The first seed in the AFC playoffs will be either the Kansas City Chiefs or the Buffalo Bills. Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, vying for the crown of the conference—one of the few things in this NFL season that has gone just as we all expected.
The Cincinnati Bengals still have an outside shot, yes—a testament to Joe Burrow’s ascent into that same tier of star AFC quarterbacks. The Baltimore Ravens will also make it, even as their star quarterback works back from an injury. The Los Angeles Chargers, stuck in neutral for much of the season, have secured enough wins on the back of their star quarterback, Justin Herbert, to position themselves for the postseason as well. Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa may not be a star quarterback like the rest of the field, but the Dolphins enjoy a dynamic passing offense similar to those of the other AFC contenders.
That leaves just one spot left in the AFC playoffs for the field of young first-round quarterbacks scrambling for dominance in one of the most competitive conferences of recent memory. And that spot may very well belong to Trevor Lawrence and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Jaguars are not like any of these AFC contenders. Buffalo, Kansas City, and Cincinnati all drafted in the 20s or later in last year’s NFL draft, while Miami (who later traded the pick), Los Angeles, and Baltimore did so in the teens. The Jaguars held the first pick. Baltimore made a defensive coaching change, and the Bills had an internal promotion at offensive coordinator. Jacksonville fired and turned over its entire coaching staff. The only thing that connects the Jaguars to the rest of this AFC field is Lawrence.
Lawrence was drafted to be the savior of Jacksonville football, plain and simple. After the days of Mark Brunell, the Jaguars have been unstable at quarterback. Byron Leftwich couldn’t stay healthy. Blake Bortles’s 2017 season was a lie. David Garrard—unquestionably the second-best quarterback behind Brunell—was just over .500 for his career. Garrard and Brunell were Day 3 picks, as was Gardner Minshew, the Jaguars’ failed post-Bortles experiment who guided them to 1-15 in 2020. But there in the 2021 draft was the golden boy: Trevor Lawrence. National champion as a freshman. Highest-ranked recruit since Peyton Manning. Mel Kiper’s fourth-highest-ranked quarterback prospect ever, behind only John Elway, Andrew Luck, and Manning. Here was the prince that was promised.
Last season, it became extremely difficult to square Lawrence’s loftier than lofty expectations with the cold, hard reality of Jacksonville football. The Jags stank. Lawrence stank. He averaged 6.0 yards per attempt and threw more interceptions (17) than touchdowns (12). Only two passing offenses were worse than Jacksonville’s by DVOA; only seven quarterbacks were worse than Lawrence by expected points added.
Now, there was a lot going on in Jacksonville last season. If you think you remember every blunder, gaffe, fiasco, sideshow, and imbroglio from the Jaguars’ 2021 season, I promise you, you do not. Tim Tebow was on this team. A strength coach who had mutually parted ways with the team at Iowa because of his racist behavior was hired by Urban Meyer and then resigned less than two days later when it turned out the public could both read his name and Google it. The Jaguars were fined in training camp for not knowing the practice rules. After a Jaguars loss, video emerged of Meyer in an Ohio bar with a woman who was decidedly not his wife. Meyer told his players that he was a winner and that his staff were “losers.” He didn’t know whether Andre Cisco was playing. He literally kicked the kicker.
Not for a moment in this train wreck was anyone trying to help Lawrence become an NFL quarterback—something that, despite all his hype, all his promise, he had never been. He’d been a college quarterback running a rinky-dink spread run-pass option offense in a toothless ACC. An optimistic view of Lawrence held that, while he had played far worse than he’d been billed, he would be better this year solely because of the departure of Meyer and his entourage. And if the Jaguars could replace him with an actual coach (not just a net neutral, but a net positive) and replace all his personnel mistakes with actual players (not just net neutrals, but net positives), then everything would be magically fixed. Easy peasy.
A one-offseason fix in the NFL is always a myth. It never goes that neatly. The NFL is too competitive and the road to success too narrow for everything to turn around in just one year. The 2022 Jaguars are proof of that. They have only a coin flip’s chance to make the playoffs; if they do make it, the gauntlet of AFC opponents they’d face seems impossible to get through.
But as far as one-offseason fixes go, the Jaguars did it pretty close to perfectly. Doug Pederson and Press Taylor have brought their souped-up West Coast offense to Jacksonville, rife with gimmicky designs and tendency breakers and clever twists. General manager Trent Baalke brought the weapons to Jacksonville—Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, Evan Engram. The reward for their excellence may end up being a division title and a playoff berth. A playoff win? Why not? But more important is the reward already in hand: Trevor Lawrence. Over the past month, Lawrence has been exactly what was promised. Lawrence is the NFL’s next star quarterback.
Since Week 10, Lawrence has been seventh in the NFL in EPA per play and seventh in completion percentage over expectation; the pass offense overall is sixth in DVOA. Lawrence has thrown 13 touchdowns and had one interception; he is top five in adjusted completion percentage and big-time throw percentage. And since trading James Robinson away before Week 8, the Jaguars have been eighth in pass rate over expectation. The entire plane in Jacksonville is built around the passing attack.
