NFL

The dirty little secret looming over the 2021 NFL Draft

Mac Jones, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance really aren’t great prospects. Everyone is just guessing. This is the NFL Draft column the NFL doesn’t want you to read.

Other than Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, the quarterbacks in the 2021 draft class aren’t all that spectacular.

That’s a dirty secret that the Draft Media Military-Industrial Complex didn’t want you to know over the last three months, because we needed to keep you tuned in to our breathless ‘round-the-clock coverage. But with the draft just hours away, the truth can come out.

This quarterback class isn’t historic. The overall 2021 class is a little thin. And everyone has been doing far more guessing than usual this draft season, which is stunning because draft coverage is built almost exclusively upon heaps and heaps of quasi-educated guessing.

The 2021 draft season has been too long by about two weeks, too loud, too shrill and too silly by half. Inside the Draft doesn’t want to add to the din of anonymous scout takes, final 7-round mock drafts, 84-GIF threads about a quarterback’s footwork or desperate chatter for chatter’s sake (Here are the Top 14 directions the Carolina Panthers can go in this weekend!).

Instead, let’s reflect, reboot and restack the 2021 draft class one last time as though we were explaining things to a football fan just back from a four-month mission to Mars. Here’s what you really need to know entering this weekend:

Quarterbacks: The Ghosts of 2011

Lawrence is great, of course: the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck. After that …

Justin Fields is the second-best quarterback in the 2021 draft class, but the NFL insider sewing circle has been signaling its vague, unsubstantiated dissatisfaction with Fields for weeks. More than a few insiders must mistake Fields for another Dwayne Haskins or Cardale Jones, because all … um … Ohio State quarterbacks look alike to some folks who are paid to know better.

Fields may well overcome the NFL’s whispery skepticism toward him. Heck, the whole thing may be a nefarious smokescreen to get his stock to drop. But if the hivemind doesn’t like someone — and no smokescreen would work if decision-makers weren’t inclined to believe the gossip — it goes out of its way to validate its implicit you-know-what.

Zach Wilson (BYU) is a Day Two pick who became a near-lock for the second-overall pick because BYU went from facing opponents like USC, Utah and Washington in a typical year to Troy, Texas State and Western Kentucky in a COVID year.

Wilson has tools, but Sam Darnold was a far superior prospect three years ago, and Mark Sanchez left USC with a somewhat similar portfolio (except for the creamy schedule). So the Jets aren’t really upgrading. They’re just doing what the Jets do.

Mac Jones (Alabama) is a Day Two pick who will likely be selected third overall by the San Francisco 49ers because when NFL coaches see a quarterback make “great decisions” about whether or not to throw to the Heisman Trophy candidate from a dentist’s office of a pocket, they sincerely believe the quarterback deserves most of the credit.

Trey Lance (North Dakota State) is an urban legend. Inside the Draft doesn’t care if you are Kyle Shanahan, some former NFL backup who’s now a TV personality or the “senior tape grinder” at DraftVirgins.com: if you claim you can accurately interpret the two-year-old Missouri Valley Conference tape, you are full of beans.

The 2021 quarterback draft class does not remind Inside the Draft of 1983 or 1999; it’s too soon to make any real judgments on the 2018 class. This class reminds us of the 2011 class, when Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick were drafted in the first two rounds.

It wasn’t a bad class overall, but there was a LOT of wishful thinking involved in the Locker and Ponder selections. (Gabbert fooled just about everyone). The offseason lockout of 2019 made a lot of teams antsy to reach for a quarterback, just as COVID has made all of us antsy about a lot of things.

There’s a Locker or Ponder or two lurking at the top of the 2021 class, and it’s safe to say that someone like Jones or Wilson could max out as a Dalton.

Running Backs: Nothing Matters and So What if it Did?

Najee Harris (Alabama) is like Derrick Henry, but with soft hands instead of patio pavers on the ends of his wrists like Henry has. We’ve watched Clemson’s Travis Etienne every Saturday for three years, and he will be a solid enough all-purpose running back, though the Christian McCaffrey comparisons are more of a wish than an expectation.

After that, this is a weak class at a position that doesn’t excite many draftniks or analytics types anymore.

