10 Burning Questions for the 2021 NFL Draft
Everyone is sad that the NFL season is done because there are no games to watch and no fantasy football contests or games to win until September of 2021. The good news is that it does not take long for the league to create intrigue about the 2021 season. Free agency begins on March 17, which is just a month after the Super Bowl. The NFL does a great job of breaking up the offseason calendar to keep the league in the headlines and keep fans engaged about changes that are happening to the rosters. It creates a lot of excitement that builds until we are back to live games.
I think this is going to be one of the more entertaining offseason. It is very foreseeable that 12 teams will have different signal-callers in 2021, and there are enough prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft and veterans on the move to make this the most eventful offseason the league has seen in a long time. That is playing out before free agency even beginning. The Los Angeles Rams and Detroit Lions created instant intrigue when they swamped Matthew Stafford for Jared Goff and two first-round picks. There are rumors that Matt Ryan, Carson Wentz, and Sam Darnold could be traded this offseason. Dak Prescott is looking at a second franchise tag or becoming a free agent. Deshaun Watson is upset at how the Houston Texans have treated him, and he stands above all those players as the most intriguing player that could be on the move this off-season.
Then there is the 2021 NFL Draft. A lot of these moves I mentioned above need to be made first before we can project where the rookie quarterbacks will go, which will dictate who needs to trade up for an elite prospect and who needs to stay put and draft the best available player. Here are 10 burning questions for the 2021 NFL Draft. Unlike previous years, there will not be an NFL Combine, so it may take some time to sort out the NFL Draft storylines as we have to wait for the Pro Days to happen to see whether these players will rise fall in the NFL Draft.
1. Do the Houston Texans trade Deshaun Watson to the Jacksonville Jaguars for the first overall pick?
What happens to Watson is going to be one of the biggest stories in the league this offseason. Watson believed he would have a bigger role in the team, selecting a GM and head coach. While franchise players should never expect to have the final say on such matters, Watson is under contract for $156 million until 2025. He had a QB rating of 112.4 on a team that won just four games. He has the second-highest career QB rating but also is only 28-25 as the starter there. If they trade him, they may not win a game in 2021. While being their best player should not allow him to dictate how the franchise is run, he should at least find out about his GM being hired from a source within the organization, not social media. There have been many hurt feelings, and the relationship may not be repairable at this point.
Watson is only 25-years old, and he has been a Pro Bowl selection each of the last three years. His future is as bright as any quarterback in the league. If he decides to dig his heels in and demand a trade, it will be interesting to see what the Texans can acquire for him in a trade, especially after Stafford fetched Goff and two first-round picks. I think the trade to Jacksonville is unlikely. The Texans are not going to want to face Watson twice a year. If he goes to Jacksonville and becomes the face of their franchise that leads them to a Super Bowl title, it would be an embarrassment of epic proportions. Furthermore, if the Jaguars pass on Trevor Lawrence and he becomes the face of the league in Houston, that is equally embarrassing to the Jaguars. Teams usually do not make a deal like that. Usually, teams make a trade because they think they can both be winners. You cannot have two winners from that type of trade where both teams play in the same division.
Watson has $67 million in dead money in 2021 and another $57 million in dead money in 2022. I think he is back whether he likes it or not. It will be too hard to trade that contract in a year where the salary cap is going down due to the pandemic. Watson can hold out, but with him having this much time left on his contract, his two options are to play for the Texans or retire if the Texans refuse to trade him. I fully expect the Jaguars to draft Lawrence with the first pick and for the Texans to retain Watson. Then we’ll see how much hardball each side is willing to play after the NFL Draft and who blinks first, Watson or the Texans.
* Minimum 1,500 career passing attempts
2. Do the New York Jets stick with Sam Darnold for 2021 or do they trade him and draft a quarterback?
I am not sure we had a chance to see what kind of quarterback Darnold could be. Sam Darnold started his career with Todd Bowles as the head coach and then moved on to Adam Gase for his second and third years. Darnold never played with a strong group of running backs and wide receivers, and he also played behind an offensive line that had him under pressure on 43.3 percent of his dropbacks last year. A lot of teams could still be high on Darnold and blame his struggles on a dysfunctional organization. Think Ryan Tannehill and what moving from the Dolphins to the Titans did for his career.
