Go ahead and use dark, indelible ink for that early 2021 NFL draft, they’ll tell you, and put Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence at No. 1.
To the Jacksonville Jaguars, while you’re at it.
Basically, any mock draft that has any different combination looks silly right now. Right?
Well, as we know, nothing in the draft is chiseled into tablets this time of year. Look back at the past few years for clear evidence.
Justin Herbert was the favorite to go No. 1 in the 2019 draft this time two years ago; he wouldn’t even declare until this past draft, when he went sixth overall (and was the third QB taken).
Then it was Tua Tagovailoa as the August favorite to be the first pick a year ago, and the Miami Dolphins were ready to throw away a whole season to get him. Well, Tua got hurt, the Dolphins won five of their final nine games, and they were fortunate to get him at No. 5 this spring.
Yes, Lawrence looks like the overwhelming favorite to go first in 2021 as things stand now. We love him as a prospect and believe he’s as good as we’ve seen at this position heading into what’s believed to be his final college season.
But no, you can’t assume he will be.
As we embark on arguably the strangest and most unpredictable college football season ever, here are some of the scenarios where Lawrence might not be the No. 1 pick.
Trevor Lawrence could regress in 2020
Early last season, Lawrence was off. Sure, he threw for 14 touchdowns in his first seven games, competed nearly 64 percent of his passes and used his legs effectively. But Lawrence’s accuracy and decision-making showed wide variance, and scouts wondered if all the summer hype had gotten to him. After beating up ACC competition, Lawrence also took some lumps in the two playoff games.
Even though the toughness he showed against Ohio State can’t be overlooked, Lawrence was scattershot at best against OSU in the playoff semifinals, followed by LSU in the national championship game, completing 51.4 percent of his passes in the postseason. He didn’t have any picks (and has an active streak of 239 passes without an interception heading into this season) but threw some wild balls high and wide in those games.
Lawrence would need to take a big step back for his draft stock to take a tangible hit. His arm, size, athleticism and poise are all elite. But losing wide receivers Tee Higgins (to graduation) and Justyn Ross (to injury), as well as a chunk of last year’s offensive line, could hurt.
It wouldn’t be the wildest scenario to see Lawrence take a step backward, especially in this strange season. And yes, we’ll also include an injury situation under the “regression” umbrella, as much as we do not want to mess with Lawrence’s good juju. If it happened to the beloved Tagovailoa with his vicious hip injury, it can happen also with Lawrence.
That said, it would likely take a serious ailment for Lawrence not to be drafted first overall. And again, no goodhearted person wants to see that happen.
The wrong team ends up picking No. 1
What happens if the Cincinnati Bengals pick first? Or the Miami Dolphins? Or any rebuilding team that just selected a quarterback?
The obvious answer — assuming Lawrence does nothing to cripple his stock — is that any team that likes its current quarterback and ends up with the No. 1 overall pick in 2021 can just trade that selection, to the Jaguars or whomever else. Let the bidding begin.
It’s not always that simple.
Trades of that magnitude don’t happen because we think they should. The past few years have seen a trend away from selling off top picks, even as quarterbacks have landed at No. 1 the past three drafts.
In 2016, both the first (Jared Goff) and second (Carson Wentz) overall picks were sold off for ransoms. In 2017, the Chicago Bears made sure they got Mitchell Trubisky by sliding up from No. 3 to No. 2 to nab him. And in 2018, the New York Jets blindly moved up from sixth to third overall — not even knowing which quarterback might fall to them — to make certain they upgraded at the position.
Have any of those trades unquestionably benefited the teams moving up for the QB? Goff made a Super Bowl for the Rams and earned a monster extension. Wentz was on an MVP track before getting hurt the year the Eagles won it all. Neither team would say they regret those deals, but questions abound with both of those passers.
And in the past two drafts, the highest picks traded were 10th overall (in 2019) and 13th (in 2020). Perhaps that’s a two-year aberration. Or maybe there’s leeriness about shipping off major draft assets for a quarterback who might be short of greatness. It’s hard to say.
Look at the Dolphins this spring. Armed with roughly a zillion picks heading into the 2020 draft, the widespread belief was that they would be packaging their extra ammo to move up. Maybe more than once.
The opposite happened. Miami’s first trade was to move down four slots (in the Jordan Love deal with Green Bay). With most of their picks, the Dolphins stayed put. Miami’s big trade up? Packaging two fourth-rounders to slide up 25 slots to take guard Solomon Kindley on Day 3.
