Biggest Questions That Will Be Answered in the 2021 NFL DraftApril 5, 2021
Biggest Questions That Will Be Answered in the 2021 NFL Draft
The NFL draft isn't the end of the offseason, but it sure feels like it is. Once the event draws to a close, attention turns to rookie minicamps and organized team activities. Basically, roster movement tends to be placed on the back burner.
Maybe a few lingering situations extend well into summer—the Houston Texans' public imbroglio with Deshaun Watson and allegations against the quarterback being chief among those this year.
Others will be put to rest based on how teams approached the draft between April 29 and May 1 in Cleveland.
Free agency sets the stage. Maneuvering at the start of the new league year is merely the first salvo toward piecing together a team's lineup. The draft fleshes out the roster. If a team is going to make a significant move to round out its offseason, since most of the available cash flow has already dried up, it'll be done during the draft.
A few major sticking points will be resoundingly addressed during those seven rounds of action. Six scenarios immediately come to mind.
Where Will QB Sam Darnold Land?
Editor's Note: The New York Jets have reportedly traded Sam Darnold to the Carolina Panthers. According to Jonathan Jones of CBS Sports, Carolina will exercise the fifth-year option on Darnold's rookie contract.
As each day passes, the likelihood of the New York Jets drafting a quarterback, specifically BYU's Zach Wilson, with the second overall pick seems to grow.
"I think he's the smoothest, mechanically sound, just rips the ball all over the place, and it's fun to watch," former NFL quarterback and analyst J.T. O'Sullivan said of Wilson, per the Sacramento Bee's Chris Biderman.
General manager Joe Douglas, head coach Robert Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur all attended BYU's pro day to watch Wilson's throwing session. A bigger indication of the team's intention surfaced when it didn't engage in trade talks with the San Francisco 49ers before they moved into the top three selections, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.
"The Jets have committed to Zach and recruited the family," former NFL and BYU quarterback Steve Young said during an interview on KNBR's Tolbert, Krueger & Brooks podcast.
Once Wilson is in the fold, Douglas' phone should be ringing off the hook from potential suitors who want to acquire previous starting quarterback Sam Darnold.
Darnold, who was the youngest quarterback in the 2018 class, is still just 23 years old. He's been placed in untenable situations and struggled. However, the potential that once made him the third overall pick hasn't disappeared. As such, he should still demand multiple-draft-pick compensation. Maybe he isn't worth a first-rounder anymore, but a couple of Day 2 picks certainly make sense.
Pittsburgh is the ideal landing spot. Darnold can undertake a season of learning from Ben Roethlisberger in a stable environment. The Steelers currently sit on the back end of the first round and likely won't be in a position to draft a legitimate heir apparent. Besides, Darnold is likely better than any prospect the Steelers can get based on where they usually select.
Verdict: Pittsburgh Steelers
Will the Cincinnati Bengals Properly Protect QB Joe Burrow?
Don't do it, Cincinnati Bengals. Don't you pass on the class' top offensive line prospect and fall prey to the siren's song of another wide receiver.
Ja'Marr Chase is exceptional. The LSU wide receiver, who opted out of the 2020 campaign, is clearly top talent in this year's draft class. He's going to make some team very happy. But that team shouldn't be the Bengals.
Cincinnati must build its foundation before it starts adding luxury items.
Defenses harassed and beat up last year's No. 1 overall pick, quarterback Joe Burrow, to the point where his season ended on injured reserve with a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee. When healthy and upright, Burrow showed star potential. He carried the Bengals offense for stretches, and the unit kept the team in games despite a 4-11-1 record.
In free agency, Cincinnati didn't do much to fortify the trenches. The organization signed nine-year veteran Riley Reiff to take over right tackle, but that's it. Reiff presents some positional flexibility. The 32-year-old can slide to guard if Cincinnati does the right thing by drafting a top offensive tackle prospect.
Oregon's Penei Sewell is widely regarded as the draft's best blocker. The 20-year-old dominated as a sophomore and won the Outland Trophy before opting out of the 2020 campaign. The year off shouldn't hurt his draft stock, and Cincinnati is clearly interested in his services.
"Leaving [Friday's] workout, most felt that the Bengals would ultimately draft Sewell," Pro Football Network's Tony Pauline reported. "They were happy with what they saw today, especially offensive line coach Frank Pollack, who coached Sewell during position drills."
Is Jalen Hurts Really the Answer in Philadelphia?
The Philadelphia Eagles don't exactly know what they have in quarterback Jalen Hurts. Conflicting reports have surfaced over the past month regarding the second-year signal-caller's status.
ESPN's Chris Mortensen tweeted that owner "Jeffrey Lurie has instructed his group to prioritize making Hurts successful in 2021 as opposed to creating a true competition."
General manager Howie Roseman denied the report.
A week after Roseman's denial, the Associated Press' Rob Maaddi stated the Eagles "are unsure about Jalen Hurts" with "no consensus in the building" regarding the young quarterback.
However, actions speak louder than words, and the Eagles' recent draft trade leans more toward Lurie's vision of building around Hurts than the alternative.
Philadelphia originally owned this year's sixth overall draft pick. At that slotting, the Eagles would have likely been in a position to draft one of this year's top five quarterback prospects even with three or four expected to come off the board right away.
