The 2021 NFL season may still be months away, but fans can begin eagerly circling their calendars in anticipation of some truly mouth-watering fixtures after Wednesday's schedule release.

There are some obvious standouts. The Week 4 meeting of Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Bill Belichick's New England Patriots should capture the entire league's attention as Brady returns to Foxborough for the first time since saying a shock farewell to his home of 20 seasons last offseason, and then going on to win a seventh Super Bowl ring in his maiden season with the Bucs.

A potential duel between Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs and Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in Week 9 hinges on Rodgers blinking in his staring contest with the Packers' brass and returning for the season.

Should he do so, it will pit the reigning MVP against the 2018 MVP and Super Bowl LIV MVP in a matchup of two quarterbacks who have each recently finished in the top five in well-thrown ball percentage. Rodgers was third in the NFL with 82.4 per cent last season while Mahomes was fourth with 81.1 per cent in 2019 as he led the Chiefs to the Lombardi Trophy.

But the games with the best narratives on the surface do not always produce the best matchups. Here, using Stats Perform data, we look at five other games on the schedule that are in the mix to be among the most exciting games of the 2021 campaign.

 

Packers @ 49ers - Week 3

The Packers trounced a 49ers team decimated by injuries last season, though that was probably hollow revenge for Green Bay's NFC Championship Game humbling at the hands of San Francisco in the 2019 season.

Typically, when Rodgers has visited the team he idolised in his youth, things have gone poorly for the Packers. He has won two of his four regular-season meetings with the Niners in the Bay Area but has lost to San Francisco on each of the three occasions he has faced them in the playoffs, with two of those defeats on the road.

Still, if Rodgers acquiesces in his stand-off with Packers management and plays for Green Bay in 2021, it promises to be a fascinating duel of NFC contenders, with the Niners potentially starting a rookie quarterback in dual-threat Trey Lance.

Should Rodgers remain with the Packers, the key matchup in this one could well be the reigning MVP against a Niners defensive line that should get back edge rusher Nick Bosa after he missed most of the 2020 season with a torn ACL.

Rodgers' well-thrown percentage under pressure was 71.0 per cent in 2020, the ninth-best in the NFL, and he will likely have to maintain that accuracy under duress if Bosa is back to his best. The 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year had a pressure rate of 28.3 per cent in his first season in the league, trailing only Adrian Clayborn and elder brother Joey, and sacked Rodgers in the regular season and the NFC title game.

Buccaneers @ Rams - Week 3

Yes, Brady v Belichick is the game everybody in Tampa will be most excited for, and the season opener between the Super Bowl champions and the Dallas Cowboys will be a primetime ratings monster, but perhaps the best duel involving the only player with seven Super Bowl rings will take place when Tampa head west.

The Rams edged the Buccaneers 27-24 in Tampa last season and should provide a stern test again at SoFi Stadium with Matthew Stafford set to be under center for Los Angeles.

But Stafford is not the person Brady will be concerned with when it comes to the Rams. Instead, it will be three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.

Brady was phenomenal when it came to avoiding interceptable passes last season.

He threw a pickable pass on just 13 of 590 pass attempts in 2020, a percentage of 2.20 that only Alex Smith (2.12) could better. When under pressure, it increased to 3.45 per cent, but that was still the fourth-lowest pickable pass rate in the NFL under duress.

But no defender in the league strikes fear into the heart of quarterbacks quite like Donald, who led all defensive tackles in 2020 with a pressure rate of 27.7 per cent and an adjusted sack rate of 5.5 per cent.

Donald can destroy the best-laid plans of any offense, and surviving the challenge he and the Rams will pose will be one of the biggest tests for Brady and the Bucs in their bid to repeat as champions

Bills @ Chiefs - Week 5

This is a rematch of last season's AFC Championship Game in which the Bills did not produce an effort reflective of their outstanding 2020, and Buffalo look like the team best placed to challenge Kansas City again in the AFC in 2021.

The headline act of this clash is the battle of the quarterbacks, with Mahomes and Josh Allen leading the revolution of athletic, cannon-armed quarterbacks who have taken the league by storm.

But an underrated aspect of this game will be Stefon Diggs' performance against a Chiefs secondary that does not get the credit it deserves.

Diggs was held to six catches for 77 yards in the playoff matchup but recently revealed he played through the postseason with an oblique tear.

When healthy, Diggs has the ability to do significantly greater damage. He led the NFL with 1,535 receiving yards in his first season in Buffalo and trailed only Davante Adams (3.9) in burn yards per route as he averaged 3.6.

However, the Chiefs' projected starting cornerbacks have the means to slow him down. L'Jarius Sneed was fifth among all corners in preventing big plays, allowing a play of 20 yards or more on just 14.5 per cent of his targets. 

Meanwhile, Charvarius Ward was fourth among corners in burns allowed, giving up a burn on 32.7 per cent of his targets.

Bears @ Seahawks - Week 16

The Bears have rarely been high on the list of teams to look out for when it comes to intrigue in recent years, but that all changed when they traded up to draft Justin Fields 11th overall.

Once Chicago ends the charade of committing to Andy Dalton as starting quarterback and goes with the high-upside rookie, the Bears have the potential to be an extremely interesting watch.

That will certainly be the case if Fields is under center when they travel to Seattle's Lumen Field, with the Bears set to face the quarterback they reportedly pursued before picking Fields, Seahawks star Russell Wilson.

A quarterback battle between Fields and Wilson has the potential to be an absorbing encounter featuring two signal-callers who each excel with their accuracy throwing the deep ball.

Of quarterbacks with at least 25 throws of 25 or more air yards, only three players (Ryan Tannehill, Philip Rivers and Derek Carr) had a higher well-thrown percentage than Wilson's 63.0 per cent on those attempts last season.

Fields was similarly proficient attacking downfield in his final year for Ohio State, posting a well-thrown percentage of 76.47 per cent on throws of 15 or more air yards that was superior to that of Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Mac Jones.

If his success in that regard quickly translates to the NFL, the Bears' trip to the Pacific Northwest could turn into a scintillating showcase of the deep passing game. For the first time in a while, the Bears have the potential to be must-see TV.

Ravens @ Browns - Week 14

The balance of power in the AFC North is shifting towards the Ravens and Browns and their Monday Night game in Cleveland last year was among the most entertaining of the 2020 campaign.

In the end, the Browns' inability to stop Lamar Jackson, even after his apparent 'comfort break', from making the big plays in Baltimore's thrilling comeback was the decisive factor in the Ravens' 47-42 triumph.

Cleveland took steps to stop such a scenario from playing out again, using their first-round pick on a cornerback in Greg Newsome II who allowed a big play on just 4.2 per cent of his 36 targets in an abbreviated final season at Northwestern.

His addition, and that of versatile second-round linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who allowed a big-play percentage of 11.0 when covering from the slot and had an overall pressure rate of 25.0 per cent, should help the Browns do a better job of slowing down opponents.

But whether those arrivals are enough to make the difference against Jackson and the Ravens is another matter.

An underrated downfield thrower whose well-thrown percentage of 60.0 on throws of 25 or more air yards was seventh in the NFL last year, Jackson has another dynamic weapon to target in the form of first-round receiver Rashod Bateman.

