The NFL draft begins Thursday at 8 p.m., but the real intrigue should start roughly 30 minutes later. That’s when the San Francisco 49ers are expected to be on the clock with the third pick, and the real drama unfolds.
With the Jaguars almost sure to take Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence at No. 1 and the Jets likely to select BYU’s Zach Wilson at No. 2, the 49ers will use their third pick on North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, Ohio State’s Justin Fields or, as many predict, Alabama’s Mac Jones.
But no matter who the 49ers draft, three quarterbacks are expected to be picked 1-2-3 for the first time since 1999. And there’s a chance that a fourth signal-caller could be taken immediately after by the Atlanta Falcons, who are possibly looking at grooming an heir for the aging Matt Ryan. If that happens, NFL history will be made: No other draft has begun with four straight quarterbacks taken.
However, the potential quarterback run doesn’t just indicate the strength of this year’s draft class. Instead, the picks will reflect a changing NFL landscape in which teams are in a hurry to find a franchise quarterback — and even more desperate to move on from the one they currently have.
NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah suggested teams are more willing to make a dramatic change under center for a few reasons. First, the cost of a rookie quarterback is significantly cheaper under the current rookie-wage scale. The second, he said, centers around the increasing turnover of coaches and general managers.
Regimes, new and old, want “their guy,” he said. He added the turning point was when the Arizona Cardinals dumped 2018 first-rounder Josh Rosen after just one season to take quarterback Kyler Murray in 2019 with the first overall pick.
“It’s just been a total shift over the last couple of years, and I don’t think it’s going away,” Jeremiah said, suggesting there could be more teams in the quarterback market “than we all know.”
If teams can potentially find an upgrade, they’re not shy in moving on. Just look at the Jets, who traded Sam Darnold to the Carolina Panthers earlier this month after just three seasons. The Jets drafted Darnold third overall in 2018, even trading up to get him. But when it became clear New York could land a talent like Wilson, the Jets found a deal for Darnold.
The Rams and Washington took similar approaches in free agency. Los Angeles traded Jared Goff, the first overall pick in 2016, for Matthew Stafford, hoping the veteran could be more consistent than its previous starter. Washington cut Alex Smith, the reigning Comeback Player of the Year, hoping that journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick could raise the team’s ceiling.
Even if the Falcons don’t take a quarterback at No. 4, then the other two who slide past the top three probably won’t have to wait long to hear their name called. Most mock drafts have five signal-callers going in the top 10. The Detroit Lions (No. 7), Carolina Panthers (No. 8), and Denver Broncos (No.9) could all use a long-term answer at the position — and there are other teams later in the draft — New England, Washington, and Chicago — all rumored to be interested in trading up.