It’s now been a few years since we’ve had one of these whopper pick-for-pick trades. More and more we’re seeing those prized selections used to acquire veterans, not rookies.
So let’s throw one more wacky scenario out there: Say the New York Giants end up picking first, and let’s assume for argument’s sake that general manager Dave Gettleman is still the one making that pick. The Giants hypothetically go 3-13 in Joe Judge’s first year in 2020, and QB Daniel Jones shows some promise in Year 2 but is banged up and limited to six games behind a reworked offensive line.
Would it be the most unimaginable thing to see the headstrong Gettleman take, say, Oregon tackle Penei Sewell, LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase or — whew — Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons at No. 1? This is not what we would do, mind you, and it might not be what any of the other 31 teams would do.
But all it takes is that one team (or that one GM) that steadfastly says, “We like our QB, and this other non-QB is just fantastic.” Remember, Gettleman had no interest in moving down from No. 2 in that 2018 draft, staying put and taking Saquon Barkley. Most teams don’t believe running backs should go that high in this era. Gettleman couldn’t have cared any less what anyone else thought then — or now.
Scouts fall more in love with Fields or Lance
The idea of another quarterback surpassing Lawrence on the QB hierarchy likely would have been higher on this list had COVID-19 not wreaked havoc on the college football season.
The two quarterbacks who have the best chance to surpass Lawrence — Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance — are slated to play zero and one game, respectively, this fall.
The Big Ten shut down its fall season, even as reports twitter about in the college atmosphere. And as Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel reported last month, the Bison are scheduled to have a one-game fall season, wild as that sounds. Actually, it sounds fairly ridiculous. As it stands, Lance will have a one-game 2020 audition — against Central Arkansas, of all teams — before he likely begins his NFL prep.
That’s what makes the idea of Lawrence getting “passed up” much harder to fathom. After all, if you polled all 32 teams, we don’t know how many would have either Lance or Fields ahead of Lawrence. So this goes back to our first idea of Lawrence’s possible regression factoring into this scenario.
Still, there’s recency bias with quarterbacks, where the more they play, the more we analysts tend to pick apart their games. It happened with Herbert, Baker Mayfield and others who have started for more than two years.
The idea of Trubisky going ahead of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson is absurd now because we’ve seen all three extensively in the NFL and easily can tier the latter two ahead of Trubisky.
But the Bears thought more of Trubisky after a mere 14 starts than they did of Watson after 35 starts and Mahomes after his 29 starts. Sometimes, NFL teams fall victim to overvaluing players with less tape where their flaws haven’t fully borne themselves out.
So it could happen. A team could be enamored by the stunning upside of Lance or be smitten with Fields’ combination of confidence, athleticism and uncanny production in Ohio State’s complex offense.
And not seeing much of either for a year might work in their favor. Lance has 16 starts so far, and Fields 14.
Will that happen? Well, we’d put this possibility in the longer-shot category for now.
Trevor Lawrence pulls an Elway/Eli
We have no evidence to suggest that Lawrence has designs on strong-arming his way on the team of his choosing. But as we know, it wouldn’t be the first time in NFL history that it would happen.
John Elway famously warned the Baltimore Colts not to take him first in 1983, and that led to his eventual trade to Denver. Eli Manning made it clear he wanted no part of the Chargers organization in 2004 and got his wish, ending up with the Giants.
There were even some whispers that Joe Burrow and his camp wanted to be sure the Cincinnati Bengals were committed to winning before he felt comfortable with the idea of playing for the home-state team.
The idea of Lawrence having doubts about the direction of the Jaguars, should they end up with the first pick, wouldn’t be a monumental stretch. After all, this is a team that has dealt players at a breakneck pace the past few years and appears to be headed toward the unknown, even with their well-stocked war chest of draft ammo. If Jacksonville is punting on 2020, it likely means there will be more major changes coming, with the coaching staff and front offices two big areas to watch.
What if Lawrence is uneasy with a new Jaguars head coach? What if he doesn’t view Jacksonville as a place he can thrive?
We’re in an era of player empowerment, and the media sentiment likely would be on Lawrence’s side, too, if he tried to opt out of being a Jag. It would be hard to blame him. Selling Lawrence on a “we have lots of picks!” or “no state income tax!” might not be enough.
How hard could Lawrence push against the Jaguars — or some other team — not to draft him? We have no idea. After all, he might be one of those happy-to-be-here guys, ready to start anew with any struggling franchise. But those Pollyanna-ish examples are more the exception to the rule, especially the higher-rated the prospect.
And for good reason: They wield some tangible power. Why just let it go?
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