Who Is The Rookie QB1?

Justin Dunbar analyzes the 2021 rookie quarterback class to anoint the real QB1.

It’s not every year that five quarterbacks are selected within the first 15 picks of the NFL draft, but that is exactly what happened this year. In fact, that seemed like a disappointment; there was a time when some thought there would be at least five quarterbacks taken in the first ten picks in the draft. With quarterback being the most important position in the NFL, this is great news for the sport moving forward.

With rookie quarterbacks being a risky investment for fantasy, along with only two of them expected to start right away, this class may not be extremely important for traditional redraft leagues. In dynasty leagues, however, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Hitting on one of these quarterbacks could leave you set at the position for 10+ years, and while this might not be as significant in standard formats, the value of that is enormously high in superflex leagues. Thus, we need to do our best to rank this rookie class.

In the general opinion of the fantasy community, there are three rookie quarterbacks that stand out above the rest: Trevor Lawrence, Trey Lance, and Justin Fields. All three of them offer some sort of dual-threat ability, were extremely well-regarded coming out of college, and have plenty of supporters when it comes to being the top quarterback in the class.

In the eyes of NFL front offices, Lawrence was seen as the top quarterback of these three, followed by Lance and Fields. However, we’re playing FANTASY football, which may mess with that order. Or, maybe it doesn’t? IT’S ALL A MYSTERY. Just kidding; we’re about to answer that question right now! Okay, fine, I’ll stop rambling. Let us take a close look at each of these three quarterbacks, going in order of where they drafted in the real 2021 draft. From there, we should finally be able to answer the premier question: who gets to be on the throne as THE rookie QB1? Time to find out!

All Stats via Pro Football Focus

 

Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars

 

Trevor Lawrence was the darling of the scouting community, but does this also apply to fantasy as well? That’s one of the several million-dollar questions we are trying to answer. Since we’re looking at three different quarterbacks, does that make it a $333K question?

Regardless, it’s easy to see what there is to like with Lawrence. Few quarterbacks come with the type of college track record that he possesses:

 

Trevor Lawrence

 

That is quite the display of consistency. With such a large sample size of production, Lawrence’s chances of “busting” would appear to be less than the average quarterback, especially since draft analysts were so high on his future outlook. In addition to his consistency, the progression he displayed in his accuracy was quite encouraging, while there aren’t any major question marks surround him overall.

Or, is there? For starters, it’s clear Lawrence was much better in favorable situations:

 

Trevor Lawrence

It’s not uncommon for quarterbacks to perform better with play-action passes, and Lawrence’s numbers without it are still strong. Meanwhile, it is encouraging to see him perform well in stable situations when kept clean, as performance under pressure can be unstable. However, should there be that massive of a drop-off consistently?
A lot is also made about Lawrence’s ability to limit sacks, as his average time to throw was just 2.35 seconds this past year. Yet, that also came with just an average depth of target of just nine yards, which is on the low side for a college quarterback. Meanwhile, a screen pass was called on over 20% of his passes throughout his college career. These aren’t necessarily “warning signs”, but something to bring up as he transitions to a new offense.

The new offense also is a concern of mine. In Jacksonville, he’ll be partnered with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who consistently has ranked in the bottom half of the league in early-down pass rate. He also failed to utilize an extensive amount (23.5%) of play-action passes with Matthew Stafford over the past two seasons. Add in a questionable offensive line, and it’s likely that Lawrence is put in more unfavorable situations as a pro. Will he prevail? His talent suggests he will, but with how important situation can be with the development of a quarterback, there is some fantasy risk with regards to how strong Lawrence’s surface-level passing numbers will be right away. The combination of the adversity he’ll face with the moving parts of a new coaching staff led by a head coach (Urban Meyer) who has never coached in the NFL makes him difficult to project moving forward, despite his elite prospect pedigree.

As a runner, I wouldn’t expect Lawrence to rank near the top of the league in production, but he’ll certainly provide value as a scrambler. Clemson did utilize him often in the designed QB rushing game, yet with his draft status, I’d assume Jacksonville’s coaching staff would be inclined to limit his opportunities there. As a quarterback prospect, it is obvious why he was the #1 overall pick in this past draft. However, with regards to his fantasy outlook, there are some barriers with regards to his ability to thrive in the situation he is in, while he doesn’t quite have the rushing floor of other young quarterbacks. If you want to take the best overall quarterback, he may be the optimal pick, though that matters much less in fantasy football.

 

Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers

 

Heading into the draft, the question everyone wanted to answer was with regards to what the 49ers would do with the third overall pick. After trading multiple first-round picks to move up to that slot, which quarterback did they have their eyes on. In the end, it was Trey Lance, not Mac Jones, who will lead Kyle Shanahan’s offense in the Bay Area for years to come.

Lance is a very difficult quarterback to project, simply because we have few data points on him. He didn’t receive much interest coming out of high school, leading to him ending up at North Dakota State, where he played just one season. Plus, in that season, he was only 19-years-old and averaged under 20 drop backs per game. Thus, the question, remains; how good is he?

This question is a bit less complicated in fantasy than in real life, as we can rely on Lance’s rushing ability. With around 77 rushing yards per game and 4.67 yards after contact/attempt, he’s in another world when it comes to his athleticism with the ball in his hands. As we’ve seen with the likes of pre-2020 Josh Allen, as well as 2020 Taysom Hill and Jalen Hurts, you don’t need to be an efficient passer if you can provide so much value running the football.

That said, it’s Lance’s abilities as a passer that will define his ultimate ceiling in the NFL. For someone with an 11.5 average depth of target, his 1.4% turnover-worthy play rate is impressive, while scouting reports indicate an ability to make sound decisions with the football. Yet, why did North Dakota State not let him throw the ball with greater frequency? Why was his big-time throw rate just 5.6%? These are important questions that need answers.

