Michael Thomas Will Return to the Reception King in 2021

After a frustrating 2020 campaign, MT is poised to take back the receptions throne this season.

by Michael Obermuller

In 2020, Stefon Diggs led the NFL in receptions with 127 during his inaugural season in Buffalo. It was a legendary campaign for Bills’ new WR1, but he’s still more of a newcomer when it comes to this honor. The recent king of catches has been New Orleans Saints star Michael Thomas, and he’s the only player to actually top Diggs’ 2020 output.

It was a rough 2020 for MT, starting with a high ankle sprain in Week 1. Then, after an altercation on the practice field before his expected Week 5 return, Thomas was benched and fined for breaking team rules. Things got worse from there, as the wide-out did not end up returning until Week 9 (injury flare ups). After six games on the field, Thomas finished the year off it again, joining the injured reserve before Week 15.

“Can’t Guard Mike” was the receptions leader in both 2018 and ’19, and there’s no reason to believe that he cannot take back this title again in 2021. Here’s why.

1. Career Consistency

The New Orleans Saints WR1 caught 149 passes two seasons ago, totaling 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns through the air. The next closest pass-catcher was running back Christian McCaffrey, with 116 receptions. This was not just a career season by MT, it was a campaign that will go down in the NFL history books as one of the greatest of all-time. Thomas was never a one-hit wonder either. He also led the NFL in receptions in 2018 (125), and finished third in 2017 (104).

In fact, since his rookie season in 2016, MT has only caught less than 100 passes twice; 92 as a rookie (which is actually pretty ridiculous) and 40 during his injury-ruined 2020 campaign. This is one of the most consistent players in all of football. Not wide receivers, players. No wide-out has been as steady as Thomas in terms of receptions though, and that includes rivals like DeAndre Hopkins and Davante Adams. He is currently averaging 7.3 receptions per game throughout his career, with a 77.6 percent catch rate.

2. Stats Without Brees

One of the arguments against Thomas has always been that he plays with future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees, but this is an unfair critique of MT’s game. Whenever Brees has missed time in recent years, his top wide receiver has performed just as impressively without him, if not more so.

The stats above are from three games with Teddy Bridgewater in 2019. Thomas averaged 8.3 catches per game during that span, which is actually higher than that 7.3 career average. Brees also went down in 2020, and MT produced yet again (and with lingering injuries and Taysom Hill at QB this time). During four games with Hill throwing the ball, Thomas caught 30 passes for 343 yards, which averaged out to 7.5 receptions per game.

Clearly, MT doesn’t care who’s throwing him the football, so why would it matter if Jameis Winston (or Hill again) is his quarterback in 2021? If anything, Winston is known as a gunslinger who actually led the NFL in passing yardage in 2019. The Saints may also play from behind more with Jameis or Taysom at QB, which generally means more passing attempts and wide receiver targets. Thomas will be just fine without Brees, after all his nickname is Can’t Guard Mike for a reason.

3. Sean Payton

NOLA general manager Mickey Loomis extended Thomas in 2019. The five year deal was worth a record-breaking $96 million-plus. That is an expensive weapon, and don’t think for a second that head coach Sean Payton won’t milk that weapon for every penny so long as he’s wearing a Saints jersey. We are talking about one of the most creative offensive minds the game has ever seen, with one of the best pure route runners of the NFL today.

Whichever route New Orleans goes at quarterback, Thomas will be a major part of it. Outside of 2020, MT has averaged 150.5 targets per season in Payton’s offense, and the HC has already proven he can win without Brees just like the wide-out has proven he can put up numbers without his former QB. This is not meant to disparage Brees, but instead credit a couple of the key influencers on his career. The Saints have also lost WR2 Emmanuel Sanders and TE Jared Cook in free agency, meaning Payton may have to rely on his WR1 more than usual this season.

Two things are for certain; the Saints offense will score in 2021, and Michael Thomas will catch many passes so long as he’s on the field. He may even reclaim his crown.

the Chicago Bears are top NFC Super Bowl Sleepers in 2021

In the blink of an eye, the Chicago Bears have flipped their chances in 2021, and not just because they landed QB Justin Fields.

A few short months ago I was writing articles about general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy’s impending firings, so I understand as well as anyone that a Chicago Bears Super Bowl run sounds a bit farfetched right now, but NFL franchises often flip the script overnight in this league and it can all start with one move.

Now I know I just finished saying that Chicago’s chances aren’t reliant on Fields’ immediate stardom, and they’re not, but his potential as a generational quarterback talent is certainly the conductor of the hype train.

Truth is, I have been against this regime for quite some time. The trade up for the unproven Mitchell Trubisky, the horrid playcalling by Nagy that seemed to stunt the growth of not only Trubisky but running back David Montgomery, the indecision at QB and the miserable ideas to bring in Nick Foles and Andy Dalton as “saviors” when every NFL fan under the sun knows that these veterans are no more than underwhelming game managers. Yes, I know Foles won a Super Bowl, but that Philadelphia Eagles roster was built like a tank and this Bears one is not.

It’s been a tough road for Bears fans ever since Vic Fangio’s defense (led by Khalil Mack) shattered expectations in 2018. Not tough like 1-15 record tough, but more “what could have been” tough. The knowledge that your putrid offense is holding back and possibly wasting a championship caliber defense is difficult to stomach (especially when you traded a ton of your future draft capital for the catalyst of that unit in Mack).

This defense has a window, and that window is closing fast. Mack is under contract till 2025, but his cap hit is exorbitant after 2021 (unless Chicago takes the potential out next offseason at a $24 million dollar hit). That 2018 group has already seen losses like Fangio (DC), Kyle Fuller (CB1), Adrian Amos (S), Prince Amukamara (CB2, age caught up fast here), Bryce Callahan (slot), Leonard Floyd (edge) and more. Mack’s departure could be the final nail in the coffin, sealing that window for good.

The emergence of a unique prospect like Fields at QB gives Chicago a shot in 2021, but there are a few other factors that have a Jets fan like me all aboard the Bears bandwagon.

1. NFC in Decline

With Drew Brees retiring, the NFC East in total dissarray, Aaron Rodgers wanting out of Green Bay, and the NFC West all beating up on eachother, there aren’t many Super Bowl favorites in the NFC outside of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

In what has become a conference shift in strength, we now see a lot of the bright young quarterbacks in the AFC (Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Baker Mayfield and Deshaun Watson should he return to Houston) while the NFC is left wanting.

An Aaron Rodgers trade to a franchise like the Denver Broncos could totally blow the doors off this conversation. Not only that, it would leave a gaping hole in the NFC North with the Detroit Lions rebuilding and the Minnesota Vikings as a playoff bubble team at best. The Green Bay Packers are one of the NFC’s (and Bears’) strongest competitors left, and if there’s any truth to the rumors, that Cheesehead locomotive may have already flown off the tracks.

