Nearing a loaded 2024 NFL Draft, Justin Fields and the 2021 QB class remind us the position is a crapshoot

In the spring of 2022, shortly after the Kansas City Chiefs had traded Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins for a bushel of draft picks, I had a conversation with an AFC general manager about the strength of the rookie class that was weeks away from being selected. He complained that it felt like a thin group on offense, particularly on the heels of the 2021 class.

“The quarterbacks are weak,” the GM said. “Especially after last year’s group.”

The fraternity he was speaking of included five first-round quarterbacks, all selected inside the top 15 picks. Going into that draft, some personnel officials suggested it had the chance to be special, one of the best classes in decades, blessed with the generational talent of Trevor Lawrence, cannon arm of Zach Wilson, unlimited ceilings of Trey Lance and Justin Fields, and the pinpoint accuracy and well-rounded passing profile of Mac Jones. In terms of styles, there was something for everyone in the class. And despite four of the five players struggling badly in their 2021 rookie seasons, talent evaluators were still raving about the class the following offseason. That included this particular general manager, who still believed it would be a measuring stick for years to come, despite only Jones sustaining early success.

“Top to bottom, that entire first round could be one of the best in history,” he said. “Especially with the quarterbacks.”

In the indexing of throwaway predictions over the years, that one has continued to stick out like a sore thumb. Even if part of it still has some merit. Indeed, a handful of the 2021 first-round picks have produced some special talents. But only one quarterback — the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Lawrence — has hinted at cementing himself as a franchise quarterback. And even that has been a roller-coaster ride, with his 2023 season representing an injury-driven step backward. The rest: Wilson is on the trade block with little to no interest, while Lance, Jones and Fields have all been traded for a pittance of late-round draft picks.

Fields was the capper, with the Chicago Bears offloading him to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday — the same Steelers that signed Russell Wilson after he was unceremoniously released by the Denver Broncos last week, then sent their 2022 first-round quarterback, Kenny Pickett, to the Philadelphia Eagles in a fire sale on Friday. It has been that kind of quarterback carnage this offseason. The 2024 quarterback class has played a part in all this, but we’ll get back to that in a moment. First, we have to address what happened with Fields.

Fields gives Steelers financial flexibility at QB

How did this come together? In the broad strokes, there is simplicity to it. The Steelers held Fields in very high regard in that 2021 draft. They had a high grade on him. And despite having their doubts a few months ago that Chicago would actually make him (cheaply) available this offseason, the Steelers engaged the Bears when it became apparent that Fields would be on the move. But it wasn’t until their own 2022 first-round quarterback selection, Pickett, got a burr in his saddle following the signing of Wilson, that the path forward became clear.

First, it took Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman kicking into a higher gear when it came to his pursuit of another backup quarterback behind Jalen Hurts. That developed at the conclusion of the first wave of free agency — roughly in the Thursday/Friday window — and after Roseman had made some overtures to the Bears, checking in on the trade price of Fields. It was a move that would have made sense schematically, but Roseman instead found traction with the Steelers on Pickett, which was recognized as a more attractive option because Pickett came with two years of rookie contract control, versus only one with Fields. And once the Steelers reached a point of commitment to moving Pickett to the Eagles, their sights turned to Fields and the considerable potential they believe can still be unlocked. Pittsburgh general manager Omar Khan getting the deal done for a 2025 sixth-round pick that can can graduate to a fourth is icing on the cake for the Steelers. Almost nobody could have predicted such a one-sided trade win in this scenario.

Why Fields wasn’t scooped by other teams largely centers on his one year of rookie contract control, which features a fifth-year option that will be set at $25.6 million. That option must be triggered in May. Nearly every general manager who spoke to Yahoo Sports about Fields since December balked at picking up that commitment. But the Steelers found themselves in an unexpectedly advantageous position, with Russell Wilson signed to a one-year league minimum of $1.21 million (with the Denver Broncos still on the hook for roughly another $39 million), and having a significant amount of flexibility with their quarterback budget.

Pittsburgh Steelers newly signed quarterback Russell Wilson speaks with reporters in Pittsburgh, Friday, March 15, 2024, in Pittsburgh. Wilson signed a one-year deal with the Steelers on Friday after being cut by the Denver Broncos. (AP Photo/Rebecca Droke)
Russell Wilson is reportedly the Steelers' starter for the 2024 season. (AP Photo/Rebecca Droke) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Thanks to Wilson’s one-year deal, the Steelers find themselves in the position of being able to pick up Fields’ option in 2025, which would strap them to roughly $30.1 million in quarterback salary over the next two seasons. A breakdown that is as follows: $1.21 million to Wilson in 2024; and $3.23 million to Fields in 2024, followed by $25.66 million in 2025. Averaged out over the next two seasons, that’s just over $15 million per season for a starting quarterback in 2024 and 2025 (assuming Fields takes over the job in 2025 and Wilson goes to free agency again).

The Steelers don’t have to commit to that model until May. But it’s reasonable to suspect they will — unless they take a page out of the Green Bay Packers’ playbook with Jordan Love last offseason and offer Fields a hedge, which would be signing a two-year contract for 2024 and 2025 that includes less guaranteed money than the $28.9 million Fields would earn if his fifth-year option was triggered, but still ensure that Fields locked in a significant amount of money regardless of how he performs in 2024.

However the Steelers handle it, the underlying money will speak louder than whatever the team says publicly about his place in the quarterback pecking order in 2024. If the Steelers trigger Fields’ 2025 fifth-year option or work out a guaranteed two-year hedge deal, they are grooming him to be the starter that season — and that should put him in direct competition with Wilson no matter what the team’s public narrative is. If they don’t trigger his fifth-year option or sign him to a hedge deal, the status of his future on Pittsburgh will have to unfold during the 2024 season. It would be a scenario that would entail Fields clearly being the better quarterback between the two, and worthy of a franchise tag after the 2024 season. Between all of these options, the safest route is triggering the fifth-year option for Fields and see how the 2024 season unfolds.

Lessons to take for the 2024 NFL QB draft class

All of which brings us back to that 2021 quarterback class. It had all the potential in the world, and QBs taken with picks 1, 2, 3, 11 and 15. It’s fair to say now that it has been a disaster. The root causes are worthy of a documentary — maybe it was the wrong player with the wrong team, or injuries to the surrounding roster, or the very real conspiracy that it was a COVID-19 quarterback class that didn’t have enough tape or experience enough deep-dive investigations to understand what was under the hood. Regardless of what happened, the result was four of five franchises slamming into a brick wall and then figuring out how to adjust afterward.

That’s something to keep in mind in next month’s draft. It's a draft that — stop me if you’ve heard this one — has a bit of everything. USC’s Caleb Williams is billed as the best quarterback talent since Lawrence. UNC’s Drake Maye is the monster throwing arm and above average athleticism. LSU’s Jayden Daniels is the versatile “next generation” NFL quarterback. Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy is the leader with the intangibles and underlying talent that is still being discovered. That’s four guys who are expected to come off the board in the first round. All while two extremely seasoned players with refined passing skills — Oregon’s Bo Nix and Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. — still have an opportunity to climb into the first round and make this a quarterback heavy draft at the top.

It’s a class that has everyone excited. And by the end of it, the number of quarterbacks drafted in the first round could border on historic. But there is reason to temper expectations and focus on whether the right players are going to the right teams. The 2021 group just showcased it for everyone. In any given year and any given class, the position is a crapshoot in a draft. It could be casting a massive sail for a franchise and whipping it forward into the future. Or it could be punching holes in the bottom of the boat, leaving everyone to scramble for repairs before everything sinks.