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2021 NFL draft: QBs could go even higher than expected with all the teams that need one

Eric Edholm
·9-min read

We might be entering one of the wildest quarterback movement offseasons of our NFL lives in the coming months.

Yes, yes, we probably told you something similar a year ago, with the futures of Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Cam Newton, Dak Prescott, Eli Manning and others seemingly hanging in the balance.

And we weren’t wrong then, either. Brady and Rivers moved on from the only NFL teams they’d ever known, the first two overall picks of the 2015 draft (Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota) switched teams and four QBs were drafted in the first round of the 2020 draft, including three in the top six overall.

But this time we really mean it.

Rivers announced his retirement Wednesday. Brees might be next. More seismic movement is expected.

The Indianapolis Colts will be replacing retired quarterback Philip Rivers this offseason. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
The Indianapolis Colts will be replacing retired quarterback Philip Rivers this offseason. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

With all the forecastable changes at the position, there’s an argument to be made that half of the NFL’s teams might be seeking a “franchise quarterback.”

A fair share of veteran quarterbacks will fill some of those spots, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that multiple rookies will make up a notable piece of that picture. Expect the top of the 2021 draft to be quite QB heavy as teams jockey to land their preferred choice.

A scenario where five quarterbacks land in the top half of the draft (possibly even in the top 10) wouldn’t be a stretch. So if you want to snag one, you had better already be picking high — or be prepared to pay a premium to land in that range.

Several teams seeking QB clarity

The Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets, New England Patriots, Colts and the Washington Football Team likely will be turning to options outside of their roster to land their potential starting QBs this offseason.

The list of QB-needy teams runs far deeper than that.

There’s a group of teams that might have a provisional starter in place but could be keeping options open on improvements. That group might include the Saints, who could go take a Winston-Taysom Hill route if Sunday’s loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was indeed Brees’ final game.

Also in that similar boat might be other teams seeking to upgrade over their current starters, including the Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh Steelers, Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers.

We also can’t forget about teams such as the Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions — both with new general managers — possibly thinking about life after Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford, respectively. Both have been floated in trade possibilities, even if each remain under contract for multiple years.

There’s also the Los Angeles Rams and Jared Goff, given Sean McVay’s curious comments on his QB following the team’s playoff ouster.

After that, there’s a subset of teams with young, possibly promising quarterbacks who have yet to firm their footholds as franchise figures. That list includes the Philadelphia Eagles and their messy situation, possibly along with the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants. Those teams’ level of concern might be lower than others, but don’t rule out any of them trying to add competition at some level.

Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson somehow could change teams this offseason. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)
Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson somehow could change teams this offseason. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)

And have we mentioned the Houston Texans? That franchise’s self-immolation could result — quite unbelievably — in Deshaun Watson changing uniforms this offseason. That, of course, would put Houston on the list of teams seeking a different QB starter next season from the one it had in 2020.

Watson is the hottest veteran name potentially on the move this offseason. Jimmy Garoppolo, Stafford and Ryan are other veteran options who could be shipped elsewhere. Dwayne Haskins is a recent first-round QB who will have a new home, and he could be joined by the likes of Sam Darnold, Mitchell Trubisky, Teddy Bridgewater and even Josh Rosen, who has spent time on the rosters or practice squads of four teams over the past 600-plus days.

Not all of them will move into starting roles. And even with the veterans possibly in play, it’s clear that the NFL draft will be a significant source for a big swath of the quarterback movement that appears to be in the offing.

Could the 2021 NFL draft set a QB record?

The high-water mark for quarterbacks drafted in Round 1 is six, which happened in the legendary 1983 class that included John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. That class’ QB impact might never be repeated, even in an era when young talent at the position is as thrilling as it ever has been.

And matching the total of six doesn’t appear to be likely in this draft cycle. But we could end up with five in the first round — something that has happened twice (1999 and 2018) — and those five could populate the top of the draft like we’ve really seen only once in the modern era.

The 1999 QB class can’t match the brilliance of 1983. Far from it.