All five—Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State's Justin Fields, BYU's Zach Wilson, North Dakota State's Trey Lance and Alabama's Mac Jones—are legitimate first-round talents, whereas Hurts fell to last year's 53rd pick. Any one of those could step in and immediately compete with Hurts for the starting job.
Instead, Philadelphia swapped picks with the Miami Dolphins and dropped sixth spots in exchange for a future first-round pick and a fourth-rounder in this year's draft. At 12th overall, the quarterback position is almost assuredly out of play with the scenario of drafting a wide receiver to help in Hurts' development becoming increasingly likely.
Will the Cleveland Browns' Flirtation with Jadeveon Clowney Ever Stop?
The Cleveland Browns' dalliances with Jadeveon Clowney began a year ago when the organization aggressively pursued the edge-defender.
ESPN's Adam Schefter reported (h/t Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith) that Cleveland made the best offer of any team last offseason, but Clowney turned the Browns down. Ultimately, the defender signed with the Tennessee Titans, with whom he underwhelmed and ended yet another season on injured reserve.
Fast-forward a year later and Clowney paid a free-agent visit to Cleveland, but nothing materialized.
The Browns already addressed defensive end with the additions of Takkarist McKinley and versatile veteran Malik Jackson. Yet, the possibility of Clowney still signing, albeit at a significant discount, lingers.
"It's one of those things that the team speaks for itself and what we're trying to build speaks for itself," Jackson told reporters. "If you want to hop on board, come hop on board. I understand the free-agency market isn't probably what he wants, but things are bigger than monetary value and you get a chance to be on a good team and set yourself up in the future."
Cleveland's front office can't make a big-money offer at this stage of the game. The team sits $13.3 million under the salary cap (and likely less since details of Jackson's signing haven't emerged) with the incoming rookie class yet to factor into the equation.
Yes, the thought of Clowney's raw ability playing opposite Myles Garrett remains tantalizing. But unless the 2014 No. 1 overall pick is willing to take a short-term, prove-it deal to play for an emerging contender, a signing isn't likely to occur.
Instead, the Browns will almost certainly add another pass-rusher via the draft and could realistically address the position with this year's 26th overall pick.
Will Green Bay Packers Finally Add a First-Round Weapon Around Aaron Rodgers?
The Green Bay Packers' unwillingness to surround MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers with significant first-round talent at the skill positions is nothing short of mind-boggling.
Sure, the team's wide receivers beyond Davante Adams performed above expectations last season. But the whole goal is to expand the unit's capabilities and give one of the game's all-time greats enough weaponry to win Super Bowls. The Packers fell short of that goal last season once again.
A year ago, general manager Brian Gutekunst rationalized his decision to skip the wide receiver position despite being one of the deepest classes in history.
"Just didn't work out that we weren't able to select some of the guys that we had rated really highly," Gutekunst told reporters once the 2020 draft ended. "And once we got to the middle, and towards the end of the draft, I just didn't think there was a great opportunity to add a player that was going to make an impact on our roster this year. You guys know how hard it is for young players at that position to make an impact early."
The general manager's final statement about not making an early impact is a flimsy excuse. Jordan Jefferson, Brandon Aiyuk, Tee Higgins, Michael Pittman Jr. and Chase Claypool all impacted their respective offenses in their first season. Now a year later, the Packers remain in the same position with another deep and tempting wide receiver class about to enter the professional ranks.
At this point, there's no reason to expect Gutekunst to take a different approach while cornerback is a bigger concern.
"We are looking for some of those young players to take a jump. We're going to need them to," Gutekunst told reporters. "But at the same time, I do think that's an area that's important for us to address moving forward."
Green Bay's front office understands a quality wide receiver prospect can be had later in the process if it's actually willing to pull the trigger on one.
Is Russell Wilson Going Anywhere?
Russell Wilson doesn't want to leave the Seattle Seahawks, but he would consider a trade to four destinations in the Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints, Las Vegas Raiders and Chicago Bears, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Maybe the one-time MVP front-runner would like to backdoor his way into playing for another franchise instead of outright demanding a deal be made. Either way, the comments opened up Pandora's box.
"It's a great story," a coach from another team told The Athletic. "There is a lot there—money, greed, power and control."
Of the teams mentioned, the Bears are the most desperate to make the type of deal necessary for the Seahawks to even consider moving their franchise quarterback. The Cowboys already re-upped with Dak Prescott. The Saints work magic with the salary cap, but taking on Wilson's $19 million base salary might be a bridge too far. Jon Gruden and the Raiders are a wild card, but they always seem like they're looking at other options before settling on Derek Carr once again.
The Bears, meanwhile, are prepared to enter the upcoming season with Andy Dalton as their starting quarterback.
"I've been told ... Russell Wilson being traded from Seattle is not dead yet," ESPN's Chris Mortensen said (h/t NBC Sports Chicago's Michael Allardyce). "And Chicago and the Seahawks had the most heated talks going up to and then it kinda fell apart and cooled off.
"We are told it can heat up again."
The Bears own this year's 20th overall pick. If Chicago makes a selection, nothing is going to happen on that front, because Seattle isn't going to go into a season without a legitimate starting option. Either a deal occurs before or during the draft or not at all. The latter is the most likely outcome.