One of the most fun (and potentially profitable) aspects of collecting cards is prospecting which rookies are set up for success in the NFL. Most collectors focus on the top quarterbacks, but the cost per entry on their cards has some major risk.
Imagine if you invested heavily in players like Dwayne Haskins, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Jared Goff, Josh Rosen, Johnny Manziel or Mitch Trubisky? (Just to name a few examples of first round quarterbacks who were massively hyped coming out of college and didn’t exactly live up to expectations in the NFL.) If you invested that same money in Patrick Mahomes—who was actually drafted after Trubisky—or an underwhelming 6th round prospect out of Michigan named Tom Brady, your collection is likely worth a fortune.
In the 2021 Draft, five quarterbacks came off the board in the first round. The last time that happened was back in 2018 with Baker Mayfield (1), Sam Darnold (3), Josh Allen (7), Josh Rosen (10) and Lamar Jackson (32). Of the five, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson were the best investments, with Baker Mayfield heating up after a fantastic year, and Sam Darnold’s recent trade to the Carolina Panthers reinvigorating his market.
This year’s crop of first round quarterbacks were all selected in the top 15 picks, featuring the most hyped prospects since Andrew Luck: Trevor Lawrence (1), Zach Wilson (2), Trey Lance (3), Justin Fields (11), and Mac Jones (15). Besides the quarterbacks, there are quite a few interesting prospects that I think are set up for success in both the NFL and the card market. Below, I break down my top 10 favorites, as well as a couple of sleepers worthy of some low-risk, high-reward plays.
Needless to say, Trevor Lawrence cards aren’t going to be cheap. It’s too early to tell if he will do for the NFL card market what Zion Williamson did to the NBA market last year, but the comparisons are fair. Trevor is as close to a “can’t miss prospect” as they come, boasting all of the tools needed to be the Jaguars franchise quarterback for the next 10-15 years.
He enters the league with some fun weapons at his disposal, including standout 2020 rookie running back James Robinson, his Clemson teammate and fellow 2021 1st round pick Travis Etienne, wide receivers DJ Chark and Laviska Shenault, and their newly signed tight end Tim Tebow.
However, there are definitely question marks, most notably whether or not new head coach Urban Meyer’s style will translate successfully from college to the pros. Will Trevor be able to live up to the near-impossible market expectations right off the bat? Only time will tell.
In the card market, Lawrence recently released a set in partnership with Topps that featured 20 different “art cards” designed by his brother and sister-in-law, as well as one autographed card in every five boxes, that is selling pretty well on eBay. I worry about the longterm value of this set as Panini’s NFL licensed cards come out in the coming months, so I wouldn’t go scooping those up.
The upcoming set that I’m excited about is 2021 Panini Prizm Collegiate Draft Picks, which features the players in their college uniforms and historically puts up big numbers shortly after its release. Just be careful not to go crazy buying these cards, as the values do take a dip once the sets come out with the rookies in their NFL jerseys.
Why is Trey Lance ranked higher on my list than Zach Wilson and Justin Fields? Two words.
The man is an “offensive genius” in a league where we tend to throw that term around way too often. Besides the coaching, Lance steps onto a team that has enough talent to not only make the playoffs, but potentially the Super Bowl. They are that good on both sides of the ball, only selecting Lance as #3 in this year’s draft because of a wild rash of injuries last season.
Trey Lance will play this year, the only question is when. Jimmy Garoppolo currently sits at the top of the depth chart, but I can’t see a scenario in which he holds on to that spot for the entire season. Once he gets on the field, he has all the tools in place including wide receivers Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, a top tight end in George Kittle, and two sneaky good running backs in Jeff Wilson and Raheem Mostert.
Similar to Trevor Lawrence, Lance’s cards will not come cheap. However, since I can envision him playing deep in to the playoffs – something I can’t say for any of the other quarterbacks who were drafted in the first round – his early upside is off the charts.
The Bears, like the 49ers, have a veteran quarterback (Andy Dalton) currently listed at the top of their depth chart, leaving the question of how soon Fields will take over the starting role up in the air.
Bears head coach Matt Nagy has been through this before, overseeing the Kansas City Chiefs offense under head coach Andy Reid while rookie quarterback Patrick Mahomes sat behind veteran Alex Smith in the 2017 season. Mahomes made only one start that year – in week 17 – with the Chiefs resting their starters before the playoffs.
