Quarterbacks will command spotlight early in NFL Draft

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Joe Rutter, The Tribune-Review, Greensburg
·6 min read
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Apr. 17—Editor's note: This is the first in a series previewing each position heading into the NFL Draft on April 29. Today's installment: QBs.

The most important position on the football field understandably and justifiably will gain most of the attention at the top of the NFL Draft.

For the first time since 1999, quarterbacks are expected to be taken with the first three picks. For the first time in draft history, which dates to 1936, quarterbacks might go off the board in the top four slots.

Unlike 2017, when the Cleveland Browns chose Baker Mayfield over Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen, there will be no intrigue at the top spot. The Jacksonville Jaguars recently sent former Clemson passer Trevor Lawrence their playbook, which they could have done in January after they solidified their spot as the NFL's worst team.

When they select Lawrence, the Jaguars will be the fourth consecutive team and sixth in the past seven draft classes to take a quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick. The question this year is, which quarterback will go second, third and perhaps even fourth overall?

The New York Jets, who hold the second pick, officially got into the quarterback derby when they traded Darnold to the Carolina Panthers. The San Francisco 49ers traded into the third spot presumably to take Jimmy Garoppolo's successor. The Atlanta Falcons could look to replace Matt Ryan or trade out of the No. 4 slot to a quarterback-starved team such as Denver, Washington or New England.

Zach Wilson, who threw for 3,692 yards and 33 touchdowns last year for BYU, could be the Jets' choice, but former Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields remains a possibility. Fields played in only eight games last year because of the pandemic, but he passed for 2,100 yards and 22 touchdowns, including six against Clemson in the national championship semifinals. Fields also rushed for 381 yards and scored five touchdowns.

"I think both those guys are going to be really good players at the next level," NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. "I would say I don't think there's a debate in terms of who played better last year when you just watch all the tape. To me, Zach Wilson played the best, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's a slam dunk that he's going to be the best player.

"But you look at what Justin brings to the table with his ... toughness. We saw that in the Clemson game. That's nothing to be diminished there. He's extremely tough. You look at somebody that can make those throws, make every throw, somebody that is a dynamic runner — obviously, that's a big plus for him over Zach Wilson."

The quarterback who doesn't go to the Jets at No. 2 won't automatically be scooped up next by the 49ers. They reportedly traded up because they are enamored with former Alabama passer Mac Jones, who is ranked fifth among quarterbacks on most analysts' draft boards.

Jones completed 77% of his passes, threw for 4,500 yards and totaled 41 touchdown passes against four interceptions while leading the Crimson Tide to the national championship.

"The three most important things to me are quarterback rating under pressure, when he's blitzed and when he's throwing the ball 20-plus yards down the field," ESPN analyst Todd McShay said. "He's number one in all three categories. He has a solid arm but not the arm strength that the other guys have. I'm fascinated to see where he goes. I think San Francisco would be a perfect spot for him."

The last time quarterbacks went 1-2-3, the names were Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith — two busts sandwiched around a six-time Pro Bowl pick.

The Falcons will determine whether a fourth consecutive quarterback is selected.

Trey Lance, whose season at Division I FCS North Dakota State was canceled because of the pandemic, is the fifth quarterback with a first-round grade. As a redshirt freshman, Lance won his level's two most prestigious awards in 2019 and doesn't turn 21 until May.

Lance might not be around when the Pittsburgh Steelers get their turn at No. 24, but they made their thoughts on drafting a quarterback known in the offseason when they signed Ben Roethlisberger to a one-year contract that included a $5 million pay cut.

With Roethlisberger returning for an 18th season and the Steelers committed to upgrading at offensive line and running back, there's no need for them to take a quarterback until 2022. Mason Rudolph will be the backup for another year, former first-round pick Dwayne Haskins joined shortly after the Steelers' season ended and the Steelers added a fourth option when they re-signed Joshua Dobbs.

Top 5 QBs

1. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson, Jr., 6-6, 213

Lawrence has been considered the top quarterback in this class since he led the Tigers to the national championship in 2018 as a freshman.

2. Zach Wilson, BYU, Jr., 6-2, 214

Wilson had a breakout season in 2020 when he finished second in completion percentage (73.5%), third with 33 touchdown passes and 10th with 307.7 passing yards per game.

3. Justin Fields, Ohio State, Jr., 6-3, 227

A two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, Fields opened eyes when he threw six touchdown passes against Clemson in the national championship semifinals.

4. Trey Lance, North Dakota State, R-Soph., 6-4, 224

A year after being named the best freshman and top player in FCS, Lance had his second season wiped out because of the pandemic.

5. Mac Jones, Alabama, Jr., 6-3, 217

After replacing the injured Tua Tagovailoa during the 2019 season, Jones last season set the FBS mark for single-season completion percentage (77.4%) and led the nation with 4,500 passing yards.

Best fit for Steelers, Day 1

Trey Lance, North Dakota State

Let's make this clear immediately: The Steelers are not taking a quarterback in the first round or probably any other round in the draft. But for the purposes of this exercise, Lance makes the most sense because, if the 49ers take Jones, he is the only sure first-round pick who might be available at No. 24.

Best fit for Steelers, Day 2

Kyle Trask, Florida

Again, the Steelers have too many holes to fill to waste time on a quarterback who won't play for them in 2021. Trask, a 6-foot-5 passer, carries a second-round grade and could be groomed to be an NFL starter someday for some team.

Best fit for Steelers, Day 3

Shane Buechele, SMU

A developmental quarterback who began at Texas and spent his final two years at SMU, Buechele has bloodlines familiar to Pittsburgh sports fans. His father, Steve, was the Pirates third baseman for 111 games over the 1991-92 seasons and batted .304 in the '91 postseason.

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at jrutter@triblive.com or via Twitter .