First Look At The Rookie QBs

After two preseason games, the rookie QBs are starting to show their true colors.

The 2021 NFL Draft was one of the most anticipated drafts in recent times. Five quarterbacks were selected within the first 15 picks – Trevor Lawrence went to the Jaguars; Zach Wilson to the Jets; the 49ers then traded their future to come up for Trey Lance; the Bears also gave up a lot of draft capital to nab Justin Fields; and finally, Mac Jones fell into the Patriots’ lap at pick 15. It was exhilarating.

After months of hype, teasers, and tidbits from the media, the teams, and the players themselves, we finally have some actual game footage with which to analyze where these young franchise QBs are at this stage of the preseason. With only one game left before the season starts, there is still much to be decided across the league in terms of final rosters. However, we could have as many as four of these five starters featuring for their new teams come Week 1.

The career trajectory of these five young men will not be decided in this preseason, however, there has been enough action to whet the tongue of those expecting great things from their new quarterback. There have also been warning signs that should worry fans who think their team maybe hasn’t made the right choice in their franchise signal-caller.

The observations below are intended to project whether these quarterbacks are going to be fantasy relevant this season, whether they are showing signs of adapting quickly to the NFL, and finally whether their supporting casts are suitable enough for them to succeed.

 

Preseason Week 1

 

The number one overall pick, Trevor Lawrence, started for the Jaguars against the Browns, as did the second-overall pick, Zach Wilson, for the Jets, who took on the Giants. Both Lawrence and Wilson will be the opening day starters for their teams. Both looked assured if not rushed behind poor offensive line units they are working with – they will get the full “out of the frying pan, into the fire” treatment this year as they gain valuable experience while learning on the job.

Trey Lance, Justin Fields, and Mac Jones all followed veteran starters. All indications are that Lance will be involved in certain packages for Kyle Shanahan‘s 49ers, but Jimmy Garoppolo is slated to start the season as the QB1. Lance showed a moment of true brilliance with a flashy deep throw for a touchdown, but also looked ragged in the pocket, taking four sacks in less than a half.

Justin Fields, on the contrary, is serving as a more traditional backup to Andy Dalton. (Vomit!) I am sorry Bears fans, this is not the news you were hoping for. Dalton looked terrible in limited reps but Fields showed his dual-threat capabilities and really looked like the goods completing 14-of-20 passing attempts for 142 yards and a TD.

The real camp battle is being fought in New England, where former Alabama quarterback Mac Jones is pushing hard to unseat veteran Cam Newton. Newton drew the start but Jones came in and showed intelligence and poise in the pocket. They are remarkably different quarterbacks.

 

Preseason Week 2

 

Zach Wilson has probably been the least hyped quarterback since the conclusion of the draft, but to me, he has looked the most comfortable of the five quarterbacks in the first two preseason games. He is clearly emphasizing learning as much as the playbook as possible and this means he can get transfixed on his first read, staring down the receiver until he is ready to throw. However, his execution has been superior to all the others. He took it to the Packers, completing 9/11 attempts for 128 yards and two scores.

Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields seemed to struggle more this week as they came up against two of the better defenses in the league, both of which brought pressure consistently on the young quarterbacks. Lawrence was only sacked once but he also took some big licks trying to avoid pressure and run for yardage. Fields was sacked twice, including a scary moment when he failed to slide his protection and was crushed from behind. His helmet flew off, causing the entirety of Bears nation to hold their breath. Fields’ stat line should have been much better as he was let down by a number of receivers – especially Jesse James, who should have hauled in a high pass in the end zone to give Fields a score.

Trey Lance was the least impressive of the five quarterbacks once again in week two. The Chargers starting defense had his number from the get go and Lance wasn’t helped by his receivers either. He had one interception off a tipped ball from Mohamed Sanu but should have been picked off at least once more. It was only when the Chargers rolled out the third-string defense that Lance saw some joy.

Mac Jones once again made his case with a solid showing against the Eagles. The Patriots demolished a sorry Philadelphia team 35-0 and did most of the damage on the ground, but both Newton and Jones impressed by going for a joint 21/28 for 249 yards and a touchdown. The more intriguing news came the next day, however, with Newton failing to follow the league protocols around COVID testing and being removed from contact with the team for the next week at least. Jones is now in a pole position to capitalize on Newton’s foolishness and earn the starter’s job.

