The Minnesota Vikings clearly had interest in a quarterback in the NFL Draft, and were somewhat aggressive in pursuit of one in particular.
An episode of the Carolina Panthers’ behind-the-scenes YouTube series “Panthers Confidential” shows the Vikings calling the Panthers while Carolina was on the clock at No. 8 overall. From the video, the Vikings were willing to trade their first, third, and fourth-round selections to move up to No. 8. The Panthers wanted Minnesota’s 2022 first-round pick, and when the Vikings wouldn’t budge, Panthers owner David Tepper is seen instructing his front office to tell Minnesota “don’t call us with negative points.”
The Vikings were almost certainly eyeing a quarterback, likely Justin Fields. A report earlier this month claimed that the Vikings were hoping to select Fields if he fell to No. 14, and even explored scenarios to move up for him. However, they were unwilling to give up a future first-rounder to draft Fields, who would have been expected to sit behind Kirk Cousins for a year. That was Carolina’s asking price, and it’s what the Chicago Bears ultimately had to part with to move up and select Fields.
The Vikings ended up landing Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond in the third round instead as a potential long-term replacement for Cousins. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the organization had its sights set far higher when the draft began.
It’s no secret that all NFL teams do their own prospect evaluations leading up to the NFL Draft. The ratings give a window into what teams thought of potential draftees. But the numbers almost always stay secret.
The Jacksonville Jaguars, whether intentional or not, didn’t really care about keeping some of their own ratings secret. The team’s behind-the-scenes video series “The Hunt” included video from inside the team’s war room. Unusually, the finished video does not blur out any of the draft grades, even for players not selected by the team.
Eric Edholm of Yahoo Sports pointed out that Trevor Lawrence, the team’s first overall pick, received an 8.0 under the team’s grading system. Interestingly, that’s the same grade the Jaguars assigned to Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, who went No. 6 overall to the Miami Dolphins. For context, while we don’t know the exact system the Jaguars use, the typical scale goes from 3.0 or 4.0 up to 9.0, suggesting the Jaguars viewed both Lawrence and Waddle as high-level prospects. Had Jacksonville’s quarterback need not been so great, one has to wonder if Waddle may have even been in contention for the top pick.
A few other grades could be visible in the video. Quarterback Zach Wilson, the second overall pick, got a 7.0 from the Jaguars. A few players drafted later in the first round, namely linebacker Jaelan Phillips and offensive lineman Ali Vera-Tucker, got 7.5 ratings. Travis Etienne, the Jaguars’ other first-round selection, got a respectable 7.0 grade. The most underwhelming grade visible for a first-rounder went to new Indianapolis pass-rusher Kwity Paye, who got what appeared to be a 6.8.
A few other second- and third-round selections are visible, but those aforementioned ratings are the biggest ones of interest. The ratings suggest that the gap between Lawrence and Wilson, at least in the scouting department’s eyes, was pretty wide. It also seems to indicate that the Jaguars probably think the Dolphins had a pretty good first round.
It’s probably not great that none of this was blurred. Some players could take it as motivation, while others could use it to second-guess the team if, for example, Wilson ends up having a much better pro career than Lawrence. That said, it’s an interesting look behind-the-scenes at a key part of draft prep that we don’t normally have access to except through rumors and hearsay.
The 2021 NFL Draft has passed and rookies are already reporting to camps. It’s time for some of them to show what they can do and prove they were worth the draft picks.
Who were some of the best under-the-radar selections? Which Day 2 and Day 3 picks will have the biggest impact as rookies in 2021? And do any of them have what it takes to win some awards? Here’s a look at five players who will answer most — if not all — of those questions this season.
5. Walker Little, OT, Jacksonville Jaguars
This is a tricky one because Walker Little, although possessing the talent of a first-rounder, does come with some legitimate medical red flags. He has taken just 72 snaps over the previous two seasons. He suffered a knee injury that ended his season in 2019, and then opted out last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That means there’s going to be quite a bit of rust to knock off, and that’s assuming Little can stay healthy. However, if he can, the Jaguars landed a potential starting tackle of the future at pick No. 45 overall. The 6-foot-7, 309-pound Little logged a 93.3 pass-blocking grade (PFF) over the course of his college career and allowed just one pressure. Limited opportunities or not, that’s impressive.
