You'd think I consume enough football during my 9-5 job that I'd try to take a breather during times when I'm not on the clock, right? It's simply not the case, however, as I am -- for better or worse -- an NFL junkie. The latest example came quite recently as I was binging a handful of NFL-related documentaries and rewatched "Elway to Marino," an ESPN 30 for 30 centering around the 1983 draft. Of course, that draft is famous, in part, for Elway's refusal to play for the Baltimore Colts and Dan Marino's dip down the board to No. 27 where he was eventually picked by the Miami Dolphins. It's a draft that had no shortage of storylines and effectively changed the trajectory of the league from that point forward
Would the NFL have never experienced Elway -- who was also a sought-after baseball prospect by the New York Yankees -- if the Broncos never traded for his rights? Would Dan Marino have won a Super Bowl if he landed with teams (Chiefs, Bills, Patriots, Jets) that picked a quarterback earlier in the first round?
These were the questions I had some fun asking myself while watching the doc, which then brought me to another question: How will the 2021 NFL Draft be remembered? While we don't have the Elway-like drama of a player declaring he won't play for an organization, we do have a talent that is as hyped as the Broncos legend in Trevor Lawrence, who is poised to be the No. 1 overall pick. That's just the tip of the iceberg of what may be around the corner in the NFL.
In that spirit, I decided to run through some fun hypotheticals and take a few storylines that are already surrounding the 2021 draft and project them out as possible candidates for being the headliner of how this year will eventually be remembered in the years to come. While I'm not saying these scenarios will happen, I'm simply putting them out there so they are on your radar to follow once the dust settles on this madness in a few weeks.
The rise (or fall) of Trevor Lawrence
Might as well start this thing out with the guy who'll hear his name first on draft night. The arrival of Trevor Lawrence into the NFL has been hyped for a long time and we're finally about to see it come to fruition when the Jacksonville Jaguars make him the top overall selection. Lawrence has been deemed one of the most polished quarterback prospects ever and has been compared to the likes of Elway, Peyton Manning, and Andrew Luck. What's interesting about those comparisons is that they all didn't have the same exact careers, despite similar hype coming into the league.
Elway and Manning went on to live up to that billing and became two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. While Luck enjoyed success during his time in the league and seemed well on his way to joining both Manning and Elway as one of the game's greats, it was cut short. After dealing with a shoulder injury for a number of seasons, Luck shocked the entire NFL by announcing his retirement in August of 2019. During his announcement Luck noted that injuries have "taken the joy out of this game" for him and was the driving force of him walking away early.
I bring that up as it relates to Lawrence because he's very much in this same situation as those three quarterbacks were at the time they were coming into the league. Once he's picked, it will be fascinating to see which road he goes down. Does he rise up to the hype, become an all-time legend and take the Jaguars to relevancy for the next decade-plus? On the flip side, is he the next Andrew Luck, who for one reason or another came up short?
Lawrence is the most hyped-up prospect in recent memory and however his career plays out could prove to be the defining takeaway from this coming draft.
Kyle Pitts becoming the best player in his class
Whenever we talk about drafts, it's easy to center almost exclusively on the quarterbacks. It's the most important position on the field and what can turn a franchise from a bottom-dweller into a Super Bowl contender, so it's understandable that quarterback talk dominates the conversation. Heck, the majority of these hypotheticals that you're reading about are going to center around quarterbacks. That said, it's not the end all be all when we talk about these classes. As it relates to the 2021 draft, there does seem to be a world where the best player to come out of it isn't throwing passes, but is catching them instead.
Florida's Kyle Pitts has all the makings of not only an elite tight end but simply a dominant pass-catcher within a given offense. CBS Sports NFL Draft expert Ryan Wilson has Pitts ranked as the No. 2 overall prospect only looking up to Lawrence and even compared him to how we viewed pass-rusher Chase Young when he was coming into the league last year.
"He's such a gifted player that it's hard to imagine he isn't a game-changer from the moment he steps onto an NFL field," wrote Wilson when talking about Pitts.
If Pitts lands with a team that has an established quarterback -- like he is in Wilson's latest mock where he comes off the board at No. 4 to Atlanta -- I don't think folks would be too surprised to see him rivaling George Kittle and Travis Kelce for the NFL's top tight end mantle in the coming years. That's how special Pitts could become. And if we're talking about all-time great here, he could very well become the most decorated player to come out of this draft class when it's all said and done.
Who will be the first non-QB off the board? And which running back will get drafted first? Get 10 best bets and five longshot value plays on NFL Draft props from SportsLine's No. 1 NFL expert, who is 7-3 on his top five NFL Draft picks over the last two years and hit Baker Mayfield going No. 1 at 25-to-1 odds in 2018!
