The best thing I can say about my mock draft: I am cautiously optimistic about hitting my first two picks.
Before you see my mock draft and commence tomato-throwing at your screens—Penei Sewell, dropping to seven?! You are nuts!!!—a few headlines about what’s coming this week, prepping for the 8 p.m. Thursday kickoff to the three-day draft in downtown Cleveland:
Another draft of hope, just a different kind. Last year, with Roger Goodell announcing picks from his basement and coaches and prospects all with in-home cams and Bill Belichick’s dog the hit of the weekend, the NFL put on a show that said, “Hey, this kind of sucks, but we’re plowing ahead and showing the country we can be business-approximately-as-usual in a pandemic.” This year, there will be Goodell on a downtown Cleveland stage, on the south shore of Lake Erie nestled between the Browns stadium and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, announcing picks in front of two distinct fan groups: one fully vaccinated, closer together, with masks, and one non-vaccinated, spread apart, also with masks. Thirteen players on site walking the stage, 45 more (including top pick Trevor Lawrence) with home cams.
“We have a platform with as many as 55 million viewers watching for some part of the weekend,” league EVP of events Peter O’Reilly told me. “We want to reflect society, provide hope of brighter days ahead, show the efficacy of vaccines, and maybe model behavior for the country. There won’t be the throngs of Nashville [in 2019], but we think it’ll feel big and vibrant.”
There’s a lot of mystery, and will be till Thursday. The draft will open QB-QB-QB, and then there’s good mysterious fodder to follow. Three reasons why:
1) Four of the next six picks are held by rookie general managers: Terry Fontenot (Atlanta, four), Brad Holmes (Detroit, seven), Scott Fitterer (Carolina, eight), George Paton (Denver, nine). No book on any of them, and because none has been on the road much, little back-and-forth gossip about projections has happened.
2) Trades near the top of the draft could be limited this year. “The 49ers ruined the market by trading two ones to move nine spots,” one GM said. San Francisco, to go from 12 to three in the first round, gave Miami two future first-round picks and a third. So if Denver, for instance, wants to go from ninth to fourth with Atlanta to pick a quarterback, for example, Paton would have to pay a ransom because of the Niners’ market-setting move. I won’t be surprised if there are no trades in the top 10.
3) A record number of teams want to go down. “I’d say 35 to 75 is the hotbed of this draft,” one GM trying to move down from the twenties told me Sunday. I’m projecting a couple of small trades in my mock. I just couldn’t find evidence that QB-needy teams like New England, Washington and Chicago would move up from mid-round and kill their ’22 (and maybe ’23) drafts to move up for a passer.
Surprises? Keep an eye on Atlanta. I can’t predict any bombshells. But a few things would not surprise me. Most notably, the Falcons putting the framework of a trade together for star wideout Julio Jones, and making the trade effective June 2. That way, Atlanta could split Jones’ cap charge between 2021 and 2022 instead of getting bashed with it all this year. So if such a trade happens, I expect it could involve a future pick or picks, nothing this year. (A future second-round pick as compensation seems fair to me.) Because such a trade wouldn’t be official till June, no picks in this draft could be involved. As for the interested team or teams, I would guess Las Vegas; Jon Gruden couldn’t resist Antonio Brown, and I doubt he could resist Julio Jones. New England too, and a couple of teams with clear receiver needs—Tennessee and Baltimore.
Now, the Falcons don’t really want to trade Julio Jones. He’s a franchise legend. But he’s 32, entering his 11th season, coming off a banged-up year with seven games missed due to injury, and the Falcons are in cap jail. If they could off-load his money and cushion it by splitting it between this year ($7.75 million) and next ($15.5 million), Atlanta’s cap charge on Jones this year goes down by a tad more than $15 million.
One final note here, to be very clear: I am not reporting the Falcons will trade Jones, or will probably trade Jones. I am saying it would not surprise me if it happened.
Three more trade names to watch:
• It won’t surprise me if the Niners make Jimmy Garoppolo more available than he’s been. In other words, instead of trying to get a first-round pick for him, maybe considering taking a two for him. I wonder if the Patriots would deal the 46th pick in the draft, or their second-rounder in 2022, for their old friend.
• I won’t be surprised if the Raiders move defensive end Carl Nassib.
• It won’t surprise me, if the Broncos do not draft a quarterback, to see Denver make a mid-round deal for Teddy Bridgewater with Carolina.
Perhaps some realism. In the runup to the draft, the vast majority of top prospects are talked about like they absolutely will make it and solve major holes on every team. Well, it hasn’t worked that way for some time. Like, ever. And with the weirdness of this year (opt-outs, no combine, major medical issues), I expect we’ll look back at the 2021 draft in, say, 2023 and say, “Why didn’t we see all these clunkers coming?”
A minor screed about receivers. Not saying it’ll happen with three big stars this year, but NFL teams over-draft wideouts. Badly. In a year when three wide receivers could go in the top 10 (last time that happened: Corey Davis, Mike Williams, John Ross going 5-7-9 in 2017, and boy did that not age well), I bring you information that should show that in the age of deep receivers drafts, you’re fine waiting for one. In the last five drafts, 17 wideouts have gone in first rounds, with 26 second-rounders. Breaking it down by production in an average season shows second-rounders have been close to the production level of the top picks.
Average season of all 1st-round wide receivers drafted since 2016: 42.3 receptions, 600.5 yards, 14.2 yards per catch.
Average season of all 2nd-round wide receivers drafted since 2016: 42.5 receptions, 538.7 yards, 12.7 yards per catch.
Pretty close. My top three wideouts taken in round one since 2016: Justin Jefferson, Calvin Ridley, CeeDee Lamb. Top three second-rounders since 2017: Michael Thomas, D.K. Metcalf, A.J. Brown. Six very good players right there. My feeling is the second-rounders, in total, are better. I’m not trying to say any of the top receivers won’t be good pros, although history says at least one won’t be. I’m trying to say when Metcalf goes 64 and JuJu Smith-Schuster 62, Tyler Boyd 55, and Michael Thomas 47, maybe the conversation in the draft room should be: We’ll get a good one in round two or three. Let’s solve bigger problems elsewhere early.
Okay. Now for the main attraction. Programming note: I will break down my first-round selection in my weekly podcast with my friend Paul Burmeister, posted this afternoon Eastern Time at The Peter King Podcast.
Dart-throwing, mostly, in a mysterious first round:
1. Jacksonville Jaguars—Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
Wonderful day in Duuuuuuu-val, but history throws a caution flag. Since 2010, here are the eight quarterbacks who went first overall: Sam Bradford, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Jameis Winston, Jared Goff, Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow. A nice collection, and the jury is still out on a few, of course. But five are gone from their original teams. Those eight players, collectively, are a cautionary tale on drinking till dawn Thursday night in Jacksonville.
Trevor Lawrence, like his coach, will have to be mindful of three things as his career dawns. One: patience; he will likely lose more games in his first month or so than he lost in his three-year college career—two. Two: focus on the long-term goal, which is steady development, knowing there will be some awful days. Three: Don’t be a hero. Lawrence had great talent around him and lesser teams on his schedule, and neither of those will be true in Jacksonville, at least early. Get rid of the ball. Nothing wrong with punting. Lawrence strikes me as a guy who gets all this, but he’ll be tested when he’s down 33-10 late in the third quarter at Indianapolis.
2. New York Jets—Zach Wilson, QB, Brigham Young
This occurred to me when thinking about the adjustment of a suburban Utah kid who went to college at BYU and now will be moving into the shadows of the big city. Wilson is Mormon. When a Mormon kid wins the starting quarterback job at Brigham Young, it’s a big deal, and the mantel of BYU QB lays heavy on a Mormon kid, especially one who was only moderately recruited. I am not saying playing quarterback in Provo, Utah is the same as playing quarterback for the New York Jets, because of course it isn’t. But Wilson has had a little bit of pressure on him already—and also had the pressure of a player who a year ago was in a three-way battle for the starting job at BYU and proceeded to knock it out of the park. I doubt he’s ready, as a pristine 21-year-old, for the challenge of being the next Namath. But who would be? Who would be ready for the screaming BROADWAY ZACH back-page headlines that await him?
