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Greg Cosell: Breaking Down the Rookie QBs

Each week this season, NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell will study the tape and provide his world-class analysis to the 33rd Team.

After a captivating first weekend in the NFL, every team feels some level of excitement, letdowns and opportunity. One of the most captivating aspects of Week 1’s slate was the debut of five rookie quarterbacks, with three of them starting for their respective teams. Below is a detailed look at the debuts of Trevor Lawrence for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Zach Wilson for the New York Jets and Mac Jones for the New England Patriots. This trio of quarterbacks performed strongly in their first professional action and showed plenty of promise that should truly excite their respective organizations.

Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars – 28 of 51, 332 yards, 3 TDs, 3 INTs

As one of the highest-level prospects in 2021, Lawrence had a solid debut as he demonstrated outstanding physical and mental toughness throughout the entire game despite being under consistent pressure and throwing multiple interceptions. Any rookie quarterback throwing over 50 times in his first career game certainly isn’t a recipe for success and this issue was compounded by an offensive line that constantly struggled in pass protection against a four-man Texans pass rush. Even with these factors, Lawrence had a wealth of positive flashes, impressive plays and promising moments to build upon.

On Jacksonville’s second possession, a well-schemed play led to a strong start to the game for Lawrence. In shotgun, Lawrence ran a boot right off an opposite-side outside zone-sweep and hit Marvin Jones Jr. for a 33-yard gain on a firm throw with precise ball placement against a Cover 3 look. Two plays later, Lawrence once again found Jones for a 15-yard completion. This time, Lawrence was under center and hit his receiver on a 5-step slant against Cover 2 as the underneath defenders were sucked in by the run action. One of Lawrence’s most impressive throws of the day was a 27-yard pass to D.J. Chark on third-and-17 to begin the second quarter. Facing a Cover 2 look, Lawrence deftly climbed the pocket and drove the ball with velocity to the weak side void in the coverage. He showed quick feet with the ability to reset in a phone booth and deliver an on-balance strike to Chark.

Lawrence did have three interceptions on the day, with all of them occurring for different reasons. His first pick was an inaccurate throw to an open receiver after being flushed out of the pocket to his left. Lawrence’s second interception came against a Cover 2 look and I believe that despite reading the coverage, he didn’t expect the cornerback to sink as deep as he did on the corner route. His third turnover of the day was simply a poor read and throw as the Jaguars were down by 23 points in the fourth quarter. There were also times Lawrence rushed his mechanics in a clean pocket and caused his ball location to suffer which is a weakness he had at Clemson and will need to clean up as his career progresses.

Overall, Lawrence had an admirable performance and continued to sling the ball around in spite of being thrust into a treacherous situation for his first game. He showed tremendous toughness and though he has plenty to clean up, it was clear he has the requisite skill to be a quality NFL starting quarterback.

Zach Wilson, New York Jets – 20 of 37, 258 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT

As the Jets hand the keys to the franchise to Zach Wilson in their post-Sam Darnold era, there were plenty of promising moments and some growing pains in his first appearance for New York. He was under constant duress as the Panthers racked up 6 sacks and 14 pressures, constantly harassing Wilson and holding the Jets scoreless in the first half. The Panthers consistently disguised late defensive movement before the snap and their multiple front looks out of nickel stymied the Jets’ pass protection as they blitzed on 23% of Wilson’s dropbacks. Nonetheless, he showed an abundance of physical and mental toughness as he hung in the game and continued striving to make plays. He closed the game strong as he led New York to touchdown drives of over 70 yards on two of their last three possessions, showcasing many of the skills that drove the Jets to take him at second overall.

It was clear that Wilson’s connection with receiver Corey Davis is strong, as the two connected for several explosive plays during the game. In the second quarter, Wilson found Davis for 35 yards on a second-and-8 on his first dropback of the game where the Panthers showed a conventional four-man front and didn’t disguise Cover 3 with late movement. On a rare snap in which he was able to feel comfortable in the pocket, Wilson was able to move linebacker Shaq Thompson by looking at the boundary flat-snag concept and then hit Davis on a crossing route. Wilson and Davis connected again in the third quarter on a play out of 12 personnel. With twins to the field side, receiver Elijah Moore ran a crossing route from the slot and Davis ran a deep dig. The Jets had a seven-man protection on the play, and Wilson drove the ball to Davis on the dig after a play-action seven-step dropback.

