With the 2021 NFL Draft fast approaching, NFL Research’s Chris McNeill zeroes in on five pivotal pick slots in Round 1. Will the teams that possess these selections wheel and deal? What are they looking for? What can we surmise from reviewing their past draft strategies and where they stand heading toward the ’21 season?
Who’s in charge? The Lions are one of four teams ushering in a new head coach-general manager combo for the 2021 season, along with the Texans, Jaguars and Falcons. After spending 18 seasons (from 2003 through 2020) with the Rams organization, most recently as their director of college scouting, Brad Holmes was hired by Detroit in January, and now he’ll get his first opportunity to draft as a GM. It will also be his first chance to be part of a first-round selection since the Rams traded up from No. 15 to No. 1 overall in 2016 to select QB Jared Goff — who is now a member of the Lions. First-year head coach Dan Campbell rounds out the braintrust.
What’s at stake? There’s no other way to say it: The Lions are rebuilding. The longest-tenured player on offense is 27-year-old tackle Taylor Decker, who was a first-round pick in 2016, when Holmes’ predecessor, Bob Quinn, was in his first season as Lions GM. Detroit is in line to select in the top 10 for the third consecutive draft — but the team currently has just six picks in total this year. Only the Seattle Seahawks have fewer (three). The pace of the overhaul figures to pick up speed in 2022 and ’23, when the team will get to use the extra first-round picks acquired from the Rams (along with Goff) in exchange for QB Matthew Stafford.
What will the Lions do at No. 7? With very little draft capital this year, and given the lack of talent depth on the roster, I expect Holmes to look for trade partners so he can move back for more bites of the apple. The Lions ranked last in the NFL in scoring defense (32.4 points per game allowed) and total defense (419.8 total yards per game allowed) in 2020. In fact, only the 1942 Lions team allowed more PPG (33.9) in a single season in franchise history. If the Lions stay at No. 7, I would expect them to take the best player available, regardless of position. Holmes and Co. need staple pieces to build their future around.
Who’s in charge? The team is entering its fourth NFL draft under GM Dave Gettleman and second under head coach Joe Judge. This will be Gettleman’s ninth draft as a GM (he served in that capacity with the Panthers from 2013 through ’17).
What’s at stake? The Giants have finished under .500 for four straight seasons, but they are optimistic heading into 2021. Big Blue extended defensive lineman Leonard Williams, signed one-time Pro Bowl receiver Kenny Golladay and will be getting 2018 Offensive Rookie of the Year Saquon Barkley back at running back after he lost most of 2020 to a knee injury. The team is currently slated to pick outside the top 10 for the first time since Gettleman became GM — and the Giants are not expected to be in the QB market, having spent the offseason surrounding third-year QB Daniel Jones with veteran free-agent talent.
That said, the offensive nucleus is young — at three critical positions (QB, RB and LT), the starters are all under the age of 25. And Sterling Shepard is the only Giants WR to log a 16-start season in the last three campaigns (Shepard did so in 2018). The Giants need to add to their core group another dynamic, consistent weapon on the outside whom Jones can rely on, even with Golladay (who appeared in just five games in 2020) coming aboard. I expect them to look for playmakers who can not only stretch the field, but make plays without needing elaborate schemes to get open — if such prospects are available when they pick. Alabama’s DeVonta Smith, who has not missed a game in two seasons, could bring some juice to an offense that ranked 27th in big plays (rushes of 10-plus yards or receptions of 20-plus yards), and to a wide receiver corps that finished with fewer yards after the catch (527, last in the NFL) than Smith did by himself (953, most in FBS, per Pro Football Focus) in 2020.
What will the Giants do at No. 11? Gettleman has selected an offensive or defensive lineman within the first two rounds in seven of his eight prior drafts as a GM. The only receiver he has selected in the first round in that span was Kelvin Benjamin back in 2014, when Gettleman was in the Panthers’ front office. Traditionally, Gettleman has not moved much in the first round; he’s made two trades involving first-round picks thus far, and only one on draft day. The top half of the draft is loaded with talent on the offensive side of the ball and is particularly deep at receiver. Considering a move down — as NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported the organization is doing — would be wise, given that the Giants could still solve their glaring need for a pass catcher. But it would also be no surprise if Gettleman were to stay on brand and stick-and-pick a lineman at No. 11. The Giants will likely have their choice of the draft’s top edge rushers at that spot.
Who’s in charge? Ryan Pace is heading into his seventh year as GM, and Matt Nagy is going into Year 4 as head coach. The Bears have finished .500 in each of their last two seasons, and while they’ve made the playoffs twice under Nagy, neither time did they make it past the Wild Card Round.
What’s at stake? 2021 appears to be a make-or-break season for Pace and Nagy. Last year marked the first time in the Nagy era that the Bears ranked outside the top 10 in scoring offense (22nd), total offense (26th), scoring defense (14th) and total defense (11th). And with the Bears running low on cap space entering 2021, the draft will be crucial to turning things around.
What does their recent drafting track record look like? The top four players in terms of salary-cap number this season (WR Allen Robinson, LB Robert Quinn, LB Khalil Mack and DT Akiem Hicks) were all drafted by other franchises. Of the 15 players selected in Pace’s first two drafts as GM (2015 and ’16), just four remain on the roster. None of Pace’s three first-round picks from 2015 to ’17 (WR Kevin White, edge rusher Leonard Floyd and QB Mitch Trubisky) made it to a second contract with the team, despite all being selected with top-10 choices. With Trubisky, the second overall pick in 2017, heading out of town, free-agent signee Andy Dalton is set to assume the starting reins.
