Draft Grades

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NFC West draft grades: 49ers got it right with Trey Lance; Rams took historic gamble

Why provide instant grades on the selections of prospects who have yet to take an NFL snap? Well, you're reading this, aren't you? Considering the makeup of every roster and the factors surrounding each pick, Gennaro Filice and Dan Parr attempt a division-by-division assessment of the 2021 NFL Draft. Keep in mind that these grades are based on draft hauls alone -- picks traded for veteran players were not taken into account. Below is Gennaro's review of the NFC West.

NOTABLE SELECTIONS

Best Pick:

Trey Lance
North Dakota State · QB

Draft slot: Round 1, No. 3 overall


Hello, readers. I'm sure many of you will argue that this selection belongs in the next superlative section -- Most Surprising Pick -- but I disagree! Yes, the football cognoscenti spent weeks telling us that -- believe it or not -- San Francisco was going to select Mac Jones at No. 3 overall, but that just never made any damn sense. The 49ers aggressively traded up nine spots from No. 12, giving up two additional first-rounders and a third in the process. Is that the kind of move you make to get a high-floor guy? Do you seriously mortgage the future for a quarterback described by NFL Network draftnik/former pro scout Daniel Jeremiah as "a high-effort thrower with slightly above-average arm strength," someone whose "lack of twitch and athleticism will limit the playbook with the way the game is trending"? No, that's not the play. You shoot the moon! You go for the guy with the total package. In 2021, when it comes to the game's most important position, NFL franchises want that extra something. Lance has it. The guy's a 6-foot-4, 230-pound tank with a big arm and potent legs. Oh, and he can't even legally drink until this Sunday. This is the kind of prospect you sell the farm for. I can't wait to see Lil' Shanny's QB-friendly scheme with this dynamic presence under center.

Most Surprising Pick:

Draft slot: Round 1, No. 16 overall


In the 2020 NFL Draft, Steve Keim ignored positional needs to draft the fun linebacker in Round 1. A year later ... Steve Keim ignored positional needs to draft the fun linebacker in Round 1. Look, I get it: Isaiah Simmons was an intoxicating prospect. And in the immediate aftermath of last year's draft, despite the fact that Arizona had passed on offensive tackles Jedrick Wills, Mekhi Becton and Tristan Wirfs, one overcaffeinated grader even gave the Cardinals an "A" for their haul. But then the 2020 season kicked off, and Simmons spent significant stretches on the sideline as Arizona struggled to slot the Swiss Army Knife into a defined role. Meanwhile, Kyler Murray suffered some body blows, and after the season, the franchise quarterback appeared to sub(re)tweet his franchise for not providing proper protection on the offensive line. In fairness to Keim, Arizona's O-line does look better at this moment than it did one year ago, especially following a March trade for center Rodney Hudson. But even if the Cardinals didn't need to spend their 2021 first-rounder on Murray's protection, they certainly had more pressing areas to address than the linebacking corps. Collins undoubtedly brings intrigue as a supersized athlete at the linebacker position, but Keim has to break out of this first-round Groundhog Day.

Biggest Sleeper:

Draft slot: Round 6, No. 223 overall


Shoutout to Mike Renner and Austin Gayle over at Pro Football Focus' fine scouting podcast, 2 for 1 Drafts, for hyping Gowan early in the year ... and then not shutting up about him through the entire pre-draft process. Unlike a couple of hyped teammates in the UCF defensive backfield -- S Richie Grant and CB Aaron Robinson, both of whom were top-75 picks -- Gowan largely flew under the radar over the past few months. A big reason for that: Gowan opted out of the 2020 season after contracting COVID-19, spreading the virus to his family and deeply worrying about the health of his daughter, who was born premature with health complications. But the long, lean, smooth corner was plenty impressive during the 2019 season, allowing just a 54.9 passer rating in coverage, per PFF, while routinely using his lanky arms to disrupt receivers at the catch point. Many draft analysts, including NFL.com's Chad Reuter, expected Gowan to come off the board long before No. 223, but the sixth-round status has placed a healthy chip on his shoulder. "I'll be a Tom Brady of the corners," Gowan said, via the team website. "I think I needed this. I needed this in my journey, and the way I'll approach the game. I want to say thank you for the wait, actually."

TEAM GRADES

NOTE: Draft classes are displayed from best to worst within the division.

Grade
B+
San Francisco 49ers
Total picks: 8

Round 1:

Round 2:

Round 3:

Round 5:

Round 6:


It seems like in every draft these days, a toolsy quarterback comes off the board in Round 1 only to be tagged with a warning label from draftniks and league folks alike: This is going to take time -- DO NOT rush him onto the field in Year 1! Last year, Justin Herbert was that guy. Then Tyrod Taylor's pregame shot went awry just before kickoff in Week 2 and Herbert proceeded to throw a rookie-record 33 touchdown passes in one of the finest debut seasons by a quarterback in NFL history. So forgive me for rolling my eyes at the slow-play crowd preaching patience before the Niners take their brand new No. 3 overall pick out of the box. Thankfully, Jimmy Garoppolo is still alive. But while the veteran quarterback remains on the roster today, there's no guarantee that remains the case through the summer. And regardless, let's be honest: This is Trey's team now. He'll get the starting reins whenever he's ready to rock -- and there's good reason to believe that'll be sooner than later. Many view his FCS pedigree as a significant hindrance, but North Dakota State runs its program with the kind of efficiency numerous FBS teams would die for. Not to mention, the Bison offense -- which routinely had Lance taking snaps from under center, calling out protections and executing traditional play-action concepts -- is far more translatable to Kyle Shanahan's system than most high-level college football attacks. Count me among the #LetTreyPlay contingent. So, what's keeping this grade out of "A" territory? Well, I'm not entirely sure how well San Francisco addressed additional areas of need. Injecting some youth into the aging offensive line was wise, but the athletically challenged Banks seems like an odd fit for Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme. And the secondary remains the most unsettled position group on the roster. Points for the RB value pick of Sermon midway through the third round, though.

