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The Eight Biggest Questions Coming Out of the 2021 NFL Draft

The NFL draft is finally over, and now we can stop talking about football for a few months. LOL! Just kidding. Did you really think we were done? The schedule release is in less than two weeks, a handful of teams are in quarterback limbo, and Tim Tebow might be back in the NFL. FOOTBALL NEVER GOES AWAY. So looking ahead, here are the biggest questions coming out of the NFL draft.

What Will Happen With Aaron Rodgers?

If you want a comprehensive breakdown of why Aaron Rodgers wants out of Green Bay and why the Packers are suddenly in a staring contest with the guy who just won the MVP award, you can find that here. What happens next in this saga though will be the story of the NFL offseason. Rodgers reportedly does not want to play in Green Bay. The Packers definitely do not want to trade Rodgers. If this stalemate continues, Rodgers could be forced to sit out games and cost himself millions of dollars to ultimately get what he wants. Whether things will get to that point is unclear—but how Rodgers handles the upcoming events on the Packers schedule will give us some clues as to how this will all shake out.

Let’s assume Rodgers will skip mandatory minicamp in June. That’s not that big of a deal—it’s a handful of days, and players don’t even wear pads. But if Rodgers doesn’t show up to training camp in late July, that is a big deal. Unlike holdouts from players at other positions, a quarterback missing training camp would derail the entire offense. The coaches, the wide receivers, everybody needs to practice with the starting quarterback (at least if you want those practices to be valuable). Say the Packers go through a month of installation with Jordan Love under center, and then Rodgers shows up for Week 1. They’d have to use the first few weeks of the season as a de facto training camp, which is absolutely not something a team with Super Bowl aspirations can afford to do.

Then there’s the scenario in which Rodgers decides to sit out actual games, forfeit his salary, pay millions in fines, and maybe even be forced to repay some of the signing bonus money he’s already received. If Rodgers is OK taking that financial hit, the pressure will be on the Packers to fix this situation.

Rather than being fined $50,000 a day in perpetuity, though, Rodgers’s best option might be “retiring” with the intention of chilling and hosting Jeopardy! until the Packers realize he’s a sunk cost and trade his rights elsewhere. This is what Carson Palmer did with the Bengals in 2011, when he essentially told them he’d rather retire than play for Cincinnati. (Palmer was eventually traded to Oakland.) Palmer’s agent at that time, Dave Dunn, is also Rodgers’s agent. If Rodgers really wants to force a trade—and is comfortable with retirement being a possibility—Dunn has the relevant experience.

That option may seem a little extreme, but really anything is on the table at this point. Whether Rodgers shows up for training camp will give a real indication as to how serious he is about this.

Who Will the Broncos Start at Quarterback?

Denver was one of the teams rumored to be interested in trading for Rodgers, but that did not happen during the draft. The Broncos were also in position to take either Justin Fields or Mac Jones with the no. 9 pick on Thursday, but instead they drafted Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II. For now, it looks like the team will enter the season with third-year pro Drew Lock and newly acquired Teddy Bridgewater duking it out for the starting job. Broncos GM George Paton left things pretty open when he was asked about the quarterback market last week.

“We’re always looking at every position, and quarterback’s another one,” Paton said. “But we like the two we have.”

Bridgewater and Lock are both easy to like, but hard to love. Lock was a second-round pick in 2019 out of Missouri with a big arm and frame. But he finished dead last in completion percentage (57 percent) among all qualified starters last season and tied with Carson Wentz for the league lead in interceptions (15). The most generous thing you could say about Lock is he injured his throwing shoulder in Week 2, and he might be much better than his 2020 stats when healthy.

But the Broncos aren’t banking on it. They brought in Bridgewater, though he is hardly reliable either. He’s a beloved teammate wherever he goes, but he’s had an injury-plagued career and has big Game Manager energy. Last season, Bridgewater had eight game-winning drive opportunities, and the Panthers went 0-8 in those contests. Carolina just decided to replace him with Sam Darnold.

Based on both quarterbacks’ levels of play in 2020, Bridgewater figures to be the favorite to win the starting job, though Lock has the advantage of knowing the offense. The Broncos have one of the best rosters in the NFL, with a good offensive line, a talented pass-catching group, and potentially one of the league’s best defenses. But in a division with Patrick Mahomes, the team needs a quarterback who can come from behind and consistently lead scoring drives. If neither Lock nor Bridgewater can do that, it will be disappointing. And if one of the quarterbacks Denver declined to take—Fields or Jones—ends up being good, Denver may wind up looking pretty silly.


Will the 49ers Trade Jimmy Garoppolo?

Before the draft, San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan was asked if Jimmy Garoppolo would be on the roster by the end of the weekend. “I can’t guarantee that anybody in the world will be alive Sunday,” Shanahan said. “So I can’t guarantee who will be on our roster on Sunday. So, that goes for all of us.”

Same, honestly. But after the team drafted North Dakota State’s Trey Lance with the no. 3 pick on Thursday, Shanahan was willing to get more specific about Garoppolo’s future with the team.

“[Lance] hasn’t played football in a year,” Shanahan said about the quarterback who played just one game in 2020 before North Dakota State’s season was postponed due to COVID-19. “He hasn’t been to an OTA. I want to get him out here. But it would be very hard to picture a situation where Jimmy’s not here on Sunday. Because that would be very stressful for us. Because Jimmy’s a very good player, and I think we can win with him. So we’ll play that by ear, but I expect Jimmy to be here and I would be surprised if he wasn’t.”

