In recent years, it's become clear to many that the most important aspect of team-building in the modern NFL is ensuring that you have as good an offensive infrastructure as possible. Offense is more sustainable than defense, and thus better able to drive team success in the long-term.
The personnel involved in crafting that offense matters a great deal when it comes to determining its success. Who is your quarterback? Who is protecting him? Who does he throw to? Who does he have next to him in the backfield? Who's scheming those players open? All the pieces matter. The degree to which they matter varies greatly, of course, but each plays a role in making an offense hum at peak efficiency. All of that is especially true when your quarterback is on his rookie deal, both because that's when he's most in the need of help, but also because it's when he's most cost-effective.
With that in mind, we're going to take a look at moves made in the draft by (most of the) teams with quarterbacks on rookie deals, and how they moved to upgrade the infrastructure around their quarterbacks.
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The Jaguars made the most obvious pick of the draft by selecting Trevor Lawrence at No. 1 overall. The two other early picks they used on offensive players, though, were... interesting, to say the least.
Jaguars coach Urban Meyer has already stated publicly that he wanted someone else with the No. 25 overall pick, and was heartbroken when he (Giants wideout Kadarius Toney) came off the board. The Jags then used that pick on Lawrence's former Clemson teammate, running back Travis Etienne. He's an electric back who can contribute in the passing game... but Meyer has already said he sees Etienne as merely a third-down back, while James Robinson and Carlos Hyde will be counted on for the majority of the carries. That's simply not a very good use of resources.
Stanford tackle Walker Little missed most of the 2019 season with a knee injury, then opted out of the 2020 season due to the pandemic. He was excellent during 2018 and before his 2019 injury, but will presumably need some time before he's ready to step into the lineup. But that's exactly why the Jaguars used the franchise tag on Cam Robinson. He can remain at left tackle and try to prove he's worthy of a long-term deal, while Little is under no pressure to play right away. If Robinson is worth it, Little or Jawaan Taylor can kick inside to guard. If not, the Jags already have another option at one of the game's most important positions.
We covered this one in detail on Tuesday. Here's an excerpt:
The Jets moved extremely aggressively to surround Zach Wilson with talent.
They traded up in the first round to nab USC offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker, who figures to slot in next to Mekhi Becton on the left side of the offensive line for years to come. They grabbed Ole Miss wide receiver Elijah Moore at the top of the second round, adding a dynamic slot receiver who can both take the top off the coverage and contribute in the running game on both jet sweeps and when lined up in the backfield. They used their fourth-round pick on North Carolina running back Michael Carter, a terrific fit for offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur's one-cut, zone running scheme.
Combine that group with free-agent signee Corey Davis, last year's crop of offensive linemen, and 2020 second-round pick Denzel Mims, and the Jets have built a nice foundation in which to drop their latest quarterback prospect. This time around, there won't be any questions regarding whether it's the player or the scheme or the surrounding talent holding them back. They'll know exactly what they have in Wilson, and they'll know it pretty early on.
The Bengals already had Joe Burrow on the roster. They secured one piece of the infrastructure last year, when they nabbed Tee Higgins at the top of the second round. There was a debate regarding whether they would take go tackle-wide receiver or wide receiver-tackle with their first two picks this year, and they went with the latter option.
Burrow's former LSU teammate, Ja'Marr Chase, was the pick at No. 5. It makes sense to pair your star quarterback with a receiver with whom he has a pre-established rapport, and Chase makes for a good schematic fit alongside Higgins and slot man Tyler Boyd. The issue comes with Jackson Carman, who was a surprising early second-round selection. There was better value on the board at tackle at that time, but there was also considerably better value at receiver, lending credence to the idea that the Bengals should have opted for Penei Sewell at No. 5 and a wideout in the second round.
Cincinnati obviously has time to build out their offense around Burrow, but they simply cannot allow him to be hit as often as he was last year. He's at his most comfortable operating from the shotgun and in empty-backfield sets. That type of alignment places a premium on both tackle play and receivers who can get open quickly. The Bengals are betting that the second half of that equation is the more important one.
The Dolphins committed to Tua Tagovailoa (at least for the 2021 season) by moving down three spots from No. 3 to No. 6, but they made sure to keep themselves in the range of the draft where they could still land a premier playmaker. They did exactly that by grabbing Jaylen Waddle, right after the Bengals took Chase. Miami then traded up in the second round for presumptive starting right tackle Liam Eichenberg and landed tight end Hunter Long in the fourth.
Waddle figures to slot in alongside DeVante Parker as one of this team's starting wideouts before too long. Perhaps Will Fuller begins the season ahead of him in the lineup, but Waddle should take over before year's end. His pre-established comfort with Tua should help, but his skill set would fit in just about anywhere, and help just about any quarterback.
The Dolphins at first tried to take a short-cut to fill the Eichenberg role but dealing a late-round pick to the Titans for 2020 first-rounder Isaiah Wilson, but that plan went up in flames pretty quickly, so they pivoted in this direction. Long, meanwhile, gives the Dolphins the option to shift into 12 personnel as the No. 2 tight end alongside Mike Gesicki. He should also be given ample room to develop and allow the Dolphins to eventually move on from Gesicki if they don't want to pay him at or near the top of the tight end market.
