Before the NFL playoffs had even had a chance to reach their conclusion, the drama behind center started. Philip Rivers retired. Deshaun Watson declared a lack of love for Houston. Matthew Stafford and the Lions agreed on a divorce. And the Eagles hired a new boss they hoped would be able to help Carson Wentz become a star again — and then a quarterback coach with ties to his backup.
It was just another offseason for the NFL’s quarterbacks, who attract more attention than any other collection of athletes in professional sports. It makes sense, since they play the most important position in the game, and their comings and goings, contract dealings and storylines are covered with greater intensity than even a Kardashian divorce.
The one constant throughout the NFL is that there are never enough quarterbacks. With as many as three passers on each of 32 teams, that’s a lot of arms. And if we are being honest here, there aren’t even 20 top-shelf QBs throughout the league. That’s why, every time the NFL Draft comes around, analysts, fans and teams become enamored of the prospects entering the league. Even if they aren’t ideal, they represent hope for franchises that can’t succeed without strong quarterback play.
As the 2021 draft nears, people will be paying much more attention to the crop of passers than they will the collection of edge rushers or offensive linemen, simply because of the importance of the position. It’s a fait accompli that Jacksonville is going to select Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, enraging Jets fans who can’t believe their squad won two meaningless games late in the season. After that, however, there is plenty of speculation about a handful of quarterbacks who could go early. “This is a really interesting class,” says Dane Brugler, NFL Draft analyst for The Athletic. “There are four guys at the top, and a fifth if you include [Alabama’s] Mac Jones. There is one guy at the top, Trevor Lawrence, who is the clear favorite, and then there is a debate.”
Ohio State’s Justin Fields, BYU’s Zach Wilson, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, Jones and even Stanford’s Davis Mills and Florida’s Kyle Trask could be selected early. Each performed well in college, but each brings questions that will give teams pause when committing to one as a high draft pick.
But since the NFL values the QB position so highly, and teams with needs at the position can talk themselves into almost anything when rolling the dice on a quarterback, each draft class creates its own unique drama.
Here’s a breakdown of the best of what this year has to offer.
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The Sure Thing – Trevor Lawrence
When Lawrence led Clemson to the 2018 College Football Playoff national title as a freshman, most experts felt he would have been the first overall pick in the draft at that moment. But he wouldn’t be draft-eligible for another two years, so the NFL would have to wait.
In many instances, that extra time on campus would give scouts and personnel execs the opportunity to nitpick and find reasons to knock him back in the prospect hierarchy while giving other quarterbacks the opportunity to supplant him. None of that happened. Lawrence would have been the top pick two years ago and last year. He will be first overall this year, too.
The 6'6", 220-pound Lawrence has just about everything a great QB needs. He can make all the throws, runs well, has demonstrated strong decision-making ability and is a fine leader. He is coachable and has an impeccable off-field resume, so he will be a strong out-front personality for a franchise.
“There’s nothing he didn’t do,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper says. “As a freshman, he won the national championship. This year, he was playing with four new offensive line starters and had lost [wideout] Tee Higgins. He’s got everything you want to see in a big-time, franchise quarterback. By September, the quarterback group was him and everybody else.”
Despite playing with a different supporting cast and missing two games due to a positive COVID-19 test, Lawrence had his best statistical season, establishing highs for completion percentage (69.2), yards per attempt (9.4), and passer rating (169.2). In 10 games, he threw for 3,153 yards, 24 touchdowns and five interceptions. And though the Tigers lost in the CFP semifinals to Ohio State, Lawrence still threw for 400 yards and two scores and added a rushing TD in that game. Of course, he isn’t perfect, but he’s clearly the top of this class, and few can deny that he is a tremendous prospect.
Brugler notes that Lawrence could stand to work on his timing and patience, but there’s still no doubt where he sits on analysts’ boards.
“There aren’t guys like him that are going to come around every day,” Brugler says. “He has size, mobility, arm talent and processing ability. His ceiling is so high. He still needs to work on how he uses eyes, and he sometimes telegraphs his passes, but he plays so fast with the way he sees things.”
A Disappointing Encore – Justin Fields
If Fields could have left school after the 2019 season, he might have had a higher draft spot than he will this season. He certainly played well, but he had a few stumbles, especially against the better teams on the Buckeyes’ schedule. Granted, he was hurt against Alabama (hip), and he didn’t have his best receiver (Chris Olave) against Northwestern, but Fields did little to enhance his already-lofty stock.