Most highly drafted quarterbacks these days play a lot as rookies. But Lance is not like other quarterbacks. The 49ers seem content to let Garoppolo keep the starting job (for now) while Lance learns the offense.

Considering Jimmy G’s main rumored suitor—the Patriots—just drafted Mac Jones, it seems like the 49ers will head into training camp with both quarterbacks and the job will be Jimmy’s to lose. If another team’s starter gets hurt in camp and an offer comes along, perhaps the 49ers will deal him. Otherwise we’ll probably see Garoppolo under center for San Francisco next season.


Will the Patriots Start Mac Jones or Cam Newton?

Jimmy G. has no future in New England now that the team re-signed Cam Newton and drafted Mac Jones. But Bill Belichick has been quick to say that Jones is not the starter yet.

“Cam’s our quarterback,” Belichick said over the weekend. “Whatever time Jarrett [Stidham] or Mac are ready to challenge and compete, we’ll see how that goes. But right now for Mac, he’s just got a lot of learning in front of him. I know he’s very anxious to get going and get started on it.”

This makes sense—the Patriots were never going to just hand the starting job to a rookie. Everything is earned in New England. But this offense is undergoing a complete overhaul, with new starters at every pass-catching spot (tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry plus receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne). And while Newton is the overwhelming favorite to start the season under center, he may not be there for long if he has the same accuracy issues he had in 2020. Jones certainly won’t be given the job, but he was drafted for a reason. And if Jones picks up Josh McDaniels’s offense quickly, don’t be surprised to see him replace Newton midseason.

Will the Falcons Keep Julio Jones?

There was much debate heading into the draft about whether the Falcons would take a quarterback at no. 4 to eventually replace Matt Ryan. Instead, they drafted tight end Kyle Pitts, who could give the team enough flexibility to replace the aging Jones.

Jones’s contract is abnormally large. He is making $64 million guaranteed over three years—more than 50 percent more guaranteed at signing than Odell Beckham Jr. or Amari Cooper got on longer contracts. And while Jones is the prototypical NFL receiver in terms of size, speed, and ability, the Falcons are in an amazingly bad cap situation and are looking at any and all options to solve it.

Jones is unquestionably elite when healthy. But he’s also 32 and played just nine games last season while dealing with a hamstring issue. With Pitts, the Falcons would be replacing exceptional talent with exceptional talent: Just nine pass catchers have been drafted in the top six in the past decade, and Jones and Pitts are two of them.

Jones’s contract would not be an easy thing for any team to take on. The Ravens reportedly called the Falcons about Jones before the draft, according to Fox’s Jay Glazer, but decided they couldn’t make the details work. Given how much dead money the Falcons would have to eat if they traded Jones away, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him stay in Atlanta this year.


Did the Bears Front Office Prolong Its Future?

Ryan Pace was hired as Bears GM in 2015. In that span, the team has gone 42-54 and failed to find the franchise quarterback it’s been looking for since, uh, 2016, or 1988, or 1940, depending on how you feel about Jay Cutler and Jim McMahon. In 2017, Pace traded two third-round picks and a fourth to move up in the draft and take Mitchell Trubisky; in 2020, he traded a fourth-rounder for Nick Foles; and last week, Pace traded a first, a fourth, and a fifth to move up and draft Ohio State’s Justin Fields.

The Bears are putting a tremendous amount of faith in Pace (and by extension, head coach Matt Nagy) to get this right after years of getting it so wrong. The team signed Andy Dalton this spring, but it won’t be long until Fields plays. And if Fields plays well, this brain trust that seemed like goners after the Trubisky move might have saved their jobs with this pick.

What Are the Raiders Doing?

The Raiders drafted right tackle Alex Leatherwood in the first round on Thursday. The pick was a reach—Leatherwood was largely projected to be a fringe first- or second-rounder—and indicative of the drafting style the Raiders have had since Jon Gruden took the reins in 2018.

The team had three first-round picks in 2019 and got little to show for it. Clelin Ferrell, the no. 4 pick in that draft, has 6.5 career sacks. Running back Josh Jacobs apparently inspires such little confidence that the Raiders gave $8.5 million guaranteed to Kenyan Drake in free agency. And safety Johnathan Abram has hardly delivered on his promise, with just 14 games played in two seasons. Then last year, the Raiders took receiver Henry Ruggs III in the first round, and he spent his rookie season looking unpolished and undeveloped. So when Vegas reached for Leatherwood, they’d already lost any benefit of the doubt.

The Raiders aren’t getting much value from their draft picks, so maybe the answer is to trade their future ones away. Aaron Rodgers is reportedly “intrigued” by the Raiders as a trade destination, according to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler. Rodgers in Vegas is probably Jon Gruden’s dream situation—but whether it’s a real option or just more leverage for Rodgers remains to be seen.

Regardless, the Raiders need to do something. Gruden is three years into a 10-year, $100 million deal, and while he seems like a good coach, his roster management has been extremely questionable. Barring a Rodgers trade, the Raiders will need to get some value from their picks eventually.

Is Davis Mills the Quarterback of the Future in Houston?

Houston drafted Stanford’s Davis Mills in the third round over the weekend, and he’ll probably have an opportunity to compete at some point this season. Deshaun Watson is currently facing more than 20 sexual assault and sexual misconduct lawsuits that both the NFL and law enforcement agencies are looking into. And even before news of the lawsuits was made public, it seemed like Watson and the Texans were heading for a split. Now Houston has Mills—a former five-star recruit in high school—as well as Tyrod Taylor, whom the team signed in late March. Taylor is the presumed starter and should provide a baseline of competency—which would be a relief in such a moribund organization.

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