The 5 first-round quarterbacks are a harbinger for where the NFL draft is headed

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Pete Thamel
·5-min read
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Of all the surprises in the 2021 NFL draft, the fact that it took the top five quarterbacks 15 picks to go off the board registered among the biggest.

Still, even with Justin Fields “slipping” to Chicago at No. 11 and Mac Jones’ Jedi Mind Tricking to the Patriots at No. 15, this will be remembered as a seminal haul for quarterbacks. For just the third time in NFL history, quarterbacks were rattled off with the first three picks – Trevor Lawrence (Jaguars), Zach Wilson (Jets) and Trey Lance (49ers).

Only two other times in NFL history were five quarterbacks taken in the first round – 2018 and 1999. The gold standard for quarterback drafts remains the six taken in 1983.

But the big takeaway from Thursday night is that a year like 2021, with five quarterbacks in the top 15, should no longer be considered an anomaly. This is now a harbinger, an expectation born of the direction that football is headed

“Everyone is doing whatever they can to find the future quarterback of their team,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day told Yahoo Sports. “Everyone has their own philosophy. If it was easy to find one, everyone would be doing it. It’s obviously not easy to do.”

In the NFL, the actions of teams are indicating the reality that if you don’t have a dynamic quarterback like Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, you don’t have a chance. The days of game managers winning the Super Bowl are past, which means if you don’t succeed at drafting a quarterback, you just try and try again.

Five quarterbacks, including Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, were selected in the first 15 picks of the 2021 NFL draft. It may be surprising, but projects to be the new normal. (Photo by Logan Bowles/NFL via Getty Images)
Five quarterbacks, including Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, were selected in the first 15 picks of the 2021 NFL draft. It may be surprising, but projects to be the new normal. (Photo by Logan Bowles/NFL via Getty Images)

The quarterbacks are supposedly ready to play earlier in their careers, as they throw more passes in seven-on-seven, play in more sophisticated college offenses and seemingly get indoctrinated into the NFL faster than ever. Of the three quarterbacks taken in the first three picks, only Lance really has the quarterback room to sit back and learn for a year. (Fields and Jones also both have capable starters ahead of them.)

Drew Brees didn’t emerge as a star until his fourth season in the NFL, and Peyton Manning had 26 touchdowns and 23 interceptions in his fourth season. That type of patience isn’t happening anymore, as a Sam Darnold cycles out and a Zach Wilson washes in. It’s the new quarterback circle of life, shrinking as the pressure mounts on front offices.

“It’s a different league now,” said an NFL front office source. “It’s not just coaches getting fired, it’s GMs getting fired.”

Quarterbacks represent hope. Just ask Bears GM Ryan Pace, who made a bold attempt to erase one of the worst trades in NFL history Thursday night. The Bears gave a ransom – two firsts, a fifth and a fourth – for Justin Fields. It was necessary, of course, because the Bears traded up in 2017 for Mitchell Trubisky, which is the standard bearer for first-round front-office malfeasance.

“Everyone is realizing it’s a quarterback league,” said an NFL coach. “They’re trying to take their stab at the apple.”

This week, NFL scouts and personnel guys already began griping about the quarterback class of 2022. There’s UNC’s Sam Howell, USC’s Kedon Slovis, Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler, Georgia’s J.T. Daniels, Nevada’s Carson Strong, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels and Liberty's Malik Willis. As of now, Howell is the only one we’d feel comfortable penciling into the Top 5.

There’s certainly not a Trevor Lawrence-caliber prospect in that bunch. But complain all you want, here’s predicting they’ll be five more quarterbacks drafted in the 2022 first round.

Just look at the past few drafts. They’ll be someone who rises like Wilson, Joe Burrow, Jordan Love, Daniel Jones, Josh Allen, Mitchell Trubisky or Carson Wentz from relative obscurity to a first-round pick. Of that bunch, Allen at Wyoming may have had the most NFL buzz heading into their final season.

NFL teams are falling harder than ever for quarterbacks. They’re trading away ransoms, abdicating roster sensibility and churning through them faster than ever.

And that pace isn’t likely to slow down. Not with the evolution of the passing game, necessary dynamism of that position and the profile of every recent Super Bowl winner not named Nick Foles. (We’ll tick that list back to Joe Flacco in the 2012 season and avoid any conversation about him being elite.)

It’s also important to remember that the league’s elite quarterbacks not named Mahomes are on the cusp of aging out. Brady (43) has eaten too much avocado ice cream to be a cyborg, even if he plays like one. Brees hung it up at 42. Ben Roethlisberger is 39 and staring at his twilight. Rodgers is 37 and clearly playing hardball for the right last call.

A new generation is needed, and the game has swung so heavily to that position that franchises are out of patience. Soon enough, the 1983 draft will be caught from behind.

And don’t be surprised if it becomes unusual that one-third of the first 15 picks aren't quarterbacks in the years to come. The way the game has gone, they’re all going to be the year of the quarterback.

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