2021 NFL Draft Day 1 winners, losers: 49ers up, Justin Fields down
Sometime during an alternately interminable and entertaining build-up to the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft on Thursday, it started to feel a lot like 2005. That was back when Aaron Rodgers’ potential desire to play in San Francisco was dominating the NFL. The 49ers didn’t want him with the No. 1 overall pick then, when he fell to the Packers at No. 24. And while San Francisco wanted him in 2021, Rodgers once again didn’t have his wish granted on draft night.
The afternoon began to ignite when NFL Network reporter Tom Pelissero reported that the 49ers reached out to the Packers on Wednesday in a bid to acquire the reigning MVP, but that there was “no chance” the Packers would deal him. Within a few hours, it became clear that these reports were seemingly coming out for a reason. Rodgers is unhappy in Green Bay, according to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport, and ESPN reported that Rodgers told some in the organization he does not want to return to the team.
On a day where five quarterback challengers to Rodgers’ throne were taken within the first 15 picks, Rodgers rumors started roiling. Former Broncos player and media member Mark Schlereth claimed a deal was almost done to send Rodgers to Denver, but Rapoport and ProFootballTalk reported Green Bay wasn’t negotiating with anyone. The Packers have said with their words and actions that Rodgers isn’t going anywhere. General manager Brian Gutekunst reiterated his position in a statement Thursday, saying the team is “committed to Aaron in 2021 and beyond,” then said the team is not going to trade Rodgers, per NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero. Green Bay has offered him a new extension. My suggestion: Offer more!
Rodgers has some leverage, and while the Niners drafted quarterback Trey Lance on Thursday, there are a few teams that could still come calling. The Broncos (who did trade for veteran QB Teddy Bridgewater on Wednesday) passed on QBs Justin Fields and Mac Jones in the first round on Thursday, adding cornerback Patrick Surtain II with the ninth overall pick to a surplus of quality cornerbacks. Could Surtain or one of those corners be offered to Green Bay in a package that also includes a raft of first-round picks? While Denver and Las Vegas could still make sense as a destination, future draft picks don’t have a lot of value from now until after the 2021 regular season.
If the Packers — who did, after all, draft cornerback Eric Stokes 29th overall — are only going to get future picks for the league MVP, they may as well test Rodgers’ resolve while trying to sweeten the pot in an effort to make him happy. If it takes making Rodgers the richest player in the game, trading away 2020 first-round pick Jordan Love or even changing GMs, then the Packers should do it.
The organization took an important first step on Thursday by not blinking as Rodgers’ camp appeared to partake in an aggressive spray of sourcing across multiple media platforms. Rodgers is unhappy. Everyone knows it. But the Jets and 49ers found their quarterbacks of the future on Thursday, there aren’t many potential landing spots, and the Packers control where Rodgers plays in 2021, if Rodgers plays, whether he likes it or not.
As we wait to see where Rodgers and the Packers end up, here are the winners and losers from an entertaining Round 1:
The 49ers’ brain trust: Kudos to coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch for keeping their selection of Trey Lance a secret up to the moment they drafted him third overall. They also deserve love for taking a swing at Aaron Rodgers along the way.
We’ll probably get a longform insider account of the draft process that, as NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported, initially began with the Niners zeroing in on Mac Jones (after trading up to the third overall pick) before Lance began to win them over. Whether the hypothetical future account includes internal strife, bad reporting or a change of heart, it’s a selection that will define the next four years in San Francisco, much like the decision to pass on QBs Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes to select defensive lineman Solomon Thomas (who did not make it to a second contract with the team) third overall during Shanahan’s first draft on the job, in 2017, helped define the 49ers’ offense in the time since. Even if Shanahan originally preferred Jones and the front office liked Lance, nothing this massive is happening in San Francisco without Shanahan’s approval.
No one will ever question Shanahan’s ability to scheme wideouts open, and it will be a treat to watch him coach up a player with Lance’s incredible physical gifts and smarts after seeing a whole lot of backups Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard over the last few years. The 49ers are also taking a risk on a player jumping from North Dakota State with under 400 dropbacks in college. This is a bigger projection than any top-five quarterback pick in memory.
