The most consequential trade of the 2021 season (and possibly beyond) was casually dropped onto the NFL landscape Friday. As first reported by Adam Schefter, the San Francisco 49ers are shipping the No. 12 pick, their third-round pick in 2021, and their first-round picks in 2022 and 2023 to Miami for the No. 3 selection, presumably to draft one of the top three passers in next month’s draft.
Moments after that deal was consecrated, a follow-up trade was completed that, while not on the same level as its meaty appetizer, foists its own tantalizing ripple effects onto the upcoming season and added to the overall excitement of the day. In that deal, the Eagles sent their No. 6 pick and a fifth-round pick this year to Miami, in exchange for said 49ers No. 12 pick, a fourth-round pick and a 2022 first-round pick. For the uninitiated few who have never seen the move Draft Day and felt the thrill of a tidal wave of draft trades involving a significant number of first-round picks, this might feel a little overwhelming. Luckily, we’re here to break it all down.
But first: The trades are a massive win for the Dolphins organizationally. We’ll get to the actual roster implications in a second, but from an administrative standpoint, Dolphins GM Chris Grier has essentially turned Laremy Tunsil, a player who stumbled to them in the 2016 draft due to a harmless video of him smoking what appeared to be marijuana surfaced the day of the draft, into four first-round draft picks. By making the second deal with the Eagles, the Dolphins basically secured themselves the top wide receiver in the draft; a player they would have likely taken with the No. 3 pick anyway, but instead now have an additional first-round pick’s worth of compensation for.
Here’s what this all means for all the parties involved …
1. Tua Tagovailoa is safe but the pressure is on
The Dolphins dealt out of quarterback range (the top four picks) on Friday, meaning they will not be importing any more serious competition for the 2020 No. 5 pick than Jacoby Brissett. The mad rush to gate crash the top four on Friday speaks to the growing consensus that this year’s quarterback class is an elite one. Essentially, Kyle Shanahan traded a king’s ransom for the right to select the third best quarterback in the class, believed to be whomever they have ranked first after Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson (as friend Dan Graziano noted, Shanahan’s former defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh, is the head coach of the Jets, so Shanahan likely knows what they’re doing with the No. 2 pick). This is a massive bet on Tagovailoa, who flashed upside last year but looked out of his element at other times. He finished the season in Mitch Trubisky/Gardner Minshew territory in terms of DVOA. A composite of his completion percentage above expectation and expected points added per snap were also among the worst in the league last year, albeit with an underwhelming set of weapons at his disposal. Which brings us to our next point …
2. Miami is getting an elite wide receiver
Assuming picks one to three are quarterbacks, the draft intrigue begins with the Falcons picking fourth. New head coach Arthur Smith and GM Terry Fontenot have been on hand to see a few quarterback pro days so far, meaning that they could be in the market for a Matt Ryan successor (or, at the least, they’re putting up a good smokescreen). Regardless, Atlanta is likely not in the market for what would be its third elite wideout, with so many other pressing roster needs.
The Bengals, having just lost A.J. Green, could theoretically be in line for a wide receiver at No. 5, but their inability to bolster their offensive line significantly this offseason may point them in the direction of a top offensive tackle.
Either way, a wide receiver class that many are deeming generational (or perhaps a little over-saturated) means a top wideout will fall directly into the Dolphins’ lap at No. 6.
3. Jimmy Garoppolo is on the clock
As a follow-up to breaking trade news, Schefter noted via a 49ers source that Garoppolo is still San Francisco’s “guy” this year. It wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility to see the 49ers use their former franchise quarterback as a bridge quarterback, but with a few teams still desperate for veteran upgrades, they’d be missing out on a precious opportunity to mitigate some of the draft capital losses they just sustained. I think we’re all looking at his former team here, as the Patriots have Cam Newton on the roster making less than some quality backups. Garoppolo has maintained a good relationship with his first head coach and former offensive coordinator, neither of whom seemed totally interested in dealing him in the first place.
Of course, San Francisco reiterating confidence in Garoppolo now could just be theater. The 49ers know there is a veteran carousel still spinning and they would like to net something as good, if not better than their original second-round pick investment for Jimmy G in 2017.
