Every college quarterback dreams of becoming an NFL superstar. The current 2021 class of rookie quarterbacks received a massive amount of media attention. There was an unusually high number set to become franchise starters. It’s the most glamorous position in the sport but very few signal-callers take the league by storm.
Some of these young men received a baptism of fire. Trevor Lawrence, Zack Wilson, and Justin Fields are playing for inept franchises. Meanwhile, other heralded rookie passers Mac Jones and Trey Lance are finding their footing. But overall, it’s not looking like the best combo of situations overall. Let’s look at the signs of imminent disaster for this rookie class via USA Today Sports.
25. College Dominance
One problem these young quarterbacks have is that they are used to playing for the best teams. The upside of this is that they develop a winning mentality and receive top coaching. However, the downside is that they don’t endure a lot of adversity at the collegiate level. Jones and Lawrence played for Alabama and Clemson respectively. Wilson didn’t face much hardship at BYU in 2020 even though they went six and six (via USA Today).
The jump to the NFL is a massive one. While this is a talented class of quarterbacks, they are clearly undercooked. It remains to be seen how the growth of super-programs affects player development in the future. Nobody wants to lose, but it does help develop a grittier mentality. The likes of Lawrence and Wilson have won since they were children so the NFL is a rude awakening.
Meyer is a walking disaster for the Jaguars. He was an incredibly risky appointment because of his lack of NFL experience and time away from the sport (via The Spun). Meanwhile, he allegedly brought a college approach to the professional game. Sources indicate that this irritated a lot of Jacksonville’s veterans. Also, Meyer is a notoriously bad loser and demonstrated a lack of class in the past.
Questions remain over his temperament and decision-making. So far he has attracted headlines after the NFL hit him with a fine. Then, there was the controversial hiring of racist strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle. Finally, the decision to hand a trial to Tim Tebow was bizarre and unnecessary. Jacksonville handed Meyer a blue-chip rookie, but is he the man to get the best out of Lawrence?
Even the schedule is against these rookies. On paper, Justin Fields faces the toughest slate of all the rookie QBs in his class. Before the season, the Bears ranked third in the overall strength of schedule (via CBS Sports). Of course, this isn’t a sure thing because the league throws up surprises and curveballs all of the time. All it takes is for a few teams to overperform or some injuries.
Meanwhile, the Jaguars and Jets benefited from the 17-game schedule in 2021. They sat in the middle of the pack with average odds for their list. But even mediocre is tough for these terrible franchises so they will still struggle throughout the year. In short, it doesn’t get any easier for their young quarterbacks. Every game in the NFL is a challenge unless they face a contender in the final couple of weeks.
Rookie quarterbacks don’t just have to convince their fans and coaches. They also must earn the respect and trust of their teammates. The only way to do this is to perform consistently, even when the team is losing. Tua Tavagoiloa lost the trust of his team in 2020 with his patchy performances. In fact, anonymous members wanted the veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick to continue as their starter.
They were openly critical about the decision to release Fitz and make Tavagoiloa the undisputed starter. “I understand what they said,” one player told the Miami Herald. “But I don’t understand why.” If they’re not careful, this year’s class could face a similar situation. Nobody wants superstar players giving them the cold shoulder but the NFL is dog-eat-dog.
Indecision is a common negative trait amongst rookie quarterbacks. That’s no different with this class because they tend to hold onto the ball for too long. Sometimes this occurs because they simply don’t have options. It’s only fair to remember that Lawrence and Wilson play for awful teams. But it’s also because they are taking too long to make decisions and suffering the consequences (via Denver Post).
The combined number of sacks received by these youngsters is set to be spectacular. Of course, the experience will help them develop as time progresses. But they are transitioning from playing for the best college teams to the worst NFL franchises. That’s a big jump to make and it’s unlikely that all of them will be successful. It wouldn’t be a surprise if just two from this class succeeds.
Another issue is the increased divergence of tactics between NFL and NCAA teams. These days a lot of college teams use a spread offense. Pro scouts have witnessed a decline in quarterback footwork skills because of this. Spread offenses see signal-callers throw short passes from short dropbacks (via Bleacher Report). As well as learning a new playbook, they also have to get to grips with a different style of play.