The problem is that Joe Douglas took over the GM job in 2019 and did not draft Darnold. While the fair thing to do would be to give him an elite wide receiver and hope that with an elite weapon, he can finally realize his potential, the Jets will want to install a quarterback of their choosing. The new regime will not want to go with a QB who has a career rating of 78.6. I would expect the Jets to evaluate Justin Fields and Zach Wilson and take the quarterback that impresses them the most. I would lead toward that being Wilson, but a lot could change in the pre-draft process. Fields has created a lot of buzz, and I have seen mock drafts that have him going in the Top-5, so it is not inconceivable Fields moves ahead of Wilson as this process works itself out.
As for Darnold, I would expect him to be traded this offseason. His dead cap number is only about $9.5 million, and he would have an option year if he turned it around with another franchise. He could be attractive to a team that needs a bridge quarterback or has a veteran on the roster that may only be there for another year or two. Teams like Denver, Indianapolis, New England, and San Francisco could all make sense. I would not expect Darnold to attract massive compensation, but Day 2 compensation or a conditional pick is not out of the question.
3. Do the Miami Dolphins stick with Tua Tagovailoa or do they draft a quarterback with the third pick?
The Dolphins need to make sure they have their quarterback situation fixed, and a lot is riding on this decision. Remember that Josh Allen had a 5-6 record for the Buffalo Bills in 2018 with a 52.8 completion percentage, 10 touchdowns, 12 picks, and a QB rating of 67.9. I think many people thought the Bills had made a huge mistake drafting him at that point, and if you had offered them Sam Darnold or Baker Mayfield instead of Allen, they would have taken that swap in a minute. That would have been a mistake. Allen is one of the best young quarterbacks in the league, with a 13-3 record as the starter in 2020. He had a 69.2 completion percentage, 4,544 yards passing, 37 TD passes, 10 picks, and a QB rating of 107.2. He became the first quarterback in league history to have 4,500 yards passing, 35 touchdown passes, and five rushing touchdowns in the same season.
Quarterbacks need time to develop, and Tua was not a disaster in 2020. He was 6-3 as the starting quarterback. He had 11 touchdown passes against five interceptions. His completion percentage was a healthy 64.1 percent. His QB rating was 87.1. There is nothing that he was so terrible at that the Dolphins should be afraid to go with him as the starter in 2021. If they add a player like Devonta Smith at the third pick and take some offensive line or running back help at the 18th pick, this could suddenly be a dangerous offense. That is what Buffalo had to do, build the offense up around Allen by drafting players like Devin Singletary and Zack Moss. They needed to sign free agents or make trades for players like Stefon Diggs and John Brown. You cannot expect a rookie quarterback to develop and grow when Zay Jones is the roster’s best receiver.
I have my doubts about Tagovailoa. I thought there were times when the game looked too fast for him. I question whether at 6′ 0″ and 217 pounds if he has the size to stay healthy at that position. I do not think he has the mobility that Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray have at that size, and I think both of them have better arms. I also do not think he is a disaster, and if they build the right system around him, I think he can be a very good quarterback. The only slam-dunk player in this draft is Lawrence. Unless the Dolphins think Fields or Wilson are a cannot miss player, and they just need to start over, I think their best play is to take Smith and give Tagovailoa a chance to play with a game-changing wide receiver.
4. Can the New England Patriots or another quarterback-needy team outside the Top-5 trade into the Top-5 to take an elite quarterback prospect?
The one thing I think Tom Brady winning the Super Bowl this year did for New England is created even more urgency to find a quarterback so they can be back in playoff contention in 2021. The last thing Bill Belichick wants to do is watch Tom Brady win rings in Tampa Bay while he sits at (7-9) in New England with a dumpster fire at quarterback. The Patriots had only 2,890 yards passing and 12 passing touchdowns in 2020. That cannot happen again in 2021, and they cannot go with Jarrett Stidham or Brian Hoyer and waste another year losing games because they cannot pass the ball.
This year there is a slew of quarterback prospects and a slew of teams drafting early that need quarterbacks. That becomes a problem for New England. The only teams in the Top-10 that would have no interest under any circumstances in a quarterback are the Cincinnati Bengals at the fifth pick because Joe Burrow was the first pick in the NFL Draft last year. Miami at the third pick, Philadelphia at the sixth pick, Detroit at the seventh pick, and Dallas at the 10th pick probably do not need a quarterback but cannot be completely ruled out.