4. Sam Darnold is gone
Why didn’t the 49ers trade up to No. 2 to get the best non-Trevor Lawrence quarterback? Probably because the Jets said no. And if the Jets said no, they probably did so because they’d like the best-non Trevor Lawrence quarterback. GM Joe Douglas has done a nice job being transparent this offseason, noting that he’d look at all options before making a decision on Darnold, the former No. 3 pick of a previous regime. Douglas is not beholden to the former USC product and has the flexibility to build the roster as he sees fit.
While the Jets could still theoretically deal the No. 2 pick and are waiting out a better deal (better than three first-round picks), it seems like they are leaning in the direction of selecting their next quarterback at No. 2.
5. It’s Terry Fontenot’s time to shine
There are believed to be four good-to-great quarterbacks in this draft, which means the Falcons’ new GM is sitting in an interesting place. The draft essentially begins with him, as we noted above, and if the Falcons don’t want a quarterback (Ryan is 36, with more than $40 million in dead money until the 2023 season) they could net a healthy return for the No. 4 pick as well. Atlanta is a top-heavy franchise that needs to add component parts before they’d be considered a championship contender again. Finding those pieces gets easier with more lottery tickets. We’ll get into some potential trade partners next …
6. Either the Panthers, Patriots, Bears or Broncos are screwed
All of these teams want to upgrade at QB, except for possibly the Bears, who have already promised that job to Andy Dalton. The Panthers were in the mix for Matt Stafford. The Broncos are highly unlikely to go into Vic Fangio’s third season betting on Drew Lock. One of these teams, or more likely, most of these teams, are in trouble. Unless the Jets are holding out for a larger ransom for the second pick, or are comfortable with Darnold as the quarterback of the future, No. 4 is really the only place left to get a quality passer in this draft. The price tag for that pick just rose exponentially as well. Drafting a QB has myriad benefits for a troubled franchise, but San Francisco’s unexpected, targeted aggression throttled the market and made that ability much more difficult. Could Darnold be an option for one of these teams? Would Atlanta deal the No. 4 pick to a division rival, which would seem highly unlikely? Might Denver be the leader in the clubhouse to jump up, given that they’re already at pick No. 9?
7. O.K., we understand the Eagles losing that game to the Giants now
I took a sledgehammer to the Eagles after their transparent season finale tank job. Why would a team risk alienating its core veterans and lose a game just to move up three spots in a deep NFL draft class? This is why. It’s hard to imagine Howie Roseman was playing 3D chess and knew of this deal the entire time, but the Eagles essentially netted an additional first-round pick by losing that game and dropping three spots. But there is more …
8. Jalen Hurts and Roseman are big winners here
By dropping out of the top 10, the Eagles have almost guaranteed they will not be selecting a replacement QB in 2021, meaning Jalen Hurts will get this coming season to prove his worth as a full-time starter under new head coach Nick Sirianni. Hurts should be hoping for two things: One, that he plays well enough to earn the job again in 2022. Two, that Carson Wentz succeeds in Indianapolis. Remember, if Wentz plays more than 75% of the snaps in Indianapolis, the conditional second-round pick he was dealt for becomes a first-round pick. That would give Roseman three first-round picks (the Eagles’ original, the Dolphins’ and the Colts’). Roseman wins either way, as this haul would theoretically be enough to jump to No. 1 if they aren’t sitting there already.
Also: Roseman is not done yet. Zach Ertz could be on the move, and while he won’t command a first-round pick in return, the exchange will not be insignificant. Keep an eye out on the Bills and Colts there.
9. The Niners used their extra draft capital
One final interesting note is that the 49ers have already capitalized on the NFL’s new program that nets teams compensatory draft selections if a member of the coaching staff or an executive who is from a marginalized group gets hired as a general manager or head coach. With Robert Saleh's move to the Jets, San Francisco gained extra trade capital to play with in 2021, which they used in a major way.
It’s encouraging for the league if this tangible incentive actually motivates more teams to hire and develop more diverse talent on their staff.