2021 NFL Draft: The great Trevor Lawrence-Zach Wilson debate

Everybody assumes Trevor Lawrence will be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, but should Zach Wilson get more consideration?

In this week’s edition of Inside the Draft, meet the stars of the College Gridiron Showcase and find out if size really matters for Alabama wide receiver and Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith. But we kick things off with the quarterback debate that is on everyone’s minds and lips this week.

Who’s the better prospect: Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence or Brigham Young’s Zach Wilson?

Do you prefer the quarterback we have seen competing at the highest possible level for three seasons? The one who has led his team to a national championship and into the BCS playoffs each year? The guy who has been the default first-overall pick since well before the start of quarantine, “Tank for Trevor” first appeared on a Jets comment thread?

Or would you rather see your team draft the guy you first heard about sometime in late November and may have watched some highlights of?

No draft season would be complete without a quarterback horse race between a prohibitive favorite and a buzzy underdog. After all, we have hours and hours of television, radio and podcasts to fill over the next two months, and casual fans don’t want to hear about offensive tackles or linebackers.

Lawrence needed a foil, someone for the cool kids who like the bands on the side stage better than the headliners to prefer. Abracadabra! Here’s Wilson, a prospect some insiders suddenly believe is better than Lawrence, as if poofed into existence by Wanda Maximoff.

OK, that’s not really fair. There’s a lot to like about Wilson, who threw 33 touchdowns against three interceptions for the 11-1 BYU Cougars last year. He has a great arm, pretty good wheels and impressive deep accuracy. His film is sprinkled with impressive back-shoulder throws, downfield teardrops on the run and some tough, creative scrambles.

His film is also bursting at the seams with routine throws from surgically-clean pockets to wide-open receivers. And that’s more of a bug than a feature.

Brigham Young was scheduled to play a tough 2020 schedule full of opponents like Michigan, Utah, Arizona State, Minnesota and other major programs. Then came COVID.

The power conferences initially suspended their seasons, forcing the independent BYU to cobble together a schedule out of opponents from midmajor conferences and the FCS level. Wilson played a cupcake schedule against Conference-USA and Sun Belt Conference also-rans, throwing four touchdowns each against Texas State, Houston and North Alabama, opponents which just could not stack up player-for-player against BYU.

When Brigham Young faced ranked Boise State, Wilson struggled to move the offense in the first half. Fortunately, the Broncos were forced to start a true freshman quarterback due to quarantines, and Wilson found his rhythm in the third quarter of what became a 51-17 rout.

When Brigham Young faced Central Florida in the Boca Raton Bowl, the Knights were without three starting defensive backs, including star Richie Grant. Wilson completed a few deep touchdown passes to receivers who were virtually uncovered, including one on a flea flicker.

When Brigham Young faced Coastal Carolina (the best team in the Sun Belt Conference last year, but still not exactly Alabama), Wilson looked ordinary for most of the game, forcing him to attempt an (impressive) final drive that ended one-yard short of a comeback.

The soft schedule does not negate Wilson’s accomplishments or make him a bad prospect. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that it looked like he was throwing 7-on-7 drills against the junior varsity for much of the season. Given a similar schedule instead of a steady diet of Miami, Notre Dame and Ohio State, Lawrence might have thrown approximately six trillion touchdowns.

Wilson could have suddenly blossomed last year. Or he could be a mirage who will disappear once he faces the types of defenses Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields faced each week, the kind Wilson himself also faced in 2018 and 2019, when he looked like more of a late-round pick.

To be clear, Wilson is not some media-manufactured phenomenon. Some NFL personnel experts surely prefer Wilson to Lawrence. Some NFL personnel experts preferred Mitch Trubisky to Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes (Ryan Pace wasn’t the only one). Some NFL personnel experts thought Jared Goff and Carson Wentz were worth trading up to draft, then offering nine-figure contracts, and those same experts just traded those quarterbacks for subway tokens.

General managers and scouting directors are capable of wishful thinking, analysis paralysis, contrarianism and every other form of faulty reasoning, including fooling themselves into thinking they can somehow adjust for the fact that a prospect has six seconds to throw to a wide-open receiver. And if a general manager tells Inside the Draft that some kid from Mason Dixon State is better than Lawrence, we’re leading with it. We just aren’t believing it.

Wilson may be a better prospect than Florida’s Kyle Trask, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance (who had his own schedule questions in 2020) and even Fields. But it takes an enormous stack of assumptions to put Wilson in the same category as Lawrence.

We have all seen Lawrence succeed (and occasionally fail) against almost NFL-caliber opposition since 2018. To project that Wilson could be even better because picked Texas-San Antonio apart requires a leap of scouting overconfidence that Inside the Draft refuses to make.

Ultimately, the only person whose Lawrence-versus-Wilson opinion matters is Urban Meyer, whose Jacksonville Jaguars possess the first-overall pick. If Anonymous Scout, your favorite draftnik or your bartender (who didn’t watch two minutes of Brigham Young football in 2020) prefers Wilson, that’s cool.

