The wait for the 2021 NFL Draft is nearly over, with the first round slated to kick off on Thursday evening.
That means the speculation, and potentially the madness, surrounding whatever happens after Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson presumably come off the board in the first two picks is building to a crescendo.
The latest news: the San Francisco 49ers have reportedly narrowed their options to quarterbacks Mac Jones and Trey Lance for the No. 3 overall pick, which lines up with what The Athletic’s Dane Brugler told the Toucher and Rich Show last week.
So what does all of this mean for the New England Patriots and their hunt for Tom Brady’s heir as a franchise cornerstone at quarterback?
Here are a few scenarios that could play out on draft day for Bill Belichick and company, starting with each possible pick from the 49ers.
If the 49ers take Jones
San Francisco goes with the throwback-style quarterback who could possibly play a Jimmy Garoppolo style of football better than Garoppolo right away.
That point alone is relevant to the Patriots: if Jones is as NFL-ready as experts seem to think he is, picking him might signal the 49ers’ willingness to trade Garoppolo even more so than the selection of Lance or Fields, who both could benefit from a redshirt year according to many experts. That could create a prime opportunity for New England to swoop in and bring their former second-round pick back to Foxborough (with a reconstructed contract, of course). Still, it’s worth noting a rookie would be much cheaper in the short team.
Let’s table that topic for now and focus on a few subplots possibly involving Fields and Lance.
What if…the Atlanta Falcons go quarterback at No. 4?
The Falcons could go this route and have either Fields or Lance sit behind Matt Ryan – whose contract is essentially immovable until 2023 – for a year or two. That would put additional pressure on quarterback-needy teams to possibly jump to the No. 5 or 6 spot to grab whoever’s left. In that scenario, a team like the Denver Broncos at No. 9 would have a much easier time moving up than the Patriots. Neither the Cincinnati Bengals nor the Miami Dolphins would likely want to drop all the way to No. 15 and give up their pick of top tackles, like Penei Sewell, or receivers, like Ja’Marr Chase or DeVonta Smith.
Here, the Patriots would need to hope the Bengals and Dolphins stood pat and gave them a chance to offer the Detroit Lions a ransom at No. 7.
But it’s also hard to imagine taking a quarterback that high and actually have them wait an entire year; Carson Palmer (No. 1 pick in 2003), Philip Rivers (No. 4 in 2004), Jake Locker (No. 8 in 2011) and Patrick Mahomes (10th overall in 2017) might be the only top 10 quarterback selections of this millennium who didn’t either begin the season as the starter or take over as the starter during their rookie year. As such, it feels more likely Atlanta takes someone like Kyle Pitts to bolster their offense now.
What if…Falcons pass, quarterbacks fall?
If the Falcons did go with someone like Pitts fourth overall, the Bengals (No. 5) and Dolphins (No. 6) aren’t likely to take a quarterback themselves — they already have Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa, respectively, to build around — and might not have compelling enough offers to consider trading back.
That puts the Patriots and other teams in the hunt to trade up to the No. 7 spot and swap with the Lions, who are reportedly willing to move back in the draft.
The Patriots have reportedly been calling about trading into the top 10 ostensibly with Fields in mind if the Ohio State star falls to about No. 7 overall, which the Detroit Lions have expressed a willingness to trade back from.
Several teams have been making calls about getting into the top 10 of next week’s NFL Draft — including the #Patriots, who could have their eyes on Ohio State QB Justin Fields if he begins to slide. @gmfb @nflnetwork pic.twitter.com/GjJazJXZQp— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) April 26, 2021
If Fields is gone before the Patriots can strike, what of Lance? Several draftniks like Daniel Jeremiah have championed the North Dakota State quarterback’s fit with New England and have noted how easy the transition would be from Cam Newton to Lance in terms of scheme. His ceiling could put him in line with a player like Josh Allen — a project with immense talent that became a top 10 pick despite his rawness.
With the Denver Broncos prowling at No. 9 and the enigmatic Philadelphia Eagles sitting (for now) at N0. 12, there’s almost no way Belichick could grab Lance without trading up. The question is: does he like him enough to do it? With no Jones or Fields, would the Patriots be more likely to stand pat at No. 15 and opt for a later-round quarterback/bide their time for a Garoppolo trade instead of taking a chance on the intriguing but relatively inexperienced Lance?
If the 49ers take Lance
Wow. The high-upside FCS signal-caller jumps the line on the higher-profile Fields and Jones and goes to San Francisco with the third overall pick. Don’t look for a Garoppolo-to-Patriots draft-day deal in this case. Lance has almost no chance of being the Day 1 starter after playing just one college football game last year, meaning Garoppolo would still be the team’s best chance to win at least to begin with.
Assuming the Falcons don’t take one of Fields or Jones at No. 4 and spark a desperate bidding war for the last remaining prospect, there’s the interesting question to answer: would the Patriots be more likely to trade up for a shot at Jones or Fields?
Fields is by far the more talented of the two and more closely fits the system the Patriots ran last year. But Jones has the perception of being more accurate and polished despite his pedestrian athleticism and, as experts point out, could represent a return to a more Tom Bradyesque style of football.
This outcome actually works well for the Patriots. They could explore a trade for No. 7 to pick whichever candidate they like best and then try to coax No. 8 out of Carolina, who just traded for Sam Darnold and may be willing to pass on a quarterback for now, if Option 1 doesn’t work.
If the 49ers take Fields
They do say draft season is lying season for a reason. That said, the 49ers don’t need to hide anything at No. 3 with the first two picks all but assured, so Jones or Lance being San Francisco’s pick feels likely if that’s the buzz at this point.
Still, the idea of Fields going No. 3 to San Francisco could be the best thing the Patriots could hope for in terms of acquiring a first-round quarterback.
With the last of the top-three prospects off the board — yes, Fields is definitely a better prospect than Jones or Lance — the last two would almost certainly fall all the way to No. 7. But with the no Fields left, is there a guarantee a team definitely trades up to No. 7 to take Jones or Lance? Perhaps not. It’s possible a duo of Jones and Lance could last until the Broncos’ pick at No. 9 and that the remaining one might somehow last until the tenth pick or beyond — okay, that’s pushing it.
But a Jones-Lance pair falling down the board could in theory give the Patriots a chance at a shorter trade-up, saving them more draft capital in this draft or next year’s while netting them a franchise quarterback.
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