The ’99 group produced its five first-round quarterbacks in the top dozen picks: Tim Couch (Browns), Donovan McNabb (Eagles), Akili Smith (Bengals), Daunte Culpepper (Vikings) and Cade McNown (Bears). Even if McNabb and Culpepper reasonably met expectations to varying degrees, it was a QB draft like we’d never seen before or since.

Will the 2021 class approach that level of QB infiltration? We can’t rule it out.

Trevor Lawrence is the overwhelming favorite to be the first pick to the Jaguars. BYU’s Zach Wilson and Ohio State’s Justin Fields are battling it out for QB2 honors; either could land with the owners of the No. 2 overall pick, the New York Jets. The loser of that battle might not have to wait too long to hear their name called.

Those three might not be every NFL team’s top three quarterbacks in order, but the feeling in the draft community is that they’re the trio most likely to be the first three selected.

After that are two of the more fascinating QB prospects — and the two whose draft stocks feel most volatile as we sit less than 100 days away from the start of Round 1.

Trey Lance, Mac Jones could crash the top 10

North Dakota State’s Trey Lance will be one of the trickier studies in recent draft history. Blessed with immense natural ability but limited to 17 college games at the FCS level (and only one in the past year), Lance’s evaluation stands out as an incredible litmus test for valuing traits over experience.

Is there a team bold enough to spend a top-10 selection on Lance as the theoretical QB4 of this class? It will take a confident evaluator to sign off on such a pick, and it’s worth noting that four of the top eight overall picks are owned by teams with new general managers.

Three of those new GMs will be in the captain’s chairs for the first time: Atlanta’s Terry Fontenot, Detroit’s Brad Holmes and Carolina’s Scott Fitterer. (Only the Jaguars, who are reportedly set to name Trent Baalke as their GM, will have hired a decision maker with previous experience in the top slot, and even he likely would be yielding some personnel say to new head coach Urban Meyer.)

Lance could end up one of the best quarterbacks in this class. He has tremendous ability, difficult as his projection might be. The team drafting Lance, however, almost certainly must buttress having a veteran option in place to start Week 1 with the assumption that Lance will need time to develop before he’s ready to start.

And what about Alabama’s Mac Jones? He has committed to play in the Senior Bowl after the Heisman Trophy finalist led the Crimson Tide to a national title.

Was he a product of Bama’s monstrous offensive skill — or could he be a legitimate NFL passer?

Could Alabama quarterback Mac Jones be a first-round lock now? (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Could Alabama quarterback Mac Jones be a first-round lock now? (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

“Watching them, you’re trying to separate the system from the players — especially quarterback,” a veteran NFL national scout told Yahoo Sports. “I don’t see it with Mac. I don’t buy it. I mean, give the kid credit: He delivered. But you hear people saying things like, ‘What did we miss with Josh Allen in college?’ My question with [QB prospects] would be, ‘what traits can improve and which ones are … immutable, I guess?’

“Those are the things to me with Mac. OK, he’s accurate, he makes good decisions. But he’s a suspect athlete. The arm isn’t that great. Outside of structure he’s going to struggle. And I can only give so much credit for [him] finding DeVonta Smith matched up against [Ohio State LB] Tuf Borland, you know? With a safety going to the other side. What the [heck] was that?”

Even with some evaluators unsure about Jones in an era when dual-threat quarterbacks are the soup du jour, Jones will have an excellent opportunity to win over teams next week at the Senior Bowl.

Justin Herbert won over teams with his play and Jordan Love solidified his standing there last year. Daniel Jones did the same in 2019 in the eyes of the Giants. Baker Mayfield and Josh Allen won over onlookers during the 2018. It’s an annual stage of the postseason cycle that can vault quarterbacks more so than at any other event prior to the draft.

And Jones will be coached by the staff of the Panthers, who pick No. 8 overall and most certainly will be on the lookout for competition for Bridgewater. Could Mac Jones win over Matt Rhule and his staff in Mobile? The eighth pick feels lofty for the Bama QB, but then again so did the other Jones (Daniel) when the Giants took him sixth overall in 2019.

Quarterbacks are more often overdrafted than any other position. This offseason’s expected game of QB musical chairs could leave a lot of teams in the draft — especially those picking high — diving for a place to sit come April if they don’t find the right veterans to take those spots first.

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