You’ve heard the label before, the NFL is a “quarterback league.” Well, yeah … and it seems more than ever that football is a “quarterback sport.”
The 2021 draft will almost certainly be the fourth consecutive “Player Selection Meeting” to have a QB selected No. 1 overall. In the past 20 drafts, a passer has come off the board first 15 times.
Yet the volume has gone up another notch in recent years, especially as teams become more willing to quickly take a mulligan on a first-round QB misfire – Josh Rosen and Dwayne Haskins being examples. In the last last three drafts alone, 12 quarterbacks have gone in Round 1 – Rosen (2018) and Haskins (2019) among that group – and at least five will undoubtedly swell that figure this year.
“As always, there are some interesting players,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Thursday.
“It’s an interesting class. It’s an interesting group of guys. Some are very strong in some skills. Some seem very strong in other skills.”
It’s a stone cold lock that the three teams atop the 2021 draft board – the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers, in that order – will be selecting a signal caller, the Jags universally expected to call the name of Clemson star Trevor Lawrence and the NYJ widely linked to BYU’s Zach Wilson.
But beyond that?
In this day and age, you never know when teams like the Raiders or Vikings might go the route the Packers did in 2020 and preemptively lay the groundwork to replace an established veteran by targeting a quarterback early.
But discounting such surprise moves, I’ve identified 11 teams (listed with their top pick in 2021) that could be in the draft market for a passing prospect early:
1. Atlanta Falcons, No. 4
They may be the most fascinating team in the draft, seemingly positioned to select the top non-QB prospect, trade what’s shaping as a very valuable pick or target a successor for former league MVP Matt Ryan, who will be 36 next month. If the Falcons choose the latter option, they’d likely select either Ohio State’s Justin Fields, who grew up on the outskirts of Atlanta, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance – both players are far superior athletes to Ryan – or Alabama’s Mac Jones, who’s often compared to Ryan.
“We want to stack good quarterbacks. It’s a prime time to do it when you have a player like Matt Ryan because when you can get in the right quarterback, you don’t have that pressure to play him right away,” new Falcons GM Terry Fontenot told the team’s website. “It just opens up so many possibilities.”
2. Detroit Lions, No. 7
After Detroit acquired Jared Goff as part of its megadeal with the Los Angeles Rams involving Matthew Stafford, it seems likely he’ll at least get the opportunity to reboot his career in Motown as the Lions reset. But even though new head coach Dan Campbell has admitted the team is building with an eye toward 2022 or 2023, Detroit’s new brain trust, which includes GM Brad Holmes, probably has to at least consider a talent like Fields or Lance as a redshirt candidate behind Goff.
3. Carolina Panthers, No. 8
Even after acquiring Sam Darnold from the Jets, coach Matt Rhule admitted Carolina will “continue to look” at passers in the draft. For a team that struck out on Stafford and apparently coveted the Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson before his legal issues surfaced, it stands to reason that a young veteran like Darnold will get a year or two to get his once-promising career on track. But the Panthers could always pivot if a passer they really like falls to them given they’re not yet financially wed to Darnold beyond 2021.
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4. Denver Broncos, No. 9
Drew Lock, a second-rounder two years ago, has been a decidedly mixed bag – the mix taking a largely ugly flavor in 2020 when Lock tied for the league lead with 15 interceptions for a 5-11 team. It wouldn’t be a shock if one of this year’s top QBs fell into Denver’s reach, but it’s certainly worth wondering how aggressive new GM George Paton might be trying to solve a predicament his boss (and predecessor) John Elway never figured out post-Peyton Manning.
5. New England Patriots, No. 15
Cam Newton’s return for the 2021 season hardly signals long-term stability more than a year after Tom Brady’s departure. Yet the bigger question here might be philosophical: Do the Pats want to evolve into the type of offense suited for a player with Newton’s skill set, do they prefer the system Brady ran so effectively for two decades, or do Belichick and OC Josh McDaniels covet a hybrid approach? “You’re looking for a player that will fit your style, or maybe you want to adapt your style to that player,” said Belichick, giving nothing away.
But the answer could be revealed if New England throws its hat into the quarterback ring, and if it targets a multi-dimensional player like Fields, Lance or Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond or a pocket-based passer – albeit a more athletic one than TB12 – such as Jones or Stanford’s Davis Mills. Mond and Mills are likely to be available in Round 2, when the Patriots pick 46th.
6. Washington Football Team, No. 19
As dominant as the defense projects, Washington could certainly defend its NFC East crown with some combination of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Taylor Heinicke or Kyle Allen under center. But coach Ron Rivera won’t name a starter until later this year for a team that’s very likely to remain on the lookout for another option. Vaulting up from No. 19 doesn’t seem especially likely, but with two third-round picks at the WFT’s disposal, coming up from No. 51 in Round 2 for Mills, Mond or Florida’s Kyle Trask could be more feasible.
7. Chicago Bears, No. 20
Though they’ve apparently settled on Andy Dalton as QB1 for 2021, 2022 and beyond remain a mystery. Chicago’s situation seems to largely parallel Washington’s … though the Bears don’t have an extra third-rounder (or even one fourth-) to come up to get one of the second-tier passers.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers, No. 24
The reigning AFC North champions will probably run it back with Ben Roethlisberger for the final time in 2021. Given the hits Pittsburgh’s defense, backfield and O-line have taken this offseason, hard to imagine the Steelers being QB-focused on Day 1. And even if Big Ben falters, the team would probably be best served to determine if Mason Rudolph or Dwayne Haskins is equipped to take the reins in 2022. Still, if the right prospect is staring at Mike Tomlin and GM Kevin Colbert at No. 24 or 55, they’d obviously to give it strong consideration. Trask’s size (6-5, 240) might draw a loose comparison to Roethlisberger, but he doesn’t have the arm talent or elusiveness Big Ben did in his prime.
9. New Orleans Saints, No. 28
Drew Brees is gone. Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill, neither signed beyond 2021, don’t have long to entrench themselves as the heir apparent. Their battle for the job promises to be the focus for a team seeking a fifth consecutive division title. And yet, given Sean Payton’s familiarity with both players – and the fact that New Orleans’ roster is in relatively good shape overall – it wouldn’t be a shock if the Saints, who also pick 60th and own a pair of third-rounders, take a hard look at Mills or Mond.
10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, No. 32
With their roster returning virtually intact, the defending Super Bowl champions are in an enviable position. Obviously built to win now but with no glaring personnel shortfalls, the draft should afford them luxurious options. One might be taking a quarterback even though Brady is under contract for two more seasons. Still, this could be a unique chance to get a diamond in the rough like Mills under contract, potentially for five years if the Bucs decided to spend their first-rounder on him. A former five-star recruit who’s battled knee injuries, Mills has better physical tools than TB12 but could really be a steal given the opportunity to apprentice under the GOAT.
11. Seattle Seahawks, No. 56
Russell Wilson isn’t happy with a team that has willingly moved on from disgruntled veterans in recent years. At this point, it seems unlikely Wilson will get dealt in 2021 – especially since a trade would accelerate $39 million in dead money onto Seattle’s salary cap – but that doesn’t mean the Seahawks wouldn’t consider a future replacement, even though they’re not picking until late in Round 2. Even though Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider only have three selections this year, better chance they might get within range of a player like Mills or Mond than, for instance, the Texans, who don’t pick until the third round.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.