The second year is crucial for first-round QBs as they shake off the rookie rust
Suffice it to say that the rookie seasons of the 2021 first-round quarterbacks did not remind anyone of the 1983 class.
The 2021 class drew rave reviews coming out of college but disappointed as rookies.
The first two picks, Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson, combined for only six wins and 21 touchdowns compared to 24 losses and 28 interceptions. Each quarterback has a lot to prove as they head into their second year.
While each quarterback is doing their best to improve this offseason, their success is partially dependent on the teams around them. Most teams did everything they could to surround their young quarterbacks with talent. Now, with only two months until the season, the rosters are mostly set.
In this analysis, I rank each quarterback’s situation using Pro Football Focus’s roster, pass-catcher, running back, and offensive line rankings.
5. Justin Fields, Chicago Bears
All rankings via Pro Football Focus
- Overall roster: 30th
- Pass-catchers: 32nd
- Running backs: 16th
- Offensive line: 31st
It’s a good thing that Fields is a dynamic runner since he will carry the heaviest load of all the second-year QBs. PFF ranked the Bears roster at 30th in overall roster strength. After finishing 6-11, Chicago didn’t make any significant additions to the roster, especially on offense.
Most concerningly for Fields, PFF ranked the Bears’ pass-catchers last in the NFL, with only one proven wide receiver in Darnell Mooney. Mooney has developed into one of the better deep threats in the NFL since being drafted in the fifth round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Allen Robinson had been the top wide receiver since signing in 2016 but left for the Rams in free agency.
There is some potential, with third-year tight-end Cole Kmet coming off an impressive second season. The Bears are betting on him and Mooney to develop into legitimate top options, as they added only depth in free agency.
Behind Mooney, the Bears’ other wide receivers are Byron Pringle, Equanimeous St. Brown, and third-round pick Velus Jones Jr. They all have elite speed, but none are proven.
The strongest part of the offensive roster is running back, earning PFF’s No. 16 slot. David Montgomery has developed into one of the better pure rushers in the NFL over his three seasons. Behind him is Khalil Herbert, who flashed as a rookie in a limited role in 2021. Together they offer a solid 1-2 punch that can continue to improve. Unfortunately for them, they won’t have many open lanes to run through.
The Bears’ offensive line is among the worst in the NFL, ranking 31st at PFF. The Bears lost their two best linemen from 2021 in tackle Jason Peters and guard James Daniels. While they drafted tackles Teven Jenkins and Larry Borom in the 2021 NFL Draft, both struggled as rookies. The interior has even fewer reasons for optimism.
This hurts Fields in multiple ways. An unreliable run game puts more pressure on him to keep the chains moving. More directly, Fields will be feeling pressure quickly and frequently unless something changes before Week 1.
The Bears may be passing often, as their defense lost star players Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks this offseason. The secondary has the potential to elevate the unit after the team drafted two defensive backs in the second round this year, but they still have a lot to prove.
Off the field, Bears fans were happy to say goodbye to head coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace. They were not happy when the team hired a defensive-minded head coach in Matt Eberflus and didn’t do enough to support Fields. The pressure is on offensive coordinator Luke Getsy to support Fields as he heads into his crucial second year.
4. Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars
- Overall roster: 28th
- Pass-catchers: 28th
- Running backs: 25th
- Offensive line: 26th
Lawrence had the highest expectations of any quarterback since Andrew Luck, and he fell well short of them in Year 1. With a terrible roster and one of the worst coaching situations seen in the past decade, there wasn’t much he could have truly done. While he’s fourth on this list, he is still in a significantly better situation than he was a year ago.
The Jaguars roster ranks near the bottom of the NFL at 28th in PFF’s rankings. The defense has potential after Jacksonville invested heavily in it over the last few years. A good defense will make Lawrence’s life significantly easier, but the talent around him still leaves a lot to be desired.
At pass-catcher, the Jaguars rank 28th at PFF, with the recently overpaid Christian Kirk leading the way despite never clearing 1,000 receiving yards. The next best options are receivers Zay Jones and Marvin Jones, as well as tight end Evan Engram.