Overconfidence, poor decision-making, and struggles under pressure are normal for every rookie. But college teams aren’t helping their future superstars by diverging from preferred NFL systems of play. Of course, they are under no obligation to change because these tactics work at the NCAA level. Furthermore, their programs are worth tens of millions of dollars to their schools so why would they change?
Most critics expected the 49ers to select Jones before the 2021 draft but he fell into Bill Belichick’s lap. While it’s amazing for a young player to find himself linked to two of the most successful franchises in NFL history, there’s also a downside. These teams have high standards and expectations. After missing out on the playoffs for the first time since 2008, they are determined to bounce back (via Sporting News).
The fact that they cut Cam Newton was a major show of faith. Meanwhile, they also went wild in the offseason bringing in a multitude of players. Jones doesn’t have time on his side if he wants to show his class. It’s time to stand up and be counted or the Patriots will look toward another quarterback in a year or two. Trey Lance also has to prove himself in the land of Joe Montana and Steve Young.
Chad Pennington, Mark Sanchez, Sam Darnold all share two things in common. First, the Jets brought them in to solve their quarterback problems. Secondly, the trio failed miserably. In fact, the Green Gang hasn’t had a great QB since Joe Namath retired in 1976 (via New York Times). Several teams have had problems with the position in recent years, but the Jets brought it to the next level.
Since Namath, they’ve used six first-round picks on quarterbacks. Yes, Ken O’Brien had two Pro Bowl appearances but they picked him three spots ahead of Dan Marino. Meanwhile, the Jets selected Pennington 181 spots ahead of Tom Brady. It’s true that Pennington was decent before his shoulder injuries but the Jets have had rotten luck. History is against Zach Wilson’s hopes of success.
Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields are physical specimens. There’s no denying that they’re everything an NFL scout wants in a rookie quarterback. That’s why it’s strange the Jets were so high on Wilson. He is six-foot-two but has a small frame. This raises question marks over his long-term durability because he’s taken some bangs in the past. Before coasting through 2020, BYU had a tough 2019.
Meanwhile, Mac Jones has superb awareness and vision. But his arm is relatively average compared to other athletes in his class (via The Ringer). Without strong protection and good playmakers, he will struggle to succeed in the NFL. Luckily, he plays for New England so he’ll probably have this support around him. But when it comes down to physicality, Jones and Wilson are lacking in key departments.
Every season there is an outlier. In 2020, Justin Herbert belied expectations as he showed the Los Angeles Chargers what he could do (via Sports Illustrated). Joe Burrow was decent before injuries cut his rookie year short. In previous years we’ve seen Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield make an early difference. But the reality is that most rookie quarterbacks don’t turn into perfect NFL starters overnight.
It’s unfair to compare this class to their successful counterparts from previous years. But we’re going to do it anyway because that’s how the world works. Unfortunately, this only increases the pressure on their shoulders and makes it more likely for them to fail. Sometimes it’s a tragedy that skilled young stars like Lawrence and Wilson end up with horrible franchises, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
The Jets are some of the longest-suffering fans in the NFL. After the nightmare of the Adam Gase era, we should forgive them for wanting results now. Of course, they are excited because they have a new coach as well as a young quarterback. Unfortunately, they could be somewhat panicked with the latter after his early displays for the team.
Jets fans booed Wilson because he threw four interceptions against the Patriots (via North Jersey.com). Context is required because the Pats are fierce rivals. But this isn’t a good early sign nor is it fair after just a few games. But Wilson urgently needs to put in a good game. Otherwise, fans may drive him out of the franchise like Sam Darnold, one of the top rookies of his class. It’s difficult to succeed in such a toxic atmosphere.
Justin Fields posted the best aptitude results of all the quarterbacks in his class. However, his rookie debut was a nightmare. The Browns sacked him nine times as they brutalized the youngster. Their coaching staff deserves a lot of criticism for putting him in this position. Offensive Coordinator Matt Nagy failed to create a system that played to Fields’ strengths as a dynamic runner.
Dan Orlovsky was highly critical. “The Chicago Bears should fire Matt Nagy today,’’ he said. “Because yesterday’s game plan — which was the worst one I’ve ever seen in my life — was either negligence or intentional. It’s been 149 days since the Bears drafted Justin Fields. You had 149 days to start to build a game plan around the skillset of this young man, and it was an embarrassment” (via Cleveland.com).
