Here’s the truth: All five of the quarterbacks set to be drafted on Thursday won’t become franchise guys. That’s not a slight to anyone in particular, nor can I predict today who’ll make it and who won’t (although I feel pretty good about the first guy).
The numbers bear that out. Some facts:
• Twenty quarterbacks went in the first round between 2011 and ’17. Eight made it to a second deal (one of those eight, by the way, is Blake Bortles). Two more (Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota) had fifth-year options picked up. Ten either had their fifth-year options declined or didn’t last long enough for their teams to have made that call. And only two of the 20 (Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson) remain with the teams that drafted them.
• Quarterbacks from the first rounds in 2018 (Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen) and 2019 (Dwayne Haskins) have already been jettisoned by the teams that drafted them.
• Looking at a wider time range, Ben Roethlisberger is the longest-tenured former first-rounder still with the team that drafted him—this’ll be his 18th year in Pittsburgh. Aaron Rodgers, in his 17th year in Green Bay, is right behind him. After that? Between 2006 and ’16, 11 draft cycles, 29 quarterbacks went in the first round. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is the only one left with the team that took him.
And Roethlisberger’s class, really, stands as the last one with more than two bona fide, long-term franchise quarterbacks in it, with Eli Manning and Philip Rivers’s having gone in front of Big Ben in 2004.
Again, this is nothing against Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Mac Jones, Justin Fields or Trey Lance. But the facts here are the facts. There’s a reason why, 38 years later, people still talk about the quarterback class of 1983—because it remains, with all this time passed, the outlier when it comes to the position.
So that’ll be the backdrop as we dive into a study of the five guys who’ll hear their names called on Thursday night. We’re going to give you scouting reports. We’re going to give you fun comps. We’re going to encourage you to embrace the hope that drafting a quarterback pumps into any franchise that takes one that high.
But we’re going to do it with the warning that there’s every bit as good a chance, and probably a better chance, that most of these guys will end up being closer to being Teddy Bridgewater or Mark Sanchez than they do of becoming Mahomes.
It’s the day before the draft, so this week’s GamePlan is going to be draft-heavy. Inside this week’s column, you’ll get …
• A rundown of my top draft story lines for 2021.
• Some player-specific nuggets heading into Round 1.
• The lack of fifth-year options executed to this point.
But we’re starting with a dive into this year’s quarterbacks, with a little twist.
For months now, I’ve given you scouts’ and executives’ takes on the draft class—they’re the ones who generally know it best, and can give the best insight. But at this point, a day out from the first round, the coaches have caught up on what they need to know. And the coaches see the game a little differently (not necessarily better or worse) than the scouts do, so their insight is valuable.
That’s why this week I thought we’d assemble a panel of quarterback-centric coaches to dive into the Fields, Jones, Lance, Lawrence and Wilson.
Pretty simple stuff here. I found a half dozen guys with background coaching the position who’ve studied the group—a head coach, two offensive coordinators and three quarterback coaches—to riff on each one. And on top of that, we’re going to give you their verified height and weight from Indianapolis (other than Lawrence, who wasn’t at the medical combine), and a fun “ceiling comp” for each of them.
Listing the players in alphabetical order, here we go …
Ohio State QB Justin Fields
Dimensions: 6′ 2.4″, 229 pounds
Ceiling comp: Smaller Cam Newton with natural accuracy
There’s a level of disagreement among coaches on Fields. And our head coach summed it up in saying: “I really struggle with him. It’s hard to hold it against him, they’ve got a real good offense, a great play caller and awesome scheme. The guys get open, he holds the ball a long time, he takes sacks. He’s gotta get ball out better. But that pay off, so often, is that just the price you pay? Hold the ball and wait for one of the freaks at receiver to get open 70 yards downfield?” Which is to say the idea that his ability to go through progressions was overblown, but how fast he sees it might not have been. “Part of it is just being able to turn it loose, he has to get better at that. It’s overall awareness of the rush and what’s around him, and that comes with playing and experience. Just coaching it won’t do it, the guy has to learn that through experience.”
And some believe that experience would be best, at first, coming by watching. “It’d be best suited for him to have a transition year, learning and getting valuable growth watching a guy. The Pat Mahomes experience would be ideal,” said a quarterbacks coach. “He really has, it’s really impressive, real good contact balance. Shrugging off tacklers, he maintains a great foundation on the ground with all that around him. He has touch and feel with his throws, he can place it, he can raise a ball like he needs to. … He’s a special athlete for a quarterback. He’s not Mike Vick, he’s not Lamar Jackson, but I’d stack him against any other quarterback—a darn good athlete as a one-cut runner. There’s a little wiggle, not a lot, but once he gets going, the top-end speed is very impressive. And he has plenty of arm strength.”
