It's a new era in football.
Since the 2011 CBA, with the inception of rookie-scale contracts, the value of young players is much higher. Quarterbacks in general are also extremely valuable, so, when teams are able to combine both factors, there are huge dividends. The Los Angeles Chargers - with Justin Herbert - and the Cincinnati Bengals - with Joe Burrow - are now reaping the rewards of hitting a draft pick in the most important position in sports. As rookie contracts are signed through four seasons (plus a guaranteed fifth-year option to be exercised after the third season), it's imperative for teams to have almost immediate impact from their new quarterbacks (unless you are the Green Bay Packers).
Usually, there is a one year window where quarterbacks can sit behind a bridge veteran or play without much pressure. But in the second year the judgment is at full speed. That's why 2022 is an extremely important season for the quarterbacks drafted in 2021 - and the expectation is that six of them will be starters: Trevor Lawrence (Jacksonville Jaguars), Zach Wilson (New York Jets), Trey Lance (San Francisco 49ers), Justin Fields (Chicago Bears), Mac Jones (New England Patriots), and Davis Mills (Houston Texans). On different levels, all have some to prove and to improve this year, so let's analyze how a successful season will look like for each of them.
PFF grade: 59.6
Passer rating: 71.9
Trevor Lawrence entered the NFL as the highest-rated quarterback since Andrew Luck, but his first season in Jacksonville couldn't have gone much worse — for him and for the organization. The Urban Meyer tenure was an absolute disaster, on and off the field, and Lawrence never had a real chance to succeed. That being said, even under those terrible conditions, Lawrence still showed some signs of his potential. According to PFF, he was 77 percentile among rookie QBs since 2006 in success rate and 67 percentile in turnover-worthy play percentage.
His worst numbers came in areas where a better system might help the most, such as average depth of target and percentage of throws behind the sticks. While there are legitimate concerns about the lack of positive plays, Jaguars fans may hope things will improve under Super Bowl champion head coach Doug Pederson and with the addition of some weapons — the team has added wide receiver Christian Kirk and Zay Jones, and tight end Evan Engram. The cost might have been high, but there's little question that they will produce better than Jaguars' previous alternatives. Moreover, running back Travis Etienne will finally debut after his lost rookie season.
"Lawrence’s timing on plays is excellent, not just for a rookie but for an NFL QB in general. He constantly plays on time and delivers throws in rhythm. There is zero fat in his footwork and mechanics. He seldom takes extra hitches to make his throws, and he maximizes the room for error by his teammates because he gets throws out so quickly", wrote The Athletic's Nate Tice while reviewing Lawrence's rookie season.
Under a more refined offensive scheme, and without so many distractions off the field, Trevor Lawrence should (and must) improve greatly.
What a successful season will look like: Prove that Urban Meyer was the problem.
PFF grade: 59.3
Passer rating: 69.7
Zach Wilson was the worst quarterback in the NFL in several passing categories. So, it's fair to say that a successful season is if he stops being so bad. But for a second overall pick with that much upside, the New York Jets certainly expect more from their young quarterback. Wilson wasn't as bad producing turnover-worthy plays — actually, he was the best among rookie QBs last year in that regard. But the Jets' quarterback was the worst among rookies in success rate, negatively-graded plays, and percentage of throws behind the sticks.
Wilson went to the NFL under high expectations because of his outside-the-pocket creativity, but in order to be a real NFL quarterback, he must improve in areas where regular QBs thrive. One of these points is the ability to read defenses. Nowadays, we understand that sacks are pretty much a quarterback stat, and Wilson is sixth percentile among rookie QBs since 2006l in sack rate — only Justin Fields was worse among rookies last year.
But there is good news for Zach Wilson too. He is the only first-round rookie from last season who will have the same head coach and offensive coordinator for the second season, and continuity is imperative for improvement in young players. The Jets have added offensive pieces as well, like first-round wide receiver Garrett Wilson and second-round running back Breece Hall, and free agent tight ends CJ Uzomah and Tyler Conklin.
