NFL Draft

How college football uncertainty, risky 2021 NFL Draft affects 49ers, league

How college football uncertainty, risky 2021 NFL Draft affects 49ers, league

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence wants to play football this fall.

Ironically, no player in college football has more to lose than Lawrence if football were to be played. He will be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft – unless something dramatic occurs between now and then.

And, just a reminder, it is not out of the ordinary for something dramatic to happen.

Joe Burrow had a decent junior season at LSU after transferring from Ohio State, where he was stuck down the quarterback depth chart and unable to earn significant playing time.

If Burrow did not have the opportunity to throw 60 touchdown passes – that’s correct, 60 – with just six interceptions, it’s anybody’s guess where or if he would have been drafted following his senior season.

Burrow certainly would not have been awarded the fully guaranteed four-year, $36.19 million contract that came along with the Cincinnati Bengals making him the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

The NFL Draft occurs every April. This week, the Pac-12 and Big Ten announced the postponements of their football seasons in the fall.

The intention for those conferences is to play in the spring. What or how that might look is anybody’s guess.

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Likewise, the feeder system for the NFL next spring has never looked so uncertain.

In a typical year, a 50-percent success rate for NFL draft picks is considered the standard by which teams measure themselves.

But with no college football season and/or a significant number of NFL-aiming players deciding to opt out in the spring, the draft could take on the accuracy of a vertigo-stricken dart player in a carnival funhouse.

There will be teams that will immediately know they missed badly with first-round draft picks when they see them for the first time on the practice field a year from now. There will be teams that get lucky and select cornerstones of their franchises in the sixth or seventh rounds.

There will be plenty of guesswork involved – more than ever before. It will be imperative for teams to develop a plan for identifying the precise specifications they covet from players at each position.

Teams will unquestionably start with the film from the 2019 college football season. Private workouts and interviews will carry more weight than ever.

Height, weight, speed, agility and individual football movements will all be take precedence as teams begin arranging their draft boards.

There’s no telling how scouts and team executives will be allowed to meet with prospects. But teams must attempt to gauge a prospect’s character and passion for the game. Personnel departments will try to project how a player’s makeup would lead a college player to improve or decline since he was last seen playing a football game.

In a typical year, the 49ers will send their scouts on the road for school visits from August through Thanksgiving. Preliminary draft meetings and deep dives into players’ character begin in December.

January is the time for all-star game evaluations and cross-checks of the prospects. The NFL Scouting Combine, meetings, visits and workouts fill the calendar from February through the draft.

If the SEC, ACC and Big 12 are able to follow through with their seasons, it could cut both ways for prospects from those institutions. Some will improve their draft stock. Some would have been better off allowing their 2019 film to speak for itself.

Aside from taking on any risks associated with COVID-19, some players will sustain football injuries that will prompt them to slide down, or completely off, NFL draft boards.

The 2021 NFL Draft is already shaping up as the biggest roll of the dice football has ever seen.

Raiders' Mark Davis believes dad, Al, would love rookie Henry Ruggs

Raiders' Mark Davis believes dad, Al, would love rookie Henry Ruggs

With the No. 12 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Raiders went back in time, and owner Mark Davis believes that philosophy would have made his father, Al, proud.

The late Al Davis, who was a Raiders owner and general manager from 1966 through 2011, loved speed. He coveted it as a way to pressure defenses, sometimes even a bit too much. So with the top pick in the draft this year, Mark took one out of his father's book and added Alabama receiver Henry Ruggs. 

“Henry Ruggs was the player I wanted for the last six months,” Davis recently told The Athletic's Vic Tafur. “My dad was always trying to replace Cliff [Branch] with so many different types of guys. … Speed, speed, speed and we really got away from that the last five, six, seven years.

"We really didn’t have anybody that could run. Nobody could run."

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That changed in a hurry with the addition of Ruggs. The former Crimson Tide star ran a blazing 4.27 40-yard dash at the NFL Pro Scouting Combine. That speed translated to big numbers in college, too. 

Ruggs combined for 83 receptions, 1,487 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns between his sophomore and junior seasons. He's a freak athlete, and Davis has high expectations for him.

“I watched Henry Ruggs and his speed and quickness and his strength were pretty impressive," Davis said. "And then if you see his basketball highlights, my God. He made some nice tackles on interceptions and he’ll block too. He is a complete player. I was just so thrilled that we drafted him.

"Maybe that’s the piece that we haven’t had that’s Raiders football. You throw it deep the first play and the safety is worried the whole game.”

