After months of discussion and evaluation over the top quarterbacks available in the 2021 NFL Draft, the end product saw each of the top five prospects land within the top 15 spots for the first time since 1999 and only the third time in NFL history. With the obvious selection of Trevor Lawrence at one followed by the selection that became obvious, Zach Wilson, the 49ers then shocked the world with Trey Lance at three. Chicago later traded up for pre-draft darling (or villain, depending on your perspective) Justin Fields, while the Patriots stayed pat for Mac Jones. This will forever be how the 2021 NFL Draft played out, but the evaluation process doesn’t stop. Three rookie passers started immediately in Week 1, while Fields has started since Week 3 and Lance has played a bit part.
Looking at the long-term outlook for these players, would this early-season action change where these players were selected? Callous GMs and observers would obviously say no, but let’s look at recent history. Through the first four weeks of this season, New England’s Jones leads all rookie passers with 160 pass attempts despite being drafted last (of the group). Former Patriot Jimmy Garoppolo only attempted 94 passes in New England before San Francisco was willing to part with a second-round pick, and only 178 more before the Niners committed over $74 million guaranteed. These snaps matter. So where do these five first-rounders fall from a long-term perspective?
#5: Zach Wilson, New York Jets
Despite going second overall and having by far the clearest path to a starting job, Wilson falls to the bottom here. Our pre-draft report spoke very highly of his instincts within the pocket and the smoothness of his mechanics (especially on the run), but he hasn’t necessarily demonstrated these skills yet on a team that desperately needs them. He’s been overconfident, has had two interceptions per game, and has lacked the awareness while taking four sacks per game. Both his interception and sack totals are highs among this group. He still has plenty of time to change the narrative, but a completion percentage 7.46 percentage points under expected can’t justify the second overall pick with no competition.
#4: Mac Jones, New England Patriots
With the media swarm around Jones’ near game-winning drive against Tampa Bay and a showing of early competence, it might be a surprise to still see Mac near the bottom of the list. However, the book on Jones has always been that of a high floor and low ceiling, and Jones hasn’t managed — or been allowed — to capitalize on the slow starts of his competitors despite good counting stats. Jones has been tasked with completing significantly shorter passes than any other passer in this group (8.0 ADOT) and has also gotten significant help after the catch (44.8% of passing yards), both elements speaking to a scheme-dependent passer. Jones may be one of the top quarterbacks to start Day 1 of his career, but the physical potential and arm talent of the other throwers is still too much to pass up.
#3: Justin Fields, Chicago Bears
Thousands of words have been spent on Fields’ situation and how well his development has been helped or hindered by the coaching staff or scheme, but the short of it is that he’s started just two games. The first was historically bad (not uncommon among this group) while the next was solid overall and showed enormous steps towards correcting mistakes. He remains a high-potential passer who hasn’t yet used his limitless athleticism on the ground. With fewer snaps to evaluate, he mostly treads water in this exercise, but an upcoming stretch as the unchallenged starter against the Raiders, Packers and Buccaneers could vault him in either direction on this list.
#2: Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers
Drafted third overall from North Dakota State, Lance was expected to need time to develop behind the scenes. Through three weeks he had attempted only one pass (a touchdown) and four rushes (also including a touchdown) before being pressed into action at halftime against the always-dangerous Seattle Seahawks. He is just 19 passes into his NFL career, with potentially more to come if Garoppolo is unable to return due to injury, and has also been heavily protected by scheme. However, he does happen to sport the highest passer rating among this group at 113.5. His low completion rate and relatively short depth of target belies his 3:0 TD:INT ratio. It’s unfair to say that he’s done enough on his own to move up the board, but standing steady while others fall could be a winning strategy in San Francisco.
#1: Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars
Forget the uncharacteristic interceptions and the four losses, Trevor Lawrence has gotten better every week and easily claims the top spot. The unquestioned top overall selection and generational prospect certainly got off to a rough start against Houston, but we’ve seen several top overall selections throw 3-plus interceptions in their debut before going on to standout careers. In fact, with Andrew Luck, Matthew Stafford, Sam Bradford, Alex Smith, and Peyton Manning all hitting that mark — it’s almost become a rite of passage. From there, Lawrence played two of the most surprising teams this year in Denver and Arizona, yet improved in those showings. Throughout, he’s been highly effective at managing a thrown-together offensive line to the tune of only 6 total sacks, and he put together a highly-impressive Week 4 performance with a completion percentage a full 11 percentage points over expected. That Week 4 total came on his first career short week, no less. It would never be easy in a long-term exercise to knock the king off his spot, and Lawrence’s performance all-but makes it impossible. None of the rookie QBs have truly flashed like Justin Herbert out of the gate, but Lawrence is already starting to deliver on his potential.