Meanwhile, Lance’s accuracy (72% adjusted completion rate) was a polarizing topic amongst draft analysts, and we don’t have enough data to make definitive conclusions about it. What does concern me, though, was his production in the intermediate areas of the field. There, his adjusted completion rate drops to 59%, while his 77.6 PFF passing grade was underwhelming. Simply put, this area is not only where elite offenses are built from, but also the most stable area of play. Should there be actual deficiencies there, it could be troubling for his passing production.

What eases concerns, though, is the situation Lance will be in. He not only will be partnered with head coach Kyle Shanahan, who will provide him with plenty of open windows and design a rushing game around him, but he’ll also get to throw the ball to George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk, and Deebo Samuel. I don’t anticipate him passing for a great amount of volume, yet if Shanahan puts him in position to succeed there, it will be able to supplement what we expect to be elite rushing productions. He’s a bit of a boom-or-bust prospect, though with how big the “boom” could be, it is easy to understand the extensive fantasy appeal with him. Throws like this are sure to only increase the hype:

 

 

Justin Fields, Chicago Bears

 

As a five-star recruit who appeared to be challenging Trevor Lawrence for #1 pick status, Justin Fields was heading down the general path of an elite quarterback prospect, until he wasn’t. It was shocking to see him not only be the fourth quarterback taken but also fall outside the top ten of the draft. For the quarterback-deprived Bears, having the chance to trade up to the 11th overall pick to draft him had to feel like a blessing from the gods.

Why is this the case? Simply put, Fields is a one-in-a-kind quarterback prospect. His two seasons as the quarterback at Ohio State trump Lawrence’s in terms of production:

 

Justin Fields

 

Those are utterly elite numbers. Even more impressive is how Fields went about producing them. His average depth of target in college was 11.6 yards, while he dominated in the intermediate areas of the field. His adjusted completion rate was over 75% on throws 10-19 yards down the field in both seasons, while there was no spot in which he struggled with. Furthermore, while his production also suffered when under pressure, the drop-off when not using play-action passes was less so than Lawrence; he actually averaged more yards/attempt (9.2) in non-play action passes than he did with play-action concepts (9.1) in 2019. To top it off, a screen pass was called for him more than 2.5 times less than Lawrence; there were far fewer throws made “within scheme” than there was for the Clemson product.

The big criticism for Fields is how long he holds onto the football. His average time to throw in college was 3.14 seconds, and he also took a sack on 23.6% of his pressured drop backs. In the NFL, the thought is that he’ll have to speed up his processing speed, though I’m not sure that is a major issue. For starters, part of the reason his average time to throw was so high was because of the scheme at Ohio State, which was predicated on a lot of long-developing option rates. Plus, having a high time to throw isn’t exactly a negative. Based on my previous research, I found that time to throw in college not only had a negative relationship with NFL success, yet also wasn’t stable from college to pro. Thus, if this is the one statistic we’re knowing Fields for, that’s more of a compliment than anything else.

We haven’t even gotten to Fields’ abilities as a runner. While he might not be as dominant as Lance in that regard, he’ll provide a lot of value there as well. He averaged 64.63 rushing yards/game in 2020, was utilized equally as a designed runner and scrambler, and also validated his athleticism with a 4.44 40-yard dash time at his pro day. You likely won’t see him as part of a run-heavy offense designed around his success there, especially with how productive he is as a passer, but something in the realm of 300-500 rushing yards a season, a la Dak Prescott or Deshaun Watson, is definitely in play here.

Some might not love Fields’ landing spot in Chicago, but there are some positives here. Head coach Matt Nagy is generally seen as a well-regarded play-caller, while the receiver duo of Allen Robinson and vertical threat Darnell Mooney giving Fields some weapons to throw to. Even with the offensive line not in great shape, I’d trust the coaching situation he has over what Lawrence will have in Jacksonville. The absurd production as a passer coupled with athleticism gives him quite the rare profile for the position. I don’t know why he went so low in the draft, but don’t let that sway you from overlooking his superb track record.

 

Verdict

 

With all due respect to Zach Wilson and Mac Jones, they simply don’t offer the rushing ability that these top three players do, nor have they been mentioned in the “QB1” race. Speaking of which, the time has come; who is the real “QB1”?

I can hear the drumrolls from here. In my opinion, it’s very difficult to side with anyone other than Fields as the top fantasy quarterback in this draft. He’s the perfect balance between passing and rushing, offering no potential weak point in a way the others can not. For me, the fact that he doesn’t have a concerning flaw makes me feel very confident in his projection, and the supply of quarterbacks with otherworldly accuracy, arm strength, and athleticism is remarkably scarce.

I will note that Lance may have the higher fantasy ceiling in a specific season, simply based on how superb his rushing numbers may be. That said, it is much more likely that his fantasy production is less stable on a year-to-year basis, whereas Fields is more likely to consistently finish as a top quarterback. As for Lawrence, there is simply too much pressure on his passing production since he won’t provide an extraordinary amount as a runner, and I have questions about the situation he’s entering in Jacksonville.

Still, it’s hard to go wrong with any of these players. If your mission is more tailored to go all-in on boom-or-bust talents, Lance might be your preferred option. As someone who likes to balance a high floor with enough ceiling, though, Fields has more pathways to success than any other quarterback in this class. Ironically, in redraft leagues, I have these three ranked in opposite spots based on the likelihood of playing time and strength of schedule. In dynasty, however, we are focused on who the most productive fantasy quarterback will be for the next ten+ years, and, for me, that’s Fields. Bears fans, you finally got the quarterback you deserved!

Photos by David Rosenblum & Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire | Design by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter @ IG)

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