Inside the Draft thinks Lawrence remains the best player in the 2021 draft and deserves to be the first overall pick until the guy who will make the first overall pick says otherwise.

Get to Know the Stars of the College Gridiron Showcase

In a typical draft season, the College Gridiron Showcase is an afterthought to most fans, if it is even thought of at all. But with several higher-profile events cancelled or transformed into virtual-learning seminars this year, the annual week of workouts and meetings in Fort Worth took on increased significance for both NFL teams and draftniks.

“It’s a different year,” said Mike Rittelmann, Director of Scouting and Player Personnel for the College Gridiron Showcase. “In a good year, we’re going at the same time with the Senior Bowl, the East-West Shrine Game and the NFLPA Bowl. It’s good for the players, the NFL community and the scouts. This year, a lot of the scouts were coming out on the road for the first time to our event and then heading to the Senior Bowl.”

Fewer all-star games meant that the College Gridiron Showcase wasn’t playing third fiddle to more established events games, resulting in a better-than-usual crop of prospects. But COVID restrictions meant that an event that usually looks like an NFL team’s minicamp or a week of Senior Bowl practices — lots of 1-on-1 and team drills, some contact, an end-of-week scrimmage — turned into a whirlwind week of Combine-style individual non-contact drills.

For scouts who were grounded for months and many prospects whose final college seasons were curtailed or cancelled, the non-contact drills were still a vital evaluative opportunity.

“Our event was a good platform to allow scouts to get up close and personal, to find out how a guy moves, what kind of body type he has,” Rittelmann said. “And it was a chance to have a one-on-one conversation that’s not through a computer screen. You can’t get a good feel for someone on a Zoom call.”

Representatives of 30 NFL teams and several CFL teams attended the College Gridiron Showcase, many of them sending high-level decision makers. Veteran free agents and tiny-program prospects also worked out at the event, but Inside the Draft asked Rittelmann to provide a rundown of some of the players who most helped themselves:

Brady Breeze, safety, Oregon. Breeze recorded several huge plays down the stretch for the Ducks in 2019 but opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID. “He came in really ready to compete,” Rittelmann said. “You could see why he was the Rose Bowl MVP two years ago: the ability to move well in space. He can cut and turn on a dime very quickly.

Zach Davidson, tight end, Central Missouri. Davidson not only caught 15 touchdown passes for the D-II Mules but earned all-conference honors as a punter in 2019. His team did not play in 2020 due to COVID. “He can move well at 6-6, 245,” Rittelmann said. “For his size, it was awesome to see him getting in and out of his cuts. Good ball skills. And yes, he’s a punter. He didn’t punt at CGS — he just concentrated on tight end — but a 6-6 punter isn’t something you see everyday.”

Greg Eilland, offensive tackle, Ole Miss. Eilland’s measurables jumped off Inside the Draft’s Twitter feed. “Great young man,” Rittelmann said. “Moves well for his size. And he has a frame where he can add another 20 pounds. He weighed in at 335 [at 6-foot-7], but he has a sleek frame and an 89 inch wingspan. A good, moldable offensive lineman.” Rittelmann noted that other CGS linemen, including BYU’s Chandon Herring and Larnel Coleman of UMass, also displayed an impressive mix of athleticism and pure size.

JaQuan Hardy, running back, Tiffin. Hardy may be the buzziest player coming out of the showcase: after all, who doesn’t love a small-program 225-pounder with a sizzle reel full of video game moves? “Solid build,” Rittelmann said. “He made fluid cuts. And you saw the production at Tiffin. I’m excited to see where he goes.”

Nate Hobbs, defensive back, Illinois. Hobbs was a three-year starter and co-captain for the Illini, but he played just five games in 2020 due to an injury and the shortened B1G schedule. “Good athlete, good ball skills,” Rittelmann said. “Fluid when transitioning in and out of his breaks. He high-pointed the ball in drills. Just solid overall.

Many participants in this year’s College Gridiron Showcase will hear their names called in April’s draft. Then quarantines and restrictions will lift (fingers crossed) for next year, and the CGS will once again become one of many events competing for a limited number of professional-quality prospects. But perhaps 2020 will put the showcase on the radar of more agents and draftniks.

At the very least, it got some prospects much-needed exposure while giving scouts and evaluators a chance to do the jobs that they love. “In a pandemic stricken season,” Rittleman said, “it was awesome just to be around football.”

The Skeptic’s Guide to DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama

Each week at Inside the Draft, The Skeptics Guide will choose one of the brightest stars in the 2021 draft class and explore the biggest weaknesses in his game and reasons why he might fail. Think of it as “devil’s advocate” reasoning or opposition research, and please don’t take it personally if he’s your favorite player ever.