Jets fans were delighted to get former San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh but he’s still a rookie coach. These days it’s more popular to hire offensive coordinators but he went against the grain. Meanwhile, as a minority coach, he stands out for positive reasons. However, results on the field will ultimately decide his fate (via New York Post). Nobody should hold a couple of losses against him because the Jets are rebuilding for the millionth time.
It’s fair to question if he was the right fit for the job. After all, the Jets went all out by using their first-round pick on their new supposed franchise quarterback. Perhaps an offensive coach would have made more sense. There’s no doubt that Saleh is a class act but it remains to be seen if he can get the best out of Wilson let alone turn around this dysfunctional mess of a franchise.
The problem with being a bad team is that it’s difficult to build up a sense of positive momentum. Lawrence showed some of his class in a Week Four game against the Bengals. But the Jags still didn’t have enough in the tank to hold out for a win. Urban Meyer said it was the best game of Lawrence’s short NFL career which was true. The problem was that it was a wasted opportunity.
Jacksonville could have beaten Cincinnati in that game. But they wasted a chance to affect the narrative before a clash against the Tennessee Titans. Most people expect the dominant AFC South champions to run through Jacksonville’s horrible defense. The franchise could have broken their horrendous losing streak but now they’re in danger of setting the worst in NFL history (via CBS Sports).
Nobody is entirely sure what the Jaguars were thinking. The franchise still had Gardner Minshew on their roster in August and it looked like he’d back up the best rookie QB in his class. Then, they traded him to Philadelphia for a miserly sixth-round pick. But the most bizarre part of this was the way the franchise pretended there was a quarterback battle. They gave Minshew time that could have been used developing Lawrence.
Lawrence did miss a few days with injury so it was reasonable to use Minshew then (via New York Post). But when he returned they continued to mess around before cutting Minshew loose for almost nothing. It was a bad decision and may have affected Lawrence’s start with the franchise. Sometimes Urban Meyer makes strange choices and this looks like one of them.
There’s no getting away from the fact that these are very bad teams. The Jaguars went 1-15 in 2020 while the Jets had a typical 2-14 season. Meanwhile, the Bears were mediocre to the extreme and New England missed the playoffs for the first time in years. Coaches love throwing all of their eggs into the quarterback basket, but these teams have a lot more problems to fix.
Sam Darnold’s evolution into a solid NFL QB with the Carolina Panthers is proof that a toxic environment can bring a player down. It’s too much to expect a couple of youngsters to turn around historically poor teams. The Patriots and the Niners are stronger and more stable but it’s still a lot to expect rookies to step up immediately (via Deadspin). After all, Mac Jones isn’t immediately going to play like Tom Brady.
Top 10 picks usually burn a hole in franchise front offices. They get excited about drafting a quarterback without thinking about the consequences. What if there isn’t a strong offensive line in place before they bring a young QB in? We saw what happened to Joe Burrow in 2020 and it was pure stupidity. Another issue is that every signal-caller needs weapons (via Fansided).
It doesn’t matter if they’re a rookie or an MVP like Aaron Rodgers. Quarterbacks need effective targets or they’re just throwing with blind faith. Wilson and Lawrence’s receivers need to step up or they’re going to throw their QBs under the bus. They’re the top two in their class but have some of the worst wideouts in the league at their disposal. In the end, they’ll pay the price.
Trey Lance is in a unique position because he actually has competition for his place. Kyle Shanahan is using Jimmy Garoppolo as the starter and Lance in a gadget role. Many fans wrote Jimmy G. off before the season but he remains a perplexing presence. It’s likely that Lance will eventually oust the former Patriot but Garoppolo retained the team’s trust (via Sports Illustrated) before suffering yet another injury in Week Four.
While he’s frustratingly inconsistent, Jimmy G. provides some great moments. He helped the Niners back into the game against the Packers in Week Three before his team threw it away, but that wasn’t his fault. There was something poetic about that game and it made it tougher for Lance to stake his claim. He’s arguably the best-placed rookie in his class but that comes with its own unique challenge, and now that role is his before the team wanted him to have it.
The NFL quarterbacks’ class received a lot of attention from the media over the summer. Now that they’re struggling there’s a general feeling of schadenfreude going around the league. Some of this is unreasonable because these are young players and it’s not their fault their teams expect so much from them. But they haven’t escaped harsh criticism from former players.
