There is rarely a melodrama as gripping as the NFL Draft. It’s reality TV at its absolute best. Neither the teams or draft eligible prospects are truly sure how the event will unfold until it’s over.
One out-of-nowhere selection can ruin draft boards. A trade can upend the expected draft order. A team may fall in love with a prospect and blind themselves to the player’s limitations. Josh Rosen’s selection at no.10 overall in 2018 encapsulates all of these scenarios. Logic is defied, the script is everchanging. Anything can happen on draft night.
There is one constant, however: Quarterback prospects will go early. In the last 5 drafts (2016-2020), 13 quarterbacks have gone in the top 10 picks. Of those 13, 7 teams traded up to grab their guy. The success of these trades has varied from wildly successful (Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen), to the horrific (no.1 overall pick Kyler Murray replaced Rosen after one season).
NFL teams drafting quarterbacks in 2021
Nevertheless, the possibilities remain bountiful year on year, as the next crop of franchise cornerstones enters The League. This year is particularly interesting, as there are as many as five 1st round calibre quarterbacks being mocked as early as the top nine picks. That’s before accounting for potential trades on the night.
For this exercise, we’ll discuss the best landing spots for the top quarterbacks in this year’s draft, within reason. Some selections seem locked in, so we won’t be too outlandish. Similarly, we won’t send players to teams that fit them if the team has no realistic chance of choosing that player without trading away their future, or if they already have a guaranteed Day 1 starter.
Trevor Lawrence – Jaguars
This pick has basically been set in stone since Lawrence’s pro day, when Urban Meyer failed to hide how enamoured he was with the Clemson product. Lawrence has long been the consensus top prospect in the 2021 draft, essentially booking the spot since his incredible freshman year for the Tigers. He has done nothing to dissuade anyone not named Chris Simms that he is the best quarterback prospect in this year’s draft.
“He’s already talking and retaining information like a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars”
— Mia O'Brien (@MiaOBrienTV) April 12, 2021
There is a less than slim chance Lawrence doesn’t go first in the draft. He is a pro-ready quarterback with the size (6’6”) to take hits. He has more mobility than he is often given credit for, his release is quick enough to get the ball out swiftly in a system of RPOs, screens, and quick slants (as was common in Clemson’s scheme), while his arm strength ensure that defences can’t just sit in the short and middle of the field.
Under Meyer and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, he’ll likely look to mix in mesh and drive concepts from Meyer while also trying to attack deep downfield. Although RPOs may not factor as much (Lions offence under Bevell had very few RPOs), they may adapt the playbook in order to ease the transition from college to NFL (as was successful with Lamar Jackson).
Lawrence is a mature leader on and off the field with big game experience. It’s up to the Jaguars to surround him with talent, and make use of their first true franchise quarterback.
Zach Wilson – Jets
Like the Jaguars with Lawrence, the New York Jets selection seems all but decided. After the 49ers traded up to no.3 overall with the Miami Dolphins, rumours came out that they never spoke to the Jets about trading up to no.2. At the time, Sam Darnold was still a Jet, and the team were keeping their cards close to their chest.
Then the Philadelphia Eagles traded down six spots with the Dolphins to no.12. This was unfortunate for the Jets, as both the Eagles and 49ers have connections to the Jets (GM Joe Douglas was vice president of player personnel in Philadelphia, Head Coach Robert Saleh was defensive coordinator in San Francisco). The Jets signalled their intentions when neither team attempted to contact them about a trade before dealing with Miami.
The Jets eventually traded Darnold to the Carolina Panthers for a 2021 6th round pick, plus a 2022 2nd round and 4th round choice. They officially hit reset on a rookie quarterback contract.
Wilson is able to move around the pocket and make plays off script and on the run. This is crucial as the Jets continue to build an offensive line that has been subpar at best in recent years, despite left tackle Mekhi Becton’s solid rookie season. He will need to keep plays alive and make throws when plays break down.
Highest-graded draft-eligible QBs under pressure last season:
1. Zach Wilson – 76.8
2. Justin Fields – 69.8
3. Mac Jones – 69.2
4. Kyle Trask – 68.6
5. Davis Mills – 63.8 pic.twitter.com/4CNc261nG0
— PFF College (@PFF_College) April 9, 2021
Wilson is also a scheme fit for the Jets. New offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur has a largely Kyle Shanahan West Coast system which is known to be quarterback-friendly.
The system requires mobile QBs who can move around the pocket and make deep throws to stretch the field. If there’s one thing Wilson has, it’s a cannon for an arm. While not a huge physical presence (6’2”, 214lbs), Wilson has an excellent arm that wowed scouts at his pro day, especially this ridiculous throw on the run that travelled roughly 50 air yards. Wilson can excel in New York, as long as they do a much better job helping him than they did with Darnold.
