Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott might be ahead of schedule in his return from the ankle injury that ended his 2020 season prematurely, according to Mike McCarthy.

Cowboys head coach McCarthy watched Prescott go through rehabilitation work on Saturday and was pleased with the progress the two-time NFL Pro Bowler has made.

Prescott suffered a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle in an October 11 game against the New York Giants but has had no apparent setbacks in his rehab. 

"He's throwing now, doing footwork drills. He's made a lot of progress," McCarthy told reporters on Tuesday.

"Very disciplined in his regimen. He's here almost every day. I'd say he's right on track or maybe a little ahead of schedule.

"I was very impressed with his progress. Just coming off the type of injury and his footwork, and he's doing all of the normal movements that you look to do in a quarterback-school format this time of year."

Prescott had surgery in October to fix the injury, then another procedure in December to address a prior issue with ligaments in the ankle. 

He signed a four-year contract extension in March that guarantees him $126million and could be worth $160m. 

At the news conference announcing that deal, Prescott pronounced himself "healthy" and said he was "getting close" to a return to the practice field. 

The 27-year-old had never missed a start in his NFL career before the ankle injury.

In those 69 regular-season games, he has thrown for 17,634 yards with 106 touchdowns and 40 interceptions.

Prescott has also rushed for 1,314 yards and 24 more touchdowns.

Trey Lance insists he has the potential and ability to become the best quarterback to emerge from the 2021 NFL Draft, despite a star-studded class.

Trevor Lawrence, the presumptive number one overall pick for the Jacksonville Jaguars, is billed as a generational talent at QB, while Zach Wilson appears to be locked in for the New York Jets at two.

There is huge debate and uncertainty over who the San Francisco 49ers will select when they are on the clock on Thursday, having traded up to number three overall.

Lance is in the mix for the Niners, as are Justin Fields and Mac Jones, with all five of the highest-rated QBs tipped to go in the first round and possibly the top 10.

Behind closed doors at the home of the North Dakota State Bison, Lance threw in front of several teams in his 'second pro day' last week, having shown off his remarkable arm at his first.

The 20-year-old is seen as the QB with the widest range of outcomes of the first-round quintet, but has the belief to state he can outshine his rivals, even though he wants them all to succeed.

"I'm confident in myself, and I believe in myself," Lance said to NFL Network.

"I think I have the potential to be the best quarterback in this class. 

"I don't know where I'm gonna be at. Obviously, I've watched a ton of tape, 49ers, Falcons, whatever it is, football, in general. But I'm super excited to find out where I'm going to be. 

"I think I'm going to be able to learn any offense that I'm put into, any system I'm put into, and find a way to be successful.

"I understand obviously there's gonna be a lot of learning to do.

"Just as far as this quarterback class, I want them all to do well. I'm excited to see what they do and rooting for them all the same."

While Lance has faced scrutiny as a passer, he is a dual-threat and perceived as the strongest rusher of the leading options at the QB position.

Only four QBs across the FBS and FCS had more rushing touchdowns than Lance's 14 in 2019, while his rushing average of 6.5 was fifth among signal-callers to have registered at least 100 rushing attempts.

But he will enter the league with just one full season of college experience - and an uneven 'showcase game' against Central Arkansas - after the coronavirus pandemic pushed the Bison's 2020 season into the spring of 2021. 

Lance only averaged around 18 pass attempts in a run-heavy offense in his sole campaign.

In addition to inexperience, the level of competition is also a question-mark against Lance's name, his 16 games in 2019 coming in the FCS, college football's second tier. 

Bison alumnus Carson Wentz made the grade in the NFL, at least initially, playing at the same level, and for Lance any doubts about his game and background simply serve as additional motivation.

He added: "Hearing those [questions] for me is honestly exciting.

"I get to prove people wrong again. So that is what I'll continue to do and I want to continue to do. 

"So definitely excited to be able to prove people wrong and come in and be ready to go whenever the situation is, whenever the coach best sees fit. 

"The 'project' TV label is definitely a thing. Whether it's playing FCS football or whatever, I think Carson is a great example of someone who came in from FCS football, level of competition and all those things that people talked about with him.

"He came in and played really, really well as a rookie. So I think that's a huge thing for me and my process."

Justin Fields will have heard all the noise; it’s hard for a prospect in his position, as one of the top quarterbacks in the 2021 NFL Draft, to ignore the cacophony.

The chatter has been as bemusing as it has been loud, with wildly off-base critiques levelled at a quarterback who has delivered on college football's biggest stages in successive seasons.

Of those criticisms, the most prominent has surrounded Fields' ability to process quickly, with many viewing him as a quarterback who needs significant work reading the field and too often gets stuck on his first progression.

Yet, as those who espouse Fields' merits have been quick to point out, any unwillingness to come off his first read is likely the symptom of an Ohio State offense highly reliant on long-developing downfield routes.

It appears, though, that both the New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers are among his doubters. Picking second overall, the Jets are expected to take BYU's Zach Wilson, while the 49ers, following their massive trade up from 12 to three, are reportedly deciding between North Dakota State's Trey Lance and Mac Jones of Alabama.

Fields' apparent slide from the second-best quarterback in the draft to one that may not even go in the top five is a truly befuddling development in this year's edition of an event partially defined by head-scratching decisions.

The team who benefit from the questionable evaluations of Fields by those above them in the draft order will land a player ideally gifted to thrive in the NFL having outperformed his contemporaries in this draft class in several key areas.

Through the lens of Stats Perform data, we look at why perhaps the most underappreciated quarterback in the class is primed to silence his critics.

Busting the narratives

The narratives around Fields have always seemed flimsily constructed, and they are not reflected by the numbers.

Critiqued by some for holding on to the ball too long while waiting for his reads to come open, Fields had an average snap-to-release time of 2.81 seconds in 2020.

While that is considerably slower than Trevor Lawrence (2.36) and a fair way behind Jones (2.55), it is slightly faster than Wilson (2.82).

Why is that significant? Because Wilson is a prospect who has received regular praise for his ability to get the ball out quickly and accurately during his time at BYU.

The reality is that Fields was on par with Wilson in that regard.

Beyond the time it took to get rid of the ball, the biggest debate around Fields pertains to how he works through his progressions to find the open man.

Yet if Fields had just been staring down his first read, it stands to reason defenders would have had frequent success jumping routes and gaining opportunities for interceptions.

His interceptions did double from three in 2019 to six last year, but Fields only threw eight 'pickable passes' in 217 attempts, his pickable pass percentage of 3.69 was the worst of the first-round quarterbacks to have played in the Power 5 but was not miles behind Lawrence (3.38).

Over the course of the past two seasons, Fields threw 16 pickable passes in 556 attempts for a percentage of 2.88. In essence, he was not a quarterback who regularly provided defenders with opportunities for takeaways, and he only got more accurate and more careful with the ball on the more difficult throws.

Downfield success

In 2020, Fields recorded a well-thrown percentage – which measures how often throws are an accurate, well-thrown ball – of 80.18 per cent.

That number was inferior to Lawrence, who led the Power 5 with 84.31 per cent, and Jones (83.21). However, of quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts who averaged 10 or more air yards per attempt last season, it was second only to Sam Howell of North Carolina (81.31).

Only Wilson (10.29 air yards per attempt) was more aggressive in pushing the ball downfield than Fields (10.10), with Lawrence (8.67) and Jones (8.52) lagging behind.

And when it came to making those deep throws that can flip the script in an instant, it was Fields who stood out ahead of his contemporaries last year.

Indeed, on throws well past the sticks of 15 or more air yards, Fields led the way in well-thrown percentage by a wide margin.

Of Fields' throws of that distance, 76.47 per cent were accurate, well-thrown balls, compared to 71.43 for Lawrence, 69.41 for Wilson and 67.39 for Jones.

