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The 2021 NFL Draft was absolutely thrilling, with a record eight quarterbacks flying off the board in the first three rounds and several teams loading up with premium talent and adding depth to their rosters.
Now that the dust has settled on the epic annual event, there are a handful of QBs who, based on the transactions made during the draft, now face the most pressure entering the upcoming season.
Here’s the quartet of signal-callers who figure to be most under the microscope in 2021.
Daniel Jones, New York Giants
The high-end talent Daniel Jones has flashed in two seasons is admittedly better than most draft analysts could’ve ever anticipated. He’s a far better downfield thrower than he was given credit for coming out of Duke, and a much better runner and athlete than seemed possible.
Having said that, Jones is still on course to be a bust unless he takes a huge step forward in 2021. His alarming inability to hold on to the football (29 fumbles) is holding Jones back from achieving greater things. Some of this is on a bad Giants offensive line, but Jones’ internal clock to get the ball out seems a perpetual split-second behind.
General manager Dave Gettleman brought in Kenny Golladay in free agency and drafted another supreme athlete in Florida receiver Kadarius Toney at 20th overall in the draft. Running back Saquon Barkley also returns after missing most of 2020.
Gettleman’s job probably on the line in 2021. The same is likely true for Jones. It’s not a high bar to clear in the NFC East in terms of quality football. Cutting down on fumbles alone will go such a long way in Jones’ progress.
If Jones can’t hack it in Year 3, you can bet the G-Men will dedicate all their resources to find his replacement next year. This roster, despite spending a high draft pick on a banged-up, low positional value player in Barkley and a possible bust in Jones, is ready to at least win the NFC East, if not a playoff game.
Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns
The reason Baker Mayfield is under so much pressure is because the Cleveland Browns now legitimately have one of the best all-around rosters in football. By adding John Johnson III, Troy Hill and Jadeveon Clowney in free agency, and drafting Greg Newsome II and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Cleveland may have five new defensive starters — all of them upgrades from their predecessors.
It was obvious the Browns were undermanned defensively this past year despite their sterling 11-5 record and massive playoff victory over Pittsburgh. Now, there aren’t any more excuses.
Mayfield shined in his first season with reigning Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski, markedly improving down the stretch in operating the offense and cutting down turnovers. Now there are legitimate Super Bowl expectations, though, and Mayfield is playing for a massive contract extension.
If the Browns flop this season, a huge share of the blame will fall on Mayfield. Plenty of signs suggest he can deliver the goods. Mayfield was Pro Football Focus’ eighth-ranked passer in 2020.
That said, if the 2018 top overall pick could quickly fall out of favor in Cleveland if the team doesn’t win at least one postseason game again. Even then, the season could be viewed as a disappointment.
Cam Newton, New England Patriots
Tom Brady defied all reasonable expectations and is the face of the franchise for two decades. No one can live up to that legacy.
This wasn’t a surprise. Jones fits the Brady-esque prototype that’s worked wonders in New England. Newton is a far different style of player who Josh McDaniels struggled to adjust to last season.
What’s different about this year’s Patriots is that Bill Belichick spent aggressively in free agency, upgrading the skill position and pass-catching talent in a big way. With a full offseason to prepare and far better players around him, it’s a much more ideal environment for Newton. He had to learn New England’s complex system on the fly last year.
Newton also contracted COVID-19 in his maiden season with the Pats and wasn’t the same player after that. Nevertheless, his margin for error is very slim, as the Patriots faithful will be clamoring for Jones at the first hint of Newton’s struggles.
Justin Fields, Chicago Bears
Andy Dalton is the alleged QB1 for the Chicago Bears, but let’s be honest: When the franchise traded up from 20th to 11th to land Ohio State’s Justin Fields, it was an obvious pivot from that strategy.
Fields is the most physically gifted passer this historic organization has ever had. With an absolute rocket for a right arm and legitimate 4.4-second speed in the 40-yard dash, Fields is the epitome of a dual threat.
Bearing witness to such pedestrian play for decades at the most important position in sports, fans in the Windy City are begging for mere above-average competence. Fields has the chance to be transcendent, and in the likely event Aaron Rodgers is traded from the Green Bay Packers, should have the Bears as prohibitive favorites in the NFC North in the years to come.
Because fans aren’t going to want to see Dalton or Nick Foles at all this season, there’s pressure right away on Fields to be the long-awaited savior. If he can’t beat out Dalton or Foles, Fields will either be put on blast, or serious scrutiny will be directed toward head coach Matt Nagy and GM Ryan Pace, whose jobs are on the line.
It’s a tricky situation to navigate in Chicago, but based on how well he’s handled immeasurable hype as a rival to Trevor Lawrence since high school, it seems Fields is cut out to shoulder the Bears’ burden.
Sam Darnold, Carolina Panthers
Sam Darnold must’ve been green with envy after seeing the New York Jets go heavy on offense after drafting his replacement in Zach Wilson No. 2 overall. Not a huge deal, though, because Darnold has a fresh start with the Panthers.
But with that new lease on NFL life comes heightened expectations. After Carolina selected cornerback Jaycee Horn with the eighth pick, its next four draft choices were on offense to help Darnold as the 2021 starter. Notably, LSU wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. came aboard in Round 2 to reunite with Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady.
Marshall is going to be so far ahead of the curve in terms of picking up Carolina’s playbook. Christian McCaffrey is the top all-around back in the NFL. Carolina already has two studs in the receiving corps in DJ Moore and Robby Anderson, with the latter being Darnold’s former Jets teammate.
Between all those skill players and the drafting of tailback Chuba Hubbard, tight end Tommy Tremble and potential starting left tackle Brady Christensen, everything is set up for Darnold to thrive. The question is, can he?
Darnold must cut down on ill-advised risks and improve his decision-making to pan out in Charlotte. With this cast of playmakers, he doesn’t have to play hero ball. If they don’t post a winning record, the Panthers won’t hesitate to move off Darnold in 2022.