2021 Draft Class Share Big Day With Aaron Rodgers
Jim Nagy, former NFL scout, saliently addressed what the NFL Draft is and isn’t, declaring: “The whole ‘NFL draft is a crapshoot’ narrative just trivializes the lives of young men. Every drafted player is either highly skilled or possesses developmental physical traits. Some don’t pan out because job/family stresses are too great to handle in their early 20’s.”
Many fail. Others scrape through to the professional ranks when red marks on their resume are conveniently overlooked. But for the most part, the young men entering the NFL deserve to have their dreams humanized and their hard work rewarded with the promise of something better for them, their families and communities. They’ve earned the right to a shot.
In the hours leading up to the draft, Aaron Rodgers’s future in Green Bay was plastered all over the news, almost supplanting the draft. Rodgers, intentionally or not, changed the whole mood of occasion. He definitely shifted the direction of this column. I’ll analyze what is happening in Titletown alongside the outcome of the draft.
Peach State Gloss To Draft As someone who has just moved to Atlanta, I was interested to see how the Georgia connections played out.
The top of NFL Draft first round had a distinct Peach State feel to it with Trevor Lawrence, a product of Cartersville, Georgia going number one overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Clemson star has been inked in as number one pick on draft boards since he led the Tigers to a national championship as a freshman. With Urban Myer in charge, the Jaguars are building for a period of sustained success after languishing as the worst team in football.
Justin Fields, a Kennesaw, Georgia native, followed closely behind Lawrence. Fields played at the University of Georgia for one season before transferring to Ohio State for his last two seasons of college. The Chicago Bears, a franchise in desperate need of a star at quarterback, finally has their man. Lawrence and Fields grew up 28 minutes from each other in Georgia. It will be fascinating to watch how they take to pro football.
Arguably, the biggest Georgia team splash came at number five overall, when the Atlanta Falcons took the player many scouts rate as a generational tight end, in Kyle Pitts from Florida. Great things are expected of Pitts in the NFL. He is the highest ever drafted tight end. NFL Draft Analyst Chad Reuter awarded the Falcons an A+ for its total 2021 Draft haul, the only such accolade conferred on a NFL team. The Falcons are an organization that has struggled since 2018. Under new head coach, Arthur Smith, they finally have one of the NFL’s leading offensive minds overseeing the play calling.
Safety in Close Connections
One trend to emerge on night one of the draft was how many players from Alabama, LSU and Clemson followed teammates to the same NFL team. Urban Myer brought Trevor Lawrence to Jacksonville and followed it by taking Lawrence’s Clemson running back Travis Etienne. Joe Burrow, Cincinnati’s young quarterback, tore his ACL in his first year. It was expected the Bengals would draft the best offensive lineman to protect him. Instead, they opted for Ja’Marr Chase, the best wide receiver in the draft, and old teammate of Burrow from LSU. From the brotherhood fraternity in Alabama, Jaylen Waddle followed his former quarterback from Tuscaloosa, Tua Tagovailoa, to the Miami Dolphins. Coaching connections were also in play. College football’s greatest coach, Nick Saban, saw his Alabama quarterback, Mac Jones, picked by New England to play with Saban’s old friend and NFL coaching icon Bill Belichick. In a year when personnel departments lacked tape and were going off 2019 notes on players, opting to choose reliable names from the most dominant programs was the default position for so many teams. After all, nobody gets fired for selecting Alabama players.
The San Francisco 49ers moved up to number three on the board before draft day, and speculation was rife that they might take Mac Jones from Alabama - a good system player and considered pro-ready - but lacking the talent of Trey Lance and Justin Fields. In the end, the 49ers swooped for Lance. In doing so, they’ve allowed us to drool over what Kyle Shanahan can do with a young prodigy in an already loaded 49ers roster.
Time’s Up For Rodgers In Green And Gold Two hours before the draft, Aaron Rodgers gave the NFL the racy headlines they craved by letting it seep out that he doesn’t want to return to the Green Bay Packers. The relationship between Rodgers and general manager Brian Gutekunst is reportedly past the point of no return. At best, he might have one season left in Lambeau Field.
The narrative that the Packers haven’t done enough to help Rodgers and the team win another Super Bowl is phony. Where they didn’t cover themselves in glory was handling the drafting of Jordan Love in the first round in 2020 and the subsequent slight that Rodgers felt. It was the wrong decision to at least not tip off the Hall of Fame franchise quarterback that they were lining up his long-term replacement as insurance against Rodgers' age.
Rodgers is known to hold grudges - that’s not exactly breaking news. Although the Packers are not faultless in this process, quite how Rodgers has got to the point where he doesn’t want to play for the team anymore - and is telling his friends on the team - is puzzling. The Packers got to the NFC Championship game two years in a row. Staying put represents his best chance of winning another SuperBowl. Especially after another solid draft class. There is not a ‘no trade’ clause, so the Packers don’t need his approval to ship him to another team. He would just have to agree to continue playing for the trade to take place.
The Green Bay front office structure appears to be part of the problem. This is where the three pronged approach of dealing with Rodgers is flawed. Head coach, general manager and team president all flew out for talks with him. This is business. It should be the singular voice of the general manager taking charge of the situation, with the backing of the entire organization.
Collectively as an organization, the Packers have lacked conviction, while Rodgers appears full of passionate intensity to go in a different direction. It is a Yeatsian turn of events.
There is no mandatory end point in sight. The situation could drag out until training camp. Right now, Rodgers and the Packers are living on borrowed time.
The Mysterious Draft Gil Brandt, the former VP of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys from 1960-89 and football analyst, described the 2021 NFL Draft as the most unusual he had ever seen, saying it reminded him when he used to draft players, then lose them for a year or two in the military.
Because of COVID-19, teams don’t have the institutional knowledge on the players that they normally do leading up to the draft. It meant they were unable to see players weigh in - instead they had to deal with a projection. Owing to cancelled college games or players sitting out, there was not a lot of tape on players. It is challenging to compare apples to apples from previous years, when there are no in-person meetings or private workouts.
Yet, NFL teams have adjusted reasonably well. A number picked the best available player on the board, while others moved to address their immediate need - a defensive tackle or linebacker. As all 259 players drafted move into their new towns and cities across America, spare a thought for one of last year’s first round picks, Jordan Love. He, like Aaron Rodgers before him, was drafted by the Packers to plan for the future, as the franchise quarterback readied himself for his final years. Rodgers was in the unenviable position of being at the whim of Brett Favre’s dysfunctional behavior (Favre retired then demanded his job back), and a passive Packers management response. Favre-gate left deep, structural scars in Green Bay. It’s May 2021, and as Jordan Love is finding out, there is no rookie playbook for how to navigate issues, which, through no fault of your own, risk consuming you.