Mock Draft alert! My one and only one is out next Monday. I am not confident, but that’s nothing new.
For now, what I know, and hear, about the draft, 10 days out:
3. SAN FRANCISCO. Today’s the last day of substance in fact-finding for the Niners, with GM John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan expected in Fargo at North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance’s second workout. The leader in the clubhouse is still Alabama’s Mac Jones, but that’s all Jones is. Credit to Lynch and Shanahan for keeping a tight lid on their preference. I keep coming back to Jones’ accuracy (his 77.4-percent season in 2020 is the most accurate in major-college history) and his touch downfield, with the best accuracy of the top five quarterbacks on passes thrown 20 yards or more downfield.
I think Shanahan will value accuracy and presence over athleticism and prefer Jones, but that’s not inside info—just my gut feeling.
4. ATLANTA. Pivot point of the draft. Falcons are doing a great job of disguising their intentions and, per Tom Pelissero of NFL Network, will have three reps at the Lance workout today.
What I’m hearing: Owner Arthur Blank is fascinated by the quarterbacks atop the draft, thinking the franchise might not be in such an advantageous position to take one for years. But Blank will not force a decision—of that I am sure. He hired GM Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith and won’t big-foot them on their first big call. Smith likes the quarterbacks too, but also like Matt Ryan, who will play at 36 this fall and likely has four or five solid years left. Fontenot may—and I emphasized may, because I’ve heard varying things here—prefer to trade out of the pick for a ransom, if one is there. But Smith and Fontenot are also value shoppers too. The value here is to take the best non-quarterback in the draft, tight end Kyle Pitts.
5. CINCINNATI. How the Bengals don’t take Oregon tackle Penei Sewell is beyond me, especially because this draft is filthy-rich in receivers—as with every recent draft. But I also hear the drumbeat is loud for Ja’Marr Chase, who made such beautiful music with Joe Burrow in 2019 at LSU (average game: 127 receiving yards, 21.2 yards per catch). Clearly, I’d vote for the Joe Burrow Preservation Plan, and start this draft tackle at 5, guard at 38. Burrow’s good enough, if he has time, to win with Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and a lesser third option (Rondale Moore?).
6. MIAMI. The football world is sure GM Chris Grier wants to come out of round one with a major weapon (Pitts or Chase, perhaps). Grier’s an aggressive man, but I doubt he’d use part of his stash of picks (overall picks 6, 18, 36, 50 this year) to move up to four to get the weapon of Miami’s dreams. He knows he can stay at six and get one of the four electric pass-catchers in the draft. Grier’s maneuvering over the past two years has left him in the power position to do what he and coach Brian Flores really want to do—no question about that. My gut is they stay at six and get the BAW—best available weapon.
8. CAROLINA. The Panthers are in an intriguing spot. Smart money says one of the five quarterbacks will still be on the board at eight, so new Panthers GM Scott Fitterer could be in the luxurious position of having three options: Picking the quarterback and giving him a comfy redshirt year behind Sam Darnold, or trading to a team desperate for, say, Justin Fields here, or taking a very solid player to continue the Carolina rebuild.
One thing I do know (and not just because Matt Rhule just spent a learning day with Jimmy Johnson, who always had a trove of picks to work with) is Carolina wants to come out of this draft with more picks than the seven it currently holds. The average team has 8.1 picks in an NFL draft, including Compensatory Picks. Over the last eight drafts, Carolina has averaged 6.3 picks per year. Knowing Rhule and Fitterer, that’s got to burn them. Particularly after trading three picks for Darnold, look for them to work to gain more April 29-May 1.
9. DENVER. Maybe one of those future picks for Carolina could come from Denver. Connecting dots here: What if new GM and Vikings transplant George Paton (in the room when Teddy Bridgewater was Minnesota’s first-round pick in 2014) passes on a quarterback in, say, the first three rounds and Bridgewater needs a home? Maybe Paton wouldn’t mind putting some veteran heat on Drew Lock. This was not my idea, but I think it makes a lot of sense, particularly if Carolina softens the cap blow by helping with the cash owed Bridgewater.
10. DALLAS. Another trade-up spot for a QB-seeking team if one’s still available. Said one NFC coach: “I can’t see how the Cowboys pass up [Northwestern tackle] Rashawn Slater if he’s there. That offensive line is declining fast.”
15. NEW ENGLAND. Bill Belichick has run or been a chief honcho in 26 drafts—five in Cleveland, 21 in New England. Never has he picked a quarterback in the first round. Once has he picked a quarterback in the second round (Jimmy Garoppolo, 2014). Never has he picked a quarterback in the top 60 of a draft. So you might look at all that history and eliminate the Pats from moving up to 10 or nine or eight to pick a passer. I wouldn’t eliminate that chance, because Belichick is proving this year that there’s no book on roster-building for him, particularly in the post-Brady era. Now, I doubt the Pats will trade next year’s first-round pick, the likely cost to move up into QB-acquisition position, but nothing’s certain with the Patriots now.
As we learned from the un-Belichickian spending spree in free agency, Belichick will do what is best for his franchise in a given year. Now, if they don’t pick a passer in round one, Florida’s Kyle Trask at 46 or 96 (their picks in rounds two and three) wouldn’t surprise me.
Scattering some other observations:
• “DeVonta Smith is one of the best football players I’ve ever seen,” said one GM. “I know he scares teams with his size [170 pounds], but his hands and his presence and how smart he plays . . . I think he’ll have an incredible career.”
• “If I could pick one player in this draft who’s got the best chance to go to the Hall of Fame, it’s Penei Sewell,” one coach told me. “He’s my left tackle from day one.”
• Asked another coach about Gil Brandt’s most-unusual-draft-ever statement, and this coach said: “I agree wholeheartedly. And I agree about how worried he is about the opt-outs. This year’s unprecedented. I’m worried about all the things we don’t know. We don’t really know the prospects, personally or medically, the way we should.”
• Kyle Trask could go anywhere from the bottom of the first round to the fourth. He’s an incredible story. Never started a game in high school, playing behind current Miami QB D’Eriq King. Got scholarshipped out of a Florida football camp to play for the Gators—and told me he would have gone to McNeese State otherwise. Redshirted in ’16, broken foot in ’17, broken foot in ’18. Threw 68 TDs and 15 picks in his last two seasons, and nearly passed Florida to a stunning upset of Alabama in the SEC title game last December.
Big and a bit plodding, but Trask’s QB tutor, John Beck, told me after his workouts in California this winter: “He threw with pro accuracy the entire time. Very consistent thrower, and really can drive the ball.”
Trask told me that his college experience has taught him the “why” of decision-making. “I think that, plus my work on accuracy, consistency and timing has me ready for the next level.” I asked if he had any preference of how high he’s drafted, or by which team. “I am not concerned at all with the number I’m picked,” he said. “I’m just concerned with going to the right team for me. I’m not afraid of competition.” Good answer.