Wilson (3.53) was the sole quarterback of the other three to post a better pickable pass percentage on those attempts than Fields' 7.84.

When he attacked downfield, Fields was superior to the man who is a lock to be the first overall pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Fields beat Lawrence in the College Football Playoff semi-final last season and outplayed him in the eyes of many in their meeting at the same stage a year earlier.

Looking at their respective career numbers, there is plenty to suggest they enter the NFL on equal footing.

On a par with Lawrence

Further illustrating the gap between the two when it comes to deep passing, Fields had an air yards per attempt average of 11.0 during his college career, putting him fifth among quarterbacks with at least 500 attempts since 2018, 42 spots ahead of Lawrence (8.87).

Fields' completion percentage on balls thrown 20 or more air yards in that same span of 47.9 was good enough for sixth on the list of quarterbacks with a minimum of 100 attempts, with Lawrence (42.1) coming in seven spots lower.

The former Buckeye had a clear edge on play-action throws, which are a staple of most NFL offenses, especially those that utilise the scheme run by Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan, as the Jets will do in 2021.

Fields completed 67.2 per cent of his play-action throws compared to 64.6 for Lawrence and was similarly superior in a situation where games are often won and lost – on third down.

While Lawrence could only connect on 56.8 per cent of his third-down attempts, Fields completed 65.5, though the script was flipped when it came to making the most of red-zone opportunities.

At Clemson, Lawrence was at his best inside the 20, hitting on 68.5 per cent of his throws, second among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts and comfortably ahead of Fields (sixth with 63.7).

But Fields and Lawrence performed almost identically when pressure was sent, the latter having a negligible edge facing the blitz, completing 63.8 per cent of passes to Fields' 63.6.

In looking solely at the numbers, they are difficult to separate and, when he and Lawrence squared off, Fields had the upper hand in at least one matchup.

And yet he is seemingly set to slide from being a quarterback some touted as having the potential to displace Lawrence as number one to not hearing his name called until well after the top overall pick is done with his initial plethora of media commitments.

It is a baffling state of affairs that neither the tape nor the stats can explain.

Blessed with the elusiveness to evade free rushers in the pocket, the ability to escape and make sensational off-platform throws on the move and speed in the open field that saw him rush for 1,539 yards and 19 touchdowns in college, Fields has the ideal athletic profile for the modern NFL.

Jones and Wilson outperformed him in some areas in their breakout 2020 campaigns but no quarterback in the class other than Lawrence can claim to have enjoyed Fields' level of success over the course of more than one season among college football's elite.

More consistent than Lawrence when going deep and with the same release time as Wilson, the data should be enough to dispel the lazy narratives around Fields.

Instead, Fields will need to do so in the NFL and it is unclear with whom he will get the chance. Regardless of where he lands, Fields' skill set and track record point to the doubters being drowned out by the jubilation he has the talent to inspire at the highest level.

Kansas City Chiefs hopeful Sean Culkin will become the first NFL player to convert his entire salary to cryptocurrency, Bitcoin.

Culkin is vying to make the Chiefs' active roster after signing a reserve/future contract in Kansas City, where the tight end would be paid a base salary of $920,000, which would then be converted to Bitcoin.

Veteran offensive linesman Russell Okung previously announced in December that half of his 2020 Carolina Panthers salary would be converted to Bitcoin.

The 27-year-old Culkin has played 19 career games for the Los Angeles Chargers and Baltimore Ravens.

"I've always had a lot of interest in and a passion for finance and economics from my days at Mizzou," Culkin said. "Even before that, my dad was big, really bullish on gold. Early on, I was always exposed to his philosophies on what made gold an intractable investment looking at it from a macro perspective.

"There's a lot of overlap between gold and Bitcoin. I really spent all of my time in the offseason the past year just hearing about this growing space in crypto. It just seemed like it was getting bigger and bigger.

"Through education and learning and having a level of conviction over the course of time, I just felt like I wanted to be compensated from my services in football in Bitcoin."

Culkin added: "I want to do this with the thought it would continue to rise over the long term. This for me is a long-term play, a generational play. The more research I did and the more I zoomed out, I didn't necessarily link volatility to risk. I saw Bitcoin was growing at such an exponential rate.

"It's going to have some large pullbacks and dips and people are probably going to say I'm crazy, but I'm focusing on the long term. Long term, it's a stored value. What makes Bitcoin so intractable is its scarcity. Over time, it's deflationary by nature. If you look at history, it appreciates over time."

 

Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said Aaron Rodgers is the team's quarterback for the "foreseeable future" as they work through the reigning NFL MVP's contract situation.

Rodgers claimed his third MVP award last season after leading the Packers to the NFC Championship Game, but his future has been up in the air after describing it as "uncertain" and a "beautiful mystery".

The 37-year-old star and Super Bowl champion is contracted through the 2023 season after signing a $134million extension in 2018.

While the Packers are yet to restructure or extend Rodgers' contract as they look to create cap space, Gutekunst insisted Green Bay remain committed to the nine-time Pro Bowler.

"That's kind of something we're working through," Gutekunst told reporters on Monday ahead of the NFL Draft, which starts Thursday.

"You know, it's something that we've talked about quite a bit as we've worked through this salary-cap situation, which is really kind of a two-year situation. We've looked at a lot of different things and that's one of them."

Rodgers amassed 48 touchdowns, five interceptions and a completion rate of 70.7 per cent for the Packers last season.

His quarterback rating of 121.5 puts him second on the all-time list among qualifiers, behind only his 2011 campaign (122.5).

In total, Rodgers completed 372 of 526 attempts for 4,299 yards as the Packers topped the NFC North with a 13-3 record to clinch home-field advantage and the top seed in the NFC playoffs for the first time since 2011.

Rodgers is now level with Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, Packers great Brett Favre, Johnny Unitas and Jim Brown with three MVP honours – only Peyton Manning (five) has more in NFL history.

Gutekunst added: "Aaron's our guy; he's going to be our quarterback for the foreseeable future. We're excited about kind of the things we're going to try to accomplish here over the next couple years.

"So we certainly think with the contract that you're kind of talking about is something we'll work through. We're going to have to do probably a few things with different contracts as we head toward the season and then through the season to make sure that our salary cap situation, not only this year, but in 2022 is square.

"We're not done yet. We've done a lot to get here. We've kind of been doing things as we go and we will continue to do that as we go."

The NFL Draft begins Thursday and the San Francisco 49ers are primed to select a quarterback after trading up for the third pick.

Of course, that draft pick would become completely inconsequential if for some reason a catastrophic disaster were to wipe out the human race, which is what 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan alluded to during a press conference on Monday.

When asked if quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will be on the roster by the end of the weekend after the draft concludes, Shanahan avoided the usual coach speak and took a bleaker approach in his response.

"I can't guarantee that anybody in the world will be alive Sunday, so I can't guarantee who will be on our roster on Sunday,” he said. "So that goes for all of us."

Garoppolo's days as the starting quarterback for the 49ers appear to be numbered after the team traded two first-round picks to move up from 12 to 3, but hopefully for his sake he still has plenty of days left on Earth.

As far as who the Niners plan to grab with their pick is still a mystery. And Shanahan was not about to tip his hand.

"So, do we know exactly who we want?" he asked rhetorically. "Maybe. Probably. But maybe not."

Garoppolo led San Francisco to the Super Bowl following the 2019 season but injuries limited him to just six games in 2020 as the Niners stumbled to a 6-10 record.

Though he dodged every question about who the 49ers might draft, Shanahan has been up front about injuries being a major factor in the team ready to move on from Garoppolo.

"The biggest thing with Jimmy is his injuries," Shanahan said. "It's been very tough for us when he's been hurt and that's happened two of these three years. That's where it starts and Jimmy knows that."

Shanahan did admit that having a rookie quarterback as well as a proven winner like Garoppolo together would be advantageous.

