The 26 minutes that rocked the top of the 2021 NFL Draft

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Peter King
·13 min read
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Twenty-six minutes on Friday threw a major changeup into the 2021 NFL Draft.

Friday, 1:04 p.m. ET: Adam Schefter reports Miami traded the third overall pick in the 2021 draft to San Francisco in exchange for the Niners’ first-round picks in 2021 (12th overall), 2022 and 2023, plus a third-round pick in 2022.

Friday, 1:30 p.m. ET: On Twitter, the Eagles report that they traded the sixth overall pick in the 2021 draft to Miami in exchange for the Dolphins 12th pick and Miami’s first-round pick in 2022. (Two other low picks were involved.)

The ramifications/things that hit me over the head in the wake of the two trades:

1) Jimmy Garoppolo will have a chance, it appears, to beat back a challenge from the quarterback San Francisco drafts a month from tonight. The Niners, as of today, do not plan to trade Garoppolo before the season. An offer to blow them away could get Garoppolo—Carolina? New England?—but otherwise, Garoppolo and the new man will be in camp for the Niners in August. The 49ers have played very nice with Garoppolo since the end of the season, with GM John Lynch saying several times Garoppolo is their guy. Well, there’s a cost for going cold down the stretch of the Super Bowl season, and for missing 23 of the 48 regular-season games over the past three years. The cost is drafting a man likely to beat him out. The Niners are no longer willing to let a quarterback injury ruin their season.

It seems stunning to think Alabama’s Mac Jones could be the Niners’ choice—and “could be” is the operative phrase because the Niners have not decided who to choose at three. You can expect Lynch or coach Kyle Shanahan to say that today when they meet with the local press for the first time since January. But Jones is in the mix. Friend-of-Shanahan Chris Simms, an NBC Sports analyst, wasn’t predicting Jones would be the Niners’ guy when we talked Saturday, but he said: “Where Mac fits that offense perfectly is that Kyle will give him one or two clues about what the defense will do on a play, and the results will be top notch for Mac when he executes the play. He has Joe Burrow-type reading of the defense. Plus, other than Zach Wilson, Mac is the best bullseye-thrower in the draft.” If not Jones, my best guess is Trey Lance, athletic and strong-armed, would be the pick here.

Last point regarding the Niners, if they pick Mac Jones: There is a cadre of evaluators who do not think Jones is a great quarterback for 2021 football because he’s not mobile like a Lance or Wilson. Maybe those evaluators are wrong. We’ll find out soon enough. But if San Francisco picks Jones, the upshot will be stark. For a team to spend three first-round picks on Mac Jones will be the story to watch out of the 2021 draft.

2) Dueling Pro Days on Tuesday might provide a clue. For QB-seekers, what to do when the Pro Days of Mac Jones at Alabama and Justin Fields at Ohio State both happen on Tuesday? I hear the Niners will split the baby, with Lynch and Shanahan expected to attend the Jones workout, while assistant GM Adam Peters likely will lead a small delegation in Columbus to scout Fields. Not sure I would infer huge meaning to that, but it could be significant. How I view it: Jones could be the leader, but it’s not over.

3) So what, exactly, motivated San Francisco to pay so exorbitantly, and to do it a month before the draft? I am going to read some tea leaves now, based on knowing the parties involved. Follow the logic:

• Miami GM Chris Grier has proven adept at maximizing compensation for his assets.

• The 49ers were bound and determined to get one of these quarterbacks, and so knew they’d have to trade up to 2, 3 or 4 to do so.

• The fact that Deshaun Watson was not in the trade mix anymore because of the 20 sexual-assualt or sexual-harassment cases pending against him meant that the team or teams that considered Watson an option now wouldn’t be able to deal for him, at this time anyway.

• So a team thought to be very interested in Watson, Carolina, now would have to look elsewhere if determined to upgrade on Teddy Bridgewater in time for the 2021 season.

With all those motivational pieces in place, the Niners likely knew they’d have to overpay to move from 12 to the third overall pick, and the Dolphins just as likely knew that they could push hard for the two future number-one picks. That’s my interpretation of what happened here.

