NFL Could See Record 5 Quarterbacks Taken in Top 10 of 2021 NFL Draft

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystFebruary 28, 2021

North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance celebrates the touchdown run by Hunter Luepke against Central Arkansas in the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020, in Fargo, N.D. North Dakota State won 39-28. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

There have never been five quarterback prospects selected in the top 10 of any NFL draft. But there's a possibility it will happen this spring because of the caliber of the position class, demand around the league and how future options project.

Some combination of Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State's Justin Fields, BYU's Zach Wilson, North Dakota State's Trey Lance (pictured) and Alabama's Mac Jones will be in play sooner rather than later.

"When those opportunities are there for guys, you just take them because you got them on such a cheap salary and you can [afford to] put weapons around them,'' said Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane, who traded up to select Josh Allen with the seventh overall pick in the 2018 draft, per ESPN's David Newton. "But you can't force it if you're not convinced."

Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian echoed Beane's final point.

"When the quarterbacks are pushed up via noise, via demand, the absolute need to get one, then mistakes happen," the six-time NFL Executive of the Year said. "The failure rate is built into the system because it's judging human beings on potential."

So, the starting point of this year's class revolves around projections for the top five quarterback prospects.

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Lawrence is the presumptive No. 1 overall pick once the Jacksonville Jaguars are officially on the clock. He's considered the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck came into the league nine years ago. His status as a top pick is all but guaranteed.

From there, the order gets interesting.

Lawrence is wrongly referred to as a "generational talent." He's a very good quarterback prospect and worthy of the first selection, but the gap between his skill set and those of the next three options isn't nearly as wide as it's often made out to be.

Yes, Fields struggled in a couple of games this past season. Yet, the overall consistency found in his passing statistics is surprising when compared to the rest of the crop. As Complex Sports' Ian Wharton charted, the Ohio State product's accuracy percentage to all three levels beyond the line of scrimmage was better than Lawrence, Wilson and Lance.

Questions about Fields' supposed inability to work beyond his first read are easily disproven when watching him and understanding what he's asked to do in the Buckeyes' scheme. For two years as a starter, the 21-year-old was one of the college game's most efficient operators with the added element of his athleticism thrown into the mix.

John Bazemore/Associated Press

"[Fields] does everything well and is very consistent. Nice, calm, poised demeanor," an anonymous executive told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. "In my book, that gap between he and Lawrence isn't as big as some think."

Wilson skyrocketed his last year on campus with a 73.5 completion percentage and a 33-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. But his traits may be the most exciting part of his potential. Wilson creates natural velocity from multiple arm angles. The 21-year-old quarterback excels when working off-platform or designed pocket movement. He's also highly intelligent.

"On a football field, he's a guy that could easily be a coach right now," Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake told the New York Post's Steve Serby. "You want a guy to be highly competitive, but not a lot of people are willing to sacrifice and put in the time to prepare like he is."

Lance may be the most intriguing of all because he's only 20 years old yet has the most experience in a traditional pro-style scheme. North Dakota State employs a run-first system with heavy reliance on the play-action passing game. Lance can make all the drops from under center and has the arm talent to deliver to all levels of the field. His athleticism is exceptional, with 1,182 rushing yards during his 18 appearances. Teams will fall in love with the person, too.

A source told ESPN's Louis Riddick that "Trey Lance the young man/student of the game is even more impressive than Trey Lance the athlete." 

Those four feel like locks for the top 10. We've seen four quarterbacks come off the board that early in the past. But wait a minute—Jones just entered the fray. To the Alabama quarterback's credit, he just put together the most efficient season in college football history as the Crimson Tide won yet another national championship.

His progression up draft boards throughout the season and into the offseason remains unabated. Former NFL general manager and ESPN contributor Mike Tannenbaum recently opined that Jones' draft "floor" is the eighth overall pick once the Carolina Panthers are on the board.

The thought makes the entire situation quite intriguing because the run on signal-callers could start much earlier than expected. Quarterback-needy franchises sitting outside this year's top 10 must be getting antsy.

John Bazemore/Associated Press

Again, Lawrence is the favorite to go No. 1 overall, and his status is unlikely to change between now and April 29.

With the second overall pick, the New York Jets have options. General manager Joe Douglas and new head coach Robert Saleh may fall in love with a QB prospect. Maybe the team stands pat with Sam Darnold and drafts the top-rated non-quarterback. A trade down to acquire additional assets is always a possibility. The odds of a quarterback being selected second seem greater than the Jets or another organization passing on the position altogether.

At No. 3, the Miami Dolphins sit in a similar position after drafting Tua Tagovailoa with last year's fifth overall pick. A trade down seems optimal since the Dolphins are on the verge of playoff contention and also own the 18th overall pick. They can still land a top prospect with their initial selection and allow another squad to jump ahead of the Atlanta Falcons, who own the fourth pick.

Atlanta still has Matt Ryan on its roster. But the possibility of the Falcons selecting a successor shouldn't be ruled out since Ryan's salary-cap hit exceeds $40 million for the upcoming season as well as the one after that. The new regime under general manager Terry Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith might want a fresh start. The idea of starting anew after years of disappointment is logical, and Atlanta may not be in the same position to select another top-shelf quarterback prospect for some time.

Realistically, the top four prospects could be off the board with the first four selections, which has never happened.

The Philadelphia Eagles can't be ruled out, either. As a former second-round pick, Jalen Hurts isn't guaranteed anything. He showed promise last year and should have the inside track toward the starting job. However, the Eagles "intend to bring in competition" for Hurts, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen. A veteran may be a better alternative, but investing in a top-10 quarterback should be in the cards depending on who is still available with the sixth overall pick.

With the eighth overall selection, the Panthers are champing at the bit to replace Teddy Bridgewater. Tannenbaum mentioned Jones as a possible fit here for two reasons. As noted, four quarterbacks could easily be off the board before Carolina even gets to choose. Secondly, Panthers head coach Matt Rhule and his staff ran the American team during Senior Bowl week. And who was their top quarterback?

You guessed it.

Rhule showered praise on Jones throughout their time together.  

Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

"The fact that he's here, I think, speaks a lot about who he is," the coach told reporters. "You get a chance to see his intelligence. He makes really quick decisions. He processes information quickly, highly intelligent. He's an alpha. He's the first guy on the practice field. He's the first guy in the runnings.

"He's got a lot of really, really, really strong traits."

More scenarios could develop once the draft actually begins.

The New England Patriots, Washington Football Team, Chicago Bears, Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints own the 15th, 19th, 20th, 24th and 28th overall picks, respectively. Each is in dire need of a young quarterback. An aggressive trade-up (or two) can place them in a position to swipe a preferred prospect.

Future projections will also play a part in this year's evaluation. North Carolina's Sam Howell, USC's Kedon Slovis, Oklahoma's Spencer Rattler and Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder have the potential to develop into top prospects ahead of the 2022 draft, but they've yet to reach said status, unlike Lawrence and Fields a year ago.

Always expect quarterbacks to come off the board sooner rather than later since the value of rookie contracts in regards to overall team building is priceless. It's far better for a team to take its shot and get in early on a young player than it is to miss out completely. Those franchises without a quality starting quarterback are at an automatic disadvantage every time they step on to the field.

History could well be made. Why?

"It's the most important position in any sport," Beane said.

                   

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.