An Unusual NFL Draft Season Gets Underway

How two big-name quarterbacks from blueblood programs are preparing. Plus, the strongest and weakest positions in the 2021 draft, having some fun playing free-agency matchmaker, and why teams are in a hurry to make quarterback moves now.
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The Dolphins didn’t know, and still may not know, because Sam Ehlinger never wound up telling them. But when Miami’s offensive staff started installing with the National team’s roster at the Senior Bowl three weeks ago, the Texas quarterback immediately recognized formations. And motions. And run concepts. And pass concepts.

All of those were already in his binder.

This is a different draft year for everyone, and that means, for the prospects, finding a different way to approach it, with the old roadmap that coaches or ex-teammates could give them now largely crumpled up and thrown in the trash. There won’t be a combine. Pro days will be different. Private workouts—at least done in person—can’t happen, nor can “30 visits,” which normally allow for teams to fly prospects into their home cities.

For the kids coming out, the bad news is that there’s going to be some flying-blind elements to the process over the next two months. The good news? They’ll have some more time—time normally be gobbled up by flights or fancy dinners or good, old-fashioned B.S.-ing with teams—to play with.

The binder is one way Ehlinger is choosing to fill that time. His goal in starting it, after Texas’s season ended in the Alamo Bowl just after Christmas, was to learn the offenses of all 32 teams. The idea, of course, was to be ready for anything any coach or scout could possibly throw at him. He’s getting there.

“I’m about halfway through,” Ehlinger said Wednesday afternoon. “My plan was to have it done before the combine, so I could have that. But obviously [the combine] is not happening. So I’m still working on it. I’m just breaking it down and charting it by myself, breaking it up into categories from their third down philosophy to red zone, base personnel packages, and charting all that to really get a feel for what the different offenses are running.”

It’s fair to say a lot of prospects have a version of Ehlinger’s binder, in trying to find their own ways to gain an edge in a draft year that’s going to be most unusual. In a way, they’re all running a race, one that’s already been plenty bumpy, going back almost a year now, and one that promises more roadblocks ahead.

For Ehlinger, the plan is pretty simple. Make the most out of the time he’s got—and keep preparing for what could be ahead, even beyond the last weekend in April.

Maybe the Dolphins picked up on what Ehlinger did, or maybe they didn’t. Either way, the Longhorns’ four-year starter was as ready as he could be for what they were throwing at him.


We’ve got a fun offseason GamePlan for you guys this week. Inside the column, you’ll find …

• Some match-making with the teams carrying the most cap space.

• Which positions figure to be particularly strong in the 2021 draft class.

• How the 2022 quarterback outlook could affect 2021.

But we’re starting with a couple of high-profile college quarterbacks with a lot to prove, in a year when no one can be quite sure what sort of opportunity they’re gonna get to do it.


Ian Book’s situation is pretty similar to Ehlinger’s—a hyper-productive multiyear starter from a blueblood program with a lot to prove on just how he’ll fit into the NFL. Neither of these guys is Trevor Lawrence, in the eyes of NFL scouts. But over the next couple of months, both will try to show all those evaluators who they are, rather than who they might not be.

Like Ehlinger, Book, a three-year starter at Notre Dame, is trying to squeeze every last ounce of value he can out of the sort of draft void that he and the whole class of 2021 seem to be in.

“We're working out twice a day,” Book says. “And then I feel like every time I had a break, I try to just get into my playbook. Just know my offense even more. I got film on my iPad and I’m watching the NFL film. Just trying to stay ready for when the team calls for that interview, because you do have a lot more spare time, where you might be flying around the country if this was last year.

“Throwing, always working on footwork, just everything. I’m always at the facility.”

As it turns out, these two are a short drive from each other—Book’s doing his pre-draft prep at MJS in Dallas while Ehlinger is at APEC in Fort Worth—and in a lot of ways running parallel to, and against, each other for positioning on the quarterback board at the same time. In talking to the two on Wednesday, I can say there are definitely some similarities in where the two have been, and where they’re trying to go.

Sam Ehlinger throws a pass during a Senior Bowl practice

Sam Ehlinger at Senior Bowl practice.

You can start with the last year for each guy. As returning starting quarterbacks at big-time programs in the year of COVID-19, both guys shouldered a responsibility not just to be at their best, but also to make sure their teammates were doing all that needed to be done.

For Ehlinger, at one point, that meant hosting 15 of his teammates at his house in Austin on a daily basis, where they’d work out on a gym set in his garage before going to the middle school he attended about a decade earlier to go throw. For Book, it meant, in some respect, being his brother’s keeper.

“I mean, it’s college and you feel like you work so hard for the guys on the football team to understand what they have to sacrifice for,” Book says. “Then, you got 12,000 students who got nothing to lose. So it’s like, they’re still going to do what they want to do. And it’s up to us to make sure that we’re not partaking in any of those activities because you go there and you could risk the whole team and you could miss up to three games.