The entire plane in Jacksonville is built around the passing attack, and the entire passing attack is predicated on Lawrence’s talent. Per Pro Football Focus, the Jaguars’ receivers are tied for the league lead in drop rate and have the sixth-worst contested catch rate at 41 percent; Lawrence’s pressure-to-sack percentage on the season is 15.5 percent, a top 10 number among all quarterbacks.
Lawrence’s work in the pocket is some of the most impressive film you’ll find in the NFL this season. The most incredible thing about Lawrence—his cardinal trait, his superpower, the big thing that makes him special—is that his arm talent and accuracy don’t depreciate when he’s forced to throw off platform. He’s Mario with a super star. Even as the circumstances change, he doesn’t.
This touchdown against the Cowboys is a perfect example. The Jaguars have a rub concept dialed up in the low red zone, but the Cowboys have it covered nicely—as Kirk breaks to the pylon, the defensive backs exchange the route.
At this time, Lawrence has his body set toward Kirk, but the route isn’t open. Watch as Lawrence’s back foot drifts to reset his platform, and then see his hips snap as he rips through a lightning-fast release to beat the corner and incoming Micah Parsons, placing the ball away from coverage to ensure that Jones has a clean catch point. He does all this in the blink of an eye—since Week 10, Lawrence’s 2.37-second time to throw has been second only to Colt McCoy’s.
Lawrence throws so well from adjusted platforms because his body is so limber and his movements are so rapid—both shocking physical traits relative to how long he is. Compare Lawrence with another top quarterback with a big frame, Herbert: Herbert has a bigger arm in part because he loads up and throws like a trebuchet, but Lawrence has the quick release and snappy body of an Aaron Rodgers or Kyler Murray.
This freedom of movement translates into Lawrence’s throws on the run, which is when he is arguably most special. In a league with so many scramblers, it’s easy to expect that, after Mahomes and Allen, the quarterbacks who are best at throwing on the move would be Jalen Hurts and Murray and Justin Fields. This is not the case. By EPA per dropback, the best quarterbacks throwing outside the pocket in the past six weeks have been Burrow, Herbert, Mahomes, Allen, and Lawrence. Now that’s a list.
Take a look at this Jones touchdown against the Cowboys. At first brush, the play looks easy—because Lawrence makes it look effortless when it certainly is not. This is a 50-yard throw delivered off platform without any sort of buildup. Lawrence just steps up, opens his hips, and uncorks it perfectly.
The important thing to watch in this montage of Lawrence’s throws is how quickly he goes from running, scrambling, avoiding the sack, or thinking to throwing the football with accuracy and pace. He moves to both his left and his right, toward the target and away from the target. These are circumstances that demand fearlessness and timing, circumstances that should drain power and accuracy. Lawrence is entirely unfazed.
This is creativity, playmaking, star power. It doesn’t look like this when Mahomes is scooting around and throwing underhand sliders to Travis Kelce or when Allen is bulldozing linebackers and waving Gabe Davis to run even deeper. But make no mistake about it: This is the unimpeachable comfort of a star quarterback who knows he’s a star. This is what was promised.
This did not come from nowhere, of course—it’s what Lawrence was drafted for, this unteachable ability to sling a football a certain way that nobody else can sling it. It was always there, in pieces and in flashes, moments of brilliance obscured by a mismanaged team. That’s why these one-year rebuilds are hard. Lawrence’s top three targets (Kirk, Jones, Engram) were not there last year. Pederson wasn’t designing the offense. There was a feeling out, an experimentation, a great week followed by a bad week, as Lawrence began to get a sense of the timing, the geometry, the speed, and the chemistry. Pederson figured out what his quarterback liked; the receivers figured out just how he liked it. What were previously flashes have now become flames; what were previously just traits have coalesced into a complete offense and a total quarterback.
This creates a sense of unstoppability in the Jaguars offense. It is not reality yet: The Jaguars are just three weeks removed from a 14-point outing in Detroit. But if you can’t see it on the horizon, it’s time to get your head out of the sand. A new Jaguar is setting career-best numbers every week. Jones set a career-best figure in receptions and receiving yards against the Ravens in Week 12; he had his first three-touchdown game last week against the Cowboys. Engram set a career best in just about everything against the Titans two weeks ago. These are players on mediocre free-agent deals, considered misses by the teams that drafted them. These new Jags’ performance is a testament to the rising star they’ve been tethered to in Jacksonville. No matter who the target of the day is, Lawrence and Pederson will find the weakness the defense is so desperate to hide, and then they’ll hit it, and they’ll hit it, and they’ll hit it again.
The one-offseason fix is still a myth. Jacksonville’s defense isn’t playing at a playoff level; the offensive line and the running game aren’t postseason worthy. A playoff run isn’t likely for Jacksonville. But that’s not what this is about. It didn’t take a playoff run to establish Herbert or Lamar Jackson as star quarterbacks in their conference; Burrow’s and Allen’s early seasons did not foretell the star passers that were to come. The Jaguars entered last season thinking they had it: the star quarterback, the ticket to contention, the savior of Jaguars football. They entered this season still thinking that—but with a little more concern, a slight waver in their voice.
There is no waver now. Lawrence is what he was billed as. Lawrence is the league’s next star quarterback, and the Jaguars are here to stay.