The first round of the NFL Draft was supposed to set the stage for the final stretch of quarterback movement this offseason.
That didn’t happen.
Kenny Pickett was the only quarterback off the board Thursday night, going to the Steelers with the 20th pick. It was just the second time in the last 21 years that a single quarterback was selected in the draft’s opening round — confirming the doubts that much of the NFL had regarding this prospect class.
Malik Willis, Matt Corral, Desmond Ridder and Sam Howell highlight the list of quarterbacks who still remain on the board. Willis was widely expected to be taken in the first round, while it was speculated Corral and Ridder also had slight chances to sneak into the mix Thursday night.
And so it appears Baker Mayfield and Jimmy Garoppolo will continue to remain on hold.
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The Panthers and Seahawks have remained in the mix in the veteran quarterback market throughout the offseason, and the Texans will likely explore their options with Garoppolo and Mayfield, according to a source. Of course, this all continues to hinge on the rest of the draft.
The Panthers may have telegraphed their intentions before the draft. Owner David Tepper preached patience Wednesday and harped on the process of rebuilding the roster. There were obvious clues the Panthers wouldn’t reach for a quarterback with the sixth pick — not when they needed to fix their offensive line — and they took advantage of tackle Ikem Ekwonu’s fortuitous slide.
The Panthers now should be players for Mayfield. The Browns are prepared to pay a portion of Mayfield’s $18.86 million salary to facilitate a deal, with the percentage of the contractual retainment relative to the trade compensation. That’ll be important with the Panthers also paying quarterback Sam Darnold’s $18.86 million fifth-year option.
There’s another important factor here, too. The Panthers don’t have another pick until the fourth round, so they won’t have a chance at Willis, Corral, Ridder or Howell without trading a 2023 selection. Since Willis has the most upside, teams will likely be jockeying for position to move up for him Friday night, meaning the Panthers would probably need to offer next year’s first-round pick to make such a deal.
So the Panthers might be debating two avenues here. They could trade a 2023 first-rounder for Willis or maybe even Corral. Or they could wait and offer much less capital for Mayfield or Garoppolo, then remain in the mix for a 2023 quarterback class that is deemed superior to the current group.
The Panthers have been aggressive on the quarterback front. They called about Russell Wilson last year before getting turned down and shifting toward Darnold. They were in the mix for Deshaun Watson before he was sent to the Browns. They’re trying to curb the uncertainty in search of an answer.
Are they certain about Willis or Corral? If yes, a trade makes sense. If not, they could try out Mayfield or Garoppolo for a season before potentially shifting focus on Bryce Young or another 2023 draft prospect. Mayfield and Garoppolo may not turn the Panthers into contenders but they’d be an upgrade, and they’d also give head coach Matt Rhule a better opportunity to prove himself after a couple of rocky seasons.
Then there are the Seahawks, who have also been viewed as a solid landing spot for Mayfield. They’re equipped with the 40th and 41st picks, so they’re in a prime spot to draft a quarterback, whether they move up or stand pat.
The Seahawks, who took tackle Charles Cross at No. 9, are in a unique spot of their own because they’ve got veteran quarterbacks Drew Lock and Geno Smith on the roster. Would they view Mayfield or Garoppolo as distinct upgrades over Lock or Smith? Or are they actually comfortable with Lock or Smith as the starter for a season while Willis, Corral, Ridder or Howell waits on the bench in a learning capacity?
Plus, the 49ers might not even consider the idea of trading Garoppolo to an NFC West rival, so it might only come down to Mayfield. The 27-year-old quarterback has the type of energy that head coach Pete Carroll would covet, and the No. 1 pick from the 2018 draft could accelerate the Seattle rebuild if he finds success with offensive coordinator Shane Waldron. And in the event Mayfield rebounds with the Seahawks, it could help the team entice receiver DK Metcalf to stay beyond his rookie contract.
Don’t rule out the Texans, though. They are indeed encouraged by quarterback Davis Mills’ rookie season and would be comfortable with him as their starter again in 2022, according to a source. And they had no intention of selecting a quarterback Thursday with a pair of picks in the top half of the first round.
However, the Texans hadn’t ruled out the possibility of jumping up for Willis or Pickett if they fell to the bottom of the opening round. The Texans, sitting at No. 37, could still get their guy Friday night.
It’s conceivable the Buccaneers (No. 33), Vikings (No. 34), Titans (No. 35) or Giants (No. 36) jump on a quarterback as a succession plan for their current starters, and they also have to consider that they could get leapfrogged by the Seahawks or another team. The patient approach might backfire if they truly like Willis or another quarterback.
Otherwise, the Texans want to make sure they’re competitive with a difficult schedule on the horizon in 2022. The AFC South has improved, and they’ve also drawn the daunting AFC West slate, along with the NFC East, Browns, Dolphins and Bears. As much as the Texans like Mills, are they giving themselves the best chance to win when Garoppolo and Mayfield are options?
Texans general manager Nick Caserio worked with the Patriots when they drafted Garoppolo in the second round in 2014, so they have history. Garoppolo would also be an easy stopgap if they want a younger option in 2023, including Mills. But so far, the 49ers’ asking price for Garoppolo has been too high, according to a source.
Mayfield would be another consideration because of the asking price. The Texans had no interest in Mayfield as part of the Watson trade, but things have changed, according to sources. Notably, at the time of the Watson trade, the Browns wanted to see if another team would take Mayfield’s entire contract. Now that it’s become apparent the Browns must consume a portion of Mayfield’s contract, the Texans might consider that type of deal.
There might have been one resolution to Thursday’s draft results. In an extreme scenario, the Browns didn’t want to reach a point where they had to release Mayfield and then find him signing with the Steelers. That was viewed as a long shot, but the Steelers’ selection of Pickett as a pairing with Mitch Trubisky probably ruled out that scenario.
The 49ers remain a wild card in the QB sweepstakes. While they’re motivated to move Garoppolo, they’re reluctant to trade him for a minimal return until they’re sure Trey Lance is ready to start in 2022. Lance must prove that throughout the offseason workout program, and the 49ers are prepared to carry Garoppolo into training camp if necessary. They know they’ve got a roster that can contend for an NFC Championship and don’t want to move Garoppolo until they’re sure of Lance’s readiness.
And finally, Garoppolo is still recovering from right shoulder surgery, while Mayfield is rehabbing left shoulder surgery. Garoppolo is expected to begin throwing by training camp. Mayfield might be ready sooner than that.
There’s still so much at play, including the rest of the draft this weekend. The answers that were expected Thursday night may take quite a bit longer to unfold.
(Top photo: Jason Miller / Getty Images)
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