It’s that most wonderful time of the year: Where we start to get a real sense of where would-be rookie saviors are at once they’ve played some real, actual games.
The five quarterbacks selected in the first round of last year’s draft were, as ever, the point of much debate. Let’s check in on where they’re at 11 and a bit weeks into their careers.
Passing yards: 2,141, TDs: 8, INTs: 9, Rushing yards: 192, Rushing TDs: 2, Passer rating: 72.8
It’s hard to think of a non-David Carr rookie that has been handed a tougher situation than Trevor Lawrence. He has been asked to breathe life into a barren roster. For much of the year, his number one skill weapon has been a lifelong special teams ace, Jamal Agnew, who now finds himself on injured reserves. Add to that: His head coach, Urban Meyer, has looked in over his head since he made the jump from college to the pro-game.
That incompetence has flown throughout the organization. Not to get too far in the weeds, but the Jaguars are running route concepts and combinations that simply cannot work at the NFL level, in terms of the intricacies of the timing of play-action and the route spacing. Newsflash: Everything in the NFL happens quicker than in college.
Yet even under those circumstances, Lawrence has flashed. He consistently delivers two-to-three special throws a game. He has steadily improved over the course of the season, playing less hero ball and getting the ball out quicker due to the, umm, surrounding talent. He is good. He can be great if the Jaguars sort out everything around him.
Grade: B — Flashes of excellence. Sabotaged by the organization.
Passing yards: 1,168, TDs: 4, INTs: 9, Rushing yards: 22, Rushing TDs: 0, Passer rating: 63.5
Where to begin? Do you begin with the fact that Wilson has looked largely lost throughout his rookie season before he’s even let the ball go? Do you begin with the fact that once Wilson has let the ball go, he has been the most inaccurate, least effective passer in the sport?
The data nerds keep track of a delightful figure known as the EPA+CPOE Composite. It sounds complex but stick with it. The composite takes the Completion Percentage Over Expected metric that is spat by the NFL’s Next Gen tracking data (the chips in the player’s shoulder pads) and pairs it with Expected Points Added per Play. In essence: How valuable was a play and how much was the quarterback responsible for that value. It is probably the best single metric for isolating a quarterback’s value.
Wilson is last among eligible quarterbacks in the composite this season. In fact, he’s the only quarterback in the last five years to score a negative mark, a feat matched by only 20 other quarterbacks over the span of the past 15 years. Since 2006, as far back as such things have been tracked, only 12 quarterbacks have faired worse than Wilson has this season. Some of the luminaries comfortably ahead of Wilson include: Tim Tebow, Johnny Manziel, Brandon Weeden, and Gus Frerotte. That last name is not made up.
The Jets wanted to chuck Wilson in at the deep end. It’s why they didn’t originally sign a veteran backup. They knew the supporting cast wasn’t great. They knew that Wilson was not the finished article, that he had a long way to go to move from a freelancing slinger into a professional quarterback. They bet that on-the-job training was the best solution. That, clearly, was a whiff.
Grade: D — There is a long, long way to go.
Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers
Passing yards: 354, TDs: 3, INTs: 1, Rushing yards: 137, Rushing TDs: 1, Passer rating: 88.4
Lance was drafted to help elevate the Kyle Shanahan offense to the next level. Defenses were starting to adapt, taking away some of the Shanahan-McVay-LaFleur stylings that had run through the league for the better part of four seasons.
So far? Who knows. Lance has played only when Jimmy Garoppolo has been hurt. And when he has, he’s often looked lost, confused, and inaccurate, the holy triumvirate of messy quarterback play.
Some players develop brick by brick, using one skill to unlock or elevate another. Perhaps one day it will all click for Lance – players, after all, develop at their own pace, and it’s not always linear. The fact he has not played at all ahead of Garoppolo, who is fifty shades of quarterbacking beige, is a concern. The history of QBs who sit out their first year in the modern game is fairly brutal. Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers are cited as examples, but they are the outliers. Modern history suggests if your rookie sits for the whole season, it’s because they stink – at some point, it means they could not beat out a quarterback that was already on the roster, one the organization was not sold on long-term, or else they wouldn’t have drafted the rookie to begin with.
Still, Lance came into the league under unique circumstances. He missed his final year of college due to Covid, playing in only a single game. Taking the step up from the second division of college football to the NFL is a steep climb even in the best of circumstances. For Lance, it was always going to take a little more time.
Grade: C — Incomplete.
Justin Fields, Chicago Bears
Passing yards: 1,361, TDs: 4, INTs: 8, Rushing yards: 311, Rushing TDs: 2, Passer rating: 69.0
It took far too long for Fields to be named the starter in Chicago. But since he has – and prior to his recent injury – he has steadily developed with each passing week. His down-the-field throwing has always been a major plus; his athleticism, obvious. And yet he has blended the two to become more of an on-the-fly, let’s-have-fun creator than in his college days.
At Ohio State, with receivers wide-open all over the place, he was a symphony of efficiency. With a ragged roster and muddled coaching, he has been forced to unveil his inner playmaker with the Bears.
From here on out, Chicago’s best hope is that Fields continues to deliver one-off, special moments, the kind of individual moments that could convince a coaching candidate to turn down other gigs in order to take on the Bears forthcoming rebuild. Fields has shown the kind of talent that could convince a coaching candidate to pick him, as an individual, ahead of any other open job, even if the foundational pieces are stronger elsewhere.
Grade: B+ — As expected. Room to improve.
Mac Jones, New England Patriots
Passing yards: 2,540, TDs: 14, INTs: 8, Rushing yards: 60, Rushing TDs: 0, Passer rating: 94.7
Jones was given an almighty task when he first rolled up in New England. They dusted off a vintage 2011 playbook, handed it to the rookie, and let him know that he had to digest it all by week one. Good luck.
The Patriots were willing to forgo some short-term pain for the long-term gain, banking on the idea that Jones could grow in increments over the span of the season. After an up-and-down start, things have started to click for Jones. With a feisty defense and a bulldozing run-game, Jones’ job is simply to keep things on script, to make sure the offense gets into the best possible play, to get the ball out in rhythm, to play efficiently, and to not turn it over. If Jones does that, the rest of the roster and his coaching staff can carry the team to wins. The Patriots haven’t won seven games because of Jones, but neither has he been the deciding factor in them losing four games.
The Patriots are rolling at the moment. Jones has become incredibly daring as he gets comfortable with the expansive system. Other rookies have added pieces methodically. The Patriots dumped it all on Jones early, hoping it would pay dividends by the midpoint of the season if he and the team could hang in there through the growing pains. It worked. Jones looks every bit the part of the veteran, game-manager that inspires a burning in Bill Belichick’s football loins.
Jones might never reach the playmaking heights of a Lawrence or Fields, but the Patriots don’t care. He plays complementary football, and that’s helping the team contented in a wonky AFC.
Grade: A — Couldn’t be going much better.