The 2021 NFL Draft starts tonight as American football’s top college prospects begin on the road to what they hope will be professional superstardom.
While the no1 pick is more certain than ever with Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence among the highest-graded prospects ever, there is still plenty of drama and intrigue surrounding this year’s seven-round event.
While last year’s Draft was an entirely virtual affair due to the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, this week’s festivities primarily take place in Cleveland, Ohio, with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in attendance along with 12 of the brightest hopefuls and an expected 50,000 fans.
Here, Standard Sport notes the key Draft storylines to watch...
So highly-rated is Trevor Lawrence that “Tanking for Trevor” became a tempting option for the NFL’s also-rans midway through last season - the idea being that if you’re going to be bad, you may as well be really bad, and start next year with a guy already being compared to John Elway and Peyton Manning as your quarterback.
As a true freshman, Lawrence helped Clemson to an unbeaten season that ended with the National Championship and the Tigers returned to the biggest game in college football the following year, though they lost to LSU (of last year’s No1 pick, Joe Burrow). In all, he lost just two games in three seasons, the other coming in last year’s Sugar Bowl.
A recent Sports Illustrated interview stirred up a bit of fuss, essentially because Lawrence committed the cardinal sin of suggesting football might not be the most important thing on the planet.
That’s unlikely to bother the people of Jacksonville, to whom Lawrence has already been endearing himself under the safe assumption that the Jaguars will make him the No1 overall pick - a position he has seemed destined to fill since his high school days.
The question is, what happens next? The Jaguars’ run to the AFC Championship Game in 2017 seems more of an anomaly with each passing year (that campaign remains their only winning season in the last 13 years). Even if reality matches the hype, Lawrence won’t turn the franchise around on his own.
Mac Jones or Trey Lance for the 49ers?
So much of the pre-draft build-up has been focused upon the San Francisco 49ers, who in March pulled off a blockbuster trade with the Miami Dolphins to move up nine places in the first-round pecking order to pick No3.
Such a move cost them their original No12 pick, a 2022 third-round pick and first-round picks in both 2022 and 2023.
A trade into the top three coupled with the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the future of injury-plagued starter Jimmy Garoppolo was interpreted as a bold move from the Niners to secure their quarterback of choice not named Trevor Lawrence or Zach Wilson.
But who will it be?
Influential head coach Kyle Shanahan is said to be a huge fan of Alabama’s two-time National Championship winner Mac Jones, though the idea that the 49ers would have to move all the way up to three to secure his services was initially greeted with derision by many.
Pre-Draft buzz suggests that the pick will be either Jones or North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, one of this year’s more mysterious and intriguing prospects, with Ohio State star Justin Fields reportedly no longer under consideration.
More on him in a moment...
Where will Justin Fields land?
Not too long ago, Fields looked likely to be the next player off the board after consensus first overall pick Trevor Lawrence following a thrilling 2020 college campaign.
However, his draft stock has subsequently and rather mysteriously fallen over recent months, with the New York Jets now looking set to take BYU’s Wilson at No2.
Indeed, the Niners reportedly choosing between Lance and Jones at three, if accurate, is another sign that Fields is now a huge wildcard and faces a high degree of draft uncertainty.
So what options does that leave him? How far will he slide? Is someone primed to secure a huge Draft steal?
The Atlanta Falcons opting to choose a long-term successor to Matt Ryan doesn’t appear out of the question, though it seems more likely that they will opt for a potentially generational talent in Florida tight end Kyle Pitts with the fourth pick.
The Cincinnati Bengals must surely be considering providing last year’s no1 selection Joe Burrow - whose rookie campaign was ended by a serious knee injury - with some badly-needed offensive line protection in the shape of Oregon tackle Penei Sewell at No5.
The Miami Dolphins, now picking at six after another headline trade with the Philadelphia Eagles, have to surround their own young quarterback Tua Tagovailoa with some potent offensive weapons and the wildcard Detroit Lions could really do anything if they stay at No7, though new QB Jared Goff is likely to need all the offensive help he can get with Kenny Golladay now having left the building.
Could the Carolina Panthers instead look to provide competition for the newly-acquired Sam Darnold at eight, or maybe the Denver Broncos - who have the ninth pick - will grab Fields despite trading for Teddy Bridgewater to compete with the underwhelming but not terrible Drew Lock?
All bets are off if Fields falls outside the top 10, with a number of teams surely feeling that he is too good an opportunity to turn down at that sort of value.
Keep an eye on the New England Patriots at 15, who could make a move into the top 10 to pick Fields, while the Chicago Bears could also trade up from 20 after moving on from the Mitchell Trubisky era with stop-gap Andy Dalton.
Closer to normality
Last year’s Draft was unique in so many ways, delivered in an entirely virtual format and producing some iconic, meme-worthy moments, from commissioner Roger Goodell almost falling asleep in his basement, to Bill Belichick’s dog and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones making his picks from a Bond-villain style yacht.
The coronavirus pandemic has continued to wreak havoc in the run up to this year’s Draft, with similar challenges to last year in terms of a reduction in in-person workouts but even bigger ones regarding the chaotic impact the virus had on last year’s college football season (the previous campaign was completed before the pandemic took hold).
Some leagues were postponed while others played on or moved their seasons, and some individual players opted out over safety concerns.
The good news is that Draft night will, at least, look a little more like normal, though only 13 prospects are expected to physically attend the ceremony in Cleveland.
Ja’Marr Chase, Devonta Smith or Jaylen Waddle - which wide receiver goes first?
The 2020 NFL Draft class featured a stellar selection of wide receivers, with Henry Ruggs (Raiders), Jerry Jeudy (Broncos) and CeeDee Lamb (Cowboys) all going in the top 17.
The Minnesota Vikings arguably got the best value of all by taking Justin Jefferson out of LSU at pick 22, while Brandon Aiyuk, Jalen Reagor, Tee Higgins, Michael Pittman Jr, Laviska Shenault, KJ Hamler, Chase Claypool, Van Jefferson and Denzel Mims also got snapped up in the opening two rounds.
Another special and deep wideout class in 2021 is also headlined by three standout talents in LSU’s Ja'Marr Chase, Heisman Trophy winner Devonta Smith and the latter’s Alabama team-mate Jaylen Waddle.
But who among that trio will be off the board first?
Chase is widely considered to be the most gifted all-round talent of the three, with many mock drafts slating the 2019 Fred Biletnikoff Award winner to go to the Dolphins at six.
But could the Bengals be tempted to swoop one pick ahead of Miami and reunite him with former LSU team-mate Burrow?
In that scenario, the Dolphins - providing the Falcons take Pitts at four - would presumably then face a difficult choice between Crimson Tide duo Waddle and Smith.
The Lions, New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles are other teams picking inside the top 12 that may well have their eyes on improving their respective receiving corps.
Where each of the trio land will be fascinating to observe, in addition to just how many receivers go in the first round this year.