Sorting Through The Scenarios In The NFL Draft’s Top 5

The number of contingencies in this NFL Draft seems higher than ever.

With the first two picks seemingly set in stone, chaos is likely to begin at No. 3 overall.  Below we go through all the different logical scenarios, starting off with what should happen, and then attempting to project what actually will.

What should happen:

No. 1, Jacksonville Jaguars: QB, Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

No. 2, New York Jets: QB, Justin Fields, Ohio State

No. 3, San Francisco 49ers: QB, Trey Lance, North Dakota State

No. 4 possibility #1: Washington trade up

No. 4 possibility #2: Atlanta keeps the pick

The first scenario is a sneak peek of Thursday’s mock draft.

For now, let’s ignore how we get to this spot and look at what could and should happen, but almost certainly won’t.

The quarterback market is poor at this point, making Atlanta’s leverage seemingly low.  But teams across the board are hot for Wilson.

Still, let’s look at this logically.  With Wilson’s stature as a boom-or-bust prospect that just doesn’t have the volume of and impressive enough tape against top competition, teams shouldn’t totally go all-in on him like the Jets are almost guaranteed to do.  There has to be some buffer.

Denver was one of the teams listed as a possible trade-up candidate for Wilson, but their trade for Teddy Bridgewater on Wednesday signifies that they want to give Drew Lock one more chance, and if he falls through, they then have a QB decent enough behind him to still be competitive.  

Bridgewater needs a perfect situation and surrounding cast to be successful, which was not what Carolina was last season.  Denver offers that, and perhaps is one of the NFL’s best rosters outside of the quarterback position.  

It’s clear that Denver wasn’t too enthralled with their options at No. 9 overall, which is fair if Fields isn’t there.  But if he is available, and it’s seeming increasingly likely he will be, then the Bridgewater trade immediately becomes totally unnecessary.  It’s understandable that the Broncos don’t want to take the risk, though.  They cannot afford to squander the roster they have.

Washington is perhaps the only other team that makes sense for Wilson in this wild sequence of events.  Like Denver, its roster is talented (Perhaps not quite as much, but close).  That difference makes Washington’s case even stronger.  Wilson is no guarantee, but if he booms, he’s the type of talent that can elevate the cast around him – on both sides of the ball.

Three teams that could be considered in need of a quarterback – New England, Chicago and New Orleans – bow out at this point.  Wilson isn’t worth the risk for them.  The Patriots can give Cam Newton a final chance, now that he hopefully won’t be battling COVID-19 and will have adequate weapons around him.  They also paid him as if that was their intention.  Chicago can’t be making any big-time moves at the quarterback position unless it’s a guaranteed hit like Lawrence or Fields, because it’ll cost its entire front office their jobs and put the Bears in another QB purgatory if it doesn’t work out.

The Saints don’t need much at QB.  Last season was proof of that.  They possess one of the best rosters in football, and simply need someone to come in, guide the ship and not screw up.

Wilson could more than do that, but he also could do substantially less as well, which leads to New Orleans wasting a perfect roster.  In this draft class, Mac Jones might actually be the perfect guy for the Saints.  But trading up from the spot he deserves to go (No. 28 overall) into the top ten of the draft to get him is not a smart play given his ceiling as a passer. Prior to Bridgewater’s trade to Denver, the former Saints QB making a homecoming made perfect sense.

Of course, Atlanta isn’t the only chance for teams to trade down.  Cincinnati isn’t taking a quarterback at No. 5 overall, and its case for trading down is better than some may think (More on that below).  The Dolphins probably aren’t moving at No. 6 overall, just because their subsequent trade-up to that spot after trading down with San Francisco makes it clear they have a target in mind.  The Lions aren’t bound to taking anyone in particular at No. 7 overall and could use extra picks to build out a depleted roster.  The same goes for Carolina, who could find themselves reaching depending on who is available at No. 8.

At the same time, in this scenario, Wilson is the only QB worth trading up for, so there could be a bidding war for Atlanta’s pick.  Conversely, Kyle Pitts is not a bad pick for the Falcons whatsoever.  But Atlanta should probably be trading down, as Pitts doesn’t fill an exact need.  An impact defender should be its target.

What likely will happen:

No. 1, Jacksonville Jaguars: QB, Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

No. 2, New York Jets: QB, Zach Wilson, BYU

No. 3, San Francisco 49ers: QB, Mac Jones, Alabama

No. 4 possibility #1: New England trade up

No. 4 possibility #2: Washington trade up

No. 4 possibility #3: Chicago trade up

No. 4 possibility #4: New Orleans trade up

No. 4 possibility #5: Atlanta keeps the pick

Fields’ availability changes things for everyone.  His certainty as an above-average quarterback makes too much sense for New Orleans, who could trade up, bring him in, start him immediately and perhaps improve from what was essentially Drew Brees’ corpse last year, while certainly upgrading from what either Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill will be this season.  Washington could get a quarterback who can elevate their good-but-not-great roster immediately.  

