Betting millions on QBs who can turn clubs around on a dime

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NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell addresses the crowd as the first round of the NFL football draft finishes early Friday, April 30, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Dermer)

Last season wasn’t just the strangest in the 100 years of pro football, it was also the highest-scoring by almost any measure — average score, total points and especially passing touchdowns.

And because the NFL is a copycat league, you didn’t have to be a general manager, scout or even Mel Kiper Jr. to make an educated guess about how Day 1 of the draft would unfold.

On the one hand, some of the strangeness was gone. Commissioner Roger Goodell was on stage in Cleveland along with a dozen top prospects and smaller-than-usual, but just-as-frenzied-as-ever crowd of draftniks. On the other, the selections made clear that tossing the pigskin around the NFL is in like never before.

Quarterbacks occupied the top three slots — Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence to Jacksonville; BYU’s Zach Wilson to the New York Jets, and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance to San Francisco — and five of the first 15. Receivers filled the next three and totaled five among the 32 picks.

Most every selection after that — weighted toward cornerbacks, edge rushers and left tackles, who protect the QB’s blind side — was designed solely to make life harder or easier for those first two groups to play pitch and catch. There’s increasingly scant rewards for rushing the football compared to throwing it these days. That’s why only two running backs and one guard made the cut in the first round.

The NFL and its draft have been heading in this direction for nearly two decades. Rule changes made it easier for high-flying offenses to operate, while wisely cutting down on the brain-rattling hits that made the game hard to watch without wincing. Why build a team patiently when a great quarterback can turn a franchise around on a dime? We saw 43-year-old Tom Brady turn the trick in Tampa last season, and 24-year-old Josh Allen nearly do it in Buffalo. Small wonder the clubs’ brain trusts are more willing than ever to risks millions in search of the next one.

Some draftniks were skeptical whether Wilson, who grew up in Utah, could be that guy, especially under the withering glare of Jets fans and New York’s quick-tempered media. They quickly learned one thing Wilson doesn’t lack is confidence.

“When a team isn’t doing super well and you can go in there and actually be a key piece to actually flip that organization around, I think that’s so special,” he said.