He completed just 18-of-30 passes against Indiana and tossed three picks. He had a near-flawless performance vs. Clemson in the semifinals, but in the national title loss to the Crimson Tide, Fields was a pedestrian 17-of-33 for 194 yards. Some might wonder whether he is a product of OSU head coach Ryan Day’s fertile offensive mind or if he is capable of being a full-fledged NFL standout early in his career.
“I see the guy as a developmental quarterback,” says veteran personnel evaluator Dan Shonka, director of scouting for Ourlads and director of player personnel for the East-West Shrine Bowl. “It really depends on his future destination. If he goes to a poor organization, all bets are off.”
It’s not as if Fields is destined for third-string status. He has a good arm and solid size (6'3", 228). In 2019, his first as a starter at Ohio State, Fields became the first Big Ten player with 40-plus passing TDs and 10-plus rushing scores. In 2020, Fields completed 70.2 percent of his throws and had a career-best 9.3 yards per attempt. He is an extremely dangerous runner and can get the ball downfield. However, given his more uneven performance and the problems the Buckeyes faced due to the pandemic — postponed games, lack of continuity — it might have been better for him if he had played one more year in Columbus, especially to improve his reading of defenses and to understand how things change after the ball is snapped.
“When I looked at him in 2019, I saw everything a quarterback needs,” Kiper says. “He made all the throws, stayed away from poor decisions, didn’t fumble, made big plays and did a good job of taking what the defense gave him.
“This year, he seemed like a different quarterback.”
Mr. Unpredictable – Zach Wilson
It sure was a lot of fun watching Wilson run all over fields in 2020, tossing improbable strikes and tormenting defenses with his combination of excellent mobility, strong arm and big, ahem, courage. The BYU junior came into the season with little fanfare because of an injury-plagued 2019 campaign, but he was sure effective and exciting.
“His ability to create off-platform was amazing,” Brugler says. “You need that in the NFL. He’s accurate, and he has a whip for an arm. His ball placement and creativity can get you excited.”
Wilson completed 73.5 percent of his throws in 2020 for 3,692 yards, with 33 touchdowns and only three picks. He rushed for 10 more scores. Wilson put up 400 passing yards and four TDs against Houston and was practically infallible in the bowl win over UCF, throwing for 425 yards and three scores and running twice for touchdowns. He has added weight and strength since his freshman season and could add some more bulk to his 6'3" frame.
The scouts’ biggest problem with Wilson has nothing to do with his size or productivity. It’s the competition. And that makes rating him as difficult as it was for opposing defenses to handle him. The Cougars played a collection of second-tier foes in ’20, and though they beat Boise State and UCF, Wilson was hardly tested by the nation’s best.
“Zach played against non-Power 5, smaller schools,” Shonka says. “He was spectacular, but he wasn’t playing against future NFL corners. He’s got talent, sees the field well and is a tough kid, but I haven’t seen him do it against good competition.”
The Mystery Man – Trey Lance
When North Dakota State decided to play a spring season and take on just one opponent in the fall of ’20 — Central Arkansas — those charged with trying to evaluate Bison passer Lance could not have been happy. His 17 career starts do not comprise a large sample size, and the fact that all of them came against FCS competition is not too helpful, either.
Lance has plenty of what NFL teams want, like good size (6'3", 225), outstanding mobility, a strong arm, great leadership skills and a tremendous work ethic. However, making the jump from FCS to the NFL after only one full season of action will be a challenge.
“Trey Lance is incredibly talented,” Brugler says. “I have never seen anything like him. But we’ve never seen a redshirt sophomore come from FCS into the NFL. Steve McNair played four years. Carson Wentz played in the Senior Bowl. Lance is so young, and there is so much he doesn’t know.
“But he has a live arm, good size and athleticism. His physical tools are outstanding. When you talk to his teammates, they tell you he’s the hardest worker on the team. There’s a lot there.”
There is also the fact that Lance played in an offense that featured the run heavily in 2019. He averaged just 17.9 pass attempts per game, hardly a robust body of work. He didn’t throw a pick, and he completed 66.9 percent of his attempts. In the 2020 win over Central Arkansas, he completed just 15-of-30 passes, although he did run for 143 yards and score twice. It will not be easy for teams to determine whether he is worthy of a first-round grade or if Lance is someone who is destined for backup work.
“He’s the hardest player to evaluate in this draft,” Kiper says. “I would have gone to Texas, Notre Dame or Ohio State for a year, like Russell Wilson did when he went to Wisconsin.