2. Phenomenal ’21 Draft

We all know about the Justin Fields selection, but the Bears 2021 draft went much further than that. Pace was drafting like his job was on the line and he answered the bell with some really solid picks.

Just after trading up to get the franchise QB, Pace was able to nab the left tackle to pair with him for years to come, in Teven Jenkins. Many thought the Oklahoma State Cowboys 6’6″ tackle would go in the first, but he slipped to day two and the Bears did not hesitate. Later on he bulked the offensive line again, drafting upside guard prospect Larry Borom out of Missouri.

One trouble area may be cornerback with Fuller gone, but sixth rounder Thomas Graham Jr. had sleeper grades from many analysts out of Oregon. The former Duck could help fill the void, but Chicago will also need something from 2020 second rounder Jaylon Johnson (just turned 22 in April), and free agent flier Desmond Trufant.

3. Key Vets Returning After 2020 Season

I wasn’t particularly high on the 2020 Bears defense, in part because I knew the offense would struggle, but also because some instrumental pieces were missing.

One major cog to account for was nose tackle Eddie Goldman, a 2020 COVID opt-out. Goldman had 40-plus tackles in 2017 and ’18 as one of the premier run-stuffers in the game. 2021 is only his age-27 season, so Chicago will count on the DT to return with avengeance after a year on the pine.

Alongside Akiem Hicks, Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn, this unit is still very formidable up front. The linebacker core also flaunts Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan in the middle, with free safety Eddie Jackson over the top. LB Christian Jones joins this crew, and they’ll also look to re-sign or replace strong safety Tash Gipson before preseason begins. Gipson started all 16 games with the Bears a season ago, and is currently an unrestricted free agent.

Let’s not forget the offensive side of the ball, as Pace held onto wide receiver Allen Robinson for dear life. New faces like Damien Williams, Damiere Byrd, Dazz Newsome, Khalil Herbert and Marquise Goodwin add some versatility to a group that needs to get more creative behind Fields and Nagy.

This defense may be slightly diminished from 2018, but it’s still pretty darn good, and this offense could theoretically become much more dynamic with a quarterback like Fields at the helm. Am I slightly worried that Nagy may just be a terrible coach? Absolutely. This is a make or break season for the HC though, so I expect him to pull out all the stops.

At the very least, I see the Bears as a playoff team again in 2021, but at +4800 odds right now on FanDuel Sportsbook, Chicago may just be the biggest sleeper pick to win Super Bowl LVI.

Post-NFL Draft Super Bowl Dark Horses in AFC and NFC

Which surprise franchises have a legit shot at winning the Super Bowl?

by Michael Obermuller

The NFL Draft came and went like a hurricane once again, with winners and losers grades flying in from every analyst in America. According to aggregate rankings, some of this year’s draft champions were teams like the Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Chargers, New York Jets, and Miami Dolphins. Do any of these franchises actually have a shot at the Super Bowl though?

The short answer is yes. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers flipped the script in a single offseason, going from 7-9 to parade yachting through Tampa’s harbor. I know they signed the greatest quarterback the game has ever seen, but we’ve seen the NFL pull championship 180’s more often than any other sports league, and we could definitely see another dark horse Lombardi winner in February of 2022.

Based on both the NFL Draft and NFL Free Agency, here are four teams that could make the jump to SB Champs in what is now less than one calendar year away.

Cleveland Browns

Now I know this one seems like a cop-out, because the Browns were pretty darn good last season, but they’re still not even favorites to win their division according to most oddsmakers right now. On FanDuel Sportsbook, Cleveland has +1700 odds to win the big game, behind the AFC North rival Baltimore Ravens at +1400. To me, the Browns might have had the top draft in football, and that’s after having a solid free agency and an 11-5 record in 2020.

General manager Andrew Berry made a splash just before the draft when he signed edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney. He had already bolstered the secondary in March, bringing in safety John Johnson III and corner Troy Hill (both formerly of the Los Angeles Rams), not to mention DT Malik Jackson and LB Anthony Walker elsewhere on the defense. This unit held Cleveland back in 2020, with a fluid consistency on the other side of the ball. After the signings they made, and the sleeper potential of draft picks like CB Greg Newsome II and LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (who never should have fallen out of the first round), it might be their strength just one year later.

The Brownies have been improving ever since Baker Mayfield took over at quarterback, and now this team is built to win it all. Top offensive line, ferocious pass rush, youthful secondary, blistering run game… oh, and star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. set to return from injury. Cleveland somehow faces a third-place schedule with a first-place roster, and I expect them to dominate.

Denver Broncos

A lot of people had the Denver Broncos as dark horses in 2020, but I promise you that I was not one of them. Even before the Courtland Sutton and Von Miller injuries (both healthy again), I thought Denver was a few missing pieces away from contention, but they may have solved a large chunk of that puzzle this offseason. They rank 11th on the aggregate draft boards, but I actually thought they deserved a higher grade. GM George Paton did a ton of things I liked this Spring, and it all started in the secondary with signings Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby. It continued in the draft.

The tweet above doesn’t even include seventh round pick Kary Vincent Jr., who I thought was one of the top value picks of the entire draft. The LSU cornerback’s rank seemed to fall after he opted out in 2020, but he was very productive the season before when the Tigers won the College Football Playoff. The Broncos needed a deep secondary that could keep up with Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, and this one can. Factor in Miller and Bradley Chubb finally pairing together off the edge, and this defense could have championship pedigree under Vic Fangio. The offense should be no slouch either, with a plethora of young weapons and the one tricky question being at quarterback (Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater set to compete).

P.S. Denver is currently the front-runner to trade for Aaron Rodgers… and that would only boost their +2400 Super Bowl odds.

Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys may not have had the best draft grades in their entirety, but I thought they made a couple of very key selections early on, like middle linebacker Micah Parsons. After trading back for a couple of extra picks, the Boys drafted the top LB in the draft. Parsons is not only talented, he’s a leader with the ceiling of a Bobby Wagner type captain. They also filled their cornerback need in the second round (after missing out on Jaycee Horn and Patrick Surtain II), drafting Kelvin Joseph out of Kentucky (a solid prospect with elite speed), and UCLA defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa is another intriguing prospect nabbed in the third.

Jerry Jones and Dallas went defense, defense, and more defense this draft after dishing out $240 million to Dak Prescott this offseason, and I loved the commitment here by Jones and company. This offense was spectacular before Prescott’s injury, averaging 32.6 points per game (PPG) during the five games he started. Dak plus a healthy offensive line should put the Cowboys back near the top of the league in efficiency, but this defense was in desperate need of reinforcements, allowing the fifth most PPG last season. When you consider how many injuries the franchise suffered in 2020, plus the improvements they’ve made this Spring, they are an easy 2021 dark horse in my eyes at +2800 odds.

