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Spin the Wheel of Destiny With the NFL Draft’s Quarterback Sweepstakes

The most chaotic draft cycle in years ends on Thursday. The decisions made will have franchise-altering implications for so many teams.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If Mac Jones did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. He is the perfect avatar for a confusing and chaotic draft cycle that ends Thursday night, one in which teams have had less information than they’ve had in years, and fans and media have even less. Consider how messy the draft cycle usually is and make it messier. It has been eating itself. If we had to wait even a week more for it to happen I’m afraid we might not make it. San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, when asked whether he could guarantee current starter Jimmy Garoppolo would be on the roster Sunday, declined to answer, saying, “I can’t guarantee that anybody in the world will be alive Sunday.” After a few months of staring into the abyss of the draft, I get where he’s coming from.

This is the draft of chaos, marrying two wildly intriguing things: a bunch of quarterbacks who might go in the top 10, and a real lack of information due to a college football season and a pre-draft process severely impacted by COVID-19. A quick way to change the shape of the league is to pack five quarterbacks in the first few selections—three are all but guaranteed to be the first players selected. Teams are not particularly good at drafting quarterbacks in a normal year, mind you.

Quarterback-heavy drafts change football because quarterbacks change football. This is not exactly news, but hitting on a quarterback is the easiest way to save a franchise and guarantee future employment for everyone associated with the pick; missing on one ensures the opposite. “This is a decision that [is] gonna define us, certainly for the rest of my life,” Jaguars owner Shad Khan told Sports Illustrated about the team’s choice with the first pick, presumed to be Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. There have been quarterback-heavy drafts before: In 1999, for instance, three passers were taken in the first three picks and five in the top 12. What adds to the intrigue of this draft is that there is less information about these prospects than there has been in years. Truncated college schedules, top prospects who opted out of their seasons, a canceled combine, and a lack of private workouts, among other factors, have made evaluations harder. For some teams, this is a big deal, while others are taking it in stride (we’ll get to both). The 2021 draft is stacked with players at the most overanalyzed position and teams have less criteria to actually analyze them. Like Shanahan, I cannot guarantee we are going to be alive on Sunday.

Last December, the NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah came on The Ringer NFL Show and was the first person I heard compare this year’s draft to a Major League Baseball draft in that it would be heavy on projection and predicated on filling in the considerable knowledge gaps that exist—be it lack of uniform athletic testing, less game tape, limited face time with prospects, or anything else. The top two tackle prospects, Oregon’s Penei Sewell and Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater, did not play football last season. (They both opted out after their respective conferences postponed the 2020 season; neither returned after those leagues reversed those decisions.) Trey Lance, a potential top-five pick, played one game in 2020 because North Dakota State moved its football season to 2021 because of COVID-19. But he’s still started as many college games, 17, as Jones did at Alabama.

Let’s talk about Jones. Draft rumors, like airplane turbulence, are quickly forgotten once you land but can really get annoying in real time. Cleveland radio host Ken Carman helpfully retraced the steps before Baker Mayfield’s selection as the no. 1 pick in 2018. The journey started in November 2017 with buzz that Sam Darnold or Josh Rosen were in the mix at no. 1. By New Year’s Day, Josh Allen was the favorite. This speculation was, incredibly, accompanied by a wild Kirk Cousins–to-the-Browns rumor that never came to fruition. Then Saquon Barkley was linked to the top pick. At one point, then–Browns GM John Dorsey hinted he might trade the pick. Every rumor negated the one before it, and the Darnold buzz continued until the week of the draft, even after the Browns settled on Mayfield, though the media was still linking the pick all over the place. Take a look:

Similar cycles are repeated for most drafts: Once the selections are all in, we sort of forget about the wild ride that came before and never again speak of Ryan Nassib’s buzz as a first-round pick. Jones has reached new heights in the draft rumor mill industry over the past month. When the Niners traded two future first-round picks, a future third, plus the 12th pick this year, to the Dolphins for the rights to the third pick, a series of reports followed that turned this year’s draft into one of the funniest of all time: Jones, who was not widely considered to be a first-round prospect last fall (and, in some cases, is still not pegged as one), was heavily linked to the 49ers by plugged-in voices like NBC Sports’ Chris Simms, ESPN’s Adam Schefter, and Jeremiah. Recent reporting from ESPN’s Todd McShay suggests that Shanahan wants Jones but that the 49ers’ personnel department favors Lance. “One person I spoke to even heard that Shanahan might acquiesce to the scouting department on the selection, but others have said that seems unlikely,” said McShay.

