Comparing Zach Wilson and Trevor Lawrence’s early NFL careers
Just over one year after the New York Jets defeated the Los Angeles Rams to cede control of Trevor Lawrence to the Jacksonville Jaguars, they will face Lawrence for the first time, led by their consolation prize, second overall pick Zach Wilson.
Lawrence and Wilson have each had surprisingly woeful starts to their NFL careers. Who has been the more impressive rookie? Let’s compare them in a few different statistical areas.
Box score production
All ranks in this breakdown are out of 32 qualifiers
- Lawrence: 69.3 passer rating (31st), 5.8 yards per attempt (31st), 9 passing touchdowns, 14 interceptions, 0.64 touchdown-interception ratio (31st)
- Wilson: 66.4 passer rating (32nd), 6.2 yards per attempt (30th), 6 passing touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 0.55 touchdown-interception ratio (32nd)
What is there to be said? In terms of their standard box score production, Lawrence and Wilson have been the two worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL this year, period.
Neither one has been definitively worse than the other – Wilson has the edge in yardage production while Lawrence’s touchdown-interception ratio is a tad better – but both have posted brutal numbers.
- Lawrence: 57.9 PFF grade (31st), 31.7 QBR (29th), -22.2% DVOA (29th)
- Wilson: 58.0 PFF grade (30th), 22.5 QBR (32nd), -33.8% DVOA (32nd)
Pro Football Focus’ overall grade, ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating (QBR), and Football Outsiders’ defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) are three advanced analytical metrics that do a better job of evaluating a quarterback’s true performance level than his standard box score stats. They account for numerous factors to contextualize the data and tell a more accurate story.
Lawrence and Wilson have essentially the same PFF grade, with Wilson taking a microscopic edge. However, Lawrence has him beat fairly decently in QBR and DVOA, ranking 29th in both categories while Wilson sits in the basement of each.
- Lawrence: -6.7% CPOE (31st), 71.1% adjusted completion percentage (30th)
- Wilson: -9.1% CPOE (32nd), 68.8% adjusted completion percentage (31st)
Both rookies are brutally inaccurate, but once again, Lawrence is slightly less atrocious.
When it comes to completion percentage over expected (CPOE), Lawrence and Wilson rank 31st and 32nd, respectively. Lawrence has completed 6.7% fewer passes than he would be expected to given the difficulty of his throws. Wilson’s rate is an ugly minus-9.1%.
Adjusting for drops, throwaways, spikes, and batted passes, Lawrence has been on-target on 71.1% of his throws, ranking 30th. Wilson is a few ticks behind at 68.8%, placing 31st, beating out only fellow rookie Justin Fields (66.9%).
Big play production
- Lawrence: 10.1 yards per completion (29th), 33.3% adjusted completion percentage on deep passes (28th)
- Wilson: 11.0 yards per completion (15th), 44.7% adjusted completion percentage on deep passes (12th)
Wilson has been the more explosive quarterback. He ranks 14 spots higher when it comes to the average yardage yielded by his completions and places 16 spots higher when it comes to accuracy on deep passes.
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Under pressure passing
- Lawrence: 38.3 PFF grade (28th), 38.5 passer rating (32nd)
- Wilson: 33.3 PFF grade (30th), 43.7 passer rating (31st)
As is typical of rookie quarterbacks, both Lawrence and Wilson have been abysmal when pressured.
Clean pocket passing
- Lawrence: 68.8 PFF grade (30th), 82.4 passer rating (31st)
- Wilson: 71.5 PFF grade (27th), 76.3 passer rating (32nd)
Neither quarterback is taking advantage of clean pockets nearly as much as most other quarterbacks do.
Lawrence began trending upward early in his rookie season but has been on a steep decline since.
Over his first three games, Lawrence threw five touchdowns to seven interceptions and had a 60.3 passer rating.
Lawrence then had a three-game hot streak entering Jacksonville’s Week 7 bye. From Weeks 4-6, Lawrence posted a passer rating over 90 in three consecutive games, compiling four total touchdowns to two turnovers while throwing for 8.1 yards per attempt and earning a cumulative passer rating of 93.8.
It’s all been downhill for Lawrence since he came out of the bye. Over his past eight games, Lawrence has thrown only two touchdowns compared to seven turnovers. He is averaging a horrendous 5.1 yards per attempt with a passer rating of 64.6.
Wilson comes into this week’s game on a slightly more positive trend.
Since returning from injury in Week 12, Wilson has looked a little bit better than he did to begin the year. He has collected five total touchdowns compared to three turnovers over four starts since returning from injury. Prior to his injury, Wilson was struggling tremendously, posting four touchdowns and nine turnovers in six starts.
However, Wilson is still only averaging 5.9 yards per attempt over his past four starts, which is actually a decline from the 6.5 yards per attempt he averaged over his first six.
To add some context to everything we have seen so far, here is a look at the quality of the teams around each rookie.
- Jaguars: 68.2 PFF pass blocking grade (13th), 63.2 PFF receiving grade (32nd), 103.0 rushing yards per game (22nd), 32nd in average starting field position
- Jets: 64.4 PFF pass blocking grade (19th), 65.8 PFF receiving grade (30th), 85.4 rushing yards per game (30th), 28th in average starting field position
Lawrence and Wilson have received very similar support this year. Both have gotten decent pass protection but awful pass-catching, awful field position, and a lackluster run game (although Jacksonville’s run game has been significantly better than New York’s).
Poor receiving has been the primary area where both teams have failed their rookies. Wilson has had a league-high 11.7% of his passes dropped. Lawrence has the fourth-highest rate at 9.3%.
The pass protection in front of the two rookies has been surprisingly fine. Jacksonville’s offense has PFF’s 13th-best pass blocking grade while New York ranks 19th (these grades account for the pass blocking of all offensive players, not just offensive linemen).
Looking specifically at offensive linemen and the number of pressures they have been credited with, the Jaguars’ offensive line ranks 11th in PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency (per-snap pressure rate allowed with double weight to sacks) while the Jets rank 21st.
Both quarterbacks have been the victims of terrible defensive play by their respective teams, rarely benefiting from favorable field position. Jacksonville’s average offensive drive has started at its own 25.6-yard line, the worst mark in the league. New York ranks 28th with its average offensive drive beginning at its own 27.1-yard line.
Coaching is difficult to quantify but is also worth taking into account here.
Lawrence played each of his first 13 games under Urban Meyer, who by all accounts was an objectively dreadful coach that hindered Lawrence’s development.
Wilson has played under offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, who has received mostly positive reviews for his coaching this year. Zach has also had his personal quarterbacks coach, John Beck, as a part of the Jets’ coaching staff over his last four starts.
Altogether, both quarterbacks have not been supported very well, but neither has been supported terribly. They each have some things going for them.
Lawrence has above-average pass protection and a James Robinson-led run game that ranks sixth in yards per carry (4.6). Wilson has slightly-below-average pass protection (much better than the egregious units that his predecessor, Sam Darnold, dealt with as a rookie) and the help of an offensive coordinator in Mike LaFleur who is having a solid debut season.
Who’s been better?
It is impossible to definitively choose a better quarterback between Lawrence and Wilson. Their numbers are so close across the board.
All that is clear is this: they have both stunk it up and need to do a lot of growing before they can even sniff the respective sky-high ceilings that made them the first two picks in the 2021 NFL draft.