It was pretty clear throughout the offseason that the Panthers had designs on making a big move at quarterback. Things didn't exactly work out as planned, but they at least have built an ecosystem that should tell them pretty quickly whether or not their bet on Sam Darnold will pay off.
They already had Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, and a few solid starters on the offensive line. They added LSU's Terrace Marshall, whose skill set offensive coordinator Joe Brady already knows how to make use of. BYU tackle Brady Christensen was a nice pickup in the third round. He might even be able to start right away, despite the fact that he (like the rest of this tackle class) is lacking in the length department.
Tommy Tremble is an extremely physical tight end who can operate as a Kyle Juszczyk type for the Panthers, and hopefully develop enough to take over the full-time role from Ian Thomas. Chuba Hubbard, meanwhile, should slide right into Mike Davis' role as McCaffrey's change-of-pace backup -- and he's got a bit more juice to him than Davis, as well.
When the Eagles moved down from No. 6 to No. 12 overall, it was a pretty clear sign that they were out of the quarterback market in this draft. When Justin Fields slipped out of the top 10 picks, though, it seemed like that might change. Alas, their trade-up from 12 to 10 (which cost them only a third-round pick) was instead designed to jump the Giants and land Heisman Trophy winner Devonta Smith.
Smith played with Jalen Hurts when Hurts was at Alabama, which should help. His speed, too, should help. The Eagles prioritized speed at receiver so much in 2020 that it motivated them to take Jalen Reagor ahead of Justin Jefferson. That didn't work out, but Smith is a much better -- and more complete -- player. The Eagles doubled up on Alabama stars by landing Landon Dickerson in the second round. That was great value, as if it weren't for injuries, he might have been a first-round pick. With Jason Kelce getting older and Brandon Brooks coming off an Achilles injury, Dickerson makes both short and long-term sense on the interior of the offensive line.
Running back Kenneth Gainwell could play a Nyheim Hines-esque role in new head coach Nick Sirianni's offense, working as a third-down and two-minute complement to feature back Miles Sanders. Adding that type of dynamism should help Hurts reach his ceiling, and help the Eagles find out whether or not that ceiling is high enough to commit to him in the long term.
New York Giants
The aforementioned Kadarius Toney landed in New York after Dave Gettleman (!) traded down (!!) for the first time in his general-managing career (!!!). He's the type of dynamic playmaker who should help an offense -- and particularly one where the quarterback's best skill is his ability to freelance and make plays when the pocket breaks down -- but could be stifled by the system and coordinator that are in place at the moment.
We covered the Chargers on Day 2 of the draft. An excerpt:
Slater has incredible versatility and can potentially be a fit at guard, center, or tackle. The Chargers figure to give him a shot at protecting Herbert's blind side, but in the worst-case scenario, he can kick inside and be a very good player on the interior. In the span of two offseasons, the Chargers turned over their entire offensive line and made it a strength rather than a weakness, with Slater completing the overhaul.
Palmer has great size at 6-2, 210 pounds, and he can play on the perimeter along with Mike Williams, allowing Keenan Allen to operate from the slot, where he is at his best. Palmer isn't necessarily a burner, as he ran the 40 in 4.52 seconds, but he has excellent hands, having dropped only four passes in his college career. That makes him a strong fit with the team's receiving corps, and should help the Chargers take advantage of the opportunity they have while Herbert is on a cheap deal, and help them decide whether or not to pay him a much larger one when the time comes.
L.A. then added tight end Tre McKitty and developmental lineman Brenden Jaimes on Day 3, further building out the infrastructure around Herbert for years to come.
The Cardinals used their second pick on diminutive speedster Rondale Moore. They've made a concerted effort this offseason to add talent at receiver, and it makes sense, given their commitment to using four-wide sets more often than any other team. Moore also adds an element to the team's running game, which is already dangerous with Kyler Murray and Chase Edmonds.
We covered the Ravens in detail on CBSSports.com. An excerpt:
One of the Ravens' clearest needs entering the draft was at wide receiver. Baltimore struggled to create in the passing game last season, and none of the team's non-Marquise Brown wideouts drew more than 48 targets on the year. Brown seems best utilized as a field-stretching home-run hitter, so the Ravens needed to find complements that diversified their options in the passing game. Enter Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace.
Bateman, a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist during his sophomore year at Minnesota, is an excellent route-runner whose strength is creating quick separation. The Ravens' lack of a quick passing game last season was noticeable, and Bateman should help in that regard. His speed and elusiveness allow him to create yards after the catch on those quick-strike throws, making him a fit for Baltimore's big-play-centric passing game. It certainly helps that he's also a threat to take the top off the defense himself -- even from the slot, where he's often been at his best.
Wallace, meanwhile, brings an element of physicality and toughness to the mix. He's not all that much bigger than Hollywood or Bateman, but he plays bigger than his size and is a consistent ball-winner at the point of the catch. With speedsters all over the field and Mark Andrews drawing attention over the middle, Wallace should have enough space to create openings for himself and and become a chain-mover for Jackson on the outside.