The fascination of the 2021 NFL Draft came with each team having their own clear-cut draft strategy and identity. After seeing how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers built a sound team foundation as strong offensive line play and offensive playmaking played major roles during their Super Bowl season, many teams followed the same blueprint.
Overall, teams took to a liking of beefing up their offensive lines and taking advantage of a strong wide receiver class. The Ravens, for example, used two draft picks on receivers and a third-round pick on a plug-and-play offensive guard.
With the AFC seeming to become more talented and difficult to win in every year as offenses are always improving and evolving, there lies an ever-existing need for talent in order to keep up with other offenses. As seen with Tom Brady’s Super Bowl season and subsequent victory over the Chiefs, throwing from a consistently clean pocket and having a group of receivers that can reliably get open can take an offense a very long way. Such seems to be the blueprint other teams are following after seeing 15 of the 32 second-round draft picks being either a wide receiver or offensive lineman.
The AFC as a whole definitely improved as a result of the Draft. At the same time, some teams didn't improve enough to surpass other teams. Let’s take a look at how the AFC power rankings stack up after the 2021 NFL Draft.
16. Houston Texans
Notable Draft Picks: QB Davis Mills, WR Nico Collins
Amidst the Deshaun Watson drama to go along with the mess former head coach and GM Bill O’Brien left for Dave Culley and Nick Caserio, which left the team with only 5 draft picks for this year, the Texans are in a very tough spot heading into the 2021 season. Drafting David Mills as Deshaun Watson insurance was a prudent move; however, it remains to be seen whether Mills can play at a high level and beat out the likes of Tyrod Taylor and Ryan Finley for the starting QB job. Overall, the Texans face an uphill battle to win in 2021 as an overall lack of talent comparatively to the rest of the AFC will be a difficult reality to overcome.
15. Denver Broncos
Notable Draft Picks: CB Patrick Surtain II, RB Javonte Williams, IOL Quinn Meinerz
Despite the recent rumors linking Aaron Rodgers to the Broncos as a possible destination, nothing is tangible as of now. With current QBs Drew Lock and newly-added Teddy Bridgewater set to compete for the starting job, regardless of who wins, I see 14 better QB situations in the AFC at the moment. The Broncos did add some solid talent through the draft and bolstered their running game by adding the powerful Javonte Williams, who will immediately challenge for snaps. The tenacious Quinn Meinerz from the Division III University of Wisconsin-Whitewater will have a chance to start right away and accommodate an already impressive offensive line. Spending a top-ten draft pick on Patrick Surtain makes plenty of sense as all three AFC West teams in the Chiefs, Raiders, and Chargers have very talented wide receivers. What ultimately gives credence to Denver being this low in the rankings is their weak QB room.
14. New York Jets
Notable Draft Picks: QB Zach Wilson, IOL Alijah Vera-Tucker, WR Elijah Moore, RB Michael Carter
The Jets are at the beginning stages of a completed rebuild as the prioritization of drafting offensive talent as the team’s foundation appeared to be the team’s draft strategy. Drafting protection for their second-overall draft pick in Zach Wilson became the first priority as the Jets spent their second, first-round draft pick on Alijah Vera-Tucker to bolster the interior offensive line. I believe their next two picks, in terms of value and talent, made this draft class special. Both Elijah Moore and Michael Carter should be immediate playmakers at their positions. What still leaves the Jets at the bottom of the AFC is the presence of a rookie coach and quarterback in addition to a now very difficult AFC East division, where the Jets, as it currently stands, are at the bottom of the pecking order.
Notable Draft Picks: WR Ja’Marr Chase, OG Jackson Carmen, DE Joseph Ossai
Leading up to the draft, everyone knew that the Bengals had a controversial decision with their top-five overall pick. Rather than solidifying the offensive line and going after either Penei Sewell or Rashawn Slater, the Bengals decided to reunite former LSU teammates Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase. The Bengals proceeded to use three of their next nine picks on offensive linemen. Defensively, the Bengals look much improved, especially after dishing out large contracts to Trey Hendrickson, Chidobe Awuzie, and Mike Hilton during free agency. It will be interesting to see how these free agent signings and draft selections come to fruition in Cincinnati, especially since all other AFC North teams undoubtedly improved their rosters over the offseason, too. The bottom line for success in Cincinnati, however, is a healthy Joe Burrow and stellar offensive line protection. Strong offensive line play is essential in a division with the likes of T.J. Watt, Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney, and Wink Martindale’s blitzing schemes.
Notable Draft Picks: OT Alex Leatherwood, FS Trevon Moehrig
The Raiders were among the teams that analysts said made some questionable draft decisions. Alex Leatherwood as the 17th overall draft pick, from what many said, appeared to be a heavy reach as many teams didn’t see Leatherwood as a first-round talent. Mayock and the Raiders recovered in the second round by picking the talented, ball-hawking safety Trevon Moehrig. He and Jonathan Abram should form a really solid safety tandem. What makes me the most skeptical about the Raiders is Jon Gruden’s coaching. He has yet to put together a winning season since his 2018 hiring, and I don’t believe the organization has done enough to make the Raiders legitimate contenders in the AFC.
