After spending the last few months digging through draft statistics to try to gain some insights into how the WFT might best approach the next step in team building in the coming draft, I thought it might be fun to distill some of what I have learned into some predictions.
In truth, what follows is more about having fun than about making analytically sound predictions of what will actually transpire on draft day. In some cases, I have made an effort to ground my predictions in the statistical reality of past NFL drafts. But in others, I am just taking the opportunity to express an opinion or to speculate wildly. And one is just a gratuitous exercise in wish fulfillment.
I don’t expect readers to agree with any of these predictions after the first two. And where you don’t agree, I invite you all to share your own opinions about why I am wrong in the comments section. With that said, here they are:
1. Jacksonville will select Trevor Lawrence first overall.
This is not so much a prediction as a statement of fact. I would be more surprised by seeing the sun rise in the East on draft day than this one coming true.
2. New York Jets will select either Zach Wilson or Justin Fields at number 2.
Wilson is widely expected to be the pick. Again, I am not awarding myself any points for getting this one right.
3. Whichever quarterback San Francisco picks 3rd overall will be a massive bust.
The first two were really just to set the scene. This is where the predictions really start. San Francisco traded the 12th overall pick and a third rounder in 2021, plus first-round picks in 2022 and 2023 to Miami to move up to #3. There is no doubt they will select a quarterback.
The history of teams trading up to the top three spots in the draft to select quarterbacks is so appallingly bad that I am fully confident in betting against the judgement of a team that makes this move. In case there is any doubt, here is a brief recap of all such trades in the salary cap era (see Trading Up for Quarterbacks).
Since 1994, six teams have traded up to a pick in the top 3 to select a QB:
- 1998 Chargers trade up one spot from #3 to select Ryan Leaf 2nd overall
- 2012 Redskins trade up from #6 to select RG3 2nd overall
- 2016 LA Rams trade up from #15 to select Jared Goff 1st overall
- 2016 Philadelphia trades up from #8 to select Carson Wentz #2 overall
- 2017 Chicago Bears trades up one spot to select Mitch Trubisky 2nd overall
- 2018 Jets trade up from #6 to select Sam Darnold at #3.
None of the six teams trading into the top three managed to draft a QB that it considered to be its franchise QB. The most successful of the QBs targeted in these trades was Jared Goff, who did manage to preside over a significant improvement in the Ram’s fortunes, capped by a Super Bowl appearance, but was just shipped to Detroit a few weeks ago. All the other QBs were let go or traded by the team that drafted them. Leaf and RG3 rank amongst the greatest draft busts in league history.
Furthermore, every single one of the teams trading up left behind at least one better QB who would have been available at their original pick or much later:
- 1998 Matt Hasselbeck picked 187th
- 2012 Ryan Tannehill 8th, Russell Wilson 75th and Kirk Cousins 102nd
- 2016 Dak Prescott 135th
- 2017 Patrick Mahomes 10th & Deshaun Watson 12th
- 2018 Josh Allen 7th & Lamar Jackson 32nd.
To be fair to the teams trading up, the entire league overlooked Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins and Dak Prescott until well after the first round.
Nevertheless, the judgement of teams making these trades has been so consistently off the mark, it is almost as if they were intentionally trying to fail. I would have expected at least one or two hits by pure chance. I see no reason to believe that San Francisco will be the first team to break this perfect record of failure.
I was a little nervous about this prediction when I wrote the first draft of this article, because it looked like the 49ers would be picking Justin Fields as the best QB available at #3. A lot of analysts have Fields as the second best QB in this class. Since then, reports have emerged that the 49ers may be targeting Mac Jones at this pick. I am not sure if I believe the Mac Jones talk, which sounds like the kind of smoke that GMs send to distract their rivals this time of year. However, if Jones is San Francisco’s pick at #3, I will double, triple and quadruple down on this prediction. I wouldn’t bet my house on it, but definitely the car.
