2021 NFL Draft: Biggest Team Needs, Trevor Lawrence Jitters

NFL Draft, Stacking the Box

Later in this penultimate 2021 edition of Inside the Draft, we’ll ask the question that’s probably on nobody’s mind: what if Trevor Lawrence stinks?

But first, let’s look at some teams with huge needs entering the 2021 draft

Critical Needs, Critical Decisions

Poor Jared Goff.

Now that he’s the starting quarterback for the Detroit Lions, Goff’s receiving corps consists of Breshad Perriman, Tyrell Williams, Geronimo Allison, Kalif Raymond and Quintez Cephus. That’s two decent No. 3 receivers and three acceptable #4 receivers in search of a No. 1 and a No. 2.

The Lions receiver corps is depleted because Kenny Golladay signed with the New York Giants, Marvin Jones with the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Calvin Johnson (Inside the Draft knows that some of you checked out on the Lions five years ago) is entering the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

A receiving corps full of injury cases, punt returners and guys who made Aaron Rodgers reach for the AsomBroso Ultra Anejo Tequila is just one of Goff’s worries this year. He’s used to hearing Sean McVay whispering wisdom into his helmet before each snap, so new Lions coach Dan Campbell is gonna give him culture shock:

MCVAY: Worry not, my young ward! Pre-snap motion revealed that the defense is in man coverage with a single high safety. After your play-fake, simply look toward Cooper Kupp to move that safety, and voila! Robert Woods will be open on the crosser.

CAMPBELL: You can f*****n’ do this, Hulkamaniac. You’re just like me. A True Alpha. An Apex Predator. A Leather Daddy. Just throw a fastball straight though the Mike linebacker’s chest and leave a glorious exit wound. Toughness!

Coaching differences aside, we are here to talk about the most glaring pre-draft needs in the NFL, and the Lions receivers kick things off because they rank sixth on our top five list. If the Lions don’t upgrade their receiver corps, Goff will start glitching and throwing passes 15 yards out of bounds.

Fortunately, the Lions possess the seventh-overall pick, and the 2021 Draft will start with a quarterback feeding frenzy that will cause top prospects at other positions to slip.

Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith may still be on the board, for example. Smith would be a no-brainer, as well as a perfect Campbell culture fit: nothing shouts “true alpha” like thriving in the SEC while weighing as much as the typical healthy 14-year-old.

Here’s a rundown of the rest of the most critical needs in the NFL as the 2021 draft (finally) approaches.

5. Cincinnati Bengals Offensive Line.

The folks at Football Outsiders use a pair of high-tech metrics to evaluate offensive lines. Adjusted Line Yards measures run blocking, while Adjusted Sack Rate measures pass protection.

Here are the Bengals’ offensive line rankings in each metric over the last four years:

  • 2017: 24th in run blocking, 20th in pass protection.
  • 2018: 22nd in run blocking, 19th in pass protection.
  • 2019: 26th in run blocking, 20th in pass protection.
  • 2020: 31st in run blocking, 24th in pass protection.

In other words, the situation started bad and has gotten worse. And don’t blame Andy Dalton: his ability to get rid of the ball when he needed to actually kept the Bengals sack rate from cratering for a few years.

The Bengals invested heavily in their offensive line in recent years, drafting Jonah Williams, Billy Price, Cedrick Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher with early picks and signing Bobby Hart and others as free agents. Unfortunately, the Bengals player personnel department consists of three area scouts hired by Forrest Gregg in 1980, a secretary with astigmatism and an unplugged fax machine. Most of the new additions on the offensive line flopped. Riley Reiff joined this roster in March, which would be cause for celebration if this were 2018.

Bengals fans like to debate the wisdom of drafting Oregon tackle Penei Sewell vs. LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase, both of whom may be on the board at the No. 5 overall pick. The debate boils down to whether fans want to watch Joe Burrow get frustrated throwing to mediocre receivers in 2021 or watch him endure three more surgeries and end up getting traded to the Carolina Panthers in 2024.

When your offensive line has stunk for four years, you fix the line. ‘Nuff said.

4. Minnesota Vikings Defensive Line

From the Purple People Eaters to the Williams Wall, the Minnesota Vikings were renowned for having great defensive lines in the past. That’s what made the collapse of their defensive front in 2020 so shocking. The Vikings allowed 2,154 rushing yards and 4.6 yards per rush (against a schedule full of weak rushing opponents) while recording just 23 sacks.