Chicago Bears

I’m surprising myself with this one as I’ve been one of the biggest Matt Nagy-Ryan Pace haters the past few seasons, and most Bears fans would probably agree with me after the way this franchise has been run. That could all change with one draft decision, however, the trade-up for dual-threat quarterback Justin Fields. Now you are either a Fields believer or you aren’t — and I am — ranking the Ohio State product as my QB1 in 2021 (yes, that’s including Trevor Lawrence). As expected, NFL GM’s disagreed with us Fields supporters drafting Lawrence, Zach Wilson, and Trey Lance over him. To be fair, I like Wilson and Lawrence and think both could be successful, Lance I’m less sure about it.

Having the game-ready Fields as the Chicago QB1 instead of Andy Dalton makes all the difference in the world when evaluating this roster’s chances, but it wasn’t just the addition of Fields that changed my entire perspective on the Bears. Pace was drafting like his life depended on it (only because it totally did), and I have to admit that he struck gold under pressure. Left tackle Teven Jenkins was a steal in the second (a first round talent that will start after the release of Charles Leno). Then guard prospect Larry Borom and cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. were also some picks with some major potential to be had.

This once-great defense still flaunts playmakers like Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith, Robert Quinn and Eddie Jackson. The defensive line should also get back 2020 opt-out Eddie Goldman alongside Akiem Hicks. So long as they get something out of corners Desmond Trufant and Jaylon Johnson, this is a formidable unit again in 2021. On the offensive side, the Bears managed to hold onto Allen Robinson, while adding interesting weapons like Damien Williams, Damiere Byrd and Marquise Goodwin for Fields to get the ball to. There are still problems to solve, but Chicago took a major leap in the Super Bowl odds after draft night in my opinion, yet they still sit at +4800 odds on FanDuel. I may just have to take that bet.

Landing Spots for All 5 of the Top QB Prospects

Who will Lawrence, Wilson, Fields, Lance and Jones play for in 2021?

by Michael Obermuller

The lead-up to the NFL Draft is a sports process like no other. The speculation, the intrigue, the misinformation and strategy used by different franchises and general managers. Considering the diverse crop of quarterback talent available in 2021, this offseason has been as wild as ever. I mean, just look at this curveball from Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer a few days before draft night.

Trevor Lawrence has been the consensus number one pick for what feels like years, and Jags owner Shad Khan has seemed pretty intent on marketing the rebirth of the franchise around the Clemson star, so why then is Meyer still choosing between three players at No. 1 overall?

It could just be due diligence from a first year NFL head coach, or maybe Lawrence to Jacksonville isn’t as much of a lock as most people thought. After all, there is certainly no reason to play mind-games with opposing GM’s when you’re the one picking first. Yet here we are left with this mysterious quote.

Don’t you worry though, I’ve seen through all the GM mumbo jumbo of the past few months and I’m confident in saying that I have figured out where each quarterback will end up — I think. Either way, I’ll give it a whirl, starting with the aforementioned Jaguars.

1. Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence (No. 1)

I know, after all that in the introduction, I’m still predicting T-Law to DUVAL? That’s right, because if Meyer wants to pull off the most shocking move in recent draft memory, he can do it without my blessing. There are a couple important things to note here though. One, Meyer is not considering Mac Jones or Trey Lance in the top spot. Could this have an influence on other franchises behind him? Urban was a premier college recruiter for a long time after all. Or perhaps he has yet to gain the respect of his fellow NFL peers, and his opinion means very little to them. Two, the former Ohio State HC and program director is likely passing on his former QB, Justin Fields. Meyer actually ranked the quarterbacks in a preseason show in June of 2020, with Lawrence first in his ranks and Fields second. His reasoning at the time was this;

[Lawrence] played one more year. That was it. The one thing I’ll say about Justin Fields because I’m very close to the situation, any concerns about him being a throwing quarterback are gone now. He’s developed, he’s outstanding.

– Urban Meyer, FOX College Football

The Jags could certainly throw a wrench in the entire draft by taking either Zach Wilson or Fields, which would probably send Lawrence to New York at No. 2, but it’s highly unlikely and I’m not buying it. Size, accuracy, speed, raw ability, intelligence, drive — Lawrence is the consensus number one for a reason. I’m not saying that he’s guaranteed to be the most successful NFL product, he’s not, but he is the safe bet for Jacksonville. For the sake of all our sanities, let’s move on and assume this sticks.

2. New York Jets: Zach Wilson (No. 2)

GM Joe Douglas and the New York Jets have traded 2018 first round pick Sam Darnold, so yes they are 100 percent taking a quarterback at two (for those who haven’t been paying attention). They have been linked to the BYU Cougars signal-caller more and more since Week 17, and I personally don’t see this changing on Thursday night. Wilson checks all the boxes for the Jets. He is an accurate passer and a competitive winner (albeit against lesser competition), known for his on-the-fly decision-making and pocket presence as well as an arm that throws just as far on the move as it does standing upright. Wilson has drawn recent comparisons to Patrick Mahomes for some of these intangible traits, but there’s a contingent of fans that still have doubts that scouts and GM’s are once again sleeping on in-your-face talent.

If Fields can translate his OSU skillset to the pros, it wouldn’t be the first time that the best and brightest NFL minds in the game are totally wrong. I mean he did run a 4.44 forty with a 70.2 completion percentage in 2020. For the record, as you’ll see throughout this article, Fields is my personal QB1 in this class, but that doesn’t mean he appeals to the teams picking in the top three.

3. San Francisco 49ers: Mac Jones (No. 3)

Is the infamous “smokescreen tactic” being utilized by Kyle Shanahan, John Lynch and the San Francisco 49ers? It’s quite possible, in fact Joe Douglas and the Jets could be using it too for all we know. If Fields truly is the quarterback with the most upside potential, it would make sense that every GM behind the Jaguars is trying to keep Meyer off their trail by talking up Wilson, Jones and Lance. At the same time, it seems even more likely that the NFL brass are once again scared off by an Ohio State product who has been labeled as a runner that struggles with his progressional reads. If Lawrence and Wilson do indeed go one-two, Fields should be the pick at three in my opinion, but he may not be according to reports.

There’s something fishy about this developing story, because Jones and Lance couldn’t be more different as prospects. I can’t deny that Mac Jones makes sense as Shanahan’s favorite option. The Niners HC has highlighted his on-field and NFL-ready intelligence, citing that the Alabama product is the win-now choice for a team that was in the Super Bowl two seasons ago. Jones is also the most similar to the quarterbacks that have flourished in Shanahan’s system in the past (Matt Ryan, Jimmy Garoppolo). Lance on the other hand makes me scratch my head. He’s from a small program that did not play against NFL-type talent, he’s not game-ready by most estimations, and he’s athletic rather than accurate or experienced. The fact that San Francisco is torn between these two, but not interested in the player that is pretty much the combination of both (Fields) is odd to say the least. For these reasons, I do think there’s a chance that the 49ers are under-selling Fields on purpose, but I’ll begrudgingly stick with Jones here anyway because of how well he fits the Shanahan mold.

