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NFL draft: Quarterbacks rule, Tide-al wave, opt-outs aren’t left out

The draft’s early stage features Alabama players and opt-outs aplenty.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, hosting the 2021 NFL draft in Cleveland, congratulates Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence on being the first overall pick.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, hosting the 2021 NFL draft in Cleveland, congratulates Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence on being the first overall pick. [ Tribune News Service ]
Published Apr. 30
Updated Apr. 30

The quarterback dominoes fell powerfully and predictably at the outset of the NFL draft Thursday night.

For the third time in NFL history, and first since 1999, the first three selections all were quarterbacks. The Jaguars consumed all 10 minutes of their allotted time on the draft’s clock to announce they were selecting Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence — a foregone conclusion for months.

The Jets followed by selecting Brigham Young’s Zach Wilson at No. 2. The 49ers — whose pick has been a percolating subject of speculation — provided the initial surprise of the night by selecting North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, who started 17 games at the Division I-AA level.

Fifteen picks into the night, five quarterbacks already had been taken. Chicago traded up nine spots with the Giants to take Ohio State’s Justin Fields, and New England selected Alabama’s Mac Jones at No. 15.

Immediate speculation centered on when — or if — Lance will unseat 49ers incumbent Jimmy Garoppolo in 2021. “I think a 20-year-old Trey Lance with 17 I-AA starts needs to sit,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said.

“I’m excited to learn from (Garoppolo), everything he’s done,” Lance told ESPN. “He’s a mentor for me, I’m super excited to get there and learn as much as I possibly can.”

In 1999, Kentucky’s Tim Couch (Browns) was the first overall pick, followed by Syracuse’s Donovan McNabb (Eagles) and Oregon’s Akili Smith (Bengals). In 1971, Stanford’s Jim Plunkett went first overall to the Patriots, followed by Ole Miss’ Archie Manning (Saints) and Santa Clara’s Dan Pastorini (Oilers.)

Opt-outs off the board early

Bengals first-round pick Ja'Marr Chase visits SiriusXM NFL Radio at the 2021 NFL Draft on Thursday.
Bengals first-round pick Ja'Marr Chase visits SiriusXM NFL Radio at the 2021 NFL Draft on Thursday. [ MATT SHIFFLER | Associated Press ]

The draft still bore that new-car smell when concern over the fate of prospects who opted out of the 2020 season began dissipating.

Seven selections into Thursday’s proceedings, two players who opted out of the entire 2020 season had been drafted. LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase was taken by the Bengals at No. 5, and the Lions chose Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell two picks later.

Shortly thereafter, the Cowboys took Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons at No. 12, followed by the Chargers taking Northwestern offensive tackle Rashawn Slater at No. 13.

Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley went to the Titans at No. 22. By evening’s end, Miami defensive end Gregory Rousseau also was off the board, taken by the Bills with the 30th pick.

So, too, was Washington edge rusher Joe Tryon, taken with the round’s 32nd and final pick by the Bucs.

“It was so hard being out,” Slater told ESPN moments after being selected. “But I used that as just motivation to keep going harder in my training and just being even more prepared for this moment. Now that I’ve finally seen my dream realized, I can’t believe it.”

In early April, Bucs general manager Jason Licht acknowledged the assessment of players who hadn’t appeared in a game since 2019 posed a unique challenge.

“A lot can change with the player between 2019 and now, especially if they haven’t been playing and they’ve just been training,” he said. “It just makes it a little bit more challenging, but once again, that’s what we’re dealing with. That’s what every team’s dealing with this year.”

Tide rolls on opening night

Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, right, was the first of five Crimson Tide players selected in the first 17 picks of Thursday night's NFL draft.
Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, right, was the first of five Crimson Tide players selected in the first 17 picks of Thursday night's NFL draft. [ TONY DEJAK | Associated Press ]

Based on how the evening played out, commissioner Roger Goodell might have been better served wearing a houndstooth blazer.

Reigning national champ Alabama had five players selected in the first 17 picks, and six in the first round overall. The half-dozen selections tied the 2004 Miami Hurricanes for most first-round selections from one school in a single year.

Leading the way was receiver Jaylen Waddle, taken by the Dolphins at No. 6. Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith was drafted by the Eagles four picks later.

Since 2011, seven Crimson Tide receivers have been taken in the first round.

Did Belichick find Brady’s heir?

Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, right, became the first quarterback drafted in the first round by New England since Bill Belichick was hired as coach in 2000.
Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, right, became the first quarterback drafted in the first round by New England since Bill Belichick was hired as coach in 2000. [ TONY DEJAK | Associated Press ]

Thirteen months after watching Tom Brady head south, Bill Belichick drafted a quarterback in the opening round for the first time in his two-decade tenure as Patriots coach.

Jones, who led Alabama to the national title in his lone season as the Crimson Tide’s starter, became the 12th quarterback taken during the Belichick era. Only one of the previous 11 (Garoppolo in 2014) was taken in the second round; the other 10 were selected in later rounds.

“Mac fits the style of offense that Bill has typically played the past 20 years in New England with (Brady),” ESPN analyst Louis Riddick said. “It’s the kind of quarterback that (Patriots offensive coordinator) Josh McDaniels is used to coaching from a physical-skills perspective. It’s going to work perfectly for them.”

Odds and ends

South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn, taken by the Panthers with the No. 8 overall selection, was the first defensive player taken in the NFL draft Thursday night.
South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn, taken by the Panthers with the No. 8 overall selection, was the first defensive player taken in the NFL draft Thursday night. [ SEAN RAYFORD | AP ]

No defensive player was drafted until South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn (Panthers) at No. 8. Never previously in the common draft era (dating to 1967) have the first seven picks been all offensive players, according to ESPN. ... Northwestern had two first-round picks in the same draft (Slater, cornerback Greg Newsome II to the Browns at No. 26) for the first time ever. ... The Steelers’ selection of Alabama running back Najee Harris at No. 24 snapped a streak of seven consecutive defensive picks in the first round by Pittsburgh, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

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