More important than the cultural challenge will be what GM Joe Douglas does with his four additional picks in the top 90 this year, and his four picks in the top two round next year. The supporting cast will be at least as important to Wilson’s success as Wilson himself will be.
3. San Francisco 49ers (from Miami via Houston)—Mac Jones, QB, Alabama
Hearing it’s a two-horse race with Trey Lance. Quite a few of the experts will faint if this pick happens, and then outrage will ensue, and how-could-they-pass-on-Fields-and-Lance hot takes will flood the earth. GM John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan—with contracts that run through 2024 and 2025, respectively—do not care. They have not cared about public sentiment since taking these jobs, and this is their fifth draft. In their first, 2017, I was in the room as it happened, and these were the top three players on the board: 1 Myles Garrett, 2 Solomon Thomas, 3 Reuben Foster. With the third pick, they were sure to get one of those. But Foster? Really? No one had him that high. Lynch: “Had Solomon been gone, we’d have taken Foster. And been happy.” My point: Shanahan and Lynch won’t care what order the draftniks have the quarterbacks, or any position.
Shanahan believes Jones is the accurate coach-on-the-field type he craves. As one coach in QB-prospecting mode told me this spring: “Jones has elite NFL traits. He’s a natural thrower, is technically very sound, very accurate and throws a catchable ball. His base and mechanics are excellent.” He’s not the athlete a Lance or Fields is, but he doesn’t have feet of stone. I’ll be fascinated—we all will—if Jones is the pick. And I can see it happening.
4. Atlanta Falcons—Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida
Golden spot of the draft. I like how thorough new GM Terry Fontenot has been about the pick and about his entire roster through this process. One of his new peers in the league told me building the roster has nothing to do with sentimentality for Fontenot and all to do with the current reality of the tight cap. Next year’s NFL cap also will likely be less than the 2019 cap figure of $198 million, and three Falcons (Matt Ryan, Grady Jarrett and Jake Matthews) are slated to count for half of it, insanely—about $96 million. Some great options here, obviously. The fourth quarterback available—who knows?—might be the second or third QB on Atlanta’s board, and I could see Fontenot and Arthur Smith ensuring the Falcons’ future there. I could see them taking a generational tight end, or their choice of three top wideout prospect.
What I think Atlanta would love, even at the expense of losing out on all of those possibilities, is a trade-down. It’s certainly possible, but I’m leaning against the reality of it. Denver going from nine to four makes the most sense—but Broncos GM George Paton comes from the draft-and-develop-and-acquire-picks school. The cost for New England, Washington or Chicago seems monstrous. Any of those could happen, but I think it’s more likely Fontenot sits and picks a great player.
5. Cincinnati Bengals — Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU
For a long time, I’ve thought—even railed about it in this space—that the Bengals should just sit here and pick the best tackle in the draft, Penei Sewell. And if they do, good for them. But this exercise is trying to project what I think they will do, not should do. And I’m getting to the point where I am relying on history and this particularly board in projecting something like for the Bengals:
Round 1, pick 5: Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU
Round 2, pick 38: Liam Eichenberg, T, Notre Dame
Round 3, pick 69: Wyatt Davis, G, Ohio State
The point: In the scouting community, the quality of wideout, after the top three, has a steep dropoff. The dropoff at tackle is less, and you can find respectable starters, at tackle and guard, from 30 to 75.
One more point, and it involves Bengals history. You might say, They’re fine at wideout with Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins. They are, but the Bengals have always prioritized receivers, and this is still Mike Brown’s team. 1981: David Verser and Cris Collinsworth, rounds one and two . . . 1985-’86: Eddie Brown and Tim McGee in back-to-back first rounds . . . 2000-’01: Peter Warrick and Chad Johnson in back-to-to drafts . . . 2016-’17: Tyler Boyd (second round), John Ross (first round). So they used a high two on Higgins last year. It’s not going to prevent them from putting another great receiver prospect in stripes again.
6. Miami Dolphins (from Philadelphia)—Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
Amazing, really, to see the incredible receiver depth at Alabama in the last three years. Waddle started nine games in three years at ‘Bama—and I’m projecting him sixth overall in the draft. Over a two-year period, history will show four Alabama receivers picked in the top 15: Henry Ruggs (12), Jerry Jeudy (15), Waddle and DeVonta Smith. Nick Saban compares Waddle’s competitiveness to Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, and that is music to the ears of feisty Brian Flores. This pick is about not only adding a top receiver to a group with Will Fuller IV, Preston Williams and DeVante Parker, but giving Tua Tagovailoa a truly fair chance to show he’s the franchise’s long-term quarterback in 2021. It’s a common-sense pick, unless GM Chris Grier believes Penei Sewell is a generational tackle and he’s sitting there at six.
7. Detroit Lions—Penei Sewell, T, Oregon
First line out of rookie GM Brad Holmes’ mouth if it falls this way: No way we thought Sewell would be there at seven. Tyler Decker is solid on the left side for Detroit but Tyrell Crosby, PFF’s 66th-rated tackle last year, seems like a place-holder on the right side. No question in my mind Holmes hopes the Patriots (15) will want to pay a ransom to move from 15 to 7 and pick their QB of the future, and the way New England’s uncharacteristic offseason has gone, you can’t eliminate that as a possibility. But if the Lions stay, one of the top tackles or DeVonta Smith seems the most logical way to go . . . unless the Chris Spielman influence reverberates through the building and the best linebacker in the draft, Micah Parsons, has the Lions smitten.
8. Carolina Panthers—Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
Tiniest of all tiny clues: Interesting that the Panthers have yet to say (though many in the media have, including me) that Sam Darnold will have his fifth-year option—his 2022 contract—exercised and guaranteed by Carolina. They won’t do it, either, till at least after the draft. Count the Panthers as another team that would love to take a passel of picks from New England or Washington to move down. As I wrote last week, Carolina hates the fact that the franchise has averaged 6.2 picks per draft in the last eight years when the average team has 8.1. I’m not sure at all they’d use the pick here on Fields, because they’re truly optimistic about Sam Darnold. But owner David Tepper has made no secret that finding a franchise quarterback has to be job one, two, three and four for the team. Fields falling to them makes sense—even if it would crush the new incumbent QB.
9. Denver Broncos—Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State
Very nearly had a trade here—Denver dealing its first and second-round picks (9 and 40) to Detroit for the seventh pick, to take Lance. Denver GM George Paton still may do it, but I’m dubious the Lions will get anyone between 10 and 15 leapfrogging the two QB spots—Carolina and Denver—to take one of the quarterbacks. We’ll see. Paton is a lover of picks, so I’m not sure he’d surrender a starting player with the 40th pick to ensure getting Lance. In an ideal world, Lance goes somewhere like Atlanta to learn behind a good vet for a year or two, but in this case he’d probably challenge Drew Lock for the starting job by Halloween.
So many people are in love with Lance the prospect and it’s easy to see why. Excellent arm, good mobility, precocious player and leader. The one thing to keep in mind with Denver: Paton’s not going to go nuts for a quarterback; he’s okay with giving Lock first dibs here. However, Paton also understands he may not be in a power position to get the next quarterback like the one he would have if this scenario plays out.
10. Dallas Cowboys—Patrick Surtain II, cornerback, Alabama
I am not signing on to the Jerry’s-moving-up-for-Kyle-Pitts storyline. I saw Jerry Jones passionately push to try to trade for Paxton Lynch five years ago and, though he has the juice to do what he wants, not overrule his football people when they said the Cowboys should not up the offer to be able to trade for Lynch. Good thing, obviously. So I doubt Jones this year will trade next year’s one, or a passel of picks, to move up to number four to be able to take the talented Florida tight end.
Picking Surtain is smarter. Dallas gave up 29.6 points per game last year, and allowed a ghastly 34 touchdown passes. (Previous five years, on average: 23 per season.) The Cowboys, as my friend Rick Gosselin has preached for years, have to spend more time tending to the defense in the high rounds, and Surtain would be a good add to a beleaguered defense.
