2021 NFL Draft: 49ers' options at No. 3, five pro day risers and the battle for CB1
Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
— Five prospects who have boosted their draft stock on the pro day circuit.
— It’s now a two-man race in this draft class’ battle for CB1.
But first, a look at how the 49ers could proceed with their newly acquired No. 3 pick …
The San Francisco 49ers executed a blockbuster trade on Friday, putting them in prime position to nab one of the top quarterbacks in the 2021 NFL Draft. While Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence appears to be headed to Jacksonville to become the Jaguars’ new QB1, the Niners clearly like the other top prospects at the game’s most important position, having given the Dolphins two first-round picks and a third in order to move up nine slots in this year’s draft to No. 3 overall.
It’s not entirely clear what the New York Jets plan to do with the No. 2 pick. They could a) draft a quarterback, b) stick with Sam Darnold and take a top prospect at another position or c) trade out. Given that uncertainty, it’s impossible to know exactly which quarterback will be available when San Francisco comes on the clock. Thus, 49ers GM John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan must believe in the talent and potential of multiple QB prospects not named Trevor Lawrence. While the 49ers continue to insist that Jimmy Garoppolo remains in their plans as a starter in 2021, this kind of aggressive move says the team wants to secure its franchise quarterback for the future over draft weekend.
With all of that in mind, I wanted to take a look at Ohio State’s Justin Fields, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and BYU’s Zach Wilson, assessing how each quarterback could fit into Shanahan’s offensive system in San Francisco. So let’s dig in — in alphabetical order:
The Ohio State star would give the 49ers a different style of playmaker at the position. Fields is a rugged athlete with A+ speed and arm talent. He put up impressive numbers as a two-year starter in Columbus, while displaying an ability to take his game up a notch in marquee contests. Looking back at his performances against Lawrence-led Clemson in each of the past two College Football Playoffs, he has shown the 49ers how he can put a team on his back as the offense’s primary playmaker.
Furthermore, Fields’ athleticism, mobility and arm talent mesh well with the bootleg action that is featured prominently in Shanahan’s scheme. He is fast enough to threaten defensive ends on the edges, which enhances the 49ers’ running game by keeping defenders from aggressively pursuing runs to the front side. In addition, Fields is an effective passer off play-action, with the capacity to deliver strikes down the seam or on a variety of in-breaking routes and crossers. San Francisco’s play-action-heavy scheme would give Fields a chance to play at a high level early.
Considering Fields is also a dynamic runner with the size and strength to handle some involvement in the ground game on designed QB runs, Shanahan could have fun pulling out the old playbook that helped Robert Griffin III become a budding superstar as the 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Despite his inexperience — SEE: 17 total starts at North Dakota State — Lance is an ideal fit for the 49ers’ offense as a potential QB1. The big, athletic playmaker deftly orchestrated the Bison’s multi-faceted offense, which features a mix of traditional pro-style schemes, RPOs and designed QB runs. Lance’s background in directing a diverse offense would enable him to thrive in an attack that features a variety of concepts designed to confound and confuse defenses.
Looking at the potential marriage between Shanahan and Lance, it is easy to envision the 49ers running a host of bootleg/play-action passes that make the game easy for the quarterback. The levels concepts and half-field reads would allow the North Dakota State product to find success as a passer while learning the pro game. Moreover, the combination of off-tackle runs and complementary play-action passes with an A+ athlete at quarterback would add a fear factor to the 49ers’ offense that just doesn’t exist with Jimmy G at the helm.
That’s why Lance’s untapped potential could entice Shanahan to retool his offense to feature the best concepts from his time in San Francisco, Atlanta and Washington. The mix of traditional runs, QB runs, RPOs and exotic play-action passes could elevate the 49ers’ offense while maximizing Lance’s potential as a dual-threat quarterback.
These days, most of the mock draft universe has Wilson going to the Jets at No. 2 overall. Nothing’s set in stone, though, so we might as well explore how the BYU product could look in red and gold.
