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What We Learned About the Top Rookie QBs in the First Preseason Weekend

Four first-round passers made their preseason debuts Saturday. Who wowed and who fell flat in their first NFL action?
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While it’s irresponsible to make too much out of a preseason debut for any team, those who are debuting a rookie quarterback must realize that something has gone terribly wrong if their first dress rehearsal snaps look awful.

On the podium after a game a coach will say that they don’t script throws for the preseason. They don’t game plan. Enter any of the platitude excuses at their disposal, which keeps the panic meter from launching off the ground and the owner from knocking on an office door to ask if they’ve made the right decision.

But the truth is, a highly-drafted rookie’s first snaps should look somewhat magical. As a rule of thumb, one magical moment is the minimum. Maybe nothing is going to look as smooth and seamless as Mac Jones looked on Thursday night, but something that can build on their confidence and start to create the ground level mythos of a passer capable of one day carrying the franchise is a modern necessity.

And so it was nice that we saw Trey Lance uncork an 80-yard touchdown on a well-set up bootleg pass that allowed him the time to use his eyes, manipulate a safety and twirl a perfect ball. It was nice to see the Bears set up Justin Fields for the throwback pass, which allowed him to showcase more than his everyone is covered and I don’t have the Chiefs' skill position players despite running the Chiefs’ offense mobility.

These things are important. They embolden the quarterbacks. They excite the wide receivers and allow them to believe that their stats will not be depressed throughout the year while the quarterback learns his progressions. In that way, Saturday was good to many of the first-rounders who took their first professional snaps.

The moments in between, though, are important too. So that’s why we’re here. Let’s take a look at both the good and the bad from opening weekend, sharing what we learned about the next wave of young quarterbacks from their early preseason action.

For a look at our Mac Jones thoughts, we had a standalone piece from Thursday’s game as well.

justin-fields

Justin Fields

14-of-20, 142 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 INT (5 rushes, 33 yards, 1 touchdown)

The Bears are going to be able to do more with Justin Fields’s mobility than they were Mitch Trubisky’s, which is obvious. Fields is more comfortable bailing on a play and is more adept at making his time outside of the pocket count. We saw this on Saturday against the Dolphins quite often. The hope is that Matt Nagy will not force Fields to hang in the pocket to play Hero Ball during the season and that he will incorporate this talent into a version of the offense that gives Fields better chances of attaining winnable matchups.

His early throws looked like the early throws of a quarterback taking his first NFL snaps. There was too much juice on some passes that left his receivers exposed as they reached for high balls on short-range passes. There was notable hesitation, although without the ability to see the All-22 angles (let’s get this GamePass thing figured out, NFL) it’s difficult to tell if these were issues of tight coverage or if Fields just wasn’t seeing the play develop yet. After the game, Fields said everything felt slow to him and several perfect-looking passes he made fell incomplete due to tight coverage, so we’ll lean (for now) on the thought that Miami had Chicago covered fairly well.

Fields’s most impressive play of the night, to us anyway, was just before halftime when he smoothly climbed into vacant space after feeling some pressure and, while enticed by an easy checkdown throw, perfectly whipped a cross body pass to Justin Hardy. It was the first of two cross-body throws that Fields made that were impressive not only because of the degree of difficulty, but because of the ball placement as well. Maybe that’s our entertainment bias showing, and if you’re Nagy you’d prefer not to see anything like that again. But it shows confidence and the kind of off-the-cuff playmaking ability that could elevate the Bears’ receiving corps.

Zach Wilson

6-of-9, 63 yards, 0 touchdowns, 0 INT

It was encouraging to see how quickly the Jets have acclimated to outside zone, at least on the opening drive. Some of Wilson’s early snaps provided him with the kind of pocket time on bootlegs that he was used to at BYU, meaning the speed of the game isn’t going to necessarily whack him all at once if the offensive line and the running game can meld together. They also seem to be experimenting with some fun backfield motion concepts, which can only help the rookie.

Most seemed to agree that Wilson’s best throw of the night was a comeback route to Corey Davis with 10:11 remaining in the first quarter, though I was equally impressed with a slim post route that he hit Keelan Cole on later in the quarter. In both instances, we saw something we didn’t necessarily see from every rookie quarterback this weekend, which is the ability to make a decision after the fifth step of their drop and immediately get rid of the football. Both throws were not gimmicky. They were not part of the outside zone bootleg package which could get him extra time. These were down 14 points in the second half and no one’s gonna believe we’re running passes. They were NFL throws.