"But I feel very fortunate, taking a rookie quarterback, that we do have a guy like Jimmy," he said. "We have a guy that every time he's been a starter he's played at a high level.

"So to have that with Jimmy while adding a rookie quarterback gives us a lot of leeway. We're not going to set anything in stone, but I know that’s a situation that would be hard to get rid of."

The decision on who the 49ers draft will ultimately fall on Shanahan, according to general manager John Lynch.

"We have a head coach who's also our offensive play caller. I will always defer to him," Lynch said. "You know, what's cool about that is that Kyle I think respects my opinion enough.

"He always wants it. Ultimately, we arrive at decisions. We will and come Thursday we'll have a pick that hopefully makes everyone proud, but that will judged in years to come. We've done our best to make sure it's a great decision for this franchise."

The NFL Draft is an event that is both defined by and consistently challenges conventional wisdom.

Offensive tackles with short arms - though they would be considered long for must people - are widely regarded as a risky proposition, yet versatile brick wall Rashawn Slater will go in the first round despite barely meeting the 33-inch threshold.

Running backs are not supposed to be selected in the first round anymore, but Travis Etienne, Najee Harris and Javonte Williams could all hear their name called on day one.

Then there is the notion that you should not draft a tight end in the top five, one that is about to be shattered by Florida phenom Kyle Pitts.

Over 6ft and 5in tall, weighing 245 pounds, Pitts ran the 40-yard dash at his pro day in a scorching 4.44 seconds.

That is the kind of physical profile that has linebackers and safeties waking up in cold sweats.

Not that there haven't been monstrous athletes at the tight end position before. The nature of the position - blocking defensive ends one play, going one on one with a defensive back the next - demands remarkable athletic gifts.

Vernon Davis, drafted sixth overall by the San Francisco 49ers in 2006, was 6ft 3in and 254 pounds and he ran the 40 in 4.38 seconds.

But Pitts is of a different ilk. Whereas Davis needed fine-tuning and took some time to reach his potential with San Francisco, Pitts heads to the league with a skill set that could hardly look more pro-ready.

Versatile, agile, Pitts is a big-play behemoth in the receiving game who has showcased an encouraging appetite for the dirty work on the line of scrimmage. As his Stats Perform data illustrates, Pitts is the tight end for whom a team should depart from the traditional groupthink.

A torrent of tight end production

Pitts was the best tight end in college football last season and, in terms of the raw statistics, it was not at all close.

Despite playing only eight games, Pitts led the FBS in receiving yards (770), with Hunter Long of Boston College his nearest challenger (685).

Pitts racked up 96.3 yards per game, nearly 14 more than Trey McBride (82.5), who played in half the number of games. The next player on the list to have featured in a comparable number of games, Ole Miss' Kenny Yeboah (7 games) averaged 74.9.

Beyond simply looking at his impact at his own position, Pitts made a compelling argument for being considered the top pass-catcher in the sport at any spot in 2020.

His yards per reception average of 17.9 was third in the FBS among all receivers with at least 40 catches last year, trailing Dyami Brown (20) and Dez Fitzpatrick (19.4).

Only two players to meet the same catches threshold last year had more touchdown catches than Pitts' 12 -- Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith (23) and Jaelon Darden (19).

And a deeper examination of the advanced metrics further illustrates Pitts' potential as a dynamic, multi-faceted weapon at the next level.

Pitts' position-less upside

Utterly dominant at the catch point, Pitts uses his size superbly well to bully defenders in contested-catch situations, making him a nightmare to defend on jump-balls in the red zone.

Blessed with incredible body control and a wingspan of over 83 inches that means few balls are beyond his radius regardless of how accurately they are thrown, Pitts' ability to adjust to the flight of the pass ensured he did not drop a single one in 2020.

His catch rating, which indicates how well a receiver successfully catches throws that are considered catchable, of 0.945 was 13th among Power 5 tight ends with at least 25 targets last year, but that number was still comfortably above the average of 0.919.

While there were a group of his college contemporaries who did a better job of reeling in catchable throws -- though none had as many targets as Pitts' 67 -- finding a player who could match his upside as a downfield weapon was a near-impossible task.

Responsible for 15 plays of 20 yards or more last year, Pitts used his terrifying to speed to get open up the seam at will, logging a big-play percentage of 48.8 per cent that just three players, none of whom had more than 40 targets, could top.

It is typically more difficult to get open the further you go downfield, however, Pitts, relying on his frightening agility as well as his elite speed to create separation defied that accepted school of thought.

Pitts' average depth of target was 13.3 yards, second only to Greg Dulcich of UCLA (15.0), yet he was among the elite when it came to recording burns. 

A burn is when a receiver wins his matchup against his defender regardless of whether the throw was catchable or not. Pitts averaged 3.93 burn yards per route, third behind Brevin Jordan of Miami (4.57) and James Mitchell of Virginia Tech (4.50).

Perhaps the predominant reason for the intrigue with Pitts is that his success in getting free from defenders was only marginally impacted by where he lined up.

Of Pitts' 216 routes, he ran 103 as a tight end, 52 as an outside receiver and 60 from the slot. His big-play percentage was 53.9 as a tight end, but it only dipped to 46.5 when he lined up outside and further to 41.9 from the slot.

His burn yards per route was also best from the tight end spot (4.62), with outside receiver next (3.40) ahead of the slot (3.27). However, his burn percentage increased from 67.7 when he played at tight end to 81.3 at the slot position.

While it is generally easier to get open from the slot, with quicker receivers running shorter routes in the underneath areas of the field, Pitts' burn percentage put him fourth among all pass-catchers with at least 15 slot targets.

That is what makes Pitts so appealing. He is clearly an elite tight end but also stands as a top-tier option from the slot who can win his matchups when playing as an outside receiver.

And he has another string to his bow.

Doing the dirty work

A significant question that is always asked of tight prospects surrounds whether they can survive, if not thrive, blocking on the end of the offensive line.

Though it is not Pitts' forte, it is far from a weakness.

In 20 pass protection snaps, Pitts allowed only one pressure, indicating that, while he is best off running routes on passing downs, he can stay in and provide protection for his quarterback when required.

He was more porous when asked to run block, allowing 10 run disruptions on 95 snaps, but his 85 wins in that regard show Pitts to be a player with the ability to move defenders off the ball and create lanes for the backs to hit.

It is rare to find tight end prospects who check every box. Pitts does all that and more.

The offensive coach lucky enough to have him added to their depth chart will know they have a player whom they can immediately rely on in every facet of the game.

More than that, though, they will have the football equivalent of the queen on the chessboard, with Pitts able to wield the power of his devastating skill set from anywhere on the field, allowing his coordinator to present a variety of different looks and create mismatches against linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks alike.

Pitts provides options scarcely offered by most tight ends. He is a true unicorn with a case for being the most complete player in the draft. Tight ends don't go in the top five, but position-less prospects who offer Pitts' level of firepower are more than worthy of that status.

The Cleveland Browns have locked in Baker Mayfield for 2022 after exercising their fifth-year option on the quarterback's contract.

Cleveland announced their move on Friday after Mayfield led the Browns to their first playoff victory in 26 years last season – a shock win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Mayfield – the number one pick in the 2018 NFL Draft – had a breakout 2020 campaign in which he threw for 3,563 yards, 26 touchdowns and just eight interceptions, while his passer rating of 95.9 was the third-best mark in franchise history.

Having thrown 21 interceptions in 2019, Mayfield was picked off only eight times in 2020, his touchdown to interception ratio of 3.25 good enough for ninth in the NFL, per Stats Perform.

Yet the upside of Cleveland's passing game still appeared limited. Mayfield was a disappointing tied for 17th with 43 completions of 20 yards or more.

Mayfield ranked sixth in the NFL in passer rating (118.4) on throws of 21 air yards or more among quarterbacks with at least 25 such attempts.

