10 Burning Questions for the 2021 NFL Draft
I wrote an article, 10 Burning Questions for the 2021 NFL Draft, back in February, and some of the topics are going to be the same in this article. This is one of the best quarterback drafts we have had in a long time. Like that article, this one will focus on the quarterbacks and the offensive talent in this draft. The quarterbacks in the 2021 NFL Draft have a chance to shape the league for decades to come. The major questions surrounding this draft have focused on the quarterbacks since the NFL season ended, and that will be the case until the 2021 NFL Draft begins on April 29, 2021.
The reason the 2021 NFL Draft has a chance to be historical is the last time that a quarterback was taken with each of the first three picks was back in 1999 when Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, and Akili Smith went with the first three picks. That was also a very heavy offensive draft, with the first six picks and 11 of the first 15 picks used on offensive players. I would expect the same thing this year, as this draft is loaded on the offensive side of the ball. There could even be four quarterbacks taken with the first four picks.
Here are my 10 burning questions about the NFL Draft with the NFL’s biggest roster-building event less than a month away.
1. Could Zach Wilson be the top pick over Trevor Lawrence?
I find that scenario very unlikely. Lawrence has been the presumptive first overall pick in this draft since he threw for 3,280 yards and 30 touchdowns in his freshman campaign back in 2018. That season, Clemson went (15-0) and routed Alabama in the College Football Championship. Lawrence is everything an NFL team could want in a franchise quarterback. He is 6′ 6″ and 220 pounds, he can make every throw on the field, and he has enough mobility to be a playmaker outside the pocket. He ran for 943 yards and 18 touchdowns in his career, in addition to his gaudy passing numbers. He is probably the best quarterback prospect coming out of college since Andrew Luck in 2012.
There should be no debate that he is the best quarterback in this class, but Wilson is making the case. He has been shooting up draft boards and has kept the conversation more interesting than anyone thought at the beginning of the college season. Wilson was throwing the ball 50-yards on off-balance throws and showed off a canyon arm at his Pro Day to validate his stellar season at BYU. I still do not think that will be enough to overtake Lawrence. I think what that Pro Day did was solidify that the Jets would be insane to pass on Wilson. Wilson is generating so much buzz to make the Jets feel better about having the second pick. They already dealt Sam Darnold to the Carolina Panthers, signaling they will be taking a quarterback with the second pick. There appear to be two quarterback prospects with elite potential in this draft, and the Jets will be happy to take Wilson with their second pick. Do not expect any craziness, though. Lawrence is still the cannot miss quarterback prospect of this draft, and he will be taken first by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
2. Do the San Francisco 49ers take Trey Lance or Mac Jones with the third pick?
NFL teams do not trade the amount of draft capital the 49ers gave up moving up to the third pick to take a tight end or a linebacker. That trade was made to select a franchise quarterback, and the 49ers will have a decision to make with their selection. Jones is the safer pick, and he could replace Jimmy Garoppolo this year. Jones played at Alabama and won the National Championship last year. He threw for 4,500 yards, 41 touchdowns, four picks, and he completed a ridiculous 77.4 percent of his passes. At 6′ 3″ and 214 pounds, he has the size to be a traditional pocket passer in an NFL offense. He has the experience in a pro-style offense at Alabama to start in his rookie year in the NFL on one of the best rosters in the NFL.
Lance has more risk, but he also has more upside. Lance does not turn 21 years old until May of this year. He sat out 2020 as North Dakota State postponed its season due to COVID-19. In 2019, Lance had 2,786 yards passing, 28 passing touchdowns, no interceptions, 1,100 yards rushing, and 14 rushing touchdowns. He still has a lot to learn about the NFL game, but at 6′ 4″ and 226 pounds, he has the size to be an NFL quarterback, and unlike Jones, Lance is the dual-threat talent that is all the rage in the NFL. He probably would benefit from sitting for a year behind Garoppolo and taking over the reins as the starter in 2022.
I think the 49ers go with Lance in this spot. Jones had a great year, but he also played with a roster loaded with NFL talent. There is a reason that a lot of the good quarterbacks in the NFL did not play for National Championship teams or powerhouse college programs. While that has not hurt Lawrence’s draft stock, he was also a generational talent coming out of high school. Jones is not a generational talent. He is an outstanding player that had a great year on one of the most talented rosters in college football. While Lance is not as ready to play right now, his ceiling is much higher than Jones, and I think the 49ers roll the dice on a player that could bring a new dimension to Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Garoppolo is not a terrible starter, and they could still make a deep playoff run with him under center in 2021 before Lance becomes the starter in 2022. Also, given Garoppolo’s injury history, Lance could become the starter sooner rather than later.
