If you want to know what teams value in today’s NFL, look at the top of the first round of this year’s draft.
The first three picks: quarterbacks. The first seven picks: offense. The first 15 picks: five quarterbacks and four pass catchers.
If you want to win in 2021, you’d better be able to throw the ball and score points.
Let’s take a look at the top story lines of the first round, which lasted 3 hours, 44 minutes:
▪ With Trevor Lawrence going first to the Jaguars, Zach Wilson second to the Jets, and Trey Lance third to the 49ers, it marked just the third time in NFL history that quarterbacks were drafted 1-2-3. The other years were 1999 (Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, and Akili Smith) and 1971 (Jim Plunkett, Archie Manning, and Dan Pastorini).
With Justin Fields going 11th to the Bears and Mac Jones 15th to the Patriots, it was just the second time that five quarterbacks went in the top 15. In 1999, in addition to Couch, McNabb, and Smith, Daunte Culpepper went 11th and Cade McNown went 12th.
Of course, as former NFL general manager Scot McCloughan said in February, “There will be three guys taken in the first round this year that will get head coaches and GMs fired in three years. I guarantee you.” To his point, Couch, Smith, and McNown were busts in ’99, while McNabb and Culpepper panned out.
▪ Quarterbacks rule the top slot in recent years. A QB has gone No. 1 overall in four straight drafts (Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow, and Lawrence) and in 10 of the last 13. The only non-quarterbacks to be taken in the top spot recently are Myles Garrett (2017), Jadeveon Clowney (2014), and Eric Fisher (2013).
▪ And the Alabama Crimson Tide are dominating the draft like no others. Alabama tied the 2004 Miami Hurricanes with six players drafted in the first round, and set a record with five first-round picks from the same offense. The Tide also became the first school to have a quarterback, running back, and two receivers go in the first round of the same draft.
The Tide have now had 21 first-round picks in the last five years. They also had players picked 37th and 38th on Friday night.
▪ Reunited and it feels so good: Several teams drafted a receiver who played in college with their starting quarterback. The Bengals drafted LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase to pair him with Burrow. The Dolphins drafted Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle to go with Tua Tagovailoa (though Waddle made headlines in March when he told NFL Network that he preferred Jones to Tagovailoa), and the Eagles got Alabama’s DeVonta Smith to catch passes from Jalen Hurts.
Chase said Thursday night that Burrow texted him that morning and told him to pack his bags and get ready to move to Cincinnati.
▪ Florida tight end Kyle Pitts went No. 4 to Atlanta, making him the highest-drafted tight end since the 1970 merger. The previous high was Denver’s Riley Odoms at No. 5 in 1972, and three players at No. 6, including Vernon Davis in 2006 and Kellen Winslow Jr. in 2004.
Pre-merger, Billy Cannon went No. 1 overall to the Rams in 1960.
▪ For all of the talk about trade possibilities and teams jumping up for quarterbacks, the first round was rather tame. There were no trades on Thursday night until the Eagles jumped up from No. 12 to 10 to draft DeVonta Smith. There were two trades before the draft started, with the 49ers jumping up to No. 3 and the Dolphins moving around to No. 6.
▪ If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Bears GM Ryan Pace whiffed badly when he traded up to take Mitchell Trubisky No. 2 overall in 2017, and many around the league were surprised when Pace kept his job this offseason (along with coach Matt Nagy). But Pace went right back at it on Thursday night, trading up from No. 20 to 11 to draft Fields.
The pick almost certainly means that Pace and Nagy have been given at least two more years by ownership to get it right.
▪ The 49ers made Lance just the sixth quarterback from the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division 1-AA) to be drafted in the first round. The track record is pretty solid: Carson Wentz (North Dakota State), Joe Flacco (Delaware), Steve McNair (Alcorn State), Ken O’Brien (UC Davis), and Phil Simms (Morehead State).
The 49ers now have two FCS quarterbacks atop their depth chart — Lance and Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garoppolo.
▪ The No. 2 pick has been cursed when used on a quarterback. Since 1990, the picks are: Rick Mirer, Ryan Leaf, McNabb, Robert Griffin III, Marcus Mariota, Wentz, and Trubisky. That’s one solid QB in McNabb, one question mark in Wentz, and five busts. Good luck, Wilson and the Jets.