Since taking over as the full-time starter in Week 4 of the 2018 season, Mayfield has started 45 consecutive regular-season games and made both starts in the team's 2020 playoff games.

In his career so far, Mayfield has thrown for 11,115 yards, 75 touchdowns and 43 interceptions.

The Browns, meanwhile, also exercised their fifth-year option on 2018 number four pick Denzel Ward.

 

The Baltimore Ravens have dealt offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr to the Kansas City Chiefs, who parted with their first-round pick this year to land the two-time Pro Bowler, according to multiple reports.

Brown had made no secret of his desire to be traded from the Ravens and get the opportunity to play left tackle, having spent his career predominantly on the right side of the offensive line in Baltimore.

And he has got his wish, the Chiefs agreeing to make him their left tackle and task Brown with protecting former league and Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes.

To do so, they have sent Baltimore the 31st overall pick in the first round of the NFL Draft, along with a third-round pick and a fourth-round pick this year and a 2022 fifth-rounder.

The Chiefs get back a 2021 second-round pick and a sixth-round choice next year, the NFL's official website reported.

Kansas City have made upgrading their offensive line a priority after a dismal performance from their men in trenches played a key role in a 31-9 defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV in February.

Having released tackles Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher, who each missed the Super Bowl due to injuries, the Chiefs signed guard Joe Thuney and acquired a three-time Pro Bowler at that spot as Kyle Long came out of retirement. Long can play either guard or tackle.

Austin Blythe is expected to start at center having signed from the Los Angeles Rams, while the Chiefs will also get back another guard in Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who opted out of the 2020 season to help fight the coronavirus pandemic in his native Canada.

Brown stands as the final piece of the puzzle but will have to improve his play at left tackle, where he filled in for the Ravens after Ronnie Stanley suffered a season-ending ankle injury in November.

In 121 snaps at right tackle, Brown allowed a pressure rate of 5.8 per cent. That number ballooned to 10.9 per cent across his 221 snaps at left tackle.

Those numbers, and the presence of an All-Pro talent in Stanley, explain the reticence to play Brown on the left side on the part of the Ravens, who now have two picks in the first round (27 and 31) with which to replace Brown and address other areas.

The 2021 NFL Draft is now under a week away, with excitement rapidly building for fans of the 32 franchises.

With five quarterbacks tipped to go in the first round, and potentially all going in the top 10, the stakes this year are even higher than normal with many teams sensing a chance to secure their future at the game's most important position.

Clemson sensation Trevor Lawrence, billed as a generational talent at QB, is the presumptive number one pick for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

BYU standout Zach Wilson, meanwhile, appears to be locked in for the New York Jets at number two.

From there, a host of speculation and debate has followed the key picks, not least the selection of the San Francisco 49ers.

The Niners traded two first-round picks to move up from 12 to 3, with their trade partners the Miami Dolphins subsequently getting themselves back up to 6 in a deal with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Using Stats Perform data, we have picked out some of the mooted selections that may make the most sense as the draft begins to unfold on Thursday.

JUSTIN FIELDS TO SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

It is hard to see how offensive guru Kyle Shanahan would turn down a skillset like that possessed by Ohio State QB Justin Fields.

While a couple of poor performances in 2020 ended talk he could challenge Lawrence as number one, while a stellar season from Wilson propelled him up draft boards, the data suggests Fields is a unique talent.

He threw for 63 touchdowns and just nine interceptions in 22 games across 2019 and 2020.

Fields added 867 rushing yards and 15 TDs on the ground in that period, earning 59 first downs with his legs and forcing 37 missed tackles.

It is that dual-threat athletic ability that creates endless possibilities for an elite play-caller like Shanahan and should separate Fields from the productive but statuesque Mac Jones. 

However, Trey Lance - who has the highest range of outcomes of the first-round prospects - also ticks many of the boxes that Fields does and is another contender for the Niners at three.

KYLE PITTS TO ATLANTA FALCONS

Kyle Pitts racked up 43 catches for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns in just eight games in 2020, not dropping any of his targets.

Much more than a tight end, his athletic numbers have seen him surge up draft boards and he is rightly considered to be an offensive weapon unlike any other to have come out over recent years.

If the Atlanta Falcons are unable to find a deal to their liking and move out of the number four spot, they would be wise to look at the Florida pass-catcher.

With Matt Ryan remaining at QB and Pitts added to the receiving mix with the likes of Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage and Hayden Hurst, new head coach Arthur Smith may have an offense that is close to unstoppable.

PENEI SEWELL TO CINCINNATI BENGALS

Huge debate continues in Cincinnati over whether the Bengals should draft their left tackle of the future in Penei Sewell or reunite Joe Burrow with LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase at number five.

While having an elite player in one of three WR spots may have a slight analytical advantage over filling one of five offensive line spots with a star, the Bengals may feel there is plenty of receiving talent in the second round, as they showed with the impressive pick up of Tee Higgins in 2020.

If they opted for Sewell, it would be a decisive step in protecting Joe Burrow, whose promising rookie season behind a dreadful offensive line was curtailed by a brutal knee injury.

Sewell allowed just 13 pressures on 285 true pass protection snaps in 2019, ninth in pressure rate allowed (4.6%) among LTs with at least 200 snaps.

Given he did that in the Pac-12 at age 19 and has since posted incredible athletic numbers, it is easy to see why he should be one of the highest non-QBs taken.

JA'MARR CHASE TO MIAMI DOLPHINS

An extraordinary 2019 season for Chase saw him grab 20 touchdowns and 1,780 yards in 14 games for LSU as they won the National Championship.

A receiver who can win at all levels of the field, Chase's draft stock has not been impacted by sitting out of the 2020 season.

The Miami Dolphins have committed to building around QB Tua Tagovailoa despite his shaky rookie season.

What better way to help him than adding an immediate number one receiver who would suddenly make a group already containing DeVante Parker, Will Fuller and Preston Williams one of the NFL's best.

If the Dolphins end up getting Chase at number six and emerge from the process with an extra first-round pick for their troubles after the trade with the Niners, it may prove to be one of the great draft moves.

MAC JONES TO DENVER BRONCOS

With 4,500 passing yards, Mac Jones topped college quarterbacks in an incredible 2020 campaign for Alabama, adding 41 touchdowns and only four interceptions.

He threw a touchdown on 10.2 per cent of his 402 attempts, highest of any QB to attempt more than 250 passes, with only Wilson (11) having a higher TD/INT rate than Jones (10.25).

The two main concerns with Jones are whether his lack of athleticism lowers his chances of success in the modern NFL and how much his stellar supporting cast should be weighted in his evaluation, particularly after a rough start for Tagovailoa coming out of the same college offense.

While the latter question is part of the typical draft uncertainty, the athleticism could become less of an issue in a team where a stellar group of receivers who can get open regularly is already in place, reducing the emphasis on plays outside of structure.

That is the case with the Denver Broncos, who pick at number nine, with Jones' former college team-mate Jerry Jeudy joined by Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, K. J. Hamler and Noah Fant.

PATRICK SURTAIN II TO DALLAS COWBOYS

With offensive talent likely to dominate the early picks, the Dallas Cowboys' selection at 10 has been a popular one in many mocks for the first defensive player to come off the board.

Caleb Farley's back procedures mean he is no longer seen as a clear number one option at cornerback – a position of need for Dallas – so Patrick Surtain II may be a safe selection for them depending on their evaluation of Farley.

Surtain was seventh in burns allowed percentage (39.6%) among draft-eligible outside corners with at least 100 coverage snaps and 25 targets in the Power 5 in 2020. He is also seventh in burn yards per target allowed (7.63).

KWITY PAYE TO NEW YORK GIANTS

There is significant uncertainty over the edge class in 2021, with many prospects tipped to go in the mid to late first round and multiple candidates to be the leading representative at the position.

Coronavirus opt outs mean there are lower snap counts and smaller sample sizes to work from compared to those to come out in previous seasons, so there remain some intriguing prospects but no home runs like Chase Young.

