After most measures, NFL offenses produced their best season in professional football history last year. Never before has the collective environment been more conducive to scoring, especially over the pass, and new records have been set for points, touchdown throws and completion rates. After taking three months to analyze their rosters and project trends, decision makers gave a sweeping response during the 2021 NFL draft: We need more!
At the start of the three-day affair, the teams were laden with quarterbacks, receivers, and offensive linemen. Never before have more passers-by (eight) or offensive tackles (14) been selected in the first three rounds. The total of 15 receivers that were designed during this period ranked fourth since the beginning of the joint design of the era in 1967.
A reasonable person might suggest focusing on defensive players to counter the trend, but there has been nothing right or organic about the NFL’s shift toward pass over the decades. The 2020 season brought a new twist – a significant increase in tolerance for offensive holding – and most decision-makers accept that the league is ready and able to maintain the inherent competitive imbalance between the two sides of the ball.
General managers dived into a deep cornerback class and set a record of 16 in the first three rounds. But let’s face it: by the end of the second round, they had set out to snatch backup quarterback prospects. No lie. A mini-run on passers-by between pick numbers 64 and 67 highlighted how far the league had shifted.
The NFL quarterback curation has seen a massive surge in the past few decades, turning almost entirely to the first round of drafting. In 2020, 80% of teams played at least one quarterback, which was originally a first-round election, according to a study by the Elias Sports Bureau. A similar percentage can be forecast for 2021.
The five best quarterbacks of this design – Trevor Lawrence (Jacksonville Jaguars), Zach Wilson (New York Jets), Trey Lance (San Francisco 49ers), Justin Fields (Chicago Bears), and Mac Jones (New England Patriots) – all sailed off the board before the midpoint of the first round.
History tells us that some of them will fail. But the now annual rush to corral anyone who might stand a chance of success creates dire chances of finding a good starter at some point thereafter. Of the last 36 quarterbacks drafted in the second or third round of 2006, only four made it to the Pro Bowl.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans may dream of a moment when Kyle Trask (# 64 overall) takes over for starter Tom Brady. The Minnesota Vikings can certainly hope that Kellen Mond (# 66) could one day challenge Kirk Cousins. And the Houston Texans might love Davis Mills (# 67). However, based on recent trends, ESPN analysis suggests that the likelihood of any of them becoming a starter is no more than 11%, let alone someone who can win games.
For all practical purposes, this means that the buccaneers, Vikings, and Texans made backups of places where teams in the past expected to find starters anywhere else. We’d all be smarter and less disappointed in the years to come looking at them through this lens.
High-end starters like Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks, who was drafted in the third round in 2012, are the rare exception. Brady, selected by the Patriots in the sixth round of the 2000 draft, is a relic of a long-gone rostering structure. The NFL has gone so far toward passing that backup quarterbacks are worth more draft capital than any but the best defensive prospects.
This also applies to the 2021 draft, which largely returned to its traditional format after a detour in 2020. Inspector Roger Goodell’s legendary leather armchair traveled with him to a stage in front of Lake Erie in Cleveland, but by the thousands (masked). Fans and celebrity appearances signaled the NFL’s ongoing emergence from the COVID-19 logs. What follows is the rest of my thoughts on this design in a quick way.
Marty Smith gives a live hit from Trevor Lawrence’s draft party and is interrupted by Trevor Lawrence himself.
Fact: Jaguar’s trainer Urban Meyer has won everywhere he’s trained except in the NFL, where he’s never trained.
Opinion: He’ll struggle to win at this level if he thinks charging running backs is smart team building. Travis Etienne, who was voted 25th overall, will join a field that already includes 1,000-yard rusher James Robinson and newly signed veteran Carlos Hyde. Meyer said he envisions Etienne in some sort of hybrid role that Percy Harvin held for him in Florida and later in the NFL. But as exciting as Etienne is, that’s an incredibly high bar for professionals. Harvin was one of the most explosive athletes of a generation of professional footballers.
Fact: Dave Gettleman, general manager of the New York Giants, acted as GM for the first time in his career. He actually did it several times, including in the first round when he finally designed the receiver Kadarius Toney in 20th place overall.
Opinion: I’m going to stop giving him a Nobel Prize. It is admirable, however, to accept lower value now in return for more value next year, at a time when his tenure with the Giants could be contingent on a greatly improved 2021 season. You would be fooling yourself if you believed any business manager would do this. You could even call it noble.
Fact: A great meme was posted on social media about whether the Bengals should give quarterback Joe Burrow another receiving weapon or better pass protection on Round 1.
Opinion: I’ll argue that the decision wasn’t as obvious as some would suggest. Receiver Ja’Marr Chase will be a great playmaker and Penei Sewell will be a really good offensive tackle. The Bengals chose Chase to reunite with Burrow, his college teammate. Then they circled back and picked Jackson Carman in the second round, while continuing to attack the position later in the draft. In the end I would have taken Sewell. The drop from the first offensive lineman off Brett (Sewell) to Carman (10th) was greater than the drop from Chase to the receiver the Bengals might have focused on in the second round. I didn’t leave this draft with much more confidence in Burrow’s safety than I did when I started.
