Quarterback is the most important position in sports, we know that. We also know that NFL teams view the NFL Draft as the ultimate opportunity to reset at the position. Although history teaches us that this isn’t always successful, this year is set to be no different. In fact, this year could make history with up to six QB prospects selected in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, according to Pro Football Network’s Chief NFL Analyst Trey Wingo.
“We’re talking about the potential of really a solid five, and perhaps six quarterbacks going in the first round.”
Be sure to join PFN Chief NFL Analyst Trey Wingo and Chief Draft Analyst Tony Pauline every week on Draft Insiders as they break down all you need to know heading into the 2021 NFL Draft. Subscribe to our YouTube channel and hit the notifications icon so you can tune in live every Wednesday at 9 PM ET.
Could six QB prospects really go in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft?
It’s been clear for a long time that quarterback prospects would dominate the 2021 NFL Draft. There are more teams than ever in need of a signal-caller as the game becomes increasingly reliant on the position. Gone are the days of ground and pound — unless you’re the Baltimore Ravens or a Derrick Henry-led Tennessee Titans team.
As Wingo points out on the March 24 Draft Insiders show, like it or not, the game is predicated on QB play: “There’s no doubt that the way the game is played, there are four positions that are at a premium. It’s quarterback. Protect the quarterback. The person that catches the ball from the quarterback and the person designed to bring the quarterback to the ground. That’s the way the game is played, so you see these incredible reaches at the quarterback position.”
Trevor Lawrence is clearly the best QB prospect in the 2021 NFL Draft
There’s a clear common denominator here — quarterback. So who are the six QB prospects that could potentially go in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft? Pro Football Network’s Chief Draft Analyst Tony Pauline weighed in with his thoughts.
“Trevor Lawrence is head and shoulders above the rest,” Pauline begins. “He is a special prospect. He is that generational type of quarterback that I think can carry a team at the next level, as did Peyton Manning, as did John Elway, as did Andrew Luck — just needs the proper coaching. Trevor Lawrence has it all.”
The word “generational” is bandied around far too often these days. However, where Trevor Lawrence is concerned, there is no other way to describe him. He has been the consensus best QB prospect in this 2021 NFL Draft class since he set foot on the field as a freshman at Clemson. Leading the Tigers to a national championship as a true freshman was the defining moment of his NFL Draft stock. Everything else has essentially just been waiting for this moment to arrive.
As Pauline points out, expectations are often “off the charts” for early-round quarterback selections. However, everything is in place for you to believe that the expectation is justified for Lawrence.
The fantastic four?
Behind Lawrence are four intriguing QB prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft. Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields had the same highly-touted, heavily-recruited path to the NFL as Lawrence and therefore has consistently been in the picture. For the other three, their arrival at the NFL Draft stage has come through different experiences and journeys at remarkably different times.
The order that the four QB prospects land in the first round in the 2021 NFL Draft could come down to team preference, as Pauline elaborates upon.
“When you look at Zach Wilson and Mac Jones, you’ve got cerebral guys. Two guys who really do a great job mentally commanding the offense and staying away from mistakes. But, you’re giving a little away with the physical skills. That’s where Trey Lance and Justin Fields come in. These guys have all the physical skills, all have the cannon of an arm. They can get the ball downfield 60 yards with speed and spin, no problem at all. They can also pick up a lot of yardage with their legs.”
“So, it depends on what you want. Do you want the physical specimen like Justin Fields or Trey Lance? Or do you want a Zach Wilson or Mac Jones, where maybe you’re giving away some of the physical skills?”
At no point does Pauline mention the lack of experience that North Dakota State’s Lance has, or the quality of opposition that Wilson faced at BYU, or the supporting cast that Jones had at Alabama. Those factors are outside of their control. When you strip away those circumstances of environment, it’s about evaluating these 2021 NFL Draft QB prospects on what each offers in terms of things like arm strength and ball placement.
Could Kellen Mond be the final piece of the first-round puzzle?
For a while now, there’s been a consensus that four QB prospects could go in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. As Jones guided Alabama to a national championship, then performed impressively at the Senior Bowl, he appears to have entrenched himself as a first-round pick with the potential to go in the top 10.
However, late in the process, another name has been added to the mix. With a distinct decline from the “top four” but a huge number of teams needing to address the quarterback position, Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond is a QB prospect that is now getting first-round attention in the 2021 NFL Draft. Mond did himself no harm with a stellar showing at the Senior Bowl. However, Pauline remains skeptical on whether the Aggies signal-caller should be receiving first-round consideration.
“Could it happen? Yes. He’s not a top-40 pick on my board. If he’s drafted late in Round 1 by a team like the Saints or Pittsburgh, that’s not a bad situation. However, I have a tough time seeing him as a first-round pick right now.”
Selecting a quarterback in the first round is no guarantee of success
While there may be six QB prospects drafted in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, they don’t guarantee success for a franchise in need of a transformation. In fact, recent history would suggest quite the opposite. The most successful quarterback of the modern era was a sixth-round pick. Tom Brady may well be an outlier, but both Russell Wilson and Nick Foles have been the quarterback for Super Bowl-winning teams since the turn of the millennium.
Furthermore, recent history has been particularly cruel to first-round quarterbacks, as Wingo explains:
“There are none of the 22 quarterbacks drafted in the first round from 2009-2016 that are still on the same team that drafted them. Half of those 22 quarterbacks are no longer playing in the NFL. Paxton Lynch, Johnny Manziel, E.J. Manuel, Andrew Luck, Brandon Weeden, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder, Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow, Mark Sanchez, and Josh Freeman.”
The NFL’s impatience at the quarterback position is clearly demonstrated by examining the most recent first-round prospects.
“Let’s go through the 2017-2019 Draft,” Wingo continued, “Mitchell Trubisky is no longer on the Bears. Josh Rosen has bounced around a couple of times. Dwayne Haskins in 2019, has already been moved from the team that drafted him. Depending on what happens with Deshaun Watson and Sam Darnold that’s two more quarterbacks taken at the very top of the first round that could be gone from the team that drafted them.”
Regardless of historic failure, the 2021 NFL Draft QB class could make history
With the first wave of free agency behind us, team needs are starting to solidify. There are multiple teams that you would feel uncomfortable describing as “set” at the quarterback position. The Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets seem certain to take one of the 2021 NFL Draft QB prospects. The Atlanta Falcons may look to find their future Matt Ryan replacement. The Detroit Lions are a contender for a quarterback.
Both the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers are trade-up candidates. Further down the order, the New England Patriots, Washington Football Team, and Chicago Bears are teams in need. Pauline has already alluded to the New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers’ needs. Hell, even the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could try and secure Tom Brady’s successor with a 2022 crop of NFL Draft QB prospects that isn’t as inspiring as this class.
If the Miami Dolphins truly believe in Tua Tagovailoa, they’re in the money seat to trade out of pick 3 with a quarterback-needy team. That could potentially see this 2021 NFL Draft QB class make history.
“We’re talking about potentially going 1, 2, 3, 4, in this year’s draft,” concluded Wingo. “Just twice before have quarterbacks been taken with the first three picks in the draft. We’ve never had four straight.”
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Oliver Hodgkinson is a staff writer for Pro Football Network. You can follow him on Twitter at @ojhodgkinson.