From the Bleachers: A Look Ahead to the NFL Draft
In his latest installment of “From the Bleachers,” Baily Deeter ’22 breaks down the first round of next week’s NFL Draft.
Since my last column, not much has changed outside of a couple of injuries in the NBA and Hideki Matsuyama’s triumph in the 2021 Masters. But we’ll get to the NBA much more in the next few weeks, and I don’t feel like talking about golf until I can consistently hit my driver more than 100 yards; maybe in a few years I’ll write about the PGA Tour.
For now, I’d like to focus on the upcoming NFL Draft, set to take place in nine days. Recently, I’ve been confident in Gonzaga winning the national championship and Jordan Spieth winning the Masters, both of which didn’t happen. However, I can say with complete faith that the Jacksonville Jaguars will take Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick. You heard it here first.
Lawrence is arguably the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck in 2012, if not the best since Peyton Manning in 1998. The Clemson standout is a once-in-a-generation talent, and he will take the reins for a team that was on the cusp of making the Super Bowl just three years ago. The sky’s the limit.
After that, though, the rest of the draft is up in the air. The New York Jets, at 0-13, were primed to land Lawrence. Yet they couldn’t even manage to tank properly, upsetting the Los Angeles Rams and the Cleveland Browns (both playoff teams) in back-to-back games to earn the second overall pick.
Nonetheless, Gang Green has a few enticing options at the quarterback position. The likely pick is BYU’s Zach Wilson, who exploded onto the scene in 2020 with 33 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. Transitioning from Provo, Utah to the Big Apple could be a culture shock for the 21-year-old gunslinger, but Wilson appears to be up for the challenge.
Perhaps the biggest turning point of the draft will come next with the San Francisco 49ers, who shook up the entire event by trading up from the No. 12 pick. The Miami Dolphins, who previously held the third pick, were certainly not going to select a quarterback after taking Tua Tagovailoa fifth overall last year. However, Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers seemingly have their sights set on a signal-caller to replace Jimmy Garoppolo after a subpar 2020 campaign.
Justin Fields may appear to be a wise choice. Fields and Lawrence have been the stars of this quarterback class ever since high school, when they competed against each other in the Elite 11 passing competitions. More recently, Fields led his Ohio State Buckeyes to the national championship by throwing six touchdowns against Lawrence’s Tigers. But instead, it may be the quarterback that beat Fields in the national championship who finds himself in the Bay Area.
Mac Jones’ name has been consistently linked to the 49ers, seemingly the most likely bet for the 2019 NFC Champions. Jones threw 41 touchdowns and just four interceptions in 2020, and played a near-perfect game in Alabama’s 52-24 rout over Ohio State in the national championship. It didn’t hurt that he had a phenomenal offensive line, a Heisman trophy winner at wide receiver and multiple soon-to-be first-round picks on his team. Regardless, Jones had a tremendous season and proved himself worthy of a high draft choice.
Let’s say the 49ers choose Jones, allowing Fields to avoid California’s high income taxes. The Atlanta Falcons have the fourth pick, and they have a former league MVP at quarterback in Matt Ryan. But after a 4-12 season and with the 28-3 Super Bowl jokes not showing any signs of slowing down, it might be time for a rebuild.
It’s unclear what Atlanta would do at this point, but Fields or North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance would certainly be tempting. If not, the Falcons could look for a pass-catcher like tight end Kyle Pitts or wide receiver JaMarr Chase to supplement Ryan’s offense. They could also trade down with a quarterback-needy team like Denver or Detroit, potentially leading to the first four picks all being quarterbacks.
If the Falcons choose Pitts, this would leave the Bengals and Dolphins, picking fifth and sixth respectively, with multiple options at wide receiver. The Bengals drafted Joe Burrow first overall last year, and he had a solid start to his rookie year, though it was unfortunately cut short due to a torn ACL. Cincinnati can ensure that they bounce back effectively by drafting Chase, a future superstar who could find himself filling A.J. Green’s shoes as the next great Bengal wideout.
Miami would have its pick of available talent at No. 6, much of it coming from Tuscaloosa. Alabama receivers Devonta Smith, the 2020 Heisman winner, and Jaylen Waddle will both be high first-round picks. The Dolphins could reunite Tagovailoa with one of his former college teammates in hopes of rekindling the offensive fireworks that characterized the Dan Marino era in the 1980s and 1990s.
If Fields is still on the board at No. 7, it would be tough to imagine the Detroit Lions passing on him. The Lions traded Matthew Stafford to the Rams this offseason after 12 faithful seasons with the franchise, and they received Jared Goff in return. Goff did appear in a Super Bowl just two years ago, but he has also been mediocre throughout his career. He doesn’t have the upside like Fields, who would represent an exciting addition for a team that has never made a Super Bowl and hasn’t won a playoff game since 1991.
But let’s not forget about Lance, whose strong arm and great mobility make him an intriguing prospect. Carson Wentz made a great name for North Dakota State when he dominated the 2017 regular season, but after a messy divorce from the Philadelphia Eagles this past offseason, it's less clear whether the school produces top-tier NFL quarterbacks. Still, Lance is a promising prospect who could go anywhere from No. 3 to the mid-to-late first round.
Ultimately, if you’re going to watch one NFL draft in the next 10 years, make it this one. With five top-tier quarterbacks poised to go in the top half of the first round, this may be the best quarterback class since Ben Roethlisburger, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers all were selected in 2004, if not the best quarterback class ever. The league will change on a dime next Thursday night, and it may show that parity truly works in the NFL. Who knows — maybe we’ll be watching a Jacksonville-Detroit Super Bowl sooner rather than later.