4. TRADE — Denver Broncos: Trey Lance (No. 4)

Some have the Atlanta Falcons taking Lance at four, but in the end I think Arthur Smith’s new offense stands pat with the reliability of Matty Ice for a couple more seasons and trades down to reconstruct this roster from the inside out. That process may not start with an inexperienced QB, but it could begin with a haul of present and future draft picks. The next question is their trade partner, and although it has not been mentioned as much as a New England or Washington Football Team, the Denver Broncos are my under-the-radar candidate to make the jump from ninth to fourth. George Paton is taking over as GM for the Broncos, and he may try and make a splash in his first NFL Draft having the final say.

Everything about Paton’s thinking for his first draft screams Lance to me. It’s unexpected, out-of-the-box, and hopefully solves the problem that John Elway failed at for years in the same position — finding a franchise quarterback. Drew Lock has yet to display any qualities that separate him from the rest of the league, so I expect Paton to jump at the opportunity to bring in someone that can compete not only with Lock, but long-term with division rivals like Mahomes and Justin Herbert. Of course, the Broncos could also go with Fields here, but I’m sticking with my theme that this inexplicable stigma drops my QB1 down to QB5. I also like the fit for Lance in Denver. He played at North Dakota State, a similar climate, and his build and physicality as a runner bear some resemblance to Elway himself. Although I’m sure Broncos fans would also take his Josh Allen comp.

5. Detroit Lions: Justin Fields (No. 7)

So where oh where will Mr. Fields land? No he won’t fall out of the top 10, and I don’t expect the Cincinnati Bengals or Miami Dolphins to trade down either when they can grab the players they covet most (Kyle Pitts and Ja’Marr Chase by all reports) at five and six. That leaves the Detroit Lions, who could choose to trade down with the Patriots or the highest bidder, but honestly why would they? The Lions roster moves have signaled a total overhaul rebuild under the new regime of Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes, and they already have enough future draft capital from the Matthew Stafford trade where they don’t need more first round picks. They need a franchise quarterback. The wrinkle that you may point out is that they also received back Jared Goff and his contract in that same deal. Let’s be honest though, Goff is a placeholder in Detroit at best. At worst, he’s a cap casualty after 2022 (when cutting him would only cost $10 million). So why not accelerate the process if Justin Fields falls into your lap?

A player with as much potential as Fields could be a dream for Holmes at No. 7 in his first NFL Draft, and the young QB could even learn under Goff as a rookie before jumpining into the NFL head-first. He can truly do it all; whether it’s his accuracy as a passer or his agility as a runner, his escapability in the pocket or strong arm on the run, his competitiveness as an premier athlete or his confidence in primetime games. I’m not sure why every team is insistent on looking past Fields, and maybe it all is a smokescreen and he goes top three, but it just feels like the NFL scouts and decision-makers are talking themselves into passing on another superstar.

Pros and Cons For Panthers Drafting a QB in round one

After trading for Darnold, should Carolina double-down at QB?

by Michael Obermuller

Just one season into a three-year deal with Teddy Bridgewater, the Carolina Panthers have traded three draft picks (including a 2022 second rounder) for Sam Darnold. This time, Matt Rhule and Joe Brady finally got their quarterback of the future — or did they?

From multiple reports, the Panthers may not be totally “out” on drafting a QB just yet. General manager Scott Fitterer knows just how crucial it is to get this position right, and he’ll bring in as many players as it takes to do it. Darnold is the presumed starter based on potential as of now, but statistically, he was far less efficient than Bridgewater in 2020.

QB, Year (Team)Games StartedCompletion %Yards/GameTDsINTsRating
Sam Darnold, 2020 (Jets)1259.6%184.091172.7
Teddy Bridgewater, 2020 (Panthers)1569.1%248.9151192.1

Of course, Darnold was in Adam Gase’s system last season, a system that many blame for his failures, but maybe neither signal-caller deserves the job outright after a combined record of 6-21 a few months ago.

That’s Carolina’s mindset, but should they sacrifice even more draft capital and cap space on the position when they’ve already used so much? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of the Panthers drafting another QB in 2021.

Cases FOR Drafting a QB

  • The Player they Want Most is Available at No. 8 Overall
    • The word around the NFL is that Carolina wants Justin Fields, and their scouting would certainly back that up. Based on Albert Breer’s tweet above, the Panthers have shown heavy attendance at both of Fields’ two Pro Day events.
    • This would also make sense in concurrence with the Darnold trade. Supposedly, the Panthers previously tried to move up to either second or third overall, but the New York Jets decided not to budge from two, and the San Francisco 49ers beat them to the punch at three.
    • Reports have the Panthers less high on Mac Jones and Trey Lance, so the Darnold deal may have been insurance in the event that Fields is gone at eight. If a QB you LOVE is still on the board, you draft him, that’s Football 101 (especially if there’s no QB prospect you like in 2022).
  • Potential Ceiling
    • Every team evaluates players differently. For example, the New York Jets new braintrust clearly evaluated Darnold differently than the Carolina Panthers, being that they believe a rookie has a higher ceiling than the former third overall pick in 2018.
    • Having said that, Carolina would not have traded for Darnold unless they thought he had more potential than Bridgewater. They should only consider drafting a QB if they truly believe he has a higher potential than both Sam and Teddy.
    • The stats above could support this theory alone, but it’ll also have to do with age, dual-threat ability, scheme fit, mentality and different raw skills like arm strength. A prospect like Fields would beat out the two veterans in almost every measurable category.
  • Can Never Have Enough QBs
    • This is the “multiple darts” argument, but it’s unlikely that Carolina would ever enter the 2021 season with three quarterbacks.
    • They could draft a QB at eight, then trade Bridgewater to a team like the Denver Broncos, Chicago Bears, or New England Patriots.