The two most interesting teams in this scenario are the Patriots and Bears.  Chicago’s front office and coaching staff might be out the door no matter what after this season, so going all-in on one last quest to save their jobs by trading up for Fields may not seem that insane.  At the same time, trading up for two quarterbacks that busted in the top ten of the draft within four drafts worth of time probably has general manager Ryan Pace never working in football again.

Chicago already publicly committed to Andy Dalton as their starter this season, which makes things tricky.  Fields isn’t someone who’s worth benching – Chicago would be better off trading up for an instant contributor like him instead or remaining where they are with Dalton and rebooting next offseason.  

New England is also faced with an interesting dilemma in this scenario.  It’s not hard to buy into a Newton bounce-back year in 2021-22, but the former Panthers star will be 33 by the time the season begins.  Regardless of how he plays, it’s unlikely he’s the long-term answer for the Patriots.  At the same time, benching Fields doesn’t make sense to do, and he could play early in the year if Newton is truly washed.

As mentioned above, Atlanta’s preference should be to trade out, but taking Pitts is not a bad situation whatsoever if the offers don’t suit their fancy.  If they don’t move out, teams shouldn’t have to wait long to find another partner.  The right one could be sitting at the next pick.

What could happen: Pitts at 4, Cincinnati trade out

No. 1, Jacksonville Jaguars: QB, Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

No. 2, New York Jets: QB, Zach Wilson, BYU

No. 3, San Francisco 49ers: QB, Mac Jones, Alabama

No. 4: Atlanta Falcons: TE, Kyle Pitts, Florida

No. 5 possibility #1: New England trade up

No. 5 possibility #2: Washington trade up

No. 5 possibility #3: Chicago trade up

No. 5 possibility #4: New Orleans trade up

No. 5 possibility #5: Cincinnati keeps the pick

This might seem surprising, but the case for the Bengals to move out of No. 5 overall is better than you may think.

First of all: if Pitts is here, it’s a no-brainer pick for Cincinnati.  While it’s unfair to peg Pitts as strictly a tight end, the Bengals could really use an upgrade at that position and are slightly less lacking at wide receiver.  

That leads into the case for Cincy trading down.  As we begin to spoil Thursday’s mock draft, while the Bengals could use a for-sure No. 1 receiver, no one at No. 6 overall is incredibly appealing (DeVonta Smith will clock in at WR1 on the board, but his weight is a serious, serious concern) and Cincinnati has good weapons already.  In addition, if quarterback Joe Burrow is 100 percent healthy and recovered from his knee injury, he should be able to elevate the talent around him.

Now, Burrow can’t elevate the offensive line in front of him, given that 1) That’s a hard thing to do in general and 2) Given that he’s not a mobile quarterback.  But the Bengals should be in better shape up front this year than they were last.  Jonah Williams will be back and fully healthy, and Riley Reiff was given a sizable one-year contract to man the other tackle spot.  Penei Sewell isn’t someone you’re sitting on the bench for a year.

Cincinnati needs help more so on the inside of its offensive line.  Sewell could play guard, but that seems like a waste of his talent.  Why not trade out, pick up an impact defender or interior lineman and get extra future picks when QB-hungry teams are salivating?

If Cincinnati trades down, which is obviously unlikely, it triggers the same action that would occur if Atlanta trades out of No. 4 overall: New England, Washington, New Orleans and Chicago get on the phone and start bidding for Fields or whichever quarterback they prefer.

Further down the line, more trade-down candidates exist.  Depending on which players are available, Detroit could make some sense as a partner if New England or Washington wants to move up.  At the same time, figuring out whether Jared Goff is the guy or not is probably priority No. 1 for the Lions, and selecting a receiver with that pick helps them do that.  Carolina is in a spot where they will probably be reaching at No. 8 overall – they could move down and still land an impact cornerback, linebacker, guard or defensive tackle.  

With quarterback seemingly out of the cards, Denver becomes an intriguing trade-down candidate at No. 9 overall.  Its loaded roster doesn’t have many holes, and Micah Parsons – who’d be a perfect fit in their defense and fills their only real gap in talent – seems likely to slide a bit given (concerning) off-the-field issues.

After that, teams seem likely to have QBs slide to them, or they will run out of trade partners.  The Giants should make their pick.  Philadelphia is almost certainly making theirs, though Thursday’s mock has them reaching for a wide receiver that it could likely trade down to select.  The Chargers and Vikings should make their picks, and by then we reach New England – who’s one of the primary trade-up candidates, not down.