Setting Realistic Expectations for 2021's Rookie Quarterbacks

Five QBs were drafted in the first round, but what should we consider a "good" season for Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones?
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After the instantaneous high fans get when their team selects a quarterback in the first round of the draft, there is often an accompanying realization that, while this person may end up helping your team a great deal, there is going to be a somewhat lengthy growing process before the quarterback is ready to deliver on ultimate expectations. This process is complicated by the stability factor at head coach, offensive coordinator, general manager and throughout a roster that should get progressively better while the QB is still on his rookie contract—but doesn’t always.

This column is an exercise in creating realistic expectations and somewhat of a best-case scenario for those coming into the league, colored by the fact that their coaches have limitations, their schemes have limitations and their coordinators come into the process with biases that will also affect the initial product. While the true best-case scenario for all of these players would be to break Justin Herbert’s rookie touchdown record, we know the reality of the situation. It’s unlikely any of these players will do that. So what should they hope their initial season looks like?

Players below are listed in the order they were drafted. Let’s dive in …

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Trevor Lawrence

17 starts, 4,200 yards, 25 touchdowns, 10 or fewer interceptions, 65% completion rate

We’re using Justin Herbert’s 2020 as a baseline for what is possible, though Herbert was working with a better offense and had a defense that generated more opportunities to score for that offense. This Jaguars’ roster is thin and will take time to develop. So, too, will Lawrence alongside his new coaches and coordinators. What’s fascinating here is how Urban Meyer will blend his core offensive philosophies with those of offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and passing game coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. In a previous marriage of a collegiate coach and a pro-style coordinator, Chip Kelly and Pat Shurmur, we saw the blend lean heavily toward the college coach’s preferences. With Kliff Kingsbury, who keeps a run-game coordinator but is himself the passing-game coordinator, we saw his Air Raid offense veer more toward your prototypical NFL scheme.

No matter which side of the coin Meyer falls on, it seems like he will bring his tendency to run inside zone to Jacksonville. With that is the need to establish a running game, and he brought with him a pair of offensive minds that have relied fairly heavily on the run during their time with young quarterbacks.

Let’s take a look at the run/pass splits for Meyer the last three years at Ohio State, along with Schottenheimer with Mark Sanchez and Bevell with Russell Wilson (format here is runs/passes per game).

• 2016 Ohio State: 31.5/44.8
• 2017 Ohio State: 31.4/42
• 2018 Ohio State: 40/40

• 2009 Jets: 24.5/37.9
• 2010 Jets: 32.8/33.4

• 2012 Seahawks: 25.3/33.5
• 2013 Seahawks: 26.3/31.4

Both Schottenheimer and Bevell led the league in rushing attempts with rookie quarterbacks and then were second in rushing attempts the following year, which might be instructive as to what we’ll see in Lawrence’s early days. That’s why I’m not particularly bullish on his shattering the rookie touchdown record—or coming close to it for that matter. It seems like Jacksonville has made a lot of ancillary moves to prevent a kind of Andrew Luck–like burnout, which mounted over time due to the overdose of hits and the lack of potency with his offensive scheme. In Indianapolis, the belief was that Luck could overcome these things and that the coaching staff could elevate the players around him, instead of taking the common-sense precautions at the start. It would also seem that the insistence on having a Travis Etienne–type player means that Meyer is looking to create intermediate advantages in the passing game while using the passing game to create more space to run.

While it is dangerous to hock the advantages of running the football in today’s NFL media climate, the Packers, Titans and 49ers have all achieved success by marrying their pass- and run-game concepts. It would seem as though Jacksonville is trying to do the same, but with an inside zone philosophy and not an outside zone lean.

Zach Wilson

17 starts, 23 touchdowns, 3,900 passing yards, 15 or fewer interceptions, 60% completion rate

The extreme vacillations in Wilson’s college numbers, despite having had the same coach and coordinator, are still puzzling to me. He went from a capable 12-touchdown, three-interception player as a freshman to an 11/9 player his sophomore year to a 33/3 player his junior season. Wilson has always been an impressive thrower who can think above the scheme. There are a number of examples in BYU’s offense where he would operate outside of the typical RPO formula to make plays (for example, the math in the box dictated a pass, but he read a crease and handed the ball off for a big gain) or shift to the second or third read in order to make a play that wasn’t necessarily designed to go to a certain place.