4) The Eagles, suddenly, have quarterback-insurance for the 2022 draft. Philly has two picks (its own and Miami’s) in the first round of 2022, plus the likelihood that the pick from Indianapolis in the Carson Wentz trade will be a first. If Jalen Hurts isn’t The Man in 2021, Philly will have some ammo to move up to get one in 2022. There was a dark cloud over the Eagles after a debacle of a 2020 season, plus the whacking of Doug Peterson and Carson Wentz. You don’t know how this trade works out, of course, but I like this deal for Philadelphia. It leaves the Eagles with a 40 to 50 percent chance, at number 12, to get one of the four top receivers/tight ends in the draft to fill a need for a franchise pass-catcher if that’s how they choose to pick.

This year’s draft, with all the opt-outs and uncertainty after an abridged season and scouting restrictions, is a total crapshoot. Next year’s draft will be a return to normalcy, most likely, and a first-rounder next year should have higher value than a first-rounder this year. The possibility of having three first-round picks in the first potentially normal season and pre-draft season since 2019 could be franchise-changing for the Eagles, who have 20 picks in the next two drafts.

5) That is an amazing, precedent-setting haul for the third pick in the draft. To move down nine spots in the first round, Miami got two future first-round picks and a third-rounder. Consider that, to move down 21 spots (from six to 27) in 2011, Cleveland got a first, a second and two fourth-round picks. Consider that, to move down 17 spots (from 10 to 27) in the first round in 2017, Buffalo got first and third-round picks. Miami got two future ones to move a shorter distance. And that Buffalo trade involved one of the best quarterbacks of this century, Patrick Mahomes, who Kansas City moved up to draft. This Dolphins-Niners trade could have tentacles in this very draft, if . . .

6) I doubt it will happen, but what if the Jets stick with Sam Darnold and auction the second pick? First: I hear Joe Douglas is standing firm and is not interested in trading the second pick. But I believe there could be one team left that is interested in moving up, even at a ridiculous cost. That is Carolina, picking eighth in the first round. The Jets have the second pick, and odds are good that they stay right there and pick BYU quarterback Zach Wilson. So the table has been set now. For someone to move up to get the second pick, even from six picks down, it would cost first-round picks this year plus in 2022 and 2023. Would Carolina be willing to do that? I bet the Panthers, who seem lukewarm on incumbent Teddy Bridgewater and who have an ultra-aggressive owner in David Tepper, would think hard about it. Such a trade with the Panthers would leave the Jets inebriated on first-round draft choices: two this year, three in 2022, two in 2023. I don’t see Douglas doing it, but he just might be tempted.

7) The likeliest bet is New York sitting at two and taking Zach Wilson. After Wilson’s impressive workout Friday in Utah, he asked his inner circle: “So what’s gonna happen now?” No one knows for sure, kid. Also: Disregard what you hear about other staffs or people around the league knowing what the Jets are going to do. The decision-maker on the Jets is GM Joe Douglas, and I hear he’s not parceling out any clues about his preference for the second pick to coaches on his staff or others. Someone close to Douglas said over the weekend Douglas has learned to keep his draft preferences to himself. Wilson’s done what he can to prove he’s worthy of going second overall, an amazing rise considering he was in a three-way battle for the starting job at Brigham Young a year ago.

Last point about the Jets: It’s easy to say—if the Panthers come calling—that trading down from two to eight this year and picking up extra ones in ’22 and ’23 is a no-brainer. Easy, but perhaps painful, if Zach Wilson turns into a star, the quarterback the Jets have been seeking since the days of Willie Joe Namath. And isn’t that the tormenting part of the NFL draft?

8) I like Miami’s first trade, a lot. I believe I understand the second trade. The Miami owner, Stephen Ross, made it job one to get a long-term star quarterback when he took over the team in 2009. That was his mantra for years, and in 2012, he hoped that man would be Ryan Tannehill, picked eighth overall. It didn’t work out. So Miami kept scotch-taping the QB situation until 2020, when it entered the draft with the fifth, 18th and 26th picks in the first round. Miami would have loved to send a package to Cincinnati so the Dolphins could have picked Joe Burrow. The Bengals had no interest. So it came down to Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert at number five, and Miami picked Tua. Looks like the wrong pick now, of course, but there’s time for a course-correction.

