Just when it appeared the NFL was headed for a relatively quiet period – what with the league’s free agent market largely picked over and the draft still nearly five weeks away – an offseason thunderbolt landed Friday and this year’s first-round order was suddenly jumbled.
The Miami Dolphins were at the center of the pre-draft chaos, shipping the No. 3 overall pick to the San Francisco 49ers for No. 12, first-rounders in 2022 and 2023 and an additional third-rounder next year. But the Dolphins didn’t wait long before vaulting back into the top 10, flipping that No. 12 selection and one of their 2022 first-rounders as part of a package to the Philadelphia Eagles that brought this year’s No. 6 overall choice to Miami.
Time to sift through the aftermath as we try to determine the winners and losers of these megadeals:
Kyle Shanahan: The Niners, particularly their head coach, have long fought a perception they’ve soured on QB Jimmy Garoppolo. The quarterback had generally provided solid (occasionally spectacular) play, but injuries ruined his 2018 and 2020 seasons – and, by extension, San Francisco’s. Though never a Pro Bowler, Jimmy G did have his best NFL campaign in 2019 – the only time he threw for at least 3,000 yards or surpassed double-digit TD passes (27) – and the 49ers made it all the way to Super Bowl 54. Garoppolo was adequate against the Chiefs on that Super Sunday, the Niners taking a 20-10 lead into the fourth quarter. But even after they coughed up that advantage, Garoppolo could have emerged heroic by hitting wide-open Emmanuel Sanders for the go-ahead TD with 93 seconds to go … but he missed long, and the 49ers never recovered. Still, GM John Lynch had remained publicly supportive of Garoppolo in multiple interviews, saying on a podcast last month, “I really believe that Jimmy is our guy.”
Yet it’s pretty apparent there’s been a substantial shift in the organizational mindset. You don’t make this kind of deal – trading three first-round selections – to target even a pass rusher or cornerback. Evidently, Shanahan and Lynch have identified at least two quarterbacks in this draft (not named Trevor Lawrence) whom they think can operate this offense more effectively than Garoppolo. Somebody in San Francisco’s brain trust made a convincing argument that this team was one upgraded passer away from long-term contention … and soon we’ll all find out if that’s true.
Tua Tagovailoa: By surrendering the No. 3 pick, the Dolphins have clearly telegraphed belief in last year’s No. 5 overall selection. Coach Brian Flores has outwardly backed Tagovailoa, who didn’t supplant Ryan Fitzpatrick as Miami’s starter until last November. As is the case with most rookie passers, Tagovailoa’s play was uneven as he finished with a 64.1% completion rate 1,814 yards passing, 11 TDs, five interceptions and a QB rating of 87.1. His final game was his worst, a three-interception day in a 56-26 loss at Buffalo that cost the Fins a playoff spot. But with Fitzpatrick gone and little chance the Dolphins will take another QB with their first pick now – and more likely a blue-chip weapon for the offense – Tagovailoa should rest easy knowing this job is his as he heads toward a season that will be nearly two years removed from the catastrophic hip injury he suffered in 2019 while playing for Alabama.
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New York Jets: It’s still not clear whether the Jets will invest the No. 2 overall pick of this year’s draft in a quarterback – BYU’s Zach Wilson, who had a buzz-generating pro day Friday, being the apparent frontrunner – or stick with Sam Darnold while finally surrounding him with scads of talent. But the 49ers’ move up the board should generate even more options for NYJ GM Joe Douglas. If he likes Wilson and another quarterback more than Darnold, Douglas could try to extract a bounty from San Francisco to move up one rung if Wilson is the Niners’ primary target. Regardless, in a quarterback-driven league ruled by the supply and demand at the most glamorous position in sports, the Jets’ pick just got more valuable – whether the 49ers or another team covet it – given the certainty that at least two of this year’s top prospects will now be off the board in the first three picks.
Jalen Hurts: Heading into his sophomore season, the Philadelphia quarterback can pretty much rest assured he’ll have at least the upcoming campaign to solidify his standing as Carson Wentz’s long-term successor. There had been rampant pre-draft speculation that the Eagles might take another potential franchise QB at No. 6, then let Hurts, a second-rounder in 2020, and the rookie duke it out in camp with the loser possibly serving as trade bait to a team in need of help at the position. But it appears an ESPN report from earlier this month, suggesting owner Jeffrey Lurie wanted his front office to build around Hurts in the short term, had veracity – and there should be a slew of interesting weapons to choose from at No. 12, the ultimate choice most likely to be an offensive building block.