Sixth among Power 5 wideouts with at least 50 targets in burn yards per target (16.15) in his stellar 2019 season, Bateman can be the number one receiver Jackson has long since lacked.

Bateman excelled at creating separation two years ago while having an average depth of target of 16.2. With him and speedster Marquise Brown in the mix, Jackson does not lack big-play weapons, and Cleveland's ability to keep them under wraps could be critical in deciding an ultra-competitive division in 2021.

Judging draft picks in the immediate aftermath of their selection can be a foolhardy endeavour, as the success of rookies that enter the league depends on several factors including situation, opportunity and luck.

While it is tough to dole out grades for players who have not even hit the practice field for their new teams, it is possible to assess the totality of a franchise's moves in a draft and determine who has been impacted, positively and negatively, by those player selections.

In a draft dominated by a historic level of talent at the position, it is the classes of teams that made changes at quarterback that will likely have the most significant influence on the league.

After five quarterbacks went in the first round, we use Stats Perform data to determine the winners and losers from a draft that should go on to be remembered as one of the most important in NFL history.


Winners

Chicago Bears fans

Who knows whether the Justin Fields-era in Chicago will be a success? The weight of history surrounding Bears quarterbacks suggests it has a very good chance of being a failure.

But by trading up to land the Ohio State quarterback instead of committing to a year of purgatory with Andy Dalton, the Bears ensured they should be significantly more watchable in 2021, assuming post-draft talk about wanting to sit Fields behind Dalton proves false.

Fields is an exciting downfield thrower who averaged 10.10 air yards per attempt in the 2020 college season. It is an imperfect comparison given the difference in the level of competition but the two Bears starters in 2019, Mitchell Trubisky (7.94) and Nick Foles (7.92), each averaged under eight air yards per attempt.

And Fields was accurate when he pushed the ball downfield. On throws of 15 air yards or more, 76.47 per cent were well thrown, compared to 71.43 for Lawrence, 69.41 for Wilson and 67.39 for 15th overall pick Mac Jones.

His aggressive style should mesh well with number one receiver Allen Robinson, who was fifth in the NFL with 908 of his receiving yards coming at the point of reception.

Fields will also have the benefit of improved protection from a nasty offensive tackle in the form of second-round pick Teven Jenkins.

Jenkins allowed a pressure rate of 2.9 per cent in 2020, third among tackles with at least 100 pass protection snaps. The top tackle in that regard was Larry Borom of Missouri (1.8%), whom Chicago drafted in the fifth round.

Chicago also further helped Fields' cause by drafting Virginia Tech running back Khalil Herbert, who was second in the Power 5 in yards per carry (7.63) among running backs with at least 100 carries and Dazz Newsome, the North Carolina wideout who was 11th in burn percentage (71) among receivers with at least 25 slot targets. 

The Bears have been a chore to watch in recent years. It isn't clear whether the move up for Fields will work and it is debatable whether general manager Ryan Pace should have been allowed to make it given his track record, but there is finally reason for a passionate fanbase to be genuinely excited about their team.

Zach Wilson

Wilson going second overall to the Jets was no secret, but New York did an excellent job of taking steps to ensure concerns over his one season of elite production against non-Power 5 opposition do not prove prescient by surrounding him with talent.

A trade up for guard Alijah Vera-Tucker raised eyebrows but his pressure rate allowed of 1.3 per cent when playing left guard for USC in 2019 was the best in the Power 5 and suggests he can lock down that spot for the next decade for the Jets.

Wide receiver Elijah Moore brings inside-out versatility and should have gone in the first round. Instead, the Ole Miss star went 34th overall to the Jets, adding a wideout who led the FBS in receiving yards per game (149.1) last season to an intriguing group that includes Denzel Mims, Corey Davis and Jamison Crowder.

Third-round running back Michael Carter will give offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur a versatile skill set to utilise.

The North Carolina back led Power 5 runners with 100 carries or more in yards per carry (7.98) and yards before contact per rush (5.36) in 2020.

As a receiver, Carter was eighth among those Power 5 backs, who also had a minimum of 10 targets, in burn yards per target (10.86).

Carter should, therefore, be able to have a substantial impact in the zone-running scheme the Jets will employ in 2021 and influence the passing game significantly.

Growing pains are to be expected in Wilson's rookie season in New York but this was a draft in which the Jets went to great lengths to make his adaptation to the pros as smooth as possible.

Lamar Jackson

Every year, the Baltimore Ravens do an excellent job of letting the draft board come to them and reaping the rewards.

In 2020, they stole linebacker Patrick Queen in the back end of the first round. This year they grabbed arguably the most well-refined receiver in the draft, Minnesota's Rashod Bateman, with the 27th overall pick.

A truncated 2020 season in which he played just five games following a bout of coronavirus may not have helped Bateman's stock, but his 2019 tape showed a receiver who can develop into a number one target for Lamar Jackson.

Bateman can excel at all levels of the field and his downfield upside shone through in 2019, when he was open on 70.8 per cent of his targets in 2019 with an average depth of target of 16.2 yards.

His burn yards per target average of 16.15 was sixth among all Power 5 receivers with at least 50 targets two seasons ago, with Henry Ruggs III and Chris Olave the only players in the same group to produce a superior big-play percentage to Bateman's 50.4.

Big plays in the passing game have not been consistent for the Ravens. Jackson (25) had fewer passing plays of 25 yards or more than Teddy Bridgewater (27) and Drew Lock (28) in 2020.

Bateman has the talent to greatly increase that tally of explosive plays while the addition of Tylan Wallace, who was eighth among Power 5 receivers with a minimum of 50 targets last season with a burn yards per route average of 4.33, should further boost Jackson's hopes of bouncing back as a passer in 2021.

Having also addressed the interior of the offensive line by drafting Ben Cleveland, whose pressure rate allowed of 2.7 per cent was seventh among Power 5 guards last season, in the third round, Jackson goes into 2021 in an excellent position to take the passing game to levels that escaped the 2019 MVP in 2020.

In the coming season, Jackson will have much better weapons and should have improved protection. If the Ravens' offense falls short again in the playoffs in 2021, he won't have much room for excuses.

Losers

Ben Roethlisberger

Pittsburgh lost left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and the versatile Matt Feiler in free agency but did nothing to fill either of the voids left by that duo until the third round when they picked up athletic Illinois guard Kendrick Green. Tackle Dan Moore was picked in the fourth round.

Instead, they spent their first two picks on a running back and a tight end in Alabama's Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth of Penn State, stacking the offense with further weapons for Ben Roethlisberger in what will likely be his last season in the NFL.

But, beyond running back, weapons were not the need for the Steelers. Harris is an upgrade in the backfield but he averaged only 2.14 yards after contact per rush last season, below the Power 5 average of 2.21, and typically the offensive line has just as much of an impact on running game production as the back.

A failure to prioritise the trenches could result in Harris struggling to evade defenders that the O-Line has allowed into the backfield. More worryingly for Roethlisberger, the lack of a dependable replacement at left tackle could leave a quarterback who missed 14 games as recently as 2019 open to punishment from opposing pass rushers.