In theory, veteran Jimmy Garoppolo could be a bridge quarterback for Lance. In reality, the 49ers would probably unload Garoppolo’s sizable contract if a decent offer came along. But with the Patriots drafting Mac Jones, it looks unlikely that this will happen before August. The 49ers may as well see what Lance looks like during the offseason before dealing Jimmy G., but it’s only a matter of time before Shanahan is finally coaching a quarterback who can scoot.
Falcons QB Matt Ryan: Moving some of Ryan’s money into the future was nice, a sign the soon-to-be 36-year-old will be around in Atlanta a few more years. Not drafting a quarterback was nicer. Selecting tight end Kyle Pitts fourth overall was best of all. I have a lot of questions about this Falcons defense, but Ryan has upgraded the offensive coach in his ear (with former Titans OC Arthur Smith stepping into the head-coaching spot) and has an incredible supporting cast, with receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley and now Pitts. It is not an overstatement to say that Pitts is the best tight end prospect the draft has seen this century.
Eagles QB Jalen Hurts and WR Jalen Reagor: The Eagles not only passed on trying to upgrade at quarterback with Justin Fields still on the board, they found a No. 1 wideout for Hurts in DeVonta Smith, for whom they traded up to the 10th overall spot. While Smith’s relative lack of weight (170 pounds) gives him a different profile than most top receivers, his ability to get open at every level of the field will open up the Eagles’ offense. Smith can also help Reagor, last year’s first-round pick; Reagor makes a lot more sense as a No. 2 deep-threat complement to Smith’s all-field game than he does as a No. 1.
Chargers QB Justin Herbert: It’s not healthy how often I worry about Chargers failing to maximize the 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year’s incredible potential to be a top-five starting quarterback. I will worry less after they drafted rock-solid left tackle Rashawn Slater, who fell to them at pick No. 13. After so many years of getting the offensive line wrong, it looks like the Chargers may finally be headed in the right direction up front.
The LSU Bengals: Tackle Penei Sewell was still on the board when the Bengals picked fifth overall, but that doesn’t diminish my love of their ultimate selection of LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase. It’s not all about the connection between QB Joe Burrow (last year’s No. 1 overall pick) and Chase, his former college teammate, although that doesn’t hurt. It’s about how special a prospect Chase is.
I’d argue there hasn’t been as complete and revered a wideout prospect since Julio Jones in 2011. Sewell is a nice player, too, but he is not at that level, regardless of positional value. And it’s not like the Bengals have ignored tackle! They drafted Jonah Williams No. 11 overall in 2019 and signed Riley Reiff, a solid enough NFL starter, this offseason. They will surely add to the offensive line later in a deep draft at the position.
This should be the most exciting Bengals offense since Chad Ochocinco, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry were catching passes from Carson Palmer. Last year’s second-round pick, Tee Higgins, is an incredible deep threat and already plays like a star. Tyler Boyd is one of the best slot receivers in the league. I can’t think of a more promising young receiver trio.
The Baltimore Ravens: Ravens QB Lamar Jackson needed an outside wide receiver, and he got one in Rashod Bateman, drafted 27th overall. The Minnesota receiver might be unflashy, but he was as complete a wideout as any in this draft not named Ja’Marr Chase. The Ravens need to expand their passing game, and Bateman is a physical complement to Hollywood Brown who can also go down the field.
I also like the big swing the Ravens took with the No. 31 overall pick on edge rusher Jayson Oweh. There’s really no debate about Oweh being one of the most raw, physically gifted pass rushers to come out in a long time. His testing scores broke the charts. While the sacks weren’t always there, the Ravens are the perfect team to mold his talents into production. That late in the first round, I like the notion of going for the biggest possible upside.
The Cowboys’ best-laid plans: First, backup QB Andy Dalton went and won too many games for Dallas down the stretch last season, ruining their draft position. Next, the draft’s top two cornerbacks, Jaycee Horn (taken eighth by the Panthers) and Patrick Surtain (taken ninth by the Broncos), were selected in the two spots before the Cowboys were set to pick, at No. 10 overall. I read approximately 3,185 Mock Drafts, and none of them had Horn and Surtain off the board that early. Roughly 3,184 of them had Dallas selecting a cornerback.
