We are now within three weeks of the 2021 NFL draft, which means it’s just about high time for the misinformation mill to kick in and start robbing the news cycle of any common sense. The lack of a combine has prevented the typical informational consensus to form through the media over these last few weeks and outside of the first two picks, which we think we know, the rest of the field seems to be wide open.
Here, we’ll present 10 of the most interesting people (or groups of people) who will help define the chaos and control the flow of what promises to be a wild weekend. Almost overnight, thanks to a 49ers trade into the top three and the Jets’ dealing of Sam Darnold, there is more hype surrounding this quarterback class than the fabled 2018 class. The ability to get one of these quarterbacks, the inclination to reach for one of them or the fear of missing out on one of them could set the table for how the NFL looks over the next five years.
Without further ado, let’s get into it.
1. Kyle Shanahan
Shanahan runs the NFL’s most desirable QB system and has now put himself in a power position to find the quarterback who will run it for the foreseeable future. While John Lynch is technically the general manager, the 49ers have one of the most intermingled front office/coaching staff combinations in the league and nothing filters through personnel without the blessing of those calling the plays.
In the past, that has led to the discovery of some of the league’s most monstrous YAC receivers like George Kittle and Deebo Samuel. After trading up, Shanahan gets to stake his reputation on the quarterback who best fits his system, something he would not have done if the right player wasn’t going to be there at No. 3.
As an aside, while many believe the 49ers will hold on to Jimmy Garoppolo, who knows what might happen? A handful of teams will still need quarterbacks, and the 49ers will come out of the weekend with two good ones.
2. Terry Fontenot
The Falcons have made clear through various media tributaries that the No. 4 pick is for sale. After seeing what the Dolphins got for No. 3, it would be irresponsible not to explore the opportunity, especially with Matt Ryan only being 35 years old. Fontenot is interesting in that we will not only get to see his wheeling-and-dealing acumen but what he thinks about Ryan and the near future of the franchise. Also, we might see what kind of influence new head coach Arthur Smith will have on the operation.
Ryan’s recent contract restructure, which makes his deal exceptionally disadvantageous to back out of until at least 2023, would seem to indicate that Fontenot is hoping to build around him one last time. If he can multiply their first-round stockpile, or, at worst, use the No. 4 pick to increase their pick load next year, it could be an early, legacy-defining move for the longtime Saints personnel star.
3. Joe Douglas
Douglas has an opportunity to put his mark on the Jets, much in the way Mike Tannenbaum did with his first draft as general manager in 2006. (He picked D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold, in what was arguably the best draft in modern Jets history, leading to a pair of AFC title game appearances.) Douglas will take the quarterback of the future at No. 2, and then has five other picks in the top 108 (23, 34, 66, 87, 108) to make some quick work of the roster’s obvious woes. Can he add offensive weapons and offensive line to help with this kind of capital? Or is the Jets’ next quarterback destined to be overwhelmed and underdeveloped like the last 37 they’ve attempted to groom over the past five decades?
4. Bill Belichick
We’ll soon find out whether Bill Belichick is content with Cam Newton or whether he plans on upgrading at the position via the draft. As we’ll get to later there is a rather robust quarterback class beyond the big five that evaluators find themselves pretty excited about. That could be something to watch. Another variable to consider: Belichick has a top 15 pick, which he probably plans on never having again. Will he use that as a launching point to get into the top four and secure one of the best quarterbacks in the class? It would be very difficult to imagine Belichick doubling down on Newton unless he knows something we don’t about the quarterback’s progressing health or how he might operate in an offense that, all of a sudden, has a quartet of talented receivers. With “pressure” (we’re putting it in quotes because how much real, actual pressure is there on the greatest head coach in modern NFL history?) gathering around his recent draft record, how will Belichick handle the fair amount of pick equity?
5. Davis Mills and Justin Fields
The quarterback out of Stanford and the quarterback out of Ohio State represent some polar opposites of the quarterback class. Fields was the more known commodity, having played in 34 games over three years at Georgia and Ohio State but has spent the majority of this process being torn down. There are evaluators out there who believe Fields is no better than a third-round pick and others who see him as the No. 4 pick behind Trevor Lawrence, Mac Jones and Zach Wilson. Conversely Davis Mills has played in just 13 games, including a condensed five-game season in the Pac-12, but he is riding a reputation as a high-upside player that has followed him since high school. Recently there's been some buzz about him being a first-round pick. The pair represents how wide open the class is behind Lawrence and Wilson, and how names that we may not have heard too much about during the process (I’ll go as far as throwing Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond, whom we recently did a story on, and Notre Dame’s Ian Book into the mix) could end up being anything from minor stagehands to major players once the Jaguars, 49ers and Jets are off the clock.