Roethlisberger completed 50.7 per cent of his passes when under pressure in 2020, the fifth-worst number of all quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts. If this is to be his swansong, the Steelers are not setting him up for a successful one.

Trevor Lawrence

Ok, so Trevor Lawrence is a winner. He's the number one overall pick and is set to be paid millions to take his talents to the highest level.

But, in terms of the situation he is going into in Jacksonville, the Jaguars did little to help him.

With the 25th pick, they passed up the chance to boost their pass-catching options in favour of drafting his Clemson team-mate, running back Travis Etienne, following a 2020 season in which undrafted rookie James Robinson finished the year sixth in yards after contact per attempt (2.34). 

Simply put, Etienne was the definition of an unnecessary luxury pick.

Tyson Campbell was a decent value pick at 33rd overall in the second round but Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke, who developed a reputation during his time running the San Francisco 49ers for taking ill-advised risks on players with bad injury histories, picked a safety in Andre Cisco who tore his ACL in September and offensive tackle Walker Little, who has not played a game since 2019, when he featured in just one before suffering a knee injury.

The only pass-catching additions came in the form of a 29-year-old tight end, Luke Farrell, in the fifth round and wide receiver Jalen Camp in the sixth. 

Between D.J. Chark, Marvin Jones and Laviska Shenault, Lawrence does have reasonable weapons, but the Jags did not do much to add to his arsenal.

NFC West run defenses

Teams trying to stop the 49ers' ground game have had a hard time since Kyle Shanahan became head coach in 2017.

Their 224 rushes of 10 yards or more are tied sixth in the NFL in that time, and that tally looks set to increase after San Francisco drafted a franchise quarterback in Trey Lance who boasts a devastating mix of speed and power in the open field.

Lance's 14 touchdowns in 2019 were bettered by just four quarterbacks across the FBS and FCS, his rushing average of 6.5 yards fifth among signal-callers with at least 100 rushes.

San Francisco then added further to their ground game by picking Trey Sermon in the third round and Elijah Mitchell in the sixth.

In the Power 5 and Group of Five, just four running backs with a minimum of 100 attempts had a better yards per carry average than Sermon's 7.50 last season.

Burst to the second level is a key trait for Sermon, who was fourth in average yards before contact per attempt with 4.85.

The electric Mitchell, meanwhile, averaged the third-most yards after contact per attempt, putting up 3.23 per rush, a rate beaten by Javonte Williams (4.59) and Jaret Patterson (3.25).

Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. are each free agents in 2022 but, by drafting Lance, Sermon and Mitchell, the Niners ensured their run game is about to get more diverse and potentially more destructive.

For the three NFC West teams that face them twice a year, that is simply terrible news.

With free agency in the rear-view mirror and the 2021 draft all wrapped up, NFL teams can now draw breath and start to reflect on what has unfolded during the offseason.

Ideally, all teams will hope they sit in a better position to challenge than they did a few months back, but the reality is some are just starting from further back than others.

When it comes to Super Bowl challengers, undoubtedly the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs remain strong favourites to get back to the big game. The Bucs have got the band back together after hoisting aloft the Vince Lombardi Trophy on home turf, while the Chiefs have responded to a harrowing loss by rebuilding the offensive line in front of Patrick Mahomes.

But what about the chasing pack? Stats Perform picks out some of the leading contenders for glory while reflecting on what has happened since they last played.

Buffalo Bills

An appearance in the AFC Championship Game inspired by the improved play of quarterback Josh Allen left Buffalo rightly believing they needed minor tweaks, rather than dramatic alterations, to challenge once again in 2021. They kept the offensive line together, then added depth at a key area in the draft when selecting Spencer Brown in round three.

However, the Bills – who ranked 15th in opponent yards per play allowed (5.5) last term but were a lowly 26th versus the run (4.62) – used first and second-round selections to help their defense, with Greg Rousseau and Carlos Basham Jr firming up a pass rush that tied 15th for sacks. Add in Emmanuel Sanders to the receiving group and Buffalo appears to be in rude health as they aim to go one better than last season.

Los Angeles Rams

The Rams are swinging for the fences as they bid to get back to the Super Bowl. Jared Goff was the starter when they lost to the New England Patriots in February 2019, but his time with the franchise is over. The blockbuster deal to get Matthew Stafford from Detroit has ramped up the pressure to get results on the field – and not just in the regular season either.

Leonard Floyd remained thanks to a bumper contract, but John Johnson and Troy Hill are gone from the secondary. They will continue to lean heavily on Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey to lead a defense that allowed the fewest passing yards per play (5.08) and the third-least rushing yards per play (3.76). While trades have seen the Rams become accustomed to watching on as teams are on the clock in round one, it was notable they added three wide receivers with their picks as they aim for a fifth successive winning season under head coach Sean McVay.

San Francisco 49ers

Yes, a team who finished the 2020 regular season with a 6-10 record should be considered as genuine contenders. The 49ers went so close to Super Bowl glory 15 months ago, while a roster ravaged by injuries last season will hope for better fortune when it comes to keeping key personnel healthy. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has jetted off to New York, but Nick Bosa should be back.

In truth, it will be the offense that defines San Francisco's chances. Jimmy Garoppolo failed to inspire in his limited appearances, throwing seven touchdowns to five interceptions, so getting a quarterback in the draft – even if trading up to number three came at a high cost – made sense. Trey Lance was their choice, a high-upside selection who showed plenty of promise in 19 games for North Dakota State. The run game remains pivotal, though, which explains why they splashed out to make sure Trent Williams and Kyle Juszczyk stuck around.

Cleveland Browns

Having made the playoffs for the first time since 2002, the Browns knocked out divisional rivals Pittsburgh and then came close to upsetting Kansas City on the road. The defense was bolstered up front with the signings of Jadeveon Clowney and Malik Jackson. However, having given up 31 passing touchdowns, the secondary has rightly been the focus. After snapping up former Rams duo Johnson and Hill, Cleveland selected cornerback Greg Newsome II and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in the first two rounds of the draft.

Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski built the offense around the rushing tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt – the team averaged 4.8 yards per rush – easing the pressure on Baker Mayfield to move the sticks. Still, he ranked sixth in passer rating (118.4) on throws of 21 air yards or more among quarterbacks with at least 25 such attempts, showing teams cannot fill the box and focus solely on stopping the run. If they can get out of a highly competitive AFC North again, the Browns will believe they can build on a Divisional Round appearance.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens' hopes will once again rest with Lamar Jackson, their dual-threat quarterback who is on course for a significant pay rise when an agreement is reached over a long-term extension. His ability to run helped Baltimore finish first in rushing yards per play with 5.53, while the passing game has a little extra help now after receiver Rashod Bateman was taken with the 27th pick. Still, there was no flashy free-agency signing at the position, despite links with JuJu Smith-Schuster and T.Y. Hilton. Kevin Zeitler did pen a deal, securing an experienced guard to bolster the offensive line.

Defensively, Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue have moved on to the Patriots and Raiders respectively, though the Ravens have a reputation for building a pass rush no matter who is on the roster. Tyus Bowser can expect an increased role, plus outside linebacker Odafe Oweh was chosen with the late first-round pick acquired in the trade that sent offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr to the Chiefs.

