The 2021 NFL Draft will be headlined by quarterbacks at the top. It’ll be defined, though, by three first-time general managers.
George Paton, Scott Fitterer and Terry Fontenot have all been on their new jobs for less than three months. All of their careers may be defined in their fourth.
On Jan. 14, Paton and Fitterer were hired on as general managers for the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers, respectively. Five days later, Terry Fontenot agreed to terms for the same position with the Atlanta Falcons.
Now, heading into the 2021 NFL Draft, they’re the three most impactful figures.
Without question, the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers will select quarterbacks with the first three picks. After that, the Falcons come on the clock.
At No. 4 overall, Fontenot has options. He can stay put and select Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell, largely seen as the plum of a tremendous class for offensive lineman. He can also take another weapon for aging quarterback Matt Ryan, such as Florida tight end Kyle Pitts or LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase. Then there’s the notion of replacing Ryan with a quarterback, whether it be Mac Jones (Alabama), Trey Lance (North Dakota State) or Justin Fields (Ohio State).
Or, Fontenot can pick up the phone and start talking trades. If he does, Fitterer and Paton figure to be the two most likely voices on the other end.
With Carolina at No. 8 overall and Denver one pick later, the cost to move up would be significant but not overwhelming. Using the famed value chart, both the Panthers and Broncos would have to swap first-round picks with the Falcons and attach their second-round selection.
For Atlanta, gaining a top-50 choice to move back less than a half-dozen spots could be appealing, especially if its looking for a defensive upgrade such as Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II or Miami (FL) edge rusher Gregory Rousseau.
Frankly, the Broncos make the most sense. Paton has done a nice job fortifying the roster this offseason by retaining defensive stalwarts in safeties Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons, edge rusher Von Miller and tackle Shelby Harris. Denver also added former All-Pro cornerback Kyle Fuller to the mix on a one-year deal.
The offense is loaded with weaponry including receivers Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and Tim Patrick. Tight end Noah Fant also took major steps in his second year, and while Patrick is 27 years old, the rest are 25 or under.
Stuck in a division with Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert, the Broncos need to be realistic. Yes, Drew Lock is only entering his third campaign, but he led the NFL with 15 interceptions last season despite playing only 13 games, all while completing 57.3 percent of his attempts. The upside is rapidly dwindling.
In short, the Broncos need to exhaust all avenues for an upgrade. If Paton sees one he believes will be available at No. 4, he and Fontenot should be having extensive conversations.
For Fitterer, the situation is more complex.
The Panthers have a nice stopgap in Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback, although they’ve been linked to attempts of replacing him this offseason. Carolina’s roster could be a year away from really contending even with an elite quarterback, but Fitterer and owner David Tepper appear insistent on finding their future.
Also, would the Falcons trade down with a team in their own division? Perhaps if the Panthers were willing to give excessive value in return.
However, Fitterer could also target the Cincinnati Bengals at No. 5 overall, should Atlanta decide to stand pat. Carolina would have to give up less and wouldn’t be hindered by division, now dealing with an AFC team.
Of course, the Panthers also have the luxury of being ahead of Denver in the draft order, putting the onus on Paton to make a move.
Three young, first-time general managers entering their initial NFL Draft. It might also be the biggest of their lives.
Top 10 quarterbacks of the pre-Super Bowl era (all stats pre-1966)
1. Otto Graham, Cleveland Browns (7x All-Pro, 7x AAFC/NFL champ, 1950s HOF All-Decade)2. Johnny Unitas, Baltimore Colts (8x Pro Bowl, 4x All-Pro, 2x champ, 2x MVP, 1960s HOF All-Decade)3. Sid Luckman, Chicago Bears (5x All-Pro, 4x champ, 1940s HOF All-Decade)4. Sammy Baugh, Washington Football Team (4x All-Pro, 2x champ, 1940s HOF All-Decade)5. Norm Van Brocklin, Los Angeles Rams/Philadelphia Eagles (9x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro, 2x champ, MVP, 1950s HOF All-Decade)6. Bobby Layne, Detroit Lions (2x All-Pro, 3x champ, 1950s HOF All-Decade)7. Bart Starr, Green Bay Packers (3x Pro Bowl, 3x champ, 1960s HOF All-Decade)8. Y.A. Tittle, New York Giants/San Francisco 49ers (3x All-Pro, MVP, Hall of Fame)9. Bob Waterfield, Los Angeles Rams (3x All-Pro, 2x champ, 1940s HOF All-Decade)10. Arnie Herber, Green Bay Packers (1x All-Pro, 4x champ, 1930s HOF All-Decade)
“Whatever your beliefs are or not, you’ve got to go out there and adjust, and do whatever you can to be the best football player you can be every single day. I’ll be trying to figure out ways to take care of my body more and more, so you can adjust your body for a 17-game regular season.”
– Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes on preparing for the new 17-game schedule
Mahomes’ comment isn’t groundbreaking, but it speaks to a larger point about how players will adjust this offseason. With the NFL implementing an extra regular-season game, look for teams to lighten practices and offseason requirements further, in an effort to keep everyone healthy.
Tobin Rote is the only quarterback to win both AFL and NFL championships, doing so with San Diego Chargers and Detroit Lions.
Info learned this week1. Rookie tackles facing surge of short arm measurements at pro days
Yes, it’s draft season. Need proof? This section has to be written.
For many teams, there’s concern if a tackle doesn’t have a measured arm length of 33 inches. Anything less, and he’s likely kicking inside to guard. There are those who even see 34 inches as the cut-off point.
Talking to multiple league sources, the offensive line class is seen as perhaps the best of any position entering the NFL Draft. However, the past few weeks are raising concerns in some corners. Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater — almost universally seen as a top-15 pick — measured at exactly 33 inches. Oregon’s Penei Sewell came in at 33.25 inches, putting his top-five stock in jeopardy.
Another trio of first-round prospects, Tevin Jenkins (Oklahoma State), Liam Eichenberg (Notre Dame) and Jalen Mayfield (Michigan) register at 32.88, 32.37 inches and 32.63 inches, respectively. As detailed here, most successful NFL tackles have a substantially longer reach.
Texting with two general managers this weekend, both said their typical cutoff point is 33 inches. However, one of the GMs cast doubt on the figures. His contention was in a normal year, the same scout measures every player at the Scouting Combine. This spring, due to COVID, different scouts are measuring at each pro day, creating inconsistencies.
Something to watch as we close in on April 29.
2. 49ers willing to move Jimmy Garoppolo for predicted price
Remember last week, when we wrote the 49ers would trade Garoppolo despite their denials? Well, let’s say we aren’t shocked at the latest news.
In fact, here’s the exact paragraph from last week’s column:
San Francisco can leak its belief in Garoppolo, and its intent to start him in 2020. That’s nonsense. The 49ers didn’t trade two first-round picks and swap another to have a quarterback in his rookie deal sitting on the bench. If Garoppolo can fetch a decent price, say a first-round choice, he’s on the next plane out.
Per multiple reports, San Francisco would deal Garoppolo for a first-round pick. This is the most predictable news of all time, considering the Niners would like to recoup some of the draft capital they sent to the Miami Dolphins in their blockbuster from last Friday.
For obvious reasons, the New England Patriots make the most sense. They’re not invested in current starter Cam Newton and they know Garoppolo better than anybody. For San Francisco, it would immediately provide it with ammunition to bolster the roster around its rookie quarterback.
Other teams to watch? The Bears have to be mentioned, along with Washington. Both need an upgrade and could feel good about sending a pick in the early 20s to acquire a decent starter. Plus, Garoppolo’s contract is essentially year-to-year, making it easier to absorb from a financial standpoint.
The 49ers can keep saying they won’t deal Garoppolo, but all indications are to the contrary.
3. Watson now facing criminal compliant to accompany 21 civil suits
The news continues to get worse for star Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.
On Friday, Watson saw the first criminal complaint filed against him to the Houston Police Department. Prior to that, Watson was facing 21 civil suits but nothing which brought Houston PD into the fold.
With anything of this nature, patience is key. The police department will now work through the complaint and if enough evidence is found to bring charges, that’s a potential outcome. With the civil lawsuits, Watson and lawyer Rusty Hardin will eventually deal with each one, either settling on a financial amount or seeing the suits reach an outcome through the courts.
Meanwhile, the NFL is conducting its own investigation, but don’t expect action soon. The league has no reason to move with training camp more than three months out. Commissioner Roger Goodell has rightfully been slammed for his handling of such sensitive matters in the past, and would be well-advised to wait as long as possible for all facts to emerge.
For now, few things are clear. One thing that is, though, is Watson faces an avalanche of issues.
4. Jets are essentially begging for Sam Darnold trade offers
The New York Jets are floating the idea of keeping Sam Darnold and drafting his replacement with the No. 2 overall pick. Translation: please offer more.
New York, barring a miracle, is taking BYU’s Zach Wilson with the second-overall pick. He’ll likely become the immediate starter for a team desperately trying to win both games and PR battles. Darnold, through three years, has done little of the former and won’t do any of the latter moving forward. For general manager Joe Douglas, Darnold becomes a rapidly depreciating asset once Wilson walks across the stage in Cleveland.
