Trevor Lawrence to Trey Lance: Grading the 2021 quarterback class so far

Former NFL scout Bucky Brooks checks in on the quarterback class of 2021, grading the five first-round picks on their performances so far. 

Originally found on Fox Sports: Feedzy 

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National Football League

Oct. 26, 2023 6:12 p.m. ET

It takes three years for NFL executives, scouts and coaches to determine whether a young player can play at a high level in the league. In theory, three full seasons of NFL practices and games give a player plenty of chances to show his potential while also developing under the watchful eyes of some of the best teachers in the game.

For quarterbacks, it typically takes about 30 career starts to know exactly what you have in a QB1. The significant game reps enable the quarterback to showcase his talents and adjust to opponents tweaking their game plans to neutralize the young player’s strengths as a passer-playmaker. Moreover, the time allows the front office and coaches to surround the quarterback with a stellar supporting cast and implement a system that elevates his game.

Reflecting on the 2021 QB class, we have reached the point where we can make strong assessments on whether quarterbacks within this collection have lived up to the hype that preceded their arrival. Most importantly, it is time to determine if the QB1s remaining in the class deserve a lucrative payday that will grant them entrance into the “$50 Million Club” that features Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson and Jalen Hurts behind the velvet ropes.

Considering that club inclusion requires a Super Bowl appearance and/or an MVP award or Offensive Player of the Year consideration, the standard has been established for a class of quarterbacks who are eligible for fifth-year options and blockbuster contract extensions.

Let’s take a close look at the QB class of 2021.

Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars, No. 1 overall pick

The “can’t-miss” prospect has lived up to the hype accompanying his game since his emergence as a five-star prospect in high school. Despite stepping into a dysfunctional franchise, Lawrence has developed into a top-10 quarterback since pairing up with Doug Pederson.

The one-time Super Bowl winner and established quarterback-whisperer has unlocked Lawrence’s game while transforming Jacksonville into a playoff contender. Lawrence has become a more efficient and effective player as the Jaguars have tweaked the scheme to suit his talents and surrounded him with a veteran collection of pass-catchers with high football IQs and interchangeable games.

With a group of dependable pass-catchers in place, Lawrence has been more willing to throw the ball to spots knowing his receivers will get into the open windows. The third-year pro has improved his completion rate, passer rating and touchdown-to-interception ratio in each of the past two years while flashing big-play ability in clutch moments.

Given the difficulty in finding a quarterback with the capacity to play winning football as a game manager or playmaker, the Jaguars must give Lawrence a ticket to the “$50 Million Club” before the price increases in 2024.

Grade: B+

Justin Fields, Chicago Bears, No. 11 overall pick

It has been quite the roller-coaster ride for Fields in the Windy City. The Ohio State product spent his first season playing for a coach (Matt Nagy) who did not appear to have a plan for his game as a dual threat. In addition, the Bears played a veteran (Andy Dalton) with limited upside before giving the ball to Fields in Week 3.

Although injuries cut his rookie season short, Fields flashed enough natural talent, athleticism and playmaking ability to earn the QB1 spot in 2022, with solid results. He notched a 1,000-yard season as a runner and displayed big-play potential with the ball tucked under his arm on designed runs and impromptu scrambles.

While Fields’ rushing numbers have been impressive, the third-year pro still struggles with accuracy, timing and ball security. He has been a turnover machine at the position, as evidenced by his 33 fumbles (nine lost). In addition, he has taken 115 sacks due to his hesitancy and indecisiveness within the pocket.

Whether it is Fields’ lack of awareness or a poorly constructed scheme that has led to his woes, the inconsistent performance and production have led to questions regarding his long-term future at the position. Given undrafted free agent Tyson Bagent‘s impressive play as a first-time starter, the Bears might pause before extending their relationship with their up-and-down QB1. 

Grade: C+

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Mac Jones, New England Patriots, No. 15 overall pick

It is hard to replace a legend, particularly when he is a six-time Super Bowl winner for New England and viewed as the G.O.A.T. Jones stepped in admirably as a rookie in 2021, earning Pro Bowl honors while guiding the Patriots to a playoff berth.

His inconsistent play in 2022 and 2023, however, has overshadowed the promising start. Jones’ ineffective play under a defensive coordinator-turned-offensive playcaller (Matt Patricia) and a veteran offensive architect (Bill O’Brien) has led to concerns about his upside as the long-term QB1 in New England.

Although Jones has not been surrounded by a stellar supporting cast on the perimeter, the third-year pro’s regression has spotlighted Bill Belichick and his inability to win without Tom Brady. The legendary coach with a reputation for building schemes around his players’ strengths has been unable to elevate his young quarterback’s game. And the offensive stagnation could prompt team owner Robert Kraft to make significant moves at the end of the season.

With Belichick quietly signing a contract extension before the 2023 season, Jones is playing for his job down the stretch.

If Jones continues to struggle with turnovers (31 interceptions) and poor decisions while guiding an offense that lacks pop, the Patriots could move on from the young quarterback in favor of a more talented prospect in the 2024 draft. 

Grade: C

Zach Wilson, New York Jets, No. 2 overall pick 

The team’s decision to mortgage the farm to acquire a four-time MVP entering the twilight of his career just two years after selecting their young franchise quarterback tells you everything you need to know about the Wilson experiment.

The BYU product has been a major disappointment as a player and leader, and the team entered the trade market to atone for its draft-day mistake. While some of Wilson’s struggles can be attributed to an inexperienced playcaller and a leaky offensive line, the young quarterback’s lack of accountability and suspect performance forced the Jets to look elsewhere for a QB1 with the leadership skills and game to make the team a viable playoff contender.

Robert Saleh on Aaron Rodgers’ return, Zach Wilson’s growth

Although Aaron Rodgers has helped Wilson become a better player and leader through his mentorship, Wilson must earn the respect of his teammates and coaches by improving his play between the lines. The young gunslinger has started the process with some gritty wins since taking over as the starter, but his teammates will not view him as a legitimate QB1 until he can put the team on his back in a critical moment.

Given Rodgers’ expected return in 2024, Wilson needs to make a statement down the stretch to buy some more time as the Jets’ quarterback of the future. 

Grade: D

Trey Lance, Dallas Cowboys, No. 3 overall pick

Despite paying a stiff price to acquire Lance as the quarterback of the future, the San Francisco 49ers did not mind trading him to Dallas following Brock Purdy‘s emergence as the QB1.

Kyle Shanahan & Co. were ready to move on after watching Lance’s hesitant play from the pocket derail an offense loaded with elite talent on the perimeter. Lance’s indecisiveness, scattershot accuracy and lack of timing or rhythm make it hard to build an effective passing game around his talents. In addition, his injury history makes it challenging to build a game plan around a player who is routinely unavailable.

Though it is not Lance’s fault that injuries have limited his NFL career to just four starts, the questions about his durability will overshadow his potential until he shows the football world that he can play an extended stretch of games without incident. With those concerns added to a list of questions regarding his readiness as a potential NFL starter, Lance has a lot to prove to stay in the league as a quarterback prospect. 

Grade: F

Bucky Brooks is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He also breaks down the game for NFL Network and as a cohost of the “Moving the Sticks” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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