11. New York Giants—Micah Parsons, OLB, Penn State
Last Giants’ first-round linebacker: Carl Banks, 1983. Okay, so once every 38 years a linebacker comes out who’s worth it. The Giants always do a good job disguising their intentions, and this year they’ve been particularly good. Three things I’ve heard: Joe Judge loves DeVonta Smith; the organization likes cornerback Jaycee Horn a lot; and Dave Gettleman loves Parsons. If you can get past some of the immature pockmarks on his résumé, there is so much to love. Easily the best linebacker in the draft, with the ability to be a top edge player and double as a sideline-to-sideline presence. Now, he’s only a one-year starter, didn’t play football last year, and the Giants will have to be comfortable with the fact he’s had maturity issues. Smith or Horn could easily be the pick here—Parsons is my best guess—but 4.36-in-the-40 linebackers are quite rare.
12. Philadelphia Eagles (from Miami, via San Francisco)—Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina
I think when the Eagles moved from 6 to 12 on March 29 in the trade with Miami, they hoped for three things: their choice of a top receiver, Northwestern tackle Rashawn Slater, and one of the top two corners in the draft. By this mock, they’re all there. Nothing would surprise me—include a shallow trade-down, say, to New England at 15 if the Patriots are smitten with DeVonta Smith. Horn is my pick here because corner’s a significant need; the Eagles’ best (and priciest) corner, Darius Slay, gave up 77-percent completions last year, per Pro Football Focus, and there’s no other long-term solutions, at least not one who has played to that level, on the roster now. Horn’s a three-year starter in a throwing league, and the book on him is he’s uber-competitive and feisty. Sounds like a Philly guy already.
13. Los Angeles Chargers—Rashawn Slater, T, Northwestern
Surprised if Slater falls to 13. He’s what you want in a modern tackle, after 26 starts at right tackle and 11 at left tackle in the Big Ten, including a shutout of Chase Young in their 2019 Northwestern-Ohio State matchup. Didn’t play in 2020, but he’s athletic and could very well go much higher. The Chargers, with 32-year-old Bryan Bulaga at one tackle and likely place-holder Trey Pipkins at the other, need a long-term solution at the position. Even though Tom Telesco’s highest-picked tackle in the last seven drafts has been Pipkins, at 91 in 2019, I think the talent here trumps recent history. Part of me, though, wonders if the Chargers will be smitten enough with DeVonta Smith or one of the receivers if they’re still around at 13.
14. Minnesota Vikings—Alijah Vera-Tucker, G-T, USC
I believe I lead the Vikings’ chunk of my mock annually with this sentence: GM Rick Spielman really wants to trade down. Nothing new this year. Maybe he’ll find an aggressive taker if one of the receivers is still on the board. I had Jaelan Phillips here until making the switch Sunday mid-day. Lots of times, in mock-scienceville, you’re influenced by the last voice you hear. So I had Phillips until the last three people I texted with Sunday told me the need is too great on the Minnesota offensive line, and Vera-Tucker the person and prospect just too solid, and Phillips the person and prospect a little risky, and so I hit the delete button. Vera-Tucker, with 13 starts at guard and six at tackle, and was voted the top offensive lineman in the conference by his foes last year. Seems a very safe pick.
15. New England Patriots—DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
So many options for New England on draft weekend, and you know most of them. You know the option I just don’t see? Bill Belichick trading a gold mine to move up eight or 11 spots to get the quarterback of the future. I think he’s much more likely to deal for Jimmy Garoppolo (but not with a first-round pick), or to draft a Kyle Trask in the second or third round, or play it out with Cam Newton this year and then see what happens next offseason. Maybe Garoppolo’s on the street by then, or maybe Matt Ryan is.
The draft capital needed to move up to seven (never mind four) would likely include next year’s first-round pick and something else, and I can’t see Belichick loving Lance or Fields enough to do that. What good fortune for New England if it plays out this way, getting a competitive game-breaker at 15.
Quote of the Mock Process: One GM who loves Smith told me, “Have you heard his nickname? I love it. It’s so true. ‘The Slim Reaper.’ “
16. Arizona Cardinals—Greg Newsome II, cornerback, Northwestern
Lots of different opinions about Newsome. One GM with a cornerback need is wary because of his nagging injury history at Northwestern; he missed eight, three and four games due to injury in his three starting seasons. So a team will have to be comfortable with his long-term fitness, obviously, and this is a particularly concern this year because so many shortcuts have been taken medically with no combine and few chances for team medics to put their hands on prospects. Per Dane Brugler, Newsome had 25 passes defensed in 21 college games, and he runs a 4.38 40, and he’s exceedingly fluid.
Also, a note about Arizona options. Peter Schrager, whose mock I sincerely respect, had the Cards trading up from 16 to 7 to take Jaylen Waddle. Kliff Kingsbury, it seems, is smitten with getting more firepower for Kyler Murray. Okay. In the last three years, Arizona’s used two second-round picks on receivers, made a mega-trade-and-signing for DeAndre Hopkins, and bought A.J. Green in free agency. Time to address other needs.
17. Las Vegas Raiders—Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech
Farley, despite not playing a football game for 508 days and despite coming off disk surgery that will affect him through July, has been a very popular man this offseason with many teams. That happens because Farley’s 6-2, has been strong in man coverage, loves football, and apparently will be okay for the long term once his current back malady heals. Arizona (16), Washington (19), Chicago (20) and Pittsburgh (24) have spent lots of Zoom time with Farley this spring.
The Raiders, 26th in passing yards allowed and 30th in third-down conversions allowed, haven’t drafted well recently at corner. (Join the club.) Their projected 2021 starters at corner, Trayvon Mullen and Damon Arnette, were 82nd and 116th, respectively, in PFF’s 2020 cornerback ratings. Not good, considering 121 cornerbacks were rated. Farley, in a division with a quarter of the games annually coming against Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert, would be a welcome/essential add.
18. Miami Dolphins—Jaelan Phillips, edge-rusher, Miami
A complicated case here. Phillips once quit football after a spate of injuries at UCLA, and transferred to Miami where he had a great 2020 season (23.5 sacks/tackles for loss). He loves music; some scouts think it’s his passion more than football. But his quickness and power around the edge have seduced some evaluators. “He’s the best defensive player in this draft,” one GM told me. With Emmanuel Ogbah (coming off a nine-sack season at 27), Phillips could be the kind of difference-maker Brian Flores needs on his defensive front. But there’s no guarantee with Phillips—if there was, he wouldn’t be on the board at 18.
Two other edge notes: Ask 10 GMs their top four edge-rushers and it’s likely none has the same order. Regarding Phillips: My opinion after talking to a few people who know him is that he and Chip Kelly were so oil-and-water at UCLA that it affected his love of the game, and that’s been rekindled in spades at Miami. I don’t think this is going to be a kid who wakes up in three years and questions his affection for the game.
19. Washington Football Team—Christian Darrisaw, T, Virginia Tech
Admirable story. As the 171st-rated offensive tackle coming out of high school, Darrisaw got one major-school offer (Virginia Tech) and took it . . . and started 35 of 36 games in his three-year career with the Hokies, all at left tackle. At 6-5 and 322, Darrisaw is a feisty and battle-tested player who could play in year one on a line that got overrun for 50 sacks in 2020. The left-tackle position allowed 38 sacks/pressures for WFT last year, and with a stationary quarterback for at least one more year in Washington in Ryan Fitzpatrick, the immediate need is there to do better than, say, Cornelius Lucas at left tackle.
20. Chicago Bears—Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota
Getting to the throw-a-dart area of the first round. Better yet, the crowd-sourcing area of the first round. What is weird about a pass offense with Allen Robinson, Darnell Mooney and Anthony Miller is this stat from 2020: They combined to catch 212 balls—but for only 11.2 yards per catch. With a 4.38 darter in Moody to change the pace, that yards-per-catch number is just not good enough. So here comes Andy Dalton, and the Bears have multiple needs, but another plug-and-play receiver would help, particularly now that Miller’s Chicago future is cloudy after three low-impact years.
Trade: Indianapolis trades 21st pick to Cleveland for the 26th pick and a third-round choice, 91st overall.