6. Ryan Pace
The embattled Bears general manager seems to be standing pat for now. Despite offering a king’s ransom for Russell Wilson, Chicago appears content in working with Andy Dalton. Will that remain the same if the board goes haywire on opening night? Could we see Pace try and move up to No. 4 or maneuver somewhere else in the round to secure some competition for Dalton? Could we see him active early in the second round, attempting to hit on a boom-or-bust prospect that may not require the same amount of capital (a scenario that makes the most sense to me)? I’ll maintain that general managers with their backs against the wall are some of the most dangerous and unpredictable actors in the draft. Pace, who is still reeling from the Mitch Trubisky whiff, is no doubt feeling the heat and needs to come out of this stretch of time with a good enough team to compete in the NFC North.
7. Brian Gutekunst and Matt LaFleur
Aaron Rodgers has said as much: Nothing about his public persona is an accident. The quarterback was as pinpoint and calculated as ever during his postdraft media rounds last year when the Packers drafted his eventual replacement with their first-round pick (instead of a pass-catching weapon, the likes of which Rodgers has never had via first-round pick). Green Bay again has a late first-round pick in this year’s draft and now has some reassurance that Rodgers’s marginal performance dip before 2020 wasn’t significant. Will they pacify their quarterback, or will they continue to build something that is meant to live on long after he’s gone? Green Bay has needs far beyond the receiving core, so seeing them go after another positional group would make plenty of sense. That won’t change Rodgers’s ability to create a parallel narrative about why the Packers have stalled out in the NFC title game each of the past two seasons.
8. George Paton and Vic Fangio
Denver stands out as one of the most hard-to-gauge teams in the NFL right now. Have the Broncos given up on Drew Lock? How close, if at all, were they in any of the quarterback sweepstakes happening around the league this March and early April? What is new GM George Paton’s plan and where does Vic Fangio, the coach who has yet to put together a winning season, fit into all of this? Is Denver one of those teams the Falcons are silently beckoning by leaking that the No. 4 pick is available, or is it far more confident in its current roster than the rest of the NFL world is led to believe?
9. Tom Brady
Seeing the full-scale culture change Brady brought to Tampa Bay has opened unlimited possibilities in a short-term window. His influence on the team has been unmistakable so far, and it’s fair to wonder whether his hands will be on the draft board heading into the 2021 draft. For general manager Jason Licht, first-round picks beyond 2021 have to be largely meaningless at the moment, meaning that trading future first-round picks to move up in this year’s draft to maximize the roster while Brady is still there might make some sense. Tampa Bay retained the entirety of its Super Bowl core, but it could try and upgrade from Antonio Brown before making a decision on the troubled former Pro-Bowl receiver. There are a lot of very good receivers in this draft. There is also a handful of promising young pass rushers who could make a defense that already won the Super Bowl next to impossible to score against.
10. Roger Goodell
Last year the commissioner claimed to have eaten three-quarters of a jar of M&M’s in his stately, wood-paneled basement (by the way, remember the story about the pizza he didn’t eat in The Wall Street Journal? Goodell has sneakily been involved in some of the better eating stories of the last five years). This year the in-person/virtual hybrid nature of the draft will be a challenge to a typically emotionless commissioner, who will need to strike the right balance between excitement for full stadiums and some semblance of normalcy and a somber respect for the dark year from which we’ve just emerged. It will be worth watching how the NFL operates its second significant tentpole event of the Biden presidency, free (for now) of the fear that a former president with time to kill on Twitter might turn some portion of their programming schedule into a political lightning rod. Will they continue to lean uncomfortably into social justice reform, extending an olive branch to the increasingly active class of players rising from college and into the pros? Or just weeks after Major League Baseball removed its All-Star Game from Georgia in protest of the state's discriminatory election laws, will this be a chance for the NFL to again camouflage itself of any real stances or opinions?