“We had to have meetings about that, talk about that, and we gave everybody the choice—If that’s too hard, we completely understand; you can leave. And that’s kind of where it was.”

Book then said, “It definitely sucks getting up and going to have something stuck up your nose, all the way up in your brain, every single morning to play football.” But, he continued, he and his teammates got that other people are in much worse circumstances and getting to play football was well worth inconveniences like having to wear masks everywhere (even to and from the shower) or needing to make every meal to-go.

All this was even less ideal at Texas, where coach Tom Herman was on the hot seat and had new coordinators on both offense and defense, putting in new systems without the benefit of having spring ball or much face-to-face interaction with the players. But the upshot was real for guys like Book and Ehlinger, who had to grow through the experiences.

“It was so different, something that nobody’s really gone through before in a college football season,” Ehlinger said. “There wasn’t a model of leadership to follow. You gotta just adapt, and that’s the beautiful thing about it. You definitely had to tailor your leadership style a little different. And it took a lot of accountability really from everybody to stay out of trouble and be able to play.”

I asked both guys if, at the end of that, they needed a breather. Book said he tried to give his body a few days to recover after the Irish lost to Alabama at the Rose Bowl in Dallas (another reminder of how weird a year it was). Ehlinger said he really didn’t have time for that. Both knew where they were going—Book and Ehlinger each told me that even with the NCAA's granting players an extra year of eligibility, their minds were made up. Their individual plans all along were to go to the NFL in 2021.

The start of that for both guys was assembling a team to navigate the uncertainty. Both had agents in mind (Ehlinger signed with Erik Burkhardt, Book with Tim Younger). And the next step for each was finding a workout plan.

Ehlinger decided to stay in-state and work out at APEC, which is run by Patrick Mahomes’s trainer, Bobby Stroupe, and with throwing coach Jeff Christiansen, who’s counted Mahomes and Jimmy Garoppolo among his clients. Meanwhile, Book decided to spend the three weeks prior to the Senior Bowl working with Will Hewlett, his throwing coach since high school, in Jacksonville, before going to Dallas and former Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson’s facility for a very specific reason.

“I want to show to some people I’m pretty fast, so I wanted to work on the 40,” Book says. “And I figured Michael Johnson has a pretty good 40 and he’ll have to have the right technique that I need and I want to work on.”

There, Book’s getting mechanical coaching from former NFL quarterback Craig Nall, and throwing with a group that includes Auburn WR Seth Williams, LSU WR Terrace Marshall Jr., Ohio State TE Luke Farrell, Bowling Green TE Quintin Morris, Oklahoma RB Rhamondre Stevenson and Lousiana-Lafayette RB Elijah Mitchell. He’s also sending tape back to Hewlett, who’ll be coming to Texas to fine-tune Book soon.

Ehlinger, for his part, is drilled down on showing he might have a little more ammo in his gun than NFL scouts would think—his work at APEC to try and loosen his throwing motion has led to an eye-popping gain of 7 MPH on the max velocity on his ball.

“I never really did a ton of tailored rotational shoulder work,” he says. “In college, it’s hard because you have so many different guys and not a lot of staff. So really moving on to where it can be more tailored to what I need—that was more working flexibility-type stuff and mobility-type stuff and becoming more powerful. I mean, my body feels completely different than it ever has.”

Both are planning to go back to campus relatively soon. Ehlinger will be back in Austin at the beginning of next month to get timing down with fellow Longhorns Brennan Eagles and Tarik Black, ahead of their March 11 pro day. Likewise, Book is heading back to South Bend on March 17 for the Irish’s March 31 pro day, and expecting receiver Javon McKinley and tight ends Tommy Tremble and Brock Wright to be in town shortly thereafter (receiver Ben Skowronek is hurt and won’t be able to make it).

In all likelihood, that will be the last and only post-Senior Bowl shot teams have to see the quarterbacks throw, which is another unique-to-2021 dynamic these guys are facing. The exposure they’ll get to teams is limited, so they have to make the most of every exposure.

And that sort of pressure was the same at the Senior Bowl, where the individual 15-minute interviews that Book and Ehlinger had with 31 of the 32 teams (excluding the Rams, who weren’t in Mobile that week) will likely be the only face-to-face time they get with them. Which means, in this case, a first impression might not just be the strongest impression some scouts and coaches get. It might be the only impression they get.

Ian Book prepares to take a snap during Senior Bowl practice

Ian Book at a Senior Bowl practice.

Coming out of that experience, both guys did hope to leave their mark on the teams.