21. Cleveland Browns—Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Notre Dame
So everyone wants to sideline-to-sideling playmaking ability of Devin White. Owusu-Koramoah isn’t Devin White (15 pounds lighter), but he has some of White’s traits. The Golden-Domer is rangy (he played a rover position in the Irish D) and made first-team all-America last season, dropping in coverage, rushing and being a complete playmaker at the second level on defense. This is right about the area of the draft that he should be picked, and I could see others (Green Bay, New York Jets) being interested around here. I think playing behind Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney and the Browns’ interior front, Owusu-Koramoah should be free to roam and be a playmaker in year one.
Trade: Tennessee trades 22nd pick to Baltimore for the 27th pick and a third-round choice, 94th overall.
22. Baltimore Ravens—Kwity Paye, edge-rusher, Michigan
Love this pick for the Ravens. There might not be a more hungry, coachable and talented player in this draft. Paye’s story is incredible. For the Paye family, America has been the true land of opportunity, and Baltimore could be the team of opportunity for an eager 22-year-old pass-rusher with great upside. Paye was born in a refugee camp on the west coast of Africa in 1998, and dispatched at 6 months old with a brother to live with his uncle in Rhode Island. Not a lot of football prospects in Rhode Island, but Paye become a big one, then excelled at Michigan, playing 38 games in four seasons mostly as a 4-3 end.
In the NFL, the 6-2, 260-pound Paye likely will be moved around to find his ideal spot, but Baltimore defensive coordinator Wink Martindale is very good at blending disparate ingredients to make a top defense. With just 11.5 sacks in 38 college games, Paye will need to develop more pass-rush moves to be an NFL success. (I do not see, by the way, the Ravens picking LSU receiver Terrace Marshall.)
23. New York Jets (from Seattle)—Gregory Rousseau, edge-rusher, Miami
So no one knows which edge rusher is going to be very good. The Jets want one. I think they might take Paye if available, and they might also trade up for one. They also could roll the dice on Azeez Ojulari, the highly rated rusher from Georgia who could slip because some teams are worried about his knee issues. Rousseau is an interesting story. Medical redshirt as a 2018 Miami frosh, huge season (35 sacks/TFLs) in 2019 as a rush end, opted out in 2020. So teams have seen him in all of seven starts and one season as a rusher. “Such a tough evaluation,” one GM told me. “But I can’t unsee what I saw in 2019. He was a man that year.”
In many ways, Rousseau is the perfect illustration of the 2020 draft prospect: Tantalizing, touch of mystery, not enough on tape to totally trust. The one reason NOT to give him to the Jets is New York cannot afford to bust on first-round picks—the Jets have too much recent history of that. If Joe Douglas makes this pick, it’ll be because he’s swinging for a home run, not a gap double.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers—Najee Harris, running back, Alabama
It’s been 13 years since the Steelers took a back in the first round (Rashard Mendenhall, Illinois, 23rd pick, 2008), and I think they’d consider the speedy Travis Etienne here also. They could go Teven Jenkins or Sam Cosmi here because of major tackle need, but alarm bells must be clanging in the head of draft czar Kevin Colbert after the miserable time Pittsburgh had in the run game last year. In seven of their last 11 games, the Steelers managed less than 55 rushing yards, and their season fell off a cliff.
The all-time leading Alabama rusher and touchdown-scorer, Harris isn’t the home-rush threat of Etienne, but he doesn’t shy from contact, runs between the tackles fluidly, and is the kind of bellcow back the Steelers have been seeking since Le’Veon Bell left. I’m not a big fan of running backs in the first round, and if the Steelers go tackle here, that’s fine. But spending big on a big need would be smart, which is why I like Harris here.
25. Jacksonville Jaguars (from L.A. Rams)—Jayson Oweh, edge-rusher, Penn State
Okay. This starts a vital time in franchise history, and I’m not being dramatic. Jags pick 25th, 33rd, 45th, 65th and know they’ve got to hit on picks in the sweet spot of the draft. They had the first pick of day one, and will have the first pick of days two (33rd) and three (65th) as well. So this is where four Jacksonville coaches—recent college coaches Urban Meyer, Charlie Strong, Chris Ash and Anthony Schlegel—can really pay off. They should be able to pick up the phone and call their friends in the college coaching business and get the kind of inside information that the college-heavy staff of Jimmy Johnson got in the first three or four seasons of the Dallas makeover three decades ago. Schlegel, particularly, should be a boon. The former assistant director of sports performance at Ohio State should be able to get the straight dope from strength and conditioning coaches across the country. That’s a tight circle of coaches, and my experience is they would not lie to each other.
That brings us to the second pick of the first round, with well-trusted defensive coordinator Joe Cullen weighing heavily on the decision. A tackle like Christian Barmore wouldn’t surprise me here; he’s the best of a bad DT crop. Oweh is pretty raw, with only eight college starts and needing to develop better pass-rush moves. But his upside is good.
26. Indianapolis Colts (from Cleveland)—Samuel Cosmi, T, Texas
Tackle Liam Eichenberg of Notre Dame is possible (Colts GM Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich were at his Pro Day, for what that’s worth), because he’s a steady-Eddie guy, reliable like the retired Anthony Castonzo. But Cosmi’s upside is probably higher. Cosmi started 34 games at tackle for Texas—21 at left tackle, 13 at right—and at 6-6 and 315 pounds had an NFL frame with the ability to get a little bigger.
One other thing about this pick: I could see the Colts trade down again to pick up another third or fourth-round pick, or a pick next year, because they figure they can get a tackle around 35 anyway. One of the things I expect to see, particularly lower in the round, will be for teams to look for 2022 picks either instead of or in addition to a 2021 pick. That’s because teams trust the 2022 draft more than this year’s. There will be a full season, most likely, with a regular combine.
27. Tennessee Titans (from Baltimore)—Elijah Moore, WR, Mississippi
After losing receiving targets Corey Davis (free agency, Jets) and Jonnu Smith (free-agency, Patriots), the only star available for Ryan Tannehill is A.J. Brown, a true difference-maker. I think GM Jon Robinson might have to take two wideouts, or a wideout and a tight end, in the first three rounds of this draft. Moore was good in college, but as one draft-watcher told me, he should be a better pro. He has 4.35 speed, and there’s no way a player with that speed should be a 12.9-yards-per-catch guy, which Moore was in three seasons in Oxford. Tannehill’s become a good deep-ball thrower, and he would be better with Moore streaking off the line.
28. New Orleans Saints—Tyson Campbell, CB, Georgia
Every year, I like to put at least one “Who!!!” in my first round. So in my calls over the last few days, I’ve asked most of my football contacts who they’d put in the first round that no one has there. One GM practically blurted “That Georgia corner, Tyson Campbell. He’s big and fast and had lots of experience in a passing conference.” A high-school teammate of Patrick Surtain II in Florida, Campbell went on to play 33 games with 24 starts in three seasons at Georgia. At 6-1 with 4.36 speed, he’s got perfect NFL tools, but his game is raw and, per Dane Brugler of The Athletic, he was suspect in covering receivers out of their breaks and easy to get off-balance. Coaches with confidence will look at what he CAN do and figure they can teach him what he doesn’t do well. Dennis Allen, the Saints’ defensive coordinator, is one of those confident coaches. Plus, there’s a big need in New Orleans at the position. I like this semi-risky pick here for the Saints.
29. Green Bay Packers—Jamin Davis, LB, Kentucky
It’s the annual Green Bay game of How can we avoid taking a receiver in the first round again? Kadarius Toney would seem logical here. But if I’m GM Brian Gutekunst, I might go best player on the board here, then receiver in the second round (Rondale Moore? Dyami Brown?) because, in my draft scenario, lots of the good wideouts are gone. Davis is perhaps the fastest-rising defensive player in the crop over the last three months. After starting only 11 games at Kentucky, NFL teams studying his tape found the rangy sideline-to-sideline playmaker they’re valuing in linebackers these days. “Very instinctive for a guy who hasn’t played much,” one GM said. If the Packers zero in on linebackers, they may like Zaven Collins of Tulsa, but those I spoke to like Davis more.