Justin Fields – 49ers
Fields has been a real question mark this offseason. Despite a stellar playoffs against Clemson and Alabama, Fields struggled at times last season. The Indiana and Northwestern performances were particularly concerning. Regardless, Fields is without doubt a player that can light it up in the right situation.
There are reservations about his ability to progress through his reads (which this writer believes are unfounded), but his toughness is unquestionable. He is lightning fast for a quarterback (4.4 40 yard dash), has a great arm, and has continued to improve his decision making in the pocket over his college career.
The 49ers fit here as it gives Fields the opportunity to sit and learn behind Jimmy Garoppolo, or take the reins from that start if he performs well in camp. It provides some wiggle room for him to get used to the 49ers system and his speed and agility would become another weapon for Kyle Shanahan’s team.
Justin Fields struggles to get past his first read, except for the fact he did it better than any quarterback in this draft. https://t.co/7I26E70xe4
— Sage Rosenfels (@SageRosenfels18) April 8, 2021
Shanahan would be able to take a young, talented quarterback and refine him as best as he can. His ability to play while hurt also contrasts with Garoppolo’s injury history, and he can avoid hits with his athleticism. He can add another dimension to the 49ers offence.
Whether the 49ers take Fields or not is another story. The current word is that San Francisco will take Mac Jones at no.3. We’ll discuss Jones later on, but Fields seems like a perfect fit for the Red and Gold.
Trey Lance – Falcons
Atlanta face a crossroads of sorts this year: Do they attempt to reload on the Matt Ryan era with the likes of Ja’Marr Chase, Kyle Pitts, or Penei Sewell, or draft his successor and plan for the future? In this situation, Ryan remains under centre, and the Falcons draft a player with raw potential, and a couple of years to realize it.
Lance works with Atlanta because he’s like not yet ready to be an NFL starter straight out of college.
Playing at the FCS level, Lance was an absolute stud in his only full year as a starter. His lack of experience and the level of competition are an issue, but he played in a pro-style offence and may be able to get used to an NFL system quickly. He has more snaps under center than the other four players on this list combined.
Due to his limited starts in college, Lance would be best served to sit for two seasons before starting. Trading Ryan before then would mean a massive cap hit for the already cap-strapped Falcons. So Ryan would have two years to get the best out of this team, while Lance becomes comfortable with Arthur Smith’s offence and gets ready to take over.
Tom Brady was drafted before Trey Lance was born.
Tom Brady (drafted Apr. 16, 2000)
Trey Lance (20 years old, born May 9, 2000) pic.twitter.com/3ArQWbxFvm
— NFL on CBS 🏈 (@NFLonCBS) April 7, 2021
This pick largely rests on Smith and the upper echelons of the Falcons. They may go all in with Ryan, trade back a couple of spots with a QB-needy team and take the best defensive player available for a team sorely lacking defensive talent. They might supplement an already explosive offence with Chase or Pitts, or take Sewell to protect Ryan. It’s a wildcard that could totally change the landscape of this year’s draft.
Mac Jones – Patriots
Yes, Jones and the 49ers is the current prediction. He doesn’t seem like a total fit for San Francisco though. He isn’t as mobile as Shanahan would like, but his statistics were outstanding. Jones was deadly accurate last season (77% completion rate) and didn’t turn the ball over much (4 INTs).
What does Mac Jones have that Justin Fields doesn’t? ⤵️ 👀 pic.twitter.com/LYIUqAbh5X
— PFF (@PFF) April 8, 2021
The Alabama quarterback’s situation is in total contrast to Wilson and Lance. Jones was throwing to the best receivers in college football (DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle).
He had arguably the best offensive line on the college game. He had a superb running back in Najee Harris to take some of the focus away from him. Wilson and Lance didn’t play against enough good teams and players; Jones played with too much talent.
Although Jones’ play is reminiscent of Jimmy Garoppolo, he is more accurate and has some familiarity with Shanahan’s offensive style. However, Jones suits well with New England.
Bill Belichick is good friends with Nick Saban, and they would have surely exchanged conversation about Jones’ pros and cons.
He could potentially sit behind Cam Newton for a year and learn Josh McDaniels’ playbook.
This is the same system that Tom Brady excelled in. Brady isn’t exactly the most athletic player in the game. Tight end signings Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith can provide a good level of pass catching. The receiving corps can be further improved with a receiver in the 2nd round of another deep draft class.
Losing Julian Edelman to retirement will hurt, but there are plenty of good slot receivers in the draft.
Jones could fit in San Francisco, but he would fit in New England. He could go at no.3, no.15, or the Patriots might trade up to grab him. It’s all part of the intrigue in this year’s draft.