COLUMBUS, Ohio –Seven times in the last 50 years have quarterbacks been the first two picks in the NFL Draft. Bet on it happening again in Cleveland in 2021.
It should be the final part of the second chapter of the Justin Fields-Trevor Lawrence quarterback battle, and the first part of the third chapter.
The top two high school recruits in the Class of 2018 after playing high school football just miles apart from each other in Georgia (Chapter 1), Ohio State’s Fields and Clemson’s Lawrence enter the 2020 college football season as the two clear favorites for the Heisman Trophy, with both their teams among the favorites to win the national title (Chapter 2). They met in the Ohio State-Clemson Fiesta Bowl in a College Football Playoff semifinal last season, and could be on track to meet in the playoff again.
And then they’ll almost certainly share the stage in Cleveland as they embark on their careers as potential NFL franchise quarterbacks (Chapter 3). LSU’s Joe Burrow was the No. 1 pick in this 2020 NFL Draft as an Ohio native and former Buckeye who was picked by an Ohio team in the Cincinnati Bengals. Fields transferred to Ohio State from Georgia and he won’t find a home with an Ohio NFL team, but he almost certainly will enter the league as part of this coming Ohio draft.
Fields and Lawrence will both be juniors in 2020 and likely will leave after three college years to turn pro. When they do so, both may be among the best NFL quarterback prospects in a decade. Both have ideal size (Fields is listed at 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds, while Lawrence is listed at 6-6 and 220.) Both can make every throw and run effectively when needed. Both lead and win at big-time programs.
Look at the top QBs in recent drafts. Burrow was a late bloomer; Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield had questions about their height; Jared Goff was 14-23 at Cal while Carson Wentz played a lower level of football at North Dakota State; and Jameis Winston entered the NFL with a rash of off-field issues. Even the best quarterbacks in the draft have possessed traits or come from circumstances that NFL teams may have needed to talk their way through.
Neither Fields nor Lawrence have any major questions right now. But they offer a whole lot of answers.
Goff and Wentz in 2016; Winston and Marcus Mariota in 2015; Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III in 2012; Tim Couch and Donovan McNabb in 1999; Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf in 1998; Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer in 1993; Jim Plunkett and Archie Manning in 1971. Those are the seven drafts in the last half-decade that saw two quarterbacks at the top.
That’s what Cleveland should expect to see in a year. But what teams are the most likely to be drafting them next April? Here’s a gradual elimination of teams that should be out of the running for Fields and Lawrence, in a league where nearly half the teams are already relying on young quarterbacks, before landing on the teams that have the best shot.
Fourteen teams invested in quarterbacks recently enough and are letting that QB prove himself or have already seen him prove he is clearly the quarterback of the future. Not even Fields or Lawrence would shake them off that. If you want to say that the Giants, for instance, could change their minds if 2020 goes particularly poorly, OK. But all of these teams right now think they have their long-term quarterback.
QBs from the 2020 draft: Cincinnati (Joe Burrow), Miami (Tua Tagovailoa), L.A. Chargers (Justin Herbert)
QBs from the 2019 draft: Arizona (Kyler Murray), N.Y. Giants (Daniel Jones)
QBs from the 2018 draft: Browns (Baker Mayfield), N.Y. Jets (Sam Darnold), Buffalo (Josh Allen), Baltimore (Lamar Jackson)
QBs from the 2017 draft: Kansas City (Patrick Mahomes), Houston (Deshaun Watson)
QBs from the 2016 draft: L.A. Rams (Jared Goff), Philadelphia (Caron Wentz), Dallas (Dak Prescott)
This group is much smaller. These teams don’t have young QBs, but they also aren’t planning for the future. They have their guy, and they’re paying him, and they’d absorb a big cap hit if they changed QB paths.
Vets: Minnesota (Kirk Cousins), Seattle (Russell Wilson), San Francisco (Jimmy Garoppolo), Atlanta (Matt Ryan)
This category sweeps up some teams that could have been on one of the first two lists. For instance, Tampa Bay with Tom Brady and New Orleans with Drew Brees have older future Hall of Famers who are likely on the roster for at least another two seasons. Could their teams be interested in Fields and Lawrence as a succession plan? Sure, it’s possible. But are either the Bucs or Saints going to go 4-12 or worse to get into the mix at the top of the draft? Or will another team make a deal to allow them to trade into the top two? That’s almost certainly not going to happen, so there’s no point thinking about Fields taking over for Brees in New Orleans or Lawrence taking over for Brady in Tampa.