North Carolina’s Javonte Williams and Michael Carter combined for 544 rushing yards in one game against Miami last year, 23 percent of their combined output for the year. Both look like solid mid-round prospects, but every time Inside the Draft sees a clip of one of them ripping off a huge run against Miami, we imagine folks assuming that Raheem Mostert was the next Walter Payton based on what he did against the Packers in one playoff game.

Trey Sermon (Ohio State) and Chuba Hubbard (Oklahoma State) are big-name college backs coming off lackluster final seasons. Both might have been early-round picks back in the bygone days when running backs mattered. Both are likely Day Three selections this year.

Wide Receivers: Victims of Excellence

LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase is the only sure thing in a class full of “pretty sure” things.

Alabama Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith finally stepped on a scale at the combine physicals, probably in the presence of no one else except Dr. Fauci, his agent and his Creator, and reportedly weighed a too-light-for-everyday-use 166 pounds.

When discussing the Slim Reaper’s slimness, many draft hipsters have landed on “his weight doesn’t matter, and he should be able to bulk up anyway,” because the smartest personnel decisions are based on inherent contradictions.

Inside the Draft really hopes Smith is an exceptional case, but we’re anticipating a DeSean Jackson-type career: his long touchdown last month was truly special! Can’t wait until his hamstring heals so we can see another one!

The rest of the 2021 wide receiver draft class consists of at least a dozen or so “next Deebo Samuel” or “almost Tyreek Hill” types, with perhaps a “next Cooper Kupp” and a few “this year’s Justin Jefferson” types sprinkled in.

Seriously, there are some exciting receiver prospects in this class. Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman has a little Keenan Allen in him. Some evaluators prefer Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle to teammate DeVonta, and not just because Waddle weighs more than the smallest kid on the typical high school tennis team. Auburn’s Rondale Moore reminds Inside the Draft of Rocket Ismael. Mississippi’s Elijah Moore caught exactly four billion passes in the SEC. Florida’s Kadarius Toney is an intriguing Slash player. Western Michigan’s D’Wayne Eskridge is a converted defender who can fly. South Dakota State’s Cade Johnson is like two or three small-school sleepers wrapped into one.

The problem is most wide receiver classes are stacked, which means the competition for NFL rosters spots and roles is fierce. Most versatile speedsters turn into Keke Coutee, not Tyreek Hill. Most small-program wonders become Andy Isabella, not Kupp. Laviska Shenault was last year’s Toney, and he had a solid 58-catch season for the Jacksonville Jaguars. But a player who looks like the ultimate all-purpose weapon in college often ends up running ugly trick plays in the red zone for a terrible team in the NFL.

Don’t be surprised if there’s tons of receiver talent on the board on Friday or even Saturday. NFL teams know that a deep class means potential late-round bargains, and coaches and general managers are still sifting through the bottom-of-the-depth-chart bargains from the last two or three deep receiver classes.

Tight Ends: It’s the Pitts

Kyle Pitts (Florida) is the next Shannon Sharpe. The rest of this class is shockingly thin.

Inside the Draft prefers multi-talented square pegs like Flordia’s Brevin Jordan and Mississippi’s Kenny Yeboah to sturdy stamped-from-the-mold blockers like Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth or Notre Dame’s Tommy Tremble. But there’s a breed of NFL evaluator who just cannot resist an “old-fashioned” tight end destined to average 22 receptions per NFL season.

Offensive Line: Hog Wild

Oregon’s Penei Sewell is the best offensive lineman since the pre-bong mask version of Laremy Tunsil. Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater is Prospect 1A. Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw needs fit ‘n’ finish but has Hulk Smash traits.

There’s plenty of depth after the big three, and Inside the Draft predicts a run on offensive linemen starting late in the first round and continuing through much of Day Two. Alabama’s Alex Leatherwood, Oklahoma State’s Teven Jenkins, Florida’s Stone Forsythe, Texas’ Sam Cosmi and North Dakota State’s Dillon Radunz will be in demand as second-tier tackle prospects. There are plenty of ornery guards like Ohio State’s Wyatt Davis and Alabama’s mountainous Deonte Brown, as well as USC’s versatile Alijah Vera-Tucker.