30. Buffalo Bills—Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson
Now that the Bills have one of the most dangerous receiver corps in the league, time to inject some life into the run game. Etienne would be a great puzzle piece in an offense that craves speed in the backfield. Etienne doesn’t have the speed of some of the fleet backs or wideouts who run Jet sweeps (he’s a 4.44 guy), but the book on him is he cuts and fakes at top speed, which can make up for the fact that he has good but not transcendent speed. Plus, Etienne is very good in the screen game. He had 22 plays of 40 yards or more at Clemson, with a ridiculous 78 touchdowns in four seasons.
I’m not a huge fan of rushers in the first round, but the Bills are in top-off mode: What player can they use to make a very good roster a tick better? And Etienne, combined with the great weapons already on the offense, would be a pretty great add to an offense that averaged 31.3 points a game last year. He’d be an extra headache for defensive coordinators to solve.
31. Baltimore Ravens (from Kansas City)—Landon Dickerson, C-G, Alabama
Polarizing prospect around the NFL, and I don’t think Baltimore GM Eric DeCosta would pull the trigger on this first-round bonus pick (acquired from Kansas City for Orlando Brown on Friday) without having a pick earlier in the round. Dickerson is a clear medical risk, and there are those in the NFL who think he’s just been too beat up by his college experience to count on him for a long NFL career. He’s had two torns ACL and two major ankle injuries, and he won’t be medically cleared till August or September this year, most likely. Dickerson’s résumé (three years at Florida State, two at Alabama) is incredible: He started games at every position on the offensive line in his five seasons: 20 at center, 11 at right guard, four at left guard, one at left tackle, one at right tackle. (Has that ever happened before?) Played in the NCAA title game despite knowing he had a torn ACL and would soon have surgery.
So Dickerson is the risk of risks in this draft. But I would say this: The Ravens are notoriously tough medical-graders, with lots of failed-physicals every year with draft prospects. If this is the pick, some demanding Baltimore docs would have given Dickerson a clean bill. “Might be the best leader in the draft,” one GM said. “It’s a risk, but I’d take it.”
32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers— Christian Barmore, DT, Alabama
What gift do you get for the team that has everything? How about the best defensive tackle in the draft? (A low bar, granted; this tackle crop stinks.) But Vita Vea missed 13 games, including playoffs, last year and his absence was felt. Barmore would give the Bucs a good relief presence at the tackle spot, and could be a good heir to Ndamukong Suh whenever the trusty vet walks away.
The great thing for Tampa Bay here is GM Jason Licht can truly go best player available and be fine. Maybe he likes one of the backs (Javonte Williams?) or a high-value linebacker like Zaven Collins, or the best safety in the draft, Trevon Moehrig. It’s nice to win a Super Bowl, get every key player back, and look at the draft to simply make your team better, not be desperate to import a need player.
News item: On Friday, Baltimore traded tackle Orlando Brown plus a second-round pick this year and a sixth next year to Kansas City for first, third and fourth-round picks this year and a fifth next year.
Background: Entering this offseason, Baltimore knew right tackle Brown wanted to play left tackle, and with Ronnie Stanley capably manning the left side for the Ravens, that chance wasn’t going to materialize. But with Brown a year before free agency and with the cap tight this year and next for many teams, the market wasn’t as frenetic as you’d think for a 24-year-old tackle able to play either side. Kansas City, however, was motivated to protect Patrick Mahomes well into the future with quality players.
Finding a middle ground. Once Baltimore knew KC was sincerely interested, it was a matter of determining the value for the player. Not easy. In 2018, Brown was the 83rd pick overall, chosen in the middle of the third round. In his first three NFL seasons, he played right tackle for the Ravens and made two Pro Bowls. But he wanted to play left tackle, and he would need a new contract with his rookie deal expiring after 2021. So a team acquiring him would not only have to pay draft-pick compensation for him, but would have to sign him in 2022 to avoid making a big trade for a guy and then losing him after only a year or two if KC chose to franchise him in 2022.
Baltimore GM Eric DeCosta and Kansas City GM Brett Veach sought a middle ground. The Ravens thought a pick low in the second round was poor value. Kansas City thought a first-round pick was too rich. So they borderline split the difference. They would try to frame a deal with a value for Brown between the 43rd and 45th pick, approximately—but Kansas City had a low first-round pick (31st overall), and so they’d have to figure out how to equalize the value.
The draft trade value charts. You may have heard of these. Jimmy Johnson and the Cowboys invented the first one in 1989, assigning every pick in the draft a numerical value, so that when a trade was being discussed, each side could put a mathematical number on picks and come to an agreement about the value of them. Johnson’s chart wasn’t perfect; it probably overrated picks in the top 10, didn’t account for the rising value of second and third-round picks in building rosters in recent years, nor did it account for players being traded who might not be with the acquiring team long-term. It was designed to simply dictate what, say, the 34th pick in the draft was worth when two teams were trading picks. When a player got involved, that was a different story. The two sides had to figure the draft-choice equivalent of that player, then work to exchange picks plus the player to make it equal. In this case, Veach had eight to 10 charts he used, while DeCosta had four, and they both had Johnson’s chart. So they began to work on the Chiefs figuring out how to give the Ravens value of a pick in the mid-forties.
The result. On a chart designed by Chase Stuart of Football Perspective, widely quoted by respected scribe Bill Barnwell, adding up KC’s first, third, fourth and fifth-round picks, and getting a Baltimore second in return, was the equivalent of the Ravens getting the 23rd pick in return for Brown. Another chart KC used found that plugging in the same picks resulted in the value of the 75th pick. But then they calculated the Johnson trade chart. Kansas City’s first-round pick, 31st overall, was worth 600 points. The third-round pick, 94th, was worth 124 points, and the fourth, 136th overall, was worth 3.3 points. Add in the fifth next year, about three points, and that totaled up 730.3 points of value. Now you had to account for the Baltimore second-round pick this year, 58th overall, and sixth next year. That was worth about 330.4 points, per Johnson’s chart. So, there was 785.4 points of value from KC’s picks, and 330.4 points from the Baltimore pick. And 785.4 points minus 330.4 equals 455 points. That’s halfway between the 44th and 45th picks on the Johnson chart. So the value seemed fair. The Ravens got the low one plus three lesser picks from Kansas City for a player they’d likely keep just one more year, and KC got the low two plus a left tackle (they hope) of the future.
Postcript. For the Ravens, they figure that the 31st pick they’ve acquired in this draft is not the value of the 31st pick on their board. When they acquired that pick, they think of it more like the 20th or 22nd pick. Why? Because they figure that when their board is stacked with finality this week, there will be a player ranked in the 20 to 22 range left on their board. That comes from experience. Every team doesn’t see the board the way the Ravens see it. The whole thing is fascinating to me.
The Super Bowl victory by Tampa Bay over Kansas City featured one of the worst offensive-line performances in championship history. Kansas City’s ravaged line allowed quarterback Patrick Mahomes to be sacked or pressured an amazing 29 times in the 31-9 loss.
What follows is the starting line that mangled the Super Bowl and my projection of the line in 2021. That’s what it is—my projection. It could be that Laurent Duvernay-Tardif will re-take a starting job after opting out to work at a nursing home in Canada during COVID last season, and that a rookie opt-out, third-round tackle Lucas Niang, could push for playing time as well. But there is a chance Kansas City could be better at every position to open 2021 than it was to close 2020.
Just a decade ago this week, I was in Santa Clara, Calif., covering the Niners’ draft, with GM Trent Baalke and coach Jim Harbaugh doing the picking. Pass-rusher Aldon Smith was the first-round pick, sandwiched between Julio Jones and Jake Locker. In round two, Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick was the pick. A friend of both Baalke and Harbaugh said Kaepernick was the perfect pick for San Francisco. “Kaepernick’s a football junkie,” Trent Dilfer told me that weekend. “Every aspect of his life will be about being a quarterback.”
Harbaugh called Kaepernick, who lived 90 minutes from the Niners’ facility in Turlock, Calif., and offered to meet him the next day a halfway point between Santa Clara and Turlock, so they could talk and strategize about the future. “Coach, I’m only 90 minutes away,” Kaepernick told him. “I can come over right now.” And so he did. By 6:30 that evening, he was inside the building, grinning widely.
