From Trevor Lawrence on down, the 2021 NFL Draft is a 'must-see' spectacle
By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
The NFL Draft brings all emotions to the fore, especially for fan bases of those teams that have – how can we put this kindly? – been somewhat wasteful with their recruitment opportunities in recent years.
If you’re a Kansas City Chiefs supporter, with the memory of landing Patrick Mahomes with the 10th pick in 2017 still flowing fresh through the psyche, Thursday and all it brings probably don't generate too much trepidation.
However, for followers of the Chicago Bears and other franchises that have whiffed and wobbled the past few times they’ve been on the clock, things likely feel much more pressurized.
If you’re a neutral (is anyone truly neutral when it comes to the NFL?), the opportunity to potentially witness history being made makes this draft every bit a "must-see."
Just like the long- and not-so-long-suffering fans, the hosting crew of the FOX Sports Draft Watch Party will come to Thursday night’s drama with widely varying viewpoints.
As he holds court over a team set to parse and debate each of the first-round selections over the course of several hours Thursday, Trey Wingo – who has covered the draft for the past 18 years but will be making his debut for FOX – is ready to embrace how this will be a draft like no other.
"Last year’s draft was very different in its execution," Wingo told me via telephone. "But the run-up, the evaluation part where teams did all their homework, didn’t change. There was a combine. Most pro days were unaffected. There was a full college season.
"This time will be the complete opposite. The draft will look a lot more normal, but the buildup has been totally thrown askew. Some players played six games, some 13 games or some none at all. There was no combine. It is fascinating, and it gives the teams even more to think about."
Wingo settled into a familiar routine this year. Once the Super Bowl was over, his thoughts turned immediately to free agency and the draft, as he spent his time continually talking to people in the know, evaluating players, speaking with front office staff and seeking to decipher as much information as possible.
"It is a weird dynamic," he added. "The players are doing all they can to make themselves seem as valuable as possible so they can be drafted higher and make more money. For the teams, though, they are all about maximizing the value of what they are getting, essentially seeing the picks as commodities that they have to get the most out of."
Wingo will be joined in the studio by T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Jordan Palmer, Geoff Schwartz, RJ Young and Jason McIntyre. He will interview former No. 1 picks Eli Manning and Michael Vick during the stream.
For Houshmandzadeh, thinking back to his own draft experience will be unavoidable as the selections tick by. Coming out of Oregon State in 2001, Houshmandzadeh was expected to be taken no later than the third round, but he fell all the way to the seventh, going to the Cincinnati Bengals with the 204th selection.
It was a slight that fueled him throughout his career and one that, he says, will never be forgotten.
"How can I put it … it was, er, disappointing," Houshmandzadeh chuckled this week. "I saw a lot of guys go ahead of me that I — and they — knew weren’t better than me. It was disheartening. Honestly, it made me angry. But it actually motivated me.
"People say I overachieved, but that’s not right. I was just evaluated wrong. That is what we will see again — some guys evaluated too high, others too low. That’s part of what I like about the draft, that whole evaluation process and all the levels to it. But I sympathize with those guys that drop because it’s hard."
This draft will have more in common with what we are used to than last year's, but it is still greatly altered. The 2020 edition was so widely consumed because there was nothing else happening at the time, and it provided all kinds of unique looks, including, yep, Roger Goodell’s basement. Bill Belichick’s dog made an appearance, and we got to see plenty of diverse decor from the homes of key team personnel.
This time, there will be fans in attendance and some festivities allowed on the Cleveland waterfront, but a reminder that the world has not yet returned to normal will still pervade.
There certainly won’t be anything particularly normal about the top of the board, with the near-guarantee of quarterbacks being taken with the opening three picks and perhaps an unprecedented 1-2-3-4 run if the Atlanta Falcons seek to either trade down or secure Matt Ryan’s long-term replacement.
For Palmer, this draft is all about the QBs, with him having become an acclaimed guru in training and preparing players at the position. He has worked extensively with presumptive No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence and will be keeping a close eye over proceedings, as Zach Wilson seems sure to land with the New York Jets at No. 2, and then the San Francisco 49ers’ trade-up slot at No. 3 comes into play.
One thing the analysts can agree on: No one is buying the narrative that San Francisco would be happy with any one of several different QBs, namely Mac Jones, Justin Fields and Trey Lance. "They know who they were looking at when they made that trade," Wingo said. "Or else they wouldn’t have made it," Houshmandzadeh added.
Lawrence’s status as the standout of this draft is the least dramatic piece to it all. For more than a year, he has been locked into this spot, but that shouldn’t diminish the magnitude of what he accomplished at Clemson and the reality that he’s arguably the most highly rated QB prospect to come out of college since Andrew Luck in 2012.
Lawrence seems like a can’t-miss prospect until we remember that there’s no such thing, which is why all the emotions of draft night should be held in a state of temporary suspension. There will be celebrations and devastation felt by various groups of fans over the course of the weekend. That’s all fine and all part of the fun, but just remember that this is a guessing – and second-guessing – game.
A great draft pick is only great when — and if — he becomes great. The draft is one of the most highly anticipated occasions on the NFL calendar, but in many ways, it’s just the start of the wait.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.