“Having only 17 career starts makes him risky.”
Best Supporting Actor – Mac Jones
When Jones took over at quarterback in 2019 for Alabama, people used the terms “caretaker” and “game manager” to describe him. And though he completed 68.8 percent of his throws and had 14 TD passes against just three picks, it was hard to see him as anything else. He certainly wasn’t considered first-round material.
Well, look at Jones now. After one of the most productive QB seasons in recent history — non-Air Raid department — he is being considered as one of the top 32. Even though, like Lance, he had only 17 starts, Jones led the Tide to the 2020 CFP title. He completed an astounding 77.4 percent of his passes for 4,500 yards, 41 TDs and just four interceptions. At times, he seemed infallible.
“It wasn’t just the line and the running backs and receivers he had; it was also the play-calling,” Brugler says. “What [offensive coordinator] Steve Sarkisian did was outstanding. It got him the head coaching job at Texas. Jones is difficult to evaluate because of what was around him.”
Running back Najee Harris, Heisman Trophy-winning wideout DeVonta Smith and a Berlin Wall-esque O-line made Jones’ job a lot easier and evaluators’ jobs much harder. Is he the product of a remarkable system, engineered by Sarkisian and populated with five-star talents, or does he have the talent necessary to be an NFL starter, no matter how good the people surrounding him are?
At 6'3", 214, Jones has good enough size, and his arm is solid. However, he doesn’t have great mobility, and those comparing him to LSU’s Joe Burrow must recognize that. Jones doesn’t take unnecessary risks and can get the ball downfield. Of course, it was easy to do all that with so many great targets running free. Shonka looks at him as a backup who can help out when the main man gets hurt. Kiper thinks New England could choose him at No. 15 in the first round. Brugler believes he could “sneak” into the end of the first.
“He bides his time well and slips and slides in the pocket, but very rarely can he pick up a first down running,” Kiper says. “He is accurate and makes good decisions, but he didn’t have a lot of starts.”
Early Arrival – Davis Mills
Because Mills wasn’t the full-time starter for Stanford in 2019, and because a COVID-19 testing error prevented him from playing the full (such as it was in the Pac-12) 2020 campaign, Mills does not have a robust resume for NFL evaluators to review.
In five starts in 2020, he connected on 66.2 percent of his throws (he completed 65.6 percent in 2019) for 1,504 yards, seven TDs and three interceptions. Mills has good size (6'4", 220) and mobility, as evidenced by his three rushing scores in ’20. However, with just 14 games comprising his career, he is something of a mystery. There are many who believe he would have been wise to have returned to the Farm for one more season, but Mills trusts his arm, instincts and ability to extend plays. It will be interesting to see if the league has the same level of belief. He’s a wild card and possible fast riser.
Patience is a Virtue – Kyle Trask
When Trask was in high school, he was a backup — to former Houston and current Miami passer D’Eriq King — so it’s not as if Florida heralded his arrival on campus. He redshirted 2016, was injured in ’17 and threw only 22 passes the following season. When Trask did get the starting gig, as a redshirt junior, he looked pretty good (66.9 percent completion success, 25 TDs, seven interceptions).
But 2020 brought his real breakthrough season, and it started in his first game, when Trask threw for 416 yards and six scores with no interceptions against Ole Miss.
He finished the year having connected on 68.9 percent of his throws, with 43 TD passes and just eight picks. He grew steadily, helped the Gators to the SEC East title and looked darn good in the championship game shootout loss to Alabama. Still, he is looked at as a developmental player who has substantial work to complete in order to become an NFL starter.
“He’s a classic example of a guy you want to go to a team with a good quarterback ahead of him,” Shonka says. “He’s still a puppy and has a lot ahead of him. He’s a big, strong guy and has some mobility. He’s smart, and he learned the same offense Dak Prescott ran in college. But he’s not the athlete Dak was.”
While Shonka believes a couple seasons watching and learning will benefit Trask, Brugler doesn’t have the same optimism about his ultimate NFL destiny.
“He’s a Mason Rudolph clone,” he says, referring to the Steelers’ second-stringer. “He’s good enough to be a backup. He has good size, good touch and good timing. But it will be an uphill climb for him to be a starting quarterback. He can help out as a backup, but he’s not a top-50 player in this draft.”
— Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon Sports' 2021 NFL Draft Guide
(Top photo courtesy of BYU Athletics)