Betting millions on QBs who can turn clubs around on a dime

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NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell addresses the crowd as the first round of the NFL football draft finishes early Friday, April 30, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Dermer)

Last season wasn’t just the strangest in the 100 years of pro football, it was also the highest-scoring by almost any measure — average score, total points and especially passing touchdowns.

And because the NFL is a copycat league, you didn’t have to be a general manager, scout or even Mel Kiper Jr. to make an educated guess about how Day 1 of the draft would unfold.

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On the one hand, some of the strangeness was gone. Commissioner Roger Goodell was on stage in Cleveland along with a dozen top prospects and smaller-than-usual, but just-as-frenzied-as-ever crowd of draftniks. On the other, the selections made clear that tossing the pigskin around the NFL is in like never before.

Quarterbacks occupied the top three slots — Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence to Jacksonville; BYU’s Zach Wilson to the New York Jets, and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance to San Francisco — and five of the first 15. Receivers filled the next three and totaled five among the 32 picks.

Most every selection after that — weighted toward cornerbacks, edge rushers and left tackles, who protect the QB’s blind side — was designed solely to make life harder or easier for those first two groups to play pitch and catch. There’s increasingly scant rewards for rushing the football compared to throwing it these days. That’s why only two running backs and one guard made the cut in the first round.

The NFL and its draft have been heading in this direction for nearly two decades. Rule changes made it easier for high-flying offenses to operate, while wisely cutting down on the brain-rattling hits that made the game hard to watch without wincing. Why build a team patiently when a great quarterback can turn a franchise around on a dime? We saw 43-year-old Tom Brady turn the trick in Tampa last season, and 24-year-old Josh Allen nearly do it in Buffalo. Small wonder the clubs’ brain trusts are more willing than ever to risks millions in search of the next one.

Some draftniks were skeptical whether Wilson, who grew up in Utah, could be that guy, especially under the withering glare of Jets fans and New York’s quick-tempered media. They quickly learned one thing Wilson doesn’t lack is confidence.

“When a team isn’t doing super well and you can go in there and actually be a key piece to actually flip that organization around, I think that’s so special,” he said.

But that wasn’t even the gutsiest move of Thursday night. That belonged to the last quarterback taken — Alabama’s Mac Jones, at No. 15 by New England — who promptly took to Twitter to hype his own draft trading card.

“Can’t imagine a better place to be than #PatsNation,” Jones tweeted, a move sure to endear him to grumpy Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

Speaking of Alabama, the Crimson Tide tied the record of six first rounders, set by the Miami Hurricanes’ in 2004. In this case, all but one of the six were offensive players. Alabama’s conference, the SEC, had an additional six players chosen, and they lined up mostly on the attacking side of the ball, too.

The conference that once served as a kind of Amazon fulfillment center for fearsome defenders, bruising running backs and 10-3 final scores, is now, like the NFL, squarely in favor of lighting up the scoreboard.

Toward that end, LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase was drafted with the fifth pick by Cincinnati, where he’ll be reunited with his former Tiger teammate, quarterback Joe Burrow; and Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle was taken at No. 6 by Miami, where he’ll, too, get to sing the Crimson Tide fight song with his college quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa.

As if the position needed any more attention, the hottest rumor hanging over the draft was whether Aaron Rodgers, one of the best quarterbacks in the game, will have anything more to do with his employers of the last 15 years, the Green Bay Packers. Last year, the club used its late first-round pick on Utah State QB Jordan Love, a move that reportedly upset Rodgers.

“I’m not going to speak for Aaron, but I think obviously we have a really good team and I do think he’ll play for us again,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said, after the Packers’ first-round selection of Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes this time around.

“Like I said, we’re going to work toward that and we’ve been working toward that on a number of different fronts. The value that he adds to our football team is really immeasurable, you know what I mean?”

Trust us, we get it.


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