Honourable mentions

The Green Bay Packers would have made the list were it not for the uncertainty surrounding the future of reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers. For all their quarterback's undoubted qualities on the field, they have not made a Super Bowl in 11 years. And what is going on in Seattle too? Rumours relating to Russell Wilson's future have dominated the offseason for the Seahawks.

The Indianapolis Colts will hope they can get the best out of signal-caller Carson Wentz and the Pittsburgh Steelers seem set for one last ride with Ben Roethlisberger. As for a trendy pick who missed out on the playoffs last season, look no further than the Los Angeles Chargers, complete with a revamped offensive line to help keep QB Justin Herbert safe.

Jimmy Garoppolo faces the awkward task of assisting his eventual successor as San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Trey Lance, adapt to the NFL. However, as somebody who "loves helping other players get better", he may well be up to the challenge.

Pierre Garcon has experience of witnessing how Garoppolo conducts himself in the locker room, having been his team-mate in 2017 and 2018 following his arrival in the Bay Area after his trade from the New England Patriots to the Niners.

Garoppolo is likely set to play his last season with the 49ers in 2021, with a tally of 23 games missed through injury since his acquisition by San Francisco leading them to trade three first-round picks to move up in this year's draft and select North Dakota State quarterback Lance third overall.

But former San Francisco wide receiver Garcon seemingly has no doubt in Garoppolo's willingness to mentor his heir apparent, the former second-round pick having received tutelage on how to make the switch to the pros from Tom Brady during their time together in New England.

Speaking to Stats Perform News, Garcon said: "Jimmy is a fun guy. We all understand football where at some point they're going to draft someone in your position and if you're hurt you have to respect it because it's part of the business.

"It's like 'Hey, you got here because someone else got hurt and it's natural that someone else is going to come for your job'.

"That's part of the game. Jimmy's a great guy, he loves playing football. Unfortunately injuries happen in football and at quarterback it's more glaring than in any other position as there are two players in every other position on the field and at quarterback, there's only one quarterback.

"If one quarterback gets hurt you're looking for the next guy naturally. Jimmy's a great guy, he loves helping and communicating.

"He loves helping other players get better because that's what Tom Brady did for him. You sit back and learn and help the guys that make your life easier so that they can be successful and that ultimately helps the team and helps the person."

Garcon's analysis is already proving accurate, with 49ers general manager John Lynch revealing in a media conference following day two of the draft that the first text Lance received after being picked was from Garoppolo.

"That's pretty special. I think it speaks to his class," said Lynch. 

Head coach Kyle Shanahan added: "Jimmy has taken a business approach, but I think he's excited for right now just talking to him and he's ready to come here and get back to being healthy and playing with our team.

"If we have them compete [for the starting job in 2021], I know he's ready to compete."

Trey Lance admitted it felt "surreal" to be confirmed as a San Francisco 49ers player after he was selected with the third overall pick in the NFL Draft.

The 20-year-old took a call from 49ers general manager John Lynch to welcome him into the fold, with head coach Kyle Shanahan and team CEO Jed York also taking the time to speak to Lance.

Now he will step up from North Dakota State to the big time, and Lance said: "I'm obviously just excited now for this opportunity."

He said of the scrutiny leading up to the draft: "I understand it's a critiquing process because that's what it is. It's probably the longest job interview that I ever thought I'd have, but I don't think I could have been in a better situation.

"I'm super excited to get there and learn, and at this point the biggest thing for me is getting there, getting to know the coaching staff and my teammates and the guys in the quarterback room."

Lance will be expected to swiftly provide competition for San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who looks set to ease the newcomer into the NFL spotlight.

"I'm just focused on getting there learning as much as I possibly can and getting to know Jimmy and the guys in the room," Lance said.

As for the big telephone call, Lance said: "It was pretty emotional for me right away, kind of a surreal feeling. You never really knew unless you knew.

"I feel super thankful for everyone that's helped me get to this point.

"I know the coaching staff and the guys in the quarterback room are going to push me and help me compete and help me learn, so that's the biggest thing. I'm just looking forward to it."

In leading the Bison to an FCS National Championship in the 2019 season, Lance accounted for 42 total touchdowns and did not throw a single interception.

No other quarterback in the FBS and the FCS with a minimum of 200 pass attempts avoided throwing the ball to an opposition player in that campaign.

He carries a dual threat too, with Lance's 14 rushing touchdowns bettered by just four quarterbacks across the FBS and the FCS, and his rushing average of 6.5 yards was fifth among signal-callers to have registered at least 100 rushing attempts.

Shanahan was delighted to tie up the deal, saying: "I'm glad that it's over. I'm glad that we got our guy. I'm glad that we feel so good about it and I'm just pumped to get him here."

Highly touted quarterbacks? Check. Oversized stage? Check. Raucous Fans? Check.

A year after holding a virtual NFL Draft in Commissioner Roger Goodell’s basement due to concerns over the coronavirus, the 2021 draft descended on Cleveland, Ohio on Thursday, with Goodell once again sharing bro-hugs with the prospects on stage in front of thousands of vaccinated and mask-wearing fans.

Although the easy chair from Goodell’s basement did make the trip to the stage, this year’s edition of the draft felt much more normal than a year ago – and it began exactly as nearly everyone expected.

The Jacksonville Jaguars chose Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence first overall and the New York Jets went with BYU quarterback Zach Wilson at number two.

Considered to be the most polished QB prospect in years, Lawrence threw for 10,098 yards in his collegiate career, while going 34-2 as a starter with the Tigers and winning the 2018 National Championship.

Wilson had been linked to the Jets for months after throwing for 3,692 yards with 33 touchdown passes to only three interceptions last season, and New York hopes he can be the franchise’s answer at QB and lead the team to the playoffs for the first time since 2010 after the recently traded and 2018 No. 3 pick Sam Darnold never lived up to expectations.

A quarterback had also been projected to go third overall ever since the San Francisco 49ers traded up to that position weeks ago, the only question was who – Trey Lance out of FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Justin Fields from Ohio State or Alabama national champion Mac Jones.

The tight-lipped 49ers ended weeks of suspense by drafting Lance, who has only played in one game since the 2019 season but led the Bison to the FCS title that year while accounting for 42 total touchdowns without an interception.

With the surprising Lance going to San Francisco, this became just the third time in the common draft era that started in 1967 – and first time since 1999 – quarterbacks went 1-2-3 in the NFL draft.

The consensus top five QBs - Lawrence, Wilson, Lance, Fields and Jones – had been slated to all get drafted in the top 10, but Fields and Jones were still on the board after 10 picks.

The Chicago Bears decided not to sit on their hands, trading up nine spots with the New York Giants to grab Fields, a dual-threat QB who finished his collegiate career with 5,701 passing yards and 67 TDs through the air.

The Patriots were more patient, selecting Jones with the 15th pick – a spot few believed he would still be available. Jones threw for 4,500 yards with 41 touchdowns to just four picks in leading Alabama last season, and became the first quarterback selected in the first round during Bill Belichick’s 21-year tenure in New England.

