The NFL draft is the ultimate sign of hope for football players, teams, and fans alike. It’s a time for everyone to get excited about the next chapter in the NFL, and dream about what the future has in store. However hopes and dreams aren’t the only things the draft provides — it also serves as a crystal ball that shows us where the league is headed in the future.
Draft picks are one of the most valuable commodities in the NFL, and front offices and coaching staffs do everything they can to make sure these picks wind up translating to wins on the football field. The way teams spend these picks helps give fans some insight into what they prioritize most when attempting to build a championship caliber roster.
So what did the 2021 draft tell us about how teams are building for the future? By analyzing where draft capital was spent, I was able to identify three key takeaways that provide insight into how teams are trying to set themselves up for long term success.
Quarterbacks Are Always Priority #1
There are two types of teams in the NFL — those with a franchise quarterback, and those that will do anything to get one.
For the first time since 1999, quarterbacks were selected with the first three picks in the draft. Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, and Trey Lance were the first players to hear their names called on draft night, and shortly afterwards Justin Fields and Mac Jones were selected with top 15 picks as well. In addition to the five 2021 picks spent on quarterbacks in round one, lots of future draft capital was spent moving up just to get in position to snag these guys.
Leading up to the draft we saw the 49ers sacrifice two additional first rounders to move up from pick #12 to pick #3 in order to select Trey Lance out of North Dakota State. Then on night one of the draft, we saw the Bears forfeit their 2022 first rounder to move up from pick #20 to pick #11 to nab Ohio State’s Justin Fields. When you include future draft capital, eight first round picks were used to select the top five quarterbacks in this draft class.
It’s not a surprise to see quarterbacks valued so highly, but this year we saw the price tag to acquire them reach new heights. However what is surprising is how quickly teams are starting to move on from their guys so soon after making a substantial investment.
Not long ago, it was rare for a rookie quarterback to see the field in their debut season. They were commonly asked to sit behind an underwhelming veteran and “acclimate to the NFL game.” Nowadays rookies are expected to come in, start right away, and make a meaningful impact within just a few short years. If they don’t, it means something went wrong.
Teams are starting to waive the white flag earlier than ever before on these quarterbacks that don’t find immediate success. The Jets are a prime example of this as they only gave Sam Darnold (the 3rd overall pick in 2018) three seasons before moving on and selecting Zach Wilson out of BYU with this year’s #2 overall pick.
A similar story occurred with the 49ers when they paid a premium to move up for Lance. Incumbent starter Jimmy Garoppollo wasn’t drafted by the team, but in 2017 the 49ers gave up a 2nd round pick in a trade with the Patriots to bring him on board. The following offseason he was given a contract extension that made him the highest paid player in the NFL. Now here we are just a few seasons later, and despite Garoppolo leading the 49ers to a Super Bowl two years ago, the team is already preparing to move on.
Franchise quarterbacks are a dime a dozen, and although five teams think they secured their long term answer at the position, the hit rate on drafting them indicates that won’t be the case for everyone.
It’ll be interesting to see which of the five guys from this year’s class ultimately pan out. Fans and teams will be ecstatic if their guy winds up being a hit. However for the teams that aren’t so lucky, it’ll just be a few short years before they’re forced to rinse and repeat.
OFFENSE, OFFENSE, OFFENSE!
Although the offensive bonanza in this year’s draft was headlined by the quarterbacks it certainly didn’t stop there. The beginning of this draft was all about offense as 12 of the first 15 picks were spent on that side of the ball. We didn’t even see a defensive player come off the board until Carolina selected cornerback Jaycee Horn with the 8th overall pick. A defensive run picked up in the latter half of the first round, but ultimately the highest value picks were spent on guys who can help their teams put points on the board.
So what gives? The old saying says defense wins championships, but this year’s draft indicates that’s not what teams believe in today’s NFL.
Over the past 10 years the average points scored in an NFL game has increased gradually, and there are no signs of the scoring slowing down anytime soon. The volume of early draft picks spent on offensive players in this year’s draft indicates teams are embracing this trend and looking to bring in guys who can help light up the scoreboard.
It’s no secret that the focal point of a great offense is the quarterback. As I touched on earlier, NFL teams heavily prioritized the position in the first round of this year’s draft. However another trend appeared that shows how teams are indirectly making investments as well.
After selecting first round quarterbacks, the Jaguars, Jets, 49ers, and Bears all used high quality draft capital to bolster the rest of their offenses. The Patriots — a team who tends to balk at convention — were the only team to ignore this trend as they waited until round 4 to select another offensive player. In total there were 17 picks made in the first 3 rounds by these 5 teams. 5 of these picks were spent on quarterbacks, and then 7 of the remaining 12 went to other offensive positions.
