As the 2021 NFL Draft closes in, there are certain teams more under the microscope than others, and facing the most pressure to emerge with a strong rookie class.
Whether it’s general managers or coaches on the hot seat, a recently shaky track record of picks or a lackluster free agency period, any number of factors could be at play that’s putting extra heat on several notable front offices.
Here’s a look at the five teams who most desperately need to nail the NFL Draft this year.
San Francisco 49ers
Believe it or not, the two teams ahead of San Francisco aren’t under more heat than the 49ers. Jacksonville has a no-brainer No. 1 pick in Trevor Lawrence, and the New York Jets seem locked in on Zach Wilson, whose arm talent has drawn comparisons to Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers. Whatever happens for the rest of Jaguars and Jets drafts — and both teams have an additional first-round selection — they should be set at the most important position.
But because of San Francisco’s reported serious interest in Mac Jones, no team will be under more scrutiny if the Alabama QB is the 49ers’ choice at third overall. Jones is apparently “locked in” as the eventual successor to Jimmy Garoppolo, which is rather baffling.
Higher-upside signal-callers like Justin Fields and Trey Lance are expected to be available. If Shanahan has any reservations about their ability to play right away, who cares? That’s why Jimmy G is there to be a stopgap starter who can help the 49ers win this coming year.
Jones feels like he has a similar ceiling to someone like Kirk Cousins or Derek Carr. There’s nothing wrong with that per say, because both are serviceable, even arguably high-end starters who’d fare better if the team around them had more talent. That said, they’re not at all in the mold of someone like Lawrence, Mahomes or Rodgers.
Injuries plagued San Francisco last season, and while Garoppolo will get his shot to be the starter, if the 49ers whiff at third overall after trading two future first-rounders, they won’t be set up well for the future in an NFC West that features stud QBs in Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray and Matthew Stafford.
The Bengals were picking atop the 2020 draft for a reason, and their inability to protect No. 1 overall pick QB Joe Burrow resulted in a major knee injury. According to Pro Football Focus, Cincinnati had the third-worst offensive line in all of football last season.
GM Duke Tobin has a difficult decision with the fifth overall pick. A premium offensive lineman like Penei Sewell or Rashawn Slater will be on the board. So, too, will Burrow’s former LSU no. 1 receiver Ja’Marr Chase and quite possibly Florida tight end Kyle Pitts, who’d provide a whole new dimension to the Bengals’ passing attack.
It matters less what Cincinnati does in the first round than what transpires thereafter. It’s almost impossible to go wrong with any of the aforementioned four prospects. In a perfect world, Tobin would just swing for the fences and get three of them.
Alas, that won’t happen. The ultra-conservative Bengals have serious holes on their front seven, could use at least one, if not two, new starters on their offensive line and would be wise to invest in another viable defensive back, too.
With all those areas of weakness, Cincinnati will need to absolutely crush the draft to adequately address even some of those holes well enough to compete in 2021.
The thing is, if this draft doesn’t bear a lot of immediate fruit, BOOM! There goes Year 2 of Burrow’s cheap rookie contract, and depending how bad the Bengals’ record is, head coach Zac Taylor may be shown the door.
Good luck with all that, Cincinnati.
It behooves new GM George Paton to get off to a strong start. The question is, will he be on the same page with the coach he inherited in Vic Fangio when it comes to personnel, and how the Broncos should approach the draft?
Much of the speculation around what Denver will do, especially in the first round, centers on whether a quarterback will be taken ninth overall. The Broncos may miss out on all the top prospects if they don’t trade up, but sacrificing assets with Drew Lock already in tow would be a costly move that isn’t necessarily geared toward winning right now.
The AFC West is extremely tough, and few coaches seem to be on a hotter seat than Fangio ahead of 2021. How Denver decides to build the roster for this year will go a long way in determining whether there’s a commitment to Fangio and Lock, or if Paton has more of a long-term vision in mind.
Lock doesn’t exactly look like franchise quarterback material so far, especially when stacked up against division rivals Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert. Paton is in a difficult spot already, and may find a happy medium by upgrading the offensive line and drafting someone like Davis Mills, Kellen Mond or Kyle Trask on Day 2 to compete with Lock for the starting job.
Las Vegas Raiders
The Khalil Mack trade gave the Raiders a boatload of draft picks to work with. Unfortunately, GM Mike Mayock and alleged final shot-caller Jon Gruden haven’t done much with them.
It’s not like Gruden’s seat is liable to be hot any time soon. He began his second stint with the Raiders on a 10-year contract, and there’s a strong sense of loyalty there. Mayock will be the fall guy if there’s any shakeup after this next season.
But maybe it’d be best for Gruden to take a hands-off approach and let Mayock and the personnel department have more autonomy. Despite heavy investments in the defense, very few of Las Vegas’ picks to bolster that unit have panned out. Clelin Ferrell, Johnathan Abram, Trayvon Mullen, Damon Arnette are chief among those picks. None of them look very good thus far, though it’s still early.
If the Raiders can’t drastically improve their defense through the draft, they’re in real danger of having to blow up the roster and start over again across the board.
Ryan Pace has really bungled the Bears’ quarterback situation. Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles didn’t pan out. Whatever he’s done to build the rest of the roster has now been rendered irrelevant. The problem? Head coach Matt Nagy did well enough with what he had to lead Chicago to the playoffs in 2020, leaving the team well back in the draft order.
It’d take a monster move for Pace to go up from 20th overall in the first round and chase, potentially, the draft’s fourth or fifth QB prospect. What he should focus on is getting insurance at the receiver position, bolstering the trenches on both sides of the ball and finding difference-makers on the first two days.
Well, at least in under ideal circumstances, that’s what Pace would do. The situation is anything but ideal in the Windy City, and the fan base is starved for a consistent winner at the most important position. Maybe Pace gets lucky and hits on a QB in the second or third round and finds an instant, superior option to Andy Dalton.
The more likely scenario sees Chicago get desperate, and Pace making a drastic move up the draft board in an effort to save his job. Hey, at least he’d go down swinging, and the Bears would have a better quarterback outlook in that scenario than they do right now.
Whatever Pace decides to do, it’s going to be a playoffs-or-bust 2021 season for him and Nagy. Expect Chicago to go in a different direction at both key leadership posts if that objective isn’t achieved.