4. Nick Bolton, LB, Kansas City Chiefs
At 6-foot and 231 pounds, there’s no denying that Nick Bolton is an undersized linebacker. It’s part of the reason why he slipped to the Chiefs at No. 58 overall and part of the reason why some believe he was still a reach at that point. We’ll argue that he was a steal, instead. Size aside, Bolton is an extremely instinctive linebacker who excels in coverage. One of those things can’t be taught, and the other is a welcomed benefit in today’s pass-happy NFL. Bolton will also willingly step in and play special teams, adding more versatility to his resume. Bottom line? Don’t let the size fool you — Bolton has superstar potential and landed in the exact right spot with Kansas City.
3. Elijah Molden, CB, Tennessee Titans
Cornerback prospects dropping based on the perceived value of the slot position is an interesting dynamic in the NFL. Considering the league has become so pass-happy, you’d think executives and scouts would place a greater emphasis on the slot position, but that’s still not the case. It’s also why Elijah Molden slid all the way to pick No. 100 overall despite being, arguably, the best slot corner prospect available. Shame on the rest of the NFL for missing out on what Tennessee now adds to their defense. Molden has earned Pro Football Focus’ highest slot grade (91.2) and forced more incompletions (21) than any other slot corner in college football since 2014. He’s also a sound, fearless tackler despite his size (5-foot-10, 190 pounds), which will pay huge dividends in the NFL.
2. Tommy Togiai, DT, Cleveland Browns
Tommy Togiai was overlooked in the 2021 NFL Draft for two very sound reasons: lack of experience and lack of size. The 6-foot-2, 300-pound Togiai is considered a bit undersized to play the 3-technique, and his 660 total college snaps weren’t enough to sell most teams. However, the Browns looked beyond those concerns and saw a player who despite some of his shortcomings, found constant success in his limited number of snaps. Togiai is a quality defensive end who can stop the run, eat up multiple blocks, and rush the passer from the inside. He’s disruptive and graded out highly among DT prospects leading up to the draft, often finding himself grouped among the likes of Christian Barmore and Alim McNeill. He’s not going to be a three-down player in Cleveland, but he’ll get his fair share of playing time and likely make the most of it.
1. Jaelon Darden, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The 2021 NFL Draft was packed full of talent at the wide receiver position, which is why a player like Jaelon Darden slid silently into the fourth round only to be snatched up by the defending Super Bowl champions. Usually, Day 3 picks and undrafted rookie free agents struggle to make the 53-man roster. But Darden is not only a likely lock, he could play a significant role this season. He capped off his career at North Texas with 74 receptions for 1,190 yards and 19 touchdowns in just nine games. He will immediately step into a slot role for Tampa Bay. With a ton of talent around him and quarterback Tom Brady throwing him the ball, Darden is a sneaky Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate. Yes, he’s that talented.
New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh experienced his first real scare since taking the job, and it came during the fourth round of the NFL Draft.
Saleh revealed that he’d briefly believed the team drafted the wrong player to start day three of the draft. The Jets zeroed in on North Carolina running back Michael Carter, and opted to make him the pick. After the selection was announced, ESPN flashed up the graphic for another Michael Carter — this one being Michael Carter II, a Duke defensive back who also happened to be in the draft pool.
That was enough to scare Saleh in a big way.
“When we took Michael Carter the running back, ESPN threw up Michael Carter II on the screen and we were like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute,’ and checked the notes and made sure we made the right pick,” Saleh said after the draft, via Jeff Kerr of CBS Sports. “But, lucky for us, Michael [ Carter] II ended up falling to us and we were able to scoop him up. So, like I said, we’re excited to have them both.”
As Saleh noted, the Jets ended up drafting the other Carter a round later, so in a certain sense, everything worked out perfectly.
The Las Vegas Raiders were widely criticized for their selection of offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood in the first round of the NFL Draft. It turns out they reportedly had reason to believe they had to take him then or risk not getting him at all.
Leatherwood was graded as a second-round pick by a number of draft analysts, and the pick was questioned by experts such as ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. Amid widespread criticism that the pick was a reach, ESPN’s Jim Nagy reported that other teams picking between No. 20 and No. 32 had a first round grade on Leatherwood, and the lineman likely would have been a first-round pick even if the Raiders hadn’t selected him.
Some context on @Raiders decision to take Alex Leatherwood with No. 17 pick. Media crushed them but Leatherwood was going in first round. Spoke to multiple teams picking in 20-32 range that had Leatherwood in Round 1. Most don’t agree with the pick but it wasn’t a reach.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are not taking any risks when it comes to the happiness of their franchise quarterback.
The Buccaneers selected Florida quarterback Kyle Trask in the second round of the draft, providing Tom Brady with a possible successor. According to coach Bruce Arians, the move was made with Brady’s support and blessing, and the quarterback had advance knowledge that Trask would be the selection.
Bruce Arians says Tom Brady's been kept in the loop on the drafting of a QB for weeks. He knew Trask was the pick. And BA's connected with Brady today, and the QB is fired up about the drafting of Jaelon Darden. @nflnetwork
Brady is 43, so it’s understandable that the Buccaneers would want to be prepared for the future. That said, it’s pretty clear that the Buccaneers at least took note of some of the mistakes the Green Bay Packers made and were very careful to avoid repeating them. Never do anything to make your franchise quarterback unhappy — and if you’re going to do something that might do it, at least warn them first.
Trask now gets the experience of watching and learning from Brady, who appears to be on board with the arrangement. It’s hard to imagine a better education than that.
San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York hasn’t always made the best decisions when running the team. He seems to think he might have made another one on Thursday.
On Thursday afternoon, York tweeted that he had asked GM John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan not to tell him who they planned to select No. 3 overall in the draft. York was somewhat ridiculed for the tweet, with few believing that the CEO of an NFL team would actually ask to voluntarily be left out of the loop on a huge decision like this.
#DraftDay just finished up a great meeting with @JohnLynch49ers & Kyle. They were about to tell me the pick and I asked to wait til we’re on the clock. Gotta watch tonight
At that point, the Niners CEO started openly trolling. He asked Twitter how many miles he should run ahead of the draft, and the five options he gave certainly seemed to correspond to the numbers of quarterbacks such as Justin Fields, Trey Lance, Jimmy Garoppolo, and even Aaron Rodgers, whom the 49ers have been aggressively linked to in the last 24 hours.
#DraftDay thinking about going for a run. Suspense is too much. How many miles should I go for 1? 5? 10? 12? 16? or 1?
There has been a lot of talk about teams potentially moving up in the draft to select one of the five big quarterback prospects, but a team that could make the biggest leap up the board is eyeing a different position.
Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reported on Thursday morning that the New Orleans Saints have been exploring ways to trade up from the No. 28 pick. They are even willing to move all the way into the top 10, which would be quite costly.
In a relatively quiet trade market thus far, the #Saints appear to be the team doing the most groundwork for a potential trade up. They’ve even called into the Top 10 to gauge value. For a CB? Would be a steep price, but they aren’t afraid to be bold…
The Saints would almost certainly have to give up a future first-round pick to move up at least 18 spots, so they would have to be in love with a player to do that. Rapoport speculates that they might be targeting a cornerback. The two best cornerback prospects in the draft are Alabama’s Patrick Surtain Jr. and South Carolina Jaycee Horn.
“If they would go in and get more weapons around (Rodgers) so if somebody gets injured they’re OK and they can make a run, or maybe bulking up that defense that seems to get beat whenever they have to make a stop,” McAfee said. “There’s a lot of things they could do, but with the Packers it seems like what they always do is they just prepare for the future and kind of mail it in.
“They’ll make some boring move that will end up being good for them as they get three years from now and the team will still be good, but Aaron Rodgers is the best in the game, the MVP. If they were just to make some moves and go all-in and think differently than they’ve chosen to do it would be great news for everybody, including Packers fans.”
Why is this notable? McAfee had Rodgers as a weekly guest on his radio show last season. While it would be a stretch to say McAfee is speaking for Rodgers, the ex-punter certainly knows better than most what Rodgers is thinking at the time. The Packers quarterback has made little secret of it, too, based on some subtle yet clear remarks he’s made on McAfee’s show.
The top of the NFL Draft continues to look unsettled, with the potential for major upheaval during Thursday’s first round.
The latest buzz centers around the Denver Broncos, who hold the No. 9 overall pick. According to ESPN’s Ed Werder, the Broncos have received “significant interest” from other teams that are interested in acquiring the selection.
What isn’t clear is how willing the Broncos are to make a move. After trading for a quarterback on Wednesday, their need at that position is no longer quite as glaring. Subsequently, they’re set up perfectly to get one of the best non-quarterbacks in the draft if they stay put.