One of the most enticing is Kwity Paye, who was restricted to four games for Michigan in 2020 but had 6.5 sacks in 2019.

The New York Giants' defense was a surprise success story in 2020. They have reinforced the secondary in the offseason and remain strong on interior of the trenches with Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams, so a consistent threat off the edge could make for a formidable unit.

While receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle - or offensive tackle Rashawn Salter - would be big temptations if available at number 11, reports this week claimed Giants GM Dave Gettleman was considering taking the unusual step of trading down.

If it happens, it may indicate finding better value and taking a pass-rusher is their preferred route.

Should he can do that and still land a top pass-rusher like Paye or the ultra-athletic Jayson Oweh, whose overall pressure rate in 2020 was 26.2%, good for fourth-best among edge rushers in the draft, it would make sense for the Giants.

TREY LANCE TO NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

A spending spree from New England, and their transition last year from Tom Brady to Cam Newton, means they could represent an exciting landing spot for the raw but prodigious talent Lance.

With 1,100 rushing yards and 14 TDs in 2019, Lance is a QB who provides an elite rushing threat like Newton did in his prime for the Carolina Panthers.

Two top tight ends in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith offer big bodies to throw to, with the Patriots possessing an offensive line and a system already geared around a rushing QB in Newton who has a similar skill set.

New England will be pondering whether to move up from 15 to secure a QB and would be an excellent landing spot for Lance, regardless of whether they want him to start Week 1.

The NFL Draft looms large on the horizon as rosters continue to take shape ahead of the 2021 season.

Some big offseason moves have already threatened to alter the landscape of the league, even boosting the championship hopes of teams who missed out on the playoffs in 2020.

Most notably, the San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins will each feel they won a trade that saw the number three overall pick sent to the NFC West team in exchange for assets including multiple future first-rounders.

The Niners will get a look at one of the top quarterbacks in an exciting class as they aim to challenge again following an injury ravaged campaign, while the Dolphins can now surround starter Tua Tagovailoa with talent in year two and beyond.

But what of the teams who were already Super Bowl contenders?

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Green Bay Packers reached the NFC Championship Game and the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills advanced in the AFC, pre-game predictions could scarcely separate the four.

It was the Bucs who ultimately prevailed, progressing past Green Bay before beating the Chiefs at Super Bowl LV, but their rivals will expect to be in the mix again.

Although chaos higher up in the draft could see plans quickly go out the window, we assess where the Bucs, Packers, Chiefs and Bills might be looking next week - with the help of Stats Perform data.
 

Green Bay Packers

All four of these teams will have interesting options in the first round as the early rush for quarterbacks leaves great depth at several other positions across the board. But the Packers, picking 29th, would be wise to think about how they might help Aaron Rodgers.

The veteran QB was understandably surprised last year when, rather than recruiting help, Green Bay drafted another passer in the first round. Jordan Love did not take a single snap all season long.

Packers wide receiver Davante Adams led the league in receiving touchdowns (18) and ranked fourth for targets (149), joint-second for catches (115) and joint-fifth for receiving yards (1,374), despite playing only 14 games. However, Rodgers clearly lacked a second WR option, with tight end Robert Tonyan's 11 TDs coming on just 59 targets.

There should be no shortage of prospects available to Green Bay, with Elijah Moore - ranked first in the FBS with 149.1 yards per game for Ole Miss - a good fit in the slot.

Yet the team have not selected a receiver in the first round since before Rodgers was drafted, while Adams, in 2014, was the last WR taken higher than the fourth round.

Defensive reinforcements may be more likely over the first two days of the draft. A linebacker like Zaven Collins - four interceptions last season for Tulsa - or a cornerback such as Caleb Farley - falling following back surgery - could be called in the first round, with a later punt on a potential WR project following.
 

Buffalo Bills

Buffalo's needs are two-fold as they aim to give QB Josh Allen the platform to contend with Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady again.

The Bills ranked fourth in the NFL in 2020 for yards per attempt but 20th for rushing average (4.19). Allen contributed 421 of their 1,723 total rushing yards and half of their 16 rushing TDs.

Neither Devin Singletary (156 carries for 687 yards and two TDs) nor Zack Moss (112 carries for 481 yards and four TDs) look capable of being a game-changer on the ground, while the best running backs in the class may well still be on the board at number 30.

Alabama's Najee Harris, who led the FBS with 26 rushing scores, is an obvious standout.

Yet Buffalo's issues against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game came as they failed to disrupt Mahomes, who was sacked only once and threw three TDs and no interceptions.

The Bills were in the middle of the pack for sacks (38, tied 15th) and hurries (163, 17th) and could use someone on the edge, particularly with Jerry Hughes - the man who sacked Mahomes - turning 33 in August.
 

Kansas City Chiefs

If the playoffs made the shortcomings for Buffalo clear, Kansas City's flaws were even more blatant. The best QB in football was helpless in the Super Bowl.

Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher, the Chiefs' starting tackles, missed the big game through injury and Mahomes was sacked three times, throwing two picks and no TDs. The pair have each since been released, too, increasing the team's need at the position.

Arrivals Joe Thuney, who allowed 0.5 sacks last season, and Kyle Long, back out of retirement, are not best suited to playing outside. Kansas City would ideally find both a right and left tackle in this draft.

They should have no shortage of options, with a number of prospects mooted as potential picks. Teven Jenkins, out of Oklahoma State, can play either side and would be a popular signing.
 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs are in a truly unenviable position in that they have no positions of major need.

Some defensive end depth would be nice, but this unit pressured Mahomes into submission. The team ranked second for both hurries (182) and knockdowns (115). Linebacker Shaquil Barrett alone had 13 Super Bowl pressures.

Or how about a receiver to deliver the late-season impact provided by Antonio Brown? He had only four starts yet scored a touchdown in the Super Bowl triumph. Of course, he could also still return.

The rest of the title-winning roster from last year is back, meaning Tampa Bay remain in 'win now' mode and can simply look to pick up the best player left on the board at pick 32.

That might mean a RB like Harris, while the Bucs would have little to lose in taking a flier on Farley, despite his fitness concerns, if he falls to them.

The 2020 NFL Draft delivered one of the best wide receiver classes of the modern era, headlined by Justin Jefferson producing an historic rookie season for the Minnesota Vikings. Unfortunately for NFL defenders, the 2021 crop may well be even better.

Jefferson, having gone 22nd in the draft last year as the fifth receiver selected, set a league record for the most receiving yards by a rookie as he racked up an incredible 1,400 in 2020.

Six receivers went in the first 32 picks last year, with CeeDee Lamb, Brandon Aiyuk and Jerry Jeudy all impressing in their debut seasons in the league.

That number might not be matched this year, but it looks likely there will be at least four receivers taken on day one.

Ja'Marr Chase, DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle and Rashod Bateman all possess skill sets that should mean they too can take the league by storm as Jefferson did so emphatically last season.

Beyond that quartet, there is a deep crop of likely day-two picks who can make an immediate impact for teams looking to bolster their pass-catching options.

Franchises eyeing an infusion of talent in the slot won't be short of options and, as the league tilts ever further towards pass-heavy offenses, it is an excellent year to be in need of a receiver regardless of where they line up.

Here we take an in-depth look at the consensus top four as well as some of the best of rest in another class of wideouts that has the potential to transform offenses across the league.

Ja'Marr Chase - LSU

Widely regarded as the top receiver in the class, Chase earned that moniker despite not displaying the ability to separate from coverage at an elite level.

In 2019, Chase was open on 61.8 per cent of his targets, well below the average of 69.7 per cent among Power 5 receivers with at least 20 targets.

Yet he put up 127.1 yards per game, second in the FBS behind Arkansas State's Omar Bayless (127.2), and was second in yards per reception among receivers with at least 40 catches with an average of 21.2 that trailed only Lamb (21.4).