Jones also became the final QB selected in the first round, making this only the fourth time at least five QBs were drafted in round number one, along with 2018, 1999 and the famous 1983 draft, when six were selected.

Not only were QBs a hot commodity, so were their targets.

The Atlanta Falcons made Florida’s Kyle Pitts the highest drafted tight end in history when they picked him fourth overall after he had 43 catches for 770 yards and 12 TDs in 2020.

The Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins drafted who they hope will be their franchise quarterbacks in the 2020 first round, and this year they each focused on providing them with a playmaker they were familiar with.

Cincinnati selected LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth pick, teaming him 2020 No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow, the quarterback who led the Tigers to the 2019 FBS title. In 26 games played together in 2018 and 2019, Burrow targeted Chase 162 times, resulting in 107 receptions for 2,093 yards and 23 touchdowns.

One pick later, the Dolphins chose Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle, reuniting him with college quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, last year’s fifth pick. Waddle only appeared in six games last season because of a broken left ankle, but he left Alabama with 106 receptions for 1,999 yards and 17 touchdowns over three years.

The reunions continued with the 10th pick, when the Philadelphia Eagles traded up to select 2020 Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith to get him back with former Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, the 53rd overall pick a year ago. Smith, who put up eye-popping numbers in 2020 with 117 receptions for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns, was a teammate of Hurts in 2017 and 2018.

While the Bengals, Dolphins and Eagles reunited former teammates, the Jaguars decided to go ahead and just bring aboard one of Lawrence’s teammates from this past season, selecting Clemson running back Travis Etienne with the 25th pick, making this the first time in the common draft era a quarterback and running back from the same school were drafted by the same team in the first round.

Etienne was a workhorse for the past four years with the Tigers, racking up 4,952 rushing yards and 70 touchdowns on the ground while averaging 7.2 yards per carry.

Etienne became the second running back selected in the first round after the Pittsburgh Steelers took Alabama’s Najee Harris one pick earlier.

With the Denver Broncos nabbing Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II ninth overall and the Las Vegas Raiders drafting Crimson Tide offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood at No. 17, Harris became the sixth player from Alabama drafted in the first round, matching the University of Miami from 2004 for the most players selected from one school in the first round.

While the draft started with offensive players being selected with the first seven picks for the first time ever, the final five picks of the opening round were all defensive players, concluding with the defending Super Bowl champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selecting linebacker Joe Tryon out of Washington with the 32nd pick.

Trey Lance will take his enticing dual-threat skill set to the San Francisco 49ers after being selected with the third overall pick.

The selection is a gamble for head coach Kyle Shanahan, who will stake his team's future on a player from North Dakota State with limited college experience compared to the QBs taken before him, Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson.

Lance joins Jimmy Garoppolo in the 49ers' quarterback room for now, and his selection could mean San Francisco holds onto the veteran QB to help ease the rookie into the spotlight. 

Lance may have played only one game since the 2019 season, but his performances in his lone full campaign were enough to catapult him into the conversation as one of the classes top quarterbacks.

In leading the Bison to an FCS National Championship, Lance accounted for 42 total touchdowns and did not throw a single interception.

No other quarterback in the FBS and the FCS with a minimum of 200 pass attempts avoided throwing the ball to an opposition player in 2019.

Lance's tally of 14 rushing touchdowns was bettered by just four quarterbacks across the FBS and the FCS while his rushing average of 6.5 yards was fifth among signal-callers to have registered at least 100 rushing attempts.

In terms of throwing the ball, Lance averaged 9.71 yards per pass attempt in 2019, ranking eighth among all quarterbacks in the FBS and FCS, ahead of Justin Fields (9.25) in 13th and Trevor Lawrence (9.00), who was 18th.

Any quarterback with Lance's limited experience at FCS level poses a significant gamble but, in his brief time on the field, Lance demonstrated a versatile range of abilities that mesh perfectly with where the game is going at the quarterback position.

Widely praised for the intelligence he has displayed in pre-draft meetings, if he can use his smarts to quickly adapt to the pros and reproduce what he did in Fargo in the NFL, the pay-off will be huge for San Francisco.

In most years, in a draft where the top two picks are seen as virtual locks, those running the primetime broadcasts covering the NFL's rookie selection meeting would likely be left scrambling to create drama that does not exist.

But last month the San Francisco 49ers ensured television executives would face no such issues, trading up from pick number 12 to number three with clear intentions of selecting a franchise quarterback to succeed oft-injured starter Jimmy Garoppolo.

What makes the decision now facing San Francisco so fascinating is the makeup of the roster. The 49ers are an anomaly when it comes to a team picking in the top five; they are not a bottom-rung NFL franchise looking to rebuild a shattered roster, they are a team just under 15 months removed from a Super Bowl appearance that saw hopes of a return to the grandest stage devastated by injuries in 2020.

And, having kept around a talented and deep roster in free agency but with continued concerns over Garoppolo's ability to stay on the field, the 49ers can rightly be considered a quarterback away from a return to the season-ending showpiece.

Should they identify the right quarterback with the third pick, it will set the Niners up for short and long-term success. Make the wrong call and it could be curtains for head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch.

What the 49ers do will define the Shanahan-Lynch era and the 2021 NFL Draft.

Garoppolo's fall from grace

Way back in February of last year, the Niners and Garoppolo were fewer than seven minutes from lifting the Lombardi Trophy, holding a 10-point lead over the Kansas City Chiefs.

But a 21-point deluge from Patrick Mahomes and Co. and a now-infamous Garoppolo missed deep shot to an open Emmanuel Sanders that likely would have won the game set in motion doubts over his long-term viability as the starter under center, which were only furthered by a disastrous 2020.

Garoppolo was not alone in missing time last season – 40 members of the Niners' roster were placed on either the injured reserve, physically unable to perform or reserve/COVID-19 list over the course of the year.

However, the 10 games Garoppolo missed through a high ankle sprain suffered in Week 2, from which he unsuccessfully attempted to return, took his tally of injury-enforced absences since his trade from the New England Patriots in 2017 to 23.

That was simply too many for the Niners, who were left to battle to a 6-10 record with backups Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard and a decimated roster, to countenance.

The torn ACL Garoppolo sustained in 2018 was key in them securing the second pick in 2019, with which they selected a pivotal piece of their Super Bowl team in star pass rusher Nick Bosa.

This time, his 2020 injury issues put them in a position to strike a franchise-changing deal and put another quarterback in place to reap the long-term benefits of playing with a stacked squad.

Running it back

The 49ers could hardly have enjoyed a better free agency period.

Facing a potential plethora of departures in a year where the salary cap decreased, San Francisco managed to keep most of its team together.

A secondary that faced being dismantled retained Emmanuel Moseley, Jason Verrett, K'Waun Williams and Jaquiski Tartt, while on offense the 49ers succeeded in bringing back Kyle Juszczyk, unquestionably the most versatile and dynamic fullback in the league.

The most important bit of business, however, concerned left tackle Trent Williams, the 49ers in this instance holding off the Chiefs – who had significant interest in the eight-time Pro Bowler – to keep him around on a six-year contract that made the former Washington star the highest-paid player at his position.

