Will the NFL Score in 2021?
By Andrew Mentock and Nick Fouriezos
Can the NFL score big? The league is at a pivotal moment: its brand politicized, its audience shrunk by COVID and many of its stars retired. Football needs fresh stars to galvanize a new generation of sports fans — not just for the NFL, but for the networks spending $100 billion on games they hope will draw viewers to their new streaming efforts. The 2021 draft players are crucial to making good on that massive deal, not just for their on-field performance but also for their ability to lead on social justice and other critical issues facing America. In short, the NFL players selected tomorrow won’t just be tasked with winning games; they’ll also redefine what it means to be a modern athlete.
this draft could change everything
Streamers (and News Media) Have Billions at Stake. The NFL just signed a $100 billion TV package to take it through 2033. It includes new partners — Amazon hosting Thursday Night Football — as well as old ones in new places. CBS, which has spent 78 years as an NFL TV partner, for example, will now air AFC games as a flagship of its new subscription service, Paramount Plus. NBC, host of Sunday Night Football, will now stream over its platform, Peacock. The streamers are counting on the NFL to be a marquee draw on their lineup. If it’s not, major networks could find themselves billions in the red.
Butterfly Effect. These same sports media platforms also own much of America’s news media … and just as ESPN saw huge cuts when parent company Disney struggled during COVID, dips in NFL margins could lead to layoffs elsewhere for journalists.
Next Wave of Stars. For the investment to be worth it, this NFL draft class — particularly with five star quarterbacks expected to be selected in the first 10 picks — will have to become bona fide stars. Quarterbacks Drew Brees and Philip Rivers just retired, and Super Bowl stars Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady are nearing their horizon. Other than Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, few young quarterbacks have reached that level — and it doesn’t help that one of the best, Deshaun Watson, is under intense scrutiny after being accused by massage therapists of repeated sexual misconduct.
Golden Arm. The projected No. 1 pick, Trevor Lawrence, just signed an endorsement deal with Gatorade and has pledged $20,000 to Jacksonville, Florida, charities. With wavy blond hair, the Clemson quarterback looks like a California golden boy … and some analysts say he could command $50,000 per Instagram post.
Record Black Quarterbacks. Trey Lance and Justin Fields could both be selected in the first five picks, joining a small group of Black quarterbacks — 22 to be exact — ever to be drafted in the first round. Their raw talents are undeniable, but NFL scouts are nitpicking character traits and a lack of experience — critiques that are often unfairly levied against Black quarterbacks. Patrick Mahomes, Kyler Murray and Lamar Jackson are changing those perceptions, and the NFL set a record with 10 Black starting signal-callers on opening day last year. Adding more top Black talent could change American culture, giving the most visible athletes in the nation’s most visible sport a platform to talk personally about racism, police brutality and other social scourges.
Scathing Spotlight. Will Black quarterbacks be given a chance? After watching the league’s treatment of Colin Kaepernick, some may worry about being ostracized for being outspoken. Black coaches are hired less often and fired sooner than white ones. Top Black quarterbacks get less time to prove themselves: Jackson, the 2019 MVP, had to convince GMs in 2018 that they shouldn’t switch him to wide receiver despite winning the Heisman as a quarterback. After being picked No. 15 overall, Dwayne Haskins was given just 16 games to prove his worth. That reflects a recent trend for passers of all races, who are being given fewer seasons to work out their kinks. “Quarterbacks are getting kicked to the curb very early now. It’s not like how it used to be,” says ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.
who is feeling the heat?
‘The Shield’ Industry professionals used to say that “no one was bigger than the shield,” as the NFL logo is called. Now, following a precipitous drop in ratings last year, it risks becoming a punchline unless the product improves. NFL games are ad-ridden and long — averaging more than 3 hours and 12 minutes of broadcast time — while the actual action amounts to just 11 minutes. Some of the league’s most lucrative franchises are picking high — the New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots were all top-10 revenue generators in the most recent year of data — and so a lot of money is on the line, since drafting a bad quarterback can hamstring an organization for years.
The Coaches. Bill Belichick, winner of six Super Bowls, was once known as a draft whisperer. Now NFL execs are doubting the greatest NFL coach in modern history, with one anonymously saying the New England roster is “devoid of talent” due to his draft-day misses. Urban Meyer came out of retirement after having won three championships in college ball with Ohio State and Florida to take his first NFL coaching gig this year at Jacksonville. But unlike before, Meyer can’t rely on his top-level recruiting to give him an edge on the field — making this draft crucial as he fills a Jaguars roster full of holes. “I’m a quick learner,” Meyer recently said, noting how he’d spent much of the last month watching videos and filling his draft board.
Hot Seat in the Windy City? General managers typically make the draft picks, but coaches often get fired when those picks don’t perform. Still, Chicago GM Ryan Pace — who whiffed by picking Mitchell Trubisky at No. 2 in 2017 — is under the gun after overseeing just one winning season in his seven years.