You may not have noticed the woes of the Vikings defensive line, because everything that’s bad about the team is blamed on Kirk Cousins. But the Vikings lost several key members of their defense over the last two seasons because of cap constraints caused by overspending at quarterback. So this is, in fact, another bad thing that can be blamed on Cousins.

Pre-draft help is already on the way for the Vikings line. Danielle Hunter is returning from back surgery. Defensive tackle Michael Pierce is returning from an opt-out. And the Vikings somehow pried Hog Molly Dalvin Tomlinson from Dave Gettleman’s vice-like grip. But even with all the returnees and new arrivals, the Vikings have the makings of a so-so line. And the Vikings’ problem these days is that they end up being so-so at everything. (See: Cousins, again).

The best defensive lineman or edge rusher in the draft may still be on the board when the Vikings select with the 14th-overall pick. The problem is that there is no consensus “best” player at either position. Michigan edge rusher Kwity Paye is a likely pick but no sure thing. This year’s top defensive tackles, including Alabama’s Christian Barmore, are all second-tier prospects.

The Vikings may be forced to settle for good enough on their defensive line. “Settle for good enough” might as well also be the team’s slogan at this point.

3. Dallas Cowboys Cornerbacks

Speaking of teams who like to pretend they don’t have cap issues, the Cowboys shed starting cornerbacks at the rate of one per year so that Jerry Jones can drop cartoon safes on both the skill position stars who deserve big contracts (Dak Prescott) and those who don’t (Exekiel Elliott).

As a result, the Cowboys cornerback corps now consists of Trevon Diggs, who had a rough rookie season, and lots of mediocre slot defenders who looked lost last season (Jourdan Lewis, Anthony Brown). Meanwhile, Keanu Neal arrived in free agency to help the safeties, because everyone knows that the best way to improve a leaky defense is to sign former Atlanta Falcons.

The Cowboys pick 10th-overall, and both Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II and South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn may still be on the board. Both are big, brash and athletic. Both of their fathers also played in the NFL, meaning that they pass the crucial “Jerry recognizes the name” test.

Surtain or Horn may look like sure things, but the Cowboys vaunted offensive line is deteriorating, and Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater may be on the board. There are also lots of whispers that Jerry likes Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins, because Jerry really likes fast, hustling linebackers.

Collins or Slater would not be bad choices, especially in an NFC East full of weak passing games. But as usual, the whole Cowboys roster looks different once you get past the first few big-name stars, and there are lots of little problems that will be difficult to solve using the Jones family’s seat-of-the-pants style of decision making.

2. Miami Dolphins Running Backs

Yeah yeah yeah, running backs don’t matter according to the self-proclaimed smartest people on the Internet. But that (dubious) axiom only applies when a team has a few league-average runners on the depth chart. The Dolphins running back committee currently consists of Myles Gaskin (a seventh-round pick from 2019 who is always injured), Malcolm Brown (Todd Gurley’s long-time stunt double) and a bunch of guys like Salvon Ahmed and Patrick Laird.

The Dolphins are playoff contenders, meaning that they could benefit from drafting a running back, enjoying his two or three productive early seasons, then deleting his phone number when it’s time to talk about the fifth-year contract option. It ain’t pretty, but it’s how the business works.

Selecting a running back sixth-overall would be foolish, but the Dolphins could break the draft’s running back seal with the 18th-overall pick. Alabama’s Najee Harris would provide Tua Tagovailoa with a familiar face and Brian Flores with a battering ram so he can run the sort of conservative offense every defensive coach loves. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, on the other hand, would provide Tua with a dynamic multi-purpose weapon in the Christian McCaffrey mold.

The Dolphins also have two second-round picks and could upgrade their running back depth chart later. That’s the great thing about needing a running back: it’s an easy need to fill.

1.Chicago Bears Quarterback

You probably know Andy Dalton is currently the Bears starting quarterback. You may also know that Nick Foles remains the backup for some reason. (Specifically, a horrendous contract). But did you know that there is no third quarterback on the Bears depth chart entering the draft? That’s right: it’s Frick, then Frack, then the deluge.

The Bears obviously plan to draft a quarterback. But the top five quarterbacks will all be gone when the 20th-overall pick arrives. And the Bears lack the draft capital and leadership to trade up far enough to land one of the big fish.