4. Five QBs will be selected before pick #19. The Washington Football Team will not select any of them.
The first part of this prediction is pretty much a foregone conclusion. In reaction to the escalating unaffordability of veteran starting QBs, NFL teams are beginning to lose their minds over having the opportunity to have a QB on a rookie contract for five years. This is pushing any QB who might conceivably be considered a late first-round prospect into the conversation as a top-10 pick.
There are a few scenarios that could play out if we accept that the 49ers might actually take Mac Jones at #3. If that does happen, expect a free for all of teams vying to trade with Atlanta to grab Fields at #4. Atlanta was already shopping their pick before the rumors emerged that Fields might be available there.
If the Mac Jones to SF talk is just smoke, and the 49ers take Fields at #3, that leaves Trey Lance as the best QB available at #5, followed by Jones. Lance is not likely to last beyond Denver at #9, if someone doesn’t trade up to get him before he falls that far.
That leaves Mac Jones. In any previous year, I’d predict him to go in the second to third round, unless Cleveland was in the market for QBs, in which case they’d take him at #22. But this year, everyone is dying for a rookie signal caller, and some team is bound to trade up to grab him before he falls to the QB-needy Patriots at #15. If he lasts to #15, I’d say it’s just as likely that Belichick trades the pick to a more desperate team, than picking a second-round prospect at that spot. Either way, Jones doesn’t make it past #15.
All of the above creates two reasonably plausible scenarios for the WFT. If SF does the right thing and takes Fields at #3, then the next best QBs on the board at #4 are second-round prospects Trey Lance and Mac Jones (second to third in Jones’ case). Ron Rivera has a reputation as a gambler, but he is not an idiot. That is what it would take to trade up to grab Lance before he falls to Denver at #9. And I don’t see him trading up to select Jones at all, or taking him at #19.
If SF does let Fields go, he is gone at pick #4, and I can’t see Rivera being willing to give up what it would take to trade up from pick #19 to grab him. In all likelihood, Atlanta will want an equivalent deal to what SF gave away to move up to #3. Of course, Atlanta could spoil everyone’s party by selecting Fields at #4 as the successor to Matt Ryan. But I think it is more likely that, if Fields makes it past San Francisco, they will receive trade offers too good to pass up.
Having said all of that, a late breaking development opens up one plausible scenario for a top 5 QB could to slide within the WFT’s reach. It is now being reported that Justin Fields lives with epilepsy. That is the sort of medical issue which we has caused top prospects to drop to the Redskins in past drafts. It is possible that Fields could drop out of the top 10 due to medical concerns, at which point trading up would be less costly. I don’t think this is very likely though, because Fields’ epilepsy is well managed, and does not appear to be a significant risk. Then again, neither were Jonathan Allen’s pre-arthritic shoulders or Montez Sweat’s heart condition.
5. At least two of the first five QBs selected in this draft will be busts.
To give myself a little bit of leeway here, I didn’t say that it will be Trey Lance and Mac Jones. All I will commit to is that two or more of the first four QBs selected not named Trevor Lawrence will perform well below expectations.
Over the past decade, approximately two long-term starting QBs have been selected per draft, with a high of four in 2012. Heading into that draft, four prospects were generally considered to have first-round grades: Andrew Luck, RG3, Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden. Two later-round prospects emerged as draft steals (Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins), while RG3 and Brandon Weeden were busts.
The 2021 draft class is not quite as deep as 2012 was. Trevor Lawrence is an equivalent prospect to Andrew Luck. Following Trev, only Justin Fields and Zach Wilson have early first-round grades. Trey Lance and Mac Jones are both projected to go in the first round, but that has more to do with the unprecedented demand for rookie QBs than it does with how they rate as prospects. Lance’s scouting reports read like a late first-round to second-round prospect – high upside with high risk; whereas Jones is rated anywhere from a late first to a third-round prospect, depending on what analyst you read.
If I were going with what the numbers tell me, I’d say that three of the first five will be busts. But to allow myself a little room for error, I’ll stick with just two.
