2021 Draft QB Class Has NFL Teams Thinking About Losing in the 2020 Season

Matt Miller@nfldraftscoutNFL Draft Lead WriterSeptember 22, 2020

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence celebrates after scoring during the first half of a NCAA College Football Playoff national championship game against LSU Monday, Jan. 13, 2020, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

Some teams acquire their franchise quarterbacks through luck, and solid draft scouting—such as the New England Patriots with Tom Brady or the Seattle Seahawks with Russell Wilson. Other teams make moves in free agency (Drew Brees). Rarely are starting-level quarterbacks acquired via trade.

Then there's the draft, where quarterback dreams are most common. Teams will go to untold lengths to find and acquire a young franchise quarterback—so much so that some fans and media members will believe a team is intentionally losing to "earn" the worst record in the league and a chance at the No. 1 pick.

Tanking, as this is called, has long been rumored in the NFL, but it's never been executed well. The New York Jets were rumored to be tanking in 2017 but won five games and finished with the No. 6 overall selection before trading up to No. 3 overall.

As recently as last season, the 2019 Miami Dolphins were considered a tank job, but that team went on to win five games and earn the No. 5 pick.

Most observers would have pointed at the Jacksonville Jaguars as a team tanking for the top pick in the 2021 draft and a chance at a quarterback class that is expected to feature three surefire top-10 picks and another who could crash the top 15.

Gardner Minshew was a sixth-round pick in 2019.
Gardner Minshew was a sixth-round pick in 2019.Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press/Associated Press
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But the 1-1 Jaguars have looked good thanks in large part to the fiery, productive play of quarterback Gardner Minshew. Like others before them, they may have lucked into a signal-caller and removed themselves from quarterback contention.

So, if not the Jaguars tanking for Trevor Lawrence, Trey Lance or Justin Fields, which NFL team is in a position to land the college stars? And which quarterback is worth drafting first?

Let's get to know the quarterbacks.

From the time he took the starting job from Kelly Bryant during the 2018 season, Lawrence has been billed as a future franchise quarterback. And for good reason. Not only did he take the job from Bryant—who had just led Clemson to a No. 1 ranking in the College Football Playoff and a 12-win season—but he pushed Bryant out of town, as the former starter sat out the rest of the season before transferring to Missouri.

Lawrence is as accomplished as advertised with a 6'6", 220-pound frame that features awesome athleticism, good arm strength and a poise that belongs with a 10-year veteran instead of a third-year player.

It's not just the height, athleticism and right arm that has NFL teams salivating, though. As noted quarterback coach Jordan Palmer put it, it's about something he calls "franchise quarterback exposure."

"I think the biggest thing is exposure," he said. "There is a lot of newness in your entire life when you are drafted high. Coverages, protections and playbooks are one part of it, but no longer being a student, and now you're making millions of dollars. It's all new. When you have a lot of reps at stuff that carries over to that, it's valuable. Trevor has that. He went through Elite 11 at 16 and 17 years old. And since then people have been dying to see him screw up; he's had a target on his back since 16. Then you go to Clemson, and you go to a natty and win it. But the media pressure around all that—those are really valuable reps. It's no guarantee for success, but you'd rather have those reps than not when you enter."

It's the off-field maturity and poise that are as exciting as the on-field greatness.

His peers in the top tier of the 2021 quarterback class all carry similar traits, and Palmer sees all three as being able to be successful early in the NFL.


"They're all in this category because all three physically are what you're looking for," he continued. "All three, how they throw the ball, they're what you're looking for. Stature, arm talent, the way they've handled their big moments is what you're looking for when you take somebody high. This draft more than any other, the top three guys are going to be closer in order and be more specific fits to what teams want.

Physically, they can all move. They can throw—the way they throw is what you're looking for. The way they handle those moments is what you're looking for."

Trey Lance of North Dakota State is not playing in 2020, as his program postponed the season.
Trey Lance of North Dakota State is not playing in 2020, as his program postponed the season.Sam Hodde/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

North Dakota State's Trey Lance hasn't been mic'd up on ESPN or featured at the Heisman ceremony yet, but he's owned his big moments in leading the Bison to a national championship at the FCS level in 2019.

