Get ready for a quarterback bonanza in the 2021 NFL Draft.
The 49ers recently traded up to the No. 3 pick, all but guaranteeing that quarterbacks will be taken 1-2-3. And as many as five QBs could be taken in the top half of the first round.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that all five will be deserving.
“Five QBs in the top 15? Are you [expletive] me?” said Scot McCloughan, a former general manager for Washington and San Francisco who now does draft consulting for several teams. “There should be two, and when it’s all said and done, there will probably be one that deserved it.”
History says that will be the case. Ten times since the 1970 merger have multiple QBs been drafted in the top three picks. In each case, at least one turned out to be over-drafted.
In 2018, Baker Mayfield went No. 1 and Sam Darnold No. 3. In 2016, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz went with the first two picks. In 2015, it was Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. In 2012, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. And so on. It’s not a pretty list.
The 2021 draft could mark just the third time that QBs are drafted 1-2-3. In 1999, it was Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, and Akili Smith. In 1971, it was Jim Plunkett, Archie Manning, and Dan Pastorini, arguably the only time that each team came away happy.
This year, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence is essentially a lock to go No. 1 to Jacksonville. NFL scouts have been drooling over the athletic, 6-foot-6-inch Lawrence for three years, and NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah called Lawrence a “faster version of Justin Herbert” who “does a lot of the things that Deshaun Watson does.”
But the other four prospects each come with concerns. And the rankings of each vary wildly from team to team.
Brigham Young’s Zach Wilson, the favorite to go No. 2 to the Jets, has two main concerns: size and durability. Wilson had labrum surgery on his throwing shoulder in February 2019, though he went on to start 21 games over the next two seasons. And Jeremiah said Wilson eased some concerns with his size when he measured 6-3, 214 pounds at his pro day this past week.
“There was nothing in the workout I feel like I needed to see,” said Jeremiah, a former scout. “The only curiosity was how big he was, and the only hurdle that remains is the physical, just to make sure he’s good there structurally from the shoulder.”
But McCloughan isn’t as high on Wilson and said that he still plays like a small quarterback.
“It’s not so much undersized. He’s going to measure OK,” McCloughan said. “But you watch him play, he plays like he’s 5-10, 180. It looks like Doug Flutie.”
Mac Jones, getting a lot of buzz as the 49ers’ target at No. 3, is a polarizing prospect. He dominated in his one season as Alabama’s starter, completing 77 percent of his passes with 41 touchdowns and four interceptions. Scouts love his intelligence, accuracy, and poise, and some believe he is ready to play right away. But Jones is more of a classic pocket passer and doesn’t provide much of a threat with his feet. There is also the question of whether the talent surrounding Jones at Alabama made him look better than he is.
McCloughan doesn’t have Jones rated in the first round and compares him with a game-managing type of quarterback such as Jimmy Garoppolo. Jeremiah rates Jones as a late-first-round pick.
“I don’t know if he’s going to be able to create and get away from some of the pressure he’s going to be under,” Jeremiah said. “The pocket passers that are successful in the NFL right now are the older veterans who have 15, 20-plus years of experience and knowledge to be able to have the answers to the test. And when you’re a young quarterback trying to find your footing, it sure is nice to be able to use your athleticism in the meantime as you’re trying to gain that knowledge.”
Ohio State’s Justin Fields is another polarizing prospect. He has tremendous speed (he ran a 4.4 in the 40 at his pro day), good durability, a live arm, and had an excellent 2019 season, throwing for 41 touchdowns and four interceptions.
“I would have no problem taking Fields No. 2 — at all,” McCloughan said. “Physically he can hold up, he’s very durable. He dominated the Big Ten. Fields you can take in the first [round], and I think it’s going to be a good pick.”
But Fields had accuracy issues in 2020 and got exposed a bit by Alabama’s defense in the national championship game. Jeremiah said he would choose Wilson over Fields.
“I thought [Wilson] was a better decision-maker and I thought he threw the ball more accurately,” Jeremiah said.