“Whether it’s checkers or the Super Bowl,” Kaepernick told me, “I’ve got to win. We had such a good time when coach Harbaugh came to work me out at Nevada. His energy is what got to me. I thought, I’d really like to play for this guy. The first thing we did was throw the ball to each other, and he made it a contest . . . Who could throw five perfect spirals in a row? Then who can throw the ball through the goal posts from difficult angles? He just wanted to compete with me and see how I would react.”
Sometimes, 10 years seems like a very, very long time.
“I haven’t seen the sun.”
—Rookie Denver GM George Paton, on the hours he’s been keeping preparing for the Broncos to draft this week.
“Let me tell you one thing: From my couch, 13 years after I retired, I don’t give advice to anybody.”
—Former Giants GM Ernie Accorsi, to Steve Serby of the New York Post, asked if he had any advice for the current GM of the New York Giants, Dave Gettleman.
“A lot of players opted out. You also have some schools that played four games. Some played 10. However you look at it, it wasn’t going to be an apples-to-apples comparison. So for us to sit here and judge players on opt-outs — I think it’s unfair and I think it’s unrealistic. I don’t think we can hold that against these players.”
—Miami GM Chris Grier, on those players who didn’t play in 2020 for COVID-related reasons, and how that will affect their status on the Dolphins’ draft board.
“If Alex wants to get into coaching, I’ve got first dibs.”
—Kansas City coach Andy Reid, upon hearing Alex Smith was retiring.
“We’ve got some really good young receivers. It’s insulting to these guys when they hear that we don’t have any receivers. It’s quite insulting. I’m insulted by it too, to be honest.”
—Baltimore GM Eric DeCosta, on the widespread criticism of his team’s wideout corps.
I’ve used various iterations of these numbers over the past few years, but it seems appropriate seeing that the Steelers last week locked up Mike Tomlin for three more seasons with a contract extension. The Steelers, perhaps, left some meat on the bone in 2020, fading badly after an 11-0 start. But looking at Tomlin’s career stats shows how well he measures up to the grand tradition of Pittsburgh coaches.
342 regular-season games
Super Bowls: 4-0
209 career wins (including playoffs), 9.1 average wins per year.^
240 regular-season games
Super Bowls: 1-1
161 career wins, 10.7 average wins per year.
224 regular-season games
Super Bowls: 1-1
153 career wins, 10.9 average wins per year.
^NFL teams played only 14 regular-season games in Noll’s first nine seasons as coach.
Two other Tomlin-related niblets:
• Losing seasons in two head-coaching careers: Bill Belichick, five in 25 years; Mike Tomlin, zero in 14 years.
• If Mike Tomlin, who is only 49, coaches till the end of his contract extension (the 2024 season), it will mean the Steelers will have had three head coaches in 56 years.
To say Florida tight end Kyle Pitts is an outlier among tight ends in recent history is an understatement. In the last seven NFL seasons, five players have been voted to at least one first- or second-team All-Pro team. The draft slot for each player:
Pitts had better be on the field in every situation, including goal-line, and produce at a huge level to justify being a top-six pick.
DeVonta Smith at 166 lbs is a number that will def make teams a little uncomfortable, but he has a frame that can add more bulk. And there’s absolutely nothing on film that strength is an issue. Never jammed at LOS, plays through contact, holds his ground on contested balls.
— Chris Simms (@CSimmsQB) April 21, 2021
Simms analyzes the NFL for NBC Sports.
Funny how many of the top teams have had some great successes trading back but Dave has never ever received an offer worth accepting. I guess people like Andy Reid, Bill Belichick and Ozzie Newsome just can’t tell when they are getting fleeced. “God bless em.” https://t.co/QuUht634CX
— Joe Banner (@JoeBanner13) April 22, 2021
Banner was a 20-year NFL president and CEO with Cleveland and Philadelphia.
Tom Brady weighs in on an NFL rule change: pic.twitter.com/EhTd8f6kVh
— Lucy Burdge (@LucilleBurdge) April 22, 2021
Burdge works for Audacy Sports.
Does Alex smith go Into the Hall Of Fame as a Chief or as a football team?
— PFTCommenter (@PFTCommenter) April 19, 2021
Commenter comments on NFL happenings in a wry and fun way, most often.
Random quote from a top decision maker on the 2021 NFL Draft: “This is the worst defensive tackle draft I’ve ever seen.” There could still be one or even two in the first round. But the overall depth clearly isn’t there.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) April 19, 2021
Rapoport covers the NFL for NFL Network.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter. Lots of feedback from my interview with Rep. Anthony Gonzalez about his proposed legislation to allow college athletes to monetize their skills while in school.
In favor of Name, Image, Likeness legislation for college athletes
From Jack Mula: “I write to you about NIL initiatives in various States as well as an NCAA model and federal model. As someone who represented college and professional athletes for over three decades (prior to joining an NFL front office) I can honestly say that it’s about damn time. Student-athletes have been treated differently from their fellow students with different talents for decades. Musicians, artists, and even students on the debate team have never been restricted from monetizing their talents while attending college like athletes have.”
From Mark Furlong, of Nantucket, Mass.: “The NCAA has always been anti-student athlete. No use of images allowed, no agents, no free movement between schools, all which the coaches have free rein to do. When Rich Rodriguez left West Virginia for Michigan with four years on his contract, where was the NCAA in demanding he honor that contract or lose the right to coach a NCAA team? Silent! Imagine a player trying that? Terrell Pryor lost his eligibility for selling a Big 10 ring that was gifted to him by OSU! That is the NCAA—a vindictive, controlling anti-student athlete organization.”
From Fred Waiss: “I’m all for this. When I was a college student and PE major back in 1974 we discussed the inequities of the NCAA rules governing athletes for no reason except the exercise of power. The NCAA needs to be humbled and athletes need to benefit from that humbling.”
From Eric Bechtel: “I’m in agreement with Anthony that it’s up to each athlete to figure out their value, whether they are the star of the football team or a really smart entrepreneurial lacrosse player or swimmer who might happen to have the business drive and genes to figure out how to monetize ‘their brand.’ The smart student athletes regardless of division or sport will figure out that they have a platform and a window to maximize their brand if they are creative and savvy. It will also help those athletes open doors for future business opportunities once their playing days are over after college or in some cases after a professional career.”
Shut up about the Patriots already. From Mitch: “Please stop slobbering Julian Edelman just like you [show favoritism to the] Patriots. You’re an entertaining sports writer, but the Pats bias is a major stain on you.”
Noted. Hope you don’t mind—I cleaned up your first sentence.
Don’t shut up about the Patriots already. From @baruchg16 on Twitter: “The Julian Edelman interview is a good example of why your column has been must reading for me since around 2008. Not just about Edelman, but about the whole draft process for a guy like that. Great job!”
Thanks so much. Edelman’s a fascinating story.
1. I think the rule passed last week further empowering the Replay Assistant will probably make the game better, but I have some concerns. It will help because it will empower the eyes in the sky to advise the ref/crew chief on the field about “aspects of a play when clear and obvious video evidence is present,” per the league release. If the back judge ruled a pass complete but the Replay Assistant clearly sees the ball hit the ground first, he can buzz to the ref to change the call. In the meantime, if the offensive team is rushing to the line to get a play off, the defensive team coach can throw the challenge flag. It could be an awkward dance if a team doesn’t have a challenge left and it’s not clear whether the play should be changed upstairs. The advice from upstairs won’t be absolute; if a referee doesn’t want to take it (why wouldn’t he?) he could stick with the call on the field. Plus, the most egregious call in recent times, the pass-interference that wasn’t called in the Saints-Rams title game three years ago, wouldn’t be able to be fixed—as the rule reads now—by an upstairs Replay Assistant. So there are still gaps in the protocol.
2. I think Terry McAulay, three-time Super Bowl ref and current NBC rules analyst, had an excellent point when we spoke Saturday, regarding replay rule changes. “The ability to fix obvious errors is great,” McAulay said. “But there are 17 different replay officials, and a lot of them have never been officials on the field. How aggressive are they going to be correcting plays? How consistent are they going to be correcting plays? One of my fears is you’ll be watching football one week and you see a catch/no-catch play fixed for coach [Bill] Belichick without a challenge, and then maybe you’ll see a catch/no-catch fixed for coach [Brian] Flores, only he had to throw a challenge flag to do it. That’s what I mean about my concern over the consistency of the system.”