One other question that relates back to Ohio State’s scheme is how much the quarterback looks to the sideline for calls, and also how it seemed simplified a bit in 2020—but that’s something that might be explainable, and probably doesn’t supersede his big-game performances. “The game against Clemson was super impressive, and against a really good defense,” said another quarterbacks coach. “With all the pressure on him and Trevor that night, he performed extremely well, and that’s a big thing, when it comes to the pressure he’ll face in the NFL. He has all the physical tools. Just looking at this past year, the offense, maybe because of the situation with COVID—they were playing, they were, they weren’t, then they were again—looked a little more limited. But that’s probably not a reflection on him as much as the situation.” Generally, though, teams believe he can get past his problems. “I think it’s unfair what happened to the kid,” said another QBs coach. “Look at what he did in huge games—the Ohio State-Clemson game, he played unbelievable after a significant injury. I love his ability to throw the deep ball. His release is a little long, but that can be tightened up. He’s not late, has to process, anticipate; but I don’t see processing as a problem.”
Alabama QB Mac Jones
Dimensions: 6′ 2.3″, 217 pounds
Ceiling comp: Shorter, more athletic Matt Ryan
I’ve also had more than one person give me the tepid, “I don’t want to compare him to Tom Brady, but …” in regards to a sort of cocky humility Jones has, his pocket awareness and how he had to fight to become a starter in college. As a player? There’s definitely some variance in how Jones, a 17-game starter, is viewed. “Very accurate, throws with anticipation and when he throws, you can see he’s a good decision-maker,” said an offensive coordinator. “He will stand in, take a hit, he’s really intelligent, has a really good understanding of what’s around him and can see the game in a global sense and it shows in what he’s doing. He’s no different than a lot of quarterbacks that have been playing forever. Yeah, bad body, but size-wise, he’s fine, and his testing numbers are fine. He gets knocked on being a bad athlete, and he’s not, but there’s not a willingness to run, and you gotta be able to scramble at times. But you can coach that.”
And each of our evaluators went after the idea that Jones can’t move. “He’s not a great athlete, but he has fantastic pocket athleticism. And the ball’s always out on time and accurate. The biggest thing from interviewing him, he kept talking about the system, the system, the system. He’s gonna run your system, he’s not going out of the box, and that’s why he’s going third to the Niners. It’s what they wanted. You don’t hear a bad thing about the kid from that school.” Another OC added that, as he sees it, Jones’s physical superpower is clear: “The dude is just so accurate, just deadly accurate. Unbelievably sharp, sees the game well, he reads defenses well, he gets the ball out on time, that’s why he completes such a high percentage. He knows where to throw it, and he throws on rhythm.”
That said, the question is going to be his ceiling. “Just the intangibles, you love—the first there, last to leave, he’s not a fraud, not a look-at-me guy, he’s genuine and had a process he followed,” said the head coach. “In the interview, he was super confident. Right away, you really like him. The concern is you want a guy that can create, and I don’t know how much he can. He’s not a great athlete. He’s not terrible. The biggest question I have, if you take Davis Mills and put him at Bama, and Mac at Stanford, is Davis the third pick?”
“There are very few ‘wow’ plays,” said the quarterbacks coach. “He’s fast-minded, he goes right through his progressions. And if he checks it down, and Najee [Harris] goes 40, is there anything wrong with that? No. But that’s what the talent dictates. I think he’s a low-level starter at best, or a career backup. He’ll play 12, 14 years. Maybe if he ends up being a starter in the right system, and you surround him with guys like he’s played with, he’ll be better than that.”
North Dakota State QB Trey Lance
Dimensions: 6′ 3.5″, 225 pounds
Ceiling comp: Shorter Josh Allen
Lance is polarizing, just like Allen was in 2018. Everyone loves the physical ability. Everyone loves the person. The rest is where the disagreement comes. “I’m not a Trey Lance guy—he’s not accurate enough,” said one quarterbacks coach. “He’s playing in the title game, they run him 30 times, they throw it 10, that tells you something … He’s not ready to play next year. At some point, you gotta complete a ball on third down. He’s throwing bubbles and receiver screens, and receivers have to make plays to get to the ball.”
Now, others like him more, but still think the redshirt year is needed. “Just really raw, he didn’t play a lot of football,” said an offensive coordinator. “And he didn’t play a lot of ball where the pressure was on him—they were rolling over everyone, and they did it by running the ball. There’s just not a lot there. But as a person, he’s a top-notch guy, he’s gonna work at it. Physically, he has upper and lower body mechanical issues to work through. He’s the guy that would benefit most from a redshirt. He struggles with accuracy, and that’s really what I would worry about. Now Josh Allen fixed that. Can this guy? It’s tough to do.”