And the biggest wild card is North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, an imposing, athletic quarterback who operated a pro-style offense and was given a lot of freedom at the line of scrimmage. The problem, though, is that Lance only played one game in 2020, making him tough to evaluate. And Lance, who turns 21 on May 9, will almost certainly need time to develop.
“He’s got a chance to be really good, but it’s going to take him two to three years,” McCloughan said. “He just hasn’t played many snaps. You’re going to want to play him earlier than you should, but ideally he’d sit for two years and just learn the game.”
Jeremiah said Lance reminds him of Steve McNair, given his size, toughness, and small-school profile, and ranks Lance as the No. 3 quarterback behind Lawrence and Wilson.
Jeremiah thinks Lance would be the perfect choice for the Patriots, who could sit Lance behind Cam Newton for a year. There’s also the thought that the 49ers, who say they intend to keep Garoppolo in 2021, could draft Lance at No. 3 and sit him a year.
“He can direct fronts, he can do all the stuff at the line of scrimmage you need to do,” Jeremiah said. “He’s a fantastic athlete and runner. This guy has been up in the Dakotas, grew up in Minnesota, so the weather thing would be — he’d be very comfortable there [in Foxborough].”
Five teams are going to come away with new quarterbacks in the first round this year. But history says at least two or three will end up disappointed.
League decide 16 not enough
A few notes on the NFL expanding the regular season to 17 games:
▪ The vote was surprisingly not unanimous. Bears chairman George McCaskey was a lone dissenter, as reported by ESPN and the Chicago Tribune. It is not yet known why McCaskey voted against the 17-game season, but in 2019 he did mention that he had concerns about player safety.
▪ The best 17th games in 2021, at least on paper and without knowing the teams’ records: Cowboys at Patriots (two powerhouse franchises); Packers at Chiefs (Aaron Rodgers vs. Patrick Mahomes); Rams at Ravens (two contenders); and Buccaneers at Colts (Tom Brady back in Indianapolis).
▪ The 17th game means the Giants will play the Dolphins in South Florida for just the third time in 25 years. The Giants previously played in Miami in 1996 and 2015, and the 2007 game was moved to London.
The Jets will also get their chance to defeat the Eagles for the first time in franchise history. The Eagles are 11-0 against the Jets.
▪ The NFL has not announced the schedule rotation of the 17th game beyond 2021, but it appears to be two years behind the cross-conference rotation. For example, the Patriots and the AFC East played the entire NFC East in 2019, and the divisions will face off for the 17th game in 2021. If that follows, the 17th game rotation for the Patriots will be NFC West in 2022, NFC South in 2023, and NFC North in 2024.
▪ Season ticket-holders now get better value on their investment. Package prices will remain the same, but instead of paying full price for two preseason games each year, they’ll only be strong-armed into paying for three preseason games over two years.
▪ Did you know: The 2021 season won’t be the first time the NFL has had a Week 18 in the regular season. In 1993, the NFL experimented with two bye weeks, but ditched it after a year. Patriots president Jonathan Kraft has expressed in the past that the momentum of the season loses steam with bye weeks.
▪ Commissioner Roger Goodell was a bit disingenuous this past week when arguing that a 17th game wasn’t an increased health risk for players and, in fact, was better for them. Goodell reasoned that teams are still playing 20 games, just that the formula switched from 16 and 4 to 17 and 3.
“The highest rate of injury is actually in a preseason game,” Goodell said. “We’re actually following the data.”
While that is probably true, I would bet that an overwhelming number of injuries occur to fringe players who are running around at 150 miles per hour and are probably not going to make the team. A veteran starter plays 0 to 20 controlled snaps in a preseason game, and now will play in 75 snaps in an additional regular-season game.
Inside job by Ravens?
A couple of the rules proposals that will be voted upon this month seem to be a bit self-serving for Ravens coach John Harbaugh.
The Ravens proposed adding an eighth member to the officiating crew, i.e. a sky judge, to make calls from upstairs using TV monitors and instant replay. Another proposal, jointly proposed by the Ravens and the coaches’ subcommittee of the competition committee (of which Harbaugh is a member), is a half-measure. It calls for the instant replay officials to be able help on-field officials determine whether a catch is made, where the ball should be spotted, whether a player is down by contact, and so on.