Notable Draft Picks: QB Trevor Lawerence, RB Travis Etienne, CB Tyson Campbell
The Jaguars boosted themselves on the power rankings after a very strong offseason and draft class. We all know what Trevor Lawerence is capable of, and he should be the rookie of the year favorite heading into the 2021 season. It gets even more poetic as the Jaguars spent their 25th overall draft pick on Lawerence’s teammate, Travis Etienne. Etienne and James Robinson could be a dangerous duo as both running backs have very unique skillsets that will complement one another. The addition of former Detroit Lion, Marvin Jones, will complement an already-talented crop of receivers including the likes of D.J. Chark and Laviska Shenault Jr. Fans should expect the Jaguars to challenge Indianapolis and Tennessee for the division as this sneaky talented and young team under the guidance of Urban Meyer could be among the biggest surprises during the 2021 season.
10. Miami Dolphins
Notable Draft Picks: WR Jaylen Waddle, DE Jaelan Phillips, OT Liam Eichenberg
Miami’s offseason revolved around putting as much talent as possible around Tua Tagovailoa to compliment an already solid defense. In addition to the Will Fuller free agency addition, the Dolphins spent their top-ten draft pick on Alabama’s Jalen Waddle, who will add a lot of needed juice to an offense lacking talent last season. The running back position, though rumored to be a position of emphasis heading into the draft, failed to be addressed as Myles Gaskin currently sits atop of the running back room. Barring vast improvement from Gaskin (or others), it may be difficult for the Dolphins to establish a balanced offense, especially in a division with very solid and well-coached defenses. Defensively, the Dolphins should improve off of a very solid yet surprising 2020 defensive performance. What puts Miami lower in the rankings is their division. The Buffalo Bills look to repeat as division champions while the Patriots added a plethora of talent to aid Cam Newton. Improvement from Tagovailoa will be the main factor to make or break a successful 2021 campaign.
Notable Draft Picks: CB Caleb Farley, OT Dillon Radunz, LB Monty Rice
I see the Titans as a team that could see a regression in 2021. After the loss of players such as Jonnu Smith, Corey Davis, and Desmond King in addition to recent draft busts such as Isaiah Wilson and Adoree Jackson has left the Titans with a lack of talent and proven players. Offensively, the Titans have not done enough to counteract the losses of their two key playmakers. As it stands, the offense will revolve around Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown. Wide receivers Josh Reynolds and fifth-round draft pick Dez Fitzpatrick sit behind Brown on the depth chart. TE Anthony Firsker re-signed with the Titans and should take on an expanded role with the departure of Smith. What puts Tennessee above teams with more offensive flash is their experience. Mike Vrabel has proven to be a very intelligent and savvy coach who can win his team games. A coach like Vrabel would be very hard to bet against on a weekly basis.
8. LA Chargers
Notable Draft Picks: OT Rashawn Slater, CB Asante Samuel Jr., WR Josh Palmer
The Chargers may be one of these sneaky-good teams that quietly rack up wins, much like last year’s Indianapolis Colts. Personally, I have Justin Herbert as one of my MVP candidates, and a year of improvement would make this Chargers team very difficult to beat in 2021. The team used this year’s draft to improve roster talent with the addition of players who could start immediately, most notably both Rashawn Slater and Asante Samuel Jr. The drafting of Slater in addition to the singing of former Packers offensive guard, Corey Linsley, emphasizes the notion of protecting their franchise QB, Justin Herbert - who was among the most hit quarterbacks in the league last season. Defensively, the return of Derwin James will provide a huge boost to a team that lacked playmaking ability on defense last season. As long as key players stay healthy, there’s no reason for the Chargers to be unable to compete in the AFC West.
Notable Draft Picks: QB Mac Jones, DT Christian Barmore, Edge Ronnie Perkins
The Patriots had very deliberate intentions in free agency by dishing out over $200 million guaranteed to free agents within the first couple of days. Players such as Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Matthew Judon, Kyle Van Noy, Nelson Agholor, Jalen Mills, David Andrews, and more signed multi-year deals. Cam Newton is being given another chance to prove his starting capabilities - I can’t imagine that his leash is very long given the plethora of offensive talent Bill Belichik added through free agency. With Newton being the assumed Week 1 starter, the Patriots will most likely rely on an already solid run game, which would hopefully allow for more opportunities to open up the passing game for Newton. Defensively, the Patriots look fantastic on paper. They just need all of their defensive free agent singings to hit, which history has shown is not a guarantee. Overall, the Patriots deserve to be at No. 7 because they will be a very difficult team to beat. I foresee that the team's veteran experience in addition to that of the coaching staff’s will win them numerous games in 2021.