Joe Rivera from Sporting News was scathing about Lawrence’s display against Arizona. He acknowledged one good highlight-reel pass to DJ Chark but was otherwise highly critical. “These highlights will come more consistently with time, but there’s no reason to sugarcoat that Lawrence has been not very good early on,” he said. Some commentators have been even more unkind.
The trouble with the 2021 class of quarterbacks is that they received so much hype. There was more talk about Trevor Lawrence than any other player in the league. Meanwhile, some fans were talking about Mac Jones as though he were Tom Brady’s clone. Clearly, the Jets were high on Wilson while a lot of critics believed the Bears got the best of the bunch in Fields (via Washington Post).
But it’s too much to expect an entire class to succeed. It’s rare for so many rookies to start in the same season. When you add in Trey Lance, there’s an excessive number of first-year quarterbacks. Rookie QBs typically struggle as we saw with all-time-greats like Peyton Manning in the past. However, there are so many playing at once this season so there is more emphasis on their struggles.
The Detroit Lions had the worst defense in the NFL in 2020. They completely undermined Matthew Stafford’s efforts to win. They had one of the most underrated and consistent quarterbacks in the NFL but their defense let them down time and time again. A good defense can win Super Bowls. Look at the Baltimore Ravens in 2001 when they won with Trent Dilfer.
Unfortunately, a weak defense only adds pressure on the team’s quarterback. That’s because there is more riding on their output. The Jets brought in Carl Lawson to help fix this problem but he tore his ACL in August (via Denver Post). Khalil Mack is one of the best players in the NFL but the Bears must figure out how to get the best out of him. This class of quarterbacks can’t succeed without their teams’ help.
Another issue is that these players are trying too hard. That’s particularly true in the case of Wilson. He threw four interceptions against the Patriots but took too many risks. Wilson showed that he’s one of the most confident QBs in his class because he remained bullish despite his mistake. However, an NFL starter must settle down and show more composure with the ball.
New York head coach Robert Saleh agreed. As a former defensive coordinator, it’s easy to imagine his stomach curdling every time Wilson threw the ball away. “It’s OK to play a boring game of football, that’s really it,” Saleh said. “And he is an electric dude. He’s competitive as crap and he wants to win so bad. But sometimes it’s OK to be boring. And that’s probably the biggest lesson that we can take out of this one” (via ESPN).
Joe Burrow had a decent start to his Bengals career in 2020. He came off one of the most exceptional college seasons ever and looked solid as an NFL rookie. But there was one major problem. Their offensive line was nonexistent and Burrow paid the price. The Eagles sacked him eight times in Week Three as he absorbed a crazy amount of punishment. In the end, he unfortunately suffered a long-term knee injury (via SBNation).
Andrew Luck retired early after receiving similar treatment. David Carr’s career went downhill after a brutal baptism in Houston. The likes of Justin Fields and Wilson could face the same future. Cleveland sacked the Chicago quarterback eight times on his debut in a brutal baptism of fire. That is simply unsustainable. These players won’t blossom if they have no brain cells, which brings us to our next point.
As well as protecting their quarterbacks, offensive lines also enable their playmakers to get their passes away. If signal-callers don’t have the freedom of the field, they’re more likely to make poor decisions. Most of 2021’s class of rookie stars don’t have the luxury of a strong offensive line. That’s why their only choice at times is to pass and pray that it finds it reaches its mark.
Quarterbacks like Lawrence or Wilson can only do so much with a weak offensive line. Remember how Peyton Manning went 3-13 in his rookie season? (via USA Today). His career turned out to be quite decent but he also struggled in the beginning. Without a decent offensive line, fans will only see flashes of these QBs’ abilities. Their franchises have to fix them or they’ll never produce consistently.
The reality is that it is too much too soon for most of these young quarterbacks. These days a lot of coaches agree that it’s a good idea to redshirt their starlets before throwing them into the deep end. Even Patrick Mahomes sat behind Alex Smith for a season (via The Ringer). As the NFL continues to evolve, perhaps teams should consider following this model. To be fair, the Niners and the Bears are trying to do this.
Meanwhile, Chicago resisted their fans’ demands to start Fields. However, Andy Dalton’s injury took that choice away. Finally, the Jets, the Jags, and the Patriots dropped their rookies in the middle of a battlefield. Mac Jones has some chance because Bill Belichick has a plan. But it’s difficult not to pity Wilson and Lawrence. Lance is the only one from his class without this weight on his shoulders – and he too now has it all of the sudden.