“I’d want them to think there’s something different about him, that I’ve never seen before from a hunger standpoint,” Ehlinger says. “Football and emotionally intelligent, intelligent from an X’s-and-O’s standpoint, but also an incredible leader. And every day he developed in a pro-style offense and picked up the offense really quickly and was able to translate the meeting room to the field really quickly, and soaked up all the information possible and had an extreme-growth mindset in everything he approached.”

Says Book: “Every time I got some post interview feedback, that’s what everyone was telling me. They’d say, Hey, really good interview, we can tell you got your head on straight, that you played quarterback. So that that was kind of what I wanted them to know, that I’m personable. And that I can hold a conversation and then I just want to talk ball the whole entire time. And that I love football.”

Obviously, some of the goals for pro day become more specific. Book wants to show the progress he made with pro-style concepts Irish coordinator Tommy Rees instituted this year, and that he can play on schedule, under center and from the pocket, even if his style was a little more free-wheeling as a collegian. Ehlinger, on the other hand, wants to keep showing off his football IQ, and the gains he’s made from an arm-strength standpoint.

But what ties all the interviews in Mobile and showcases in Austin and South Bend together—they’re guaranteed just one shot in those arenas. So they have to stick the landing.

And while that, of course, means more pressure, it also means opportunity. Which brings us back to all that free time. In a normal draft cycle, players, at this point, would be consumed with what amounts to track-and-field work to prep for the combine. To be sure, there’s excitement to that, and, to a degree, both Book and Ehlinger are heartbroken they won’t get to take the stage every young football player dreams of getting on. At the same time, there’s upside too.

“I’ve haven’t been training for the pro day or for the combine,” Book says. “I’ve been training to get on a team and make an impact in the NFL.”

Ehlinger adds: “I’m trying to play the long game, and say, I understand this process is important and I want NFL teams to know that I’m prepared and gonna be one of the best to come out in this class. But I’m playing the long game in the sense that I want to do whatever it takes to be successful in the long run, and understand what that looks like, instead of just the short-term, get-ready-for-the-combine, get-ready-for-pro-day.”

And that brings you back to that binder. Ehlinger’s 16 (or so) teams in and, with all the time he’s got, it won’t be long before he’s through all 32. Which has him ready now, and should have him ready later all the same.


POWER RANKINGS

With the Super Bowl now in the rear-view mirror, it’s time to get creative with the power rankings—every week, we’ll rank something different. This week, we dig into which teams will have the most cap space in a very cap-sensitive environment, and we’ll make one suggestion for a move (THESE ARE NOT REPORTS!) each could make with that space.

1) Jacksonville Jaguars: They’ll have close to $100 million to spend, and how about calling the Saints about Marshon Lattimore? New Orleans needs to get under the cap, and Lattimore’s going to be pushing for a monster deal this offseason. Lattimore, of course, played for Urban Meyer at Ohio State, and would help facilitate a Ravens-style scheme for new coordinator Joe Cullen.

2) New York Jets: Going back to the Rex Ryan days, the Jets have been aching for an edge rusher, so spending some of their tens of millions in cap space on Yannick Ngakoue makes sense (at least on paper). Ngakoue played in a Seattle-style scheme in Jacksonville, which would line him up for what Robert Saleh wants to do. And his Baltimore background should mean GM Joe Douglas will have good intel on him.

3) New England Patriots: Since it’s the Patriots, we’ll shy away from a splash here and go bargain shopping in identifying Bills LB Matt Milano. Bill Belichick has long liked taking from division rivals in free agency, and Milano’s just the kind of smart, versatile linebacker that the coach has long treasured.

4) Cincinnati Bengals: If I’m Mike Brown, Duke Tobin or Zac Taylor, I’m going all-in on getting Joe Burrow better bodyguards in 2021. That means taking an offensive linemen with the fifth overall pick. And it means signing one in free agency. Patriots G Joe Thuney’s tempting, but give me Washington’s Brandon Scherff here, since he’s got background in Taylor’s offense.

5) Indianapolis Colts: The Colts won’t be top five after the Carson Wentz trade is processed, but they are now. And the one position they need to take care of in the short-term is left tackle, particularly with Wentz as the guy (look at what happened to him when the Eagles’ line crumbled). The draft should give them a shot at a left tackle, but waiting until then would be risky. So let’s give them Trent Williams here.


THE BIG QUESTION

LSU receiver Ja'Marr Chase

Ja'Marr Chase, who opted out of the 2020 season, should be among the first prospects taken from a strong receiver class.

WHAT IS THE STRENGTH OF THE 2021 DRAFT CLASS?

Normally, we’d be asking this one at the combine. This year, we can’t. So I’m going to try and give you some answers here on positions that either are really good at the top, really deep, or both, to help make up for the general lack of Indy (and we’ll be doing more of this in the coming weeks) that we’ve got in 2021.

Wide Receiver: Because of the way the game is evolving at the college and high school levels, and how much 7-on-7 is being played, a lot of the sport’s best athletes are ending up being wideouts, and those wideouts are getting a lot of reps. As such, where last year’s receiver group was considered historic, this year’s is just about as good.