The rebirth of Sam Darnold
This might be the situation I'm most fascinated with on this list. While he didn't do himself any favors, I never thought Sam Darnold had the proper shake in New York. Systematically, the Jets failed their former No. 3 overall pick as they were unable to put the right pieces around him. That's also not mentioning the lack of stability along the coaching staff throughout his tenure. With New York slotted in at No. 2 and primed to take BYU's Zach Wilson, the team shipped Darnold to the Carolina Panthers. There, Darnold has a chance to reset his career and potentially even live up to that No. 3 overall billing.
Remember, there was a time where Darnold was viewed as the better prospect than both Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson, who are both now MVP-caliber players. That talent is still there somewhere and Carolina presents an opportunity for a rebirth of sorts, especially with head coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady leading the way. It's also worth highlighting that Darnold -- who has three years of NFL experience under his belt -- is younger than 2020 No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow.
The new Panthers quarterback has plenty of football left in his career and if he can rise to the level of his draft classmates like Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson, Darnold could eventually have Carolina in contention.
Ja'Marr Chase over Penei Sewell decision
Speaking of Joe Burrow, he and the Cincinnati Bengals find themselves with quite the decision to make with the No. 5 overall pick. With the possibility of three quarterbacks coming off the board within the first four selections and the Falcons potentially taking Kyle Pitts at No. 4, Cincinnati will essentially have its pick of the litter of the top non-QB prospects. If the Falcons do go with Pitts, that leaves Cincy likely picking between LSU receiver Ja'Marr Chase and Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell.
Most have the Bengals leaning towards Chase, who was college teammates with Burrow down in Death Valley. With the Tigers, the two were electric en-route to a national championship so it's easy to see the appeal of trying to get them back together. However, as we saw last season, the Bengals need help along the offensive line in the worst way. The lack of ability on that line led to Burrow getting beat to a pulp during his rookie season and certainly contributed to his season-ending ACL tear. With that in mind, you can also understand those pounding the table for Sewell, who is looked at by most as the top tackle in this class.
This decision between giving Burrow more pass-catching help or providing him with suitable protection upfront could be a defining moment for the Bengals as they move forward with the top pick from 2020. If they can get Chase and figure out the protection for Burrow later on in the draft, that's probably their most desired scenario. However, if they do pass on Sewell and continue to open him up to abuse on Sundays, it could seriously limit Burrow's ceiling.
New England and San Francisco reset at QB
No two teams are looked at with more intrigue as it relates to possibly selecting a quarterback in this year's draft than the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots. These two clubs were playing in the Super Bowl not too long ago and both are now looking to reset at the quarterback position. Of course, the Patriots lost Tom Brady last offseason and are still looking for the heir to his throne for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the 49ers made a blockbuster move up to No. 3 overall to bring in a quarterback and eventually move on from Jimmy Garoppolo. How each team goes about finding their next signal-caller will likely be one of the key storylines immediately coming out of the draft and their success (or failure) will be worth watching as they develop.
These two teams could be involved in a trade with one another as well. It's no secret that the Patriots are fond of Jimmy Garoppolo, whom they drafted back in 2014 to serve as the successor to Brady. As we know, Garoppolo never was able to succeed Brady and was eventually traded to San Francisco, but it will be curious to see if New England tries to reacquire him once the Niners actually take a QB at No. 3. If not, Bill Belichick and company could use the No. 15 overall pick to address that need.
If one or both of these teams can hit on a quarterback, we could be looking at them contending for a championship again in relatively short order.
Greatest QB class since 2004?
I told you there was going to be a lot of QB talk in this post. Again, it's for good reason. This class is extremely deep at the quarterback position and -- if Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Mac Jones, Trey Lance, and Justin Fields all live up to the hype -- the first round has the chance of looking like the infamous 2004 draft where Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger were taken. Each of these prospects has the ability to be special and change the course of whatever franchise they land with for the better. Even if that proves to be the case for three or four out of the five quarterbacks and they go on to be Hall of Fame-type talents, you could start putting this class in the conversation as one of the greatest ever. Obviously, time will determine all of that, but the road is there for this being a historic class if all these QB prospects pan out in one form or another.
The sleeper QB
As we talk about the top five quarterback prospects in Lawrence, Wilson, Jones, Lance, and Fields, I do wonder if we'll get a sleeper QB in this class. It's not out of the realm of possibility. Would you have imagined in 2016 that fourth-round prospect Dak Prescott out of Mississippi State would become the best quarterback in his class? What about Russell Wilson, who was picked in the third round out of Wisconsin during the 2012 draft? Of course not! If you thought either of those quarterbacks were going to become who they eventually became, they'd be first-round picks. So while those five players will likely go in the first round this year, that doesn't automatically mean that they'll have a better career than those who will hear their names called a bit later on in the 2021 draft.
Names to keep an eye on in that regard are Davis Mills out of Stanford, Florida's Kyle Trask, Jamie Newman from Georgia, and possibly even Texas A&M's Kellen Mond. Either one of those Day 2 and Day 3 prospects could catch lightening the bottle at the next level and become a legit starter in the league as we've seen in the past. Remember, the draft is an inexact science and legends almost always slip through the cracks. Could very well be the case in 2021.