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5 things we learned from the 2021 NFL Draft

A few of the things we learned after watching the league’s annual draft extravaganza.

2021 NFL Draft Concert Series - Machine Gun Kelly Photo by Duane Prokop/Getty Images

Even though the Kansas City Chiefs didn’t have a highly visible first-round pick, we watched all three days of the NFL Draft. What did we learn?


1. Teams were operating in the dark — and with a reduced talent pool

During the 2020 draft — which took place in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic — teams were unsure about what they call “medicals,“ because they were unable to bring in draft prospects for personal visits that include physical evaluations by team doctors.

That problem remained for the 2021 draft — and then there was an additional issue: a large number of prospects had either opted out of last season or were with schools whose seasons had been reduced or cancelled. As noted when we reported on Chiefs general manager Brett Veach’s draft strategy less than a week before the draft, this resulted in a prospect pool that was roughly one-third as large as normal. Even within that much-smaller group of players, there was less film of recent performances — and it was very difficult for teams to check medical issues for themselves.

In short... it was a mess. So on draft day, teams separated into two groups: those that were going to do anything they could to move up and grab the players they felt comfortable about selecting — and those that were going to hoard as many selections as they could, knowing that a higher percentage of drafted players weren’t going to pan out.

It was a perfect storm. Even before it began, 66 of the draft’s 259 picks were with new teams — but by Saturday evening, 55 more picks had changed hands in draft-day trades: four in the first round, 11 each in the second, third and fourth rounds, seven in the fifth, 10 in the sixth and one in the seventh. In all, almost half of the draft’s selections ended up with different teams.

Even New York Giants GM Dave Gettleman — famously opposed to trading back in the draft — did it twice over the weekend.

It’s possible that when we look back on this draft, we’ll see that it’s one of the worst in NFL history — that a great number of players just didn’t pan out. Or we’ll see that all of these trades helped players land with the teams where they could be successful. It will be fascinating to watch.

2. The Chiefs’ trade for Orlando Brown Jr. was exactly the right move

Cincinnati Bengals v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Dan Kubus/Getty Images

After Thursday night — when offensive tackle Teven Jenkins unexpectedly remained undrafted after the first round — it was possible to wonder if the Chiefs had made the wrong move by trading their first-round pick for Brown. Could it be that it would have been smarter to stand pat for Jenkins — or another tackle who might be available then or when they picked in the second round?

But with the whole draft in the rear-view mirror, we can see that Veach did exactly the right thing. Jenkins, Liam Eichenberg, Walker Little, Jackson Carman, Samuel Cosmi and Dillon Radunz were all gone well before the Chiefs’ 63rd pick. To get any of them, Veach would have had to trade up to earlier in the second — and given his history, I would completely understand why he might be reluctant to do that. As my colleague Matt Stagner has already noted, the Chiefs got good players in almost all of their positions of need — and their ability to do that started with trading for Brown.

3. The Brown trade may have been Plan A — not Plan B

Buffalo Bills v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Given this, it’s possible to go back to the negotiations the Chiefs had with San Francisco 49ers offensive tackle Trent Williams and wonder if it was actually the team’s less-preferred solution to their offensive tackle problem; just because it happened first doesn’t necessarily mean it was the team’s favorite option.

Remember: in mid-March, it was old news that Brown wanted to be traded from the Ravens. Veach has made it plain that Brown is a player his staff had valued when he was drafted — and the Chiefs have played the Ravens in each of the three years Brown has played. There’s little doubt that the Chiefs have a very good idea of what Brown is able to do; it’s certainly not as if they would be trading for a well-regarded backup from another conference (see: Bono, Steve).

The first-year cost for both Brown and Williams was going to be relatively low — but with the $30 million signing bonus Williams received, his first-year cost — in a cap-strapped year — was going to be more than twice as much as Brown. Both will be more expensive in the years to follow — but if Brown ends up signing a long-term deal with the Chiefs, he’ll be starting at it age 26 instead of age 33.

And even if Brown turns out to be a bust as the team’s left tackle — which is less likely than it would be for any drafted player — the Chiefs will have risked about the same that they would have to take a left tackle in the draft: a draft pick valued in the late first or early second round. Sure... if a player like Jenkins had worked out as a first-year starter, he would be much cheaper over his rookie deal. But Veach — who has to worry about both the short and long-term effects of his decisions — couldn’t afford the risk of having two rookie players as his bookend tackles; one of them had to be a solid player.

Finally... Veach has made it clear that he believed the draft’s best value was in the second round into the middle of the third. Making the Brown deal gave him two picks in that range — instead of just one.

So when the Chiefs walked away from the Williams deal, it wasn’t necessarily that “Veach failed to get the player he wanted.” Instead, he was simply exercising due diligence on what he may have considered to be a less-attractive option — at the only time it would be available to him. When the deal made less sense than it would to trade for Brown — or even to draft the best available offensive tackle at 31 — he bailed.

4. The Chiefs will be able to sign their rookies very inexpensively

NCAA Football: South Dakota at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Per Spotrac, the Chiefs will need just over $5 million in cap space for the six players they drafted over the weekend. But they will only need that $5 million when the season begins in September. It’s likely that the cap hits of a few veteran players who won’t make the final roster — or who are released before then — will make up for the lion’s share of that figure.

But what’s more important right now is what cap space will be needed to sign these players — and it’s a stupidly-low amount. When drafted (or signed as UDFAs), rookies go on the roster at the current NFL minimum salary: $660,000. But under salary-cap rules in place until the season begins, only the top 51 salaries count against the cap. Right now, the team’s 51st-highest salary is $850,000 — meaning that the salaries for all rookies don’t currently count against the cap.

That will change when the drafted rookies sign their deals. But only two of them — Nick Bolton and Creed Humphrey — will sign contracts with first-year cap hits of over $850,000; the rest will be under the top 51 threshold. Both of their deals will have cap hits just over $1 million. These will replace two $850,000 salaries now among the top 51. So when they sign their deals this summer, their contracts will reduce the Chiefs’ cap space by just over $300,000.

Peanuts.

5. “The NFL Draft Show” continues to evolve — and there are things to like

NFL: NFL Draft Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Over the years, not everything the NFL has done to its draft presentation has been a positive. For example, I’m not quite sure why there has to be a bunch of other stuff for the first 30 minutes after the show begins. I’m fine with the National Anthem — but having a rock band perform before the first team goes on the clock seems... excessive.

But there were two things to love about the 2021 NFL Draft Show: the boxes for fans of each team right up at the stage — and that a fan from each of those boxes was allowed to sit on stage for their team’s pick. The fan boxes replaced the long-outdated desks with team employees whose only function is to answer a phone call, write a name on a card and carry it to the front desk. All of that is now — finally — handled by direct communcation between the teams and a league data center.

The designated fan’s use of the chair from commissioner Roger Goodell’s basement — in which he sat for much of the all-virtual 2020 draft — was an inspired move. If this feature of the show becomes permanent, that chair will someday be on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In the meantime, a rabid fan for each team will be able to leave the event with a story they can tell their grandchildren: that they were the first fan of their team to learn that a particular player had been chosen. That’s terrific.