The Jaguars running backs rank 25th on PFF’s list. Travis Etienne and James Robinson offer upside but are both coming back from major injuries. Robinson tore his Achilles in late December, which makes his recovery even more difficult. Etienne, on the other hand, missed the entire season with a Lisfranc injury, which impacts ankle mobility and the ability to walk, which he suffered in the preseason.
The offensive line isn’t in much better shape, either. The Jaguars spent big signing guard Brandon Scherff and extending tackle Cam Robinson, but that won’t be enough to save this unit. Outside of Scherff, who has major injury concerns, no other lineman had above a 68 overall PFF grade. Robinson, Taylor, and Bartch are all young and can improve to become at least a serviceable offensive line.
Any improvement would be amplified by Lawrence, who was terrific at avoiding pressure as a rookie. He took a sack on only 14% of his pressured dropbacks, which ranked 6th among 32 quarterbacks.
The most significant impact will likely be off the field, however. The Urban Meyer scandal has only continued to get worse since his firing. Bringing in a Super Bowl-winning head coach in Doug Pederson is a massive improvement and will help Lawrence reclaim his potential. While the team around him isn’t the greatest, it’s a much better environment than last year.
3. Zach Wilson, New York Jets
- Overall roster: 24th
- Pass-catchers: 18th
- Running backs: 24th
- Offensive line: 13th
After a brutal rookie year, general manager Joe Douglas has done everything he can to support Wilson in Year 2. After completely revamping the roster over the last three years, the only thing left is to develop the players they’ve drafted.
Wide receiver is one of the strongest units on the roster. The Jets have invested heavily in the wide receiver position, drafting three receivers in the first two rounds since 2020 as well as signing veteran Corey Davis.
Elijah Moore is set to build on an impressive rookie year which put him in elite company. Behind him is the 10th overall pick, Garrett Wilson, who is hoping to emulate the remarkable rookie seasons that we’ve seen last three years.
PFF has the Jets’ running back room ranked 24th, but even they admit that the ranking could end up being far too low. Michael Carter is coming off an impressive rookie season in which he had the third-highest broken-tackle rate in the NFL.
The Jets added on to Carter by selecting the consensus top running back in the draft, Breece Hall. Hall had a dominant college career, setting an NCAA record for most consecutive games with a touchdown (24). He raised his stock with an impressive Combine, which earned him the fourth highest relative athletic score among all running backs since 2004 (9.96).
New York’s offensive line has the potential to be the best unit on the team and one of the best in the NFL. The Jets added Pro Bowl guard Laken Tomlinson while returning former 11th overall pick Mekhi Becton from injury. With a good mix of veterans, talent, and depth, I believe this will be a top 10 unit in 2022. PFF has this unit at No. 13.
The Jets’ defense is a mixed bag that can either elevate the team or hold them back like in 2021. The team heavily invested in their defensive line and cornerback room but have major questions at linebacker and safety. The question is if this unit will be defined by its strengths or weaknesses.
On the sideline, the coaching situation is much improved as head coach Robert Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur have gained a year of experience. The inexperience limited the team in the first half of the season but showed signs of life in the final eight weeks. Hopefully, with a year of experience, the Jets can avoid another slow start.
2. Mac Jones, New England Patriots
- Overall roster: 18th
- Pass-catchers: 20th
- Running backs: 15th
- Offensive line: 7th
Mac Jones is first among second-year quarterbacks that are expected to be starting Week 1, but that can change at any time. Jones had a very impressive rookie season and started as one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL. After cooling down in the second half, the Patriots have made some improvements to his already good situation.
The Patriots’ receiving room ranks 20th in the NFL on PFF’s list, as it has several quality depth pieces but no true star. While none of the players are elite receivers, all are quality starters who will give Jones options.
Jakobi Meyers and Kendrick Bourne were the top targets in 2021 and had career years in expanded roles. They are joined by former Miami Dolphin DeVante Parker and second-round pick Tyquan Thornton. Tight end is a major strength, as Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith form one of the best duos in the NFL.