His pass rating when targeted of 233.0 was second in the same group, with Smith (238.6) the sole man ahead of him.

Chase excelled in spite of a lack of separation because of two factors: his hand usage and his proficiency at the catch point.

To watch Chase is perhaps as close as you will come to watching a pass rusher play receiver, excelling at working off physical press coverage and showing the willingness to aggressively handfight with defenders throughout the route to gain an advantage.

At the catch point, the explosion in his lower body that helped him record a 41-inch vertical jump at his pro day comes to the fore, with Chase consistently succeeding in elevating over the heads of defenders to come down with the ball in contested-catch situations.

His success in those areas helped Chase finish sixth among Power 5 receivers with a minimum of 50 targets with a big-play percentage of 45.6, far outranking that of former Tigers team-mate Jefferson (38.8).

After a year away from the game following his 2020 opt-out, teams picking in the top 10 must decide if Chase's skill set can translate to the NFL as well as Jefferson's did. The majority of the numbers from his critical role in LSU's march to the National Championship present a compelling case.

DeVonta Smith - Alabama

Smith could have declared for the draft last year and been considered the top Alabama receiver in a draft that saw Crimson Tide stars Henry Ruggs III and Jeudy go in the first round after a stunning 2019 in which he outperformed both.

His decision to return for 2020 was emphatically vindicated, though, with Smith becoming the first receiver since Desmond Howard in 1991 to win the Heisman Trophy.

Doubts over Smith's 166-pound frame will persist, yet there was nothing during his career with Alabama to suggest his lack of bulk will be something that prevents him from succeeding at the next level.

Adept at creating separation with his route-running, Smith was open on 85.8 per cent of his targets - seventh among all Power 5 receivers with at least 50 targets - while his burn percentage of 76.4 trailed only Ohio State duo Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave.

His talents in getting free from coverage allowed Smith to rack up 142.8 receiving yards per game, that average second in the FBS, while his passer rating when targeted improved to 283.9.

And rather than allowing himself to be hindered by his slender frame at the catch point, Smith relied on his leaping ability and body control to haul in one spectacular grab after another, his catch percentage of 79.6 eighth on the FBS list for receivers with a minimum of 50 targets.

Deceptively quick and elusive with the ball in his hands, Smith's yards after catch per reception average of 8.33 saw him rank sixth among wideouts with 40 or more receptions.

In short, there is not a facet of the game in which Smith did not excel at Alabama. Perhaps his lean frame, and the doubts over whether he can succeed against press that come with it, will put off some top-10 teams, but there is scarce little evidence Smith cannot live up to the weight of expectations that come with being drafted in the first round.

Jaylen Waddle - Alabama

The same durability concerns surrounding Smith could be applied to Waddle after his final season with Alabama was curtailed by an ankle injury, though he made an ill-advised return for their National Championship game win over Ohio State.

However, any lingering doubts over his health will likely be put to one side, with Waddle firmly established as the premier deep threat in the draft.

Blessed with game-changing speed and a remarkable talent for elevating at the catch point for a receiver of his 5ft 10in and 182-pound frame, Waddle was sensational over six games in 2020 for the Crimson Tide.

He averaged 21.1 yards per reception, a number only bettered by Western Michigan's D'Wayne Eskridge (23.3) among those with 25 catches in the FBS, frequently gaining substantial separation from defenders to make huge plays downfield.

Waddle was open on an astonishing 90.6 per cent of his targets in 2020; the average was 72.8 among receivers with a minimum of 20 targets.

That number can partially be attributed to the success of Steve Sarkisian's scheme last season. However, a burn yards per target average of 19.96 - bettered by just two receivers who met that 20-target threshold - speaks to his ability to defeat coverage with a frightening combination of agility and acceleration that helped him produce 10.3 YAC per reception (13th in the FBS for wideouts with a minimum of 25 catches).

In addition to his explosiveness, Waddle brings reliability that is not always a fixture of deep threats in the NFL. He dropped only one pass on 32 targets last year, catching 87.5 per cent of balls thrown his way (third in the FBS among receivers with at least 30 targets).

Waddle finished his final season in Tuscaloosa with a catch rating of 0.966, further illustrating his status as a receiver who excelled at hauling in catchable passes and consistently ensured those receptions ended in big plays. Nothing scares NFL defenses more than speed and, regardless of where Waddle lands, corners across the league can consider themselves on notice.

Rashod Bateman - Minnesota

While Chase, Smith and Waddle have garnered the vast majority of the attention, Bateman has an extremely credible claim for being the most well-rounded receiver in the entire class.

His case was not helped by a 2020 season in which he only played five games following a battle with coronavirus, but his 2019 campaign was one illustrative of a prospect with all the tools to blossom into a number one wideout at the highest level.

A talented downfield weapon who was open on 70.8 per cent of his targets in 2019 with an average depth of target of 16.2 yards, Bateman does an excellent job of engineering separation with his route-running.

His burn yards per target average of 16.15 was sixth among all Power 5 receivers with at least 50 targets two seasons ago and only Ruggs and Olave in the same group had a higher big-play percentage than Bateman's 50.4.

Bateman can use his 6ft 190-pound frame to dominate at the catch point, while his abilities after the catch have been severely underrated. Indeed, his missed/broken tackle per touch rate of 0.300 was superior to that of Smith (0.299) in the same year, though Chase (0.353) and Waddle (0.441) each outperformed him in that regard.

He could go well outside the top 10 but, should Bateman put everything together in pros with the same consistency as he did in college in 2019, he could prove the best of an ultra-talented bunch.

Best of the rest

For as exciting of a prospect as Bateman is, many believe Terrace Marshall Jr. is even better.

He was the forgotten man in that juggernaut LSU offense of 2019 and impressed last year when thrust into the lead receiver role following the exits of Joe Burrow, Chase, Justin Jefferson and play-caller Joe Brady.

Boasting an intriguing blend of size and speed, Marshall ranked 14th in the FBS in 2020 with 104.4 receiving yards per game. Only two receivers - Smith and Jaelon Darden - caught more than Marshall's 23 touchdowns over the last two seasons.

North Carolina's Dyami Brown is of a similar physical profile to Marshall but used it in a very different way, developing into one of college football's premier deep threats.

With an air yards per target average of 17.6 last season, Brown led FBS receivers with a minimum of 40 catches as he averaged 20.0 yards per reception.

He was open on 75.6 per cent of his targets despite having the fourth-highest average depth of target (18.0 yards) among Power 5 receivers with at least 20 targets. His burn yards per target average of 17.30 was seventh.

While Brown does the bulk of his damage getting downfield before making the catch, teams eyeing receivers who can pick up significant yardage after the reception will have taken a strong look at Florida star Kadarius Toney.

Toney enjoyed a breakout year in 2020, using the elasticity in his legs to rack up 6.93 yards after catch per reception, that average 20th among receivers with a minimum of 40 receptions.

He had a missed/broken tackle per touch rate of 0.360 that was bettered by just four wideouts among Power 5 receivers with a minimum of 50 targets.

And though there is concern about Toney's status as a one-year wonder who often ran undisciplined routes, his hands have proven extremely reliable, his catch percentage of 83.3 fourth among FBS receivers targeted at least 50 times.

Elijah Moore can't quite match Toney for YAC (6.02 per reception in 2020) but he was the picture of reliability for Ole Miss last season as he led the FBS in receiving yards per game with 149.1 while catching 84.3 per cent of his targets (third in FBS among those with 50 targets).

Ultra-dependable at the catch point, Moore demonstrates extremely strong hands, excellent ball-tracking ability and the body control to adjust to inaccurate passes. His catch rating, which measures how well a receiver successfully brings in throws that are considered catchable, of 0.989 was bettered by just one receiver in the Power 5 with at least 50 targets in 2020.