His return ensured the Niners had no glaring need to address at number 12, giving them the freedom to make such a dramatic move up the board.

Possessing arguably the best tight end in football in George Kittle and with Bosa set to return from his ACL tear, the Niners are a team seemingly primed for a bounce back after convincing the bulk of their core who were on expiring contracts to stay.

But their success in holding on to their own and their aggressiveness in surrendering three first-round picks to jump nine spots will be all for nought if they get the decision wrong.

The choice

Despite a plethora of initial reports claiming the Niners made this dramatic move for Alabama quarterback Mac Jones – buzz that has not died down – San Francisco's selection with the third pick remains shrouded in mystery.

All that is known is that either Jones, North Dakota State's Trey Lance or Ohio State's Justin Fields will be a 49er come Thursday.

It is very much a choice between the old school and the new norm at the quarterback position.

Jones was masterful in guiding Alabama to the National Championship in 2020 while leading the FBS with a remarkable completion percentage of 77.4.

Displaying consistent accuracy from the pocket, he also topped the FBS in completion percentage when blitzed (76.9) and red zone completion percentage (75.9). On third down, he ranked fourth, connecting on 71.6 per cent of his passes.

The problem with Jones is that his domain is almost exclusively the pocket. In the NFL in 2021, quarterbacks who can escape those confines in the face of pressure and make plays on the run with both their arm and their legs are fast becoming king.

That is not Jones' game. If the 49ers drafted either Lance or Fields, they would be acquiring a player who thrives in those situations and can add another dimension to one of the most creative offenses in the NFL.

Fields is seemingly the outsider in this race despite having the best resume.

He led Ohio State to the College Football Playoff in successive seasons, outplaying presumptive number one pick Trevor Lawrence en route to the final in the 2020 season. 

While his completion percentage (70.2) was behind that of Jones in 2020, Fields was the most accurate of the four presumed first-round FBS quarterbacks on downfield throws.

On throws of 15 or more air yards, Fields had a well-thrown percentage of 76.47 compared to 71.43 for Lawrence, 69.41 for assumed second pick Zach Wilson and 67.39 for Jones.

So, Fields would add a downfield element that has long since been absent with Garoppolo while also offering mobility that has allowed him to make outstanding throws on the run and rush for 1,539 yards and 19 touchdowns in college.

However, had Lance played more than one full season, he would have dwarfed that number.

The wild card of the quarterback crop, Lance is undoubtedly the most devastating runner, displaying speed in the open field and the power to inflict punishment on defenders who dare to try to tackle him.

He had 18 touchdowns in his Bison career, 14 of which came in a spectacular sole season as the starter under center in which he added a further 28 touchdowns through the air and did not throw a single interception.

Lance's limited experience at FCS level, the second tier of college football, means any team picking him would be taking a substantial risk.

But with a howitzer of an arm that opens all levels of the field to him and widespread praise of his intelligence that suggests the interception-less season was far from just luck, the potential pay-off is massive.

The choice for Shanahan and Lynch is between evolving with the times with a quarterback who can solve problems with their athletic gifts or picking one who can run their offense efficiently but whose physical limitations will likely cap the ceiling of that attack.

Those behind them in the order will be praying they take the latter route and allow a mad scramble to commence, with teams sure to try to get up the board for one of Fields or Lance if they are both on the board after pick three. The Niners have made their seismic move, now their selection process has to be right to ensure the coming years of a Super Bowl-ready roster do not go to waste.

The NFL Draft begins Thursday and the San Francisco 49ers are primed to select a quarterback after trading up for the third pick.

Of course, that draft pick would become completely inconsequential if for some reason a catastrophic disaster were to wipe out the human race, which is what 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan alluded to during a press conference on Monday.

When asked if quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will be on the roster by the end of the weekend after the draft concludes, Shanahan avoided the usual coach speak and took a bleaker approach in his response.

"I can't guarantee that anybody in the world will be alive Sunday, so I can't guarantee who will be on our roster on Sunday,” he said. "So that goes for all of us."

Garoppolo's days as the starting quarterback for the 49ers appear to be numbered after the team traded two first-round picks to move up from 12 to 3, but hopefully for his sake he still has plenty of days left on Earth.

As far as who the Niners plan to grab with their pick is still a mystery. And Shanahan was not about to tip his hand.

"So, do we know exactly who we want?" he asked rhetorically. "Maybe. Probably. But maybe not."

Garoppolo led San Francisco to the Super Bowl following the 2019 season but injuries limited him to just six games in 2020 as the Niners stumbled to a 6-10 record.

Though he dodged every question about who the 49ers might draft, Shanahan has been up front about injuries being a major factor in the team ready to move on from Garoppolo.

"The biggest thing with Jimmy is his injuries," Shanahan said. "It's been very tough for us when he's been hurt and that's happened two of these three years. That's where it starts and Jimmy knows that."

Shanahan did admit that having a rookie quarterback as well as a proven winner like Garoppolo together would be advantageous.

"But I feel very fortunate, taking a rookie quarterback, that we do have a guy like Jimmy," he said. "We have a guy that every time he's been a starter he's played at a high level.

"So to have that with Jimmy while adding a rookie quarterback gives us a lot of leeway. We're not going to set anything in stone, but I know that’s a situation that would be hard to get rid of."

The decision on who the 49ers draft will ultimately fall on Shanahan, according to general manager John Lynch.

"We have a head coach who's also our offensive play caller. I will always defer to him," Lynch said. "You know, what's cool about that is that Kyle I think respects my opinion enough.

"He always wants it. Ultimately, we arrive at decisions. We will and come Thursday we'll have a pick that hopefully makes everyone proud, but that will judged in years to come. We've done our best to make sure it's a great decision for this franchise."

The 2021 NFL Draft is now under a week away, with excitement rapidly building for fans of the 32 franchises.

With five quarterbacks tipped to go in the first round, and potentially all going in the top 10, the stakes this year are even higher than normal with many teams sensing a chance to secure their future at the game's most important position.

Clemson sensation Trevor Lawrence, billed as a generational talent at QB, is the presumptive number one pick for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

BYU standout Zach Wilson, meanwhile, appears to be locked in for the New York Jets at number two.

From there, a host of speculation and debate has followed the key picks, not least the selection of the San Francisco 49ers.

The Niners traded two first-round picks to move up from 12 to 3, with their trade partners the Miami Dolphins subsequently getting themselves back up to 6 in a deal with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Using Stats Perform data, we have picked out some of the mooted selections that may make the most sense as the draft begins to unfold on Thursday.

JUSTIN FIELDS TO SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

It is hard to see how offensive guru Kyle Shanahan would turn down a skillset like that possessed by Ohio State QB Justin Fields.

While a couple of poor performances in 2020 ended talk he could challenge Lawrence as number one, while a stellar season from Wilson propelled him up draft boards, the data suggests Fields is a unique talent.

He threw for 63 touchdowns and just nine interceptions in 22 games across 2019 and 2020.

Fields added 867 rushing yards and 15 TDs on the ground in that period, earning 59 first downs with his legs and forcing 37 missed tackles.

It is that dual-threat athletic ability that creates endless possibilities for an elite play-caller like Shanahan and should separate Fields from the productive but statuesque Mac Jones. 