The nagging issue here is how he performed under pressure. The Jets allowed a sack every 12 dropbacks last season, and Wilson was barely touched during his final year. In the piece linked to above, Wilson’s former offensive coordinator argued that he has faced pressure in the past, though the evidence there isn’t encouraging. Wilson had a 38.8 Independent Quarterback Rating (IQR)—a stat from Sports Info Solutions that removes extraneous events like dropped balls, spikes and other irrelevant plays that often affect quarterback rating—when under pressure in 2019 and a 61.2 when facing pressure in 2018. All of a sudden that number jumped to 111.2 in 2020 when the schedule softened and his offensive line dominated opponents.

That’s why we’re seriously increasing his best-case interception threshold and softening the expectations for his completion percentage. While the Jets’ offensive line has improved dramatically, there are a few concerns there as well. Namely, how will left tackle Mekhi Becton assimilate to a vastly different scheme? Big boppers are not normally the preference for coaches running outside zone. Could there be some issues there? How quickly will Alijah Vera-Tucker catch on? As the unit gels, we could see some pressure forcing Wilson back into old, less desirable habits.

The true measure of success this season will be in how he handles them. The scheme will eventually take care of itself. Smart quarterbacks like Wilson can pick it up. What happens when everything goes awry is another issue altogether.

Trey Lance

Eight starts, 12 total touchdowns, 1,900 passing yards, 350 rushing yards, 60% completion rate, five or fewer interceptions

An ideal baton-passing moment for the 49ers might come sometime around Week 11, when they face the Jaguars in Jacksonville. Depending on when the NFL’s trade deadline falls this year (could it be a week later than last year with the extra 17th game?) it could be right on the heels of a catalyzing moment like that. In the tidiest of worlds, perhaps Jimmy Garoppolo would be dealt to a contender in need of a replacement quarterback. Or, maybe Lance will be worked in on various series throughout the season and slowly find himself taking pieces of the offense away from Garoppolo, making the incumbent expendable by the time San Francisco hits its bye week. Either way, this best-case scenario reflects Kyle Shanahan’s current bullishness on starting Garoppolo, juxtaposed against his clear infatuation for Lance, which, according to those who know him, was evident from a very early stage of the draft process.

Lance is going to change the way we think about the 49ers’ offense. Back when Shanahan coordinated Washington’s offense for Robert Griffin III, he was open to anything. He would take the framework of an outside zone offense and pin on various tweaks, like the pistol formation, along the way. I don’t expect Lance to be in the pistol, but I do expect the offense to look drastically different when he’s in. Maybe the backs will be stacked a different way. Maybe it’ll utilize a different personnel grouping.

This is going to be incredibly difficult for a defense to defend. When you’re facing the 49ers, you’re already likely stuck in your base defense because of the way they utilize the fullback. You’re going to be dealing with an offense in which every single play looks the same at the outset. You’re going to be dealing with arguably the best and most versatile tight end in the league, George Kittle, who can handle blocking and receiving assignments seamlessly, further making the run and pass marriage look sympatico. With Lance, you’d also have to consider what might happen if the quarterback, on a designed bootleg, takes off down the field. Lance’s bread and butter during his first year may be his rushing, which will be the hardest component for defenses to anticipate with little prep and no film. Perhaps the 350 yards benchmark above is conservative.

That said, Shanahan would not have picked Lance if he could not complete the requisite footwork and anticipatory throws that the offense demands. He had Lance work before the draft with close friend John Beck and evaluate him from that perspective. Lance’s arm will be as strong of a consideration for defenses soon enough.

Justin Fields

15 starts, 3,200 passing yards, 27 total touchdowns, 400 rushing yards, 65-plus% completion rate, 12 or fewer interceptions

I’m putting a few obvious markers in here for Fields to hit during his first year. A 65% completion rate is high for a rookie quarterback (Baker Mayfield’s was 63%, Josh Allen’s 52%, Andrew Luck’s 54% and Lamar Jackson’s 58%), but it’s around the number that Mitch Trubisky floated at in Matt Nagy’s system. And while completion percentage is often not a great indicator of overall effectiveness, and could actually mean a QB is throwing the ball consistently short of the sticks, it does serve as a barometer for how much of a departure Fields will be from past Bears’ offenses. If he can hit these numbers consistently, there would seem to be a more solid base on which to build.

