NFL Teams Who Can't Afford to Blow It in the 2021 NFL Draft
Some NFL teams just have more to lose in the 2021 draft.
This naturally applies to teams higher in the order, but it's especially the case for clubs that have positioned this as a franchise-altering draft. Squads that traded up, organizations that could still make a big splash with a swap and those that are in play for a quarterback have more at stake.
The same doesn't apply to contenders much farther down the draft order that have used previous drafts and free agency to bolster their rosters—the need for a splash isn't as great. Making the right moves would keep their windows open, but for teams without a window even cracked, the wrong move in the top 10 would be crushing.
The following teams can't afford a misstep. The draft is a minefield, so the wrong move could mean long-term issues and picking from a similar position next year instead of making progress.
New York Jets
Unlike the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have the No. 1 pick, the New York Jets will have to settle for a quarterback at No. 2.
That means going with BYU's Zach Wilson, Ohio State's Justin Fields or North Dakota State's Trey Lance—and the Jets don't need to be told the wrong move could set them back for a long, long time.
New York is the perfect example, after all. The franchise made Sam Darnold the third pick in 2018, but he completed just 59.8 percent of his passes with 45 touchdowns and 39 interceptions. The Jets pulled the plug this offseason, trading him to the Carolina Panthers to help signal a franchise reset.
This is their first draft under new head coach Robert Saleh, the latest leader tasked with turning around a franchise that has one winning season since 2010. New York also holds the 23rd pick and three others in the top 90 plus the second-most cap space in the league ($28.3 million).
While a dramatic rebuild is a process, this one will hinge on whether the Jets get the right quarterback at No. 2. If not, Saleh's defensive prowess will carry them only so far.
San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers are a poster boy for this topic.
Forgoing the usual process that saves trades for during the draft, the 49ers leapt from No. 12 to No. 3 via a deal with the Miami Dolphins. To make such a dramatic move, San Francisco leveraged its future by giving up a first-rounder in 2022, another in 2023 and a third-rounder in 2022.
So, it's now or never at quarterback.
Understandably. Jimmy Garoppolo has played six, three, 16 and six games in four seasons with the team and inked a five-year pact worth $137.5 million in February 2018. He has the Niners' highest cap hit ($26.4 million) this season, but the contract is escapable for the first time this year with just $2.8 million in dead cash.
San Francisco is desperate to get back to relevancy, and that will hinge on the third pick. The team had an anomalous 13-win season with a Super Bowl trip in 2019, but that was the only time it has landed above .500 since 2013. The 49ers have a strong defense for the time being, but the wrong move at quarterback will result in spinning wheels for two to four years. A rebuild instead of contention could be at stake.
Last year, the Cincinnati Bengals couldn't miss at No. 1. Joe Burrow was the obvious choice, and he responded with a terrific performance that showcased his expected potential.
His season was also cut short by the left knee injury he suffered behind a terrible offensive line.
Now the Bengals will pick fifth, and if three or four quarterbacks are off the board, they could get Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell, Florida tight end Kyle Pitts or LSU wideout Ja'Marr Chase.
Which way Cincinnati goes—or if it trades back—could influence how the Burrow era plays out. If the Bengals select Sewell, the offense may lack weapons and could sputter again. If they go with an elite weapon but Burrow is constantly under pressure, the risk is also great.
The backdrop to all this is a coaching staff that is 6-25-1 over two seasons and has dramatically remade the roster, letting go of Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap II and A.J. Green while spending huge cash on Trey Hendrickson, Trae Waynes and D.J. Reader.
If the Bengals take a wrong step at No. 5, they will probably have to hit the reset button on the coaching staff. By then, Cincinnati would be two years into Burrow's rookie contract and in danger of wasting his critical developmental years.
One could suggest the Carolina Panthers made the move that will determine their future when they dealt a sixth-round pick in 2021 and a second- and fourth-rounder in 2022 for Sam Darnold.
But the Panthers are unique in that one of the big criticisms about the team in recent years was how poorly it built around Cam Newton, though he had his MVP season and led Carolina to four trips to the playoffs, including a Super Bowl appearance in 2015.
ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Tuesday that the Panthers have entertained trading down from the No. 8 pick. It's an alarming idea with so many needs across the roster. The team lost Curtis Samuel via free agency, and the two additions—Cameron Erving and Pat Elflein—to an offensive line that allowed 36 sacks last year were underwhelming.
Given the Panthers' draft spot and the teams in front of them, up to four quarterbacks could be off the board before they get to the podium. That pick, whether it's an offensive lineman or weapon, could dictate whether the gamble on Darnold pays off.
Carolina has just three picks in the top 110, needs to offload Teddy Bridgewater and already traded for a quarterback, so its draft performance will be paramount.