However, Trey Lance - who has the highest range of outcomes of the first-round prospects - also ticks many of the boxes that Fields does and is another contender for the Niners at three.

KYLE PITTS TO ATLANTA FALCONS

Kyle Pitts racked up 43 catches for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns in just eight games in 2020, not dropping any of his targets.

Much more than a tight end, his athletic numbers have seen him surge up draft boards and he is rightly considered to be an offensive weapon unlike any other to have come out over recent years.

If the Atlanta Falcons are unable to find a deal to their liking and move out of the number four spot, they would be wise to look at the Florida pass-catcher.

With Matt Ryan remaining at QB and Pitts added to the receiving mix with the likes of Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage and Hayden Hurst, new head coach Arthur Smith may have an offense that is close to unstoppable.

PENEI SEWELL TO CINCINNATI BENGALS

Huge debate continues in Cincinnati over whether the Bengals should draft their left tackle of the future in Penei Sewell or reunite Joe Burrow with LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase at number five.

While having an elite player in one of three WR spots may have a slight analytical advantage over filling one of five offensive line spots with a star, the Bengals may feel there is plenty of receiving talent in the second round, as they showed with the impressive pick up of Tee Higgins in 2020.

If they opted for Sewell, it would be a decisive step in protecting Joe Burrow, whose promising rookie season behind a dreadful offensive line was curtailed by a brutal knee injury.

Sewell allowed just 13 pressures on 285 true pass protection snaps in 2019, ninth in pressure rate allowed (4.6%) among LTs with at least 200 snaps.

Given he did that in the Pac-12 at age 19 and has since posted incredible athletic numbers, it is easy to see why he should be one of the highest non-QBs taken.

JA'MARR CHASE TO MIAMI DOLPHINS

An extraordinary 2019 season for Chase saw him grab 20 touchdowns and 1,780 yards in 14 games for LSU as they won the National Championship.

A receiver who can win at all levels of the field, Chase's draft stock has not been impacted by sitting out of the 2020 season.

The Miami Dolphins have committed to building around QB Tua Tagovailoa despite his shaky rookie season.

What better way to help him than adding an immediate number one receiver who would suddenly make a group already containing DeVante Parker, Will Fuller and Preston Williams one of the NFL's best.

If the Dolphins end up getting Chase at number six and emerge from the process with an extra first-round pick for their troubles after the trade with the Niners, it may prove to be one of the great draft moves.

MAC JONES TO DENVER BRONCOS

With 4,500 passing yards, Mac Jones topped college quarterbacks in an incredible 2020 campaign for Alabama, adding 41 touchdowns and only four interceptions.

He threw a touchdown on 10.2 per cent of his 402 attempts, highest of any QB to attempt more than 250 passes, with only Wilson (11) having a higher TD/INT rate than Jones (10.25).

The two main concerns with Jones are whether his lack of athleticism lowers his chances of success in the modern NFL and how much his stellar supporting cast should be weighted in his evaluation, particularly after a rough start for Tagovailoa coming out of the same college offense.

While the latter question is part of the typical draft uncertainty, the athleticism could become less of an issue in a team where a stellar group of receivers who can get open regularly is already in place, reducing the emphasis on plays outside of structure.

That is the case with the Denver Broncos, who pick at number nine, with Jones' former college team-mate Jerry Jeudy joined by Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, K. J. Hamler and Noah Fant.

PATRICK SURTAIN II TO DALLAS COWBOYS

With offensive talent likely to dominate the early picks, the Dallas Cowboys' selection at 10 has been a popular one in many mocks for the first defensive player to come off the board.

Caleb Farley's back procedures mean he is no longer seen as a clear number one option at cornerback – a position of need for Dallas – so Patrick Surtain II may be a safe selection for them depending on their evaluation of Farley.

Surtain was seventh in burns allowed percentage (39.6%) among draft-eligible outside corners with at least 100 coverage snaps and 25 targets in the Power 5 in 2020. He is also seventh in burn yards per target allowed (7.63).

KWITY PAYE TO NEW YORK GIANTS

There is significant uncertainty over the edge class in 2021, with many prospects tipped to go in the mid to late first round and multiple candidates to be the leading representative at the position.

Coronavirus opt outs mean there are lower snap counts and smaller sample sizes to work from compared to those to come out in previous seasons, so there remain some intriguing prospects but no home runs like Chase Young.

One of the most enticing is Kwity Paye, who was restricted to four games for Michigan in 2020 but had 6.5 sacks in 2019.

The New York Giants' defense was a surprise success story in 2020. They have reinforced the secondary in the offseason and remain strong on interior of the trenches with Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams, so a consistent threat off the edge could make for a formidable unit.

While receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle - or offensive tackle Rashawn Salter - would be big temptations if available at number 11, reports this week claimed Giants GM Dave Gettleman was considering taking the unusual step of trading down.

If it happens, it may indicate finding better value and taking a pass-rusher is their preferred route.

Should he can do that and still land a top pass-rusher like Paye or the ultra-athletic Jayson Oweh, whose overall pressure rate in 2020 was 26.2%, good for fourth-best among edge rushers in the draft, it would make sense for the Giants.

TREY LANCE TO NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

A spending spree from New England, and their transition last year from Tom Brady to Cam Newton, means they could represent an exciting landing spot for the raw but prodigious talent Lance.

With 1,100 rushing yards and 14 TDs in 2019, Lance is a QB who provides an elite rushing threat like Newton did in his prime for the Carolina Panthers.

Two top tight ends in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith offer big bodies to throw to, with the Patriots possessing an offensive line and a system already geared around a rushing QB in Newton who has a similar skill set.

New England will be pondering whether to move up from 15 to secure a QB and would be an excellent landing spot for Lance, regardless of whether they want him to start Week 1.

Mac Jones was not universally pegged as a first-round pick. Not until the San Francisco 49ers moved up to three, at least.

Then Kyle Shanahan's reported interest in the Alabama quarterback prompted a reappraisal of his talents.

If the Niners were willing to make a blockbuster trade, parting with two future first-round picks, just to move into position to take Jones, how good must he be?

Plenty around the NFL still are not convinced, while the smoke and mirrors surrounding the draft means there remains no guarantee Jones goes at number three or even in the top 10.

But what would the 49ers or any other suitors be getting if they selected the Heisman Trophy finalist? And how does he compare to his rivals in a potential five-QB first round?

With the aid of Stats Perform data, we take a look at one of the most polarising prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft.

The raw numbers

Jones played in all 13 games for Alabama in 2020 as they went 13-0, succeeding Miami Dolphins first-rounder Tua Tagovailoa at the QB position.

En route to the National Championship, Alabama boasted the outstanding offense in college football.

Jones threw for 4,500 yards, the most in the FBS, and trailed only Florida's Kyle Trask (43) with his 41 passing touchdowns.

He also led the FBS in completion percentage. Of his 402 throws, 311 were caught - another high - for an exceptional 77.4 per cent.

These figures could have been even more impressive, too, with 323 of his balls considered 'catchable'.

Jones did benefit from playing with the best receiving corps in the game, however.