"While he only registered 32 completions of 20 yards or more – one fewer than Teddy Bridgewater and seven fewer than Ben Roethlisberger in a final season defined by his rapidly fading arm strength – Wilson was one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the NFL when pushing the ball downfield", wrote The 33rd Team's Nicholas McGee.
With evolution in the system and more talented options, this might be a make or break year for Wilson.
What a successful season will look like: Master regular QB attributes.
PFF grade: 59.9
Passer rating: 97.3
Lance's situation is unique for a variety of reasons. First, he is the only projected starter from the 2021 class who wasn't drafted by a bad team — the 49ers had had a down year in 2020 because of injuries, but the roster was good. Additionally, there was a transition plan in place, and the previous quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, is a good player — without a high ceiling, but still an efficient player who was enough to go with the 49ers to a Super Bowl and another NFC Championship Game. Also, Trey Lance is the less experienced quarterback from the class because he was starter for only one season in North Dakota State. The 2020 FCS season was postponed because of covid, and NDSU played only one game before Lance declared for the draft. He started two games in his rookie season for the 49ers, so Lance has started three football games in the last two years. And the 49ers have lost their two top offensive assistants, Mike McDaniel and Mike LaFleur, in the last two years. But there are also good factors — and the best one is to play under head coach Kyle Shanahan, known for his extreme ability to improve the level of play from mediocre quarterbacks.
San Francisco invested so heavily in Lance, using three first-round picks to select him, because he allows Kyle Shanahan to significantly expand the offense. Last season, even if it was a small sample size, the rookie had 3.1 more air yards per attempt, 9.4 percentual points more deep attempts percentage and 9.1 percentual points more deep completion percentage than Jimmy Garoppolo. But he was also much less consistent and efficient: 11.4 percentual points worse in total completion percentage, while holding the ball half a second more per play.
"Ultimately, Lance just needs to be a little better than Garoppolo last season and that shouldn't be too much to ask of him since he brings a new element to the offense with his arm and his mobility. The only way for him to truly mess up is if he tosses interceptions left and right," wrote Jose Luis Sanchez III, from Sports Illustrated.
It's natural that Trey Lance will feel some effects from the time that has passed since he started a full season. The season might be full of ups and downs, but Lance has to be capable of maximizing what the 49ers offense can do and, at the same time, preserving at least a little bit of Garoppolo's efficiency.
What a successful season will look like: Expand 49ers' offense while being reasonably efficient.
PFF grade: 64.2
Passer rating: 73.2
Fields is the most recent try by the Chicago Bears to interrupt a period of six decades without a consistently good quarterback. And his first season brought some hope, but many questions as well. In general, his play by play level was not very good — he has the worst QBR among rookies, the second-worst percentage of negatively graded plays by PFF and the highest average of time to throw. However, when playing in rhythm, Fields had the fourth big-time throw rate and second lowest turnover-worthy play rate in the entire league. That's why the Chicago Bears fired head coach Matt Nagy and hired offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, a former Green Bay Packers quarterbacks coach and pass game coordinator.
The expectation for Getsy is to carry to Chicago the concepts of the most successful offensive scheme in the last five years in football, and one that fits well with what Fields offers as a player — passes on the move and big-play potential. The bad news is the NFL is now fully prepared to defend that, and the two-high concepts have permeated the league in the last two seasons. Efficiency is now a must, and Fields needs to be more consistent, and not only a flashy quarterback.
"Last season, he flashed his star potential in games against the San Francisco 49ers and Pittsburgh Steelers. Putting Fields into Getsy's quarterback-friendly, wide-zone scheme should allow the second-year quarterback to thrive doing what he does best. If the Bears let Justin Fields be Justin Fields this fall, chances are they will exit the season with the belief they have their long-term guy under center," wrote Josh Schrock, a Bears Insider for NBC Sports.
And Justin Fields will face personnel challenges. The Bears are clearly rebuilding under first-year GM Ryan Poles, and the wide receiver core is one of the worst in the league — the starting trio might be Darnell Mooney, Byron Pringle and the winner of a contest between Equanimeous St. Brown, N'Keal Harry, David Moore, Dante Pettis, and rookie Velus Jones Jr. Also, the offensive line is a big question mark — two potential starters were added in late July, with tackle Riley Reiff and guard Michael Schofield. If the Bears offense is able to succeed under those conditions, there's a real chance Getsy gets a head coaching opportunity, and Chicago would need to find another offensive playcaller a year from now.
