Through the past few weeks, there’s been plenty of talk about rookie quarterback play. Somehow, the most lauded rookie passer in nearly a decade has evaded the discourse.
Trevor Lawrence’s NFL career is off to what many would consider an uninspiring start. Through 13 weeks, the Jaguars have won just two games, and Lawrence is near the bottom of the league in most passing statistics. As much as the Patriots and Mac Jones exemplify an NFL franchise forming a clear-cut plan and developing a sound environment to best maximize their first-year signal-caller, the Jaguars and Lawrence have been a mess.
Our understanding of what determines successful quarterback careers, on a mainstream level, is growing more nuanced. It basically boils down to the debate of nature versus nurture. Anecdotally, the answer will almost always be that both are essential. The Patriots are demonstrating how a quarterback’s environment can lend to success. What we’re currently observing with the Jaguars is the other side of the coin, or a situation in which an underwhelming supporting cast can mightily hamper the success of a gifted quarterback—even one who is touted as generational.
Consider Jacksonville’s 37-7 loss to the Rams at SoFi Stadium on Sunday. Before Lawrence had even thrown a pass, Jacksonville had dug itself into a hole; poor coverage on the opening kickoff and a fumble on the Jags’ second play from scrimmage spawned a 10-point deficit fewer than five minutes into the contest. Still, with three minutes left in the second quarter and trailing by six, Jacksonville had a chance to take the lead. Facing third-and-4 at L.A.’s 40, a once-in-a-generation rookie committed a typical rookie mistake. Lawrence mishandled a read-option exchange with running back Carlos Hyde. Lawrence recovered the ball, but the promising drive stalled with a punt.
The Rams shut out the Jaguars in the second half. Lawrence finished 16-for-28 with 145 yards. Jacksonville fell to 2-10.
“There’s not much to say,” Lawrence said following Sunday’s game. The rookie’s agitation was visible as he swayed back and forth behind the lectern. “We’ve got a lot more [to offer] than that and just didn’t play well,” he continued. “We gotta do better. We’ve gotta figure it out.”
It’s easy to point to statistics and standings and surmise that Lawrence is not the prodigy he was tabbed to be. He’s completed 58 percent of his passes for 2,514 yards (5.9 yards per attempt), nine touchdowns, and 10 picks. He ranks 27th out of 32 passers in EPA per play and last in completion rate over expected (minus-7 percent). Out of 37 quarterbacks who have attempted at least 100 passes, Sports Info Solutions ranks Lawrence 31st in on-target pass rate (72.3 percent) and 34th in catchable pass rate (81.9 percent).
But Jaguars fans will continue to have patience with their quarterback. I spoke with NFL analyst and former NFL quality control coach Nate Tice over the weekend to ask what he’s seen from Lawrence on film. Tice told me that even if the numbers don’t show it, Lawrence’s process is sharp and that he does have the makeup of a generational prospect.
“A lot of people want to be cool and hipster and jump on the Mac Jones train and all that,” Tice said. “But what Trevor has done is just as impressive. He’s just in the worst situation possible that he can be in.”
Let’s address Lawrence’s situation. Some franchises will move mountains for premium quarterback play (See: Rams, 49ers, and, I guess, the Panthers). Others are simply bad enough to stumble into a talented passer, which is what happened after the Jaguars lost 15 consecutive games last year before drafting Lawrence. Jacksonville already had one of the NFL’s worst rosters entering the season, and significant injury woes have made the situation worse. Rookie tailback Travis Etienne Jr. (foot surgery), receiver DJ Chark Jr. (ankle), guard AJ Cann (knee) and receiver/returner Jamal Agnew (hip) have each suffered season-ending injuries, depleting Jacksonville of offensive skill talent to the point that Tavon Austin is playing significant snaps in 2021. The collection that’s left has underwhelmed. Entering last week, Lawrence ranked second among NFL passers in Pro Football Focus’s drop rate over expected, and after Sunday’s loss, he’s tied for third worst in drop rate (8.5 percent).
Surrounded by a lesser supporting cast and often trailing, Lawrence seemed to be pressing earlier in the season and attempting to force passes downfield. But as Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris noted last week, Lawrence has since improved in taking shorter completions. “When they called those three-level shots early in the season, [Lawrence] might’ve forced a few downfield that he shouldn’t have forced and people made those plays,” Morris said. “Now, he’s doing a better job with his decision-making and getting to his next level, his checkdowns. They’re doing a good job with him getting the ball out of his hands and finding easy completions. All those things you do for young quarterbacks.”
As far as scheme is concerned, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and passing game coordinator Brian Schottenheimer are running what Tice defines as a standard NFL offense, which is simultaneously a benefit and a restriction. There could be more creativity in adding new formations, he said, but that Bevell’s offense is “a good way to get knee-deep into NFL offenses.”
Jones has deservedly earned praise for his processing abilities, often animatedly barking out pre-snap calls and making adjustments that substantiate his rep as a cerebral passer. Lawrence, however, has also been given “autonomy” at the line of scrimmage, according to Schottenheimer.
“He’s earned the right to do it,” Schottenheimer told WJXT’s Jamal St. Cyr in October. “When you come in and you look at the game and you see when we put him in those situations, whether it’s an alert from a run to a pass, or vice versa, or solving a protection problem, he’s right 90 percent of the time.”
Tice said he noticed Lawrence handling pre-snap checks and kills, adjusting protections, and communicating with the offensive line during the preseason, which is something not typical until a QB’s second year.
“Seeing it right off the bat as a rookie is incredible,” Tice said. “Because one of his maybe negatives coming out as a prospect is that he played in the Clemson offense. But it doesn’t matter. He’s just ridiculously heady. And then as far as post-snap, you forget that he’s 6-[foot]-6, because he moves so fluidly. He has incredibly, already advanced pocket feel and pocket movement.”
That’s reflected in Lawrence’s pressure-to-sack rate. The Jaguars offensive line isn’t as bad as perhaps perceived (nearly league average in ESPN’s pass-block win rate), however opposing defenses are not shy about blitzing Lawrence. Despite being pressured on 164 of his dropbacks (sixth most), though, Lawrence has the seventh-lowest rate of pressures that result in sacks (12.8 percent), per PFF. After tying for the league’s third-highest turnover-worthy play rate (4.7 percent) through the first six weeks, Lawrence has recorded the fifth lowest (2 percent) since. (Unfortunately for Peyton Manning, it doesn’t look like his rookie interceptions record will be broken after all.)
The problem is that, while there is tangible progress, it’s not translating to results. “Obviously if we knew the answer, we’d be doing it,” Lawrence said. “I gotta get better.”
Urban Meyer was asked about any potential concern about Lawrence’s development and said, “I’d like to see everyone else around him and everyone else just play a little bit better. I wish I could give you something more than that.”
More important than wins and losses at this point is maintaining Lawrence’s confidence. The former five-star prospect went 52-2 at Cartersville High School in Georgia, then went 38-2 at Clemson as he claimed a national championship. The Jaguars haven’t had a winning season since 2017; a decade-long playoff drought preceded it. Lawrence, like many great quarterback prospects, was dealt an uphill battle to success at the pro level. Asked how he maintains patience, Lawrence was candid.
“You never know how things are going to go,” he said. “And if they don’t go as planned, you can’t go off script. You gotta keep, like I said, keep being the person, keep going to work. And I have a lot of belief and faith in this organization, myself, this team, locker room full of guys. I think we got a great locker room and that we’re going to get this thing figured out and you just kind of keep believing that and keep going to work, you can’t grow weary. The season gets long, especially when you’re not playing well down the stretch, and you just gotta keep plugging in.”