And the same with New England. I’ll believe Bill Belichick going 2-14 when I see it.
Too good: Tampa Bay (Tom Brady), New Orleans (Drew Brees), Green Bay (Aaron Rodgers), Pittsburgh (Ben Roethlisberger), New England (Jarrett Stidham), Indianapolis (Philip Rivers), Tennessee (Ryan Tannehill)
That leaves seven contenders who are uncertain enough at quarterback and capable of losing enough to put them squarely in the running for one of the top two picks, which they’d use on one of these quarterbacks. Let’s rank them in order of least likely to most likely as future homes.
Denver: The Broncos are handing the QB reins to second-year second-rounder Drew Lock, the No. 42 overall pick in 2019. Lock was 4-1 as a starter last season after Joe Flacco’s short run as the Broncos’ QB ended, and John Elway seems to like him. But a second-rounder isn’t a first-rounder. And if Lock for some reason doesn’t look the part after Denver drafted receivers Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler in the first two rounds of this draft, and the season goes south, then Elway couldn’t pass up the chance. Why? Because Denver hasn’t ever picked a QB in the top 10, unless you count Elway himself, the first pick of the 1983 draft by Baltimore who forced a trade and wound up a Broncos legend.
Washington: The Redskins should be better after a 3-13 season earned them the No. 2 pick in the 2020 draft and the right to choose Ohio State’s Chase Young. Former Buckeye Dwayne Haskins will have the shot at the starting job in Year 2 under new coach Ron Rivera. But this new regime didn’t draft Haskins, and if he doesn’t show franchise QB qualities and improve the franchise win total, another lousy year could lead to a quick QB change. Fields followed Haskins at Ohio State, and it’s hard to imagine him then following Haskins as a Redskin, but it’s not impossible.
Chicago: This would be another franchise pulling the plug on a young QB. Mentor’s Mitch Trubisky was the No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft but after his rough third season, the Bears traded for Nick Foles this offseason. That QB battle will be on for 2020, and if the Bears don’t like the result either way, they’d almost certainly take a quick reset on QB. The Bears were 12-4 in 2018 and 8-8 last year, so it would require quite a drop-off. But they clearly have QB questions.
Detroit: Matthew Stafford was the Lions’ pick at the top of the 2009 NFL Draft, and if the Lions don’t win with him this year, maybe they’d think about a change, though he’d be a major cap hit for 2021. Head coach Matt Patricia is 9-22-1 in two years, and if he loses again in Year 3, the former New England defensive coordinator could be out. Maybe the Lions would swing toward an offensive coach then. And no new coach would pass up a shot at Fields or Lawrence.
Las Vegas: The Raiders picked five Clemson players in the last two drafts, so how could they not want the best one? Derek Carr has seemed on his way out since coach Jon Gruden arrived, but Gruden and GM Mike Mayock haven’t made a move yet. Why would Gruden, 4-12 and 7-9 his first two seasons since leaving the broadcast booth, have patience at the most important position on the field? Maybe because they’ve been building up everything else and waiting to target a QB in 2021. The Raiders don’t have much extra draft capital, but I could see them selling out and going wild to trade up for Lawrence or Fields if they don’t lose enough to get in position themselves.
Carolina: The Panthers jettisoned Cam Newton, hired college coach Matt Rhule and then drafted defensive players with every one of their seven 2020 draft picks. They hired Joe Brady, the offensive coordinator who fueled the national champion LSU offense with Burrow, and signed Teddy Bridgewater as a free agent. He made sense because Brady had worked with him in New Orleans. But did Rhule leave Baylor to put his NFL life in the hands of Bridgewater, the former first-round pick who suffered a devastating knee injury in 2016 and is on his third team since then, while making six starts? Maybe. Or maybe the new coach in a rebuild would rather cast his lost with a future QB star. This makes a lot of sense.
Jacksonville: The Jaguars, who are planning to start Gardner Minshew at quarterback in 2021, are the clear leader here, and in our initial mock draft for 2021, our Matt Goul projected Lawrence going to Jacksonville with the No. 1 pick. Minshew was 6-6 as a rookie starter with Jacksonville last year, which no one expected from the sixth-round pick. Neither does anyone expect he’s the long-term answer. The Jags traded Foles a year after signing him and are in the midst of a do-over. They need a franchise quarterback for that, and after going 6-10 and 5-11 the last two years, they should lose enough to get one.
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