Case AGAINST Drafting a QB

  • Top QBs Are Gone Early
    • I know, duh, but I’m including this to point out that Carolina CANNOT and SHOULD NOT trade up for a quarterback. They already gave up three picks to get Darnold, and this rebuilding franchise still needs help elsewhere if they plan on succeeding long-term.
    • Most draft analysts have all five of the main QB prospects being drafted in the top 10, and some have them going one through five (or at least top seven). This may be out of the Panthers hands.
  • Darnold’s Upside
    • Although Bridgewater could theoretically outplay Darnold, I don’t think there’s an argument to keep Teddy over a rookie past 2022, so let’s focus on Sam here.
    • The latest NYJ disappointment is just 24 years old in June, and he’s had an odd start to his career. Whether due to injury or his baffling bout with mono, Darnold has yet to play a full season. This could be looked at as a con for the USC product, or it could mean that the best is yet to come.
  • Change of Scenery Could “Unlock” Darnold
    • The Jets also didn’t do Darnold any favors, hiring Gase to mentor him after one failed campaign with Todd Bowles and Jeremy Bates. Panthers OC Joe Brady is considered to be one of the brightest young minds in the game, which could act as a catalyst for Sam.
    • A skill-position core of Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson and David Moore also trumps anything the Jets ever armed Darnold with.
    • Even offensive line play was better in Carolina last season. Darnold had a pressure percentage of 27.3 compared to Bridgewater’s 19.8. Sam was also hit the same amount of times (38) as Teddy in three less starts, and was actually hurried once more than him despite the difference in games.
  • Available Cap Space & Draft Capital vs. Roster Needs
    • As I just pointed out, the Jets never put a quality roster around Darnold, so would it be wise for Carolina to do the same, even if they start a rookie QB?
    • Bridgewater currently has a cap hit of $22.9 million-plus this year ($20 million dead cap hit), and Darnold has a hit of $4.77 million. They have ALREADY picked up Sam’s fifth year option for 2022, which is another $18.85 million, and assuming they cannot deal Teddy, they’ll incure a $5 million dead cap hit when they release him next offseason. An eighth overall pick would add about $3.75 million this year and $4.7 million in 2022.
    • After the Darnold trade, the Panthers have seven draft picks in 2021, and five picks in 2022.
    • Carolina’s defense ranked 18th in points allowed last season. Their offensive line also ranked 18th according to Pro Football Focus. They even lost playmakers like Curtis Samuel and Mike Davis this offseason. They cannot afford to spend $31 million-plus and four total draft picks (including a first and second) on three QBs in 2021 when this roster is far from perfect.

The Verdict

I think it’s pretty obvious that the Panthers should give Darnold the opportunity in 2021. For better or for worse, they made their bed when they pounced on the Jets trade proposal. The only way they draft a QB is if they find a second trade partner for Bridgewater, which is possible, but I doubt they get much back in this scenario (besides cap relief). With the defending Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers set up to be the powerhouse of the division for at least one more season, it’s probably smarter to add another layer of foundation around the quarterback position this draft. Then, after seeing what you have in Darnold, you can re-evaluate the situation in 2022.

5 Reasons the Yankees 6-11 Start Shouldn’t Scare You

Can the New York Yankees turn their season around?

by Michael Obermuller

As I write this article, the initial favorites to represent the American League in the World Series are 6-11. To make things worse, they are already 6.0 games back of the red-hot Boston Red Sox for first place in the AL East, their most bitter of rivals. Now, obviously, this season is only 17 games young, a minor amount when you consider that the length is back to a full 162 — but the way the Bronx Bombers are playing right now is still concerning when the ultimate goal is a championship.

Some fans might brush this off as a minor setback, and they may be right. While others are criticizing every move made by Brian Cashman and the New York Yankees brass to date. To me, both arguments have some merrit to them, but we all know for a certainty that if George Steinbrenner were still alive today, heads would have already rolled. Cashman’s message to the fanbase yesterday was a bit different.

He didn’t quite go as far as the Daily News headline, but the general manager did note that the Yanks are “not reactive,” and that they have “full confidence in [their] staff,” meaning manager Aaron Boone’s job is safe — for now. Cashman also reminded fans that slumps happen and that while the organization does take the blame for the on-field product, they also believe that the product will improve dramatically.

As surprising as this start has been, there were precursors of this nosedive. I’ve outlined five reasons for the Yankees first 15 games, and none of them occurred without warning.

5. Ownership and the Fallout of the Pandemic

As I mentioned above, George Steinbrenner never would have allowed a disaster like this without consequences. The legendary owner was known for his propensity for firings. His son, Hal Steinbrenner, is a much more patient man. Hal has also put the faith of the franchise in Cashman’s hands, which was never the case with his father. Like it or not, the fear of “the axe” can serve as proper motivation for both players and staff. Another difference between George and his sons has always been the willingness to spend on this roster above all else. The Yankees are still one of the MLB’s top spenders, but there was a noticeable shift this offseason after the pandemic rocked the franchise’s revenue stream (more on that below). According to an article by Biz Journals, no team lost more revenue in 2020 than the New York Yankees (a projected $437,867,856).

4. An Improved AL East

The American League East has been pretty top-heavy the past couple of seasons. Outside of the Tampa Bay Rays (who continue to own the Bombers by the way), the competition in the East has been weak ever since 2018. This season, it’s arguably stronger than ever. The Baltimore Orioles are still bottomfeeders, but even they have improved with rising prospects like John Means, Cedric Mullins and Ryan Mountcastle turning heads. The aforementioned Boston Red Sox seem to be back in the hunt with Alex Cora back at the helm. The Toronto Blue Jays have gone from a team destined to finish at least 10 games under .500 to a promising contender with their eyes on a title. The Jays were also much bigger spenders than NYY this offseason, making moves for George Springer, Kirby Yates (lost to injury, but still went after him in free agency), Marcus Semien, Robbie Ray and Steven Matz. And finally, fresh off another series sweep of the Yankees, the Rays are defending AL East and AL Pennant Champs. This is one of the more balanced divisions in baseball right now, and it’s shown over the first two and a half weeks.

3. An Annointed but Unproven Core

Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres, Luis Severino, Gary Sanchez, Miguel Andujar, Clint Frazier… the list goes on. Besides Torres, this core has grown together throughout the Yankee farm system for half a decade at least. Before winning anything though, it always felt like they were annointed as the next Pinstripes dynasty prematurely. To be fair, they have made it to the top of the AL East and lost heartbreaking AL Championship Series’, but they have yet to shine in those defining moments. Cashman has even added to this core many times; Gerrit Cole, Giancarlo Stanton, DJ LeMahieu, Aaron Hicks, Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, Gio Urshela and Luke Voit to name a few. Yet no matter what, this core seems to falter some way or another. They have struggled against dynamic pitching, been labeled as home-run hittters, played poor defense, gotten injured, and faltered in the clutch both on the mound and at the plate. Now this core is at its low point, and they must overcome all of the labels of their past. I definitely think this is still possible, but the Bombers have to get back to the basics.

2. Bargain Buys in the Rotation

One thing I really hated about the Yankees offseason was their moves in the rotation. I thought the lineup may have been strong enough to overcome these decisions, and maybe it will long-term, but Cashman’s band-aid acquisitions at starting pitcher have been disastrous so far. Mashahiro Tanaka and James Paxton were allowed to walk (obviously the Paxton decision seems smart after his season-ending injury), and while I don’t necessarily disagree with that, they were replaced with Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon. WHAT?! Kluber pitched seven games in 2019 and one in 2020 due to injury. To the eye of any average baseball observer, he not only seems past his prime, but totally washed up with a significant drop in velocity and a sharp increase in both walks and HR’s per nine innings. Taillon pitched seven games in 2019 and zero in 2020 — are we noticing a trend here? These fliers had about as good of a chance of hitting as me playing the Powerball, and they actually paid Kluber $11 million! The other savior we all heard about was Domingo German (which is ironic given his past). Fresh off suspension, German has a 9.00 ERA this season through his first two starts. Cashman has failed at building a championship caliber rotation for years and years, but this 2021 rotation may not even be playoff caliber. If things don’t improve quickly, the Pinstripes MUST turn the rotation over to younger arms like Deivi Garcia and Michael King (0.00 ERA in 2021) behind Cole.