The Cowboys will spin the development as positive and say they wanted linebacker Micah Parsons all along. And why wouldn’t they? Parsons is an amazing talent, and Dallas also snagged a third-rounder from the Eagles while moving down two picks before taking Parsons 12th overall. Perhaps this will turn out like when the Cowboys were thwarted in their desire to draft Paxton Lynch in the first round in 2016 and got stuck with Dak Prescott three rounds later. (It probably won’t turn out as well for veteran linebackers Leighton Vander Esch or Jaylon Smith, one of whom is likely facing a limited future in Dallas with Parsons aboard.)
All that time wasted criticizing a pick that didn’t happen: I’m talking about you, writers, podcasters, talking heads and TV producers that spent weeks criticizing Mac Jones-to-SF, a pick that did not happen. As Kyle Shanahan knows, I’m going to die one day, possibly by Sunday, and I’m not getting that time back.
The Urban Meyer Honeymoon: Sure, it’s nice for the Jaguars’ new head coach to land one of the most complete quarterback prospects to enter the league in the last five years. But Rapsheet’s report that Tim Tebow, now 33, worked out for Jacksonville at tight end has me questioning everything. Including whether talking about Tim Tebow is going to be part of my life again.
Steelers fans wanting a fresh start: The Steelers told anyone who would listen how much they believed in Mason Rudolph, even after his stale 2019 season. After a surprisingly impressive Week 17 start against the Browns, I wasn’t that surprised to see Pittsburgh reward Rudolph with a contract extension through 2022 on Thursday. It’s a backup’s contract, but anyone holding out hope the Steelers would inject more life into the depth chart has to be disappointed. Perhaps Dwayne Haskins will prove me wrong, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if Rudolph is the one given the chance to start games when Ben Roethlisberger gets injured or even after he retires.
New Bears QB Justin Fields: Perhaps the less-than-thrilled expression on Fields’ face after he was drafted was just a misleading moment of television. Or perhaps it reflected how a lot of fans of Fields were feeling. The Bears’ trade up to No. 11 for Fields was a wise maneuver by a general manager (Ryan Pace) and coach (Matt Nagy) whose jobs appear to be on thin ice. But that’s part of why it’s one of the worst possible fits for Fields.
If Nagy can’t orchestrate a winning record with Fields and Andy Dalton in 2021, the entire Bears operation could re-start next season. No. 1 receiver Allen Robinson is set to play this season on the franchise tag. The offensive line and running game look average at best, and Pace’s ability to scheme guys open hasn’t been apparent the last two seasons. Fields is talented enough to overcome it all, and Bears fans should absolutely be thrilled, but the Ohio State product is fighting an uphill battle.
The big-board harmony between Raiders GM Mike Mayock and NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah: Jeremiah had Alabama tackle Alex Leatherwood as his No. 62 overall prospect. The Raiders took him No. 17 overall. The Raiders have shocked a lot of mock drafters in past years, taking Clelin Ferrell fourth overall in 2019 and Damon Arnette 19th overall in 2020. It’s one thing to have conviction in a pick, but as Jeremiah pointed out, the Raiders could have likely acquired more value by trading down and taking the same player.
Patriots QB Cam Newton’s comeback season: Newton should be an ideal mentor for Mac Jones when it comes to leadership and learning how to be a pro. But Newton and Jones’ playing styles are so diametrically opposed that it’s hard to imagine the Patriots building their offense around the 31-year-old Newton’s skills for long. Jones arrives in Foxborough as a prospect with a Brady-like dad bod and a skill set that could translate to early playing time. I suspect Newton has a decent shot to start in Week 1, but ultimately, it will be all up to Jones. The Alabama product will play when he’s ready and could enjoy the fruits of the Patriots’ free agent haul while Newton looks back wistfully on his 2020 games when Jakobi Meyers was his top receiver by far.
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