hope the Jaguars rebuild fails. Them drafting Travis Etienne in the first round was an absolute slap in the face to Robinson and really pissed me off. This undrafted rookie played his heart out last year and had amazing success despite the odds. He deserved better.
I get it, the Jags were the worst team in the league last year so they needed improvement, but Robinson was their bright spot. They should have acknowledged that. Instead, they brought in Carlos Hyde and drafted Etienne, rather than giving him a shot to excel in an offense with a real passing game. Way to pull a classless move Jags, hope you earn the first pick overall next year too.
So many veterans in the league either benefitted or lost as a result of their teams’ decisions in the draft. Renewed title hopes and lost jobs are just a few of the many ramifications of draft day. A new era begins and old ones start to end as the commissioner announces each selection. So is the life of an NFL player.
Throughout the year, events pop up that are worthy of our time and discussion. The NFL Draft is one such moment. Many stories were born, told, and re-told again, by myself and many other NFL writers. But now is the time for us to close the door on these discussions and move onto new topics such as the NFL schedule and rookie mini-camps. So is the life of an NFL writer.
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J-Mil signing off (Twitter: @J_MiL4Real)