Speaking to a pair of high-ranking league sources back in late December, they believed Darnold was worth approximately a third-round pick. Of course, the Jets are hoping for even more, but if they net a top-100 selection in this deep draft, it’s worth sending Darnold out of town before having to decline his fifth-year option in May.
New York can talk about keeping Darnold and drafting Wilson, but there’s nobody in the league who believes that’s a sound — or real — plan.
5. Don’t expect major rule changes in 2021
Last week, the NFL took 13 rule-change proposals under consideration. Only a few will get traction.
Of the ones out forth by the competition committee more likely to pass when the owners vote this spring? A new rule prohibiting most below-the-waist blocks on defenders more than five yards past the line of scrimmage, and two yards outside the offensive tackle. This would eliminate linebackers and defensive backs being cut out at the knees while trying to make a play.
Also, overtime in preseason games is now on the chopping block. Tough to find a reason for it to continue. Finally, playoff teams not being able to sign players who were released by clubs who are home for the winter.
None of these are earth-shattering, but the blocks downfield could have a significant impact. We would certainly see some long runs, and catch-and-carries, brought back when a blocker goes low out of instinct.
The Buffalo Bills will regret their lack of activity this offseason.
Buffalo, which went 13-3 and reached the AFC Championship Game for the first time since 1993, was clearly the conference’s second-best team to Kansas City last year. Josh Allen finished Second-Team All-Pro, Stefon Diggs led the league in receiving and the defense improved throughout the campaign.
However, the glaring issue in 2020 — and one that was brutally obvious in the AFC title game — was the lack of a pass rush. With the team relying heavily on a trio of veterans in Trent Murphy, Mario Addison and Jerry Hughes, the front didn’t provide enough pressure.
This offseason, Buffalo was cash-strapped but could have created enough room to make a few impactful signs. Instead, the normally aggressive Brandon Beane largely stood pat, passing on edge rushers Yannick Ngakoue, Bud Dupree, Matt Judson, Carlos Dunlap, Trey Hendrickson, Carl Lawson, Haason Reddick and others. While Jadeveon Clownery, Justin Houston and Melvin Ingram are still available, the options are dwindling.
The Bills are close to catching the Chiefs, but without more rush to reach Mahomes, it remains a steep uphill climb.
Inside the league
Trevor Lawrence enjoys a near-consensus opinion on his talent. Justin Fields, and the rest of the quarterbacks in this draft, do not.
While Lawrence and the Jacksonville Jaguars can apply for their marriage license, the others have scouts who see them as first-round picks, and others who believe they aren’t worth the hype. Talking to one long-time personnel man earlier this offseason, Lawrence and Justin Fields were his top-two guys, with both worthy of high first-round grades.
However, he saw Zach Wilson as somewhat a product of his surroundings at BYU, noting his great offensive line and quality run game. Translation: how often did he make throws under pressure?
The point isn’t that Wilson can’t play. It’s to highlight everybody sees the same picture a bit differently. Ultimately, it would be stunning if Wilson doesn’t go No. 2 overall to the New York Jets.
This past week, ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky found himself in hot water after going on The Pat McAfee Show and relaying what he’s been told by a few teams about Fields, who stated they had concerns about his work ethic. Orlovsky immediately backtracked the next day, claiming he spoke to a few coaches at Ohio State after the interview who said the opposite of Fields.
Whatever the truth, the reality is Fields likely has people who feel each way about him. That’s the nature of being an NFL Draft pick. Nobody has the same intel on you, or opinion of you.
If there’s a definition of football purgatory, the Chicago Bears and their quarterback situation should be it.
Chicago has enjoyed exactly two Pro Bowl signal-callers in the Super Bowl era with Jim McMahon (1985) and Mitchell Trubisky (2018). In those seasons, they combined to throw for 5,615 yards and 39 touchdowns. Or basically, one year of Peyton Manning.
Now, they’re going with the exciting option of Andy Dalton in Chicago for 2021. The Old Style sales will be booming in the Windy City this autumn.
Few players have more to gain this upcoming season than Jameis Winston.
After being exiled from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after his 5,000-yard, 30-interception campaign of 2019, Winston sat for a year with the New Orleans Saints, behind Drew Brees. Now he has a chance to start with an elite roster and head coach around him in the Bayou.
New Orleans gives Winston his best chance to succeed. He has a tremendous offensive line, All-Pro running back Alvin Kamara and a lethal receiver in Michael Thomas. The defense is also solid, led by cornerback Marshon Lattimore and defensive end Cameron Jordan. If the former No. 1 overall pick can’t get right with the Saints, he’s probably destined to be a backup and spot starter.
Ultimately, Winston must limit his turnovers while still producing high yardage and touchdown totals. If he can, he’ll be in line for a huge contract with the cap exploding in 2022.