The spectacular passer is an Aaron Rodgers type as a dynamic passer with the capacity to carve up opponents from the pocket or on impromptu throws. He dazzles evaluators with his arm talent and his ability to deliver “wow” throws to receivers all over the field. He has unlimited range as a passer, but is at his best operating within a rhythm offense designed to get the ball out of his hands in a hurry. Watching Wilson work within the pocket is like watching an MLB hurler befuddle batters with an array of nasty pitches. He works around defenders at the line of scrimmage utilizing a variety of arm angles that make him challenging to defend as a defensive play caller.
With Wilson also specializing in off-platform throws and displaying skills as a runner, the 6-foot-2, 214-pounder would give Shanahan a dynamic quarterback to feature in his explosive play-action passing game. After watching Rodgers put up MVP numbers in a similar system, the savvy play caller would likely utilize a duplicate blueprint to take advantage of Wilson’s unique set of skills. Although I’m not suggesting Wilson is on par with the three-time MVP, the vision of seeing Rodgers thrive in this scheme makes it easy for Shanahan to craft a plan with the BYU standout in mind.
PRO DAYS: Ranking the top five risers
The 2021 draft process is drastically different for evaluators and prospects, with the NFL Scouting Combine significantly altered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This has forced general managers, scouts and coaches to place a greater emphasis on performances at pro day workouts as part of the evaluation puzzle. Prospects with solid on-field résumés could see their draft stocks soar in the wake of exceptional showings in front of decision-makers this spring.
Although we are still a week or so away from wrapping up the pro day circuit, a number of prospects have already made quite an impression this month. Here are five prospects climbing the charts following strong pro day outings:
The All-American linebacker issued a reminder to general managers and scouts that he is one of the best defenders in the draft with a sensational workout that showcased his rare combination of size, speed, athleticism and explosiveness. Measuring 6-foot-3, 246 pounds, Parsons popped a 4.39-second 40-yard dash while also displaying impressive movements in positional drills. He easily turned and transitioned in zone drop drills and also flashed explosive strength and power as a potential pass rusher executing a variety of rush maneuvers on bags. With few linebackers possessing his array of skills as an off-ball linebacker with A+ pass-rush/blitz ability, Parsons’ name is buzzing again in scouting circles.
It is hard to find big, athletic corners with speed, quickness and refined cover skills. That’s why the scouting community is going crazy over Newsome after the 6-foot, 192-pound cover corner blitzed a 4.38-second 40 and posted a 40-inch vertical jump earlier this month. This kind of explosiveness supports the dynamic cover skills displayed by the savvy corner on tape. As one of the few cornerbacks capable of playing man or zone coverage utilizing a variety of techniques (press, bail and traditional backpedal), Newsome is a five-tool standout on the island with the potential to fit into any defensive scheme.
There aren’t many 6-6, 314-pound offensive tackles walking the Earth with Cosmi’s physical attributes and athletic gifts. The Longhorn standout clocked exceptional times in the 40 (4.84) and short shuttle (4.39) with an explosive broad jump measurement (9 feet, 9 inches) during his pro day. He capped off his athletic display with a strong showing on the bench press (36). On the field, Cosmi plays to his athletic traits as a mobile blocker in the running game. He’s not a people-mover, but his movement skills and overall athleticism could make him an ideal blocker in a zone-heavy running scheme.
Scouts are more likely to embrace a prospect with substandard measurements if he is an exceptional athlete with A+ speed, quickness and burst. Moore certainly made a compelling case to evaluators with a sensational pro day performance that featured elite metrics in the 40-yard dash (4.29), 3-cone drill (6.65-6.68 seconds) and vertical jump (42.5 inches). Although he measured in at 5-foot-7, 180 pounds, the diminutive playmaker has explosive ability and a speed-based game that evokes comparisons to Tyreek Hill. With an eye-opening workout that confirmed his freakiness, scouts will think long and hard about adding the Purdue standout as a Day 2 prospect.
The fastest riser up draft boards continues the climb after a strong performance at Stanford’s pro day. The 6-4, 225-pounder clocked an unofficial 4.58-second 40 time with equally impressive efforts in the 3-cone drill (6.90) and short shuttle (4.37). Not to mention, he popped a 32-inch vertical jump and a broad jump of 9 feet, two inches. Those athletic attributes complement an intriguing passer with the ability to throw inside of the pocket or on the move. Despite entering the league with just 11 college starts, Mills’ combination of athleticism and arm talent has scouts buzzing about his potential as a pro.
