An early look at the 2021 NFL Draft, and which teams may be in the market for a quarterback
Upon the conclusion of the regular season, the first 18 picks of the NFL Draft are set in stone.
With its loss last week, Jacksonville (1-15) clinched the number one overall pick, and effectively won the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes. Barring a crazy, unforeseen set of circumstances, Lawrence will almost certainly be the first name called on Draft night come April.
After Lawrence, however, the Draft gets very interesting. Here's a look at the first 18 picks. I have marked the teams that will have important quarterback decisions to make this spring:
1) Jacksonville Jaguars (1-15)*
2) New York Jets (2-14)*
3) Miami Dolphins (10-6, from 4-12 Houston)
4) Atlanta Falcons (4-12)*
5) Cincinnati Bengals (4-11-1)
6) Philadelphia (4-11-1)*
7) Detroit Lions (5-11)*
8) Carolina Panthers (5-11)*
9) Denver Broncos (5-11)*
10) Dallas Cowboys (6-10)*
11) New York Giants (6-10)
12) San Francisco 49ers (6-10)*
13) Los Angeles Chargers (7-9)
14) Minnesota Vikings (7-9)*
15) New England (7-9)*
16) Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
17) Las Vegas Raiders (8-8)
18) Miami Dolphins (8-8)
Among the teams I have starred are Philadelphia and Minnesota, neither of whom I expect to draft a quarterback. Kirk Cousins' contract is up, so technically the organization has a decision to make, but I don't see any options in the draft or the free agent market that would be an immediate upgrade over Kirk; I would expect the organization to re-up with him. Philly liked Jalen Hurts so much that they drafted him with the 53rd overall pick of the 2020 Draft. Dissatisfied with Carson Wentz, I have to think the organization will give Hurts a full season in 2021, before pursuing another starting quarterback.
San Francisco and New England are once again tied together, three years removed from the Jimmy Garoppolo trade. The 49ers may move on from Garoppolo, and Jimmy G could potentially move back to Foxborough to once again link up with Belichick. How Kyle Shanahan would replace Garoppolo remains to be seen. He could very well look to the draft, or find an immediate impact QB via the trade or free agent market.
This is where Detroit could come in to play. After giving his heart and soul to the Lions' organization for the last 12 years, Matthew Stafford may be on his way out. Arguably the Lions' best quarterback in franchise history, Stafford still has at least a few years of competitive football left in the tank, and the Lions look to be heading into full-blown rebuild mode. Stafford would be the perfect fit for a competitive team looking to upgrade at quarterback, such as San Francisco or Indianapolis. With picks 3-6 falling to teams that either drafted a quarterback last year or have Matt Ryan, barring teams trading down, the Lions could very well select the third quarterback of the draft.
Past Trevor, there should be a number of enticing quarterbacks entering the Draft, assuming each declares. If the Jets choose to move on from Sam Darnold — who could be another intriguing name on the market for teams such as San Francisco — they'll likely be picking between Justin Fields and BYU star Zach Wilson. After a pair of clunkers against Northwestern and Indiana, Fields is once again gaining momentum, hot off his outstanding performance in Friday's Sugar Bowl, where despite taking a brutal hit to his ribcage, he completed 22 of 28 passes for 385 yards and six touchdowns, in the Buckeyes' 49-28 win over Clemson. Prior to Friday's semifinal, Wilson was soaring up mock drafts; many of which had the Jets picking him at no. 2. There's no guarantee, however, that the Jets select a quarterback and move on from Darnold.
Miami gained the no. 3 pick from a 2019 trade with Houston, where the Texans picked up left tackle Laremy Tunsil. Following Tua Tagovailoa's struggles on Sunday that effectively kept Miami out of the playoffs, a hot rumor (based on no factual evidence or inside sources) is that the Dolphins could ditch Tua, Josh-Rosen style, and draft either Fields or Wilson, whichever QB is left. It seems highly unlikely that the Dolphins would move on from a first-year signal-caller their own front office drafted, that received no preseason reps due to COVID-19, that quickly. Tua showed good promise at points this season, and it wasn't long ago that fans were killing Josh Allen for his first-year struggles. Two years later, Allen might get MVP votes. Tua's a very different quarterback from Allen, but unless Miami is all-in on either Wilson or Fields, this seems very improbable.
With Matt Ryan entering his age 36 season, drafting a new quarterback to either stash behind Ryan, or shopping Ryan altogether, isn't out of the realm of possibility. The Falcons will be hiring a new coach, and new coaches typically like grooming their own young quarterbacks. The Falcons will be a team to keep an eye on this offseason, as their front office could really go in any number of directions.
Even if Lawrence, Fields and Wilson are off the board by pick 7, the Lions could still go the QB route. Past those three, 6-foot-4 North Dakota State standout Trey Lance seems to be looked at very favorably by NFL execs. Lance played just one game in 2020, before the FCS moved its season to the spring. He'll be skipping the spring season in preparation for the NFL Draft. Past Lance, Heisman hopefuls Kyle Trask and Mac Jones are viable first round options. Assessing each quarterback's talent has been difficult, given the amount of talent each has had surrounding them in college. Both Jones and Trask each benefited from possessing one of the nation's three best offensive targets, Devonta Smith and Kyle Pitts. As of now, Trask and Jones could be selected anywhere from the top 10 to late in the second round. I guess we'll see what happens at the combine.
Carolina, Denver and Dallas could all be in the market for a new quarterback this spring too. Ultimately, I don't expect Dallas to part with Dak Prescott, quite yet. 2020 was meant to be his prove-it year. After sustaining an ankle injury in week 5, he missed the remainder of the season. We'll probably hear nonstop rumblings about Dallas and Dak's failed contract negotiations from the mainstream press in the coming months, ultimately leading to the organization slapping another franchise tag on the Mississippi State alum. At least that's my prediction; but nobody can ever predict Jerry Jones' behavior. Even if Dak is retained, Dallas could still draft a quarterback similar to how Philadelphia snatched Hurts last year.
Depending on what is left for Carolina, they might opt-in for another year of Teddy Bridgewater and a higher selection in the 2022 Draft. Since the retirement of Peyton Manning, Denver has been stuck in a place of misery. They're never good enough to make the playoffs, yet they're never bad enough to land a top 3 pick and with it, a cornerstone franchise quarterback. Since Manning rode off into the sunset, the Broncos have started 10 different quarterbacks over the last five seasons, including failed hopefuls Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch and Brock Osweiler, and short-term stopgaps Case Keenum and Joe Flacco. Eventually executive John Elway is going to need to a find a long-term franchise quarterback, otherwise he won't be allowed to pick players for the position any longer. My gut says he hedges his bets on Drew Lock for one more year, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Denver grab another quarterback at this spot.
While the NFL has yet to set a definitive date for the NFL Draft Combine, free agency will begin March 17, 2021 at 4 p.m. ET. Round one of the NFL Draft will take place April 29.