3. Can the Atlanta Falcons trade out of the fourth spot?
I think it may be hard for them to trade the pick until we know what the San Francisco 49ers are doing with their pick. It was easy for the 49ers to trade up to the third spot because they knew what quarterbacks would be available at that spot. Lawrence and Wilson will be the first two players taken in this draft, and if Jacksonville or New York loses their mind and takes someone else, the 49ers would be more than comfortable taking either Lawrence or Wilson. That trade was made knowing there was a 99.9 percent chance that both elite quarterbacks would be unavailable, and that means the 49ers are comfortable with the third quarterback on their board.
The problem is the next three prospects are very different players, and there is a wide range of opinions about their draft stock. Jones is a traditional pocket passer that is probably ready to play in the NFL this year, but there are questions about how high his ceiling can be coming out of a college where almost every teammate is an NFL prospect. Lance and Fields are both dual-threat quarterbacks, but Lance did not play in 2020 due to COVID-19 shutting down North Dakota State’s season. He is as raw as any talent in this draft. Fields is more polished and at least played this year. He also ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash at his Pro Day. His issue is that he rarely had to make more than one read in college when he had to throw the ball, and he needs to show he has the patience to go beyond his initial read. He has not demonstrated whether he can or cannot do that yet, but that is a big question mark for a team trading up to the fourth pick.
That creates an issue for a team trading up with the Falcons. If the Patriots only like Jones, they cannot trade up with the Falcons until they know Jones is available. If the Bears only like Fields and Washington only likes Lance, the same problem exists. That is a big reason the Panthers took the cheaper option and traded for Sam Darnold rather than trade up with the Falcons. They also did not want to end up with all five quarterbacks gone and be stuck without someone they were excited about for the future. The Falcons can still make a trade happen because New England, Chicago, and Washington all need quarterbacks. However, what the 49ers end up doing will impact what trade partners will be available and how much compensation they can receive for the pick.
4. How far does Justin Fields fall in this NFL Draft?
This is the last question about the quarterbacks. I think Fields is the quarterback that has the most potential to fall in this Draft. I think if you want confirmation of that, look no further than the Panthers trading for Darnold rather than staying in the seventh spot with the chance to draft Fields. Had they been sold on Fields, they could have stayed in that seventh spot and probably taken him with that pick, or they could have traded up to the fourth pick. Instead, they want to see if they can revive Darnold’s career, and they traded fewer picks to acquire him than it would have to move up in the NFL Draft.
There is a lot to love about Fields. He threw 67 touchdown passes to just nine interceptions, and he completed 68.4 percent of his passes. He also is a dual-threat, evidenced by his 4.4-second 40-yard dash and 1,123 yards rushing and 19 rushing touchdowns. He will be a nightmare in space at the NFL level with that speed and ability to make plays with both his arm and his feet. The downside is that he played on such good teams that he never really had to move off his first option. Pro Football Network cited a stat that he looked off his primary target just seven times. The other 200 plus passes were to his primary target. That will not work in the NFL. Quarterbacks have to make reads and look off their primary target in three seconds or less.
I think what will save him from having a monster fall is the number of teams that need quarterbacks. Denver, New England, Washington, and Chicago are not all going to pass on him with their first-round pick. Fields is no longer the Top-5 pick he was at the beginning of the process, but he should still end up being a Top-15 pick. While he had some bad games against Alabama, Northwestern, and Indiana, he also owned Clemson in the college playoff. His numbers were stellar, and his physical talents combined with many teams needing a quarterback will save him from falling too far in the NFL Draft. I would expect all of the quarterbacks to be gone by the 15th pick. New England will not let a quarterback fall past them if one of the five is available, and I could see them moving up in the NFL Draft if the right trade presents itself.
5. Is Penei Sewell or Kyle Pitts the first non-quarterback offensive player taken in the 2021 NFL Draft?
If the Falcons move the fourth pick to a team looking for a quarterback or shock the world and draft Matt Ryan’s replacement, I think it will be Sewell because the Bengals are the fifth pick, and they need as much offensive line help as they can find in this draft. Sewell has the potential to be the building block of a great offensive line, and the Bengals need that upgrade to their offensive line more than they need a potential franchise-changing tight end.
