Typically, the NFL draft is a crapshoot in and of itself. Every year, there are far less as many boons as there actually are busts.
This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a shortened 2020 college football season with many players deciding to opt out and the lack of a regular scouting combine in addition to limited medical research and personal background checks, it might be a lot worse.
It’s not just a crapshoot. The 2021 NFL draft, which begins next Thursday night, could be as risky as shooting dice over the phone.
“I think the biggest deal is the (lack of) medical information,” former NFL scout and longtime draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said this week during a conference call with reporters. “Last year, as weird as it was, we got the combine in, so you had 330 plus guys that had good medical. This year, you only end up having 150 guys go to Indy and several players with COVID or other reasons you had some key players that didn’t make it there.
“You’ve got incomplete medical information on these guys, and nothing scares a general manager more than not having the medical to the point where you’re scrambling.”
Jeremiah, entering his 10th season as a draft analyst with the NFL Network and a writer for NFL.com, suggests that it’s mostly the prospects expected to be selected beyond the first three rounds of the draft that could be impacted the most. Highly rated players that opted out of the 2020 season but were able to perform at their respective Pro Days probably won’t be affected as much.
But that’s extremely relevant as it relates to the Cardinals, who have one pick this year in the first round (No.16 overall) and second round (No. 49), none in the third or fourth as those picks were used to help land center Rodney Hudson and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, and then just four more picks during the final three rounds.
“When you look at the number of picks and you look at the number of physicals, there’s going to be a lot of guys that get picked this year that teams are not comfortable with, medically,” Jeremiah said. “That’s why I think you’re going to see teams very willing to part with late picks in this draft to move up in rounds 3 and 4 and all the way up into round 2.
“And you’re going to see teams comfortable with trading some picks this year for picks next year just because once we get to the back half of the draft, you’re literally flying blind on these kids, medically.”
What does that mean for the Cardinals, who haven’t had a winning season in five years?
With a pressing need to improve several areas, including adding more offensive weapons around rising young quarterback Kyler Murray, it could mean trading draft capital both this year and next, to significantly moving up from No. 16 in the first round in hopes of snagging a game-changing playmaker, such as former Florida tight end Kyle Pitts or one of the two superstar wide receivers out of Alabama, Jaylen Waddle and DaVonta Smith.
To a lesser extent, it could also involve a consideration of trading up to draft a cornerback to ultimately replace eight-time Pro Bowl selection Patrick Peterson. The top-two rated corners in this year’s class, Patrick Surtain II from Alabama and Jaycee Horn from South Carolina, could very well be taken by the time Arizona picks at No. 16.
Is there a realistic chance that Cardinals might orchestrate a trade to move up in the first round?
“Yeah, I think if you look at our history it will tell you that, depending on the way the board falls, we’ll be aggressive one way or the other whether it’s to move up, move back, depending on how it plays itself out,” General Manager Steve Keim said on Thursday during a video conference call with reporters. “There are a number of factors that do go into it … not only the medical, but the quality of the players that are left in the back part of those rounds.
“With some of those guys going back to college, you have to wonder when you’re hitting the sixth and seventh rounds the type of quality that will be there. There’s a number of factors that play into it and we’ll certainly take a run at being aggressive if we need to come up.”
Then again, the Cardinals might not have to trade up to get a player they covet. Given the expected early run on quarterbacks, where three are likely to go in the first three picks and four within the top 15, a top prospect on Arizona’s board could easily slide and be available at No. 16.
“Definitely,” coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “Yeah, we’re hoping they (quarterback) go with the top five picks because like you said, it’ll push a player that we have rated really highly to us and so it’s going to be interesting.”
What is certain is that with only six picks overall, the Cardinals can’t afford to miss with either of their first two selections. In his eight seasons as GM, Keim doesn’t have the greatest track record in that area.
Of the eight players he’s drafted in the first round, five are no longer on the team: guard Jonathan Cooper, linebacker Deone Bucannon, defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, linebacker Haason Reddick and quarterback Josh Rosen. Three of the eight players he’s drafted in the second round are also gone: linebacker Kevin Minter, tight end Troy Niklas and defensive back Brandon Williams.
Because nearly 2,000 players decided to return to college in 2021, the draft talent pool has shrunk significantly. Mix that in with the aforementioned lack of usual pre-draft components and the challenge to hit on every pick becomes even harder than usual.
“There’s no doubt that the number of players certainly affects this draft,” Keim said. “… There’s a number of things that continue to create some leg work for us, but I do think the amount of talent at a number of positions is very strong in this draft and the way our board is stacking up, I’m really excited about next Thursday.”
Keim said it’s “disappointing” not having a third- and fourth-round pick this year, but considering the third-rounder was used to acquire three-time Pro Bowl center Hudson from the Raiders and the fourth-rounder was part of the package used in the trade with the Texans for three-time, first-team All-Pro wide receiver Hopkins, it’s actually a win for the Cardinals.
“We’d love to have the opportunity to select in both of those rounds, particularly when ever you look at the board and see the type of players that could potentially be there,” Keim said, “but again, when you have a guy who is as good as they come in the league at the center position and obviously one of the best receivers in the National Football League, you feel pretty good about where you’re sitting.”
Have an opinion on the Arizona Cardinals? Reach McManaman at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @azbobbymac. Listen to him live on Fox Sports 910-AM every Tuesday afternoon at 2:30 on Calling All Sports with Roc and Manuch.
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