3. I think, regarding the NFL changing the number system, three thoughts:
• It was a matter of time. With rosters expanding (there will be 14 or 16-man practice squads this year), teams had already run out of numbers. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, Kansas City had three players wear 30 at various points of last season.
• I don’t think that many players will change jersey numbers now; most of the oddball numbers (a starting linebacker wearing 3, a receiver wearing 8) will probably come from this rookie class and future ones. Current vets will have to pay retail price to cover the stock of their current jerseys, and for fairly famous players, the cost could be more than $1 million. Much more, for popular players like Odell Beckham Jr. Rookies don’t have a previous number, so they’re starting from ground zero and can choose any number.
• I called Mike Ornstein, the long-time rep for players around the league, to ask about the time a player almost broke the NFL numbers barrier. Ornstein was working with Reggie Bush in 2006 when he was draft by the Saints. Bush began preseason wearing number 5, his USC jersey number, and he was such a huge star coming out of college that his jerseys flew off the shelf. Bush appealed to the league during the preseason to be able to wear 5 in the regular season, but he was turned down. So he picked 25, and that was his Saints’ number from then on. “It turned out to be good for Reggie, because he made a lot of money on both jerseys,” Ornstein told me. Players were paid about $6 per jersey in royalties. For Bush, he earned more than $2 million from his cut of jersey sales.
Regarding the Tom Brady social-media complaint, I asked a GM over the weekend if he thinks film study will be different, or harder, because of some oddball numbers. Will it matter, I asked, if a linebacker is 6 instead of 56? “I don’t see why,” the GM said. “You’re looking at where a guy plays, not the number he has. I don’t see it affecting players during a game, because they’d have watched tape all week, and if the corner covering a receiver is number 2, you’d have watched it all week and why would it be difficult once the game starts?”
4. I think I like the fun the Rams will have on draft weekend. Have you heard about the Rocket Mortgage Draft House? The Rams are moving their draft HQ to a 9,000-square-foot luxe home on the Pacific Ocean, about 45 minutes north of their L.A. facility. The Rams wanted some pizzazz for the draft and began thinking of relocating to a place with a very LA vibe late last year. “We’re L.A. We’re different,” said the Rams’ VP of partnerships and marketing, Lexi vonderLieth. “We’re trying to differentiate ourselves from the other 31 teams, and really take advantage of the beauty of where we are. We don’t have a first-round pick. We wanted to be aggressive and think outside the box a little bit.” Well, when the Rams pick Friday evening (their choices will be 57th in the second round, and 88th and 103rd in the third round), there could be a chance for a classic Malibu sunset framing GM Les Snead as he makes a third-round pick. There was one little hiccup, a fix needed to be sure the Rams were okay with NFL COVID protocols. “We switched out the HVAC systems to make the ventilation even better,” vonderLieth said. “It’s very open, well-ventilated—and I wanted ocean in the background.” L.A., baby.
5. I think I like to go back sometimes and look at past drafts and have a chortle or two. I was embedded with the Cowboys in 1991, so I have great memories of that one. Let’s look at a few picks from that draft:
16 Seattle: Dan McGwire, QB, San Diego State. Mark’s brother started five games in his short NFL life.
24 L.A. Raiders: Todd Marinovich, QB, USC. Designed, bred to be a quarterback. Started eight games in his short NFL life.
33 Atlanta: Brett Favre, QB, Southern Miss. Started 326 games in his NFL life.
39 San Diego: Eric Bieniemy, RB, Colorado. Drafted six slots ahead of Ricky Watters.
59 Phoenix: Aeneas Williams, CB, Southern. Sixth corner picked. Talk about teams with regrets.
83 N.Y. Giants: Ed McCaffrey, WR, Stanford. His son, 28 years later, went 75 picks higher.
100 L.A. Raiders: Rocket Ismail, WR-KR, Notre Dame. Dropped 99 slots after pre-draft signing with CFL’s Argonauts.
248 San Francisco: Louis Riddick, S, Pittsburgh. Memo to Greeny: You’ve got to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Riddick’s drafting this weekend during the draft. Weird how he found out. Riddick lived north of Philly and was home with his family for the draft. It was a two-day process then, and on April 22, day two of the draft, he was sick of waiting, disgusted at not being picked. So he jumped in his car for the five-hour drive back to the Pitt campus. No cell phones in those days. By the time he got to campus and retrieved his phone messages, he heard from his parents, all excited that he got picked by San Francisco. And Niners defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes called with the news and said to call him back.
281 L.A. Rams: Terry Crews, LB, Western Michigan. Should have been drafted by Brooklyn.
320 Dallas: Larry Brown, CB, TCU. From the 12th round to Super Bowl XXX MVP.
UDFA Miami: Doug Pederson, QB, Northeast Louisiana. Long and winding road to Super Bowl LII.
6. I think this is my comment on the new Bengals uniforms: Why bother?
7. I think I have one more comment: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
8. I think my Football Story of the Week is Greg Bishop’s superbly reported piece in Sports Illustrated on Alex Smith retiring. There are times, as a writer, that you’d like to think you could have done a certain story better than the one you just read. And there are times when you read a story and you tip your cap to the writer and say, “No one could have done that better.” Greg Bishop on Alex Smith is definitely in the latter category. Terrific job. The section about his disappointment with Ron Rivera’s staff in Washington last season was—to me—surprising and revealing. In Bishop’s words:
He did not understand the tactics his coaches used to keep him sidelined. First, they placed him on the Physically Unable to Perform list, even though world-renowned doctors had pronounced him physically able to perform. At camp, players wore GPS trackers, and none traversed 4,000 yards a day on average like Smith, whose coaches asked him to carry extra weight, push sleds and hurdle bags for drills—tasks he had never done in 15 pro seasons, let alone before his leg had to be rebuilt. Smith believed the team wanted to see if it could break him, and if that sounds paranoid, the team physician agreed with him. They seemed to be asking, Dr. Robin West says, “What can he withstand?”
“Are you sure you’re clearing him?” the coaches would ask. West would try and explain. The short answer: Yes. The disclaimer: She would assess his leg based on her informed medical opinion. “I got very little support,” she says. “He almost died. He almost lost his leg. Why would he want to?” Reasonable questions. “That’s not your decision,” West told them.
Smith found the coaches “patronizing,” meaning he believed they preferred a cute story, the comeback already at the end. His father, Doug, says he believes the team “sabotaged” the return. None of the Smiths could figure out why. The coaches could worry about the injury and his future, but they were not experts. “I’d rather have somebody right in my face say, What are you thinking?” Smith says. “It pissed me off.”
(Rivera, as part of a statement to SI provided by a team spokesperson, says: “I was scared to death about putting [Alex] back out there and that is something I struggled with every day. It’s unfortunate that he feels we patronized him because I can tell you that was not our intention. At the end of the day, I commend Alex because he proved everyone wrong and exceeded any reasonable expectations that anyone had set for him. He not only made it back onto the field but led us to the playoffs. It was a truly remarkable feat.”)
Smith was supposed to be grateful—of course, he was grateful—and far more than they could understand. But it wasn’t enough to simply get back, run around, throw a few passes. He wanted more, and his desire spoke less to the worst day of his life and more to the rest of them. His wants were existential, and they stemmed from a career that almost ended long before 2018. At that point, on the eve of a season his own team did not want him to play, Smith resolved to prove the world wrong again. If he didn’t at least try, he says, “I don’t see how I could exist.”