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Wilson’s night ended after a failed fourth-down conversion attempt early in the second quarter, which would have been nice to see the Jets convert if only to buy him a few more attempts.

One slight nitpick with Wilson, continuing on something that I’d noticed during two camp practices: there seem to be some balls that just need to be a little more ahead of the wide receivers than they currently are. While this is almost certainly due to the fact that he’s only practiced with these people a handful of times on top of acclimating to the speed of the NFL, it could be noteworthy down the line in a scheme that can sometimes invite excellent opportunities at the low and mid-range, especially if the run game is working as well as it was on their opening scoring drive.

Trevor Lawrence

6-of-9, 71 yards, 0 touchdowns, 0 INT (one fumble, recovered)

Without pretending to know what Lawrence was looking at on his first snap, which resulted in a strip sack, it would seem this route concept was deep, with only one receiver, Laviska Shenault, snapping off a route intermediate enough to provide some relief. Perhaps he could have thrown the in-cutting route to Shenault, though without the All-22 availability right now, it’s difficult to know what he saw from his position in the pocket. Indeed, the broadcast view looked rather gnarly with a Browns linebacker stepping up initially, threatening to take away Shenault’s route before drifting back into coverage.

It would also seem that Lawrence’s outlet passing option from running back James Robinson was a little late leaving the backfield.

From there, it was a lot of what we expected from Lawrence. The timing routes were there. If a receiver was running a comeback toward the sideline, the ball was arriving at his chest by the time he slipped out of his break.

While this is not an accurate, complete glimpse of Jacksonville’s offense, it was also nice to see some confirmation that the Jaguars are going to build Lawrence’s confidence with lots of short, early throws to playmakers who can create yards after the catch out of thin air. Shenault played this role on Saturday but Travis Etienne will no doubt find himself in this role. The Jaguars’ insistence on speedy players who can make defenders miss in a small window tipped their hand throughout free agency.

One odd note: it was interesting to see Lawrence doing small things. After his longest pass of the afternoon, the deep ball to Marvin Jones on third-and-10, he calmly tapped the head of one of his offensive lineman, acknowledging the wealth of additional time he had in the pocket. Despite all the chaos, he has the wherewithal to give kudos for a good block, which is something that not all rookies are going to do in their first start. Also, this was a nice throw by Lawrence but one hell of a catch by Marvin Jones, who may have been the most surprising performer on Sunday. Jones turned back toward the ball and high pointed one with first-round pick Greg Newsome in his face.

Trey Lance

5-of-14, 128 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 INT (four sacks, one fumble not lost)

What surprised me the most about Lance was how active and explosive he is in the pocket. His feet, the width of them and the springiness of them, was almost Peyton Manning-esque. Footwork was an essential part of the Lance pre-draft process, when Kyle Shanahan had him evaluated by long-time confidant and former pupil John Beck, so there was no doubt Lance was going to look the part.

It’s so noticeable with each watch through. The aggressiveness with which he approaches a fake handoff is exhausting, and if he can keep up that kind of action throughout the course of a game, the defense is going to have an impossible time tracking him and deciding whether he handed the ball off.

It was disappointing that Brandon Aiyuk dropped Lance’s first pass, as it would have been fun to see the stadium erupt. This was, essentially, the reason the 49ers pushed all their chips in to acquire Lance. His mobility and arm strength were both on display on his first throw despite the coverage not giving him any immediate options. On several drop-backs, it was noteworthy how much different it looked to see the defense flow with him. Shanahan talked about how his scheme could evolve with the threat of a quarterback who can run, and there were elements of his offense that emerged on Saturday that simply would not have been possible with Jimmy Garoppolo under center.

Like Fields, he looked a bit like a gym devotee riled up on pre-workout powder hitting his first Planet Fitness since the pandemic restrictions lifted. This is completely understandable but in Lance’s case was an absolute blast to watch. When this kind of athleticism and arm strength is honed over a few seasons by the most enviable offensive mind in football, special things are going to happen. Lance’s ability to manipulate the safety on his long touchdown pass was partially the product of time in the pocket he may not have elsewhere, but the arm strength and the instinct are undeniable.

I’ll maintain that I was most impressed by Mac Jones on opening weekend, though Lance clearly has the market cornered on upside. Take a person who knew nothing of these quarterbacks’ narratives coming into the draft and show them these five players on a loop. It would be stunning not to hear the most enthusiasm for Lance, who can take this 49ers team in a very different direction very quickly. 

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