New England could sign or trade for a veteran quarterback if they do not want to spend the draft capital to trade up for one. They usually like to stay put or trade down in the NFL Draft, and if it is going to be expensive to move up, I could see them going that route. New England must have a game plan. If they are going to draft a quarterback in the first round but refuse to trade up in the NFL Draft, they risk playoff teams like Washington or Chicago trading in front of New England to snag Trey Lance and Mac Jones, and there will be nobody left for them to draft at the quarterback position. New England cannot afford to neglect the quarterback position this offseason. Their postseason hopes in 2021 ride on them figuring out that position this offseason.
5. Is there more than one running back selected in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft?
I think the one running back that is certain to go in the first round is Najee Harris. Harris had 251 carries for 1,466 yards and 26 touchdowns in 13 games last year. The year before that, he had 209 carries for 1,224 yards and 13 touchdowns. At 6′ 2″ and 230 pounds, he has the size to be a featured running back in the NFL. He also had 70 receptions for 729 yards and 11 touchdowns over the last two years. I think he projects as a bell-cow running back that has both the size to be a red zone threat and the skills to be a receiving threat. Those backs are tough to find, and someone will want to add him to the mix in the first round.
After that, the only other running back that I think has the first-round potential is Travis Etienne. The Clemson running back had 788 touches for 6,107 scrimmage yards and 78 touchdowns. Etienne ended his career as the ACC’s career leader in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and total touchdowns. He also set a record by scoring a touchdown in 46 games. He has enough size to be a featured back, but he is on the smaller side at 5′ 10″ and 205 pounds. My concern is that he never had more than 207 carries in a season, and he had only 168 carries in 12 games last year.
I think Harris is more ready to enter the league and carry the ball 15-18 times per game and be a featured back. Etienne may be more suited for 10-12 carries per game as part of an RBBC. Both should be fantasy-relevant players in 2020 and depending on where they go, and what role they can carve out for themselves, they could be instant fantasy assets in the 2021 season.
6. Are there more than five wide receivers selected in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft?
Two receivers will be slam-dunk Top-10 selections. Ja’Marr Chase and DeVonta Smith are the two most polished wide receivers in this draft class. I think they are both gone by the sixth pick, unless the Miami Dolphins, Cincinnati Bengals, and Philadelphia Eagles trade down in the NFL Draft or pass on a wide receiver. After that, Jaylen Waddle figures to be a first-round selection. I am not sure if he goes in the Top-10, but the New York Giants need an impact wide receiver if Daniel Jones is going to reach his potential. Waddle makes a lot of sense for him with the 11th pick.
After that, I think there is some room for debate. I have seen mock drafts that have Terrace Marshall, Rondale Moore, and Rashod Bateman going in the back of the first round. Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tylan Wallace probably do not have enough talent to go in the first round, but CBS Sports has both ahead of Marshall Jr. in their wide receiver rankings. It takes one wide receiver needy team to fall in love with one of those players, and suddenly, one of them is also a first-round pick.
When I look at the teams that are drafting outside the Top-15, the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans, and Washington Football Team all need wide receivers. I think the Patriots, Bears, and Football Team will have to think about quarterback in the first round, but one of them might not have a quarterback to take. There were a record 13 wide receivers taken in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft last year, six of them going in the first round. I think this class is not as good, but teams need wide receivers every year, and the wide receiver pool is deep enough for there to be five of them taken in the first round. I do not think wide receiver will be called six times in the first round.
7. Is there any hope for the tight end position to improve in fantasy football by introducing 2021 NFL Draft talent to the position?
The tight end position has been a fantasy disaster over the last few years. Travis Kelce and Darren Waller have put up huge numbers, but many teams do not utilize the tight end position. Rob Gronkowski took a year off in 2019 and had only 45 receptions for 623 yards and seven touchdowns in 2020 but was a Top-10 fantasy tight end.
There are a couple of names to watch at tight end. Kyle Pitts was a very good tight end at Florida in 2020, finishing with 43 receptions for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns in just eight games. Daniel Jeremiah compares him to Darren Waller, a very high compliment when you consider the numbers Waller has been putting up the last couple of years.
The other tight end to watch is Pat Freiermuth. He only played four games in 2020 for Penn State but finished his career with 29 games, 92 receptions, 1,185 yards, and 16 touchdowns. Daniel Jeremiah compares him to Hunter Henry. Freiermuth does not have the speed that Pitts has but is a better blocker and still can make plays in the passing game. If they go to the right teams, they could both be instant fantasy contributors in 2021.