The Patriots have continued to have a good running back room. Damien Harris had a career year in 2021. Behind him is second-year running back Rhamondre Stevenson, who flashed as a rookie with two 100-yard games. The Patriots also brought back veteran receiving back James White, who can be counted on in a pinch.
The offensive line continues to be a strength, ranking seventh in the NFL at PFF. The interior is among the best in the NFL, joining surprise first-round pick Cole Strange with center David Andrews and guard Michael Onwenu. Tackle has some injury concerns but a high ceiling with Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown.
Defensively, the Patriots lost several key players over the last several years but have succeeded in elevating low-cost players and later draft picks. Defensive tackle Christian Barmore and linebackers Matthew Judon and Kyle Dugger give the Patriots a strong front seven.
Off the field is arguably the biggest question mark. Head coach Bill Belichick is one of the greatest coaches of all time but is a primarily defensive coach. Meanwhile, the Patriots lost long-time offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and have failed to replace him. With failed head coaches Matt Patricia and Joe Judge the primary candidates to call plays, there is some concern that Jones could take a step back in Year 2.
1. Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers
- Overall roster: 13th
- Pass-catchers: 6th
- Running backs: 27th
- Offensive line: 14th
Trey Lance is in by the far the best situation among all second-year quarterbacks, as the 49ers are widely viewed as a Super Bowl-caliber roster. The only question that needs to be answered on offense is whether Lance will be the starting quarterback in Week 1.
The 49ers have the best receiving corps of any team in this article, landing at No. 6. Deebo Samuel is coming off a career year in which he dominated both as a receiver and rusher. Samuel expressed discontent with the coaching staff and requested a trade, but nothing appears imminent.
Behind Samuel, the 49ers also boast one of the best tight ends in the NFL in George Kittle. The only thing stopping this dynamic duo is injuries, as they’ve missed a combined 21 games over the last two years. Wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk and rookie Danny Gray round out the versatile group. Few teams offer such a quarterback-friendly set of weapons to make Lance’s life easier.
Running back is technically a weakness, ranking 27th in PFF’s preseason rankings. However, any fan will tell you that the 49ers’ rushing attack has been among the best in the NFL for the last several years. Kyle Shanahan’s scheme emphasizes speed and a good offensive line rather than a talented halfback. While an unreliable outlet on third down could be problematic, the benefit on early downs will ease those concerns.
The 49ers’ offensive line has fallen off from its peak as one of the best in the league in 2021. However, it still features an elite tackle duo. Trent Williams has been dominant in San Francisco and took it to the next level with a 97.8 PFF grade in 2021. On the other side returns Mike McGlinchey, who has been one of the better tackles in the NFL.
Unfortunately, the interior has taken major hits losing guard Laken Tomlinson to the Jets in free agency and center Alex Mack to retirement. While there is some optimism that their replacements can develop, it’s still a significant drop-off. Interior pressure has been shown to significantly impact quarterback play, so that could be an issue for the 49ers despite their strength at the tackle spots.
Defensively, the 49ers have two of the best players at their respective positions in defensive end Nick Bosa and linebacker Fred Warner. The 49ers’ defensive line is among the best in the NFL and will continue to improve as their players develop. While the secondary has concerns, they are helped by the performance of the linebacker corps. Overall, the 49ers have one of the better defenses in the NFL.
Off the field, the 49ers also have one of the best offensive minds in the NFL in Kyle Shanahan. After elevating Matt Ryan to an MVP level, Shanahan has consistently elevated the 49ers’ offense regardless of injuries or quarterback. If Lance does start in 2022, he will have one of the best situations among any quarterback and far better than the rest of the 2021 quarterback class.
Quarterback is one of the most difficult positions to evaluate in the NFL. Coaching, play calling, competition, and the quality of the roster are factors that they have little to no control in but impact their play.
Would Josh Allen or Lamar Jackson be the same players they are today if they were drafted to the Jets in 2018? On the same note, would Sam Darnold or Josh Rosen have succeeded if they went to different teams?
We will never have these answers to these questions. Instead, we must include the quarterback’s situation and account for it when reviewing their early seasons.
Next Article: What does NY Jets QB Zach Wilson ‘really’ need to do?
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