And that point about how NDSU didn’t lean on Lance as much in the passing game was echoed over and over again. “It feels to me like he’s this year’s Jordan Love,” said another quarterbacks coach. “Boy, if you’re designing what you want a quarterback to look like, he looks like it in every way—good speed, thick-boned, tall. … But in damn near every game, they’re the better team, and it’s not close. You watch his games and it’s 42–7 in third quarter, and he’s their best player. You’re betting on the come. There’s some risk, and no guarantee with this one. [Fields], at his worst, he’s a starter that’s like Sam Darnold. Trey. there’s just not that body of evidence.”
That said … “If you’re in a bad-weather city, take a chance on him,” said a third quarterbacks coach. “The elements, the wind won’t bother him. You see that on tape, he cuts the wind, he can drive the ball, he can operate an offense in weather and all that. And that’s a major factor for me, compared to Mac. If you’re Chicago or Denver, you’re gonna have bad weather games, and that’s a factor. … I think there’s a lot of work to do on accuracy, but he’s shown raw physical ability, shown the ability to do stuff under center, from the gun. A lot of it is mechanics, and you can tailor a system that’ll allow him to be more accurate as well—like, let’s tailor it for high-percentage throws and get him some rhythm.”
Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence
Dimensions (from Pro Day): 6′ 5.5″, 213 pounds
Ceiling comp: Taller John Elway
One quarterbacks coach started our conversation with this: “My biggest fear with Trevor is that I’d be biased. I’ve loved him since his freshman year. And after watching tape, he’s the guy. They’ve been extremely creative around him and they have him do a lot. The physical tools, the toughness, the accuracy, the arm, the size, I like him a lot. I don’t think there’s ever a can’t-miss prospect. In the draft, there’s always some guessing. But he’s got as good a shot as anyone.” One offensive coordinator added to that, “I didn’t even waste my time on him, it’s obvious. … He’s super talented, he can do everything, the only concern I have is how skinny he is, but I’d assume over time he’ll bulk up.”
And that brings us to how Lawrence compares historically to prospects like Elway, Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning. “They didn’t protect him as well as Justin or Mac was protected,” said a quarterback coach. “He got hit, and it was good to see that, and how he reacted. He can throw with a guy in his face. He plays to his 4.6 speed, just a big man who can run fast—usually that combination, they have success. He will miss some throws. I’ve heard generational, and I would not say that. He’s very deserving of the first pick. He’s not as accurate as Andrew Luck was, Luck had better arm talent, but he plays faster than Andrew did. And he showed a trait Andrew had in the ACC championship game: tremendous short-term memory. He threw a pick, then came back and diced them.”
Our second offensive coordinator dialed it up a notch: “He’s got a chance to play for 15-plus years. Generational talent. Body, body control, arm strength, he’s got everything above the neck you’re looking for, and he can move for a big guy. He’s got a chance, they get good players around him in Jacksonville, and he starts early in career, he’ll be balling. He’s gonna play for a long time.” A head coach added, “I watched two games, and he was even better than I hoped. He’s good, 100% as advertised. Everything looks effortless, and he’s fast for a big guy.”
The one criticism? Lawrence can tighten up his delivery, which is the case with a lot of long-levered guys. “He plays with a little too wide a base,” said the first quarterbacks coach. “That’s pretty easily adjusted.”
BYU QB Zach Wilson
Dimensions: 6′ 2″, 210 pounds
Ceiling comp: Aaron Rodgers if he develops more arm strength (like Rodgers did)
You get the sense that watching Wilson’s tape, for coaches, was just kind of … fun. “He is a little slight, but he’s freakish as far as the different throws he can make,” said an offensive coordinator. He gets himself into trouble, and he can be reckless at times. But it doesn’t have to be perfect for him to make a play. He doesn’t need space to generate velocity, and he has rare arm talent. The recklessness, he might be a bit feast or famine until he figures out what he can and can’t get away with.”
A quarterbacks coach added, “I love watching his tape. He’s exciting. He can run. I was excited for him, that his official height was 6′ 2″, he doesn’t look 6′ 2″ on tape. The scary part was that they didn’t play anybody—and then they played Coastal Carolina and he got hit a lot, but kept them in the game. You can see he loves playing, and everything he does look easy. Easy release, he can throw on the run, he can climb the pocket, he change arm angles. When he needs to throw the deep ball, he’s the one guy that doesn’t have to put his body into it. He can throw to the second level, the third level. He shows the type of athlete he is. I love this kid. Both these guys [going first and second]. I’d pick Trevor, but mostly because he’s bigger.”