LSU’s JaMarr Chase (a 2020 opt-out), and Alabama’s DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle will all likely be gone within the first 15 picks. And the second wave (Purdue’s Rondale Moore, Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman, Florida’s Kadarius Toney, USC’ s Amon-Ra St. Brown, etc.) is nearly as good.

“The first two rounds, there’ll be a lot of receivers,” said one AFC exec. “There may not be the depth there was last year, but at the top, it’s comparable [to 2020].”

Cornerback: There may not be a Jalen Ramsey or Marshon Lattimore physically, but one scout said that the “top-to-bottom depth” of the class is as good as it’s been in a while. Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley, Alabama’s Patrick Surtain and South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn headline the group, but there’s good competition for draft position behind them as well.

Washington’s Elijah Molden and UCF’s Aaron Robinson are very solid nickel types, while Northwestern’s Greg Newsome, Michigan’s Ambry Thomas and Kentucky’s Kelvin Joseph are among those that should give teams good options beyond Round 1.

Offensive line: The NFL is always looking for offensive line help, and there’ll be plenty available come April. “It’s probably a little more top-heavy than it is deep,” says one college scouting director. “But that’s always the case. There’s no such thing as a deep offensive line class.”

Oregon’s Penei Sewell is still a little raw and sat out 2020—but he doesn’t turn 21 until October and has All-Pro level tools. Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater, USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker and Michigan’s Jalen Mayfield (all three initially opted out of the 2020 season, and only Mayfield wound up doubling back and playing) are all first-round prospects that played tackle in college, with some question as to which positions they’ll land at in the NFL.

Clemson’s Jackson Carman, Notre Dame’s Liam Eichenberg and Texas’s Samuel Cosmi should give teams really solid tackle options past the first group. And Alabama’s Landon Dickerson and Ohio State’s Josh Myers look like top 60 (or so) center prospects. So if you’re a team planning to fill an offensive line need in the first couple rounds, you’ve fallen into the right year to do that.

Quarterback: Trevor Lawrence needs no introduction. BYU’s Zach Wilson, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota’s Trey Lance are all in need of some development, but have tools worthy of Top 10 consideration. You have your safe, if lower-ceiling, options in Alabama’s Mac Jones and Florida’s Kyle Trask, and interesting developmental names like Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond and Wake Forest’s Jamie Newman.

This isn’t 1983, to be clear. But it’s a pretty good group, and (as we’ll detail in a second) one that could even get a little overvalued because of the uncertainty looming the next couple years.

Outside of that, the interior defensive line group has some interesting names, and strength at the top. And the inside linebacker positions has athletes, though the guys at the top are a little undersized and may be more scheme-specific.

As for weak spots, it looks like—outside of Florida freak show Kyle Pitts—the tight end position is pretty barren in 2021, and if it seems like we’ve had a bunch of years where that’s been the case with tight ends, well, that should illustrate how hard it is to find really good ones.

This is just a small primer. We’ve got a lot more coming on the draft class in the weeks to come.


WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT

THE EFFECT THE 2022 QB MARKET IS HAVING ON THE 2021 OFFSEASON

Steelers GM Kevin Colbert’s noncommittal answer to a question on Ben Roethlisberger’s place in Pittsburgh for 2021 grabbed headlines on Wednesday, and rightfully so—he’s been there for 17 seasons, and the team potentially trying to bail from the final year of what’s expected to be his last contract there is very newsworthy. For now, I’d say there’s a good shot that it’s an attempt to get Roethlisberger to bend in contract talks, and take a pay cut.

But the idea that it’s more than that? Not crazy. Because clearly that’s the way a lot of teams are thinking right now, in considering how they might find an upgrade or getting younger or just plain do something at the position. I think a big part of that is what’s available. Matthew Stafford and Carson Wentz have been moved. Other teams (Jets? Texans?) may trade their young quarterbacks. And this year’s draft class, with a good shot that four guys go inside the top 10 picks, is looking pretty solid at the position.

Now, consider what this all looks like a year from now. Maybe Dak Prescott is available then. Baker Mayfield only would be available if he falls on his face in 2021. And the 2022 draft class (Kedon Slovis? J.T. Daniels? Spencer Rattler?) brings very little certainty in the way of first-round prospects for 14 months from now.

So if you’re a team that’s considering an upgrade (like the Rams, for example, were), this very much feels like the time to do it. And if you’re a team like the Steelers, it’s understandable why you might look at the landscape and say, on Roethlisberger, it’s worth considering being a year early, rather than a year late.


FINAL WORD

I promise I’ll have more coming for you on Monday on Carson Wentz going to Indy. For now, be sure to check out what our own Conor Orr wrote on the big Thursday trade.