1. The Arrogance of Brian Cashman

This ties back into some of the points above, especially two and three, but I do believe there has been an arrogance displayed by this general manager the past few seasons. First, Cashman fired Joe Girardi, a top-notch manager by all accounts. No matter what he may have said, he did this because he wanted total control of the NYY franchise. I’m not blaming Boone for this 15-game stretch, but I do believe Girardi was (and still is) the better manager, and it’s possible that the ex-Yankees skipper might have already won a World Series with this core had the change never occurred. Second, he has ignored the obvious detriments of the core he’s built rather than admit his mistakes. Whether we are talking about Judge’s injury-prone nature, the lack of starting pitching, Sanchez’s failures, the team’s inability to hit for contact, or even the trade for Stanton (which turned out to be a colossal bust), Cashman has never displayed a willingness to adapt or deviate from his plans. Instead he has insisted time and time again that this is a championship core, when it has yet to display that in the postseason.

So, is a 5-10 start the end of the world? No. Is the 2021 season still in reach? 100 percent. My question to Cashman at this moment would be this; even if this roster is better than its record, is it honestly good enough to win a championship? Right now the truth is it isn’t, and the Yankees long-time GM should have to answer for that.

Pros and Cons For The Browns to Trade OBJ Away

Should the Cleveland Browns trade Odell Beckham Jr.?

by Michael Obermuller

Odell Beckham Jr. has become one of the more polarizing players in the NFL, ever since being drafted by the New York Giants in 2014. After receiving a five-year, $95 million contract extension from Big Blue in 2018, OBJ forced his way out of New York with his off-the-field antics. The first franchise to step up in negotiations was the Cleveland Browns, who outbid the competition for the frustrated star wide receiver.

Pretty much since the day he touched down in Cleveland, trade talks have swirled around Odell and the Browns franchise once again. You see, Beckham didn’t choose the Browns, and he has not seemed truly happy in Cleveland since the day he arrived. Now Browns general manager Andrew Berry (who took over after the OBJ trade) has rumored that the franchise is open to dealing the playmaker for the right return.

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of trading OBJ, from the perspective of the Browns.

Cases FOR Trading OBJ

  • An Offer Cleveland Cannot Refuse
    • Another franchise could simply offer the Browns a similar haul that they once paid the Giants for OBJ, which would allow them to wash their hands of the situation entirely. Cleveland sent NYG Jabrill Peppers, a first (No. 17 overall), and a third in return for Beckham.
    • This seems unlikely based on Beckham’s contract and injury history, especially when you consider that the pandemic has crippled revenue and lowered the cap this season.
  • Financial Obligations vs. Contribution
    • Considering how little Beckham has actually played (more on that below), he’s costing Cleveland a fortune in both dollars and cap space.
    • OBJ has a $15.75 million cap hit in 2021, and a $15 million flat cap hit in 2022 and ’23. They made the postseason without the wide-out in 2020, so the argument could easily be made that this money could help this roster more if it were allocated elsewhere.
    • Beckham had over 1,000 yards receiving and four touchdowns for the Browns in 2019, but they missed the playoffs that season. He only totaled 319 yards and four touchdowns in 2020, when the Browns made the playoffs and defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in round one. OBJ did not factor in the second half of the year, or any of the postseason games.
  • Off-the-Field Noise
    • OBJ has become a locker room distraction in the past with the Giants. It’s not that he’ll break team rules or do anything illegal, but Beckham tends to run his mouth to the media and aggravate teammates.
    • The Giants ended up trading OBJ the offseason after he publicly criticized quarterback Eli Manning in an interview. Baker Mayfield is not exactly an MVP candidate either, so you never know when Beckham might get frustrated and make waves, which could negatively impact team chemistry.
  • Injury History
    • Speaking of the aforementioned injuries the star has suffered, Beckham has only played 15 or more games in three out of his first seven seasons in the league. He made 12 appearances twice, seven once, and four in 2017 with only two games started.
    • In terms of wear and tear, most of OBJ’s injuries have been to his lower half. Beckham had his first issue during preseason of 2014, when he suffered a grade three tear in his hamstring. He then pulled his hammy again in OTA’s the following season, has missed minor amounts of time with hip strains, suffered a grade three high-ankle sprain in preseason of 2017, fractured the same ankle later that year, missed games with a quad hematoma bruise in 2018, groin-related sports hernia in 2019 — and worst of all, an ACL tear in 2020.
    • Eventually, a body can only take so much and still perform as it once did. If the Browns get the right offer, it might be hard for the new regime not to sell high on this extensive injury history.

Cases AGAINST Trading OBJ

  • Trade Stock At Lowest
    • A GM never wants to trade a player at their lowest value, and OBJ could be at his lowest right now (recovering from a torn ACL in the midst of a financial crisis/pandemic).
    • They must at least recoup a first round pick for OBJ, and that’s still a good deal less than what they originally paid for him. If the return is too low, the smarter move might be to bet on Beckham’s recovery.
  • Browns Should Bet On Talent
    • Whether or not they get the right offer, many still believe that OBJ’s talent and attributes are too rare and dynamic to trade away. There aren’t too many receivers in the NFL that have Beckham’s mix of size, athleticism and speed, not to mention his hands and route running ability (two acquired skills).
    • Beckham has totaled 1,000-plus receiving yards in every season but two (2017 and 2020, due to injury), and 1,300-plus yards three out of the five 1,000 yard campaigns.
    • Odell had a yards after catch (YAC) per reception of 4.4 yards in 2019. For comparison, DeAndre Hopkins had a 4.58 YAC per reception in 2020, and only the top receiving weapons in football like Davante Adams and Travis Kelce topped 5.0 YAC per reception last season.
    • OBJ has had a consistent yards per catch that has hovered around his 14.0 career average every season, with a 15.1 yards per reception career-high in 2015.
  • Cleveland is Better with Beckham
    • One of the main reasons the Browns fell short against the Kansas City Chiefs in the postseason was a lack of receiving weapons (and more specifically, no clear No. 1 wide-out).
    • Rashard Higgins filled the role admirably in 2020 after Beckham’s injury, but this offense is so much more potent with OBJ in the lineup. Think about it; Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, Austin Hooper, Harrison Bryant/David Njoku, Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins AND Odell Beckham Jr. That arsenal would be a challenge for any opposing defense, and OBJ’s unique skillset throws a wrench into a coordinator’s game prep and strategy.
  • Wide Receiver is a Need Area for Cleveland
    • 2020 proved that the Browns are shallow at wide receiver, and they have yet to add to that WR room this offseason. At this point, there aren’t many WRs left in free agency (and none nearly as influential as OBJ).
    • Cleveland could try and replace Beckham through the draft, but it would also be hard to find a talent like him at their current draft position (unless they received a lower first rounder back in return — unlikely).
    • This roster is one of the more complete ones in football, but their biggest “need” might actually become wide receiver if they trade Beckham. It wouldn’t be wise to create a hole like that, without the proper solution in place to fix it.