 

Trevor Lawrence, Jaguars

 

The consensus top-graded signal-caller in the draft, Lawrence is considered to be the nearest thing to a guaranteed franchise quarterback out of the top five selected. We have seen why in the first two preseason games. A commanding figure, Lawrence has shown leadership on and off the field, confidently talking about game plans and in-game decisions to the media. His athleticism will be a huge asset as he learns the ropes at the pro level. He can move, and can also take a hit and bounce straight back up.

 

What has really stood out has been Lawrence’s ball placement and accuracy. Exact on short throws and precise when hitting runners in stride, this bodes well for when Marvin Jones, Laviska Shenault, and DJ Chark are all on the field together.

 

 

Lawrence will need to be fluid in the pocket behind what projects to be a porous offensive line. His elite movement and pocket awareness have already caught the eye. His ability to alter his throwing style and trajectory depending on the situation is something that separates him from the other quarterbacks in this class.

 

 

And when he is actually given time, he is able to stay poised in the pocket, keeping his feet calm and waiting to challenge the opposing secondary with high-quality throws that maximize yardage.

 

 

Outlook: Lawrence is showing all the traits of a top-10 fantasy quarterback. It remains to be seen how much Lawrence will be allowed to use his feet, especially around the goal line, but fantasy managers should be looking at the high ceiling here. With an interesting if not elite corps of receivers, there should be enough for Lawrence to put up big numbers in his rookie year. There is no real tight end threat, however, and with Travis Etienne out for the season, Lawrence will need to be more mobile than coach Urban Meyer will want him to be to push himself into the top 10. The Jags’ defense is a serious weapon, so Lawrence should see a lot of drives on a per-game basis.

 

Zach Wilson, Jets

 

No doubt over-drafted at number two overall, we cannot hold this against Wilson, who has brought his swagger and elite arm talent to the Jets in the first two preseason games. This has seemingly catapulted them to a level they have not been at for a considerable time at the position. His ability to read the field and stay throw-ready has served him well in the limited action he has seen so far. He has artful pocket movement and has looked like a veteran stepping up and throwing to moving targets.

 

 

Expect Wilson to work throws into third-and-short situations a fair bit as he continues to develop the playbook. He has a lovely grasp of the play-fake and is quick to process short throws. He has some ideal targets to work with this strategy, such as Jamison Crowder and free-agent acquisition Corey Davis.

 

 

The most recent game against the Packers really highlighted what the Jets see in Wilson when it comes to making throws into tight windows or against Cover 2 defensive schemes, something they may face a lot of. Wilson fired a perfect throw to tight end Tyler Kroft for a score. When did you last see a Jets quarterback make a throw like that?

 

 

The final play that stood out from Wilson was his restraint in trying to force plays under pressure. After the Giants brought a linebacker blitz that wasn’t picked up by the running back, Wilson had the nose to throw the ball away rather than making a rushed throw that could have got him into trouble.

 

 

Outlook: Wilson could be the quarterback in this class that surprises the most this season. He will have a steep learning curve but his confidence and phenomenal arm strength with what seems like little effort could get him out of a few jams. He also has offensive line issues like Lawrence and it is unlikely he has the frame or license to put his body on the line to rush for yardage. Despite rushing for ten touchdowns in his final season in college, don’t expect him to be involved near the goal line regularly. He should be a solid QB2 in Superflex leagues and an adequate backup for redraft. His upside outweighs the other quarterbacks besides Lawrence.

 

Trey Lance, 49ers

 

Coming into the league with the least experience out of the five quarterbacks at the college level, Lance has immediately shown what he is capable of in the NFL. In just his second series, he unleashed a bomb down the sideline the other way to Trent Sherfield for an 80-yard score.

 

 

Lance has an intelligent football brain and you can already tell he is absorbing the experience and qualities that a Kyle Shanahan scheme offers. His ability to excel in play-action will suit the 49ers’ system and he has shown he works best when outside the pocket. His ability to execute his first read has also been encouraging, especially in tight spots.

 

 

Despite working best from outside the pocket, Lance has shown he suffers from his inability to go beyond his first read and escape if under pressure. He has looked a bit like a deer in the headlights, especially against the Chiefs’ and Chargers’ first-string defenses. He has been sacked six times in the two games he has seen limited action in. That is something he will need to work on throughout the season, which will be tough without regular live reps.

 

 

Placement on intermediate throws has also been an issue. The 49ers have failed to address the WR1 position and don’t have a go-up-and-get-it outside receiver. George Kittle is expected to do all that work. The other options don’t really fit the bit so that could hamper Lance’s development. Not helped by his receivers in the preseason games at times, Lance has also shown a tendency to throw high and with too much velocity, resulting in turnovers.

