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  • Iestyn Withers

NFL Draft 2021: The Year of the First-Round Quarterbacks

Updated: Aug 5, 2022

Every year fans and scouts alike salivate over quarterback draft prospects. The arm strength, the release, the leadership, the potential, all are over-analysed factors that lead to as much over-hyping as objective statements. Yet, as the NFL draft rolls around every year, we are back jumping on the bandwagon labelling ‘sure things’ and ‘busts’ as if we all know what we are talking about; everyone is psychic. Then again, if everyone is psychic then no one is psychic. That said, this year's draft offers more drool-worthy QB prospects than usual. Leading perennial powerhouses or pulling the strings for a ‘small’ programme, the 2021 NFL Draft gives you a plethora of college signal-callers to over-hype and subjectively analyse… and yes, there are sure things. A year on from the Joe Burrow hysteria, we take a look at the potential first-round quarterbacks of the upcoming draft. From one of the most accomplished college quarterbacks of all-time to a young man who played only one game this season. Weighing up talent, Covid-19 ramifications, potential ceilings and the eternal search for a franchise quarterback, let’s look at why this year’s draft is the year of the first-round quarterbacks. It happens every year, fanbases and pundits begin to pin their hopes on young men who have yet to leave college, forcing their dreams and expectations on players who may fail to successfully transition to the professional game. Yet, this year, two teams may well be tussling it out for that franchise QB they so desperately need… or should that be “tanking” it out?

Trevor Lawrence - Clemson

Listening to everyone and anyone, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence is as “sure thing” as the “sure things” come. A can’t miss prospect with all the tools to be a Hall of Fame quarterback, Lawrence is an essential addition to the two worst franchises in the league. Both the New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars seem poised to draft Lawrence, but after the Sam Darnold led Jets beat LA Rams and Cleveland Browns in consecutive weeks, it is the latter that sit in pole position to have the worst season… and pick up Trevor Lawrence. Having long been anointed the number one pick of the 2021 draft, it is more ‘who will draft Lawrence’ than ‘who will be picked first’. The 6”6, 220 pound Clemson Tiger has been both consistent and effective at college level, picking up win, after win, after win. Still in the hunt for a National Championship after making the College Football Playoffs this season, Lawrence will hope to continue his winning ways through to the end of college and into the NFL. Can the “best prospect since Andrew Luck” become the star he is EXPECTED to be? Jacksonville Jaguars will certainly hope so.

Trey Lance - North Dakota State

As Trevor Lawrence’s season continues into the post-season, another prospect has not stepped on the gridiron since October 4th. Having seen Covid-19 all but rule out his 2020 season, North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance got just one chance to add to his already impressive game-film this season. A 39-28 win over Central Arkansas did very little to elevate Lance’s draft stock, but the Bison QB was already held in high regard. That is no surprise given that the 6”4 sophomore set an NCAA record in 2019 for the most passes thrown in a season without an interception. Add in the Walter Payton Award and Lance had NFL scouts very quickly turning their heads his way. That said, a lack of 2020 game-time will likely see Trey Lance usurped by fellow draft prospects when it comes to draft day, however there may well be some teams keeping the cards close to their chests when it comes to this prospect. Whether a victim of recency bias or lack of film, it will be noted by teams that the Bison leader has never lost a game of college football. Much like Lawrence, the adage goes: “winners win”. Furthermore, at only 20 years of age Lance has a relatively unknown ceiling in the NFL and will already be a history maker when he likely becomes the first player born in 2000 to be drafted into the NFL. He could go 2nd pick, he could go 15th, he could go 25th, either way Trey Lance is a first-round draft pick this spring.

Justin Fields - Ohio State

Another quarterback who may well be relying on his 2019 game-film, Ohio State’s Justin Fields has long been touted the QB2 of the 2021 NFL Draft. However, a lack of progression this term may well prove costly for the Buckeyes main-man. Fields does have a chance for further recognition should he lead Ohio State through the playoffs and to a National Championship. The 6”3 Junior may also be aided by a strong showing in the NFL combine. An athlete that shot into the public sphere after appearing on Netflix’s QB1: Beyond the Lights, Fields will hope his speed and explosivity wows scouts come combine week. Much like his draft competition Fields is used to winning. Meanwhile, accounting for 52 touchdowns in his first season as a college starter will also excite prospective employers. There will be questions asked about Fields decision making and time spent ball-in-hand in the pocket, but teams could well be blinkered by the freakish athleticism Fields possesses. Whether QB2 or QB3, Fields seems destined to be an early first-round pick, though the right coach will be integral for a team to see immediate contribution from the Georgia native. Could the New York Jets – after seeing Lawrence slip through their grasp – draft Fields and hope he is the answer to their woes? Do the Jets decide to give Darnold another year and draft tackle Penei Sewell to protect him? Only time will tell.