Jones has thrown a firecracker into the draft process. His rise is based on a few things. The first is the idea that he is “pro ready” after setting an NCAA record for accuracy (77.4 completion percentage) last season at Alabama. The second is that most draft observers think Shanahan wants a quarterback like Jones. “If you throw away the way he looks, and he looks like shit, he’s a really good player,” a scout, incredibly, told The Athletic.

I follow football for a living. I regularly talk to people whom I consider to be extremely smart about it, many of whom make decisions at the highest level of the sport, and I use those conversations to inform my thinking. This often works well. Having said this, I need to tell you that I have no idea what’s going on. I have talked to smart people who think it will be Jones at no. 3 and that it’s the right decision. I have talked to people who think it will be Jones and that it’s the wrong decision. I have talked to people who think the 49ers will select someone else. If the latter happened, it would be the best smoke screen in the history of modern drafting and I wouldn’t be mad; I’d be impressed. Investing three first-round picks in Mac Jones is a wild ride—getting the entire football world to buy that you are doing that and then picking Trey Lance is even wilder. Embrace the chaos.

The lack of a combine, in-person NFL owners’ meetings, and many other traditional NFL gatherings have disrupted the league’s normal game of telephone this time of year. Gossip is the currency the sport runs on. Football, after all, is a workplace and like any workplace, everyone likes talking about everyone else’s business. It remains to be seen how easily one can put up a smoke screen in this environment.

Simms, whom I find to be one of the smartest voices on quarterbacks in the sport—and is a close friend of Shanahan’s from their time together at the University of Texas—pegged Justin Fields, once thought to be in contention for the first pick, to go no. 32 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in his mock draft. After Lawrence and Wilson, presumably the top two picks, the rise and fall of Jones, Lance, and Fields will be the story line of the first round. Beyond that, there’s the little matter of the non-quarterbacks who will drop as a result of the run on passers. Remember that in 1999, when five QBs went in the top 12, two future Hall of Famers were picked after Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, and Akili Smith went in the first three picks: running back Edgerrin James at no. 4 and cornerback Champ Bailey at no. 7. Quarterbacks going at the top changes the shape of the draft, and if you’re a team that doesn’t need one—hello Miami, Cincinnati, or even Dallas—you will get a better player than you would have otherwise.

Pro Football Focus recently did a study on “one-year wonders,” and found, albeit with a small sample size, that the best prospects steadily progressed throughout college instead of spiking at the end of their career. Unfortunately, due to circumstances well out of the control of everyone, there will be far less data on these prospects this year, and the idea of getting better in the weirdest college season in recent memory seems difficult to evaluate properly. Some power conference schools played only four games. Some games were scheduled days in advance. The normal scouting system is going to be slightly off. Couple that with the fact there are prospects who would have otherwise broken out in a normal college season with more games and more practices, and the fact that rookie tryouts will be severely limited, and you get to the heart of the matter: It is probably the hardest year in recent memory to know which players are most equipped to make the NFL. You cannot fault top players for opting out and colleges for limiting their schedules—those things are far down on the list of worldwide concerns in the past year. Still, there’s a lack of information. Stanford tackle Walker Little, for instance, Pro Football Focus’s 26th ranked prospect, has played 72 snaps over the past two seasons, getting injured in Week 1 of the 2019 season and opting out of 2020.

“The biggest challenges are medical,” Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said at a press conference last week. “You know, the combine, certainly we get everything verified. And obviously, we’ve talked before about athletes all running on the same surface and everything being uniform.”

Adam Schefter reported that last-second medical information is still trickling in:

Ravens executive Joe Hortiz said he thought it was similar to a normal year once scouts could travel to campuses. He said during the team’s pre-draft press conference that coach John Harbaugh asked scouts who traveled to schools, “‘Could you feel the speed of a player? Could you feel the power?’” Hortiz added: “Our guys were there to see that and get that exposure. It feels very similar to a normal year—just to be exposed to them through pro days and the Senior Bowl as well.” A couple of weeks ago, I talked to an NFL executive without a pick in the top half of the draft who said he, and everyone in his building, was relieved to not be making any big decisions this year.

The smart teams will adapt: Bills general manager Brandon Beane told me last year he was able to glean some insights on prospects on Zoom meetings (some were late or bailed entirely, which helped inform Beane’s opinion). All of these changes will be short-lived. The draft cycle will almost certainly be normal next year, giving teams a little more to work with and making things run a little more smoothly. It will not be as chaotic as it is this year. I promise you, you’re gonna miss it.