By Rob Rang
FOX Sports NFL Draft Analyst
Prior to the 2021 NFL
Draft, this year’s rookie quarterback class was billed as the best of the century
and perhaps even the most talented since the 1983 crop that featured future Hall of Famers John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino.
If the five signal-callers drafted in the first round in 2021 are feeling any anxiety about the heavy expectations, they have not yet shown it.
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If anything, Trevor Lawrence (Jacksonville Jaguars), Zach Wilson (New York Jets), Trey Lance (San Francisco 49ers), Justin Fields (Chicago Bears) and Mac Jones (New England Patriots) have exceeded expectations to this point, demonstrating both the physical traits and the intangibles that every NFL general manager hopes for when investing a first-round pick in the most critical position in team sports.
The point of this exercise, however, is to truly evaluate each of the passers, identify where (or if?) they have improved since their college days, pinpoint what their NFL teams are doing to help them and project which ones might perform best in both the short and long term.
Before doing so, let’s acknowledge the obvious:
1. First impressions are important, but only if they are proven accurate over time.
2. There is a colossal difference between the level of competition in the first two preseason games and that of the regular season and postseason.
3. The quality of opponents, teammates and support from the coaching staff and scheme vary widely from passer to passer.
This is why we waited until we had two preseason games, rather than one, to evaluate each quarterback. A single game can be a fluke, especially in a player’s professional debut. A similar performance in multiple games is more of a trend.
If August has taught us anything about these five rookie quarterbacks, it's that they are certainly trending in the right direction.
All five passers are listed below, ranked in order of their play thus far.
5. TREVOR LAWRENCE
Game 1 vs. Cleveland Browns: 6-for-9 for 71 yards; sacked twice
Game 2 at New Orleans Saints: 14-for-23 for 113 yards; rushed once for nine yards; sacked once
Analysis: Lawrence was deservedly the No. 1 overall pick of the 2021 draft, but his tools and national championship pedigree have not yet translated into touchdowns for the Jaguars. In fact, in his combined eight series over two games, the Jaguars have attempted two field goals (both against the Saints), making one.
What was immediately clear in Lawrence’s NFL debut against Cleveland on Aug. 14 is how used to stellar protection he became at Clemson. In a humbling "Welcome to the NFL" moment, Lawrence was sacked on his very first dropback. He was also sacked on his final drop Monday night against the Saints. Both defenses boast talented pass rushes that simply overwhelmed Jacksonville up front at times.
Should Jaguars fans be concerned that Lawrence is a bust? Not at all.
While Lawrence and the Jaguars have obviously struggled to adapt to Urban Meyer’s scheme thus far, every sign (except the scoreboard) suggests that a breakout is coming soon. Remember, Lawrence isn’t the only one adjusting to Meyer, a longtime college coach who's taking his first shot at the NFL.
Just look at the way Lawrence calmly avoids the pressure against a blitzing Saints defender here, while keeping his eyes downfield and delivering an easy ball.
Whereas other quarterbacks on this list have essentially had training wheels placed on them with the playcalling and formations, Lawrence is passing up easier throws for more downfield attacks.
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Perhaps his most impressive throw thus far came against Cleveland in his debut. Afforded plenty of time in the pocket, Lawrence recognized that speedy new Jaguars wideout Marvin Jones Jr. had slipped behind the secondary. Check out this bit of improvisation and rapport between the young quarterback and Jones, a nine-year veteran with 51 career touchdown receptions.
Lawrence has started each of the Jaguars’ two preseason games. His primary competition for the starting role — gutty but limited veteran Gardner Minshew — has also struggled to move the ball. He has two interceptions in as many games and has yet to throw a touchdown.
In fact, 31 of the 34 points Jacksonville has scored have come in the fourth quarter, with one-time 49ers starter C.J. Beathard throwing for three touchdowns.
Nevertheless, Lawrence is expected to start Week 1, and the budding camaraderie with top targets such as Jones and fellow future star Laviska Shenault Jr. will make Meyer and Jaguars fans happy.
4. TREY LANCE
Game 1 vs. Kansas City Chiefs: 5-for-14 for 128 yards and one touchdown; sacked four times
Game 2 at Los Angeles Chargers: 8-for-14 for 102 yards and two TDs, one INT; rushed once for eight yards; sacked twice
Analysis: You might be surprised to see Lance ranked this low, given that he leads all rookie passers with three touchdown passes. In fact, Lance is the only quarterback in San Francisco to have thrown one during the preseason, suggesting that he might be pushing incumbent Jimmy Garoppolo for the right to start.
