Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson were the latest quarterbacks taken 1-2 in the NFL Draft. Although their respective individual and team results say they have had downright bad 2021 rookie seasons, writing them both off as quick QB busts would be far too premature.
Lawrence and Wilson have made plenty of mistakes from inexperience while adjusting to the speed of pro defenses. But their numbers also are a major byproduct of getting limited help from their support systems.
Both QBs also have been hurt by contrast vs. the other young QBs. While the 49ers’ Trey Lance and the Bears’ Justin Fields get incompletes for not starting right away, fellow rookie first-rounder Mac Jones has been efficient leading the Patriots to the AFC’s best record. Second-year first-round starters Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert are also all playing well for their teams.
Meanwhile, Lawrence throws for the 2-11 Jaguars and Wilson slings for the 3-10 Jets. Lawrence has dealt with shaky offensive coaching all season within the dysfunction of Urban Meyer’s leadership. Wilson battled a knee injury that cost him four games after a slow start in Mike LaFleur’s offense. Along the way, the Jets have lost their left tackle (Mekhi Becton), top running back (rookie Michael Carter) and best two wide receivers (Corey Davis, rookie Elijah Moore) to injuries.
In each of their cases, Lawrence and Wilson have been feeling good about their arm and athleticism, often to a fault. When they have been humbled, their confidence has taken consistent hits.
Trevor Lawrence: Trying to do too much with so little
Lawrence’s numbers (13 games)
- Completions: 271
- Attempts: 466
- Passing yards: 2,735
- Completion percentage: 58.1
- Yards per attempt: 5.7
- Touchdown passes: 9
- Interceptions: 14
- Passer rating: 68.9
Lawrence has started every game since Week 1. He had a multiple-TD pass game in a loss against the Texans to open the season, but he hasn’t had one since. His best stretch of games also came earlier in the season, when he was consistently rated in the low 90s as a passer in Weeks 4-6, a stretch which included a thrilling win over the Dolphins in London.
The worrisome part is the Jaguars have seen regressive play since the Week 7 bye. Lawrence has thrown only two TD passes total since Week 8’s action. He was protecting the ball better, with only two interceptions, too — until he had a young career-high four in the 20-0 shutout loss to the Titans in Week 14.
Lawrence is handling plenty of skill position blows. He lost his first-round running back from Clemson, Travis Etienne, to a preseason foot injury. Go-to wide receiver D.J. Chark went down with a broken ankle in Week 4. Hybrid receiver Jamal Agnew was done with a hip injury in Week 11. Security blanket tight end Dan Arnold, acquired from the Panthers, suffered a significant knee injury in Week 12.
The Jaguars have had decent line play and when committed to him, have shown a capable running game with last year’s undrafted rookie sensation James Robinson. But with conservative combination of offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and passing game corodinator Brian Schottenheimer — also his quarterbacks coach — there’s no doubt Lawrence has been more reined-in than let loose. The personnel usage has been maddeningly inconsistent — the journeyman Laquon Treadwell becoming a random receiving factor over free-agent pickup Marvin Jones Jr. and promising second-year man Laviska Shenault Jr.
Lawrence hasn’t settled because nothing is settled around him. The adjustments have failed to be catered to his strengths and, unfortunately, the benching of Robinson in Week 13 has caused Lawrence to question whether he’s in the best position to improve at moving the ball.
When you look at Lawrence, he’s often pressing to make something happen out of limited assets, leading to inaccuracy, either rushing short throws or overthrowing receivers. The Jaguars should be letting him operate free with improvisation at times and use his own running skills to spark his playmaking confidence as a passer. It probably doesn’t help Lawrence’s intangibles as a leader to be in a well-reported uncomfortable environment.
Lawrence needs a clean slate with a new coaching staff in an offense that understands what all he can do and help him make them do them better, not worse. Let’s hope the Jaguars will do him right for a real reset rookie season in 2021 after some embarrassing unintentional “redshirting.”
Zach Wilson: No rhythm, no clean bill of health, no continuity
Wilson’s numbers (9 games)
- Completions: 160
- Attempts: 285
- Passing yards: 1,741
- Completion percentage: 56.1
- Yards per attempt: 6.1
- Touchdown passes: 6
- Interceptions: 11
- Passer rating: 65.2
Wilson has had similiar struggles as Lawrence with accuracy and getting the ball out quickly. He started out being too aggressive, not taking checkdowns the way he should have and making futile attempts for big plays that came easily to him in college. But since returning from his knee injury, He doesn’t seem to play settled, sometimes caught between hanging in there to pass vs. taking off scrambling.
He has looked like the typical skittish rookie at times and in a rhythm-based offense borrowed from the 49ers, the lacking short-to-intermediate precision can snowball into mistakes coming in bunches from Wilson. The Jets have seen a few more red flags from Wilson than the Jaguars have with Lawrence, but the knee injury robbed him from precious in-season development time. Wilson has flashed, too, with his deep ball and improvisation, but he needs to learn to play with more control and within a QB-friendly offense.
The Jets haven’t offered him good pass protection minus Becton. They were slow in deploying Moore, their most dynamic playmaker, into a prominent role, with a concussion in Week 3 not helping. Wilson didn’t get much time on the field with Davis, with whom he showed a strong downfield connection early, and Moore. Now Davis and Moore are not available, and it’s not a good sign that Braxton Berrios is his remaining top target. Carter’s special receiving skils out of the backfield are also missed and the Jets whiffed not having a more reliable, viable tight end.
Had Lawrence or Wilson started his career in the Patriots’ ofense such as Jones, there’s no doubt the progress and production would have been a lot different. The Jaguars’ problems were more innate; the Jets’ woes grew over the course of the season. The Jaguars need to overhaul scheme and personnel to lift Lawrence, while the Jets just need more healthy time with Wilson with some of the pieces already there to make him much more successful in Year 2.
It’s hard for a rookie QB to dive into complete rebuilds and avoid going under water at first. The Patriots, Bengals, Dolphins and Chargers all weren’t in that state when their rookies were brought in that fray. The Patriots upgraded tight end, wide receiver and running back well in conjunction with Jones’ arrival. The Bengals, Dolphins and Chargers saw some good things with Burrow, Tagovailoa and Herbert as rookie and focused on enhancing them with different “next steps” in both philosophy and personnel.
Lawrence and Wilson each have significant room for improvement. But it’s impressive how they have hung in there and been accountable despite stepping into messy situations. For now, give them more of a one-year pass than bringing out the bust labelmaker. It would be, however, a much different story if they stay at the same below-average level in Year 2.