That said, Andy Dalton is not Alex Smith, who had a 104.7 rating, 26 touchdowns and only five interceptions in 2017.
The odds seem high that Fields will be playing sooner rather than later for the Bears, and he seems to be in a position to be successful once he gets the opportunity. Chicago has one of the top defenses in the NFL, so they should be in every game. With one of the NFL’s top wide receivers in Allen Robinson, as well as the emerging Darnell Mooney, Fields will certainly have some weapons to throw to.
Chicago can certainly compete in the NFC North, and if Green Bay trades Aaron Rodgers, they might even be the favorite to win the division. Similar to Trey Lance, Fields has a decent shot of playing in the playoffs, which would likely do wonders for the value of his cards. For that reason, I am a buyer.
Zach Wilson is probably in the worst spot of the five quarterbacks who were drafted in the first round, and I say that as a die-hard Jets fan. As much as I love Wilson’s talent, the Jets are very much a work in progress.
There are just so many question marks across the board in New York: How well will Robert Saleh transition from coordinator to first-time head coach? He is widely respected throughout the league, but so was former Jets head coach Todd Bowles, and that didn’t exactly work out too well. Also, despite studying under one of the game’s top offensive minds in San Francisco (Kyle Shanahan), how will new offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur perform in his first job running a professional offense?
The Jets offense isn’t exactly loaded with talent, but the cupboard isn’t bare either. They signed underrated wide receiver Corey Davis in the offseason and drafted one of my sleeper picks (that you will see further down this list), Elijah Moore. They also return Denzel Mims, who flashed some big time talent in his injury-shortened 2020 rookie season, and Jamison Crowder.
Thankfully, the Adam Gase era is long gone, and the Jets seem to be headed in the right direction. However, it’s going to take time, and when you combine his draft position with the anticipated cost of his cards, it’s definitely high risk.
With that said, if Wilson were to ever take the Jets to their first Super Bowl since Joe Namath, he would be an absolute god in New York. If you think he has that type of potential in him, his cards make for a very interesting long-term play. Just temper your early expectations as it could be quite a bumpy ride.
Ja’Marr Chase is going to be an absolute stud. The former LSU wide receiver links back up with his college quarterback Joe Burrow in Cincinnati for what would seem to be a perfect fit. The two already have obvious chemistry, and the Bengals are loaded at wide receiver, with Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd making it difficult for any defense to double team Chase.
The odds are very high that Burrow will be connecting with Chase on quite a few deep balls, something that they thrived on in college. In 2019, Chase put up 84 catches for 1,780 yards (21.2 yards per catch) and 20 touchdowns. Good luck stopping this offense once they get going. It’s going to be fun to watch!
The Steelers are one of the most popular teams in the NFL, boasting one of the largest fan bases. The Alabama Crimson Tide are also one of the most popular college teams, with a huge fan base. When you combine those two factors with Harris’ elite playmaking skills, this could be one of the rare times that I would suggest making some plays on a running back, a position that is often relatively overlooked in the card market.
Last year, the Steelers ranked dead-last in rushing, and Harris is poised to become an every-down player in their backfield. He will be huge for Pittsburgh, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looks to make one last playoff run in what appears to be his final season. With Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster in the mix at wide receiver, Harris’ skillset completes this offense. If they do go on a run, he will be loved in Pittsburgh and in the card market.
In what was a recurring theme during the 2021 NFL Draft, the Eagles decided to help their quarterback Jalen Hurts by drafting his former college teammate in wide receiver DeVonta Smith.
Smith lands in an interesting spot, joining a wide receiver group led by Jalen Reagor and Travis Fulgham. That unit certainly needed an upgrade, and Smith seems to be exactly what the doctor ordered. He should immediately get the lion’s share of the targets from Hurts, giving him plenty of opportunities to shine.
Mac Jones is the most “boom or bust” player on this list. The Patriots currently have Cam Newton at the top of their quarterback depth chart, but he didn’t exactly light it up in his first year in New England.
There are many who assume that just because he wound up with Bill Belichick, he is destined for stardom. Let’s ask former Belichick quarterback draft picks Kevin O’Connell (2008), Zac Robinson (2010), Ryan Mallett (2011), Jimmy Garoppolo (2014), Jacoby Brissett (2016), Danny Etling (2018), and Jarrett Stidham (2019) if that’s true.