As Lance demonstrated with an 80-yard bomb for a highlight-reel touchdown on his very first NFL snap, he certainly possesses the raw talent and upside to become a superstar.
Of the five first-round quarterbacks, however, Lance has clearly been the most inconsistent, failing to feel collapsing pockets at times and relying far too much on his pre-snap reads.
His six sacks are twice as many as those of any other rookie on this list and a bright red flag compared to the zero Garoppolo has absorbed to this point.
It is also worth noting that Lance has been protected better by the skill-position talent surrounding him in San Francisco than many of his fellow rookie signal-callers. The 49ers have out-rushed their first two opponents by a significant margin (318 yards vs. 127 combined from the Chiefs and Chargers).
Clearly, head coach Kyle Shanahan is scheming to take advantage of Lance’s unique skillset. Further, neither the Chiefs nor the Chargers were particularly exotic in their defensive alignments against the Niners.
Still, Lance’s well-documented jump in competition after starting a total of 17 games at North Dakota State — all against FCS opponents — is evident in his play so far. While it is true that his lone interception came off of a deflection of his intended receiver’s (Mohamed Sanu) hands, the rookie quarterback made things tough on his veteran receiver with a high throw.
Lance was very nearly intercepted by the same defender (Tevaughn Campbell) later against the Chargers as well.
The 80-yard launch to Trent Sherfield against the Chiefs showed Lance’s arm strength and accuracy, but this is a common throw in Shanahan’s offense and one designed to go deep. Give the 49ers kudos for teeing up their young quarterback with a great opportunity to make a big play immediately — and even more to Lance for pulling it off — but he had a relatively easy read and throw on this play.
More impressive were a couple of plays against the Chargers, including a misdirection boot off of play-action in which Lance showed his mobility and accuracy on the move, tossing a perfect ball to Richie James for 11 yards.
His next throw was a rifle shot up the middle to hit former Charger Travis Benjamin on a quick slant for a 16-yard touchdown. The throw was delivered through traffic and hit Benjamin perfectly in stride. Better yet, it happened after Lance first looked hard left, freezing Chargers’ safety Donte Vaughn up the middle to give Benjamin the space needed to sprint in for the score.
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It was Lance’s most impressive NFL play yet, and Shanahan recognized it, sitting his prized rookie as he was brimming with confidence after completing just one of his first six attempts.
3. JUSTIN FIELDS
Game 1 vs. Miami Dolphins: 14-for-20 for 142 yards and a TD; rushed five times for 33 yards, including for a touchdown
Game 2 vs. Buffalo Bills: 9-for-19 for 80 yards; rushed four times for 46 yards; sacked twice
Analysis: While GM Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy might have come up short in their offseason bid to acquire Russell Wilson, Fields is already performing an impersonation of sorts, thrilling Bears fans with his electric playmaking while demonstrating rare composure for a young quarterback.
As with Lance, it didn’t take Fields long to create a spark — and it came against a Miami defense that sprinkled in pretty exotic blitzes against the rookie. Even the best of schemes can be exposed by straight-line speed and vision, however, and Fields possesses both.
Plus, it isn’t like Fields is just a scrambler. Everyone knows he’s a terrific athlete, and his toughness is quickly becoming legendary. Look at the placement on this deep ball with a simple flick of the wrist.
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In terms of pure electricity, Fields is leading the rookies at this point. Against Buffalo, it looked and sounded like a scene from the movie "Gladiator" with the way the Soldier Field crowd cheered for their new hero, even as the rookie entered the game already down 34-6.
Like the Dolphins, the Bills came ready to play in Week 2. Likely inspired by the return to Chicago of their new backup quarterback, Mitch Trubisky (who played the NFL game of his life against the Bears), Buffalo was more physical and schematic from the outset of this exhibition contest.
Fair or not, Fields’ insertion into the game seemed to level the playing field a bit. However, he also had his rookie moments. His failure to recognize a potential blitz coming against the Bills was a painful reminder of how much he still has to learn.
