The 2021 NFL Draft was quarterback-heavy in the first half of the first round, much to the chagrin of three veterans who expected to start this season. After the 49ers (No. 3 overall), Bears (No. 11) and Patriots (No. 15) all selected passers, other teams made some more surprising picks at running back, wide receiver and defense, given who they already had. Another team also took a promising QB earlier than expected.
With 259 talented drafted rookies coming into the league, a lot of veterans are set to be displaced from key roles, with several being pushed to the roster bubble. Here’s a look at 11 notable incumbents who shouldn’t be thrilled with their team’s draft results:
Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, 49ers
Jimmy G has a chance to stick around in San Francisco, only because the 49ers’ potential trade partners seem scarce at the moment. Given the youth and needed development of high-upside rookie first-rounder,Trey Lance, the team may want Garoppolo around as a bridge option. Then again, the 49ers can gain around $24 million in salary-cap relief with negligible dead money by cutting or dealing Garoppolo, whether it’s before or after June 1.
Should Lance’s learning be accelerated to the point the team is comfortable starting his dual threat right away with a strong supporting cast, the question is whether the Niners want to keep Garoppolo as the league’s highest-priced backup instead of being OK with Nate Sudfeld as the No. 2. Either way, Garoppolo is headed for a big demotion or departure.
Cam Newton, QB, Patriots
The Patriots were tied to bringing back Garoppolo before the draft in the case they couldn’t land one of the five first-round quarterbacks. After they picked Mac Jones — who looked like he was once headed to the 49ers replace Garoppolo — that won’t be happening. As for Newton, Bill Belichick used the predictable coach’s line about him still being the starter, but no one believes that Jones won’t get every opportunity to win the job in a training camp competition.
Like with Garoppolo vs. Lance, there’s also a contrasting style in QB play between Newton and Jones. Although Belichick and Josh McDaniels adjusted their offense well to Newton’s running in 2020, they saw a huge dropoff in the high pocket passing standard set by Tom Brady. Jones is a Brady style of QB to a tee with his smarts, leadership, toughness and decision-making.
The Bills have Josh Allen as a young MVP candidate. The Dolphins have Tua Tagovailoa in Year 2. The Jets took the promise of Zach Wilson at No. 2. The rest of the division isn’t bridging at QB, so the Patriots are in danger of losing one valuable year with Jones should they stick with Newton. Unless Jones falls flat, Newton will need to settle for a backup role if Newton isn’t willing to accept that, then it wouldn’t be shocking if the Patriots cut him, given Jarrett Stidham knows the system well enough to be a solid No. 2.
Andy Dalton, QB, Bears
So much for being their “QB1” to move on from Mitchell Trubisky, squashed after Chicago traded up to take Justin Fields. With the team working to get out of the Nick Foles mess, Dalton is a more reasonable option for a No. 2, given he had that same transitional role post-Cincinnati behind Dak Prescott in Dallas last season.
Fields needs some refinement as a passer, but like Lance, he can learn well on the fly as a dual threat with some good skill support. The Bears, as a returning playoff team, will be better off with higher upside in the lineup. Let’s hope they have a QB2 graphic for Dalton ready sometime in August.
Kirk Cousins, QB, Vikings
Cousins’ recent contract extension locks him into one more season as their starting quarterback. But the selection of early third-rounder Kellen Mond was in line with the team thinking about the major cap relief ($35 million) available for 2022 should it trade Cousins. Mond, an experienced starter at Texas A&M, is an accurate short-to-intermediate passer and dynamic runner who can be the next Prescott by strengthening his arm and improving his decision-making.
Cousins is 33 and Minnesota may have reached it offensive peak — albeit a pretty good one — with his veteran efficiency leading them. The Vikings need to keep staying ahead of getting into another bad cap situation and GM Rick Spielman has done a good job to keep the team talented enough to contend for the playoffs while also transitioning across positions. They shouldn’t mind if Mond develops to the point he is capable of starting after only one redshirt year.
Melvin Gordon, RB, Broncos
When Gordon was signed last offseason post Chargers, it wasn’t good news for Phillip Lindsay, disappointed he couldn’t remain the main back in Denver despite two productive seasons as a home-state undrafted free agent. Now Lindsay (Texans) is gone and Gordon should have some of those same feelings after the team traded up to use a high-second round pick on Javonte Williams.
