The NFL partied like it’s 1999.
And now it’s time to hope for much better results.
Beginning with the formalities of Trevor Lawrence to the Jaguars with the No. 1-overall pick and Zach Wilson to the Jets at No. 2, five quarterbacks were selected within the first 15 picks of 2021 NFL Draft during Thursday’s first round for the first time since 1999. The 49ers’ Trey Lance (No. 3), Bears’ Justin Fields (No. 11) and Patriots’ Mac Jones rounded out the group.
The 49ers, who traded up a few weeks ago from No. 12 giving two future first-rounders to the Dolphins, threw the first curveball because it was widely speculated they favored Jones as the right fit for coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Instead it’s Lance, who started just 17 career college games and one in the last 15 months at North Dakota State.
“We’ve been very high on Trey since Day 1,” Shanahan said. “Yes, we liked [Jones], too. When we made the trade we knew exactly where we were going and what we were doing. If the whole NFL is assuming you are doing one thing and you are not, we are not going to work hard to correct that.”
Lance’s selection means the 49ers are less likely to trade Jimmy Garoppolo as their young quarterback grows. Perhaps the impetus for the Patriots’ pick.
“If he isn’t here on Sunday, I would be disappointed,” Shanahan said of Garoppolo. “Jimmy is a quarterback who has played one year and took us to a Super Bowl. He’s had some injuries. I want Jimmy to be here and I want [Lance] to be brought along. If it turns into a competition, it turns into a competition.”
It was the third time in the common draft era (since 1967) and the first time since 1999 that quarterbacks went with each of the first three picks in the draft. It could’ve been the first time for the top four picks, but the Falcons veered and made Kyle Pitts the first top-five tight end since 1972.
At that point, the trade-up watch for quarterbacks was on — and the Bears bit ahead of the Patriots, Washington and others in need.
Chicago general manager Ryan Pace — who infamously traded up and selected Mitch Trubisky ahead of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson in 2017 — made another bold quarterback move while on the hot seat. The Bears dealt a future first-rounder plus two mid-round picks to the Giants for No. 11 to take Fields, who was ranked as the second quarterback by most experts in January but mysteriously slid since then and a childhood epilepsy diagnosis was revealed.
“I’m the kind of guy who thinks everything happens for a reason,” Fields said. “There has definitely been a lot of criticism. But at the end of the day, I know myself. I know how much work I’ve put into the game. I know how much I love the game. I know how much I want to be great.”
The Bill Belichick-Nick Saban connection struck at No. 15 as the rest of the NFL watched in disbelief (and disgust) as the Patriots landed their preferred quarterback without having to trade up. It is the first time in 26 drafts Belichick has selected a quarterback in the first round. Jones goes from one dynasty to another but could have to sit behind Cam Newton.
“Whatever I did in the past doesn’t really matter,” said Jones, who has drawn comparisons to Tom Brady because of his accuracy and smarts. “I just loved watching how [Brady] maneuvers through the pocket. Obviously he did great things for New England. For me, it’s just going in there and being myself.”
In 1999, the five quarterbacks picked in the top 15 were all off the board by No. 12: Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith, Daunte Culpepper and Cade McNown. Two made Pro Bowls and the other three were busts, including two major busts. None are Hall of Famers — like Lawrence is expected to become, even though he didn’t want to jinx his selection by putting on a Jaguars hat too soon.
“I never want to put the cart before the horse if you will,” he said.
Pitts was the first of three straight elite pass catchers. The Bengals reunited LSU teammates by picking Ja’Marr Chase at No. 5 for quarterback Joe Burrow and the Dolphins did the same with former Alabama teammates by giving Jaylen Waddle at No. 6 to Tua Tagovailoa.
The first trade was made between NFC East rivals, as the Eagles moved up to No. 10 — to jump the Giants at No. 11 — and the Cowboys dropped to No. 12. Receiver DeVonta Smith went to Philadelphia and linebacker Micah Parsons landed in Dallas.