The offensive focus for teams with young quarterbacks didn’t stop at those who drafted rookies this year. Looking at the teams who are expecting a 2020 draft selection to be their starter in 2021 — the Bengals, Dolphins, Chargers, and Eagles — you’ll notice the trend continued here. All four of these teams spent their first round picks on offense, and continued to put emphasis on that side of the ball with their day 2 picks as well. Of the 15 picks made by these 4 teams in the first 3 rounds of the draft, 10 of them were spent on offensive positions, including 3 top 10 picks spent on pass catchers.
Teams who are still in the honeymoon phase with their quarterbacks tended to use more picks to draft offensive players, but the distribution didn’t dramatically favor that side of the ball. However when you look at the value each of these picks possesses, the emphasis on offense becomes much more pronounced.
Jimmy Johnson’s trade value chart is a refrerence teams use to assign a point value to individual picks. When you assign the values in this chart to the picks made by team’s with a rookie or sophomore quarterback, you really start to see how heavily teams favored the offensive side of the ball.
Only a quarter of non-QB draft value was spent on defense by these teams in the first three rounds. That number gets drastically lower (15%) if you account for the massive value spent on the quarterbacks themselves. I had my doubts that this philosophy to draft offense immediately after selecting a quarterback was anything more than a fun narrative for the media, but if you’re looking strictly at the 2021 draft as evidence, it appears to be the truth.
As teams are beginning to make decisions on quarterbacks quicker than ever before, it’s important for their evaluators to have some sort of baseline to judge them off of. In a classic chicken vs the egg dilemma, teams with struggling offenses need to identify if the problem is the quarterback himself, or if he’s stuck in a situation that’s impossible to succeed in. By providing a young quarterback with a top notch supporting cast, decision makers in the NFL can easily identify who to point the finger at if things start to go south.
The clock is already ticking for the quarterbacks in the 2020 draft class, and it won’t be long until it starts ticking for the 2021 class as well. Teams are doing everything they can to give their guys every opportunity to succeed, and now it’s time to see if their new rookies are capable of stepping up to the task at hand.
Once You’ve Got Your QB, The Strategy Changes
If the draft capital and media buzz weren’t enough to convince you how important quarterbacks are, last year’s playoffs should be the perfect indication. The final four teams in the playoffs were all led by MVP caliber quarterbacks (Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, and Josh Allen), and it’s no coincidence these were the last teams left standing.
So did these teams approach the draft any differently than those who have less of a sure thing under center? Simply put, yes.
The approach taken by these teams in the early stages of the draft was almost the complete opposite compared to what teams with younger quarterbacks did. When you look at the offense vs defense breakdown by pick value, you’ll notice defense was heavily favored in the first three rounds as roughly two thirds of pick value was spent on that side of the ball.
It’s worth noting that all the offensive players selected earlier in the draft meant the talent pool on that side of the ball dried up a bit. However the difference in value spent on each side of the ball was substantial enough to believe these teams intended to favor their defenses.
If an elite quarterback is truly an MVP caliber player, he shouldn’t need a full arsenal of offensive talent around him to produce outstanding results. He should make $4 million receivers look like Pro Bowlers, and help turn late round picks into solid contributors within his offense. It’s tough to justify a $35 million a year contract for a guy who needs a few $20 million receivers and multiple first round offensive lineman just to be great. If a quarterback is truly desrving of a market-setting salary, he has to be able to lead an elite offense largely on his own. If he can do this, it allows his team to allocate resources to the other side of the ball and focus on slowing down the other MVP caliber quarterbacks he’ll surely cross paths with during the postseason.
It seems each year a new quarterback resets the market and becomes the highest paid player in the league. When this happens, teams start to shift their focus on acquiring talent on the other side of the ball and trusting their quarterback to carry the load on offense largely by himself.
A hefty contract extension for a quarterback doesn’t come without it’s costs and some serious expectations. Once pen gets put to paper and the paychecks start rolling in, the training wheels come off and these quarterbacks are expected to produce top tier offenses without elite supporting casts around them.
So in summary what did the 2021 draft tell us about how teams are building their rosters? It appears team building has largely become a three step process, and the step you’re on is completely dependent on the guy you have under center.
Step One: Get your franchise quarterback at all costs
Step Two: Build a great supporting cast around him on offense, and find out if he’s the guy you hoped he could be when you drafted him. If not, return to step one and try again.
Step Three: If you’re lucky enough to have found an elite quarterback and you’re ready to contend, fortify your defense and try to win a championship.
This is an oversimplification and obviously not all teams opted to follow this strategy. It does however appear that a playbook has been written for how to build a contender in the NFL, and many teams appear to be following the same path. Of course is should come as no surprise that it’s all about the quarterback.
Teams love to claim they draft the best player available regardless of position, but a pattern appears to be emerging that indicates this may not be the case for most teams. With a blueprint now in place that provides instructions for how to build an NFL team, the next question simply becomes who can do it right?