Even bumbling general manager Ryan Pace realizes he cannot just stand pat and draft someone like Texas A&M’s Kellon Mond with the 20th pick. We think. That means the Bears are poised to attempt the lamest of quarterback acquisition strategies: searching for a sleeper on day two!

Sure, that’s where the Bengals found Dalton, and that worked out fairly well. (It really did!) But the thought of Pace and Matt Nagy scooping up Mond, Stanford’s Davis Mills or Florida’s Kyle Trask, plopping him behind Bert and Ernie on the depth chart, and then trying to sell the decision to both fans and the Halas-McCaskey ownership family … ugh, it will look and sound like William H. Macy trying to sell the TruCoat in Fargo.

Lots of teams have draft needs. Only the Bears have one that may be impossible to fill and is likely to get everyone in the organization fired.

The Skeptics Guide to Trevor Lawrence

Each week at Inside the Draft, The Skeptics Guide will choose one of the brightest stars in the 2021 draft class and explore the biggest weaknesses in his game and reasons why he might fail. Think of it as “devil’s advocate” reasoning or opposition research, and please don’t take it personally if he’s your favorite player ever.

Let’s not bother ourselves with that Sports Illustrated feature and the lazy “maybe Trevor Lawrence doesn’t like football enough” debate, though we will circle back to it a bit later. That whole conversation is nauseatingly stupid, even by the standards of manufactured controversies about a quarterback’s desire/mettle/moxie/swagger.

Instead, let’s focus on the reality that most quarterbacks taken first-overall turn out to be at least somewhat disappointing. For every Peyton Manning or Troy Aikman, there’s a few Tim Couch or David Carr types who never pan out, some Cam Newton and Carson Palmer types with up-and-down careers, and a JaMarcus Russell or Jeff George or two who just isn’t cut out for the rigors of being a franchise quarterback.

Nearly every first-overall selection looks roughly as impressive as Lawrence before the draft. It’s what happens afterward that matters. And all of the following questions is worth asking as the Jacksonville Jaguars embark on the Lawrence-Urban Meyer era.

What if the Jaguars break Lawrence when they open the box?

David Carr endured 76 sacks in his rookie season with the Houston Texans and 117 more in his third and fourth seasons. No quarterback could survive that level of bludgeoning with his potential intact.

Tim Couch was sacked 56 times as a rookie in 1999, then was injured for much of his second season, then endured 51 more sacks in 2001. He wasn’t the same after that. Who would be?

Joe Burrow is 10 games into his NFL career and already dealing with a catastrophic knee injury.

A quarterback doesn’t have to get battered at the start of his career to be broken. Vinny Testaverde played until he was 44, so he must have been pretty darn good at football. But you wouldn’t have known that in his six seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, when the entire organization was a disaster. Sam Bradford couldn’t stay healthy and was stuck on Jeff Fisher’s Rams, which became a vicious cycle: injuries, followed by a moribund offense which contributed to more injuries.

Bad organizations ruin young quarterbacks. The Jaguars are a bad organization. They are trying to turn over a new leaf, but bad organizations are always trying that. Urban Meyer could be the next Jimmy Johnson, with Trevor Lawrence as his Aikman, but just about everything about Meyer’s career so far suggests that he will cut ‘n’ run, Steve Spurrier/Nick Saban/Bobby Petrino style, the moment he gets sick of either losing or getting told by a union rep what time practices can start and end.

The best news for Lawrence is the Jaguars offensive line is loaded with solid veterans like Brandon Linder and Andrew Norwell. Lawrence won’t have to cope with incompetent blocking, which means he’s unlikely to get sacked 55 times, which means he shouldn’t end up shaky and rickety before the end of his rookie contract.

But there are other pitfalls on the path to greatness.

What if Lawrence takes forever to develop?

Alex Smith has had a fine career, but his first six NFL seasons were miserable. Smith was always hurt, except when he was getting benched (and/or having his passion for football questioned) by old-school tough-guy coaches. Even when Smith blossomed, it was as more of a pesky game manager than a superstar.

Testaverde, as mentioned earlier, didn’t become a quality quarterback until he left the Buccaneers. Jim Plunkett was a backup on his third NFL team when he came off the bench to lead the Oakland Raiders to two Super Bowls in the early 1980s. Steve Bartkowski struggled for five years before finding his groove with the Atlanta Falcons of the early 1980s. Jameis Winston is stuck behind a gadget specialist in New Orleans after a turnover-filled early career.

