Justin Fields and the 2021 QB class approach a loaded 2024 NFL Draft, reminding us the position is a bullshit

By | March 18, 2024

In the spring of 2022, shortly after the Kansas City Chiefs traded Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins for a slew of draft picks, I had a conversation with an AFC general manager about the strength of the rookie class that was weeks away from selection. . He complained that it felt like a thin group on offense, especially in the wake of the 2021 class.

“The quarterbacks are weak,” the GM said. “Especially after last year’s group.”

The brotherhood he was talking about consisted of five first-round quarterbacks, all selected in the top fifteen. Going into that draft, some personnel officials suggested it had a chance to be special, one of the best classes in decades, blessed with the generational talent of Trevor Lawrence, the cannon arm of Zach Wilson, unlimited ceilings of Trey Lance and Justin Fields, and Mac Jones’ pinpoint accuracy and well-rounded passing profile. In terms of styles, there was something for everyone in the class. And despite four of the five players struggling in their 2021 rookie season, talent evaluators were still excited about the class the following offseason. So did this particular general manager, who still believed it would be a benchmark for years to come, despite only Jones finding early success.

“From top to bottom, that entire first round could be one of the best in history,” he said. “Especially with the quarterbacks.”

In indexing throwaway predictions over the years, this one has stuck out like a sore thumb. Even if some of it still has some merit. A handful of 2021 first-round picks to have produced a number of special talents. But only one quarterback – Lawrence of the Jacksonville Jaguars – has hinted at establishing himself as a franchise quarterback. And even that was a rollercoaster ride, with his 2023 season marking an injury-induced step backward. The rest: Wilson is on the trade block with little to no interest, while Lance, Jones and Fields have all been traded for a pittance of late-round draft picks.

Fields was the capper, with the Chicago Bears taking him to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday – the same Steelers who signed Russell Wilson after he was unceremoniously released by the Denver Broncos last week, and then their 2022 first-round quarterback Kenny Pickett. to the Philadelphia Eagles in a fire sale on Friday. This kind of quarterback carnage happened this offseason. The 2024 quarterback class played a role in all of this, but we’ll get to that in a moment. First we need to discuss what happened to Fields.

Fields gives Steelers financial flexibility at QB

How did this come together? Broadly speaking, there is simplicity in it. The Steelers highly rated Fields in that 2021 draft. They thought highly of him. And despite having doubts a few months ago whether Chicago would actually make him available (cheaply) this offseason, the Steelers turned to the Bears when it became clear Fields would be on the way. But it wasn’t until Pickett, their own 2022 first-round quarterback selection, suffered a burr in the saddle following Wilson’s signing that the path forward became clear.

First, it required Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman to shift into high gear when it came to his pursuit of a new backup quarterback behind Jalen Hurts. That developed at the end of the first wave of free agency – roughly in the Thursday-Friday window – and after Roseman made some overtures to the Bears, controlling Fields’ trade price. It was a move that would have made sense schematically, but Roseman instead found traction with the Steelers on Pickett, which was recognized as a more attractive option because Pickett got two years of rookie contract control, versus just one year with Fields. And once the Steelers reached a point where they wanted to move Pickett to the Eagles, their eyes turned to Fields and the significant potential they believe can still be unlocked. Pittsburgh general manager Omar Khan closing the deal for a 2025 sixth-round pick who could move up to the fourth round is the icing on the cake for the Steelers. Almost no one could have predicted such a one-sided trading profit in this scenario.

Why Fields wasn’t picked up by other teams largely has to do with his one-year rookie contract check, which includes a fifth-year option set at $25.6 million. That option should be activated in May. Nearly every general manager who spoke to Yahoo Sports about Fields since December declined to make that commitment. But the Steelers found themselves in an unexpectedly advantageous position, with Russell Wilson signed to a league contract worth at least $1.21 million (while the Denver Broncos are still on the hook for about another $39 million), and a significant degree of had flexibility with their players. quarterback budget.

Pittsburgh Steelers newly signed quarterback Russell Wilson speaks with reporters in Pittsburgh, Friday, March 15, 2024, in Pittsburgh.  Wilson signed a one-year contract with the Steelers on Friday after being fired by the Denver Broncos.  (AP Photo/Rebecca Droke)

Russell Wilson is reportedly the Steelers’ starter for the 2024 season. (AP Photo/Rebecca Droke)

Wilson’s one-year deal puts the Steelers in position to pick up Fields’ option in 2025, which would tie them to about $30.1 million in quarterback salary over the next two seasons. The breakdown is as follows: $1.21 million for Wilson in 2024; and $3.23 million to Fields in 2024, followed by $25.66 million in 2025. Averaged over the next two seasons, that’s just over $15 million per season for a starting quarterback in 2024 and 2025 (assuming Fields lands the job 2025 and Wilson leaves for free agency again).

The Steelers don’t have to commit to that model until May. But it’s reasonable to suspect that will be the case — unless they take a page out of the Green Bay Packers’ playbook with Jordan Love last offseason and offer Fields a hedge, which amounts to signing a two-year contract for 2024 and 2025 with less guaranteed money. than the $28.9 million Fields would make if his fifth-year option were activated, but still ensures Fields brings in a significant amount of money regardless of how he performs in 2024.

However the Steelers handle it, the underlying money will speak louder than what the team says publicly about his place in the quarterback rankings in 2024. If the Steelers activate Fields’ fifth-year option for 2025 or work out a guaranteed two-year hedge deal, they’re preparing him to be the starter that season — and that should put him in direct competition with Wilson, regardless of what the team’s public narrative is. If they don’t activate his fifth-year option or sign him to a hedge deal, the status of his future with Pittsburgh will have to unfold in the 2024 season. It would be a scenario where Fields would clearly be the better quarterback between the two and would be worthy of a franchise tag after the 2024 season. Between all of these options, the safest route is to activate the fifth-year option for Fields and see how the 2024 season unfolds.

Lessons to be learned for the 2024 NFL QB draft class

All of this brings us back to that 2021 quarterback class. It had all the potential in the world, and QBs were taken with picks 1, 2, 3, 11 and 15. It’s fair to say now that it’s been a disaster . The root causes are worthy of a documentary — maybe it was the wrong player with the wrong team, or injuries to the surrounding roster, or the very real conspiracy that it was a COVID-19 quarterback class that didn’t have enough tape or experience. enough in-depth research to understand what was under the hood. Whatever happened, the result was that four of the five franchises hit a wall and then had to figure out how to adapt afterward.

That’s something to keep in mind in next month’s draft. It’s a concept that – stop me if you’ve heard this – contains a little bit of everything. USC’s Caleb Williams is being heralded as the best quarterback talent since Lawrence. UNC’s Drake Maye has the monster throwing arm and above average athleticism. LSU’s Jayden Daniels is the versatile NFL quarterback of the next generation. Michigan’s JJ McCarthy is the leader with the intangibles and underlying talent still being discovered. Those are four guys expected to come off the board in the first round. While two extremely seasoned players with refined passing skills – Oregon’s Bo Nix and Michael Penix Jr. from Washington – still have a chance to reach the first round and make it a quarterback heavy draft at the top.

It is a lesson that everyone gets excited about. And by the end of it, the number of quarterbacks drafted in the first round could be close to historic. But there is reason to temper expectations and focus on whether the right players are going to the right teams. The 2021 group just put it on display for all to see. In any year or class, the position is a crap shoot in a draft. It could give a huge boost to a franchise and send it into the future. Or it could be holes in the bottom of the boat, leaving everyone scrambling for repairs before everything sinks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *