The NFL Draft will commence tonight at 8 p.m. ET. Finally. Very few things in sports feel as long as the lead-up to football's biggest offseason event. Analysis began last fall and the draft became the only football-related thing anyone wanted to talk about as soon as the clock at the Super Bowl struck quadruple zeros.
The dominating storyline over the last six weeks as the draft began to crystalize is the top five quarterbacks all projected to go in the first 10 picks. Everyone knows Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson will be the first two off the board. After that, it's a mystery. The Niners have been heavily linked to Mac Jones for weeks now but recent rumblings suggest Trey Lance is also in the running. Nobody has any real idea where either of those two will fall if they don't go to San Francisco. What happens at pick No. 3 will determine how the rest of the top-10 plays out, which will change the landscape of the league as we know it.
As anyone who has been paying attention knows, that fact ties into the most baffling storyline of the draft: the fall of Justin Fields. Fields has been considered the de facto No. 2 QB prospect since he lit up the NCAA world in 2019 as a sophomore first-time starter at Ohio State. In any other draft that didn't feature Lawrence, he would have been No. 1. But once the National Championship Game ended, Fields' stock plummeted for reasons still unknown. The Jets settled on Wilson as their pick at No. 2 overall months ago and nobody has really questioned it.
This happens to prospects during draft time. Guys who were great in college are put under a microscope with magnification higher than ever before and the tiniest flaws get picked apart. For Fields, the only real question is his ability to progress through his reads, which is obviously key in the pursuit of becoming an elite professional quarterback. The fact that he went to Ohio State, which has churned out a whole lot of elite college QBs who ended up failing in the NFL, hasn't helped much.
While all this feels very unfair to Fields, who posted a final college line of 63 touchdowns, nine interceptions, and 5,373 yards in two seasons as a starter and has every tool needed to become a good-to-great player in the NFL, it will work out in someone's favor. Some lucky team will find themselves selecting Fields in the latter half of the top-10 despite all of his accolades and impressive resume suggesting he should be much higher.
That lucky team has to be the New England Patriots. They are now the only team in the top half of the draft with a desperate need for a quarterback without an obvious opportunity to select one. They've been loosely linked to Fields over the last week and there are rumors abound that Bill Belichick wants to do what he rarely does and trade up; Albert Breer reported he and the Panthers have already laid the groundwork for a trade up to No. 8, while Jeff Howe over at The Athletic reported they had discussions with the Falcons for the No. 4 overall pick.
On a related note, the noise about Jimmy Garoppolo possibly headed back East to the team that drafted him has picked up significantly since Kyle Shanahan refused to give an answer about his spot on the Niners' roster after they add a QB in the draft. A rumor popped up yesterday from a Boston radio guy that they were working on restructuring his contract before Howe jumped in to say they've had no discussions with the man known in New England as Italian Ice. Adam Schefter said on Wednesday that the Pats are the only team realistically in the running to trade for Garoppolo. The signs are pointed towards a reunion.
But the Patriots should only do that if they can't get Fields. Garoppolo is a good player who is probably better than most give him credit for, especially over the last few weeks. But he's a known quantity. His 2019 statline of 3,978 yards, 27 TDs, and 13 INTs is as good as he'll get. He made the Super Bowl with an extremely strong supporting cast but missed a few crucial throws down the stretch that lost his team the game. Jimmy G is good, not great.
Fields could be great. Everyone pouring over his minor flaws may very well end up being right and Fields won't pan out at the highest level. But everything about his play, personality, and work ethic suggests he'll be good at the very worst with a ceiling too high to see. That kind of potential is exactly what the draft is all about, and New England needs to capitalize because they might not pick higher than No. 15 again for quite a while, and may never get the chance to jump up and steal someone of Fields' natural talent at QB ever again.
It won't be cheap. Moving up to No. 4 would require a haul similar to what the Niners gave up to go from No. 12 to No. 3. Belichick probably won't spring for that. But if Fields is still on the board at No. 7? No. 8? Even No. 9? The Pats need to do anything they can to trade up and take him. The Lions, Panthers, and Broncos (owners of each of those respective picks) don't seem interested in taking a quarterback. Two of those three teams have first-time GMs who would probably be happy to pick up a few extra picks to make their first draft as impactful as possible. The opportunity to trade up will be there. The notoriously stingy Belichick should be willing to fork over whatever it takes to make it happen.
This is an opportunity that the Patriots will not have again. Fields is an outstanding QB prospect who will probably fall far enough that a trade-up wouldn't cost an arm and a leg. Cam Newton will probably be better than he was last year but is still on the wrong side of 30 with a lengthy injury history. The team around him is ready to win football games. No matter what it costs, New England has to go get Fields. If he falls as far as believed and they pass, they'll regret it forever.