DeVonta Smith caught 23 TD passes from 117 receptions for 1,856 yards, yet just 919 yards came through the air, with Smith adding 937 after the catch.

Jones ranked 44th in the FBS for air yards per attempt at 8.43. Indeed, Jaylen Waddle - who played just six games - averaged 21.1 yards per catch but only 11.0 at the point of reception, his dynamic ability with the ball in his hands significantly boosting Jones' output.

Trust the system

At the helm of an excellently designed offense and on a team with elite receiving talent like that possessed by the Crimson Tide, Jones' merits are obvious. That is why he is said to suit the 49ers.

Jones completed 77.6 per cent of his play-action passes - a staple of the Shanahan scheme - last year, and Shanahan is widely regarded as having an affinity for quarterbacks who can digest his offense and deliver accurately from the pocket.

Kirk Cousins, drafted during Shanahan's time in Washington, ranks third all-time in the NFL for completion percentage (67.0).

Atlanta Falcons starter Matt Ryan completed 69.9 per cent of his passes working with Shanahan in the 2016 season en route to an MVP award and a Super Bowl appearance, while the Niners' Jimmy Garoppolo threw at 69.1 per cent in 2019 as they came within minutes of lifting the Lombardi Trophy.

Fellow draft prospects Zach Wilson (73.5 per cent, third), Justin Fields (70.2, seventh) and Trevor Lawrence (69.2, 10th) joined Jones in the top 10 in the FBS in completion percentage, though.

Meanwhile, Trey Lance - restricted to a single game last season - ranked fourth in the FCS in 2019 with a mark of 66.9 per cent.

But where Jones particularly stood out was with his throws in pressure situations.

The Crimson Tide star led the FBS in completion percentage when blitzed (76.9) and also in red zone completion percentage (75.9). On third down, he ranked fourth, connecting on 71.6 per cent of his passes.

Mac lacks mobility

Despite his consistency as a thrower, there is a reason Jones was not previously considered a challenger to Wilson, Fields, Lawrence and Lance.

If the 49ers look elsewhere, Jones could yet fall a long way to find another team confident they have the system and surrounding personnel to make the move worthwhile.

And even then, few NFL coaches in 2021 are likely to be willing to overlook his shortcomings as an athlete.

Whereas Wilson, Fields, Lawrence and Lance are set to join the burgeoning ranks of dual-threat quarterbacks in the NFL, Jones' playing style is one borne of the soon to be bygone era of the pocket passer.

At Alabama, where he could palm the ball off to FBS-leading running back Najee Harris, Jones had just 35 carries last year and scored a single rushing touchdown.

The majority of these runs were short bursts to steal first downs, averaging 0.4 yards per attempt, with a longest carry of 14 yards.

It is in this area that Jones lags a long way behind the rest.

Wilson averaged 3.6 yards and scored 10 TDs. Fields played just eight games but had 81 carries, averaging 4.7 yards. Lawrence averaged 3.0 yards and scored eight times.

In the inferior FCS in 2019, Lance blew each of those performances away. He had 169 carries for 14 TDs at an average of 6.5 yards per carry.

Without the same ability to open up the game with his legs, Jones would need to be a truly generational talent with his arm.

Only three NFL signal-callers averaged under 0.4 yards per carry over 10 games last season: Tom Brady (0.2), Drew Brees (-0.1) and Philip Rivers (-0.4).

Brady and Brees are each in their forties and among the greatest of all time. Brees and Rivers have also both since retired.

The NFL is eschewing the traditional quarterback in favour of the athletically gifted dual-threats whose skill sets are more conducive to elite production in the modern game. Regardless of where he is selected, Jones is going to have buck that trend to succeed at the highest level.

Alex Smith has announced his retirement from the NFL, despite the quarterback admitting he still feels to have "plenty of snaps" left in him.

The first overall pick in the 2005 draft, Smith started out with the San Francisco 49ers before going on to play for the Kansas City Chiefs and the Washington Football Team.

The 36-year-old's career was in jeopardy when he suffered a gruesome leg injury in November 2018, leading to 17 operations and - having avoided the need for his leg to be amputated - a lengthy rehabilitation regime.

However, he made his return to action for Washington in a 2020 season that saw the franchise win the NFC East to make the playoffs and Smith named Comeback Player of the Year by the Associated Press.

Released in the offseason, he initially indicated a desire to carry on playing but released an Instagram video on Monday confirming the end of his 16-year career in the league.

"Two years ago, I was stuck in a wheelchair staring down at my mangled leg and wondering if I would ever be able to go on a walk with my wife again or play games with my kids in the yard," Smith said.

"Putting my helmet back on was the furthest thing from my mind. I just kept asking myself: 'All this for a stupid game?'.

"Then someone did something that changed my recovery completely – he put a football back in my hands. I don't know what it was, but all of a sudden, I felt stronger, more driven. What once seemed impossible began to come into focus."

Smith was a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2004, his final year of college football with the University of Utah before entering the draft.

The signal-caller threw for 35,650 yards with 199 touchdowns and 109 interceptions in the NFL. He completed 62.6 per cent of his pass attempts and ends with an overall QB rating of 86.9.

There were also 15 rushing touchdowns, five of which came in the 2016 campaign when he helped the Chiefs to the first of five successive divisional titles in the AFC West.

"Even though I've got plenty of snaps left in me, after 16 years of giving this game everything I've got, I can't wait to see what else is possible," Smith said towards the end of a montage that included clips of his arduous recovery process.

"But first, I'm going to take a little time to enjoy some of those walks with my wife, and my kids have no idea what is coming for them in the back yard."

Former NFL player Phillip Adams has been named as the person who shot dead five people, including a prominent doctor, in South Carolina.

Dr Robert Lesslie (70), his wife Barbara (69) and their grandchildren Adah (9) and Noah Lesslie (5) were pronounced dead at the scene of a home in the Rock Hill area, with an initial emergency call made at 16:44 local time on Wednesday.

Another man - an air-conditioning technician identified as James Lewis who was carrying out work at the house - was found shot dead outside, while another technician was confirmed to have suffered "serious gunshot wounds".

Adams was later found dead in a bedroom at his parents' house, with what was described as a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

Reports in the United States said Adams was a former patient of Dr Lesslie. York County Sheriff Kevin Tolson said he had "no indication" that was the case and said that "nothing makes sense to us right now", with a motive yet to be established.

Adams was drafted in the seventh round of the 2010 draft by the San Francisco 49ers after representing South Carolina State as a cornerback at college. He also played for the New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, Oakland Raiders, New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons. In total, Adams made 78 NFL appearances over six seasons.

Sheriff Tolson added: "We are working hard to provide some answers. We want answers. 'Why?' That is a question we are probing as we speak. We hope to be able to get to those answers."

He added that Adams, who lived locally, was swiftly identified as the suspected gunman and that he had "forced entry" to the property.

"Once the investigation began, we were able to develop Phillip Adams as a suspect in this incident," Sheriff Tolson said.

"We feel like we have the individual who is responsible for this and he is deceased. We have not been able to determine that anything was taken from the Lesslies' residence. We did recover evidence at the scene that linked Mr Adams."

Page 1 of 2
© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.