Finally, centers Landon Dickerson (Alabama), Creed Humphrey (Oklahoma) and Quinn Meinerz (Wisconsin-Whitewater) could all leave the board among the top 50 picks. Because they are centers, you will never hear their names called again after the draft unless they botch a snap.

That’s one of the follies of draft coverage: much more has been written about Dickerson and Meinerz over the last four months than last year’s All-Pro Corey Linsley through eight seasons of having Aaron Rodgers’ hands on his tuckus. Centers are important, and this year’s prospects are solid, but if you spent the last six weeks arguing vehemently about centers on Twitter (and you are not, like, an ex-NFL lineman yourself or something), you are doing life wrong.

Defensive Line/Edge Rushers: Wishful Sacking

While this offensive line class is stacked, the defensive line class is a bit of a disaster.

NFL evaluators love toolsy, athletic edge rushers so much that they often handwave away concerns that these disruptive terrors rarely managed to sack a quarterback. That means Michigan’s Kwity Paye (11.5 sacks in 28 college games) and Penn State’s Jayson Oweh (zero sacks in 2020, seven in three seasons) will likely be high picks. Inside the Draft prefers Georgia’s Azeez Olujari, who is more of an all-purpose defender, or Texas’ Joseph Ossai, who looks invincible for short stretches.

Miami’s Jaelen Phillips has great film and workout results but a long, troubling concussion history. Fellow Hurricanes defender Gregory Rousseau looked like a top-15 pick before opting out but produced lackluster workout results to go with so-so 2019 film against the run.

Inside the Draft likes Pitt’s Patrick Jones at least as much as Paye and Oweh, but the intelligentsia that drafts a Taco Charlton, Clelin Farrell or Dion Jordan in the first round every year or two disagrees.

This defensive tackle class is unbelievably thin beyond Alabama’s Christian Barmore and Washington’s Levi Unwuzerike, neither of whom will be mistaken for Aaron Donald.

Linebacker: Positionless Surrender

This is a deep class caught in an existential crisis. Modern NFL defense is essentially built on a drive train of three defensive linemen, two edge rushers and six defensive backs. A linebacker is either a suped-up pass rusher, a pumped-up slot cornerback, or a turnip. The 2021 draft class is full of linebackers who are actual linebackers, much to their detriment.

Micah Parsons (Penn State) has Bobby Wagner-level talent and should have no trouble earning a mid-first-round draft selection and a major role on an NFL defense. Tulsa’s Zaven Collins and Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah are practically defenders without an NFL position, which is not the same thing as being a trendy “positionless defender.”

Notre Dame used Owusu-Koramoah as a slot defender frequently, but he would be burnt to a crisp in such a role in the NFL. Collins is a fly-around defender who looks like an edge rusher but does not play like one. Each could be the ideal Will and Sam linebacker, respectively, but that practically makes them role players in the modern NFL.

Alabama’s Dylan Moses, meanwhile, is basically the Mac Jones of defense, only better. But Moses appeared to be headed toward a Honey Badger-like role as a defensive superweapon before a 2019 ACL tear. He now projects as a second-to-fourth-round pick as a traditional middle linebacker, despite possessing tools and pedigree that could make him a quality NFL starter for a decade.

Defensive Backs: The Next Generation

Everyone is someone’s son.

There’s Patrick Surtain II, Jaycee Horn (son of Saints/Chiefs receiver Joe Horn), Asante Samuel Jr. and Elijah Molden (son of Saints defender Alex Molden). Duke cornerback Mark Gilbert, a former top prospect coming off multiple injuries, is the young cousin of Darrelle Revis, who probably invested all his Jets money in cryptocurrency and now owns Jupiter.

USC cornerback Olaijah Griffin is the son of hip-hop legend Warren G. and the nephew of Dr. Dre but isn’t getting much attention because of disappointing Pro Day results, and also because Warren G. never let a game-winning interception float through his hands in the Super Bowl. (Kidding! Both the elder and younger Samuel are fine players!)

It’s hard to get excited about college safeties these days; like linebackers, they are getting crowded out by cornerbacks and forced to market themselves as “positionless defenders” (Hey look! I’m a safety who blitzes a lot! That’s something safeties of yesteryear like Troy Polamalu never, ever did.”). Trevor Moehrig is the best of a class full of future adequate starters and solid role players.

