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Why the 2021 NFL Draft will have the most shallow group of day 3 prospects in history

The value of draft picks in the 2021 NFL Draft could plummet

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Trevor Lawrence Workout Photo by Aubrey Lao/Getty Images

Perhaps you’ve noticed already that there is something “off” with the 2021 NFL Draft and the pool of players that will inhabit its selections. Not just the differences that we hear about often — the pandemic leading to the cancellation of colleges games and player opt outs has given general managers far less film to work from than usual, and perhaps more importantly there is an underlying layer of panic among teams that they have incomplete medical reports due to the lack of a normal NFL Scouting Combine — but also in the way that people talk about the current class as a whole.

The defensive tackle group has been called the worst position in the 2021 draft and the NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah said that it is probably the weakest he’s seen since starting on the job in 2003. It’s not hard to find people who say it is a “shallow” class there.

The tight ends group has a “transcendent” prospect in Kyle Pitts, but we might not see another player at the position drafted until the third round at the latest. ESPN’s Jeff Legwold indeed referred it to as a “shallow” group recently.

The center position might not produce a single player drafted in the first round and it could be one of those years where the top player at the position goes in the middle of day two. Center has been referred to as “shallow” this year.

Maybe teams would then prefer an edge rusher, but CBS Sports’ Dan Schneider wrote recently that it is “objectively a shallow EDGE class that’s also not top heavy with talent.”

How about at a time when there is an emphasis on getting a third defensive back on the field, typically a large hard-hitting safety who could also cover the slot, could there be a Derwin James or Jamal Adams or a high safety like Eric Berry that comes off the board early this year? No, instead it seems that there is only player at the position who even has a first round grade.

For teams like the LA Rams, who don’t have a first rounder and who will be doing most of their work in the middle or end of the draft, it makes you wonder what groups won’t be stripped of potential starters by the time the fourth round hits. Don’t worry, just don’t get your hopes up for: center, tight end, defensive tackle, edge, and safety. Oh and also because those positions are shallow, it means that there will be an emphasis on draining the top-end talent at quarterback, wide receiver, cornerback, and linebacker in the top three rounds, so don’t get your hopes up for one of those either.

If it’s starting to seem like the last two or three rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft will be littered with reaches and swings at players who don’t play positions of need, that’s because we should probably expect that to be the case. It’s not just a theory I have though, this is based on something that every team and general manager already knows: there are a hell of a lot fewer prospects to evaluate this year but also a hell of a lot less information about who they are and could be.

Bills’ media analyst Chris Brown makes it a point as clear as day in a recent episode of One Bills Lite: this is the smallest draft pool in modern NFL history: 657 draft eligible players. Last year, there were 1,932 eligible players:

“There’s another element at play here too ... the NCAA gave college players an extra year of college eligibility if they chose to make use of it. A lot of them have. In this year’s draft pool there are 657 eligible players to be drafted ... last year at this time ... 1,932 ... we know that 657 players aren’t going to get drafted but the pool is one-third the size of what it usually is and the general consensus is that NFL GMs are going to give away day three picks like a cup of water ... you want my sixth this year? Give me a seventh next year.”

Said one anonymous scout: “There are going to be some absolute slaps drafted this year ... as in rejects.”

Every draft prior to this, if a team wanted to trade back into the sixth round this year, they’d have to give up a fifth next year. The general rule has always been that if you want a draft pick now, you have to give up a better draft pick later. But given that this pool is one-third its usual size — and that next year’s draft class pool will be over-loaded with prospects — the 2022 NFL Draft is expected to be remarkably more valuable than this one.

That means that by the time we get to the fifth or sixth rounds, it is possible that some teams are already scraping the bottom of their draft boards. A team used to be able to comfortably put 125 players on its draft board and have a reasonable expectation that there would still be players on it when the seventh round hit. But teams have increased the size of their draft boards this year because if you only have 125 prospects on your board, all 125 of them might actually get picked in the top-200 or so.

We should also consider what a shallow draft pool could explain:

  • A shallow draft pool could explain why five or more quarterbacks go in the first round this year. The simple explanation for five QBs in the top-12 would be that it’s an historic group. A more textured (and possibly rational) explanation is that without many elite prospects at other positions, teams may not feel it is as great of a risk to put their necks out for a quarterback over a pass rusher or a safety or a tight end. It is easier to pick Trey Lance over Jaelan Phillips than it would be to take Lance over Bradley Chubb or Adams or Orlando Pace.
  • It could explain why there might not be a defensive prospect taken in the top-10. Is it a “strong” class for offense? Or is it simply a “top-heavy” offensive class and a defensive class shaped like Humpty-Dumpty: light up top, thick in the middle, and ready to shatter all over the ground.
  • It could help explain why prospects might shoot up the boards higher and later in the process than usual this year. Prospects such as Joe Tryon, Jamin Davis, Dillon Radunz, Teven Jenkins, Levi Onwuzurike, Azeez Onjulari, and Tyson Campbell seem to be among those who have risen the most recently but once day one is over, maybe there are three or four major surprises that nobody has discussed much yet.

What’s more odd is that it seems 25-percent of the league can’t even afford its rookie class yet, with Spotrac estimating that eight teams need to find space to afford their picks from a group that has 66-percent fewer options to choose from.

But what is really important is how this shallow pool impacts what happens after day two and after the draft.

Most prospects who liked their chances of getting drafted, especially early, would have entered the 2021 NFL Draft and for that reason we may not see as many unusual differences in the first round or two of the event. But then what happens when you remove nearly 1,300 prospects from the depth of the class? Because it could be that of the 657 draft eligible players to choose from, at least 200 of them would have been tryout players or prospects that would have never made it to an NFL camp. It could give opportunities to players that would have never had a chance, and that could be a good thing.

Or not a good thing.

The Rams have picks 57, 88, 103, 141, 209, and 252. Right now, it could be that their picks in the sixth and seventh round — 209 and 252 — are going to be used to select players that would normally be undrafted free agents. And it could be that if the Rams sign 10 undrafted free agents, that half of them would have been tryout players, at best. It would behoove us then to keep that in mind when judging the outcome of the 2021 NFL Draft class and the post-draft signees.

Kalyn Kahler of Defector summed up the undrafted players situation for a lot of teams and it sure does look like the perception is that there are fewer options league-wide:

Another way to judge the depth of the draft class is by looking at the size of an NFL team’s “backboard,” a ranking of undrafted free agent–type prospects. Most teams have a front board for players they consider worth a draft pick, and a backboard for the others. I asked scouts and personnel execs around the league how the size of the latter group compares to previous years and most report it’s noticeably smaller. One veteran scout said his team’s backboard is down by about 20 percent, and that his team is having conversations about 150 fewer players this year. Another team’s personnel exec said he’d estimate their backboard at 20–30 percent smaller than in a normal year.

To keep repeating the phrase: “It’s the most shallow draft class in NFL history.”

Because that certainly appears to be what it is and that is yet another wrinkle that could make the third day of the draft as surprising, unpredictable, and potentially as unexplainable, as what we’ll see happen on days one and two.