Notable Draft Picks: RB Najee Harris, TE Pat Friermuth, OG Kendrick Green
The addition of Najee Harris will pay huge dividends for Pittsburgh’s offense in 2021. After having the league’s worst rushing attack, Harris’ play will allow for more run-pass balance in the offense - something that was non-existent last season. Though some worry about the play of 39-year-old Ben Roethlisberger, he now has plenty of offensive talent to take the pressure off of him and put the ball in the hands of his playmakers. Defensively, the loss of Bud Dupree will certainly hurt, but most starters were retained. The return of a healthy Devin Bush will be crucial to the success of the defense. The biggest key to Pittsburgh’s success will be running lanes for Harris to run through and a clean pocket for Roethlisberger to throw from. With strong offensive line play, the team will come together and contend for the AFC North title.
5. Indianapolis Colts
Notable Draft Picks: DE Kwity Paye, DE Dayo Odeyingbo
The Colts retained a playoff-caliber roster and will be a very difficult team to beat in the AFC. With the reuniting of Carson Wentz and Frank Reich, whom Wentz had his best season under while in Philadelphia, the Indianapolis offense could be even better than last year under Phillip Rivers. The additions of Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo to a top-five defense will allow for the Colts to be front-runners in the AFC South as well as contenders in the AFC as a whole. Though the Colts never made any flashy pickups (other than Wentz) this offseason, expect them to win games right out of the gate.
Notable Draft Picks: WR Rashod Bateman, OLB Odafe Oweh, OG Ben Cleveland, WR Tylan Wallace
The lack of pass-catching talent surrounding Lamar Jackson last season was evident during many games. Via the draft, Eric DeCosta made a significant emphasis on giving his franchise quarterback help. The additions of Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace may prove to be immediately impactful as both players produced at the college level and have the ability to do so in the pros. DeCosta also provided Jackson and the rush attack offensive line help with the addition of Ben Cleveland, who many anticipate to be a plug and play at left guard. On defense, Odafe Oweh assumes the role of Matthew Judon as edge setter and pass rusher. Though Oweh will need some refinement in his game, his physical traits and sheer speed and strength will get him on the field early on. What will be the key for Baltimore’s success this season are these younger players being relied upon to immediately step up and produce. Both the 2020 and 2021 draft classes will have to perform at high levels for Baltimore to have a shot at the AFC North.
3. Buffalo Bills
Notable Draft Picks: DE Gregory Rousseau, DE Boogie Basham
The Bills seemed to take a preference of going the developmental route in the early part of the draft. Gregory Rousseau had only appeared in 14 career college games as he opted out of the 2020 season. Already as a team though, the Bills have all of the pieces to remain serious contenders in the AFC in 2021. The free-agent addition of Emmanuel Sanders will provide a boost to the passing game and a reliable target that can consistently get open for Josh Allen. The Bills look to have repeated success defensively most starters were retained. What doesn't put Buffalo in the top two are the Cleveland Browns, who I believe have done enough during this offseason to put together a very special season.
2. Cleveland Browns
Notable Draft Picks: CB Greg Newsome II, LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, WR Anthony Schwartz
The Browns are poised to take a big step in 2021 after last year’s historic season. GM Andrew Berry drafted a very solid class this year and made some very good free-agent additions. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, widely regarded as a first-round prospect, was found to have a heart condition, which caused him to slip in the draft where he landed to the Browns in the second round. He should see playing time early as Cleveland’s linebacking corps is a little thin. Newsome will also have a shot to start right away as poor play from Greedy Williams among others prompted spending a top draft pick on Newsome. The tandem of Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney may be the biggest concern for opposing offenses heading into 2021. Both players should benefit from one another’s presence and open up opportunities for other defenders to have one-on-ones. In terms of the offense, the addition of the speedy Anthony Schwartz, retaining of Rashard Higgins, and return of Odell Beckham Jr. should allow for plenty of opportunities for Baker Mayfield to put the ball in those players’ hands, to go along with Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, and Austin Hooper. I believe Cleveland may have the top defense in the AFC North as of right now, and another year of development for Mayfield (as well as the entire offense) under Kevin Stefanski could pay huge dividends.
Notable Draft Picks: LB Nick Bolton, C Creed Humphrey, WR Cornell Powell
The Chiefs still remain the team to beat in the AFC. After an underwhelming Super Bowl performance, GM Brett Veach made some very intelligent moves to make the Chiefs even stronger this year. A complete revamping of the offensive line to protect Pat Mahomes came with the additions of Orlando Brown Jr. from Baltimore, Joe Thuney from New England, Creed Humphrey with their second-round draft pick, Kyle Long from retirement, and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif from opt-out. The strength of the Chiefs lies in their offense with Mahomes, who will be better protected in 2021. With nearly all offensive starters being retained, expect the Chiefs to come out and dominate in 2021.