These proposals are couched under the guise of “getting the calls right,” but what they really are is a way to take the pressure off coaches from having to use their challenges. Harbaugh has only been successful on 3 of 12 challenges over the past two years, per Pro Football Reference.
“They just want everything fixed,” Terry McAulay, the NFL’s former director of officiating, said on Twitter of NFL coaches. “I’m skeptical that this can be implemented seamlessly, consistently, and most importantly, equitably.”
From the home office
A few league administration notes:
▪ Patriots owner Robert Kraft echoed this past week what has been widely reported, that the NFL lost about $4 billion in revenue in 2020, which amounts to about $125 million per team. The $4 billion represents about a quarter of the league’s overall revenue. But players made full salaries in 2020, and now it’s their turn to take the hit over the next few years.
The 2021 salary cap was negotiated to $182.5 million, and DeMaurice Smith of the NFL Players Association said this past week that the cap would have been about $166 million had the sides not smoothed the losses over multiple years. That means the 2022 salary cap and probably 2023 will be lower than normal, as well.
▪ The NFL fired the first shot this past week when stating in a league memo that this year’s offseason program will have some sort of on-field component and won’t be all-virtual. The owners and NFLPA are negotiating the structure of the offseason, and the union is adamant about going all-virtual again.
“It worked in keeping us healthy, and we had more competitive games, more scoring, higher performance, more parity, more drama than really any year,” NFLPA president J.C. Tretter said.
Most likely, the owners are using this issue to get concessions in other areas.
▪ The NFL hasn’t, and likely won’t, require players to get vaccinated. But players will be heavily incentivized to do so. Those who are vaccinated won’t have to avoid social gatherings, won’t have to undergo daily COVID-19 testing, and most importantly, won’t be taken off the roster for a minimum of five days if they come in close contact with someone infected. Anyone worried about making a roster or securing a job will be at a significant disadvantage if not vaccinated.
Deshaun Watson didn’t do himself any favors this past week when his attorney, Rusty Hardin, circulated a news release with testimonials from 18 female massage therapists attesting that Watson was nothing but a gentleman in his time with them. First, the rationale is specious — just because Watson didn’t harass or assault 18 therapists doesn’t mean he didn’t do it to the 21 that are suing him. Second, the near-universal reaction from those around the NFL is that it is strange, to say the least, that Watson cycled through at least 39 massage therapists in a year. “The NFL players that I have interacted with have wanted consistency in the care and maintenance of their bodies,” wrote David Chao, who was the Chargers’ team doctor for 17 seasons. ”It is very strange for any professional athlete to have their deep-tissue, Swedish, trigger-point or sports massages performed by multiple different people on a rotating basis.” . . . The NFL raised the debt limit for Washington owner Daniel Snyder this past week to allow him to buy out his partners of 40 percent of the team at about $950 million, which he did on Friday. While Snyder now has consolidated power of the franchise, it also theoretically makes it easier for him to sell . . . The Patriots ranked 31st in cash spending in 2020 ($160.7 million), spending only more than the Jaguars ($155.8 million). So far in 2021, they rank No. 2 in cash spending ($236.7 million), behind only the Cowboys ($241 million) . . . The Falcons announced Thursday that they will host a non-division home game in London in 2021. Of the five potential opponents — the Eagles, Washington, Lions, Jets, and Patriots — the Patriots have gone the longest since playing in London (2012). The other four teams have each been to London since 2015 . . . Ariel Young, the 5-year-old girl who suffered a traumatic brain injury and is still in the hospital as the result of a car accident involving former Chiefs coach Britt Reid, is making progress, but slowly. Reid, the son of head coach Andy Reid, smashed into two cars pulled over on an interstate offramp and admitted to authorities that he had a couple of drinks before the crash. The investigation is ongoing and the family wants to pursue charges. “Britt Reid is out every day living his normal life while she cannot,” Young’s aunt wrote on her GoFundMe page. ”Please don’t let her story be forgotten.”