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NFL rookie quarterbacks: How have they fared in the 2021 season so far?

By Nat Coombs

Published: 18:21, 16 December 2021

There are few experiences in sport more difficult than the debut season of a rookie quarterback.

If a player is starting at QB for his team in his debut season, he’s likely a first-round draft pick, and typically a high one. In most such cases, the deck is loaded, as the team he’s starting for is, at best, a work in progress, and at worst, awful — thus the high draft pick to spend on the quarterback.

Throw in a whirlwind increase in the speed and complexity of the game itself — akin to the jump from GCSE to a Masters Degree — plus frenzied evaluation from all corners of a 24-hour media machine that constantly demands to be fed in real-time, not to mention legions of fans empowered by social media… you get the picture. While some certainly fare better than others, quarterbacks simply do not enter the league as finished products. Consider that Troy Aikman and Peyton Manning — two Hall of Fame legends — both suffered through dismal opening gambits.

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Every team fantasises not only of lucking into a Patrick Mahomes or an Aaron Rodgers style talent, but also the luxury to allow that talent a year or two to develop, all while remaining competitive. The other dream scenario is the one the Cowboys and Seahawks have enjoyed, with Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson, respectively. Neither signal caller was a first round pick, but rather both were seen by established teams as speculative yet intriguing works in progress, and, once in the building, once provided an opportunity, each did more than enough to impress. 

It’s the (Andrew) luck of draw. The true greats will succeed regardless of the situation into which they’re parachuted. For others, the right initial landing spot can make a career, while the wrong one may destroy it. This year’s quarterback draft class, one of the most hyped in recent memory, featured players thrust into a number of these situations. 

Trevor Lawrence, the phenom, taken first overall has underwhelmed. However, this is almost entirely due to the dysfunction around him. The environment in Jacksonville has been a fractious one, presided over by an out-of-touch (and since dismissed) head coach in Urban Meyer. the prospect of coaching Lawrence surely played a role in compelling Meyer to take the gig — his first head coaching role in the NFL after a hugely successful career in college. The pre-season in Central Florida was one filled with optimism and belief. It was a new dawn. This beleaguered franchise with a disconnected fanbase was suddenly relevant. Sadly, what’s played out is the diametric opposite of what the Jags had hoped for. 

Lawrence has had a pretty conventional rookie season for a struggling team. The occasional strong performance — most notably in London against a banged-up Miami defense — and flashes of brilliance, undone by inexperience, bad decision making, and a severely limited cast of supporting characters. He’s only thrown for nine touchdowns which is light, though his ratio of TDs to interceptions (9/14) is not totally out of line for a player in his situation. Peyton was 26/28 in rookie year, with a completion percentage of 56.7% — Lawrence is hitting 58.2%. His 243 yards on the ground, at a rate of roughly 5 yards per carry, suggest that there’s untapped potential for the Jags’ next coaching staff to try and exploit. Early indications suggest that Lawrence will be just fine long term — though it would be very helpful for him if the franchise could snap out of perpetual state of flux. Sam Bradford, for example, a former number one overall pick a decade ago had three different offensive coordinators, each with his own playbook and philosophy, in his first three seasons. He ultimately had an unremarkable career — that chop and change in his formative years undoubtedly didn’t help.

If Lawrence has had a typically tough rookie season, Zach Wilson of the New York Jets has been well under par. Being sidelined for a month during the season has obviously been a hinderance to his development, as has a Jets offense that struggled in the best of times, and has been downright woeful in the wake of injuries to its top two receivers: prized free agent Corey Davis and impressive rookie Elijah Moore.

However, some of the issues lay with Wilson himself, who’s not been as quick as Lawrence — who, as we noted, has also struggled in a tough situation — to develop composure and confidence in the NFL. It’s way too early to write Wilson off, though six TDs and 11 INTs in a little over eight games (he left an early matchup against New England with an injury), doesn’t yet inspire much confidence. However, provided the Jets stick with offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, they’ll be allowing their prized prospect to develop as an NFL passer in a relatively stable situation, under the guidance of a coach with whom he’s building a rapport. Plus, the Jets have a stack of potentially high draft picks (most notably their own guaranteed top-five pick, and the 5-8 Seahawks’ first-rounder in the upcoming draft) with which to acquire more weapons (and protection up front) for Wilson. Get these decisions right, and Zach Wilson will be in line for a much-improved sophomore season.

Meanwhile, Mac Jones has landed on his feet in a perfect situation in New England. The Patriots are genuine Super Bowl contenders, with a clear identity — as all excellent teams have — and Jones is playing a clearly defined, straightforward role that’s suited to his strengths (accuracy, composure, smarts) and does not ask him to perform beyond his capabilities. Of course, he’s helped by having a far more impactful supporting cast around him than either Lawrence or Wilson do, not to mention superior coaching, but to dismiss Jones as a functional, underwhelming mechanic is to do him a disservice. He’s the heavy favourite for offensive rookie of the year, and he’s set to be the starter in Foxborough for years, and it’s well-deserved.

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Situationally, Justin Fields is somewhere in between Lawrence/Wilson & Jones, on an abject Bears team that is just good enough to not be in the bottom tier of the league. His head coach, Matt Nagy, has had a bumpy ride, and may not survive Black Monday. And yet, despite all of this, Fields may have the greatest upside of all the quarterbacks drafted in 2021. While his stats aren’t particularly impressive, he’s showing himself to be a dynamic, big-armed, intelligent playmaker who’s style is much built for today’s NFL. Fields seems to have all of the qualities one looks for in a young quarterback, not unlike current second-year stars Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert — both of whom are set to start under center for at least the next decade. 

Finally, we have the outlier: San Francisco’s Trey Lance. We’ve not seen enough Lance on the field to truly assess his progress. However, like Mahomes and Rodgers in years past, he’s landed in an ideal situation. His rookie season will largely be spent watching and learning, under the tutelage of an excellent offensive coach in Kyle Shanahan, before (presumably) taking over the starting job next season. Also working in his favour is the fact that the 49ers’ roster is laden with talent and should once again be ready to contend. It’s perhaps a bit odd that San Francisco hasn’t used Lance more as a pinch-hitting specialist, similar to Taysom Hill with the Saints at the end of Drew Brees’ career. However, it is worth noting that, in the two games in which Lance has featured significantly — against the Seahawks and the Cardinals — he’s struggled with accuracy. His numbers against Seattle were inflated by a busted coverage that allowed Deebo Samuel to take a reception 76 yards to the house. At the same time, Lance has demonstrated a clear ability as a runner, and made a clutch fourth down play, but the rawness of his mechanics suggest his current understudy role makes a lot of a sense.

Nat Coombs is a British writer, broadcaster and NFL expert who has been anchoring live sport across UK TV & radio for over ten years. Nat will be providing Squawka with predictions for the 2021 NFL season.


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