6. Either Denver or Chicago will trade up into the top 8 for a QB.
As discussed at prediction #4, the most likely scenario appears to be that San Francisco takes Mac Jones at #7, creating a feeding frenzy of teams trying to trade with Atlanta to pick Justin Fields 4th overall. San Francisco agave away the 12th overall pick and a third rounder in 2021, plus first-round picks in 2022 and 2023 to trade up to #3. It is likely that Atlanta will want just as much, if not more, from a trade partner with Fields available at #4.
Alternatively, it is possible that the 49ers front office is just blowing smoke, and they will take Fields at #3, leaving questionable first-round prospects Trey Lance and Mac Jones as the best available QBs at #4 to feed a pack of QB-hungry teams that could include Carolina, Denver, New England, Washington and Chicago. That makes up to five teams that might feel the need to make a move before the next two QBs hit the gauntlet starting when Carolina picks at #8. Which teams are most likely to mortgage their futures to move up to pick #’s 4-7?
Denver has a recent history of poor trade decisions targeting quarterbacks in the first round, having traded up from the second round to select Tim Tebow at #25 in 2010, and again from #31 to #26 in 2016 for Paxton Lynch. Second-round pick Drew Lock hasn’t convinced anyone that he’s the long-term starter after two years in the league, and John Elway doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who learns from his team’s mistakes.
Chicago GM Ryan Pace has been running his team into the ground with poor draft decisions, including trading up one spot in 2017 for Mitch Trubisky, rather staying put and picking Deshaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes. The Bears need a QB again, after letting Trubisky walk in free agency, and Pace is just the kind of decision maker who would trade into the top eight to select Trey Lance or Mac Jones. The hype around Lance, who only started 16 games in college, reminds me of the hype that Trubisky generated in 2017 after only starting 13 games.
7. The Washington Football Team will not select Micah Parsons.
Washington’s biggest need heading into this draft is not just one, but at least two linebackers. Micah Parsons is the top-rated linebacker prospect in the 2021 draft, with the versatility to fill outside or inside linebacker positions in Jack Del Rio’s 4-3 defense. He is considered a top-10 prospect on most analysts’ boards. If Parsons’ somehow slides to #19, how could the WFT possibly pass him up?
In a court filing last year, Parsons and other Penn State players were accused of participating of hazing of teammate Isaiah Humphries and other players, including repeated sexual humiliation and incidents of assault. The filing alleges that Parsons strangled Humphries, who, fearing for his life, felt the need to pull a knife to defend himself.
Ron Rivera has made a point of emphasizing character as a key element of building a winning team culture. Amongst his first moves as head coach and de facto GM was to part ways with problem children Montae Nicholson and Quinton Dunbar. I just don’t see him taking a chance on a player with a cloud hanging over him like Parsons.
8. Washington’s pick at #19 will be a surprise.
The mad scramble for QBs that is predicted to take place in the first part of the first round should push two top prospects further down the board than they would otherwise be expected to go. There is also a fair amount of hype building about the quality of the offensive tackle class, which I expect to drive a run on that position in addition to QBs in the first round. That should push even more premium prospects at other positions down the board toward Washington.
This leads me to predict that a prospect who was not expected to go as late #19 will fall to the WFT, like Jonathan Allen did in 2017, and the value will be too good for Rivera to pass up. In this draft, that is most likely to be a cornerback, such as Jaycee Horn or Patrick Surtain. Depending on where the run on OTs start, it could also be LT Christian Darrisaw that falls to the WFT.
Just to be safe, I had better give myself another option to get this one right. Forget everything I just said. The surprise will instead be Rivera selecting a player that is rising up boards, but not generally expected to go as high #19. In that case it will almost certainly be a linebacker, with my two top choices being Jamin Davis and Jabril Cox.
Last of all, as I mentioned above there is now a new possibility that Justin Fields slides to a less costly trade destination due to concerns over his recently disclosed epilepsy. If WFT trades up for him then, this prediction is off. In the exceedingly improbable scenario that he drops all the way to #19 and becomes the WFT’s new signal caller, I’m claiming credit with this one.