Beating defenders consistently with his lower-body agility and stop-start quickness that makes him a significant threat on double moves, just five Power 5 receivers with a minimum of 50 targets did a better job of getting open than Moore.

He was open on 86.3 per cent of his targets. Expecting Moore to immediately have the same success in the pros is unrealistic, but he has all the makings of a second-round steal.

The New York Jets didn't get the chance to draft Baker Mayfield. Three years later, they may not be passing up on taking a reasonable facsimile.

There's seemingly little drama at the very summit of this year's NFL Draft, where Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence has been seen as a foregone conclusion to land in Jacksonville from the day the Jaguars clinched the No. 1 overall pick in December. And if a growing amount of media speculation can be taken as fact, the Jets appear locked in to making BYU's Zach Wilson their latest attempt at finding a franchise signal-caller when they pick at No. 2.

So, why has Wilson, a fringe prospect leading into his stellar junior season with the Cougars, presumably vaulted to near the top of a quarterback-heavy class that also features three other likely first-round choices in Ohio State's Justin Fields, North Dakota State's Trey Lance and Alabama's Mac Jones?

Joe Burrow had a similar rise just a year ago, going from a projected late-round prospect to the top overall pick on the strength of a record-setting final season at LSU. And when using Stats Perform's advanced metric data, Wilson's 2020 campaign compares quite favourably with the final collegiate seasons of the last three No. 1 overall selections – Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Burrow.

Wilson v former No. 1 overall picks

Wilson's final year with the Cougars has the edge over the farewell college seasons of that trio in two key areas, completion percentage on third down and on throws of at least 20 air yards. He completed 79.7 per cent of his third-down throws (first in the FBS among QBs with a minimum of 40 attempts) and connected on 63.3 per cent of throws of 20 air yards or more, which also led FBS quarterbacks with at least 30 attempts.

Neither Mayfield (62.0), Murray (65.0) or Burrow (65.6) come close to Wilson in third-down percentage. It is the same story when pushing the ball over 20 yards through the air. Mayfield's completion percentage on such pass attempts (53.3) ranked first in the FBS in 2017 while Burrow (58) was second in 2019 but they and Murray (10th in 2018 with 49.3) were again well adrift of Wilson.

When blitzed, Wilson's completion percentage of 67.9 trailed only Burrow in 2019 (69.6), though on play-action throws (73.4 per cent) he was inferior to both Mayfield (73.6) and Burrow (75.2). That duo also had the edge in the red zone. Mayfield led FBS quarterbacks with at least 25 attempts in 2017 with a 70.7 completion percentage, with Wilson's mark of 66.7 below that and Burrow's effort in 2019 (72.2).

Yet in essence, Wilson's performance on deep throws, in play-action situations and within the red zone was a near carbon-copy to those of Mayfield and Burrow. Mayfield has been a popular comp to the Utah native, and for good reason as they're similarly sized and play with an evident abundance of bravado and swagger. That gunslinger mentality often worked against Mayfield in his second NFL season, when his 21 interceptions were the second highest in the league in 2019, but a more judicious approach in 2020 led to a much higher rate of efficiency and more importantly, greater team success as the Cleveland Browns nearly doubled their win total from six to 11.

Wilson's numbers, in fact, trump those of Lawrence, who finished no higher than 19th among qualified FBS quarterbacks in those categories.

Now, that still doesn't necessarily mean that Wilson should be viewed as the superior prospect. Lawrence, much like the three quarterbacks mentioned above, faced an overall higher level of competition than his draft counterpart, who did not go up against a single Power 5 team during BYU's breakout 2020 season.

Wilson did face four major conference teams as a sophomore in 2019, and while his overall stats in those games (997 passing yards, 62.8 completion percentage, three touchdowns, three interceptions) were not overwhelming, he did lead the Cougars to wins at Tennessee and against Southern California with turnover-free efforts in each. While the sample size is still small, it's enough to suggest he can succeed against quality opponents at the next level if he plays within himself.

Why Wilson fits the Jets like a glove

Perhaps Wilson's most endearing trait to quarterback-needy teams, and arguably the main reason why he seems destined to be off the board within the top three picks, is his prowess on play-action passes. That is a staple of the Kyle Shanahan offense run by the San Francisco 49ers, who own the No. 3 pick and have gone on record stating they intend to take a quarterback.

The Jets, meanwhile, have spent the offseason attempting to morph into 49ers East by hiring San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Salah as their new head coach and tabbing Shanahan disciple Mike LaFleur as offensive coordinator. And with Sam Darnold having been shown the door following three seasons of largely unmet expectations, it's clear the next order of business is finding a young field general well-suited to run LaFleur's scheme.

It's also clear that this is a decision the Jets can't get wrong this time around. Wilson may not have the highest ceiling of the group behind Lawrence – that belongs to the uber-athletic but somewhat unpolished Lance – but he'd be the safest bet. He's the best play-action quarterback in this class and probably the most seamless fit for either the Jets or 49ers, having operated in an offense at BYU that utilised a heavy dose of outside-zone running that's common to the Shanahan system. Wilson can also reasonably be viewed as a better prospect than Burrow, as his arm strength is superior to last year's top choice.

Detractors can fairly point out, however, that Burrow may not have been the best quarterback of the 2020 class – Justin Herbert certainly had the best rookie season. The same can be said for Mayfield, who was drafted No. 1 in the same year as an eventual NFL MVP (Lamar Jackson) and a runner-up for last season's award (Josh Allen).

Still, Mayfield has a playoff win on his resume and an above .500 record as a starter for a franchise that went 0-16 before his arrival. If the Jets can get the same from Wilson through his first three years, it will be a worthwhile decision.

The NFL Draft offers a stage for sporting drama, yet there is seemingly no suspense surrounding the identity of the player whose name will be announced first by commissioner Roger Goodell.

Trevor Lawrence was the presumptive number one pick long before he wrapped up his college career after a third and final season with Clemson. There was no need to return for a senior year – the time has come to head to the next level.

The Jacksonville Jaguars are waiting to select what they hope will be their long-term answer at quarterback, someone who can help turn around the fortunes of a team who finished the 2020 campaign with a dismal 1-15 record.

Whether they were 'Tanking for Trevor' or not, their reward for consistently losing is a shot at one of the most talked-about prospects at the position in the past decade. For a franchise with just one winning season in the previous 13 years, the presence of Lawrence offers a fresh start and immediately changes expectation levels.

New head coach Urban Meyer has not even bothered to try to hide the fact either: Lawrence will become a Jaguar on April 29.

This will be a new situation for him, though, having lost just twice with the Tigers. Those defeats came in the 2020 National Championship against an LSU offense led by Joe Burrow, last year's first overall selection by the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Sugar Bowl in January, when Justin Fields – another signal-caller expected to be selected early – led scoring drive after scoring drive for Ohio State.

So, can a serial winner live up to the hype and help the Jags move forward? Stats Perform data helps provide a picture of what Jacksonville - and indeed the league as a whole - can expect.

Law in order with Tigers

Lawrence threw for 10,098 yards in his Clemson career. There were 90 touchdown passes and just 17 interceptions in an impressive three-year run, while the average yards per attempt improved - 8.26 to 9.00, then 9.44 – in each of his seasons in South Carolina.

His completion rate also continued to rise the longer he played at the college level. After hovering just above 65 per cent during years one and two, he was successful on 69.2 per cent of his attempts in 2020.

That number barely dropped when it came to throwing in the red zone (68.5 per cent), ranking him second for quarterbacks in the FBS across the period of 2018-2020, though he completed on 56.8 per cent of his attempts in third-down situations during that span - only good enough to sit 78th out of those to have at least 100 attempts.

Still, on third downs with eight or more yards to go in 2020, Lawrence was on target with 27 of his 43 passes. Taking into consideration just third-and-long circumstances when needing 11 yards or more, he was good with 12 out of 19 throws.