▪ The No. 3 pick hasn’t done much better at quarterback. Those picks since 1990: Heath Shuler, McNair, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, Vince Young, Matt Ryan, Blake Bortles, and Sam Darnold. McNair and Ryan were very good, and everyone else a bust.
▪ Very interesting that the Jets traded up from No. 23 to 14, jumping one spot ahead of the Patriots, to draft USC guard/tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker. Did they have intel that the Patriots really wanted the versatile offensive lineman with the No. 15 pick?
At the very least, the Jets seemed to know that they had to trade up ahead of the Raiders, who picked 17th. The Raiders ended up taking Alabama offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood.
▪ Dave Gettleman traded down from No. 11 to 20 once the Eagles leap-frogged the Giants for DeVonta Smith, and Gettleman landed talented Florida receiver Kadarius Toney at 20. It marked the first time in nine seasons as a GM that Gettleman executed a trade down. Gettleman then executed another trade down on Friday night, collecting more picks before drafting pass rusher Azeez Ojulari.
▪ Picks I liked: The Chargers getting franchise quarterback Justin Herbert better protection by drafting Northwestern left tackle Rashawn Slater 13th overall; the Jets drafting an offensive lineman (Vera-Tucker) and an explosive receiver (Elijah Moore) with their next two picks after taking Wilson.
▪ Picks I didn’t like: The Bengals, who had one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL last year, choosing a receiver (Chase) over an elite left tackle (Penei Sewell); the Steelers and Jaguars using first-round picks on running backs (Najee Harris and Travis Etienne) when their issues last year had much more to do with offensive line; and the Titans choosing cornerback Caleb Farley with the 22nd pick. Farley is ultra talented but is a major medical risk (two back surgeries and a torn ACL in college), and the Titans needed more of a sure thing.
Jones had his share of doubters
Amid all of the hype, it’s worth revisiting a few pre-draft evaluations of Mac Jones that weren’t so rosy. In February, Scot McCloughan, who does draft consulting for several teams, said he viewed Jones as “a Jimmy Garoppolo-type guy” who has the ceiling of a game manager. “He’s like a Tier 2 guy if everything hits right,” McCloughan said.
And NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah said Jones has “good enough” arm strength but not a big arm, and is worried about Jones’s lack of athleticism.
“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,” Jeremiah said. “And when you’re a young quarterback trying to find your footing, trying to begin that knowledge, it sure is nice to be able to use your athleticism. When things aren’t going to be perfect in front of him, I think he’s going to have a little bit of a hard time.”
Rodgers out of options?
This offseason has been one of discontent for some of the marquee quarterbacks. Deshaun Watson demanded out of Houston (before a string of sexual assault lawsuits complicated matters), Russell Wilson made it clear that he is unhappy in Seattle, and now it’s Aaron Rodgers’s turn. The longtime Packers quarterback made waves before Thursday’s first round with the report that he wants out of Green Bay and has refused to negotiate a new contract.
Tom Brady showed his fellow star quarterbacks that they can take control of their futures. But while Brady had an easy time getting to Tampa Bay because he was an unrestricted free agent, Watson, Wilson, and Rodgers have multiple years left on their contracts, and are having trouble wiggling themselves free.
Watson may not go anywhere for awhile, Wilson is going to be the Seahawks’ QB in 2021, and Rodgers is going to have a tough time getting out of Green Bay, especially now that the first round has come and gone. If the Packers were inclined to trade Rodgers, it would wreck their salary cap — either $38 million in dead cap money this year, or $21 million this year and $17 million next year — and they would not even get a first-round pick this year in return.
It appears that Rodgers knows he doesn’t have much control of the situation, because his camp is now making quite a stink. They ratcheted up the pressure on the Packers before the first round, perhaps knowing that it would be the last chance the Packers would have of trading Rodgers this year. They also leaked details of Rodgers’s trade talks — Rodgers wanted the Packers to listen to offers from the Rams and 49ers, and also reportedly wants to play for the Raiders or Broncos — and now are threatening retirement, using Rodgers’s desire to host “Jeopardy!” as a threat.
