Biggest Surprises That Could Happen In This Year's NFL Draft
Every year the rookie showcase event conjures up unexpected scenarios and shocks. Today, we look at the biggest surprises that could happen in this year's NFL Draft.
By James Pike.
We are officially just a few short days away from the 2021 NFL Draft. Excitement and anticipation is building across the entire NFL community as fans around the globe get ready to see where each prospect will start their NFL careers. Many fans will be writing up their big boards, while others will be furiously manipulating Mock Draft simulators to force the player they want onto their team. Some like me will be staying up to the early hours of Friday morning to make sure I don’t miss a pick and pay for it in work a few hours later. However, this is the price we pay as NFL fans in the UK and I’m sure like most of you I will absolutely not regret it.
The most exciting thing about the NFL Draft is that no matter how much expert analysis there is available from people in the know, and fans just like you and me is that there is simply no way to predict how things are going to go on the night. Every single year there are twists and turns, earth shattering trades and players who slide down draft boards. To put it bluntly; no matter how much experts think they know, there is no way they can truly predict what is going to happen on draft night. That is what makes the NFL Draft a spectacle for fans around the world and I’m all for it.
Today I am going to try and predict some of the biggest surprises that could happen over draft weekend. As I mentioned, it is truly impossible to know exactly which way a franchise is going to go on draft night. This is an alternative way of looking at things rather than trying to be completely analytic, so try to keep an open mind as I try to predict some of the biggest surprises on draft night. With that said, let's dive straight in with my first potential shocker of the night.
San Francisco 49ers Don’t Take a Quarterback With the Third Overall Pick!
One of the biggest surprises which could happen on the 29th of April is that the San Francisco 49ers could pass on a quarterback with the third overall pick in the draft. Now I know what you’re probably thinking; why on earth would John Lynch and the 49ers brass move all the way up from 12th to three overall if they aren’t going to take a QB? Let’s break it down.
Despite having many doubters, Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t a terrible quarterback. He isn’t one of the league’s elite at the position, but he certainly isn’t in the bottom tier either. Let’s not forget that just a year ago he helped lead this team to a Super Bowl, only falling to the high-powered Kansas City Chiefs. Jimmy G has been great in this system before despite his drawbacks. Another thing to consider is that Garoppolo spent most of last season on the shelf with injury. In fact, most of San Francisco’s team were out of action for a significant amount of time as this organisation was decimated with injuries all season long.
It’s easy to forget that just over 12 months ago Garoppolo was considered as the team’s future at the quarterback position. His overall record with the 49ers as a starter is 22-8 which all in all is a stellar record when you think about it. There are many teams in the league which would kill to have a record like that from their starting quarterback especially when you consider that he has been hurt in two of the four seasons he has spent in the Bay Area. Maybe it is fair to say that Jimmy G deserves one more shot at leading this team to the promised land.
So why would the team jump all the way up to third overall if they don’t intend on taking a quarterback? The answer could very well be that they simply have fallen in love with one of the other high-end talents in this draft and wanted to jump the queue in order to take them. But who would they take?
There is a possibility that the team could select Penei Sewell, the left tackle out of Oregon. Now the team did just make Trent Williams the highest paid offensive tackle in league history, and Mike McGlinchey is a very serviceable starter on the opposite side of the line, but you can never have enough elite talent on the offensive line. Just ask the Kansas City Chiefs whose O-Line was just mauled in the Super Bowl a couple of months ago. By adding Sewell, the 49ers could have the best offensive line in all of football.
Sewell can slide over to right tackle for now, McGlinchey can move inside to guard and this group would be set going forward. Sewell also serves the purpose as being the long-term answer to Williams who despite being one of the best tackles in football is on the wrong side of 30 and in the twilight of his career. There is also a case to be made that San Fran’s best chance of winning is by keeping Jimmy G up right, as whenever he has been healthy for this team they have been successful. By adding Sewell to their lineup it ensures that Garoppolo has an elite group protecting him.
They could also look at selecting one of the elite skill position players in this draft class. Whether that be LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase or Florida standout Kyle Pitts, both of them would help take Kyle Shanahan’s offense to the next level.
Ja’Marr Chase is the out and out number one wide receiver this team has been missing, as Brandon Aiyuk is more of a number two wide receiver, and Deebo Samuel is more of a slot receiver in my opinion. By adding Chase, it opens up the playbook as he has the skill and physicality to run down the field and make a big play. The former LSU star is considered to be the best out and out receiver in this class and by adding him onto a roster already built to contend he could take them to that next level.
Kyle Pitts isn’t as much of a natural fit as George Kittle is already under contract for the team. Kittle is the best tight end in football and he will be looking to bounce back after his season ultimately ended with injury in 2020. However, Pitts is far more than just an elite tight end. If his 4.44 forty time is to be believed then he has the speed to play on the outside, and being 6’6 and 250 pounds means that there is simply no corner in the league who can match him physically.
Imagine trying to game plan for an offense that has Kittle, Pitts, Aiyuk, Samuel and Mostert. Good luck. By giving Garoppolo another elite weapon to throw the ball to you’re giving him every chance to succeed. If it doesn’t work, then you could look at moving on down the road.