There will undoubtedly be a need to learn quickly on the job, but wide receiver Amari Rodgers - one of Lawrence's main targets when lining up together for the Tigers - has no doubts about his former team-mate delivering on his promise once in the NFL.

"I think he knows what he's walking into," Rodgers, who had 77 catches for 1,020 yards and seven scores in 2020, told Stats Perform News ahead of the draft.

"He knows that it might take a little time to change the program around, but just because he came from that winning culture at Clemson and even in high school, he barely lost any games in high school, he just has that winning mindset.

"He's going to do whatever it takes to change that program around and make them a winning team. I have no doubt he's going to do that."

The key, though, will be getting enough opportunities to make plays.

Coping with the heat

Pressure is coming in many different forms for Lawrence, who prepared for his impending football marriage with the Jaguars by tying the knot with his long-time girlfriend.

The 21-year-old will have to cope with not just the expectations of a new team's fanbase but also the national spotlight. Going first overall comes with added pressure in itself, but with an opening round set to see a bevy of young quarterbacks selected in the early stages, there will inevitably be comparisons to his fellow rookies.

Then there is also the added focus awaiting him from NFL defenses. Jacksonville gave up 44 sacks in the 2020 season, one more than Lawrence endured in his entire career at Clemson.

However, teams will be aware of the risks that come with sending extra rushers at Lawrence, who completed 63.8 per cent of his pass attempts when blitzed. That number ranked him eighth in the FBS across his three-year stint, making the message clear to opponents: get home or be prepared to pay the consequences.

While not widely regarded as a running quarterback, Lawrence is also mobile enough to make plays with his legs; he rushed for 18 touchdowns in 40 games for Clemson, including eight in his final campaign.

If not able to make use of his arm to counter a blitz, the QB's footwork and speed off the mark is capable of seeing him sneak out of trouble and exploit the sudden spaces available.

'The ultimate competitor'

Lawrence's athleticism allows him to rush for yards when the situation requires, but it is undoubtedly his capabilities as a passer that makes him so appealing to the Jaguars.

In a campaign where little went right after a Week 1 win over the Indianapolis Colts, James Robinson's emergence as a dual-threat running back provides Lawrence - who completed 64.6 per cent of passes in play-action situations – a potential safety blanket to hit when coming out of the backfield.

Accuracy is a key trait, too, and the signal-caller has demonstrated how he can go deep when the option is open. On throws of 20 or more air yards, he completed 42.1 per cent. 

"He's the ultimate competitor, every time he steps on the field he's trying to be the best out there," Rodgers said of his former QB.

"He's trying to win every single day. Every single rep, he's trying to be perfect, and if it's not, if you miss a ball in practice, we're doing it like three or five times afterwards just so we can have it on mind, that muscle memory that it actually works.

"He's one of those that prepares like a pro. Ever since he got on campus his freshman year, he prepared outstanding and it showed on the field. I have no doubts he's going to succeed at the next level."

Lawrence has the talent, temperament and tenacity required to prosper. Now he just has to wait for the formalities of getting picked before joining a franchise desperately in need of a superstar.

Trey Lance took to the field at the Fargodome for the final time on Monday with an opportunity to state one last case to be the third overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. In these unusual times, it is perhaps fitting that a quarterback with his irregular resume had such a chance.

Behind closed doors at the home of the North Dakota State Bison, Lance threw in front of several teams in his 'second pro day', having shown off his remarkable arm at his first.

The sequel showcase was undoubtedly primarily aimed at impressing Kyle Shanahan, head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, whose trade up to the third overall pick for a successor to much-maligned and oft-injured quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has given them control of a draft in which the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets are widely expected to select Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson one and two.

Whether Lance did enough to convince the Niners he should be the third player off the board remains to be seen. However, if he did, then San Francisco would be taking one of the most significant risks in the history of the NFL Draft.

Lawrence, Wilson, Justin Fields and Mac Jones all have varying strengths and weaknesses, but it is Lance who stands as the draft's ultimate wild card.

Limited second-tier seasoning

He will enter the league with just one full season of college experience - and an uneven 'showcase game' against Central Arkansas last year - after the coronavirus pandemic pushed the Bison's 2020 season into the spring of 2021. And Lance only averaged around 18 pass attempts in a run-heavy offense in his sole campaign.

In addition to inexperience, the level of competition is also a question-mark against Lance's name, his 16 games in 2019 coming in the FCS, college football's second tier. Bison alumnus Carson Wentz made the grade in the NFL, at least initially, playing at the same level, but the pithy cliche about college prospects often playing against 'future insurance salesmen' is one all too easily applied to Lance.

Yet so impressive were his performances in 2019 that Lance represents an enticing potential project for coaches like Shanahan, and there is significant visual and statistical evidence to suggest he can silence doubts about his inexperience and lack of elite opposition to develop into one of the NFL's most exciting young quarterbacks.

Boundless throwing upside

The raw yardage numbers do not make for spectacular reading for Lance, who finished 2019 with 2,786 passing yards.

However, that is more down to the philosophy of the NDSU offense rather than any limitations he has as a thrower.

Lance averaged 9.71 yards per pass attempt in 2019, ranking eighth among all quarterbacks in the FBS and FCS, with Fields (9.25) 13th and Lawrence (9.00) 18th.

His completion percentage of 66.9 was 17th across the FBS and FCS, below Fields (67.2) but above Lawrence (65.8) and it could have been markedly higher had Lance been more consistent with his downfield accuracy.

Blessed with arm strength that makes throws to all levels of the field available to him, Lance can hit on the deep ball with unerring placement but, unsurprisingly for a player of his limited experience, underthrows and overthrows were also a regular feature of his time with the Bison.

While that may be a concern in terms of his immediate impact at the next level, the fact he still connected on passes at that rate while often missing downfield is illustrative of the room to grow that has many believing he could end up being the best pro of this crop of quarterbacks.

A calm head on young shoulders

Lance's composure and his discipline in taking care of the football should make his transition to the pros smoother and potentially more expedient.

The standout number from his 2019 campaign was his interception tally. Zero. No other quarterback in the FBS and the FCS with a minimum of 200 pass attempts avoided throwing the ball to an opposition player.

That is not to say there weren't instances where Lance was fortunate not to be picked off, and he was finally intercepted in his sole 2020 appearance, but the consistency of his decision-making combined with the fact his blemish-free season came in a year where he also accounted for 42 touchdowns played a significant role in his rapid rise up draft boards.

Fourteen of those scores came in an area of the game where his case for having the edge over the rest of the first-round quarterbacks is most impressive.

Dual-threat dominance

A devastatingly effectively runner in the open field, Lance is a frightening dual-threat who builds speed with long strides and uses every inch of an imposing 6ft 4in and 226-pound frame to inflict punishment on opposing defenders and barrel them over for extra yardage.

Only four quarterbacks across the FBS and FCS had more rushing touchdowns than Lance's 14, while his rushing average of 6.5 was fifth among signal-callers to have registered at least 100 rushing attempts.

Lawrence's 2019 rushing average was only a yard shy of Lance's as the Clemson phenom added nine scores on the ground.

Fields had 10 rushing touchdowns in his sophomore campaign, with that duo each continuing to excel as runners in 2020 as Wilson also produced a demonstration of his athletic upside last season with 10 scores (Lawrence had eight and Fields five).

But none of that trio have proven as physically dominant as Lance when he gets into space and it is the blend of his upside as a rusher and the variety of high-difficulty throws at his dispsoal that makes the prospect of putting him at the helm of a pro offense such an enticing one.

The determination the 49ers and other teams eyeing a quarterback in the draft must make is whether his astronomical ceiling is worth the risk of investing in a player whose bridge from high school to the pros was essentially one season of bullyball against second-rate opponents.

Regardless of how his career ultimately turns out, Lance's diverse and dynamic skill set ensures the team that decides to take that gamble is in for a thrilling ride.

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