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How Much Do Preseason Performances Matter for Rookie QBs?

The NFL’s first-year passers have mostly looked sharp through two preseason games. Will this class be as historic as hoped?

AP/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It doesn’t matter how many times you remind yourself of the sobering realities. They’re taking reps with second- and third-teamers. The playbooks are barely open. There are no stakes. It’s still so easy to overreact to preseason football—and that is especially true for rookie quarterbacks. Even the best pro athletes are guilty of preseason overreactions. Just look at LeBron James:

Five quarterbacks were taken in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft: Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields, and Mac Jones. That’s five players with clear expectations to start—and succeed—in Year 1. It’s important to contextualize just how significant that draft capital is. Five quarterbacks went in the first round in 2018, but before then, that many quarterbacks hadn’t been taken in the first since 1999; in 1983, six quarterbacks were taken in the first. And in 2021, those five QBs were selected in the first 15 picks; only in 1999 did quarterbacks fly off the board faster, when five passers went in the first 12 picks.

The 1999 draft serves as a good cautionary tale for undue hype about the 2021 class. The first three picks were quarterbacks then, just as they were last year: Tim Couch to the Browns, Donovan McNabb to the Eagles, and Akili Smith to the Bengals. McNabb started 142 games in a decade with the Eagles, but Couch suffered injuries and was never consistent for the expansion Browns and Smith started only 17 games across four seasons with the Bengals.

One hit, two misses. Throw in another hit (Daunte Culpepper at 11 to the Minnesota Vikings) and another miss (Cade McNown at 12 to the Bears), and the most top-heavy quarterback class in NFL history delivered what most quarterback classes do: a couple of quality career players, a couple of backups, and plenty of disappointment. The same is true of that 2018 class: stars in Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen, busts in Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold, and a middle ground in Baker Mayfield.

Drafting a quarterback is tough. That isn’t news. Some first-rounders will miss. That isn’t news, either. But teams know all that, and yet still spent five of the first 15 picks in last year’s draft on passers. There was more faith in this class to produce starting quarterbacks than any class this century. That speaks to the growing wisdom of sculpting offenses to help young quarterbacks; it speaks to the competitive advantage of the rookie-contract starter; and it speaks to the increased willingness of franchises to swallow dead money to move on from struggling passers.

It also speaks to the undeniable quality of this quarterback class. These guys can play. Each has taken some lumps during the first two weeks of the preseason, but the returns are more encouraging than concerning in all cases, with key boxes checked for each young passer.

Now, the necessary disclaimer: Preseason games may not matter in the win and loss columns, but they sure do matter for the sake of rookie onboarding and evaluation. Bigger bodies, faster speeds, new roles, new calls, new rules—preseason is a prolonged and explosive orientation for young players, and their performances can secure fringe roster spots, cement depth-chart status, and, critically, win starting roles. For Fields, Lance, and Jones, everything is on the table, as each is fighting to unseat a veteran—Andy Dalton, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Cam Newton, respectively. Those are legitimate quarterback competitions; Trevor Lawrence is also “in a quarterback competition” against third-year pro Gardner Minshew II, in the same way that a spicy chicken sandwich with garlic aioli and fresh coleslaw is “in competition” with a garden salad to be your lunch order—one’s just better than the other, man. And while Zach Wilson has the starting job secured in New York, the Jets need Wilson to get every rep possible with first-year offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, free agent acquisition Corey Davis, and rookie WR Elijah Moore.

Wilson has looked the best of the five. He’s been aggressive making throws against the sideline, showing the same moxie that created explosive plays at BYU. While largely playing in a similar offense to the one he enjoyed during his breakout season with the Cougars, Wilson has been tasked with more middle-of-the-field throws in his limited reps with the Jets’ first-team offense. The accuracy and aggressiveness is encouraging, as Mike LaFleur’s Shanahan-inspired offense will undoubtedly ask Wilson to work the middle of the field on intermediate, in-breaking routes to take advantage of displaced linebackers on play-action fakes.

The Jets should feel encouraged by Wilson’s success in the preseason, but they have played second-team defenses with their first-team offense across Wilson’s first two appearances. When Wilson has seen first-team defenses in practice settings, he’s thrown picks and taken sacks, eliciting worried first impressions that his preseason performances have, thankfully, silenced.

The poor training camp reports for Wilson indicate that once he’s facing first-team defenses and regular-season intensity, growing pains are likely inevitable. That’s fine. Wilson was always a high-ceiling pick who needed some development, and the Jets are on a long timeline, which affords them time to be patient with Wilson’s development.

Wilson’s arm strength pops off of his film, as did the arms of Wilson, Fields, Lance, and Lawrence in college. The only passer with potential velocity concerns was Alabama QB Mac Jones, who ended up in New England. Jones enjoyed a dominant Crimson Tide offense that diced up defenses with RPOs and play-action fakes that targeted their speedy receiving corps, and that’s what offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is building for him. The Patriots are hunting for explosive gains, and Jones has shown that he has the release speed, anticipation, and velocity to get the job done.