This one might be a stretch; however it isn’t completely beyond the realm of possibility that San Fran goes in this direction on draft night. This is a roster that is built to win right now, as well as having one of the best coaches in all of football. Adding a rookie quarterback who will need time to adjust doesn’t fit with this group’s timeline.
One of the “Big Four” Quarterbacks Will Fall Out of the Top Ten
The NFL is a quarterback driven league. As much of a cliche as that is, it is true. Just look at the four teams who made it to the conference finals last year. The Chiefs, Bucs, Bills and Packers all have an elite quarterback at the position, so you can understand why teams are so desperate to find their answer at the game’s most important position. In this year’s NFL Draft, there are four quarterbacks who are considered to be future stars of the position. Those being Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields and Trey Lance.
When you look at the tape for these players there is a lot to like and trying to separate them can feel like splitting hairs. They all have their strengths over the other, but also their weaknesses. This is one of the best groups of quarterback prospects to enter the league in a very long time, and if any one of them were to be coming out of college in previous years they all would have been in consideration for first overall. However, this year there is a chance that one of them could fall outside of the top ten in the draft.
Now I’m not going to say it will be one over another, as it is impossible to predict which teams might like or dislike a certain prospect going forward. I will say this though: it won’t be Trevor Lawrence. I would be willing to bet my house at this point that his name will be the first called by Roger Goodell on draft night. So, it comes down to Wilson, Fields or Lance. Why do I feel that we could see one of them slide outside of the top ten when there are so many teams in the league desperate for an upgrade under center? Well history is on my side.
If you go back through the years, there is usually at least one prospect who is predicted to be taken with a high selection in the draft that falls down draft boards. In 2019 for example, many people believed that Dwayne Haskins was an absolute lock to go in the top ten. The former Ohio State product was at one point considered to be one of the elite quarterback prospects in this draft and was even being compared to Kyler Murray as a potential first overall pick. The year before that in 2018 the Cardinals selected Josh Rosen at 10th overall. Originally in consideration for the first overall pick, Rosen suffered a mini slide.
In 2017, Deshaun Watson was also in consideration for a top five selection, but we saw him fall outside of the top ten until the Texans traded up to grab their guy. Throughout NFL history there have been examples of quarterbacks sliding down draft boards for one reason or another. Whether that be character concerns, lack of size, lack of tape. There are many reasons why a certain player could fall in the draft, so there is plenty of reason to believe it could happen again this year.
Now I will say this. Wilson, Fields and Lance are considered to be better prospects than most of the guys I have just mentioned, but that is not to say that one of them could fall in this draft class. NFL teams are desperate to find the answer at quarterback, but they also don’t want to take a risk that one of the top college prospects doesn’t work out either. So there is a possibility that one of these three could still be on the board when the picks roll into double digits.
For Justin Fields there are questions about the system in Ohio State and whether or not it will translate well in the league. For Wilson and Lance there is a question of a small sample size, and whether or not they have played against enough elite competition to make an accurate assessment of their potential. This is why there are rumours that Mac Jones could be selected highly as he has enough game tape against the best that college football has to offer to make an informed decision about his upside.
Now granted; this year there are so many teams who could use an upgrade at quarterback. The Jags, Jets, Falcons, 49ers, Panthers, Broncos, Patriots, Bears and Washington are all teams that spring to mind who could be looking at drafting a QB on April 29th. So it is unlikely that any of these players fall out of the top ten, but if history has taught us anything it’s that anything can happen on draft night. One of these players could be in for a long wait until their name is called.
Javonte Williams Will Be the First Running Back Selected In 2021
Running back is a position which has suffered a lot in recent years. Especially when it comes to draft stock. The league has transitioned in the past few years with many teams opting for a pass heavy system which puts more emphasis on moving the ball through the air than on the ground. Therefore, the value of running backs has declined. If you look at recent draft classes there are only a select few runners who are taken with a first round selection, and usually it is because they were completely dominant at the collegiate level.
Christian McCaffrey was taken with the eighth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft after three outstanding seasons at Stanford, and he has gone on to wreak havoc on the league ever since. Saquon Barkley was taken second overall by the New York Giants in 2018, but the last time a running back was taken so high in the draft was way back in 2006 when the New Orleans Saints selected Reggie Bush out of USC.
Teams simply don’t prioritize the position in the first round anymore unless there's an elite prospect who completely dominates at the college level. Unfortunately, this year there isn’t a player who had the same type of impact as Barkley and McCaffrey did, so we might not even see a back taken in the first round.
However, there are two runners in this year's class who have separated themselves from the rest of the pack. Najee Harris from Alabama and Travis Etienne from Clemson. Two of the biggest schools at the collegiate level have produced backs who could take the league by storm next season, and for good reason.