KEEP AN EYE ON:
Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida: The athletic pass catcher is already considered one of the very best overall prospects in the draft, but some view him as the ultimate offensive weapon on the perimeter. As a dynamic tight end with wide receiver-like playmaking ability, he has the potential to create mismatches in space like Travis Kelce and Darren Waller. If he dazzles at Florida’s pro day (March 31), the conversation about Pitts as a potential top-five pick will really take off.
Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State: The former five-star recruit has teased evaluators with his superhero-like talents as the Buckeyes’ QB1, but scouts could walk away with a greater appreciation for his potential after watching him work out. Fields has reportedly clocked 40-yard dash times in the low 4.4-second range and a clock-busting run down the track during Ohio State’s pro day (March 30) could change the narrative regarding his ability to blossom into a star in the league. As a dual-threat with size and speed, imaginative play callers could have fun designing an offense around the gifted athlete and playmaker.
Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota: Despite posting impressive numbers as an outside and slot receiver, the Minnesota product isn’t a consensus top-five receiver in the scouting community. With a standout performance at the Golden Gophers’ pro day (April 1) that includes a fast 40 time (4.49 or faster), Bateman can put the attention back on his game and his all-star potential as a playmaker in the mold of Michael Thomas and A.J. Brown.
CB1: Class of 2021’s top cover man?
The league-wide shift toward a pass-centric approach has made it imperative for premier defenses and title contenders to have at least one elite player at cornerback. To play defense at a high level in the NFL, defensive coordinators have placed a greater emphasis on coverage. Explosive athletes who possess lockdown capabilities and ballhawking skills are valued at a premium. That’s why it is not a coincidence to see all-stars like Jalen Ramsey , Marlon Humphrey , Tre'Davious White , Jaire Alexander , Denzel Ward and Marshon Lattimore occupying the CB1 spots on playoff squads.
Teams looking for cornerback help in the 2021 NFL Draft will find a class loaded with athletic cover corners processing the size, length, ball skills and explosiveness to thrive on the island. Moreover, cornerback-needy teams will also discover a crop of playmakers with diverse skills that enable them to play a variety of coverages in the back end.
At the top of the draft, the conversation is centered around Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley, South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn and Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II as the leading candidates for the CB1 spot. Following the news regarding Farley’s back injury, the battle for No. 1 is squarely between Surtain and Horn down the stretch. Teams must decide between the skilled technician (Surtain) and the explosive athlete with dynamic skills (Horn). In addition, evaluators must determine which player best suits their teams’ preferred playing style.
Surtain is a five-tool player on the perimeter with a refined game that is ready-made for a defense that employs multiple coverages. He capably plays man and zone utilizing a variety of techniques that create problems for opposing quarterbacks and receivers. The savvy corner displays veteran-like instincts, anticipation and awareness on the island. With Surtain also possessing the size (6-foot-2, 208 pounds) and speed (4.46 40) to bump, bang and run with receivers in man or zone, he has a steady game that makes him an easy choice as top pick.
Horn is an explosive athlete with A+ physical tools. The spectacular playmaker is ideally suited to play man-to-man on the perimeter from a press alignment. Measuring 6-1, 205 pounds with 4.39 speed, Horn has the ability to play with finesse or power against receivers. He stonewalls wideouts at the line of scrimmage with stiff jabs, but is also capable of shadowboxing early in routes. Despite playing with more of a gambler’s mentality on the perimeter, Horn is a solid cover corner with a knack for being at the right place at the right time.
In breaking down Surtain and Horn, the decision ultimately comes down to style and preference. If you’re looking for a consistent cover corner with a game that is steady each week, Surtain is the choice. He can fit into any scheme and his technique diversity will enable him to throw different pitches at pass catchers to keep them off of their games.
Horn offers defensive coordinators an explosive athlete to build a game plan around. He has “shutdown corner” athleticism with a quiet confidence and swagger that suits that responsibility. The South Carolina standout checks off a lot of boxes as a CB1, and teams preferring man coverage will rate him over others at the position.
If I had to choose, I would opt for Surtain due to his fully developed tool box and dependable game. Consistency and versatility are important when it comes to playing on the island.
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