After months of scouting, smokescreens and speculation, the 2021 National Football League (NFL) Draft has finally arrived. From April 29 to May 1, 259 collegiate athletes will watch their dreams come true in the beautiful city of Cleveland as they are selected by one of 32 NFL teams.
Typically, there is plenty of intrigue surrounding who will be the number one overall pick, but that has been more or less set in stone since Trevor Lawrence led the Clemson Tigers to a national championship victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide during the 2019 season. That triumph made Lawrence a member of an exclusive club of “can’t miss” quarterbacks, alongside the likes of John Elway, Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. The only question was who would get the honor of choosing Lawrence, and the New York Jets’ win over the Los Angeles Rams in Week 15 cemented the Jacksonville Jaguars’ position as the worst team in the NFL, securing them the first pick in the draft. Jacksonville’s new head coach Urban Meyer will be salivating at the chance to mold the young quarterback into a star and help revitalize a terrible Jaguars franchise.
Picking at second overall, the Jets’ consolation prize is quarterback Zach Wilson from Brigham Young University. Wilson’s unique blend of speed and arm talent will help him adjust to the NFL right away, as he will likely be the starting quarterback on day one. This pick was essentially set in stone after the Jets cleared the way by trading former third overall pick Sam Darnold to the Carolina Panthers.
With little room for speculation on the first two picks, the curiosity begins with the third pick, held by the San Francisco 49ers. In 2021, the Niners made a bold trade with the Miami Dolphins, giving their first-round picks in 2021, 2022, and 2023 in exchange for the third overall pick in this year’s draft. While it’s widely assumed that they will select a quarterback as well, questions remain about which quarterback it will be. The three options each come with their own risks and potential rewards and would signal very different directions for head coach Kyle Shanahan to take the team.
The Favorite: Mac Jones (QB, Alabama)
No one has seen their draft stock rise over the past year quite like Mac Jones. Going into the 2020 season, Jones was considered a Day Two (i.e. second or third round) pick given his relative lack of experience. He was the backup to eventual fifth overall pick Tua Tagovailoa in 2019, and performed admirably when starting the final three games of the season following Tagovailoa’s hip injury. This past year, Jones stepped in and exceeded all expectations, to the tune of 41 touchdowns, 4,500 passing yards and a 77.4 completion percentage versus only four interceptions. He finished third in Heisman Trophy voting, and capped off his dream season by tossing five touchdowns in Alabama’s dominant 52-24 win over Ohio State in the 2021 National Championship game.
Jones is currently the betting favorite to go at number three. When the 49ers made the move up to that spot, it was widely reported that Shanahan favored Jones to be his franchise quarterback, although he hasn’t made his final decision yet. Jones is unlike most modern-day quarterback prospects: he isn’t very mobile, and requires a relatively clean pocket in order to reach his ceiling. Nonetheless, Jones’ football IQ is high, and he can throw the pigskin just as well as anyone in his class. He would be an excellent fit in Shanahan’s play-action-heavy offense.
The Underdog: Justin Fields (QB, Ohio State)
If the 49ers pass on Mac Jones, then his opponent in the National Championship game will likely be the selection. As one of the highest ranked high school recruits in the class of 2018, Justin Fields headed to Georgia to begin his college career. Unfortunately, Fields didn’t play much his freshman year and transferred to Ohio State because of a racist incident involving a member of the Bulldogs’ baseball team. He lit the college football world on fire in his first season at Ohio State, where he threw for 41 touchdowns, 3,273 yards and rushed for another 10 touchdowns against just three interceptions. Although the Buckeyes would eventually fall to Lawrence and the Tigers in the National Semifinal, Fields was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, and was thought to be a leading contender for the award entering the 2020 season. But come 2020, he didn’t replicate his dominance, “only” managing a total of 27 touchdowns in a Covid-shortened eight-game campaign. Still, Fields did lead Ohio State to their first National Championship game in six years.
Fields has all the tools to be a successful quarterback in the NFL. He has a cannon for an arm and can place a deep ball with pinpoint accuracy. He also has speed with a great ability to escape the pocket and extend plays when no one is open. The main knock against him has been that he can key in on one receiver during a play and not look at other options, but that can be ironed out with good coaching and more experience. Even if Fields isn’t the choice at number three, it’s hard to imagine him anywhere but the top five.
The Wild Card: Trey Lance (QB, North Dakota State)
Being a longshot is nothing new to Trey Lance, and he’ll have to overcome the odds once more to be the 49ers choice at third overall. Coming out of high school, no schools in the Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision of the NCAA were willing to offer Lance a scholarship to play quarterback, so he headed to Fargo to play for the best school in the Football Championship Subdivision , the North Dakota State Bison. He redshirted his first year in 2018, watching from the sidelines as the Bison won their second straight National Championship. The next year, Lance was named the starter and put together one of the most impressive seasons in NCAA history. He tossed 28 touchdowns, threw for 2,786 yards, ran for 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns and didn’t have a single pass picked off all season. For his efforts, Lance was rewarded with the Walter Payton Award for the most outstanding player and the Jerry Rice Award as the best freshman in the FCS. Sadly, Covid threw a wrench into his sophomore season, as he only played in one exhibition game before opting out of the rest of the season.
Lance is the biggest unknown of the three potential third-pick quarterbacks. While the level of competition that he played against in college will certainly draw the ire of some scouts, his talent can’t be denied. At 6-foot-3 and 221 pounds, Lance is a physical quarterback that can bully his way through defenders with his large frame and beat them over the top with his excellent arm strength. He could take some time to develop, which is why the 49ers seem like a possible landing spot, as he could learn the game sitting behind Jimmy Garoppolo for a few seasons. Wherever he winds up, one lucky team will have a tantalizing prospect to dream about. With three excellent options atop their draft board, the 49ers will have their work cut out for them in their quest to find their quarterback of the future.