There he sat, one of fewer than 4,000 people allowed in the building, looking down from the upper reaches of the New Orleans Superdome with his future career-changing considerations unfolding in front of his eyes.
Urban Meyer had been part of the Fox Sports pre- and postgame shows for the Clemson-Ohio State CFP semifinal game on New Year’s Day, and by that point reports of his interest in the Jacksonville Jaguars’ head-coaching vacancy were hitting a rolling boil.
On one sideline was Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, the overwhelming favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL draft. On the other: Ohio State’s Justin Fields, coached by Meyer’s protege, Ryan Day, at a program Meyer reshaped into one of the sport’s unquestioned titans.
Oh, to crack inside Meyer’s head that night as he sat and watched Fields outplay Lawrence.
News then of Meyer interviewing with the Jaguars the previous Friday was confirmed, and two days later the Jaguars had clinched the first overall pick. If nothing else, history has shown us that Meyer is capable of smelling rare opportunities when they arise.
The Jaguars are armed to the hilt with assets — the most salary-cap space in the NFL, a young roster, a trove of picks — and have a team owner, Shad Khan, who is regarded as a man willing to commit to building a foundation for winning.
Meyer is expected to be the Jaguars’ next head coach. It’s easy to see why he might want to give up his cushy TV gig for an NFL job such as this. A fairly big influence on Meyer’s pending leap to the pros is the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft.
Had this been many other years, perhaps Meyer stays put — or lets Texas or some other well-heeled college program woo him. But there is a potential prize atop this year’s draft, the likes of which we haven’t seen in recent years.
Lawrence is perhaps the most ballyhooed prospect to come along in years, and some have said the most since Andrew Luck in the 2012 draft. There’s no guarantee, of course, that Lawrence will be a star. At this point, it would be hard to believe that he won’t be special in the NFL at some point.
Could his opinion have dramatically shifted in the past five months? Did Fields’ monster game that night in New Orleans change anything? Could the trusted Day perhaps sway his former boss’ mind on Fields? And would that even matter?
Would Urban Meyer’s Ohio State connections change No. 1 pick?
Meyer never coached or recruited Fields. Although he’s very close to Day and the Buckeyes’ program, there is no direct connection between Fields and Meyer. And while Meyer has gone out of his way to defend Fields’ passing ability, keep the big picture in mind.
There’s even a part of me that wonders if Meyer will even get a choice in the matter. Remember, during the Jaguars’ post mortem news conference last week, Khan — typically more of a hands-off owner in the past in terms of personnel and football-related matters — made it clear that he’ll suddenly be very involved in roster decisions.
“The candidates, the general manager candidates, I’ve been talking to them, and [I told them that] for the immediate future, I’m going to keep the roster control,” Khan said. “I want the coach to know that also.”
Reaction to those words was met with shock in NFL circles. Various coaches and front-office personnel wondered if Khan’s statement made it a less-attractive spot, given that the franchise owner had appeared to limit the power of his next GM before they ever took the job.
A team’s owner might be the biggest factor in the attractiveness of a GM or head coaching job, at least in the minds of many seasoned candidates. Some will take jobs with young quarterbacks or high draft picks or salary-cap space.
Then again, when the Indianapolis Colts hired Ryan Grigson as GM nine years ago, it was with the understanding that Luck would be the first pick, no ifs, ands or buts. That directive came straight from the top: owner Jim Irsay.
So it’s possible that Khan wooed Meyer with a massive salary, free rein on who he hires to his staff, say on the still-vacant GM spot and other considerations. It’s also possible that Khan told him the caveat: that he wanted Lawrence first. And for all we know, Meyer might not have pushed back too hard.
This is all speculation, mind you. But it wouldn’t be hard to imagine this happening.
The Jaguars shouldn’t close the door now, but ...
It would be foolish for the Jaguars to go into the draft process and not conduct their due diligence, especially at football’s most important position.
Study Lawrence, Fields and BYU’s Zach Wilson with an open mind and pick the one they believe is going to be the best pro QB. If something makes them uneasy about Lawrence along the way, the Jaguars must not be afraid to pivot.
Fields has his defenders in the scouting world, even if Lawrence has more — and more ardent ones, we’d say based on conversations we’ve had over the previous months and even years.
The improvements Fields has made over the past few years, resemble the rapid passing improvements made by Cam Newton and Dak Prescott in their respective final years in college. Fields might not even be close to his potential peak, either.
Even in the game against Fields, when Lawrence struggled handling pressure and turned the ball over three times, he still completed 69 percent of his passes for 400 yards and two scores. Was he great in that game? No. Was he elite in the title-game loss to LSU? Also a no.
But you can count on one hand the times when Lawrence didn’t display some kind of special playmaking ability in his 36 college starts. He has the size, arm talent, athleticism, quick reaction time and toughness it takes to be special. It would take a lot for the Jaguars to find enough flaws in his game for Fields to weigh as the better prospect.
After all, Fields played at roughly the same level of competency against Alabama in the CFP final that Lawrence did against Ohio State in the semifinal. Overall, there are more tapes on Fields’ resume (in fewer games) that reveal his potential flaws than there are in Lawrence’s body of work. Meyer was also on hand for one of those games where Fields struggled, in the Big Ten title game win over Northwestern.
Of course, we might not know for sure which way they’ll go until the night of April 29. But it certainly feels as if Meyer’s arrival won’t change Lawrence being the first pick. And that might be because Khan insists he will or that Meyer doesn’t object to it.
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