Pitts is going to be a matchup nightmare at the NFL level. At almost 6′ 6″ and 245 pounds, he has the size to play tight end but the speed of a wide receiver. He runs his 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, which means that he can line up anywhere in the formation. A creative offensive coordinator can use his combination of speed and size to create mismatches all over the field. If the Falcons cannot move the fourth pick, I could see them taking Pitts and trying to give Matt Ryan another piece in an offense loaded with skill-position talent. Hayden Hurst was a good tight end signing in free agency last year, but adding Pitts could take this offense to the next level. If the Falcons pass on a tight end, Pitts will probably not make it past the Dolphins, who own the sixth pick in the NFL Draft. Pitts draft stock has been skyrocketing, and he should be a very early selection, if not the first offensive player taken in the 2021 NFL Draft.
6. Who is the first defensive player taken in the NFL Draft?
We are down to two players most likely to earn this honor, Patrick Surtain II and Micah Parsons. Surtain II is a big cornerback at 6′ 2″ and 208 pounds. He ran his 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds, posted a 39″ vertical jump, and benched 225 pounds 18 times. That means this prospect has both the speed to stay with faster wide receivers and the strength to jockey for position in the red zone and jam receivers at the line of scrimmage. He should be the first defensive back taken in the NFL Draft, and I cannot see him falling out of the Top-12 picks.
Parsons is also a physical freak. Parson ran his 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds. This is not a defensive back; this is a 6′ 3″ and 246-pound linebacker. I think he could do the same thing for a defense that Devin White did for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. White is 6′ 0″ and 237 pounds and he ran his 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds. Similar to White, Parsons is the type of player that can line up outside and put pressure on the quarterback or drop back into coverage. He gives a lot of flexibility to a defensive coordinator when it comes to play calling.
Which one goes first likely depends on Denver. They need a quarterback and they could use the ninth pick to take one. If they pass on a quarterback, I think Parsons is the first pick on defense at the ninth pick. Otherwise, I think Surtain II ends up being the first pick because the Dallas Cowboys have a tremendous need in the secondary, and Surtain II would be a great addition for them at the tenth pick. They need secondary help more than linebacker help and there might not be an offensive lineman that is worth the pick at the tenth spot. Regardless of which one goes first, both are physical freaks and both have a chance to dominate the league for years to come.
7. What rookie has the best chance to be a fantasy star in 2021?
I already talked about Pitts, and considering how weak the tight end position was in fantasy, Pitts with the Falcons would be a dream for fantasy owners. That would be a good player teamed with a good quarterback in Matt Ryan. That would give him a chance to dominate early. That is always the trick, where is a player taken in the draft. Everyone loved Jerry Jeudy and CeeDee Lamb last year, but both went to bad quarterback situations. Jeudy had to play with an inconsistent Drew Lock, and Lamb’s value tanked when Dak Prescott was lost for the year early in the season. That opened the door for Justin Jefferson to be the best fantasy rookie of all the players. It was a combination of a chance to play early and catching the ball from Kirk Cousins. While Cousins is not a future Hall of Fame quarterback, he puts up good numbers and really helped Jefferson become a fantasy star early in his career.
Keep an eye on Rondale Moore and Rashod Bateman in this draft. Both are excellent wide receivers, but they are not in the Top-3 among the rookie prospects, and they are expected to go in the back of the first round or early second round. Depending on how it shakes out for them, one of them could be in Green Bay catching passes from Aaron Rodgers or in Jacksonville or New York catching passes from Lawrence or Wilson. Sometimes a rookie’s fantasy production is as much about landing spot as it is talent. Both these wide receivers could be fantasy stars in 2021 if the landing spot is right.
8. Who is a darkhorse running back to watch for in fantasy football this year?
Everybody knows about Najee Harris and Travis Etienne. Fantasy owners are just waiting to see if those two have a chance to be a starter this year based on their landing spot. Everyone wants the next Antonio Gibson, a player with only 77 touches in college, and became a fantasy star in his rookie year with Washington. Everyone wants the next James Robinson, who went from undrafted rookie to starter in Jacksonville and RB1 as a rookie. Those types of players can bring home fantasy championships due to their high point totals and great draft value.
Here are two players I would keep an eye on in this NFL Draft. Elijah Mitchell played four years at the University of Louisiana and finished with 576 touches, 3,864 yards from scrimmage, and 46 touchdowns. He is a little undersized at 5′ 11″ and 218 pounds, but that is big enough for him to be an NFL running back, and he ran a 4.32-yard 40-yard dash at his Pro Day. He credited that time to a new diet that has his weight closer to 200 pounds. He is the type of player that goes in Day 3 of the NFL Draft and is projected as a backup, earns a start due to injury to another running back, and keeps the job the rest of the way.