The Verdict

Based on the current landscape of the NFL, this probably isn’t the best time to trade Odell. Unless a surprise bidder emerges, Cleveland would likely get short-changed at his current value. The smarter bet is to ride out OBJ for another year and hope that he has a bounce-back campaign. There should be much more of a market for the wide receiver in 2022, so long as Beckham stays healthy.

Dream Draft Targets for LA Rams

Which positions will the LA Rams bolster in the NFL Draft?

by Michael Obermuller

If you were wondering whether or not the Los Angeles Rams have a first round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft — they don’t. In fact, the franchise that has not had a first round selection since drafting Jared Goff in 2016 is not scheduled to have another until 2024.

Rams general manager Les Snead has preferred trading his first rounders for proven NFL talent, which has had mixed results over the years. His most recent decision to acquire quarterback Matthew Stafford actually reversed a previous deal he made to move up for Goff in 2016 (a mistake that would normally get a GM fired), but the Rams sustained success has lengthened the leash on Snead’s strange tenure.

Now that the Goff era has met its end in LA, we all finally get to see what Sean McVay can do with a top 15 quarterback talent. Here are the other major ins and outs that the Rams have made so far this offseason.

Leonard Floyd, EDGEMatthew Stafford, QBJared Goff, QBBlake Bortles, QB
DeSean Jackson, WRJohn Johnson, S
Devlin Hodges, QBSamson Ebukam, EDGE
Austin Blythe, C
Troy Hill, CB
Michael Brockers, DT
Gerald Everett, TE
Josh Reynolds, WR

As you can see, the cap-stretched Rams franchise has not had much flexibility in free agency after their recent trades for stars like Stafford and Jalen Ramsey. Necessary extensions for Aaron Donald, Robert Woods and others have not helped either. That all makes the NFL Draft crucial for Los Angeles, and they’ll have six picks to hit on from rounds two through seven (headliners are one second and two thirds).

With holes on the roster and not much money left to fill them, what areas should the Rams target with their top picks in 2021? Here are a few dream prospects for LAR in rounds two and three at positions of need.

3. Nick Bolton, ILB (Missouri)

Some analysts have Nick Bolton falling to the third or fourth round due to his 2020 season, while others rave about his consistency as a run-stopper and tackler at Missouri. Pro Football Focus has him as the second-highest graded linebacker behind Micah Parsons the past two seasons, so the potential is there so long as the pro-fit is right. I believe it could be in Los Angeles.

The Rams need an inside linebacker that does nothing but tackle, and Bolton totaled 198 of those during his Junior and Sophomore campaigns combined. During those two seasons, 16.5 of those stops were for a loss, with an added three sacks and three turnovers forced (two interceptions). Considering the Rams have been cycling through sub-par inside backers like Micah Kiser, Kenny Young and Troy Reeder for years now, Bolton could be an asset that immediately steps into a major role on this defense.

2. Creed Humphrey, C (Oklahoma)

With the departure of center Austin Blythe in free agency, Snead is left with a glaring problem at the heart of his offensive line. Brian Allen could be slated to start in 2021, but the former fourth round pick has yet to prove he can perform at the NFL level (58.6 PFF grade in 563 snaps in 2019). LAR needs to draft it’s center of the future, and that could be Oklahoma Sooner Creed Humphrey.

The 2020 Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year did not allow a sack on 401 passing plays. His intelligence and toughness help project him as a prospect that should go somewhere from rounds two to four, and his durability marks another trait for the Rams to rely on (compared to a talent like Landon Dickerson out of Alabama).

1. Aaron Robinson, CB (UCF)

Assuming no trades occur, the Rams first selection in 2021 will be at No. 57 overall, and they should really consider using this pick on a versatile defensive back like Aaron Robinson. The UCF product generally lined up in the slot in college, but scouts think he could play outside if need be. He’s a 5’11” press-corner that thrives at in your face man-to-man coverage, and his intensity should get him some looks in the second round (15 pass breakups the past two seasons).

Robinson would slot in behind Ramsey and Darious Williams in 2021, as the Rams nickel CB (replacing Troy Hill). His style is similar to the All-Pro CB1 in LA, and Ramsey could even assist in the development of the rookie as a mentor of sorts. It’s possible Robinson may not make it to No. 57, but some other similar options at interior corner or CB/S hybrid include names like Asante Samuel Jr., Jevon Holland and Shaun Wade.

Top Draft Targets for Eagles First Round Pick

After trading back, what are the Eagles planning in Round One?

By Michael Obermuller

Right in the middle of quarterback Zach Wilson’s Pro Day last Friday, the Miami Dolphins decided steal some headlines when they traded the No. 3 pick in the NFL Draft to the San Francisco 49ers. Of course, minutes later they made another deal, this time with the Philadelphia Eagles. When the dust settled, the new draft order looked like this:

Philadelphia now sits 12th in round one, as they were able to take advantage of Miami’s urge to trade down, but not too far down. The three-team deal also netted the Eagles an extra 2022 first rounder, something they desperately needed to rebuild their cap-stricken roster.

As for the three anticipated draft picks in question, the Eagles pick is without a doubt the hardest to figure, and not just because it’s further down in the order. The Niners have already stated their intention to draft a quarterback with the No. 3 pick. The Dolphins are expected to take one of the top wide receivers at No. 6, or possibly receiving tight end Kyle Pitts out of Florida. Philadelphia on the other hand, has the benefit of mystery on their side.

With many holes to fill, here are the top first round draft targets for Eagles general manager Howie Roseman.

3. Rashawn Slater, OT/G (Northwestern)

During their Super Bowl run, the Eagles offensive line was their greatest strength. Their rushing attacking plowed through the New England Patriots towards a championship, but it broke down after the 2017-18 season. Players like Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson are aging harshly, and injuries on the O-line have killed Philly in recent years. Rashawn Slater could be the perfect solution to this problem.

The former Northwestern Wildcat tackle is known for his versatility. Many draft scouts are projecting him as a guard in the NFL because of his size, or even a center if need be, but some still have him as a smaller tackle that relies on his athleticism and agility. The point is, Slater is intelligent enough to play pretty much anywhere on an offensive line, a major asset for a team like the Eagles that constantly has blockers miss time.

To start, Slater could help out on the left side, and possibly surpass failed first rounder Andre Dillard at left tackle, or fill-in Isaac Seumalo at left guard. Neither deserve a starting job in 2021.