Fact: # 11 overall Justin Fields is the Bears’ most exciting quarterback prospect in a generation – and maybe longer.
Opinion: A full accounting of the resources General Manager Ryan Pace used to acquire potential starting quarterbacks during his tenure is staggering. The Bears used a total of nine draft picks to maneuver and select Mitch Trubisky in 2017 and Fields later. It required a fourth round selection to acquire veteran Nick Foles from the Jacksonville Jaguars. And Foles, Mike Glennon, Chase Daniel, and Andy Dalton will have made at least $ 44.5 million between 2017 and 2021. Add to this the $ 29 million the bears paid Trubisky and the roughly $ 19 million they have to guarantee Fields.
According to David Pollack, Justin Fields faces a daunting task when it comes to turning the bears around.
Fact: Paul Finebaum, an analyst at ESPN College Football, said of Patriot’s coach / general manager Bill Belichick: “I see he’s getting lazy late in his career.”
Opinion: Belichick has a long history of zigzagging when the rest of the league is jagged, and that includes trusting the word of an eclectic group of unofficial advisors. Alabama’s manager Nick Saban is one of them, and Belichick drafted Crimson Tide players with his first two picks this year: quarterback Mac Jones and defensive tackle Christian Barmore. But Belichick is nearing the boundary between hearing smart footballers out and outsourcing his operational drafting. In total, Belichick has recruited 12 Saban-trained players during his tenure with the Patriots, most between any pro-college coaching combinations in the joint design era.
Fact: Commissioner Goodell again encouraged fans to hollow him out throughout the draft. “I didn’t come out of my basement for nothing,” he said on Thursday evening.
Opinion: We must stay strong with my annual plea to protect the Boo as an unironic expression of displeasure. Any attempt to co-opt the boo as an expression of sarcastic tenderness must be stopped.
Fact: The Rams placed a portrait of Goodell on a wall of their Malibu, California design house. (Yes, the Rams had a design house.)
Hang it in the L̶o̶u̶v̶r̶e̶ Rams Draft House 🤩 pic.twitter.com/ZpNIMvYvt7
– Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) May 1, 2021
Opinion: We can discuss the quality of the Rams’ performance in the field over the past few years, but it’s hard not to admire their organizational sense of humor. After all, this is the same team that personalizes contract offers with palindromes and references to jersey numbers, with the occasional mix of haiku as well.
Fact: The Cowboys’ first six picks were defensive players, including linebacker Micah Parsons in the first round.
Opinion: It wasn’t an exaggeration! To put it kindly, there was a separation between the cowboys’ defense system and their personnel strategy last season. Now they have half a dozen new players to match their new coordinator (Dan Quinn). While the rest of the league worked to improve their passing games, the Cowboys knew there was no way they could line an offense that rivaled what their defenses allowed last year. Among many expenses, the Cowboys allowed at least 30 points in half of their games.
Fact: Seven of the 32 first-round picks have withdrawn from the 2020 college season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Opinion: Despite a few isolated comments from general managers in the weeks leading up to the draft, it was always hard to believe that they would be giving up really talented players by opting out. A total of eight opt-out players were rated among the top 50 players on this draft, and all but one had disappeared by the start of the second round. That list includes Chase (No. 5 for the Bengals), Sewell (No. 7 for the Lions), Parsons (No. 12 for the Cowboys), and Tackle Rashawn Slater (No. 13 for the Los Angeles Chargers).
Fact: The Baltimore Ravens designed receiver Rashod Bateman at number 27 overall and gave quarterback Lamar Jackson a goal that could be a true # 1 receiver.
Opinion: Bateman was one of my favorite players in this design. Big 10 recipient doesn’t get a lot of attention, but he’s smart, polished, way faster than you think, and ready to counter any defense mechanisms that get his way. With all that said, I’m not sure fantasy managers should put a big bet on him. In the past three seasons, the Ravens have thrown fewer passes than all but one team. Bateman will make them better, but will it dissuade them from the crime they’ve committed since Jackson rose to the starting job?
Fact: The Detroit Lions came up with a fun design.
Opinion: From their aggressive, drafted Sewell celebration to defensively fighting Levi Onwuzurike’s mundane explanation of how he meets people on the border, it was physically impossible for Lions fans not to smile as the weekend progressed. In the context of new coach Dan Campbell’s avowed desire to bite the kneecap, it’s pretty clear the Lions aren’t going to take themselves too seriously. You will have some energy, which is always the first building block in improving a team. You are already before the start of the Matt Patricia regime, which was cold and lifeless from the start.
Fact: Some teams wanted nothing to do with this draft, especially on Day 3.
Opinion: There were unprecedented challenges in assessing the 2021 class. Medical information was less meaningful due to the lack of a formal combine. Scouts couldn’t do their usual rounds during a shortened college football season. And the list of players declared by the draft was much smaller than usual. As a result, the Seahawks only drafted three players. The Texans kept it at five. Most of the players drafted into a team were 11, from the Vikings, Cowboys and Panthers. Most in the league feel that the draft for 2022 will be more abundant in both talent and information. Only then will we know if the Seahawks and Texans in particular made the right call.