Plenty of time to shuffle up team’s draft boards, but with increasingly important Pro Days beginning in earnest this week (vital this year because of no combine and no in-person meetings with prospects), and the draft 52 days away, I wanted to do a draft primer this week. With help from Jeremiah—you can watch him dissect a complicated year for quarterbacks in the video atop this column—I’ll try to give you the elementary look at what matters this year.
One other point about the importance of the 2021 draft: A look at the cap space on Over The Cap for the current season shows that exactly half the teams, 16 of 32, are either over the projected salary cap or have less than $10 million to spend. An average team will spend $8 million to $10 million to sign its rookies—so that shows you exactly how important the rookies are this year. Several teams will be forced to all but steer clear of significant free agents to build their rosters in 2021. Talk about combustible: There’s more of a need for rookies to contribute this year, and the knowledge base of those rookies will likely be lower than any year in memory.
I had one GM tell me Sunday his team is having trouble in three major draft areas:
• More players than ever—in this GM’s memory—have one season of successful college football only (such as Rousseau). The error rate on those players, because they’ve had less experience than normal prospects, is higher.
• With no on-campus scouting this year other than the Pro Day, the exposure to information sources is reduced. The GM said draft meetings so far have shown less information than ever in things like, How does he take coaching? What kind of teammate is he? What’s his work ethic?
• Limited medical information. Combine physical exams are notoriously thorough, sometimes discovering previously undiagnosed ailments. This GM told me his team won’t have trust in the exams till their own doctors can examine them—after the draft.
With all that, the show will go on. Final draft boards will be constructed over the next seven weeks, and Roger Goodell will step to a podium—in his New York-area basement or in Cleveland, site of the draft—and call out the picks. What you need to know about the landscape of the 2020 draft:
The quarterbacks are plentiful, as is the uncertainty. Five are likely to go in the first round, with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence the likely number one pick to Jacksonville and BYU’s late-rising Zach Wilson likely number two to the Jets or some team trading up for him. After that, it’s a jumble. Ohio State’s Justin Fields is likely to go in the top 10, and the other two could go that high as well. North Dakota State’s Trey Lance was a terrific size-speed prospect against FCS competition in 2019, but played just one game in 2020, so some teams don’t know what make of him. And Mac Jones, great last fall in leading Alabama to the national title, could go as high as eight to Carolina. But he’s not an athlete and doesn’t fit the mold of a new-wave NFL passer.
“Jones is the most challenging evaluation for me,” Jeremiah said. “Ten years ago, lots of prospects were like him—accurate, great decision-making, poise in the pocket. He’s outstanding in those three. But the league is going in a different direction. You need guys who can create plays. If you can’t create and buy some time, or take off and run for a first down on third-and-five, it’s hard. You have a narrow path to winning consistently.”
Not a great defensive draft, at all. Jeremiah has 24 players with first-round grades, only 10 on defense. (For the record, four quarterbacks, four wideouts, three offensive linemen, two running backs, one tight end, three edge players, three linebackers, three corners, and one safety. No defensive tackles.) Jeremiah has Rousseau, Jaelan Phillips of Miami and Kwity Paye of Michigan atop his Edge rankings, but it doesn’t seem like any of them are locks.
What’s weird about this draft: It’s conceivable that the first eight players could be offensive players, and one of the unheralded corners—opt-out Virginia Tech athlete Caleb Farley or Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II—could be the first defender taken. “If you want a corner,” Jeremiah said, “you better get one in the first couple of rounds. It falls off after that.” Another son of an ex-NFLer, South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn (son of former wideout Joe Horn), should go by the end of round one.
Best position in the draft: Wide receiver (again). In the last two drafts, teams have picked a total of 30 wideouts in the first three rounds. This year, Jeremiah has 19 receivers with grades in the top three rounds. When you see the recent draft depth of the position—third-round wideouts from the last three years: Terry McLaurin, Michael Gallup, Tre’Quan Smith, Diontae Johnson—I begin to think NFL teams should start treating the receiver position like running backs. Don’t waste a high pick on one; you can get a good one in the seventies, eighties, nineties overall.
“It’s almost the same every year now, Jeremiah said. “Last year, I had a record number of guys with top-three-round grades . Not as much this year, but so many good options in the second, third, fourth rounds.” Most draft boards will have LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase and Alabama’s DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle among the top 12 picks. Kadarius Toney of Florida is Jeremiah’s fourth first-round wideout, but his favorite wideout at a bargain price (mid-round two) is Mississippi’s Elijah Moore: “There were games that nobody could cover him.”
Surest position at the top? Might be offensive line. It’s not deep, but either Rashawn Slater of Northwestern or Penei Sewell of Oregon (both were 2020 opt-outs) could be opening-day left tackles in September. They should both go in the top six or eight. Slater played well against Ohio State and ace edge-rusher Chase Young in their 2019 meeting. Alijah Vera-Tucker (USC) could play guard or tackle comfortably, and Christian Darrisaw (Virginia Tech) and Jalen Mayfield (Michigan) could crack the end of the first round.
The Unicorn. Florida tight end Kyle Pitts is the first player at his position in 43 years of Mel Kiper’s draft-grading to crack the top five overall prospects. Whether he goes that high is a matter of taste, but a smart team could use him as an in-line tight end, running routes out of the slot, split wide, and as an athletic motion man. (Remember Rob Gronkowski’s Jet Motion Super Bowl TD, when he was untouched by any defenders?) So Pitts may be drafted as a tight end but could end up playing all over the map. “If he had ‘WR’ next to his name,” Jeremiah said, “he’d be a top 15 pick.”
Run-and-chase linebackers are in style. Jeremiah loves Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah of Notre Dame, and sees Micah Parsons (Penn State) and Zaven Collins (Tulsa) as first-round ‘backers. “He’s such an exciting player,” Jeremiah said of Owusu-Koramoah. “He’s one of the guys in this draft I can’t wait to see—both how he’ll be used and how many plays he makes all over the field.”
Running backs high in the draft are out of style, but not to Jeremiah. He loves Clemson’s Travis Etienne and Alabama’s Najee Harris, and the prospect who might be his favorite player in the draft (encompassing value as well as talent) is a likely second-rounder, North Carolina’s Javonte Williams. Jeremiah thinks Williams could end up being the best back in the draft. “Not often a running back is the leader of your football team,” Jeremiah said, “but Javonte Williams was at North Carolina.”
“I know one thing,” Jeremiah said near the end of our conversation. “If you’re a team or if you’re a fan, you’d better exercise patience after the draft this year. There’s just too much we’re not going to know about too many players.”
With the draft dominating news cycles increasingly from November to April, that’s not something draft-crazy fans are going to want to hear. But it sure sounds like the truth in 2021.