Mailbag: Which QB Could Unexpectedly Jump Into the First Round of the 2021 Draft?

The last three QBs to go first overall were not expected to be first round picks. Could anyone make the jump this year? Plus, questions about Cam Newton, Dak Prescott, the salary cap and training camps.
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Here’s what we got from you guys, and it was mostly football-related, for the last mailbag of May …

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From Max (@max_schein): Other than (Justin) Fields, (Trevor) Lawrence and (Trey) Lance, what QBs are potential first-round guys in 2021?

Here’s why this is a great question: The last three first overall picks weren’t seen in that sort of light before their final collegiate seasons. Both Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and LSU’s Joe Burrow were viewed by most scouts as third- or fourth-round picks, at best, and Mayfield’s Sooner teammate Kyler Murray was seen as a super-athletic baseball player. Slowly but surely, those guys changed perception with transformative finales as collegians.

I don’t think we see that this year at the top, mainly because I think it’s unlikely anyone but Lawrence goes first overall, and if anyone has even a slight chance, it’s probably Fields. Lance has, rightfully, gotten the attention of many. So has Georgia’s Jamie Newman, who transferred from Wake Forest, although a couple scouts I’ve talked that have evaluated him don’t see him that way.

So here’s another name for you: Stanford’s Davis Mills. He just became the Cardinal’s starter last year, overtaking incumbent K.J. Costello, has all the measureables and traits, was the No. 1 prep quarterback in America three years ago, and David Shaw—a coach that NFL teams listen to—has signed off on him to everyone who’ll ask. At the very least, if he has a big year, he could make the quarterback scene atop the draft a little more crowded.

From Sam Minton (@sam_minton22): Will Cam Newton be signed before the regular season?

Sam, I personally don’t think he’ll be signed before the start of training camp. And happening in September is possible. Earlier in the offseason, I know Newton wasn’t of a mind to go somewhere where he’d be a clear No. 2, and was comfortable waiting for an opportunity to materialize. I don’t know how much he’s willing to bend on that now that teams have, for the most part, filled out their quarterback depth charts. And I think the closest comp to what he’s facing is where Jay Cutler was in the spring of 2017.

Cutler, you’ll remember, was released by the Bears, in March 2017. He “retired” two months later, and signed a deal with FOX, saying in a statement at the time, “I don't know if retirement is the right word; I don't feel that anyone ever really retires from the NFL. You are either forced to leave, or you lose the desire to do what's required to keep going. I'm in between those situations at this point in my life.”

The easy translation there: The kind of job he wanted as a player wasn’t available to him, so he was walking. And it wasn’t like he wasn’t one of the top 70 quarterbacks on the planet at that point. More so, based on his reputation, teams weren’t that interested in bringing him in as a backup, or having him compete with a young starter—thinking maybe he wouldn’t be a resource to that player, as some teams want their backups QBs to be.

Then, Ryan Tannehill blew out his knee in camp. He was supposed to start for a team coached by a Cutler confidant—Adam Gase. And suddenly, the equation change. That was the right opportunity that Cutler would’ve taken in March, and he signed, and played one last year in the NFL.

The lesson there, to me, and I’ve said this before, is that backup QB has a different job description than starting QB, which is why any effort to rank quarterbacks and wonder why a guy in the top 64 doesn’t have a job is dumb. It 100% ignores how a team is put together. The problem for Cutler in 2017 was most teams had trouble seeing what he might be if he wasn’t the clear-cut starter. I think Newton’s run into a similar issue this year.

Will circumstances change come August? Maybe. Maybe someone gets hurt, or maybe some team (Jacksonville? New England?) realizes its quarterback situation isn’t what it thought it was and needs help. We’ll see. It’s hard to predict those sorts of things.

From Chris Gilmore (@CMGilmorePastor): Will the Broncos reach a long-term deal with Justin Simmons or let him play in the tag this year?

Chris, I think that Denver genuinely wants to get a deal done with Simmons, and I don’t think that Simmons is against doing one. Safeties are very much valued in Vic Fangio’s defense—Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos were bedrocks for him in Chicago—and Simmons is a good one. And the Broncos are top five in the league in cap space, with just under $25 million to spend.