Another player to watch is Kene Nwangwu. There is not a ton of tape on him. He had only 150 touches for 801 yards and four touchdowns at Iowa State. He also is a good kick returner, posting 92 kick returns for 2,470 yards and one touchdown in his four years with the team. He helped his draft stock by running a 4.29-yard 40-yard dash and posting a 37″ vertical jump. He has really good size to go with that speed, at 6′ 1″ and 208 pounds. He will not be viewed as a rookie starter, but he is the type of player that breaks a few big plays early in the year and finds himself with a sizable role. He has the speed to be a nightmare for NFL defenses. The question is the opportunity to play this year and whether he can handle the pounding of 12-15 touches per game.
9. Can the Las Vegas Raiders finally draft their way into the playoffs?
This is a big year for the Las Vegas Raiders. The Raiders made two splashy hires when they talked Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock out of their cushy TV jobs and back into the grind of the NFL. Gruden is entering the fourth year of his $100 million contract, and he has only 19 wins and 29 losses to show for it. Mayock is entering his third year as the GM. While their record has improved from 4-12 to 7-9 to 8-8 with this new regime, they have also collapsed down the stretch after going 6-4 to start 2019 and 6-3 to start 2020. It feels like they need to cash in and make the playoffs this year because four consecutive playoff misses would be a strong signal that this team is not moving in the right direction.
The Raiders have the 17th, 48th, and 79th pick in this draft, yielding them three starters if they hit home runs with those picks. They also have the 121st, 162nd, and 200th pick, which could bring them some depth. They made some small splashes in free agency by adding Kenyan Drake and John Brown to give them some more weapons in the passing game. They really could use some offensive and defensive line help. They were 19th in yards per rush gained (4.2), and 24th in rushing yards per rush allowed (4.6). They need more maulers in the trenches to make a playoff push.
Everyone cares the most about their team, but I think the Raiders draft has much intrigue for all NFL fans. The Chiefs have been to back-to-back Super Bowls, and the Chargers have Justin Herbert, the best rookie quarterback from 2020. The Broncos are a quarterback away from competing for a playoff spot. This is becoming a very tough division, and the Raiders did not pay Gruden $100 million to go .500 and miss the playoffs. They need to have a big draft to make a playoff push and justify the money they spent to blow up their roster four years ago. This team traded Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack in the hope of using the picks from those trades to construct a playoff team. They need to cash in this year and make the playoffs, and how they draft in the 2021 NFL Draft will go a long way to determining if they are finally a playoff team this year.
10. What is the future for Deshaun Watson?
I do not think this issue will be worked out by the end of the NFL Draft, but I think it also needs to be discussed because the story is dominating the NFL off-season. When Watson and the Texans started their feud over his input in the hiring of their GM and head coach, many people thought the Texans would make him go through with his threat of sitting out the season, or they would trade him before the NFL Draft for a boatload of picks. He was one of the biggest stories in February, with everyone wondering if a team could put together an offer the Texans could not refuse.
That is not the case anymore. Watson has 20 civil lawsuits from various female massage therapists, and the Houston Police Department has opened an investigation into Watson. At this point, he is more likely to be suspended under the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy than he is to be traded to another NFL team. I think Rodger Goodell will let the process play out, and he does not need to decide on a course of action for the league front office until September. These lawsuits could all be settled by then, and criminal charges could be dropped. There could be trials set in the civil matters and criminal charges pending against Watson. There is an infinite number of potential resolutions to this with that many cases, and it is going to make a trade nearly impossible while everything is pending. No team will give up three first-round picks for him, and Houston is not going to give him away for a conditional pick. At this point, they have to hope he can play this year and rebuild his image as a franchise player.
The Texans prepared themselves for life without Watson this year in free agency by signing Tyrod Taylor to a one-year contract, and they traded for Ryan Finley, who started a game in Cincinnati next year. Houston does not have a pick until the third round, so they are not in a position to draft a quarterback early in the draft. I do not expect to find out anything new about Watson by the NFL Draft, which means he is likely stuck in Houston and will need to resolve his legal issues before he has any leverage to demand a trade. I think he ends up playing in Houston for at least the 2021 season, with the possibility he is suspended for part or all of the 2021 season. This story is not going away after the 2021 NFL Draft.
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Derek Lofland is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Derek, check out his archive and follow him @DerekLofland.