Whichever scenario comes to pass, it means that I am predicting that the pick will not be the player most frequently mocked to the WFT: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. I also have ruled out Micah Parsons and four of the top five QBs, with Justin Fields being about the least likely possible surprise scenario.
9. Either Terrace Marshall or Rashod Bateman will be one of the best three wideouts selected in 2021 and will outperform at least 4 receivers selected ahead of them.
As I showed in my review of WR draft selection, more than half of the WRs who ranked amongst the top three receivers in the last 10 draft classes were selected after at least five WRs had come off the board. Marshall and Bateman are ranked around the 6th and 7th positions in the WR class on many draft analysts’ boards. Yet both have the combination of size, speed and athletic skill sets to become impact players in the NFL. Both of these guys strike me as the kinds of receivers who might outperform their draft status, as could smaller receivers Elijah Moore or Rondale Moore.
To give myself a little better chance of getting this right, I have picked two candidates rather than narrowing it down to just one. Also, I said they will outperform at least four guys picked of them, rather than five, because I don’t want to bet against Ja’Marr Chase, and I wanted to allow the possibility of one other of the top-five prospects to turn into a top-three player.
I am hoping that WFT drafts one of these players, but I think it is unlikely that Rivera will take a WR at #19 because more valuable prospects should be available. In half of the past 10 drafts, no more than five WRs had come off the board by pick # 51, and in 9/10 cases no more than eight had. Therefore, it appears that pick #51 is just about perfect to be able to land at least one of these two receivers, despite the fact that a lot of mock drafts tend to show them going earlier.
10. The WFT will select a larger power running back after the third round
I have no real reason to believe that Scott Turner feels he needs to upgrade the position currently occupied by Peyton Barber. On the other hand, it’s not clear to me why Barber is still on the team, and it makes a ton of sense to me to add a more dynamic, bigger back to complement Antonio Gibson in the ground game.
In my roundup of Super Bowl winning Quarterbacks, I made the argument that the best path to long term success for a QB-needy team in an overheated QB market was to follow the lead of teams that have previously won Super Bowls with mediocre or poor quarterbacks. Three of those teams (2000 Ravens, 2007 Giants, 2017 Eagles) featured rushing offenses ranked in the top 5 in the league, which is one of the most effective crutches to take pressure off the quarterback.
Interestingly, all three of those teams featured big, bruising running backs: 2000 Ravens - Jamal Lewis, 5’ 11”, 245 lbs; 2007 Giants – Brandon Jacobs 6’ 4”, 264 lbs; 2017 Eagles - LeGarrette Blount, 6-0, 247 lbs. I could be getting close to being banned from Hogs Haven for flogging this particular dead horse, but running backs with those measurements could be mistaken for fullbacks. Now that I mention it, the 2000 Ravens and 2002 Bucs also featured excellent pass-catching fullbacks.
This one may well be more wish fulfillment than prediction, but I’m sticking by it.
A guy I like is Rhamondre Stevenson from Oklahoma (6’0”, 232 lbs) who averaged 7.2 yards per carry on 165 attempts for 13 TDs as a Sooner, and added 28 receptions for 298 yards out of the backfield. He is also a good blocker, which might help to keep Taylor Heinicke upright and out of trouble.
11. The Washington Football Team will select three new starters in the 2021 draft.
Since 2015, Washington has drafted approximately 17 starting quality players out of 50 draft picks. To get that figure, I counted Jamison Crowder, Kyshoen Jarrett and Tim Settle as starting quality. Crowder plays slot receiver, which isn’t technically listed as a starting position. The only reason that Jarrett is on the coaching staff instead of playing safety was a career ending, freak injury, while Tim Settle would start on at least a few NFL teams. The 17 number could grow as players selected in recent drafts develop.