Williams is a naturally strong power back who finishes drives well. He can stay on the field for three downs soon with some refinement in his receiving and pass blocking. Gordon had a solid first year in Denver, but he is getting up there with mileage going back to his Wisconsin days and has had a considerable injury history. He is also unsigned beyond this season. Expect Williams to take over this backfield for good soon, with Gordon seeing at best a lessened third-down bridge role.
James Robinson, RB, Jaguars
The Jaguars went from an undrafted gem in Robinson replacing released first-rounder Leonard Fournette to using their second first-round pick on Travis Etienne. The new coaching regime of Urban Meyer and Darrell Bevell ignored the fact that Robinson rushed for 1,070 yards at 4.5 yards per carry on a one-win team last season, also scoring 10 times and adding 49 catches for 344 more yards. Etienne is the more skilled receiver and the company line is that he’s tabbed for a dedicated unique role in that capacity, a la the Saints’ Alvin Kamara.
The reality is, Etienne is a complete enough runner to convince the leaders of his new offense that he should be featured over Robinson, given his great experience getting handoffs and catching passes from Trevor Lawrence.
Raheem Mostert, RB, 49ers
Before the draft, Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. looked like the clear 1-2 punch to lead San Francisco’s backfield after the team took Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman and Jerick McKinnon out of the crowded mix over the past offseasons. The 49ers were in the market for some more running back depth, given both Mostert and Wilson battled more injuries in 2020.
They doubled down on that by taking Trey Sermon in the third round and Elijah Mitchell in the sixth round. Kyle Shanahan likes to have many options who can thrive in his zone blocking system and versatility in body types. Sermon’s size makes him the new Coleman, while Mitchell’s quickness is reminiscent of Breida. The 49ers love Mostert and like Wilson, but Shanahan adores committees a lot more.
Jamison Crowder, WR, Jets
The Jets didn’t need to address wide receiver much with Corey Davis and Denzel Mims set to start on the outside for Wilson. But given there were doubts about the future of Crowder as their possession slot man before the draft, the Jets confirmed they wanted to go in a different direction at the position with second-rounder Elljah Moore. Crowder has made a living getting open the short area in both Washington and New York, all the way through the red zone. But Moore’s speed and quickness provides a whole other big-play gear in open field.
Crowder was OK for Sam Darnold and Adam Gase, but not for Wilson and MIke LaFleur. LaFleur’s 49ers’ influence had him wanting someone with Brandon Aiyuk-like slot juice. Moore can be a greater complement to what they want to do with Davis and Mims. Expect Crowder, set to become a free agent in 2022, to be cut before June 1 so the Jets can get more than $10 million in cap relief.
Robby Anderson, WR, Panthers
Speaking of Darnold, he gets to reunite with his best go-to guy in Carolina. Darnold and Anderson hooked up for a lot of big plays with the Jets and the Panthers got a productive first season from Anderson after signing him to a two-year, $20 million deal last offseason to reunite with his former Temple coach Matt Rhule. But that also means Anderson will be a free agent before his age 29 season in 2022.
The Panthers had a greater need for a slot option between Anderson and D.J. Moore to replace Curtis Samuel but waited until the sixth round to address that with Shi Smith. But after several trades down, they used a second-rounder on Terrace Marshall Jr, who has many Anderson-like qualities as a size/speed field-stretcher outside. As good as Anderson was and can be, Moore is the much-preferred long-term investment given his production and pedigree as still an only 24-year first-rounder from 2018.
Jaylen Smith, LB, Cowboys
Smith or Leighton Vander Esch? Both linebackers need to be nervous after the Cowboys used a first-rounder on more talented Smith clone Micah Parsons and a fourth-rounder on rangy Jabril Cox. Smith is coming off a shaky season that didn’t match his lucrative extension, to the point the team eyed a potential contract out with him next season. While Smith came into the league coming off a major knee injury, Vander Esch has had availability issues, making Dallas not pick up the fifth-year option on the 2018 first-rounder.
By now, the Cowboys should know not to invest so much in linebacker at the expense of other defensive positions. But instead, not getting consistent returns from Smith and Vander Easch for different reasons has prompted them to sink even more draft capital into the position.
Johnathan Abram, S/LB, Raiders
The Raiders like the concept of Abram, their 2018 first-rounder cleaning up on the back end. But they also don’t like he has some durability issues and has been a massive liability in coverage. Their draft response was taking three safeties (Trevon Moehrig, Divine Deablo, Tyler Gilespie). Abram, given Jeff Heath and Karl Joseph are also in the mix, may be pushed into playing strongside linebacker, where the team also likes second-year third-rounder Tanner Muse.