By Steve Rieder
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The 2021 NFL Draft may begin on Thursday, April 29, at 8:00pm EDT, but in all reality it actually doesn’t start until the San Francisco 49ers are on the clock. Last year’s season ended with the Houston Texans holding the league's third-worst record, but due to a previously consummated trade, the third overall pick landed in Miami. On March 26, the pick was once again traded to the San Francisco 49ers, which in turn, made the NFL community gasp. No, it wasn’t the package of the three first-round and a third-round pick that the 49ers gave up - it was who they traded up for. Reports immediately began to leak out from the league’s most reputable sources that it was all in a quest to draft Alabama quarterback Mac Jones.
Once Adam Schefter, Peter Schrager, Mike Lombardi, Daniel Jeremiah, and Chris Mortensen all separately corroborated the same information, the betting market proceeded to steam Mac Jones all the way to a -250 favorite. With a then-implied probability of approximately 70%, the collective scouts, talking heads, and draft pundits were absolutely stunned. The overwhelming opinion of the quarterback class was well established: #1 Trevor Lawrence, #2 Zach Wilson, #3 Justin Fields. Depending on who you talked to, Mac Jones didn’t even make the list until #4 or #5. Had San Francisco reportedly traded up for Justin Fields, no one would've batted an eye. But 49'ers head coach Kyle Shanahan values a specific type of quarterback, one who can process the field quickly and be an extension of the coach himself between the numbers.
Fields, whether it's his own fault and/or what he was asked to do specifically while at Ohio State, didn't seem to exemplify those qualities during the Buckeyes' regular season or in the CFB Playoffs. Fields took chances, perhaps held the ball longer than he should have, and improvised. He's an athlete, and he's very much the playmaker most teams are searching for in the "new" NFL. Many coaches, and certainly fans, may find these admirable qualities in a signal caller, but it doesn’t exemplify what Shanahan is looking for.
Compared to Fields, Jones is far less impressive in his highlight reel resume (and when comparing their athleticism), but the characterization that he has Tom Brady’s physique and athletic ability coming out of Michigan is at minimum overstated, if not outright wrong. Jones is a stand-and-deliver quarterback, one which doesn’t appeal to the fair-weathered fan that yearns for a flair of the dramatic. In his final year at the Alabama helm he set the NCAA single-season record for completion percentage (77.4%), threw for a school record 4,500 passing yards and led the Crimson Tide to a national title. Nick Saban and Steve Sarkisian have sung Jones’ praises, and their connection with Shanahan is well documented. All signs have pointed toward Jones not just being the third best QB in the draft, but the best fit for San Francisco.
The betting market for the third overall selection in the NFL Draft was already well established - at least until Justin Field's second pro day, when in shorts and a t-shirt, and against nothing but a gentle breeze, Fields hit open receiver after open receiver. He showed NFL teams the arm strength, accuracy and athleticism that will inevitably lead to him being drafted in the top 10 of the NFL Draft. Scouts, draft analysts, television hosts, and fans fawned over this already-expected accomplishment, and in turn this caused a tremendous shift in the betting line. Fields became the new odds-on favorite to go number three, and all those in wild disagreement with Jones rumblings celebrated the apparent validation. The market shifted so drastically, in fact, that Jones was dropped to a +175 market consensus to go third. The Score Sportsbook even had a rogue number of under 3.5 at +475. And all because of one innocent pro day?
It wasn’t just Fields that gained ground either - after Trey Lance put on his own show at his pro day, his odds to go third also spiked. In what could only be described as the most obvious correlation of the draft season, a positive pro day performance leads to a significant change in the market. But as the vacillation of the third pick market waxed and waned, one fact remained constant - the most respected reporters in the industry never wavered from their previous statements: the 49ers traded up for Mac Jones. On April 21, as if the market suddenly regained consciousness, Jones once again inexplicably became the favorite.
Without question, we as NFL Draft bettors have learned several important lessons from this rollercoaster ride of an experience. For starters, we can expect the markets to be influenced positively by a player’s pro day - rarely do players underperform in scripted, non-contact drills. Secondly, don’t listen to everything you see or hear on TV or the internet. Many of these individuals have audiences to be mindful of (and ratings), and disagreeing with an opinion can both draw and keep people’s attention. Media personalities, executives or scouts may have a different opinion on prospects, which also may be in conflict with a team’s perspective. Although someone may be well-versed - and even respected - in the NFL community, it doesn’t mean we should bet on or against their opinion either. What matters is what the team thinks.
Similarly, it's vital that we know who’s reporting and whose mock drafts to trust. There are some very informed and hard-working individuals that work the NFL Draft beat and are fed misinformation in hopes the rumor spreads to other NFL teams and other reporters. And finally - and most importantly, too - yes folks, there is still actionable value on Jones to go third overall. Read the tea leaves and lay the -145.