The two were able to connect for their first of two touchdowns late in the third quarter on a play that demonstrated the twitchy athleticism, light feet, talented delivery off movement and live arm Wilson showed at BYU. This second reaction play saw a scissors concept to the boundary with Davis wide open on a post route, but an inside stunt by the Panthers forced Wilson to vacate the pocket. He was able to throw a strike to Davis while running to his right to get New York on the board. On New York’s last drive of the game, Wilson was able to convert on a fourth-and-8 with an excellent throw to Braxton Berrios. Facing a five-man zone pressure, he was quick to see the void in Carolina’s 3 under-3 deep coverage and fired an accurate pass to Berrios for a 25-yard gain on a crossing route.

Wilson did have multiple snaps in which he wasn’t able to clearly see and process the defense, leading to a turnover and some missed opportunities. On his interception, Wilson attempted to throw a pass over linebacker Shaq Thompson to tight end Ryan Griffin, who was his secondary read on the play and ran a stick nod route. However, Thompson was able to get in the passing lane and make an athletic interception. Wilson also missed an opportunity on New York’s second possession as the Jets faced a third-and-8. Receiver Elijah Moore was open on an in-breaking route from the inside slot against cornerback Jaycee Horn for what would have been a first down, but Wilson instead decided to throw to running back Ty Johnson on a vertical route against Thompson, which led to an incomplete pass and a Jets punt.

Overall, Wilson had a strong performance under unenviable circumstances. After a tough start in which he faced a barrage of pressure, Wilson overcame multiple obstacles as he led multiple second-half scoring drives. He showed plenty of promise and flashes of talent as looks to be the newest competitor to end the Jets’ recent history of quarterback futility.

Mac Jones, New England Patriots – 29 of 39, 281 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT

As one of the biggest risers of the pre-draft process, Mac Jones looked remarkably comfortable in his first game as an NFL starter. He played with an innate sense of calmness and poise while trusting his pass protection, which allowed him to deliver accurate passes against pressure without negatively affecting his mechanics. Jones did a great job picking up Miami’s blitzes and refused to get beaten mentally. One of his strengths at Alabama was an ability to move effectively within the pocket in response to pressure, which was something that was clearly reflected in Week 1. New England was able to scheme up advantages that Jones was able to benefit from and he made multiple throws showcasing terrific touch and ball placement.

In the second quarter, Jones found Jakobi Meyers for 22 yards on a third-and-7 for a critical first down to keep a scoring drive alive. With Miami playing Cover 1 press, Kendrick Bourne (the second receiver on the trips side of the formation) picked nickel cornerback Justin Coleman, who was covering Meyers in the inside slot. Jones was presented with an easy throw to Meyers for a new set of downs and moved the chains for New England. On New England’s first touchdown drive of the game, Jones found receiver Nelson Agholor for 25 yards up the seam. With the Dolphins in Cover 2, he read the coverage perfectly and pump-faked to the right before rifling a throw to Agholor between the safeties in coverage.

Jones’ pocket toughness skills at Alabama showed up throughout the game and were clearly evident on a throw to Agholor in the third quarter. With New England facing a second-and-15, Miami showed Cover 1 and then moved to a split safety matchup zone concept with a five-man pressure. He made a fantastic read of the coverage and delivered a hole shot from the field-side hashmark to Agholor as he took a shot from Dolphins linebacker Sam Eguavoen.

The Dolphins presented multiple pressure concepts – both man and zone – which didn’t faze Jones. He was efficient with the football, completing 13 of 17 passes for 100 yards against the blitz, and read pressure correctly as he made the correct decisions within the structure of the offense. His feel within the pocket was fantastic as he properly ascertained what was pressure and what were simply bodies around him, which allowed him to perform well against the blitz. Overall, Jones performed very well and showed great awareness and ball placement, which led to a successful performance.

Aadit Mehta contributed to this story

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