The Scouting Circus. A cottage industry has sprung up around scouting NFL prospects, from gossipy recruiting sites to snake oil-style talking heads. But COVID closures dampened some of the theatrics, making it difficult to scout prospects in person or conduct in-person interviews. The center ring attraction, the scouting combine, was canceled, making for less reliable testing results. That means the real professionals will have to rely on older tricks: combing game tape and developing relationships with college coaches. “Bad scouts will get exposed,” says Bobby Merritt, a longtime NFL scout and current assistant general manager for the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos. Particularly the lazy ones, he adds, who “tried to watch only one or two games and then made their evaluation.” But if NFL teams see no difference in the quality of their scouting or performance of their players after this draft, they may question whether the scouting circus is anything more than smoke and mirrors.
prospects who could change the game
Bringing Asylum to Others. Kwity Paye was born in a refugee camp in Guinea after his mother and brother were displaced in the aftermath of the First Liberian Civil War. At 6 months old, his family resettled in Providence, Rhode Island, where his mom battled to learn English and worked two jobs to support them. Paye promised her that if she raised the funds for him to attend a prestigious football program at Bishop Hendricken High School, he would earn a college scholarship. He followed through, now graduating from the University of Michigan as an Afro American and African studies major … and a likely first-round draft pick at defensive end. Paye wants to use his experience to become a Colin Kaepernick-like advocate for fellow refugees and immigrants to America.
From Zero to Hero. So Dillon Radunz wasn’t exactly a zero-star prospect, but in the eyes of NFL scouts, a two-star recruit might as well be. Still, the North Dakota State star tackle has gone from a little-known defensive end prospect from Minnesota to a brawling 6-foot-4 left tackle with three FCS-level National Championships under his (very large) belt. Small-school players still get undervalued. But with three NDSU athletes possibly going in the first 50 picks, his selection could signal a sea change in evaluating small-school talent. Radunz would become the third offensive lineman drafted out of NSDU in the last eight years, and most likely its highest.
A Black Tom Brady? The most-winning quarterback in NFL history started out as a comically unathletic looking sixth-round pick out of Michigan. Jamie Newman doesn’t have the latter problem — the dual threat has speed to pair with his 6-foot-4 frame — but he is slated to be picked in the last two rounds of the NFL draft. Seen as a potential second-rounder a year ago, Newman transferred to Georgia but never played a down after sitting out the 2020 season during COVID. “Had he played at Georgia and played well, he could have been a second-round pick,” Kiper Jr. says, but his absence and being “obviously rusty at Senior Bowl practices” hurt his stock. It’s rare for starting-caliber players to fall this far. Newman’s true underdog story would go a long way in combating scouting’s biases toward Black quarterbacks, giving him a Rudy-like tale to trade on while leading a platform for resetting America, should he choose it.
Trading D-End for Tight End. There are two marquee NFL positions: quarterback on offense and defensive end on defense. But Florida’s Kyle Pitts is so transformative that he might revolutionize the tight end position and make it the favored pick over defensive end for recruits out of high school. The two positions often require similar athletic traits: height, speed, strength and agility. And while defensive ends traditionally have made more money, Pitts being a potential top-5 pick — the first tight end since 1972 — would show tight ends have star potential too. Plus, being on offense leads to more publicity than defense, meaning that tight ends may have smaller salaries but larger marketing potential. “The tight end position is right up there behind the quarterback position as among the most popular in the league right now,” says James Clawson, an NFLPA marketing representative.
draft-day money making evolves
Nothing Irrelevant About This Prop. Propositional bets — on a player or specific circumstance, rather than a team — used to only be popular overseas. But prop bets are now among the fastest-growing betting forms in America. And the NFL draft became a prop favorite after other sporting events were canceled during the pandemic. One FanDuel prop bet wagers whether the final pick (affectionately dubbed “Mr. Irrelevant” by fans) will play on offense, defense or special teams. Don’t cry for the actual Mr. Irrelevant, though: Ryan Succop, picked last in 2009, won a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay this year. Speaking of crying, you can lay a +550 bet on whether the 6-foot-6, golden-locked quarterback Trevor Lawrence will shed tears. You can also wager on whether the likely No. 1 pick will first hug his new wife (+125) or his mom (+180) — but don’t expect U.S. regulators to play referee if Lawrence hugs both at the same time, since offshore sportsbooks don’t fall under American jurisprudence.
More Than Simple Betting. As fantasy sports have evolved, so too have ways to wager. One innovation? Free gambling with real cash prizes. BallStreet Trading is a free-to-play “real-time prediction market” where app users compete against one another, buying and selling positions in certain sports-related outcomes. For the 2021 NFL draft, users can purchase shares with virtual currency on the over/under of 4.5 quarterbacks being selected in the first 15 picks. Another option: Will the San Francisco 49ers draft quarterbacks Mac Jones, Justin Fields, Trey Lance or somebody else with the third overall pick? “The NFL draft gives us a great opportunity to let fans compete against each other with every pick on the most interesting storylines of the night,” says Scott San Emeterio, the founder of BallStreet Trading. The best part? The top-performing players win real money without risking a dime of their own.
Profiting Off Virality. It’s not just casual fans who are looking to make money off of draft night. The 2020 virtual draft led to a number of NFL coaches and GMs going viral while drafting from their home digs, with Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury — already a sensation for resembling Ryan Gosling — seeing his resort-like mansion shake the web. Of course, where there’s a viral moment, there’s a cash grab. The Los Angeles Rams, division rivals to the Cardinals, have converted a Malibu beach house into their draft-day den for the 2021 NFL draft. But the Rams aren’t footing the bill for that expensive rental. No, they’ve sponsored it out, as the “Rocket Mortgage” Draft House. Talk about a smooth finish.