It’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma. It’s the 2021 NFL Draft.
If NFL Mock Drafts have taught us anything year in and year out, it’s this: No one knows anything. Even the best NFL Draft analysts have a tendency to miss on picks, and that’s totally fine. It’s all a guessing game, after all.
This year, though, it seems to be more wide open than drafts past. With an odd college football season that unfolded in 2020 throwing a monkey wrench into scouting, with players opting out and schools playing modified schedules, NFL front offices have likely been through a tougher time to evaluate prospects heading into Thursday. Sprinkle in that there was no NFL Combine and face-to-face interaction with prospects was at an all-time low, and you’ve got a recipe for chaos.
While the top-five quarterbacks are the talk of the town heading into this year’s first round, there are plenty of other questions that have yet to be answered ahead of April 29.
Here are some of the most interesting.
Who will the 49ers draft?
The 49ers made the first major move of the 2021 NFL Draft cycle, sending the Dolphins two future first-round picks to jump from No. 12 to No. 3 (thanks, Houston). Make no mistake: The 49ers traded up to take a quarterback, because you don’t spend that much future draft capital if it’s not for a quarterback.
But which quarterback? Rumors have suggested that Kyle Shanahan loves Alabama’s Mac Jones at No. 3, while the 49ers’ personnel department seems to be hot on Trey Lance.
The Jones stuff is, by far, the most interesting thing to come out of the rumors this offseason: Shanahan has worked well with pocket passers in years past (Kirk Cousins with Washington, Matt Ryan with Atlanta, Jimmy Garoppolo with San Francisco), so opting to take another familiar skill set in Jones makes sense.
Lance’s pure physical attributes coupled with his age make him a home run of a pick should he pan out. While Lance opted out of the 2020 college football season, his 2019 tape could be more of a tell than anything.
Who will the Patriots draft?
It’s the Patriot way to enter the draft with no one having any idea what Bill Belichick is thinking.
One of the latest rumors indicates that New England could be interested in Florida QB Kyle Trask. Other reports suggest that the Patriots are looking to make a move into the top 10, presumably to take a passer high.
While the Patriots could be set at quarterback for 2021 with Cam Newton back for one more year, there’s no shortage of options for New England in the draft. The team’s big-time free-agency period dictates that Belichick will be going for it now, meaning the Pats might not look to a future QB until the 2022 draft, which would be something of a left turn heading into this year’s draft.
In any case, the Patriots are in the sweet spot: They can trade up to give a rebuilding team a bit more draft capital in the next year and get themselves a quarterback or sit where they are and simply take the best player available.
We’ll see what Nike does on Thursday.
Who will draft Justin Fields?
Justin Fields went from consensus No. 2 overall QB in the draft before the start of the 2020 college football season to some questioning whether he’ll be a top-10 pick this year.
Whatever the case may be, the idea of Fields slipping past the top 10 is wholly unfair to him, but it’s a question that’s going to last heading into Thursday.
With Trevor Lawrence presumably going No. 1 overall and the Jets seemingly falling in love with BYU passer Zach Wilson at No. 2, there’s no telling who will select Fields or where he’ll fall. If the 49ers decide between Mac Jones and Trey Lance, it’s another landing spot off the board. All eyes then turn to the Falcons, who recently restructured Matt Ryan’s contract, and could pass.
Then at No. 5 you have the Bengals, who will likely decide between Penei Sewell and a top offensive weapon for Joe Burrow. The Dolphins at No. 6 seem to be sticking with Tua Tagovailoa and are rumored to trade down.
Could Fields go No. 7 to the Lions? Detroit traded away Matthew Stafford and got back Jared Goff and future first-rounders, too. It may be premature to end the Goff era before it starts. The Panthers at No. 8 could take Fields, if they’re not a true believer in Sam Darnold’s future in Carolina.
Denver at No. 9 seems like a very realistic option, assuming that no other teams jump the Broncos to get him. It’s a very real possibility that Fields falls out of the top 10 — and that would be a damn shame.
Where do the top two running backs go?
Alabama’s Najee Harris and Clemson’s Travis Etienne are considered to be the top two running backs in the 2021 draft — but don’t be surprised if neither goes in the first round.
- 2015: Melvin Gordon, 82 games, 57 touchdowns.
- 2015: Todd Gurley, 88 games, 79 touchdowns.
- 2016: Ezekiel Elliott, 71 games, 56 touchdowns.
- 2017: Christian McCaffrey, 51 games, 45 touchdowns.
- 2017: Leonard Fournette, 49 games, 25 touchdowns.
- 2018: Sony Michel, 38 games, 15 touchdowns.
- 2018: Rashaad Penny, 27 games, six touchdowns.
- 2018: Saquon Barkley, 31 games, 23 touchdowns.
- 2019: Josh Jacobs, 28 games, 19 touchdowns.
- 2020: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, 13 games, four touchdowns.
Obviously, varying degrees of success stories here, with Gordon, Gurley and Fournette no longer on the teams that drafted them.
A good running back can change an offense, but for how long? There are benefits to taking a running back in the first round, the fifth-year option chief among them; but the fifth-year option doesn’t matter much if guys are starting to slow down into Year 3 or 4.
Teams have been slowly but surely moving away from drafting first-round running backs since 2000. There are at least two teams that could use a back toward the back end of the first in this year’s draft — Pittsburgh, Buffalo — and one or both could go that route. It would be a readymade move for either team to take a running back now to help with offense: The Steelers were one of the worst rushing offenses in football in 2020, while the Bills were decidedly middle of the pack.
What will the Falcons do?
If you believe that Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and one of Mac Jones or Trey Lance goes 1-2-3 in this year’s draft, then the draft really starts with the Falcons at pick No. 4.
While Atlanta restructured Matt Ryan’s deal to ease the burden of the cap and could look to ship out Julio Jones to help ease the cap as well, there’s no denying that the team will look drastically different on offense come the start of the 2021 season.
With Arthur Smith taking over, could the team look to the future and bring in the next generation of Falcons passer? At No. 4, there will be at least two intriguing quarterback options available, it’s just uncertain which two they’ll be. If rumors and conjecture are to be believed, then both Justin Fields and Trey Lance will be there at three, and both will fit Smith’s new scheme seamlessly.
Ryan, though, isn’t exactly old: He’s 35 and has some big money left on his deal, which isn’t the most endearing situation for any NFL team with a new head coach at the helm.
There are any number of directions the Falcons could go: Maybe they could go with a quarterback, or maybe they draft Kyle Pitts to run in the Smith offense, or maybe they draft a wide receiver to mitigate the future trade of Jones, or maybe they trade down.
With the top three picks seemingly settled entering Thursday, all eyes are on the Falcons at No. 4.