Alabama has been a conveyor belt of elite running backs in recent years, with the likes of Derrick Henry, Josh Jacobs, Kenyan Drake, Damien Harris and Mark Ingram all finding success at the NFL level, and Najee Harris looks to be the next star from the Crimson Tide. At 6’2 and 229 pounds Harris is a beast of a runner whose physicality should have scouts drooling. He is a downhill runner who rarely goes down after first contact, and although he doesn’t have breakaway speed he is elusive and quick enough to run away from linebackers at the second level. Harris can also catch the ball out of the backfield and has soft hands for such a big back.
Travis Etienne is the polar opposite to Harris with the way he plays on tape. He does have the speed to blow past people and is one of the most elusive runners I have ever seen at the position. He is deadly in the passing game too as you will often see him running routes like a receiver out of the backfield which scouts value highly at the NFL level. He lacks the size of Harris, and there will be questions asked about his workload at Clemson, but there is little doubt that Etienne will be a playmaker in the right system in the league.
However, I believe that there is a shock coming our way in the draft in that neither of these two will be the first running back off the board. That honour will go to Javonte Williams from North Carolina.
Whenever I watch tapes of Williams, I find something new to love about his game. At 5’10 and 220 pounds he is the ideal build for the position, and although he doesn’t have the breakaway speed of Etienne, he isn’t a plodder and can accelerate through the second level.
The thing I love the most about Williams is that he is hardly ever taken down at the first point of contact. Go back and watch his film from his Junior season and you will not find many instances where he is brought down by the first defender. You will see a trail of destruction in his wake whenever he has the ball in his hands, as well as the ability to turn the corner and break off huge gains.
There really isn’t anything on film you shouldn’t like about Williams, as although he isn’t the pass catcher that Harris or Etienne are out of the backfield, he still has soft hands and can be a factor in the passing game. He is basically a do it all back who has potential to grow at the NFL level.
The fact that Williams was also in a committee at North Carolina means that there should be plenty of tread left on his tyres after splitting time with Michael Carter. Teams more than ever are looking at this as a positive, as running backs usually have shorter careers compared to other positions in the NFL due to the pounding their bodies take in games. Running backs don’t usually stay productive into their thirties, so looking for prospects who are fresh is being valued higher than players who take all the reps in college.
I truly believe that Williams has separated himself from the rest of the pack in this year's draft, and if I can see it then NFL Scouts and General Managers who dedicate their lives to evaluating talent can see it too. Watch for Williams to be the first running back taken in this year’s draft. Fantasy managers should also have Williams pencilled into their plans for next season as well.
Tay Gowan Will Be a Day Two Pick
When you look at the cornerback class in the 2021 NFL Draft most of the talking points have been about the big names in recent weeks. Patrick Surtain is considered to have the highest floor of any prospect entering the league this year. Caleb Farley’s injury concerns are on everyone’s mind and the explosive workouts of Jaycee Horn and Eric Stokes have got the NFL media buzzing about their potential at the next level.
There is one prospect however whose name isn’t being talked about enough in my opinion. Tay Gowan is someone to watch out for on day two in the draft.
Part of the reason why the former UCF star’s name isn’t being brought up as much as it possibly should is because of the play of his teammate Aaron Robinson. UCF was fortunate enough to be blessed with two rangy corners in 2019, but last year Gowan decided to opt out due to COVID and concerns for his daughter’s health and focus his attention on the 2021 2021 NFL Draft. This has created a situation where we have almost forgotten just how productive the former Knight was during the 2019 season.
He didn’t allow a single touchdown in 2019, and despite only having one year’s worth of tape to go off of there isn’t much to dislike about his game. He has the ability to play press coverage and jam receivers at the line, as well as the skill and footwork to play off coverage as well. One thing I love after watching Gowan’s tape is his ability to get his head turned back towards the football. Rather than waiting for the receiver to look back towards the ball Gowan anticipates this which allows him to get his hand up and safely deflect the pass away.
Aaron Robinson, Gowan’s teammate at UCF has put himself in the conversation along with the second group of corners expected to be taken in this year’s draft. His name comes up alongside Asante Samuel Jr, Greg Newsome and Eric Stokes, and for good reason as he had a stellar season in 2020. He is another excellent corner who does well in press coverage and definitely deserves the pre-draft attention that he is getting at the moment. However, we shouldn’t forget how productive Gowan was last year.
Now there are some concerns with Gowan. Despite being 6’2 he is slender at just 185 pounds, so work is needed to add some size onto his lanky frame at the next level. There is also a concern that we only have one year’s worth of tape to go through. Scouts would have loved for him to play this past season so they could make an accurate assessment of his game, but there is a lot of upside here. He could be one of the absolute steals of the draft.
I expect that one team is going to fall in love with Gowan’s size, speed and potential on day two and take the former UCF corner late in the second round. With the direction the league is heading in towards pass heavy air raid offenses it is imperative that teams are deep at corner. Finding hidden gems on days two and three has never been more important. Gowan could be one of those hidden gems on day two of the draft.
So, there you have it. My list of the biggest surprises that could happen in the 2021 NFL Draft.
What are some of your hot takes for next week? Let me know and as always follow Gridiron Xtra on Facebook, Twitter and more. Also stay tuned as there is big news just around the corner that you do not want to miss!!