The Patriots, much like the Jets, are trying to bring a lot of new pieces together very quickly on offense. Unlike the Jets, they do have the freedom to bring Mac along slowly, with Newton currently atop the depth chart. His veteran hand offers a steadying presence—not to mention the short-yardage QB run package that the Patriots loved so much last year. But if Newton’s health prohibits him from maximizing the passing game investments, Jones has already proved at Alabama that he can get the ball to playmakers quickly and accurately—and early returns in New England demonstrate the same thing, as Jones has thrown the fewest uncatchable passes of all first-rounders through the preseason.

In Chicago, Fields is trying to get the ball to his playmakers, but he hasn’t had many to work with. Fields has played almost exclusively with the second-team offense, which sounds worse than it is, and not because the second team is good, but because the first team isn’t that much better. With Allen Robinson, David Montgomery, Cole Kmet, Teven Jenkins, Germain Ifedi, and James Daniels all out for Week 2 of the preseason, Fields was running for his life behind a jury-rigged offensive line and relying on roster-bubble pass catchers to make plays. Starting QB Andy Dalton is struggling with the same limitations, which highlights just how much more offense Fields can create with his legs than Dalton.

During Fields’s pre-draft process, a common concern was that he held the ball too long and processed too slowly. That’s still been true this preseason. Fields is holding on to the ball for a long time behind his leaking offensive line, and the thunderous sack he endured against the Bills looked eerily similar to one he took against the Penn State Nittany Lions last season. He simply must become more cognizant of the weaknesses in his protections and how to account for them.

But another thing remains true: It doesn’t really matter. In the same way that the Seahawks endure Russell Wilson’s unwillingness to throw it away and the accompanying dumb sacks, the Bears will endure it with Fields, whose stubbornness allows him to create wonderful plays out of structure. Despite that existing flaw in Fields’s game, he is still clearly the better quarterback option in Chicago, no matter what Matt Nagy says.

The door seems far more open for Trey Lance in San Francisco, where Kyle Shanahan has gotten his rookie reps with the first-team offense in practice and in the Week 2 preseason game against the Los Angeles Chargers. Lance performed just as he did at North Dakota State: He’s a streaky passer who at times loses the handle on his accuracy. His throwing mechanics were recently overhauled—he had never had private QB coaching until his pre-draft process—and at times he still looks like he’s thinking instead of acting. His release becomes robotic and segmented and is not in concert with his body as a whole.

He also still makes these plays.

This is exactly what the Niners accepted when they traded up for Lance: a raw product, certainly, but a quarterback who could execute scripted plays and then create more big gains outside of structure as well. Lance, more than any other rookie quarterback, could have stepped into the NFL and been overwhelmed by the difference in speed, volume, and intensity from his collegiate experience as a one-year FCS starter. But like all of his contemporaries, he hasn’t looked intimidated and is making the same detailed and intelligent plays that defined his success with the Bison. The Niners haven’t even really opened the playbook to accommodate his strengths yet, either, so they still have cards up their sleeve to get him even more comfortable.

And finally, Trevor Lawrence: the prince that was promised, the savior of Jacksonville football. It’s not that Lawrence has looked bad—it’s that the Jacksonville offense has tons of issues, and Lawrence can’t strap them all to his back and lug them to success. Injuries along the offensive line (Brandon Linder, Andrew Norwell, and Cam Robinson all didn’t play in Week 2 of the preseason) left Lawrence scrambling to salvage anything from Jacksonville’s deep passing game against the Saints on Monday night. New offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and quarterback coach Brian Schottenheimer have already come under fire for the stale passing designs in Jacksonville’s offense, and while the new coaches deserve the benefit of the doubt (it is the preseason, after all) there’s no question that Jacksonville is doing less for Lawrence than any other team is doing for its rookie passer.

Like Fields, Lawrence’s best plays have come outside of structure. But he’s still showing everything you want to see in a rookie quarterback. He’s willing to check down against pressure and avoid the huge negative play; he’s willing to attack tight windows with anticipation, even if his pass catchers aren’t rewarding him; and he’s comfortable using his legs to move the sticks. There were few doubts that the NFL game would be too big for Lawrence, but it’s still important for Lawrence to show that, and despite all of Jacksonville’s problems, he has.

And that’s really the name of the game for all rookie passers in the preseason: showing that they can handle the pros. Is the game too big, too fast, too complex for them? If not, you can field an offense that is at least passable in the regular season, and in doing so, give them the live experience that they so desperately need to develop.

Don’t get it twisted: A couple of these guys will almost surely bust. The circumstances in Jacksonville are not conducive to quarterback development; Wilson still has a lot to prove as a processor, as well as a game manager under pressure; Lance is raw and will produce substantially more negative plays than Garoppolo; Jones needs to be picture-perfect to win in structure given his limitations as an out-of-pocket creator; and Fields needs to speed up his process to avoid hits. None of the risk that existed in the pre-draft process has been eliminated in these preseason performances. Quarterback development is a steep climb, fraught with loose rocks and treacherous ledges, and the teams with early picks were there for a reason. The hay isn’t nearly in the barn, and it won’t be for a while.

But it is exciting when the young guys are live. And all five of the esteemed first-rounders from the 2021 draft class are delivering on expectations early. With only a few weeks left before the regular season truly kicks off their NFL careers, one of the best quarterback draft classes of recent memory retains all the promise teams saw back in April.