Zach Wilson - BYU Last year, Joe Burrow's gamechanging year with LSU shot him into first pick territory. If it wasn't for the perennial talents of Trevor Lawrence, we may well be talking about BYU's Zach Wilson in the same vein. At the start of the year you would have been hard-pushed to find Wilson mocked in the top 100 picks, let alone the top 10. But fast forward to the end of 2020 and Zach Wilson may well be QB2 on numerous draft boards. That said, his ascension is far from a fluke when you review his film and statistics. As a true freshman, Wilson had a notable QB rating of 78.8, and if not for injury that seemed destined to further improve last season. Yet in 2020, Wilson has exploded on to the scene with a 94.4 QB rating according to Pro Football Focus (PFF) within the first 8 games, proving to be consistent across the Covid-disrupted college football season. In terms of transition to the NFL, Wilson moves well and completes near 75% of his passes. Then we get to Wilson's arm talent. Seemingly thriving whether in the pocket, on the move or off balance, Wilson could be franchise QB for various NFL teams. Add in recency bias - 353 passing yards and 5 touchdowns in the first half of the Boca Raton Bowl as well as his 2020 season - and the value placed on quarterbacks, Wilson could well be a top 5 draft pick. Questions will be asked regarding the level of competition Wilson faced at BYU, but a strong combine performance and his physical measurements on that day could potentially play a major part in aiding his cause even further.

Mac Jones - Alabama

Whilst Wilson has shot to the forefront draft wise, Alabama's Mac Jones has stepped up week in week out to aid his draft cause with consistency and a whole heap of wins. Perhaps as safe a prospect as any outside of Lawrence, Jones has had one of the best statistical seasons in college football history. A contender for Heisman voting, as well as leading the consensus favourite for the National Championship, questions will be asked as to whether Jones can perform without his superior supporting cast. Alabama had by far the best offensive line and wide receivers in the country, as well as possibly the best running back in Najee Harris. Jones’s physical tools are solid but point to a limited ceiling when it comes to NFL evaluation. Nonetheless, Jones brings a sense of poise and serenity to the quarterback position, with an ability to decipher and pick apart defenses. Highly likely to be drafted in the first round, Jones could be taken off the board soon after the top 10 picks or could be left waiting until late first or early second round.

Kyle Trask - Florida

Another first-round prospect that could drop to the second round, Florida's Kyle Trask could leave teams excited for numerous reasons. Leading the nation in touchdown passes and passing yards will support his cause hugely, whilst throwing just 5 interceptions shows an efficiency with the football. Add in his ideal pro frame at 6"5 and 240 pounds, Trask could prove to be a great pocket passer in the Alex Smith mould - an alum of the same offensive system. That said, in a league that is placing a growing emphasis on mobile quarterbacks, Trask may be deemed lacking when it comes to speed and athleticism. However, after losing all his starting receivers in last year's draft, Trask has shown he can get the job done regardless of cast - though tight end Kyle Pitts is a surefire NFL talent - and his growth from to 2 year starter after failing to start at high school suggests we have yet to see Trask's ceiling.

Desmond Ridder - Cincinnati A true darkhorse in every sense of the word, Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder appears to be the best QB prospect that won't go in the first round. Cincinnati’s starting quarterback since his redshirt freshman season of 2018, he has always been a productive player, however the Bearcats undefeated season in 2020 has highlighted Ridder's first-round upside. A quintessential “tools” prospect, from an arm and leg perspective Ridder has huge upside. Furthermore, Ridder's deep-ball leaves the hand smooth as melted butter. With physical attributes that always stand out on the field, Ridder shows an impressive combination of athleticism and arm talent at the quarterback position, as well as being able to escape the pocket and make plays in tough situations. That said, Ridder remains fairly raw as a prospect and would likely need a year or two sitting behind a QB - much like Jordan Love in the 2020 NFL Draft. A veteran presence such as Drew Brees or Ben Roethlisberger could see Ridder drafted by the Saints or Steelers, whilst a team earlier up the draft board made decide to take a punt on the 6"3 prospect. But with all this said, Ridder may head back to college for one more go-around.

It would be surprising to see any of the top four quarterbacks - Lawrence, Wilson, Fields and Lance - taken outside of the first round, but don't be surprised to see all 7 of these young men become first-round draft picks. A lot can be said about positional value in the NFL draft, and with the majority of NFL teams yet to find their "franchise quarterback", the 2021 draft could be the year of the first-round quarterback.

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