Now, the reality is that tagged players have rarely gotten long-term deals until right before the deadline. The ones that didn’t have to wait either were traded (Dee Ford, Frank Clark, Jarvis Landry), signed to an offer sheet (Kyle Fuller) or had the leverage in putting off a surgery the team wanted them to get (pretty genius move by DeMarcus Lawrence’s camp last year). Most of the others who’ve gotten deals done did them in mid-July.

It’s like that for Simmons. It’ll probably be that way for Dak Prescott (we’ll get to him) too. And there are 12 other guys beyond those two franchised, and another, Kenyan Drake, transitioned, which should make for a little blitz of negotiating action ahead of July 15.

From SAS (@wcbsas): Is Jordan Love a tradeable asset in two years along the lines of Jimmy G?

SAS, he certainly could be, and Aaron Rodgers playing well would actually help in that regard—showing Matt LaFleur and his staff’s ability to coach up a quarterback and giving Love full justification for not cracking the lineup. That’s how it worked with Garoppolo in New England. He was drafted the year that a run of four Super Bowl appearances in five years started, with Tom Brady playing some of the best ball of his career in that stretch, and part of the allure of Garoppolo was that he was coached by Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels.

So if Love plays well in the preseason, and there’s a drumbeat in NFL circles about his development, there’s no question opportunity might exist for the Packers to flip him in, say, the spring of 2023. And 2023, by the way, would be the natural fork in the road here. At that point, Rodgers will be 39 and going into a contract year, and the Packers will have to make a decision on Love’s fifth-year option, which creates a decision point for the team.

From Bryan Berning (@bberning70): With NJ’s gov announcing they’ll allow sports, which states are still not allowing sports? With CA, NY, NJ gov changing their stance on sports are you more confident training camp will start on time. Which of the holdout states that haven’t allowed sports yet could hold up camp?

Bryan, I felt all along there was a good chance that training camp would open on time, and what these developments do is increase the likelihood that teams in the most affected areas won’t have to move their camps out-of-state. In states like Washington and Massachusetts, there remain strict limitations on gatherings that could hinder camps, and Michigan is under a stay-at-home order through June 12, but we still have two months until camps are set to open (teams are allowed to start two weeks before their preseason opener).

More of this now really rests with the league, and the league and union have been working closely with their joint committee on health and safety to develop protocols. One plan I know they’ve kicked around would have players come back for physicals and testing, with strict limits on how many could be in the building at once, followed by a 2-3 week period of strength-and-conditioning before the helmets go on.

The question then becomes whether or not you try to let players back into team facilities in early-to-mid July, which I think players might push back on because that’s normally the downtime in the calendar. The league and players have also kicked around the idea of having some players back informally to start testing and physicals before the summer break begins (offseason programs end June 26), which would allow for protocols to be tested, and give teams a better idea of how they’ll handle it come July.

Because of these complications, by the way, I know a number of teams are in favor of pushing the season back a month. It’d allow for teams to be more deliberate in ramping players up for football activity, it’d buy more time for everyone to learn more about the virus and maybe for the country to move closer to permitting fans to be in the stands, and it’d give the league a shot to watch all the things baseball, basketball and hockey do right, and do wrong.

But, as I’ve heard it, for some reason (and my guess is it’s related to the message 345 Park is trying to send to partners, sponsors, and the public), the league office has been steadfastly against that idea.

From Taylor Hemness (@taylorhemness): If there are no fans in the stands, how does it affect a team's ability to operate financially? I mean, what suffers when the gate $$$ disappears, but the games continue?

Well, Taylor, each team, if there were no fans all year (which I think is unlikely) would lose eight or nine figures in local revenue. I’ve heard the average would be around $100 million per club. And I think losing anywhere close to that will hurt everyone. Here are a few ways that happens.

1) The salary cap. The cap is a percentage of total revenue, and losing $100 million per club (I don’t think the number winds up being near that high, but let’s work with it, since it’s a round number) would mean $48 million coming out of the 2021 cap equation. Let’s say then, otherwise, there’d have been a $10 million jump (due to structure of TV deals, etc.). Now, you’re at minus-$38 million. I don’t believe the league or union would go forward like that—it’d mean a bloodletting that would be good for no one. So I think they’d borrow from future years to flatten it out. So let’s say you spread that out over 2022-24. You lose a little less than $13 million each year. Eventually, with new TV deals and gambling money, that’ll self-correct. But it creates economic uncertainty that’ll make teams more hesitant to do big long-term deals with their own free agents, and certainly more conservative in pursuing other teams’ guys. Which, again, is good for no one.