Miami Dolphins Have the Most to Gain

The Jets and Jaguars are laden with extra draft picks, but teams like the Jets and Jaguars always seem to be loaded with extra picks. Once per decade or so, a bad franchise uses its draft capital to usher in a new era of success.

Most of the time, however, the extra opportunities are just frittered away. Those extra picks were gained, after all, because the franchises traded away excellent players who were branded as malcontents (Jalen Ramsey, Jamal Adams) by the ninnies those franchises chose to run them.

The Dolphins, meanwhile, possess the sixth, 18th, 36th, 50th and 81st pick in the draft. They earned the extra picks through the Houston Texans’ ineptitude, not their own, and they are coming off a 10-win season. This weekend’s draft will chart the course forward for general manager Chris Greer, head coach Brian Flores and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (who should get some much-needed weapons), which in turn will decide the balance of power in the AFC East for years to come.

Chicago Bears Have the Most to Lose

You know all about the Bears quarterback situation: Andy Dalton and Nick Foles, aka Garfunkel and Oates.

What you may not know is the Bears had the second-oldest defense in the NFL last year, according to Football Outsiders. (The New Orleans Saints had the NFL’s oldest defense). That means the mighty Bears have been slowly decaying while they dithered on offense. Their defense got a little younger with the free-agent departure of Kyle Fuller, but losing a recent All-Pro isn’t exactly a sign of progress.

The Bears are a franchise on the precipice of complete collapse, but it’s not clear whether general manager Ryan Pace, head coach Matt Nagy or the Halas-McCaskey ruling family has any idea how bad things really are.

Pace needs to swing for the fences with the 20th-overall pick and his later selections. If the Bears don’t miraculously discover a quarterback of the future, or at least breathe some real vitality back into their defense, they risk plunging into one of the most embarrassing eras in the franchise’s rich history.

Guessing Season

Many insiders are leaning hard into we see and hear things about these prospects that you mere mortals cannot comprehend this year, particularly at quarterback. That should set off the bullsnot alarm in your brain. Remember: no one saw or heard much of anyone in 2020.

NFL evaluators honestly believe they can measure a young man’s soul by looking him in the eye, measuring the PSIs of his handshake or — ugh — challenging him to rock, paper, scissors. Can they suddenly now also measure intelligence and leadership from Zoom meetings?

Scouts love to gab with the college weight room manager to learn how hard a prospect works when lifting, how he treats the bench wipes, and so forth. The weight rooms were closed for weeks and months last year. Are players getting anonymously ripped for half-remembered habits from 2019? For not following COVID protocols? For happily following the protocols that Coach Medicineball thinks were dreamed up by and for “snowflakes?”

Inside the league and out, Film Grinders are used to loading up a game and knowing all about the level of competition based on the programs and their reputations. Do you think everyone is keeping clear track of, say, whether Boise State was in the midst of a COVID outbreak? Are they really wrestling with questions like “how good was South Dakota in 2019?” And if they are: when did everyone pick up the skill to accurately adjust their evaluations for such unusual situations?

Some teams played one-game schedules, some three or four games, some zero. There was no Scouting Combine this year, just a series of physicals. The Senior Bowl went off under semi-normal conditions, but the Shrine Game was a virtual event and the College Gridiron Showcase was a series of non-contact workouts. Many scouts did not travel during the season. Player interviews were virtual. Many Pro Day results were comically fishy.

Inside the Draft felt the loss of the pre-draft tentpole events more than NFL insiders did: they have resources that no one in the media has. But our job only depends on being entertaining and informative given reduced access and information. The insiders have to be right.

Analytics types like to claim that “the draft is a crapshoot.” That’s reductive to the point of being ridiculous. But draft analysis is the imprecise science of trying to hit a moving target from a moving platform in a stiff wind. This year, everyone is trying to do so based largely on information from two years ago. It’s firing an arrow towards the valley where you heard the herd was headed.

Pretending to be certain about anyone beyond the Lawrence-Pitts-Chase caliber of prospects is just faking it. Anyone who claims otherwise is gunning for a GM job or trying to sell you a subscription site.

The time to speculate about the NFL draft is over. Alleluia. Now it’s time to enjoy the show. And to look forward to 2021 college and NFL seasons in which things should be much closer to normal.

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