These factors are real challenges for Justin Fields. But he had the second-highest PFF grade, highest number of positively graded throws and highest big-time throw rate among rookies in 2021, but also the second highest number of negatively graded throws, second worst EPA/play and worst sack rate. He needs to avoid mistakes, while keeping the big plays alive, to be what the Bears hope.
What a successful season will look like: Improve significantly as a down-to-down player.
PFF grade: 78.9
Passer rating: 92.5
Jones was undoubtedly the best rookie last season: All-Rookie Team, Pro Bowler, highest PFF grade, highest passer rating and highest QBR. But everybody expected Jones would be good immediately if compared to his counterparts, because he was extremely polished coming out of Alabama. The main question for the New England Patriots' quarterback never was if he was going to be good, but if he had what it takes to be great. According to head coach Bill Belichick, who mentioned a "dramatic improvement" since last year, the answer is positive.
"Everyone recognizes how well he prepares and how much further along he [is] than a year ago," said Belichick.
"With middling arm strength, Jones wins by operating with a quick internal clock and supreme accuracy, delivering throws on time and putting the ball in places only his receiver can come down with them. Those traits translated to the NFL right away, but Jones didn’t lean too heavily on checkdowns. His 8.0 air yards per attempt ranked 12th in the NFL. He is very willing to push the ball downfield," wrote The Athletic's Nate Tice.
While amazing in success rate, time to throw and ability to avoid turnovers, Jones was well below average in scramble rate, average depth of target and percentage of throws behind the line of scrimmage. In other words, Mac Jones is an inexpensive version of what the 49ers had in Jimmy Garoppolo. But the Patriots, who also drafted Garoppolo himself, believe that Jones has a higher ceiling. He has to be able to generate more explosive plays to prove them right. And one of the points to make it happen is trying to be leaner and more athletic.
"I think it's important to assess everything and that was one of the things I want to improve. I made significant strides," Jones said. "Fixing my body, feeling comfortable, feeling healthier and better. At the end of the day, you're still a human and you want to eat what you want to eat, but you have to be disciplined the best you can."
What a successful season will look like: Show that his ceiling is higher than universally thought.
PFF grade: 58.5
Passer rating: 88.8
Mills is the only of the projected second-year starters who wasn't a first-round pick. In fact, besides the five first-rounders, Kyle Trask and Kellen Mond were also drafted before Houston traded up to get the Stanford prospect. The Texans lived under fire in 2021, with Deshaun Watson still on the roster but inactive for every game, the only season under head coach David Culley and a decimated roster full one veterans with one-year contracts. Considering all factors, and the low expectations, it's fair to say that Davis Mills was relatively good.
The situation hasn't changed that much for 2022, but Lovie Smith is now the head coach, Watson is a Cleveland Brown and the Texans extended wide receiver Brandin Cooks. And those points are enough to put some pressure on Mills for the season. That's his year to prove he can be an effective NFL starter, even if the bar in Houston isn't that high after parting ways with Watson.
Last season, Davis Mills was the worst among rookies in PFF grade, positively graded plays and average depth of target.
"Mills did show real star potential with his 300-yard passing performances last season. He however, also showed bust potential in a number of other games, specifically the Buffalo game. That sort of fluctuation, while typical for a rookie quarterback, is one of the reasons Houston could move off of Mills if there isn’t improvement," wrote Jacob Burns, from FanSided.
The hope from the Texans is because Mills developed as the season went on in 2021. If you compare his last five games to the first eight ones, the third-rounder improved dramatically in yards per game (251 to 175), completion percentage (68 to 61), TD:INT ratio (9:2 to 7:8), passer rating (102.4 to 65.6) and yards per attempt (7.36 to 5.29). If Davis Mills is able to keep the growing curve, the Texans might have found their quarterback after all.
What a successful season will look like: Establish himself as an NFL starter.
Can't wait to see what these second year quarterbacks bring to their respective teams this upcoming 2022-23 season!