2) The cashflow issue. Some teams, and most will probably remain nameless, are sure to be more conscious of the money going out, with less certainty on the money coming in. And what I’m referencing here isn’t about the cap. It’s about cash. So look at big-ticket veterans—and I think quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson and Dak Prescott are, to a degree, exempt from this—like Rams CB Jalen Ramsey, Chargers DE Joey Bosa, Jets S Jamal Adams, Browns DE Myles Garrett, Bills CB Tre’Davious White, Saints CB Marshon Lattimore, and Ravens LT Ronnie Stanley and CB Marlon Humphrey as examples to be in play here. Will their teams be willing to fork over the upfront cash it’ll take to do deals that’ll shatter glass ceilings at their positions in this environment? We’ll see.

3) The gameday employees. These people shouldn’t be forgotten, either. A lot of jobs would, obviously, not be necessary anymore, and likely be eliminated for at least a year.

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From James Cummins (@jcitfc79): Is Dak turning down $175mil when the salary cap might go down next year - risky, idiotic, or another adjective of your choice?

James, I don’t think it’s that risky. In fact, my belief is Prescott’s $31.41 million tag creates Kirk Cousins-type leverage, and that’s best explained in where the Cowboys QB’s situation could go over the next three years. Here are the scenarios …

• Play out the year at $31.41 million and become an unrestricted free agent in 2021, after Patrick Mahomes’s deal does whatever it will do to the price of business at the position.

• Play out the year at $31.41 million and get tagged again at $37.69 million in 2021, giving him a fully guaranteed take home of $69.1 million, before hitting the market in 2022, after Mahomes and potentially Lamar Jackson have done new deals, and with new TV deals perhaps affecting the NFL’s financial landscape.

• Get tagged a third time at $52.77 million, making Prescott’s three-year take home a robust $121.87 million over three years. The Cowboys, by rule, wouldn’t be able to tag him again, which make him a UFA in March 2023, four months shy of his 30th birthday. So, again, in that scenario, he’d have made over $40 million per year for three years, and then he’d get to free agency.

So why is relevant to lay out those three scenarios? Because realistically, those are the scenarios that the Cowboys have to beat—and convince Prescott to walk away from. And that should also explain why the length of the deal is a key here. The prior three each get Prescott back to the table before he turns 30. If he does, say, a six-year deal, he’ll be well past that career landmark before he can go back for more. Which means Dallas will have to make it really worth his while.

From Jesse Carlsen (@the77Raider): Do Gruden and Carr really not like each other?

I think there’s been some tension, yes, and their personalities definitely don’t meld perfectly. Gruden’s tough on his quarterbacks, and wants them to play with an edge, and that’s not really who Carr is. That said, the results haven’t exactly been bad. His pass rating in Year 1 playing Gruden, and in his complex offense, was the second highest (93.9) of his career. And last year, his passer rating topped 100 for the first time.

But I do think, eventually, Gruden and GM Mike Mayock will replace him. Maybe it’s with Marcus Mariota. Maybe it’s with someone else down the line. For now, Carr’s got three years left on his contract at very affordable numbers—$19 million this year, $19.625 million next year, and $19.876 million in 2022—which gives Vegas the flexibility to go forward with a quarterback they can win with, while still perusing the market.

From Craig Ginsberg (@CraigAdamG): Do you see a contract dispute in the future between Minnesota and Dalvin Cook?

We’ll wrap on this one. Craig, I think the situations in Minnesota (Cook), Cincinnati (Joe Mixon) and New Orleans (Alvin Kamara) all have potential to get interesting. I’m sure each of those guys believes he belongs financially somewhere in the vicinity of Zeke Elliott and Christian McCaffrey. And because guys at that position age in dog years, there’d certainly be merit to the idea of any of the three forcing the issue.

So stay tuned.

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