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Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals: Both appear to be sitting pretty in the fourth and fifth slots, respectively, as the draft seemingly shifts to an even more top-heavy QB scenario. With QB Matt Ryan still playing at a high level, the Falcons will likely be choosing between the fourth QB on the board (or maybe even Alabama’s Mac Jones), the best positional player in the whole field, or a trade to a team that will probably be desperate for Ohio State’s Justin Fields or North Dakota State’s Trey Lance. Meanwhile, even as QB Joe Burrow, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, mends from ACL surgery, the Bengals are likely staring at a welcome dilemma – whether it be a downfield weapon for Burrow like LSU WR Ja’Marr Chase, Florida TE Kyle Pitts or a much needed bodyguard like Oregon OT Penei Sewell or Northwestern OL Rashawn Slater
Eagles rebuild: After winning the Super Bowl for the first time in 2017 and going to the playoffs the following two seasons, the wheels came off in 2020 – aging veterans succumbing to injuries, deficiencies exposed and Wentz’s play cratering in a cascading series of problems that made it difficult to discern cause and effect. But now executive vice president/GM Howie Roseman and rookie coach Nick Sirianni have additional assets, including an extra fourth-rounder this year along with 2022’s additional Round 1 pick, to retool in a division that seems to be in play annually. And even if Hurts doesn’t pan out, the Eagles now have the wherewithal to more effectively replace him – especially when you consider how Roseman masterfully climbed the board to obtain Wentz second overall in 2016.
Justin Fields/Trey Lance/Zach Wilson: One of them will almost certainly be the 49ers’ selection at No. 3, all of them tantalizing talents with bigger arms and faster legs than Garoppolo. And one will join a team that features a dominant defense (when healthy), an offensive line that just reinvested in Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams and added center Alex Mack, a fleet of capable backs, up-and-coming receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, the top tight end in the NFC (and maybe the league) in George Kittle … and finally Shanahan, regarded as one of the league’s most creative offensive minds and best play callers. A golden (and red) opportunity to play for what should be a perennial contender and become part of what’s NFL quarterbacking royalty for a franchise led to glory by Joe Montana and Steve Young. And given how heavily Shanahan relies on the run when this offense is at its best, the rookie may not even have to do that much once he cracks the lineup.
Justin Fields/Trey Lance/Zach Wilson: The pressure and the scrutiny will be intense on whomever the 49ers select. This is a team built to win now, but one that must navigate the fierce competitions (and defenses) that roam the NFC West. It seems doubtful the chosen rookie will play immediately, especially as reports emerge that the 49ers still plan to start Garoppolo in 2021 – and he’s shown borderline championship-level efficacy. But eventually Fields, Lance or Wilson will be anointed – likely sooner than later – and it will be go time, Niners fans and veterans in that locker room knowing nothing less than the organization’s sixth Lombardi Trophy will qualify as success.
AFC East: The Bills look tough coming off a trip to the AFC championship game, while the Patriots and Jets reload (to the degree the Jets were ever loaded). But on the heels of a somewhat surprising 10-6 season, even one that ended in disappointment, the Dolphins are positioned for quite an influx of talent with five first-round picks in the next three drafts.
Carolina Panthers: Heading into his second season, coach Matt Rhule has openly admitted that he’s looking to upgrade every position, including the one veteran quarterback Teddy Bridgewater currently holds. According to multiple reports, the organization badly wanted to bring Houston Texans star Deshaun Watson back to the Carolinas, though the embattled quarterback’s mounting legal issues have clouded his immediate future. Mired at No. 8 in the draft order, Rhule’s Panthers may now have to consider potentially exorbitant deals with the Jets or NFC South rival Atlanta Falcons, who select fourth, to ensure they secure one of this year’s premium passing prospects.
NFC West: What was arguably already the NFL’s most loaded division may soon be even better with the Niners, just a year removed from an NFC title, likely to shore up their quarterback depth chart – an area where the Cardinals, Rams and Seahawks all appear quite settled … assuming Russell Wilson and Seattle work out their issues. Still, this could be a bloody war of attrition as San Francisco prepares to re-enter a fray that nearly produced three playoff entries last year before Arizona’s second-half swoon cost them the conference’s final wild-card berth.
Jimmy Garoppolo: He arrived in a ballyhooed midseason 2017 deal, the first year Lynch and Shanahan were on the job, and was quickly rewarded with a five-year, $137.5 million package – a record at the time despite Jimmy G’s relative inexperience – after he went 5-0 post-trade. But now Garoppolo is almost surely on borrowed time, very unlikely to craft an Aaron Rodgers-like MVP retort to save his job. And with the Patriots (Cam Newton), Bears (Andy Dalton) and Washington (Fitzpatrick) all signing QBs for 2021, chances are there isn’t a bona fide opportunity for a fresh start this year for Garoppolo, who has two years left on his deal and is still owed roughly $51 million. Prior to Newton’s re-signing on a team-friendly, one-year pact, there had been speculation that Garoppolo might reunite with Bill Belichick in New England. But that seems like a trickier proposition now that the Pats have doled out so much of the nearly $70 million in cap space they had available not even two weeks ago – and better chance Garoppolo enters the 2021 season on a hot seat rather than a comfortable one.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
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