At first blush, the second trade seems counter-productive. After the first trade, Miami had two first-round picks in each of the next three drafts. With four top picks in ’22 and ’23, GM Chris Grier would have been in prime position—if Tagovailoa flames out this year—to make a big play for a first-round quarterback next year. But now Grier will likely have only San Francisco’s first-rounder next year, likely to come in the second half of the round, to barter with if the Dolphins again feel a need for a first-round passer.

Regarding the logic of the second trade: It has to come down to one thing. Miami had to have wanted certainty that it could nab one of the four great pass-catchers in this draft—tight end Kyle Pitts or wideouts J’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle or DeVonta Smith. That’s possible at 12. That’s certain at six. And knowing how smart a personnel guy Chris Grier is, it would not surprise me now, knowing he was in position to get a great receiver, if he tried to move one of his wideouts—maybe even DeVante Parker (just 12.6 yards per catch last year, and now 28)—if the compensation was right.

9) There’s a new breed of NFL general manager, and he’s not afraid to make big trades. This is the sixth draft run by Grier. He has already been involved in deals for eight first-round draft picks. Grier also dealt away a first-round safety, Minkah Fitzpatrick, making it, really, nine first-round-involved trades since 2016. He made two of them Friday. I love GMs who believe the draft is a vehicle to get better in all ways and don’t treat first-round picks like untouchables. When I first started covering football in the eighties, GMs were almost irrationally tied to their first-round picks. No more. The free-wheeling Jimmy Johnson started to change that in Dallas, figuring he could always find a draft choice if he really needed one. Now, from Seattle’s John Schneider in the Pacific Northwest, to Grier down in south Florida, from John Lynch and Les Snead out West to Howie Roseman back East, it’s a trader’s game.

10) So how do the big passers stack up now? Trevor Lawrence goes one to Jacksonville. Wilson two, probably to the Jets. Mac Jones or Lance to San Francisco at three. I keep hearing Atlanta’s leaning QB, with logic having Lance sitting behind Matt Ryan for two years, then playing. So let’s say it starts Lawrence-Wilson-Jones-Lance, one through four. I’d guess J’Marr Chase, the LSU receiver, reuniting with Joe Burrow in Cincinnati at five, and then who knows. I’d guess Miami at six would be thrilled with one of the three weapons (Kyle Pitts, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith) on the board. Detroit could go tackle or weapon at seven. And then eight? For now, it’s Carolina. It’s be mock-convenient to slide Justin Fields, the fifth passer in the queue, to the Panthers, but I’m not so sure. Fields has his Pro Day on Tuesday in Columbus. He better hit all the right notes. No idea who’s picking him a month from today.

11) Rich teams, poor teams.

Most picks in the top 50:

Jacksonville: 4 (1, 25, 33, 45)
Miami: 4 (12, 18, 36, 50)

Fewest picks in the top 50:

Houston: 0 (first pick: 67th)
L.A. Rams: 0 (first pick: 57th)
Seattle: 0 (first pick: 56th)

12) Finally: Let’s stop this narrative, “You better get your quarterback this year, because the draft will be lousy at the position next year.” Drives me crazy. Had Joe Burrow been in the 2019 draft, he’d have been a day-three pick; he blew up that fall at LSU and got picked first overall in 2020. Zach Wilson, a year ago today, was a in a three-man competition for the starting job at Brigham Young; now he could be the second overall pick. Mac Jones won the Alabama QB competition last summer and had a great season, vaulting him from draft afterthought into high-first-round position. It’s okay sometimes to say you just don’t know what the future holds in prospect-forecasting, and this year it’s particularly smart.

The 2021 college season is likely to have more players playing full seasons (instead of opting out due to COVID concerns); likely to have regular and significantly more thorough scouting of players with pro scouts back on campuses; likely to have a much clearer picture of who’s actually good entering the 2022 draft. A year ago, not a soul in the Mel Kiper fraternity would have picked Zach Wilson to be a high pick or even a very good college player. So the best thing to do, trying to forecast the 2022 quarterback crop, is to watch the development of Spencer Rattler (Oklahoma), Sam Howell (North Carolina), Bo Nix (Auburn)—and whoever emerges from the scrum of uncelebrated quarterbacks. History tells us we have no clue how quarterbacks will roll off the board 13 months prior to the draft.

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column here.

The 26 minutes that rocked the top of the 2021 NFL Draft originally appeared on NBCSports.com