Grade
B-
Seattle Seahawks
Total picks: 3

Round 2:

Round 4:

Round 6:


Seattle made the fewest selections in this draft, but John Schneider, Pete Carroll and Co. landed three intriguing prospects at three areas of need. The 5-foot-9 Eskridge primarily lined up out wide at Western Michigan -- embarrassing outclassed MAC cornerbacks to the tune of 33 receptions for 768 yards (23.3 yards per catch!) and eight touchdowns in just six games -- but he figures to spend most of his time in the slot with Seattle. Putting his electric 4.39 speed between DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett is heady stuff. Draft ageists will dwell on the fact that he's entering the league at age 24, but the old man cooked all comers during Senior Bowl week. Brown, a fourth-round CB selection, is also a bit small for his position, but he plays much bigger than 5-9 3/4, routinely bullying opposing receivers of all shapes and sizes. And he's plenty battle-tested, as a three-year starter in the pass-happy Big 12. No wonder Carroll told reporters that the 'Hawks "didn't draft him as a nickel," planning to start the rookie off outside, measuring tape be damned. Forsythe could end up being the steal of this group, though. Projected by many as a Day 2 pick, the Florida tackle fell into Seattle's lap in the back half of Round 6. Standing 6-foot-8, Forsythe predictably struggles with leverage in the run game, but he uses length and strong hands to swallow up edge rushers. Just ask Azeez Ojulari, who disappeared into Forsythe's pterodactyl wingspan for an entire Saturday last November.

Grade
C+
Arizona Cardinals
Total picks: 7

Round 1:

Round 2:

Round 4:

Round 6:

Round 7:


When it comes to talent evaluation, Steve Keim has a type, and that type is sexy. The Cardinals general manager clearly likes making flashy draft picks, sometimes to the detriment of need and positional value. Take Collins for example. The 6-5, 259-pound linebacker combines old-school bulk with new-school athleticism. Shoot, the man won a game last season with a 96-yard walk-off pick-six. And when Keim called to inform Collins the Cardinals were drafting him, the 'backer excitedly told his new boss, "Steve ... We're gonna f------ kill everyone." What's not to like?! And the thought of lining Collins up alongside last year's first-round hybrid haul, LB Isaiah Simmons, is admittedly exhilarating from a positionless-football standpoint. But is this the best use of draft resources for a team that's looking to make the step from playoff contender to playoff participant? Keim did address bigger needs with his next two picks, but he did so in fitting fashion: scooping up a pair of dynamic athletes with major question marks. Moore torched the Big Ten as a true freshman back in 2018, but he hasn't been the same player since, struggling with injuries along the way. And his pro day height measurement -- 5-7 flat, two inches below his listing at Purdue -- spawned additional uncertainty about what role he'll play in the NFL. Like Moore, Wilson exploded onto the scene with a stellar true freshman season. Also like Moore, Wilson failed to recapture that magic for the remainder of his college career. He's a freak athlete, though, with pro day numbers that pop off the page (4.34 40-yard dash, 43 1/2-inch vertical leap, 11-4 broad jump, 26 bench reps). Keim has a type, for better or worse.

Grade
C
Los Angeles Rams
Total picks: 9

Round 2:

Round 3:

Round 4:

Round 5:

Round 7:


The 2021 NFL Draft provided a modern take on a sci-fi classic: The Incredible Shrinking ... Wide Receiver! Of the first 10 wideouts selected, half measured up shorter than 5-foot-10, while just one -- Terrace Marshall Jr., the 10th wideout off the board -- cleared 6-1. Now, this could be a one-year aberration. Of the first 10 receivers selected last year, half were at least 6-1, while only one -- K.J. Hamler, the 10th wideout off the board -- was shorter than 5-10. But it could also be a sign that, with speed-in-space concepts rising up from the college ranks into the NFL, the league is less concerned about physical stature at the position. That said, the Rams are testing the limits of that mindset with their first pick of this draft. Atwell, the ninth receiver taken, checked in at his pro day at 5-8 7/8 and 155 pounds. According to NFL Research's combine data, which goes back to 2003, no player has weighed 155 pounds or lighter at the combine and been drafted. Why would Les Snead and Sean McVay invest a second-round pick in such an outlier? Well, Tutu can fly. But is his speed enough to overcome the size limitations that have befallen pint-sized pass catchers of the recent vintage like Tavon Austin and Dri Archer (both of whom tipped the scales north of 170 pounds, by the way)? It feels risky. Probably better to roll the dice on raw athletic traits in Day 3, like the Rams did with Rochell (an explosive cover man) and Harris (a college receiver who's converting to tight end).

Follow Gennaro Filice on Twitter.

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