I predict Fields’s taking over midway through the second week against the Bengals. Ideally, he’d be starting from Week 1, but it seems as if the Bears are content to play out this charade because Nagy promised Andy Dalton he would come to Chicago to be the starting quarterback. The Bears’ schedule is not necessarily a friendly one, and there are few ideal pockets where they could slip Fields in and expect enough room for a clear takeoff. They begin the season on the road against Aaron Donald and the Rams, and come off their bye week against the Ravens. By working Fields in midway through the Bengals game, they could get him a chance to feel his way through some unease against a relatively bad defense. And while his first technical start would then be on the road against the Browns, he’d have games against the Lions and Raiders to fall back on before the meat of the schedule takes hold.

While calling Fields a mobile quarterback is a misnomer—85% of the balls he threw over the course of his college career were deemed “catchable” by the analytics and scouting service Sports Info Solutions—Fields also happened to be the most situationally devastating rusher in college football. This tends to happen when you have the best receivers and running game in your respective conference and force undermanned opponents to choose between getting burned via the pass or by more self-damaging (for the quarterback himself) and contained quarterback runs. Mitch Trubisky ran the ball almost 70 times during his first year with Nagy and saw his ultimate decline in Chicago begin when there was a specific urgency placed on him going through traditional progressions instead of tucking the ball. During that second season with Nagy, the Bears ran about 10% of their passing plays as RPOs, showing a willingness to cut down on the amount of processing Trubisky had to do, but perhaps not the creativity to get him on the move again and allow him to play more comfortably (at the time, the reason given was that defenses began to spy Trubisky or play specific QB-run oriented defenses, though that didn’t seem to lead to easier reads for Trubisky).

So, with Fields, one has to wonder whether Nagy has learned a little bit about structured mobility and whether he’ll want to incorporate more QB powers into his arsenal. During his time at Ohio State, Fields added roughly 64 points through rushing (via EPA statistics), and while he is a high-percentage thrower with decision making skills on par with the rest of the draft class, this added element can help Chicago overcome an offensive weapon set that, beyond Allen Robinson, is a bit starved for playmaking ability. Not to mention, this is a team breaking in a new left tackle it procured in the second round.

Mac Jones

Nine starts*, 65-plus% completion rate, 2,100 yards, 15 touchdowns, fewer than seven interceptions

If you’re the Patriots, ideally, you want Mac Jones to win the job out of training camp with the handshake agreement that Cam Newton will be a big part of this offense in regular stints throughout the year. Newton is simply too much of a playmaker to keep on the bench, and as he evolves in Josh McDaniels’s offense, so too should his opportunities. An anonymous Patriot recently told NFL Network that Jones “sees the game the way Josh does” which is the closest anyone in that building has come to acknowledging that Jones, one of the most accurate passers in recent memory and a player who some coaches saw as a bona fide top-three pick, is a perfect fit within this offense.

No one knows how Bill Belichick will ultimately handle the competition. The last time he had quarterback turnover of this magnitude, forces outside of his control conspired to make the decision for him. Tom Brady nabbed an opportunity and refused to let it go. For 20 years. I think the Patriots are one of the few teams that could craft situational game plans that included two distinctly different quarterbacks. If your strength is opponent personnel dissection, why not start Newton against a lighter, faster team and allow him to spread the defense out and gut them with QB power? Why not play Jones against bad secondaries, or teams with limited coverage skills at safety and linebacker, allowing him to feast on the kind of matchups New England’s new tight ends are meant to create?

At some point, teams will stop being so linear with their views on what a quarterback has to look like. The Chargers got Justin Herbert ready to play in about 45 seconds after Tyrod Taylor received a bad injection before the game (not saying it was easy, but, behind the scenes they were able to put enough work in on two quarterbacks with current practice restrictions). The Ravens had two offenses ready for Lamar Jackson and Joe Flacco. Coaches are paid to be prepared, so why not prepare like Jones and/or Newton could take the baton each week?

The heart of the Patriots’ dynasty has been individualized game planning, and it only makes sense to use Jones’s rookie season as an entry into expanding that philosophy. Multiple quarterbacks make sense for New England because it can uniquely facilitate that arrangement. Belichick is not going to leave himself with a heap of players who depend on some kind of nebulous, singular quarterback leadership like so many other coaches insist you need. He picks players for a reason—guys who are smart enough to run one offense on one play and, perhaps, if the situation dictates, another offense on the next play.

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