What will the Bears do at No. 20? They’re slated to make a first-round pick for the first time since 2018 (their first-rounders in 2019 and 2020 were traded to the Raiders for Mack). The Bears parted ways with five-year starter Bobby Massie this offseason, leaving a hole at one of the tackle positions. A young, ready-to-play offensive tackle who could get reps with the young core would be a great fit for this offense. However, the highest Pace has selected an offensive tackle since becoming GM in 2015 has been the sixth round — yes, you read that right, the sixth round. That choice came back in Pace’s debut draft, when he selected Tayo Fabuluje 183rd overall. Fabuluje appeared in four career games for the Bears, and none as a starter.
Quarterback is an option, but it could be tough to land a top-end prospect this year, given what the team might have to give up to move within range. And, for what it’s worth, Chicago has a very short history of trading up in Round 1 to take a quarterback — the Bears have selected five first-round QBs in the common draft era (Rex Grossman, Cade McNown, Jim Harbaugh, Jim McMahon and Trubisky), and Trubisky was the only one they traded up for. For more clues about Chicago’s path, let’s look to the makeup of the NFC North, home to the reigning MVP (Aaron Rodgers), the reigning leader in receiving TDs (Davante Adams) and a running back who finished second in scrimmage yards (Dalvin Cook) in 2020. The division was also the only one in the NFL to feature two of the top five leaders in receiving yards (Adams and Justin Jefferson) last season. In four combined games against the Bears, Jefferson and Adams averaged 86.5 receiving yards. While Chicago is traditionally known for great defense, 2020’s unit was not up to par — and with the loss of Kyle Fuller this offseason, I expect the team to draft a young CB to match up against the opposing playmakers on the outside.
Who’s in charge? GM Chris Ballard enters his fifth season with the Colts, and head coach Frank Reich enters his fourth.
What’s at stake? There are a lot of moving parts in Indy. Philip Rivers, in his lone season with Indianapolis, decided to retire at season’s end. In February, the Colts agreed to a trade for Eagles QB Carson Wentz, who will work again with Reich, his former offensive coordinator in Philly. Offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni, meanwhile, left to become the Eagles’ HC. And longtime LT Anthony Castonzo retired after 10 NFL seasons.
The Colts have been fortunate to get a ton of production from their young draftees in the Ballard era (since 2017). In 2018, the Colts became the first team in the Super Bowl era to have a pair of rookies (guard Quenton Nelson and linebacker Darius Leonard) both be named All-Pros. In 2020, running back Jonathan Taylor led all rookies and finished third among all players in rushing yards (1,169). According to PFF, safety Julian Blackmon allowed a 45.1 passer rating when targeted in 2020 (best among all rookie defenders targeted 15-plus times).
What will the Colts do at No. 21? No one appreciates the second-round pick like Ballard, who has made 10 second-round picks in his four drafts on the job (most in the NFL since 2017). What can we expect from Ballard in the first round? Movement. Ballard has traded back or out of the first round in each of the past three drafts: He traded from third overall to sixth in 2018 and selected Nelson; he traded out of the first round in 2019 and selected CB Rock Ya-Sin in the second round; and he traded a 2020 first-round pick to the Niners for veteran DL DeForest Bucker, who was named an All-Pro in 2020.
How will he go about replacing Castonzo? We can guess, based on past history, he’ll go for a homegrown option as a long-term solution — four out of the five starters on the O-line last season were drafted by the Colts. The GM is in an unusual position, possessing relatively little draft capital, thanks to the Wentz trade. Indy has just six total picks and none in the third round. If the tackle they want either isn’t there or doesn’t make sense at No. 21, I expect the Colts to trade back and acquire more selections, so Ballard can do what he does best: use his unique eye for value to his advantage.
Who’s in charge? Brian Gutekunst is entering his fourth year in the position, and head coach Matt LaFleur is going into Year 3.
What’s at stake? The Packers’ competitive window is wide open. They finished 13-3 in 2020 and fell one game short of the Super Bowl for the second consecutive season. But they used their most recent first-round pick on a developmental prospect, making waves with a trade up for QB Jordan Love last April, despite the presence of Aaron Rodgers — who was nearly the same age (36) as Brett Favre was (35) when the Packers drafted Rodgers in the first round in 2005.
Green Bay has not selected a wide receiver in the first round since 2002, when Javon Walker was drafted 20th overall. Only the Jets and Seahawks have a longer such streak (since 2001). Now would be a good time to think about snapping that stretch, either with a dynamic outside weapon or shifty slot receiver, not just to maximize Rodgers’ remaining years in Titletown and take coverage away from Davante Adams but also to build for the future. Consider that three of the top four leaders in receiving yards on the team in 2020 are slated to become free agents in 2022: Adams, Robert Tonyan and Allen Lazard. And Adams accounted for 30 percent or more of the Packers’ receiving yards (32%), receiving TDs (38%) and targets (30%) in 2020.
There are other spots on the roster that could use attention. All-Pro center Corey Linsley departed in free agency for the Chargers, while starting CBs Jaire Alexander and Kevin King set to hit the market after this season (the Packers still have a decision to make on Alexander’s fifth-year option). It’s worth noting that prior to picking Love last year, Gutekunst had only drafted defenders in the first round of the draft.
What will the Packers do? Not stay there. Gutekunst is no stranger to switching spots in Round 1, having traded first-round picks in every draft he’s run as GM so far. Green Bay has drafted in the top 15 just once in the last 10 drafts (in 2019, when edge defender Rashan Gary was taken 12th overall). The good news for the Packers is, if a player they like starts to slide, they have the assets to move up and get him, given that they currently own 10 draft picks (only the Eagles, with 11, have more). I would expect Green Bay to target another young CB in 2021, especially with both starting CBs’ futures still to be determined.
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