Modern quarterbacks rarely get four seasons to develop, as Sam Darnold just discovered. The nature of modern rookie contracts forces a decision between years three and four. And an organization’s patience may end up getting punished: wait forever for a young quarterback to achieve his potential, and you might just end up with a Bradford who eats up money and extrudes wishful thinking.

After three seasons as a playoff-tested power-conference starter, Lawrence appears relatively NFL game-ready and should mature rapidly. But there are no guarantees. And if Meyer returns to college or the booth at the first sign of adversity, Lawrence could end up working for a regime more interested in replacing him than developing him.

But let’s say all goes well for Lawrence, Meyer and the Jaguars for the first few seasons. That still doesn’t guarantee unqualified success.

What if Lawrence is just very good, but not outstanding?

Cam Newton won an MVP award, had some other outstanding years, and led the Carolina Panthers to a Super Bowl. Great stuff. But it’s OK to be just a little disappointed in how everything turned out for the Panthers of the 2010s.

Carson Palmer’s career is dotted with Pro Bowl berths, great moments and accolades. But Palmer led his teams to the playoffs just twice. Only the most strident talkshow loudmouth would suggest that Palmer was a “bust,” but neither the 2000s Cincinnati Bengals nor the 2010s Arizona Cardinals are teams of myth and legend.

Matthew Stafford has been very good for a long time. Drew Bledsoe looked great for several years before Tom Brady turned him into Wally Pipp. Jared Goff may ultimately fall into this broad category.

And then there’s Eli Manning, of course. He would belong here if the New York Giants pass rush wasn’t awesome in 2007 and ’11, if David Tyree couldn’t catch helmet passes, etc. Every quarterback is either a victim or beneficiary of circumstance to some degree. Eli was the emperor of the beneficiaries.

Lawrence and the Jaguars will be lucky if he falls into this category, because it will mean that he played for a long time and enjoyed periods of success. Yet this is a bunch of guys who “didn’t quite finish the job,” plus Eli.

That’s the paradox of the first-overall pick: almost greatness, quasi-greatness or temporary greatness might not be great enough to meet expectations.

What if Lawrence can’t (or doesn’t want to) handle it?

JaMarcus Russell had some regrettable pastimes. Michael Vick had some horrific, felonious ones. Jeff George was just a pain in everyone’s butt. Baker Mayfield appeared to be heading in George’s direction but has steered out of the skid, for now. Inside The Draft hates to give credence to the NFL’s long, sad tradition of gossip-mongering, but some top prospects really do “lack intangibles” or “have character issues.”

There’s nothing to suggest that Lawrence will get into serious trouble. Silly coach-and-quarterback-tiff or offhand-comment-goes-viral trouble is another matter, as the Sports Illustrated profile may be foreshadowing. Lawrence could be just iconoclastic enough to cause friction with, say, a head coach who isn’t even used to the idea of players having agents and getting paid.

Lawrence’s football isn’t the sole purpose of human existence quotes raised the specter of Andrew Luck, who left football to enjoy his life as a wealthy-but-otherwise-normal human. Luck, it should be noted, also fit into the “damaged by his team” and “very good, not great” categories above. And he happens to be the prospect Lawrence most resembles entering the draft.

Lawrence seems capable of shrugging off the pressures of the NFL spotlight. But will he shrug off the entire NFL, too? Like everything else, that depends on forces beyond his control.

The whole NCAA-NFL football industrial complex is having a hard time accepting the fact that it’s culture is often unappealing — and sometimes downright toxic — to many of the best 21st century athletes.

It’s not 1958 anymore. Young men like Lawrence don’t want to have to worry about every benign comment in a puff piece. They don’t want their bodies or reputations battered as a sacrifice to organizational incompetence. They sure as hell don’t want to be part of an institution ready to label them as disappointments if they “only” reach a few Pro Bowls. NBA and MLB players put up with a fraction of the nonsense and collisions and earn more money. Football players have noticed.

Skepticism about Lawrence is skepticism about the entire NFL, and about how we ingest his product. He may never be the next Peyton Manning. But if he doesn’t enjoy an exciting and  somewhat rewarding career, the kind that keeps him on the field, in the news and happy with his career choices for over a decade, that’s on the Jaguars, the NFL, and, to a degree, on us as well.

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