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Zach Wilson

Trade another black eye for 2021 draft class

Before the 2024 NFL Draft commences, a brief farewell to the careers of most of the 2021 quarterback draft class. It was a promising group -- there were 5 selected in the top 15 picks, just the second time that's ever happened -- but it sure hasn't turned out very well.

True, it was only three years ago, and it's too soon to call some of those careers. For the draft historians, anyway. With four of the five traded during their rookie contracts, the latest being Zach Wilson from New York to Denver for slightly more than a bucket of warm spit, I'm going to go ahead and say we've got one franchise guy, one maybe franchise guy, and three busts.

Wilson was traded yesterday along with a seventh-round pick for a sixth-round pick. Apparently the Jets are also paying at least some of Wilson's contract. I haven't checked exactly how many spots of draft position the Broncos are losing, but I'm not sure it matters -- they're probably eyeing different players at that area of the draft anyway. It is not a deal that in any way will affect anything Denver might do in the draft. He's a flier that Sean Payton will take a look at this summer and in an ideal world ship off for a slightly more valuable pick at some point.

Wilson has started 33 games, going 12-21 while averaging 185 passing yards and throwing 23 touchdowns, taking nearly 3.5 sacks per game. If a top-5 draft pick quarterback has shown less in his three years in the league, I can't think of him. We can debate JaMarcus Russell, but even Russell threw 4 more touchdowns (13) in his one full season as a starter than Wilson has in any of his three years. Wilson last year got benched for Trevor Siemian AND Tim Boyle, and neither of those guys will necessarily even be on a roster this season. Denver will not be picking up Wilson's fifth-year option, a decision which has to be made in May, so it's likely just a cup of coffee in Denver.

Another quarterback from that class, Mac Jones, was traded by the Patriots for a sixth-round pick. Unlike Wilson, he actually looked viable as a rookie, though things ultimately soured. In Jacksonville, he'll probably back up the top pick in the 2021 draft, Trevor Lawrence. (Probably, because let's see if he actually beats out C.J. Beathard.) Lawrence hasn't exactly set the league on fire, but if we give him a mulligan for the comical Urban Meyer year, he's 17-16 as a starter with an average of 23 TDs and 11 interceptions the last two years, with a division title and a playoff win. He doesn't look like he'll be dominating the AFC South (will he even be one of the division's top 2 quarterbacks the next five years?), but I'd be OK with him as a Jaguars fan. Mac has value if Lawrence blows out his knee in September -- that's it.

Justin Fields was traded to Pittsburgh for a conditional sixth-round pick that could theoretically become a fourth, but probably won't. That small compensation highlights the general skepticism about his NFL future. But Fields earns the "maybe a future franchise quarterback" designation from me. He showed promise at times. He will have a pretty good team around him in Pittsburgh if he moves into the starting lineup. So maybe.

Trey Lance was traded (fourth-round pick, comparatively lofty compensation) to Dallas a year ago, so the Niners gave up on him even sooner. Dak Prescott doesn't have a contract beyond this season as of yet, and maybe they'll be unable to work things out -- hey, stranger things have happened. But most likely Lance is not going to see the field as a starter anytime soon. Injury to Prescott or the Cowboys moving on is Lance's only chance of his first season with 3 NFL starts.

That's your 2021 quarterback draft class. A sobering thought for anyone having too much certainty about the 2024 draft class. This is a more highly regarded group, with five or even six potential first-rounders, but you can never be too sure. Few would have expected the group from three years ago to flop this hard.

Table shows the NFL seasons from those five first-rounders from three years ago, sorted by fantasy rank. Lawrence has a couple of top-12 fantasy finishes, Fields (primarily because he ran for 1,143 yards) one. That's it for the group.

2022Trevor Lawrence, Jac.17411325829157
2023Trevor Lawrence, Jac.1640162114339410
2022Justin Fields, Chi.15224217111143811
2021Mac Jones, N.E.1738012213129017
2023Justin Fields, Chi.132562169657418
2021Trevor Lawrence, Jac.1736411217334222
2022Mac Jones, N.E.1429971411102122
2023Zach Wilson, NYJ12227187211028
2021Zach Wilson, NYJ132334911185430
2023Mac Jones, N.E.112120101296030
2021Justin Fields, Chi.121870710420231
2022Zach Wilson, NYJ9168867102133
2021Trey Lance, S.F.660352168140
2022Trey Lance, S.F.21940167062

I'm not going to claim to know for sure whether or not Fields can take another step forward, or if Lance, Jones or Wilson might one day emerge. But if there were any league optimism on either front, they wouldn't have been traded for as little as they were. No one really thinks it's likely to happen.

All in all, a very disappointing draft class.

--Andy Richardson

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