Andy Dalton signed with Chicago after being told he would be the Bears’ opening day starter. Nagy announced Tuesday that Fields will start the third and final preseason game (Tennessee), seemingly acknowledging that his prized rookie might wind up winning the job outright.
Sound familiar? It was a decade ago when Wilson, a third-round pick, wound up overtaking free-agent acquisition Matt Flynn to start as a rookie.
2. MAC JONES
Game 1 vs. Washington Football Team: 13-for-19 for 87 yards; sacked once
Game 2 at Philadelphia Eagles: 13-for-19 for 146 yards; rushed once for three yards
Analysis: Given that he has not yet thrown a touchdown pass in the NFL, placing Jones this high might surprise some. It will not surprise anyone who has analyzed his savvy play over the first two games, however, or those who took the time to evaluate the complexity of the offense and types of throws Jones made in guiding Alabama to yet another national championship.
The polar opposite of most of his peers, Jones is the anti-highlight-reel quarterback on this list. He does not possess the overwhelming physical traits scouts thirst for. However, his awareness and accuracy — especially deep — are quite remarkable for such a young and inexperienced (17 career college starts) player.
Take a look at this snap. Without taking his eyes from the secondary, Jones brushes off pressure, steps up into the pocket and shows off his underrated release and zip. The play results in a first down in the red zone, and running back J.J. Taylor subsequently scored one of the three rushing touchdowns by the Patriots during Jones’ four series last weekend against the Eagles.
A dominant running game to support a young quarterback is a huge help, of course, and the Patriots have nearly doubled the yardage of their first two opponents (386-204). But the quickness and confidence with which Jones runs the offense stand apart from most of his fellow rookie quarterbacks.
The Patriots are helping Jones in other ways, too. On this snap, for example, he receives terrific pass protection. But watch the way he scans the entire field, gives a slight shoulder twitch to influence defenders and fires a laser that only his receiver can catch.
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It is, of course, a coincidence that Jones threw and completed the same number of passes in both of his preseason games. Yet the similarities are an indication of just how scientific the process is for a heady player such as Jones.
Veteran Cam Newton is likely to start Week 1 for New England, but Jones has quietly been terrific. When his time comes, there will be no questioning whether Jones was worthy of being the first quarterback selected in the first round by Bill Belichick.
1. ZACH WILSON
Game 1 at New York Giants: 6-for-9 for 63 yards
Game 2 at Green Bay Packers: 9-for-11 for 128 yards and two TDs
Analysis: Like Lawrence (and notably unlike the other rookie passers on this list), Wilson started each of his first two NFL games. That simple fact cannot be overstated, as teams generally want to shield their rookies from unrealistic expectations.
Along with his trademark accuracy (more on that later), Wilson’s composure has really stood out. Playing in as iconic a setting as it gets in the NFL, Wilson guided New York to scores in three of his four drives at Lambeau Field after leading the Jets to a field goal on his very first NFL drive a week earlier against the Giants.
What jumps off the tape with Wilson is the same thing that did at BYU: the sheer accuracy with which he throws the ball. With all due respect to the bigger, more celebrated Lawrence, Wilson is the most accurate passer in this class, both on the move and in the pocket.
Each of the passers on this list has shown the ability to hit his receivers in stride. Wilson, though, does it consistently and from a variety of throwing platforms. The 27-yard strike to the deep right corner to Corey Davis below shows Wilson’s whip of an arm, as well as his vision.
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Take a look at his composure and touch on this ball lofted to veteran tight end Tyler Kroft.
Perhaps most exciting of all is the rapport Wilson is already developing with free-agent acquisition Davis. Jets fans know all too well that for quite some time, the play at receiver in New York has been very nearly as bad as at quarterback. Keyshawn Johnson was the last Jets wideout to earn multiple Pro Bowl nods — and that was in the 1990s.
Davis had four catches for 70 yards against the Packers … in the first quarter.
After years of offensive ineptitude, it appears that Wilson has the Jets finally ready to fly — and maybe even lead — the rookie aerial assault coming to the NFL in 2021.
One of the most recognized names in the industry, Rob Rang has been covering the NFL draft for over 20 years with his work found at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others.
Source : https://www.foxsports.com/stories/nfl/nfl-rookie-qbs-trevor-lawrence-zach-wilson-tery-lance-justin-fields-mac-jones-ranking3540