2. Micah Parsons, LB (Penn State)

The top linebacker in the draft may not fall to No. 12, but if he does the Eagles should jump on the opportunity to grab him. Their linebacker core has been pretty terrible the last couple of seasons, mixing and matching journeymen like Nate Gerry, Alex Singleton, T.J. Edwards and more. No offense to any of these hard-workers who have fought their way up, but none have the talent of Micah Parsons.

The Penn State Nittany Lion is an explosive playmaker with a unique style about him. He’ll likely become a MIKE-backer in the NFL, but he has the speed and awareness to play any linebacking position. With Gerry gone, Philadelphia is projecting a starting LB crew of Edwards, Singleton and Genard Avery. Parsons has the ability to slot in above any of these players on the depth chart, accumulating 109 total tackles in 2019 (14 for a loss) with 5.0 sacks and four forced fumbles.

Honorable Mention: Jaycee Horn, CB (South Carolina)

Roseman could also stand to improve on his secondary. He traded for Darius Slay last offseason, and also signed safety Anthony Harris earlier this month, but this group is not complete. Assuming Patrick Surtain II is gone, Jaycee Horn may be the next best cornerback available (Caleb Farley and Greg Newsome II might also be options). The South Carolina alum is an aggressive press-coverage CB that is not afraid to mix things up with the opposing wide receiver. He would fit right in with Philly fans.

1. DeVonta Smith, WR (Alabama)

This could also be teammate Jaylen Waddle depending on what other teams do (or even Rashod Bateman if there’s a run on the position), but the Eagles still need a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver more than anything else. DeVonta Smith is a pure route runner with sticky hands, a dream draft pick for any NFL quarterback. As a younger passer throwing to a combination of Travis Fulgham, Jalen Reagor, Greg Ward Jr. and JJ Arcega-Whiteside — Jalen Hurts would be thrilled.

Alshon Jeffery was finally let go this free agency period, and DeSean Jackson has moved on as well. This wide receiving core has a lack of talent and experience. They could at least add one of those two in Smith or Waddle, the Alabama tandem that tore up college defenses. DeVonta had over 1,800 receiving yards in 2020, on 117 receptions. The speedy Waddle only played half the games, but totaled 591 yards off 28 catches.

Top Draft Targets for 49ers

Is Jimmy Garoppolo the long-term answer at quarterback?

By: Mike Obermuller

The San Francisco 49ers franchise has not had the best year and change since losing the Super Bowl in February of 2020. The injury bug came back during the 2020 season after its momentary respite (the Niners had been hit hard by injuries the previous two seasons before their NFC Championship run). Then, after going from first to worst in the NFC West with a 6-10 record, the capper was losing defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and a large chunk of their staff to the New York Jets. Passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur and offensive line coach John Benton were amongst the notable coaching losses.

NFL free agency has come with mixed results as well. Here are some of the more important ins and outs for the Niners this March:

Trent Williams, LTAlex Mack, CSolomon Thomas, DLRichard Sherman, CB
Jaquiski Tartt, SSamson Ebukam, OLBKendrick Bourne, WRTevin Coleman, RB
Jason Verrett, CBTavon Wilson, DBKerry Hyder, DEJerick McKinnon, RB
Jeff Wilson Jr., RBZach Kerr, DTAhkello Witherspoon, CBJordan Reed, TE
Emmanuel Moseley, CBRonald Blair, DENick Mullens, QB
D.J. Jones, DTBen Garland, C/G

After their most recent moves, San Francisco should have a little less than $18 million in cap space, and a total of nine draft picks to work with in filling what holes they have left. The biggest questions marks are undoubtedly still at quarterback, wide receiver, cornerback and guard.

As you can see, general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan have much more room to operate in the 2021 NFL Draft than they did a year ago. Here are a few players that the 49ers may target in the first couple rounds.

4. Wyatt Davis, G (Ohio State)

The fourth ranked offensive guard on WalterFootball, Wyatt Davis, excelled as a run blocker in college. The 6’4″ Buckeye helped pave the way for Trey Sermon and Master Teague III last season, but was less reliable in pass protection. This fits the Niners M.O. though. Shanahan loves to pound the ball on the ground, and assuming San Francisco keeps all their picks, they may be able to grab Davis with that third round selection.

If another team nabs Davis, a secondary option might be Notre Dame guard, Aaron Banks, another interior lineman that loves to creates gaps for his running backs.

3. Greg Newsome II, CB (Northwestern)

The Niners definitely need a cornerback to replace Richard Sherman. Rather than signing one, they should get younger at the position and build through the draft. That second rounder could definitely nab a quality corner like Greg Newsome II out of Northwestern. Newsome is 6’1″ 190 pounds, and he’s known for his intelligence and toughness as a shut-down corner in college. He had some injury issues during his time at Northwestern, but his 2020 stats were really impressive. Off 34 coverage targets, Newsome only allowed 12 catches and 93 yards through the air. Here’s the Wildcat in action.

2. DeVonta Smith, WR (Alabama)

San Francisco could also use another offensive weapon, especially if they stick with Jimmy Garroppolo at quarterback. Early mock drafts had wide receivers DeVonta Smith and Ja’Marr Chase going in the top five, but that ludricrous notion has since gone with the wind. Wide receivers rarely get drafted that high, even ones that are as skilled as Smith and Chase, and the fact is even franchises that want them may have the option to trade down and draft them anyway. One team that may be in the market for a wide-out is the Miami Dolphins, who currently sit third in the draft. The Philadelphia Eagles and Detroit Lions may also be in the mix at this position (number six and seven in the order), but both teams have other needs as well.

The 2020 Heisman Trophy winner has dropped below Chase in positional ranks due to his size (and some analysts also have Jaylen Waddle ahead of Smith). That means he could fall to 12 overall, which would make the perfect fit alongside Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel in this young wide receiver core. Smith is thought to be the best pure route runner in the draft, with incredible hands and effortless talent. That sounds like a Shanahan scheme fit that could drive opposing teams mad (considering they already have to guard excellent route runners like Aiyuk and Samuel).

1. Trey Lance, QB (North Dakota State)

The 49ers could also go all in on a quarterback in the first round. Some analysts have Trey Lance getting selected as high as number four overall now, as the typical quarterback hype gains more and more steam heading towards draft night. The North Dakota State QB has been compared to Josh Allen due to his physical attributes, but his lack of experience against top talent may be a concern for some NFL teams. San Francisco has also been tied to Justin Fields in mocks, but at number 12 it seems even less likely they get their hands on the Ohio State star.

Whether it’s Lance or Fields, the Niners would probably have to trade up to get their guy if they choose this route, costing themselves future draft capital. This doesn’t appear to be an issue for Lynch though. The GM has been very active in the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes this offseason, and Deshaun would cost just as much (or more) as it would take to move up in the first round.

So is Garoppolo the long-term answer in San Francisco? The 49ers brass definitely don’t seem to think so, begging the question, who does?

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