DeVonta Smith Ceiling Comparison: Steve Smith
DeVonta Smith Floor Comparison: Paul Richardson

“Slim Reaper.” It lies somewhere between the coolest football nickname in decades and the name of some horrible Limp Bizkit-style late-1990s rap-metal tribute band. It’s also the most concise and balanced scouting report in draft history: DeVonta Smith will slay you, but gosh he is noticeably twiggy.

Inside the Draft loved Smith from the moment we spotted him upstaging Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs on 2019 game film until the moment he declined to get weighed in for the 2021 Senior Bowl.

We cannot remember a player ever declining a weigh-in during our decade of Senior Bowl coverage. Don’t get Inside the Draft wrong: lots of players should decline the Senior Bowl weigh-in, because it’s the most humiliating and dehumanizing experience we’ve ever munched trail mix while watching every moment of. College prospects are paraded across a stage in their underwear in front of bleachers full of scouts, coaches and media, who take notes about their height, weight, the shape of their thighs and glutes, the number and subject matter of their tattoos, etc.

It’s creepy and problematic. But superstars and Heisman Trophy winners have ways of avoiding the meat market and getting weighed behind the scenes if they choose. Smith did not want to be weighed because he would probably have tipped the scales at less than 180 pounds.

Now, feel free to respond with: “Weight doesn’t matter! Size doesn’t matter, unless it’s the size of his throbbing heart or competitive spirit!” Go ahead and believe that; it will get you lots of Likes on Twitter. The fact remains that 180 pounds is a dangerous threshold for an NFL player.

Here’s a list of the 10 most productive NFL receivers who weighed 180 pounds or less at the Combine since 2000, per Stathead. 

DeSean Jackson (2008, 165 pounds)

Jackson is a popular comp for Smith and has enjoyed a 15 season career. If you are arguing that size doesn’t matter for a wide receiver, a player who missed significant time in multiple seasons (Jackson has basically been the Sergeant-at-Arms for the Eagles injury list for the past two years) and was a designated deep threat instead of a go-to target in even his best seasons is an odd choice.

Ted Ginn (2007, 178 pounds)

A world-class speedster drafted ninth overall by the Miami Dolphins, Ginn has had some memorable moments, but he has never had more than 800 receiving yards in a season and surpassed 50 receptions just twice.

Dennis Northcutt (2000, 175 pounds)

You know you’re in trouble when the third player on an all-time list is Northcutt, a productive-but-unremarkable second or third receiver for the early 2000s Browns.

John Brown (2014, 179 pounds)

A useful boundary and deep threat who has been fully healthy for four of his seven NFL seasons so far.

Harry Douglas (2008, 176 pounds)

Your basic skinny-speedy slot guy for the Roddy White-Tony Gonzalez Falcons of the early 2010s.

Todd Pinkston (2000, 179 pounds)

A Philly legend, Pinkston was the scarecrow-like receiver the Eagles tried to develop as Donovan McNabb’s go-to guy before Terrell Owens arrived. Pinkston could be re-routed by a gentle breeze and turned 50-50 balls into 0.5-99.5 balls.

Travis Benjamin (2012, 172 pounds)

Another speedy slot weapon and return man.

Cedric Wilson (2001, 179 pounds)

Yet another speedy slot weapon and return man.

Paul Richardson (2014, 175 pounds)

Richardson is our “floor” comparison for Smith. A second-round pick by the Seahawks, he was seldom healthy but produced a few breathtaking highlights. The Washington Football Team blew a reported $40-million in 2018 to add Richardson to their All Star Injured Reserve.

Roscoe Parrish (2005, 168 pounds)

One more speedy slot weapon and return man.

Get the picture? Most featherweight receivers max out as role players. Many of them battle injuries throughout their career. The notion that a 175-pound weigh-in can be brushed off because a receiver caught lots of collegiate touchdowns is silly. Which is almost certainly why Smith chose to not get weighed in.

Smith will not step on a scale until his Alabama Pro Day (scheduled for March 23rd). He’ll be chained to a booth at Waffle House for breakfast that morning and drink a gallon of water before he approaches the scale, so he’ll reach 185 pounds or so and render the above list moot. And yes, he’ll spend the offseason adding useful weight as well, though one look at Smith’s calves suggest that he doesn’t have the frame to bulk up very much.

Now, there are plenty of reasons to think that Smith is better than any of the receivers listed above, including Jackson. In addition to being blessedly fast and smooth, Smith is fearless in traffic and great at making contested catches. Smith has the combination of all-purpose speed and route-running ability to be as effective as Steve Smith or a baggage-free Antonio Brown.

Then again, fearlessness in the middle of the field can be a double-edged sword when you weigh 177 pounds after a trip to the lavatory.

There’s a Smith-versus-LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase controversy brewing among draftniks, and it is almost as ridiculous as Trevor Lawrence versus Zach Wilson. Both receivers are outstanding, but Chase looks like a perennial 100-catch receiver at the NFL level. Smith comes with a built-in risk that it would be foolish to overlook with Chase on the board.

Smith may well break the mold, but the smart money will be on the guy who doesn’t have to break any molds to excel.

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