8. Who is the first defensive player taken in the 2021 NFL Draft?
For the people that like offense and fantasy-relevant players over defensive players, this is a great draft. The last time there was no defensive player taken in the Top-5 of the NFL Draft was 2012. That year, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Trent Richardson, Matt Kalil, and Justin Blackmon were the first five picks. The last time it happened before that was 2005 when Alex Smith, Ronnie Brown, Braylen Edwards, Cedric Benson, and Cadillac Williams were taken with the first five picks.
That could very well happen this year. I think most people think that Jacksonville and the New York Jets will go quarterback. Miami figures to be in the market for a wide receiver. Atlanta could go with a quarterback if they can unload Matt Ryan and Cincinnati needs offensive line help.
Micah Parsons looks to be the best defensive player on the board. The outside linebacker was a Consensus All-American in 2019. He recorded 109 tackles, 14 tackles for a loss, five sacks, and four forced fumbles. He sat out the 2020 season to focus on the 2021 NFL Draft. Even though he is 6′ 3″ and 245 pounds, he figures to run the 40-yard dash in less than 4.5 seconds. You could see a performance that reminds people of Von Miller. He should be the first defensive pick. The Philadelphia Eagles, Detroit Lions, and Carolina Panthers all need defensive help, and he would be a much-welcomed addition to any of those defenses.
9. What team will have the most control of the NFL Draft?
The trick to controlling an NFL Draft is having the picks to make moves up and down the board. The more picks a team has in the NFL Draft, the more flexibility a team has to make trades up and down and acquire prospects or future draft capital. That is basically how Cleveland went from the bottom of the league to a playoff team over the last couple of seasons. They quickly acquired a lot of young players because of all the wheeling and dealing they did with their high draft picks.
Kyle Crabbs wrote a very good article for the DolphinsWire, How does Dolphins’ 2021 draft capital stack up versus the rest of NFL? The article lists the teams with the most assets in terms of valuing all of their draft picks. The top five teams are the Jacksonville Jaguars (5,271.8 total value), New York Jets (4,554.0 total value), Miami Dolphins (4,304.2 total value), Atlanta Falcons (2,770.2 total value), and Cincinnati Bengals (2,645.9 total value).
Jacksonville is the team to watch in this draft. Urban Meyer went to Jacksonville because of the chance to draft Trevor Lawrence, but Lawrence by himself is not going to be enough to make Jacksonville a playoff team. After the first pick, the Jaguars still have five picks in the Top-100, which are the 25th, 33rd, 45th, 65th, and 96th pick. They also have four remaining picks after the Top-100. That gives them the flexibility to trade up in the NFL Draft to acquire more impact players, or they could trade back and stock picks for next year. When you also consider that Urban Meyer coached Ohio State in 2018 and has been a college football analyst in 2019 and 2020, he will know about a lot of these players based on his recruiting decisions and covering the sport as an analyst. It is a chance for him to cash in on this draft and acquire a ton of talent and future picks to help the Jaguars rebuild.
10. Can the Los Angeles Rams make any impact in the 2021 NFL Draft?
The Rams do not have much draft capital in this draft. They traded away two first-round picks for Stafford, and that was not even a first-round pick in this NFL Draft because they already dealt that pick to Jacksonville to acquire Jalen Ramsey. The Rams are now set to not have a first-round pick for seven years. Furthermore, they do not have a pick in the first, third, fourth, and fifth rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft.
That becomes a problem for a couple of reasons. Even though Stafford should be an upgrade over Goff, the Rams have 17 players, with eight starters being free agents and might not be back with the team. The Rams will have to deal with the shrinking salary cap and will not have many high draft picks to help them in their quest to win a Super Bowl in 2021. The Rams do not pick until the 57th pick, and after that, they do not pick again until the sixth round. That is not enough draft capital to give them the players they need in this draft to put them over the top.
The one shining hope for the Rams is that they may be in a position to be awarded three compensatory picks in the third round. Third-round picks have a lot of value, and the Rams could use those picks to trade down and acquire more picks. I will be interested to see what the Rams do now that they have Matthew Stafford. They do not have many assets in this draft class but depending on how the compensatory picks go and what they can do with them, they could make enough of a splash to give Stafford a Super Bowl contending roster.
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