[RELATED: Raiders' 2020 rookies won't have same impact as '19 class]

The Raiders' offensive is full of returning players. Quarterback Derek Carr will lead the way for his seventh season, running back Josh Jacobs looks like a star and tight end Darren Waller had a breakout season. As a rookie, though, Ruggs should be well-positioned to make a big impact from Day 1.

And Al Davis would be proud.

49ers' free agency, draft options also working against Raheem Mostert

49ers' free agency, draft options also working against Raheem Mostert

From Week 12 through the entirety of the playoffs, Raheem Mostert's 760 rushing yards trailed only Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry's 1,154 for the most in the NFL over that span.

Henry was rewarded with a four-year, $50 million contract Wednesday that reportedly includes $25.5 million guaranteed and makes him the fifth-highest paid running back in the league in terms of annual average salary. Naturally, Mostert -- who also is seeking a salary bump to the degree that he has demanded a trade -- will be rewarded, too. Right?

Wrong.

Aside from the obvious facts that Henry is nearly two years younger than Mostert and has a far larger sample size of success, the Titans simply couldn't afford to not lock up their lead back for the long term. You can be a believer in Ryan Tannehill's resurgence if you'd like, but you cannot view it in a vacuum. Henry is the straw that stirs the drink in that offense, and it's not a coincidence that Tannehill had his best season yet behind the NFL's leading rusher.

Mostert did lead the 49ers in rushing yards last season, but he is nowhere near as personally essential to San Francisco's offense as Henry is to Tennessee's. For one, coach Kyle Shanahan favors a running back-by-committee approach, which is why you'll likely never see the 49ers offer a running back a salary similar to the one Henry got. There's also the argument that Mostert's breakthrough was the product of Shanahan's system, and that he might, therefore, be replaceable.

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It's not that Mostert doesn't deserve a raise. It's just that he's highly unlikely to get exactly what he wants because San Francisco holds all of the leverage. Assuming he isn't traded, he can either play for the 49ers or potentially risk losing an accrued season. And that leverage disparity doesn't even include the bevy of external options San Francisco could fill Mostert's spot with, whether in the immediate or the near future.

Let's go in chronological order, shall we? 

If we're operating under the assumption that Mostert will not play under his current contract, nor will he receive what he deems an acceptable raise, there are a few potentially intriguing options on the free-agent market. Shanahan deploys an outside-zone running scheme, so any free-agent back the 49ers brought in likely would already have to be familiar with those concepts.

All of the backs currently on the free-agent market are there for a reason, mind you. They all have certain knocks against them, but it could also be the result of an oversupply and lack of demand.

Devonta Freeman's best seasons certainly would appear to be behind him, but it's worth noting that the two best seasons of his career -- in which he made the Pro Bowl both times -- came with Shanahan as his offensive coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons. And who did he share the backfield with during those two seasons? None other than current San Francisco running back Tevin Coleman.

There's Chris Thompson, who Shanahan surely had a say in drafting in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL Draft when he was Washington's offensive coordinator. There's Isaiah Crowell, who spent his rookie season with Shanahan as his offensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns. Then there are veteran backs Lamar Miller, LeSean McCoy, Bilal Powell and others who might have varying degrees of experience in an outside-zone system, but might be better equipped to learn on the fly.

Again, each of those backs has some negative marks against him. But, as we've seen throughout Shanahan's coaching career, he can make magic with previously overlooked players.

That's just the current free-agent market. Looking a bit further down the line, next year's free-agent class could be absolutely stacked.

Obviously, you can remove Henry from that list now, but it's still quite a collection of big-name rushers. Many of them surely will be re-signed by their incumbent teams or be franchise-tagged, but some will sneak through the cracks. Again, the 49ers are unlikely to cough up a ton of money for a running back, but that abundance just further exasperates the current supply-demand dynamic that is working against Mostert.

Although the cost of those 2021 free-agent running backs might prove prohibitive for San Francisco, the same cannot be said for what is likely to be a loaded 2021 draft class at the position. Clemson's Travis Etienne, Alabama's Najee Harris (a Bay Area native), Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard and Ohio State's Trey Sermon headline the class. But there's tremendous depth within it, and the 49ers surely could add a talented back in the middle or later rounds at relatively little cost.

[RELATED: What 49ers can learn from Chiefs' deals with Mahomes, Jones]

Will Mostert get exactly what he is demanding? It's difficult to envision it playing out that way. The odds remain in favor of some sort of compromise, perhaps in which more of Mostert's salary is guaranteed.

In any case, there are a number of factors working against Mostert, both currently and down the line. He's not in the wrong for wanting his salary to be adjusted to meet his value. But that value is as much dependent on how he performs as it is how easily he could be replaced.