Game Theory

2021 NFL Draft: Justin Fields, Kwity Paye among Day 1's top value picks

After months of mocks, prospect comparisons and position rankings, the 2021 NFL Draft finally kicked off on Thursday with Round 1. Over the span of three days, we'll hear 259 names called, witness numerous trades and debate a whole heap o' hot takes. In such a frenzied environment, with action involving all 32 teams, it can be hard to determine which organizations are really maximizing their draft capital.

In an attempt to quantify the impact of each draft pick, I've turned to a model I developed that projects future player performance in the context of the franchise they ended up with. This means mapping out their production according to team personnel, coaching philosophies and opponents faced.

Per my model, these are the five best values from Round 1 of the 2021 NFL Draft, weighing the players' projected output against where they were selected:

Rank
1
Justin Fields
Ohio State · QB
Chicago Bears
Chicago Bears
No. 11 overall

Fields, my second-highest-rated quarterback in this draft, lands in a situation that projects for LOTS of success. Paired with Matt Nagy, a top-third O-line and less pressure to start immediately (thanks to Andy Dalton), the conditions are primed for upside potential. Fields had the best clean-pocket TD-to-INT ratio (54:4) in the FBS over since his freshman year in 2018, per Pro Football Focus. Clean pockets approximate the best a QB can do because they represent the easiest conditions to succeed under and give us a baseline to measure against when conditions aren't ideal. Fields hit deep passes (20-plus-air-yard attempts) at a 50 percent clip since 2019 (PFF, sixth-best), and when we combine that with his play-action prowess (146.4 passer rating in 2020, third-best) and his 55.5 percent completion percentage on the run (10-plus-air-yard attempts), we get several clues as to how his skills will translate to success at the next level. One area he adds to the Bears QB playbook is in the run game, with his 630 rushing yards and five TDs off scrambles. Don't let this next number fool you (it's only low because I project Dalton to start for at least four games), but Fields adds 3.71 wins to the Bears' total in 2021 ... and presumably a lot more in the future.

Rank
2
Rashawn Slater
Northwestern · OT
Los Angeles Chargers
Los Angeles Chargers
No. 13 overall

My top-rated tackle goes 13th overall. Slater's versatility (can play both guard and tackle) and top 10 percent win rate among tackles (as measured by computer vision tracking who made first contact, the offensive or defensive player, over the past 10 seasons) is the reason the Chargers yet again land on this list. Slater opted out in 2020 but allowed just 5 pressures on 355 pass pro snaps in 2019 and just two total career sacks, per PFF. Slater to the Chargers adds 0.55 wins; for context, the Lions' first-round tackle, Penei Sewell, adds just 0.49.

Rank
3
Kwity Paye
Michigan · Edge
Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis Colts
No. 21 overall

Over the past two seasons, Paye recorded 40 QB hurries (third in Big Ten) and 59 pressures (fifth in Big Ten), according to PFF. The Michigan defender lined up all over the Wolverines' front and fits like a glove with the Colts, where he'll likely be used in several different packages and schemes right away. I measured Paye's burst (the time it takes him to travel two yards from the line of scrimmage), and it was the second-fastest in college football this past season at 0.64 seconds. The edge rusher adds 0.74 wins to the Colts this upcoming season.

Rank
4
Christian Darrisaw
Virginia Tech · OT
Minnesota Vikings
Minnesota Vikings
No. 23 overall

I had Darrisaw ranked at No. 17 on my big board, so the Vikings selecting him 23rd overall while picking up additional draft capital (moved down nine spots and gave up a fourth-rounder for two third-round picks) to fill a position of need qualifies as an awesome value. Next Gen Stats shows that Kirk Cousins was pressured at the second-highest rate (34.4%) among qualifying QBs last year, behind only Daniel Jones (41%). Darrisaw allowed just seven sacks in 1,041 career pass-blocking snaps at Virginia Tech, with zero allowed in 2020, per PFF. My computer vision measurements show that he held his defender (or defenders) from getting close to a runner at a top 15 percent rate in the FBS over the past 10 seasons, a desirable ability considering the offense the Vikings like to run. Not only does Darrisaw add 0.57 wins in 2021, but he'll surely make Cousins and Dalvin Cook very happy.

Rank
5
Gregory Rousseau
Miami · Edge
Buffalo Bills
Buffalo Bills
No. 30 overall

The Bills brilliantly add versatility and youth at a true value with this pick, considering Rousseau was No. 16 on my board. Tracking his 2019 data (he opted out in 2020) shows he lined up all over the defensive front and was productive in each spot. From the first game to his last that season, Rousseau steadily improved his average time to pressure (which was adjusted for alignment). Rousseau checks both the "ideal" boxes of measurement for body mechanics at the position (low center of gravity, excellent body control). His résumé also includes playing safety, as well as offense, in high school, which suggests we haven't even seen what his development ceiling looks like. Defensive-minded Sean McDermott likely understands this puzzle piece extremely well, and the fit is a great predictor of January football in Buffalo. Rousseau adds 0.65 wins to the 2021 Bills.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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