The questions? Those arise when you go back to 2019—and you can make the argument that with BYU having a softer schedule in 2020, some of the issues may have arisen again. “I accidentally watched the previous year’s tape, and thought, ‘How are we talking about a first-round pick?’ No balance, bad accuracy. Playing against Hawaii, he was atrocious. And then I realized I was watching ’19,” said a head coach. “Then you go to his pro day, and the ball was on the ground a lot at his pro day. Now, it really is fascinating, because he can make all the throws, and at times he looks like no question a top-five pick. But it’s sort of a loose evaluation. I can see why people love him. If I was drafting one, I’d dive into some of the inaccuracy. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.”
And the other thing worth touching on with Wilson is the reality that he’ll be going from Utah to the media capital of the world. “Because of his personality, I think he’ll be able to handle New York,” said another quarterbacks coach. “Now, we’re talking about one year, he didn’t have three great years—2019 was an off year. Why was that? … But I think he’s got a chance to be a really good player. You wish he was a little bigger. But I don’t get caught up in that, look at Russell [Wilson], look at Drew [Brees]; Trevor’s 6′ 6″, and some people think he’s too tall. As long as he doesn’t take hard hits outside the pocket, the size doesn’t concern me. But it’ll be a transition going to a huge market.”
And if you want more comps, here are three others I got: Donovan McNabb for Fields, Dak Prescott for Lance and Chad Pennington for Jones.
Of course, that’s the fun of all this. If the above comps hit? This will be, by far, the best quarterback class of all time, and their five teams will be in contention for the foreseeable future.
More likely is that Lawrence will find a way to make it at some level, regardless of how good or bad the situation is around him, and the other four are, to a degree, prisoners to their circumstances, which would make them like a very high percentage of the quarterbacks that come out. That’s no insult to anyone, that’s just what history tells us the result will be.
So as for Thursday night goes, pay close attention not just to the order these guys go in, but the situations they land in. Chances are, it’ll be just as important as everything we just took you through.
My top five story lines for you to follow on Thursday night …
1) Will the Niners really take Mac Jones? That question’s finally getting answered. And it’s been asked a lot. I think we can all agree that it’ll be good not to have to address it ever again.
2) Will all five quarterbacks go in the top 10? It’s never happened before, and there’s a very real scenario where they’re off the board after nine picks. The Carolina/Denver turn looks like it could be the spot (whether it’s those teams, or via trades) where the guys who shake out of the top three get scooped up.
3) How far will Caleb Farley fall? You have to feel for the guy. But the fact of the matter is the risk here is that one more back surgery could be it for Farley as a football player, and so there’s a leap of faith that someone’s going to have to take on this uber-talented corner. There could be some interesting decisions at the back of the first round (more on that in a minute).
4) Who will the fourth receiver be? We know Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith (I’d guess in that order) will be the first three. If you ask six teams who goes next, you might get six answers. For what it’s worth, a lot of teams seem to really like Ole Miss’s Elijah Moore, so I think he’s the surest bet not to slip very far.
5) Will a team make a massive move up? Could New England go into the top 10 to get a quarterback? Would Chicago make a move to get in front of the Patriots if one slips out of the top 10? We’ll know soon, but I will have a reason in our next section why dealing too far up might be more challenging this year than in the past.
THE BIG QUESTION
What’s the word out there?
Since I know you want draft nuggets, here are a few that came in as I made my calls around the league late on Wednesday.
• I don’t know what the Cardinals’ medicals are on Farley. I don’t know what the Raiders’ medicals are on Farley. I do know that other teams are hearing that those two—Arizona and Vegas—have done a lot of work on the ex-Virginia Tech star. So if he slides past those teams at 16 and 17? He could be waiting a while. (Cleveland’s another team that I’ve heard is diving deep on Farley; the Browns pick 26th.)
• We’ve mentioned in a few different places how, when you get to that range this year, some teams are going to be into their second-round grades, and that’s where the class flattens out. One GM told me the difference between the 20th and 60th picks could be, for his team, pretty negligible. And because of all that, when I asked another GM, holding a top 10 pick, if he’s open to moving back, his answer was direct: “Maybe, but not very far.”