A redshirt sophomore hiding in Fargo, North Dakota, might not seem like a franchise savior, but in Lance's first full season, he torched the competition with 42 touchdowns (28 passing, 14 rushing) and no interceptions.

An athletic mover with a big arm and exceptional field vision, Lance has already been compared by one area scout we spoke with to Deshaun Watson.

Then there's Justin Fields.

Justin Fields and Ohio State will first take the field Oct. 24 versus Nebraska.
Justin Fields and Ohio State will first take the field Oct. 24 versus Nebraska.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press/Associated Press

Rarely do debut seasons look like Fields' did in 2019 when he tossed 41 touchdowns to just three interceptions in a Heisman finalist campaign. Now with the Big Ten returning for a truncated season, Fields has a chance to take home postseason hardware and boost his draft stock.

Each quarterback has the tools on and off the field that teams fall in love with, but is it enough to convince teams to change their current quarterback plan?

"When I talk to teams to get a feel for the quarterback market, the most common team mentioned as needing a quarterback is Pittsburgh," one top agent who represents multiple quarterbacks each draft class said. "There is a very strong belief that they add a Round 1 quarterback and would be willing to trade up to get one."

The Steelers trading up might seem out of character, but it's something the team did in the 2019 draft to acquire linebacker Devin Bush 10th overall. That trade cost Pittsburgh its first- and second-round picks in that draft plus a future third-rounder, and while the cost could be expected to be higher for a quarterback trade, it's within the realm of possibility that the Steelers could trade up should Lance or Fields slip outside the top five.

Another team often mentioned is the Jaguars. But speaking off the record, one NFL quarterback coach said he doesn't think they would move on from Minshew with how well he's playing. That's the same opinion generated after watching the tape of Minshew's two games in 2020. He's good enough to win with, and he's also cheap.

That model of winning with a quarterback on a rookie contract is commonplace in the NFL right now, and as a sixth-round pick, he is even cheaper than most at under $900,000 for this year and next, with the team able to keep him under his rookie contract until after the 2022 season.

The Indianapolis Colts are another team that could be eyeing an early quarterback selection, according to NFL front-office members. Philip Rivers is 38 and only signed for this season. Even with Jacoby Brissett (a free agent after this season) and 2020 fourth-round pick Jacob Eason on the roster, general manager Chris Ballard could look at his well-built roster and conclude it is a dynamic young player like Trey Lance away from the AFC South title.

Sean Payton and the Saints could be a wild card in the 2021 QB chase.
Sean Payton and the Saints could be a wild card in the 2021 QB chase.Gerald Herbert/Associated Press/Associated Press

It will be no surprise if the New Orleans Saints are involved in the quarterback class early given Drew Brees' age (41), contract ($25 million next season) and diminishing arm talent. This is another team that recently traded a future first-rounder to move up to select edge-rusher Marcus Davenport, so we could see Sean Payton mortgage the future a little on a talented roster to land a premium passer.

There will be some surprises if the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets move on from top-three selections in the 2018 draft—Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold, respectively—but both could happen, as the teams must make decisions on the quarterbacks' fifth-year options following this season. While many NFL coaches would be lining up to work with Mayfield and Darnold should they be moved, the Jets and Browns could still be in a position to evaluate the 2021 quarterback class against their current players.

And finally, there are the Carolina Panthers. Teddy Bridgewater hasn't looked comfortable yet in a new offensive scheme with Matt Rhule and Joe Brady signing him as their starting quarterback. It's easy to imagine the two former college coaches would want more mobility and big-play potential from the position than the steady, conservative production Bridgewater offers.

Brady had an up-close look at Lawrence in the 2020 college football national title game. Could the potential of bringing the pride of South Carolina north to the border of the Carolinas be enough for owner David Tepper to sign off on an expensive move of Bridgewater to the bench? I think so.

One thing is for sure: the 2021 quarterback class is talented enough that three teams will land bona fide franchise candidates. Making the right move to acquire them is the key.

     

Matt Miller covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report.