I didn’t count drafted players who earned some starts but did not become full-time starters (yet), or some that did, but probably should not have. These include: Matt Jones, Arie Kouandjio, Martell Spaight, Josh Doctson, Su’a Cravens, Ryan Anderson, Fabian Moreau, Samaje Perine, Montae Nicholson, Jeremy Sprinkle, Derrius Guice, Geron Christian, Troy Apke, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Greg Stroman, Trey Quinn, Wes Martin, Kelvin Harmon, Jimmy Moreland, Antonio Gandy Golden, Khaleke Hudson.
My prediction is based on the long-term average of 0.34 starting-quality players selected per WFT draft pick (17/50), ignoring draft round in which players are selected. I arrived at three starters, because WFT has eight picks in this draft: 8 x 0.34 = 2.72, which rounds to three.
Why did I ignore draft round when making that prediction? Because the starters WFT has drafted in recent years were not distributed across draft rounds like you might expect. If WFT’s success rate followed league average, we should expect the hit rate to fall off progressively from the first to seventh round, with the steepest drop from rounds 1 to 3, and pretty low hit rates after that. In recent drafts, the WFT has been bucking that trend by consistently finding starters on day three such as Bashaud Breeland, Jamison Crowder, Matt Ioannidis, Chase Roullier, Cole Holcomb and Kamren Curl.
The 17 starting quality draftees I counted were distributed as follows: 5x round 1, 2x round 2, 2x round 3, 1x round 4, 3x round 5, 2x round 6 and 2x round 7. While the sample sizes are really too small to conclude that this is a real trend, it does appear that the WFT does better than expected with round 5-7 picks, and maybe not as good as it should in round 2. And that brings me to my final extra credit, bonus points sub-prediction:
12. The three starters the WFT selects in 2021 will be drawn from the following rounds: 1 in round 1, none in round 2, 1 in rounds 3 to 4, and one in rounds 5 to 7.
The reasoning behind this prediction follows from the distribution of rounds in which WFT has found starters in previous drafts that I just discussed.
Ouch, none in Round 2 means that I must have been wrong about either Rashod Bateman or Terrace Marshall if WFT picks them at # 51 as per my discussion of prediction #9. That is a bit disappointing, because my previous analysis showed that pick # 51 is right around the start of the sweet spot for picking WRs, which extends from the middle of the second round to the fourth round. I suppose that the curse which haunts WFT’s recent second-round draft selections (e.g. Guice, Cravens, Ryan Anderson, Murphy) might have been strong enough to override good draft decision making.
Predicting one starter in rounds three to four must mean that I think that will be a very productive range for WFT, because I also predicted that the WFT will pick a power back somewhere from Round 4 onward in prediction # 9. That player is not likely to be named the starter over Antonio Gibson, even if he becomes a regular contribution at RB2, so the starter in this range must be someone else.
Last of all, in compiling those starter-by-round statistics, I couldn’t help but notice how good the 2015 draft was. The players GM Scott McCloughan selected included: Scherff, Preston Smith, Jamison Crowder, Kyshoen Jarrett and Austin Reiter. Of course, only one of those players is still with the team, but that’s a pretty good haul from a single draft.
Those are my twelve predictions for the draft starting this Thursday. Actually, if you dig into them, you’ll see I predicted more than 12 specific draft outcomes. Some of these predictions were no-brainers, like the first two QBs off the board, while I went way out on a limb with some of the others.
We will know if I got seven of the predictions right by the time the draft closes next Saturday afternoon or sooner: 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 8, 10. We might get some insight into the other five, which involve drafted players becoming starters, or not, as soon as the next year, but will more likely have to wait three to five years in some cases to know for sure. I will try to keep this article on hand and revisit it to see how I did from time to time.
Last of all, please don’t hold back your thoughts in the comments. The whole point of putting a set of predictions like this out there is to spark debate. I will be disappointed if someone doesn’t tell me I am wrong about every one of them from prediction #’s 3 to 12.
As usual, I would like to give a big shout out to James Dorsett for his excellent editorial assistance and helpful input on content.