• Tulsa LB Zaven Collins is positioned as the player going into Thursday with the widest range of potential outcomes. Asked if Collins is a first-rounder, one college scouting director answered, “Maybe at the end of it. He’s a polarizing prospect. Some teams don’t think he’s worth [it] at all. Others love him. He’s a strange one to figure out.” The comp I’ve come away with for him is Dont’a Hightower. The problem, though, is your vision for Collins would be for him to play a Hightower-like jack-of-all-trades role. And where you saw Hightower do that at Alabama, you’d be projecting it on Collins. “He’s as big, but not as physical as Hightower,” said a scouting director. “I’m not sure what you’d do with him on third down—he’s just O.K. in coverage, and he’s not an edge rusher.” He’s considered a fit for teams like the Patriots, Dolphins and Steelers. He could go 15th. He could go 40th.
• Speaking of the Steelers, other teams have gotten the idea that Pittsburgh might look at going up for a quarterback—but only if one undergoes a fairly significant slide (I’d seriously doubt it’d be with a big move up the board, but maybe they’d do it if all they needed to do was leapfrog Washington and Chicago). Lance would be a really interesting fit there, given that Pittsburgh could afford to give him a true redshirt year, and some of his game might wind up looking like Ben Roethlisberger’s in the pros.
• Would the Eagles take a quarterback if one fell in their lap? Some teams think so. (Even though they’ve been outwardly corner hungry, and I’ve heard them connected to other position players, like Jaylen Waddle and Kwity Paye.)
• Texas OT Sam Cosmi is one player I have my eyes on to go a little higher than many expect. He had explosive testing numbers at his pro day, and his makeup is said to be very good for a lineman. Some teams believe that he wasn’t coached particularly well as a collegian, and as such there’s a lot of untapped potential there.
• I’d look for the Titans to play it safe in the first round after last year’s whiff on Isaiah Wilson—who Tennessee knew was risky when it took him last April. In my mock on Tuesday, I gave them heady, versatile TCU S Trevon Moehrig, in part for that reason. Another player to watch would be Northwestern CB Greg Newsome.
• Speaking of Newsome, it feels to me like the run on the second-tier corners might happen earlier than expected, and maybe as early as the 20s. Newsome’s in that group with Georgia’s Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell, Kentucky’s Kelvin Joseph (who’s the best of the bunch but has some serious character questions) and Florida State’s Asante Samuel Jr.
• Two notes on the defending champion Buccaneers. One, they’ve done quite a bit of work on the quarterback class, and not just the back-end guys—so it’s certainly possible that they could come out of the weekend with an heir to Tom Brady. Two, my sense is they’d be open to athletic, developmental guys on defense. So Washington edge Joe Tryon and both Georgia corners could make sense for them at No. 32 (if they don’t take a quarterback in the first round).
• A fun scouting term I picked up this week that I heard on a certain pass rusher who plays really hard and is athletic, but lacks football instinct: He plays like a blind dog in a meat house. I hadn’t heard that one before. And I think I might love it.
WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT
The pace of the fifth-year options!
Just seven 2018 first-round picks have been taken care of thus far. Las Vegas’s Kolton Miller was extended. Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield and Denzel Ward, Indy’s Quenton Nelson, Washington’s Daron Payne, Detroit’s Frank Ragnow and Tampa’s Vita Vea had their options picked up. It’s been acknowledged that it’s coming for Pittsburgh’s Minkah Fitzpatrick and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson too, which brings the number up to nine.
There are some more (Bradley Chubb, Tremaine Edmunds, Jaire Alexander) where you’d figure it’s just a matter of time. But others might be tougher calls. Leighton Vander Esch’s and Derwin James’s situations are complicated by injury. Calvin Ridley’s played well enough to have his picked up, but Atlanta’s cap situation is dicey. D.J. Moore? Isaiah Wynn? Rashaan Evans?
And the ultimate complication is the change in rules this year—those fifth-year options are guaranteed upon execution, and next year’s cap may not be much higher than this year’s.
That’s why my belief is more teams are waiting until after the draft, to see if they can find suitable replacements at some of these positions. Then they’d at least leave their options open for 2022, where they might have to pay a little more to get a guy back, but they also could have a replacement in place if they don’t have the appetite for that 10 months from now.
It’s a dynamic that’ll be interesting to watch this weekend, in who some of these teams wind up drafting, and could make for some competitive situations once the season starts.
We made it! Thanks for following ALL our draft coverage again this year.
We’ve got a couple What I’m Hearing columns coming for you the next few days, and I’m going to try and figure out Twitter Live too (since I found out last night that Periscope is no more).
More NFL Coverage:
• Bishop: Trey Lance Is Just Different
• Bishop: Alex Smith Healed Enough to Walk Away
• Rosenberg: Trevor Lawrence Is Out to Prove Absolutely Nothing
• Prewitt: The Year of the Opt-Out Prospect