9. I think I’ve had maybe 15 long conversations/interviews with Smith since he entered the NFL as the first overall pick in 2005. He had more disappointments than most—never fulfilling the hope the Niners had that he’d be their franchise quarterback for 15 years, getting reminded every 10 minutes that the second quarterback picked that year (Aaron Rodgers) turned out to be so much better, the grotesque shattered leg in 2019—but he was class personified. He kept football, his young life’s work, in the proper perspective. It was vital to him, but he lived life and loved life for his family too. Such a good person. I remember Andy Reid talking to me about the meaning the selfless Smith had to the career and life of Patrick Mahomes. “Patrick doesn’t owe Alex a house, he owes him a mansion,” Reid said. Smith has left a wonderful legacy on the game.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. “The world needed to see what I was seeing.”
b. So said Darnella Frazier in my Story of the Week, by Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post: By bearing witness and hitting “record,” Darnella Frazier may have changed the world.
c. Sullivan wrote about the teen who was on a walk with a young cousin to get a snack in Minneapolis, and came upon on the struggle between a Black man a crew of police officers, led by Derek Chauvin.
Frazier just stood there, resolutely, holding her phone. Later, she posted a video clip of about 10 minutes to Facebook.
That video clip, now seen millions of times around the world, was a powerful, irrefutable act of bearing witness.
The video, showing most of the nine minutes and 29 seconds of Floyd gasping and ultimately drawing his last breath under Chauvin’s knee, was something that couldn’t be explained away.
The video became what one network legal analyst, Sunny Hostin, called “the star witness for the prosecution.” In conversation with ABC’s David Muir last week, Hostin called it “the strongest piece of evidence I have ever seen in a case against a police officer.”
d. Citizens can change the world.
e. Fertility Story of the Week: Kristen Welker of NBC News, on the difficulties of getting pregnant with her husband John and the tremendous impact on her life, and the lives of so many who will watch this. Superb job by the “Today” show, and Welker, telling the story of trying to have a baby—through a surrogate mother—in the pandemic. Welker:
“John and I have struggled with infertility for years . . . It’s a lonely journey. We wanted to share our journeys with others, to help other families.”
f. What an emotional story. Welker moderated the presidential debate last year going through this incredibly emotional time in her life. “The tears and the sadness and the setbacks were worth it, because she’s worth it,” Welker said of her future child. Man, that was a tear-jerker.
g. TV Story of the Week: Steve Hartman of “CBS Evening News” on the last game of a high-school pitcher in northern Kentucky.
h. Holy crap, Walker Smallwood. After all you’ve been through, you threw a no-no!
i. After cancer made his leg too weak to participate in athletics, he was resigned to trying to live a somewhat normal life. But maybe he could pitch one inning before moving on. Just one, for his Dixie Heights High School team just south of Cincinnati. Hartman tells the story.
In the first inning, Smallwood threw a strike — quite a few, actually. In fact, he did so well they decided to let him keep pitching, at least until he gave up a hit, which never happened.
Smallwood threw a no-hitter, striking out all but two batters and tying a school record.
“When the last strike came, I was just in denial all over again. I was like, that didn’t just happen,” he said.
j. Profile of the Week: A fascinating story by Patricia McCormick for the Washington Post on a person we never knew—but is the key to one of the most important photographs of the past half-century.
k. Amazing. The woman in the iconic photo from the day National Guard troops mowed down four Kent State students was not a Kent State student. She was a 14-year-old runaway from Florida, making her way across the country, and she just so happened to be on the school’s campus. Writes McCormick of the day it happened:
Mary Ann, in her jeans, white scarf and a pair of hippie sandals someone had given her, headed toward a field where students were gathered. On her way to join the protest, she struck up a conversation with a guy in bell-bottoms. The two of them watched as another student waved a black flag, taunting the National Guard troops who had been sent in after protesters had burned down the ROTC building two nights before. The soldiers seemed to retreat to a nearby hill; then, in the next 13 seconds, they fired more than 60 shots.
Mary Ann dropped to the pavement and waited until the smoke had cleared to look up. Jeffrey Miller, the student she’d been talking to, was facedown on the ground; he’d been shot through the mouth. She knelt over his body as blood seeped onto the pavement. Other students walked by, too stunned or confused to look. “Doesn’t anyone see what just happened here?” she remembers crying. “Why is no one helping him?” As the soldiers approached, their guns at the ready, she recalls asking them a question that countless others across the country would soon ask as well: “Why did you do this?”
Nearby were more bodies. Allison Krause was shot in the chest; William Schroeder in the back. Sandy Scheuer, who was just passing through the area on her way to class, was struck by a bullet that hit her jugular vein. Four dead in Ohio.
l. Wow. We’re a week shy of the 51-year anniversary of the Kent State shootings. What a seminal moment in our history.
m. Football Thinkpiece of the Week: One of the most thoughtful ex-players there is, Nate Jackson, with why offseason practices are important, and why he disagrees with the NFLPA urging players to skip voluntary workouts, writing for 104.3 The Fan in Denver.
Remember that time the United States Marines told their soldiers to just train on their own and show up a few weeks before they headed off to war?
Yeah, me neither.
. . . Here is just a plain-and-simple fact of football: if you want to be special, you train with your teammates in the offseason. You push each other daily. You run. You lift. You sweat. All without the coaches around. That’s where you actually grow to trust each other. One of the union’s main arguments is that phase one and phase two of the offseason program are unnecessary because there are no coaches around. Whoever crafted that talking point has never played football. You think that coaches need to be around to come together as a team?
You know what happens with 1:39 left on the clock and no timeouts, down six points? It ain’t coaching that brings you down that field for the go-ahead score. It’s phase one and phase two of the offseason program. It’s the connection, the unspoken bond that supersedes coaching and elevates 11 humans in a football moment.
n. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong. But I do know that Jackson played the game and opines on it well. And he absolutely is not a rah-rah football-right-or-wrong guy.
o. Those Mariners are pesky. And the A’s . . . I have no idea how they do it every year, picking up the pieces after the Marcus Semiens leave for more money, but they do.
p. Jacob deGrom: 29 innings pitched, one earned run, 0.31 ERA, 50 strikeouts.
q. Is that good?
r. Never thought I’d sing the praises of a BBC series picked up by Netflix about midwives in England 60 years ago, but “Call the Midwife” is an incredible show. Four episodes in, and a few tears, and the real lives of people in east London really hit home. Great TV. Holy cow: Jessica Raine is one heck of an actor, and I’d never heard of her.
s. Finally: My sincere thanks to four very generous people in our business: Louis Riddick, Matthew Berry, Steve Wyche and Mike Tannenbaum. Last week, a youth-literacy charity I work with, New Jersey-based Write on Sports (using sports as a vehicle to teach reading and writing skills to middle and high-school students, many from underserved communities), held a pre-draft fundraiser. Riddick and I spent 45 minutes in a pre-show that people paid to attend virtually. Then, I did separate segments with Wyche, Tannenbaum and Berry in a livestream with some fundraising pauses. You can see that here. (You can still contribute too.) All of these people have many draft obligations with their media jobs, and for them to take a good chunk of an evening one week before the draft was, well, really great. So grateful for their generosity to the Write on Sports program.
t. We have one final fundraising tool we’re using. Matthew Berry, the (uber) Talented Mr. Roto, and fantasy football kingpin, has agreed to spend a 15-minute session previewing the 2021 NFL fantasy scene right before your draft in late August/early September. I got a little cocky. I told Write on Sports we should put a minimum bid of $5,000 for the Berry tutorial, and so that’s what the minimum bid is. You can see it here. So now my rep is on the line a bit. Hoping one or more of you fantasy desperadoes can find in in your heart to put in the $5,000 bid and win the session with Matthew. So you know: Write on Sports is a free service for every child who uses it, and $5,000 would cover all expenses (bus, food, 4-to-1-student-teacher ratio, 10 days) for five students to attend the richly resourced summer camp. Thanks.
u. Good luck, Rich Eisen, in raising money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital this week. Eisen, as you know, runs a 40-yard dash every year at the combine for the Memphis-based children’s hospital. This year, there was no combine. So instead of Eisen running in Indianapolis, he and a few of his NFL friends—Ray Lewis, Jerry Rice, Rod Woodson, Mike Vick, others—ALL ran the 40 on the field at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, all to raise money for St. Jude’s. “To run it on the field at SoFi, on the first day the Rams’ fans were allowed in, was incredible,” Eisen said. “They’re looking out, and there’s Ray Lewis!” Cool nugget: This was the first time since 1987 that Rod Woodson ran a 40.
The Mockery Draft.
That should be the name, because
guesswork rules the day.