 

 

Outlook: It is quite clear that Jimmy Garoppolo is the starting quarterback this year for the 49ers. However, Lance has been sharing first-team reps in practice and Shanahan has quoted that they have “certain packages” in mind for Lance when the season comes around. We could see something akin to what the Saints did with Drew Brees and Taysom Hill for the first half of the season. That doesn’t really float for fantasy purposes. Lance could be worth a late-round flier if things don’t work out and 49ers trade Jimmy G mid-season, but that’s a big if.

 

Justin Fields, Bears

 

I was staggered that Fields dropped to where he did in the draft. Bearing similarities to Deshaun Watson when he came into the league, Fields is a tough competitor who has dual-threat capabilities but is at heart a fantastic pocket passer who can use his nifty feet to move the chains when needed.

Coming in for an ineffectual Andy Dalton against the Dolphins in the first preseason game, Fields wowed the Bears’ faithful with a virtuoso performance, throwing for a touchdown and rushing for a score while showing the attributes that make him a top candidate to be a top-10 quarterback down the line.

 

 

Fields possesses good pocket presence and lateral footwork to avoid blitzes. Watch him escape the pocket and roll out into space here before turning on the jets to run in for the touchdown.

 

 

Let down significantly by his receivers in the second game against the Bills, we saw Fields struggle when pressured from the edge. This is a worry point that may concern the Bears’ hierarchy but nothing that is unusual for a rookie quarterback coming into the league. Saying that alarm bells ring when your first-round future franchise is crushingly leveled and his helmet comes flying off.

 

 

Outlook: Fields will start the final preseason game for the Bears but only because Matt Nagy has already named Andy Dalton the starter for Week 1. That’s bad news for football fans all around and will no doubt hamper Fields’ development this early in his career. Fields is a match-winner who will thrive off the starting role and will roll with the punches to develop quickly. It is likely he will take over the starting gig at some point this year, we just don’t know when the Bears will see sense. He’s a solid pick to be effective in the second half of the year.

 

Mac Jones, Patriots

 

One thing was certain when the Patriots selected Mac Jones in the draft, they were getting a confident young play maker on the back of a history-making season in which he led Alabama to the national title. Jones set an FBS season record for completion percentage (77.4%) with a school-record 4,500 passing yards, also ranking second with 41 passing touchdowns. Success and winning are the most underrated attributes of a college quarterback. Jones has no fears and his character is a perfect mold for a franchise QB.

His first series on debut in the first preseason game was impressive. He showed excellent mechanics, pinpoint placement, and a smooth rhythm that we haven’t seen from any of the other quarterbacks so far.

 

 

If he had been slinging it with first-team receivers, Jones would have easily had the best touchdown throw of the preseason by a rookie. Stepping up in the pocket into the face of pressure, Jones nailed this deep ball that Kristian Wilkerson couldn’t hang on to.

 

 

Jones also changed protection on a couple of reads and showed advanced playbook knowledge on occasion. He led an impressive 13 play, 53-yard drive that resulted in a field goal employing a hurry-up offense on the Patriots’ first drive of the second half. Despite finishing with just 4.6 yards per completion, Jones looked composed in the pocket, feeling pressure and sliding to avoid sacks.

Against the Eagles, Jones entered in relief of Cam Newton for the Patriots’ fourth series and immediately drove them down the field on a 17 play, 91-yard scoring drive. He also showed his accuracy and ability to change his throwing motion when disrupted by pressure.

 

 

Coming out for the second half, McDaniels entrusted the rookie to call all of his own plays and make necessary adjustments and pre-snap reads at the line of scrimmage. Jones is NFL-ready, now. That is the most impressive aspect out of the entire rookie quarterback class.

Outlook: With the indiscretions of Cam Newton rendering the enigmatic quarterback out of action for this week, Jones has a fantastic opportunity to take hold of the starting gig. Jones has shown plenty of maturity over the first two games, and his confidence is sky-high. He is the most prepared quarterback out of the five and could well be the most effective signal-caller out of the gate. He is well worth a look as your second QB in Superflex and could have QB1 appeal by mid-season if he wins the battle with Cam and shows he can lead this team to victories. Jones might not be the most attractive pick but he sure has the most value right now.

 

Photos by Fred Kfoury III & Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire | Design by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter @ IG)

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