The fact of the matter is that Belichick has drafted ten quarterbacks since selecting Tom Brady in the 6th round in the 2000 Draft, none of whom turned out to be anything special. The Patriots have very little talent on offense, with a wide receiver group that boasts Jakobi Myers, Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne (ouch) as their top three on the depth chart.
Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels certainly have the ability to game plan some wins, but there are way too many questions for me to buy even one Mac Jones card. However, many will disagree with my take here, and if they are right, it could pay off huge.
The upside is limited in the card market with tight ends, which is why Pitts – despite the fact that I am so high on his talent – isn’t higher up on this list.
With that said, he landed in a very good spot in Atlanta, entering the NFL with an offense led by veteran quarterback Matt Ryan and two of the top wide receivers in the game: Julio Jones (who is now on the trade block) and Calvin Ridley. That offense could be absolutely explosive, even if Jones is ultimately traded before the season.
Pitts is an elite athlete who could be mentioned in the same breath as Travis Kelce, Darren Waller and George Kittle by season’s end. The only problem with that is the most expensive Darren Waller card I can find on eBay in the last three months – his rookie gold Prizm auto /10 – sold for just $499.
The cost of entry on Pitts cards won’t be nearly as high as a rookie quarterback or wide receiver, and if he is as good as I think he will be, opportunities will be there to double your investment on the right card(s).
Trask found himself in the perfect situation after getting drafted by the defending Super Bowl Champions, Tampa Bay. He will be sitting behind and learning from the greatest quarterback of all time and an absolutely loaded offense.
The 43-year-old Brady can’t play forever, even if it seems that he might try. With the Bucs investing a second round pick in Trask, he would seem to be the heir-apparent, making his cards a very interesting long term play.
Blaine Gabbert is the Bucs backup, making it unlikely that Trask will ever see the field in 2021, even if Brady were to get injured. However, I absolutely love the idea of buying and stashing some Trask cards, as the cost of entry will likely be relatively low.
Who will emerge from the 2021 season as the Jets number one wide receiver? Corey Davis would seem to be the favorite, putting up 65 catches for 984 yards and five touchdowns in 2020 and signing a big contract with the Jets in the offseason. However, Elijah Moore is an elite talent.
“The sky’s not the limit for you, bro,” said his former college teammate and current Tennessee Titans star wide receiver, AJ Brown, shortly after Moore was selected. “You can go as far as you want to go. I ain’t worried about you. You’re special, bro. You touch everybody around you. That’s why everybody wants to be around you.”
If Moore and Zach Wilson develop early chemistry, you could see the former Rebels receiver join fellow alums AJ Brown and DK Metcalf as the next great Ole Miss wide receiver in the NFL. Stars become mega-stars in the New York market. I’ll be buying quite a few of his cards.
This one comes down to the fact that Deshaun Watson’s situation in Houston is a mess, facing 22 civil cases centered around sexual assault and/or sexual misconduct allegations. Will he step foot on an NFL field at all in 2021? If he does, will it be for the Texans? It feels highly unlikely at this point.
The Texans seem to be signing and drafting a million quarterbacks, with Tyrod Taylor the likely Week 1 starter, as well as veterans Jeff Driskel and Ryan Finley on the depth chart.
None of those quarterbacks are viable long term solutions.
Enter Davis Mills, an interesting prospect out of Stanford, who the Texans drafted with their first pick in the 2021 Draft (#67 overall). He has all the size and skills to be a good NFL quarterback, but he only started 11 games over the last two seasons because of injuries and a Covid-shortened Pac-12 season.
He is a long shot to be the Texans long-term solution, but he will certainly get a look at some point. He is another boom or bust type of investment, but the cost won’t be much.
Kellen Mond (#66 overall) was taken one spot ahead of Davis Mills by the Vikings and walks in to a pretty good situation in Minnesota. The offense boasts two top wide receivers in Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson as well as a top running back, Dalvin Cook.
Mond currently sits at #2 on the depth chart behind veteran Kirk Cousins. If Cousins doesn’t play well (or gets injured) Mond would take over a high powered offense that has all the tools to go on a deep playoff run.
Quarterbacks are king in the football market. When I can invest in a low-risk, high-reward rookie who landed in a good spot, I do it with zero hesitation. Mond checks all the boxes.