But the “Jeopardy!” thing seems like a pipe dream, and if Rodgers retired, he’d be walking away from nearly $65 million in salary over the next three years. He also would have to pay back nearly $30 million in bonuses, and would be branded as a quitter by much of the football public.
All of which is a long way of saying don’t expect Rodgers to change teams in 2021, like you shouldn’t expect Watson or Wilson to be moved. But the 2022 offseason is a different story for all three players.
An important deadline hits on Monday, the last day for teams to exercise the fifth-year option on their 2018 first-round draft picks or let them hit free agency after this season.
The equation has changed with these options, as it is now fully guaranteed once it is exercised. In the previous collective bargaining agreement, the option was only guaranteed for injury at first, and wasn’t fully guaranteed until Week 1.
But it hasn’t changed the fact that teams still view the fifth-year option as good value. As of late Friday, 17 of the 32 players had their option triggered, and Buffalo’s Josh Allen, working with the team on a contract extension, will make it 18. Last year, the 2017 class had 18 players get their options, and the 2016 class had 17.
Interestingly, there is a noticeable lack of busts at the top of the 2018 draft. If we include Allen, 13 of the top 14 picks will have their option triggered. Only Josh Rosen, the 10th pick, was a bust.
The Patriots have decisions to make on two players, Sony Michel and Isaiah Wynn. Michel’s option is for $4.523 million, and I doubt the Patriots will pick it up. While he has had a decent career and was great in the 2019 postseason, Michel doesn’t contribute much in the passing game and hasn’t been a dynamic runner. His $4.5 million salary would also be double what the Patriots are currently spending on their highest-paid running back, James White ($2.3 million), and five times what they are paying Damien Harris this year ($850,000).
Wynn is a tougher decision, with a fifth-year option worth $10.413 million. He has been solid when healthy, though there is a chance the Patriots bump him from left tackle to left guard for this season. The problem is health — he has started only 18 of 48 regular-season games and has never played in more than 10 games in a season. One way to justify picking it up would be to factor in Wynn’s $2 million salary this year, and look at it as a two-year, $12.45 million investment, which is more palatable. Wynn made about $9 million over his first three seasons.
Some teams have money to burn
Forbes ranks Panthers owner David Tepper the 142nd-richest person in the world (net worth $14.5 billion) and Dolphins owner Stephen Ross the 369th ($7 billion), and both of their football teams are spending money as if it is no object.
The Panthers’ trade of Teddy Bridgewater to the Broncos this past week closed the book on an expensive miss in free agency. With the Panthers agreeing to pay $7 million of Bridgewater’s $10 million salary, their final bill will be $30.9 million for 15 starts and a 4-11 record. Perhaps that is one reason they targeted Sam Darnold and his $4.5 million salary for this year.
And the Dolphins continue to burn money. They spent $45.5 million for three players who were discarded after just one year — Kyle Van Noy ($15 million), Shaq Lawson ($13.5 million,), and Ereck Flowers ($17 million). In order to trade Flowers to Washington this past week, the Dolphins had to agree to pick up $6 million of his $9 million salary this season.
These free agency whiffs come on top of the Dolphins firing two offensive coordinators and one defensive coordinator in Brian Flores’s first two seasons. Flores and GM Chris Grier may be cutthroat talent evaluators who know when to move on. Or they may just be winging it as they go along.
Best story of the first round: Alabama running back Najee Harris, picked 24th by Pittsburgh, held his draft party at and made a food donation to a Bay Area homeless shelter where he spent time as a kid. “They gave us an opportunity to get back on our feet. So it is my job to give back,” Harris said via KRON-4 … Remember when the Brady-Garoppolo debate was complicated by the fact that both were represented by agent Don Yee? Rodgers and Packers backup Jordan Love are both represented by Athletes First and their lead agents, David Dunn and David Mulugheta … Reports emerged on Thursday that Tim Tebow recently worked out for the Jaguars as a tight end, and it makes too much sense for the Jaguars not to sign him. Tebow, 33, can be a Taysom Hill-like gimmick player who can be a weapon in short yardage and a contributor on special teams. He’s also a perfect locker room leader for Urban Meyer, and a favorite son in Jacksonville, where he grew up and became a superstar at nearby Florida. Get ready for Tebow Time.