Ranking Rookie QB Expectations for the 2021 Season
Coming off a season in which Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert surpassed expectations without the benefit of preseason games, the bar sits higher than normal for incoming rookie quarterbacks.
This year's draft class featured passers selected with each of the first three picks, plus five total in the opening round. Of those quarterbacks, at least two will be immediate starters, two more could join that status considering their team made huge sacrifices to trade up for them and the fifth has a longer shot at playing, though it isn't an impossibility, either.
Each quarterback faces unique expectations based on his situation. Only one was viewed as a possible generational passer, while two are competing with established veterans and have different expected debut dates based on the approach of their respective teams.
Here's a look at the most notable rookie passers in 2021, ranked by the level of productivity fans should expect from them right away.
5. Mac Jones, QB, New England Patriots
Alabama's Mac Jones landed in one of those predictable spots, falling to 15th overall with the New England Patriots.
Predictable, because Jones was a distant fifth in terms of projectable upside in this year's class, which seemed to make him destined to land with a team that needed a long-term insurance policy.
Those Patriots spent big money this offseason to retool the offense around returning starter Cam Newton, hoping to get more than the eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions over 368 attempts Newton totaled last year. And so far, Jones has been as-advertised in practices.
"He's a young guy, but you can't really just refer to him as a young guy. You can tell he's been at a place where's got some coaching," Patriots offensive tackle Trent Brown said, according to ESPN's Mike Reiss. "He's going to be special here in the future."
Key words: "in the future." The Patriots are going to roll with the former MVP while the rookie learns, though if the former struggles by the midseason point, fans could see the passer who completed 74.3 percent of his attempts with 56 touchdowns and seven interceptions over three collegiate seasons. But for now, Jones remains perhaps the only guaranteed backup on the list.
4. Trey Lance, QB, San Francisco 49ers
Despite coughing up a huge asset haul to move up from No. 12 to No. 3 to select Trey Lance, the San Francisco 49ers might be the only other team on the list comfortable with letting a rookie sit out Year 1.
Thank veteran passer Jimmy Garoppolo, who in his one season (2019) with more than six appearances for the 49ers, took the team to the Super Bowl while completing 69.1 percent of his passes with 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
The 49ers' decision to take an early-round rookie wasn't a shocker because Garoppolo just hasn't been able to stay healthy over four seasons with the team, but the allure of the win-now upside remains. That's one reason 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel is fine with taking things so slow with Lance, according to NBC Sports' Matt Maiocco.
"You try not to get too far ahead of yourself," McDaniel said. "Of course, it tempts your mind a little bit, but really you have to get back to the basics. And with a guy like Trey, you're just teaching him the offense and coaching him on fundamentals and seeing where he can get—preparing him to compete in training camp."
Lance brings a different element to the offense with his athleticism, but he's also making the jump from the Football Championship Subdivision with North Dakota State. So far, there hasn't been anything to suggest he will make an appearance unless the veteran in front of him misses time again.
3. Justin Fields, QB, Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears front office likely gave fans massive expectations by making a desperate leap up the board to finally fix the quarterback situation after debacles with Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles.
Fields, the No. 11 pick out of Ohio State, was electric over a small sample size during his two Big Ten seasons, completing 68.4 percent of his passes with 63 touchdowns and nine interceptions, plus 15 scores as a rusher.
But Bears head coach Matt Nagy remains insistent Dalton is the starter in 2021. The veteran has 144 games of starting experience and multiple playoff berths, so the plodding nature of the quarterback competition makes sense.
For his career, Dalton isn't much more statistically impressive than Foles, so things going off the rails early in the season could lead to Fields taking over. Given his upside, the presence of weapons like Allen Robinson and his seasoning on the Big Ten stage, it could work out great for everyone despite the heightened expectations.
2. Zach Wilson, QB, New York Jets
Zach Wilson never had a fair shot at coming off the board first overall in 2021, yet expectations for him shouldn't be far behind No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence.
Wilson, after all, was a dynamite college player, completing 67.6 percent of his 837 attempts with 56 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, plus 15 more scores as a rusher over three seasons at BYU. He's the prototypical modern NFL passer thanks to his ability to improvise outside of the pocket, whether it's with a rush or creative passes.
Part of the hype is the surroundings, too. Wilson doesn't have any competition for the starting gig, so unlike the last three quarterbacks mentioned, he won't have another guy taking his snaps in the first-team offense.
The Jets also went all-in on surrounding the quarterback with proper talent, too. First-rounder Alijah Vera-Tucker joins another first-rounder, Mekhi Becton, on the line. Free-agent prize Corey Davis joins second-round products Denzel Mims and Elijah Moore at wideout.
It almost feels like a Joe Burrow situation from last year—maybe the expectation isn't that the Jets will win a ton of games, but it should be fun to watch Wilson learn on the fly while hinting at something much greater in future years.
1. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Trevor Lawrence was the hinted generational-type player in the intro—and for good reason. He and Burrow would have been in a dead heat for the No. 1 pick had they been in the same class.
Instead, Lawrence landed No. 1 this year with the rebuilding Jacksonville Jaguars led by Urban Meyer. Unrealistic as it might be, the expectation is likely play equal to or better than Burrow or Herbert last year while the Jaguars blow past the one-win mark from a year ago.
Given Lawrence's talent—never mind the 10,098 yards and 90 touchdowns with 17 picks over 1,138 attempts in three years at Clemson—maybe it isn't so unreasonable after all. He'll have a fun cast of weapons thanks to wideouts D.J. Chark, Laviska Shenault Jr. and Marvin Jones, plus first-round running back Travis Etienne.
Outside of the supporting cast on one of the league's bigger rebuilds, the question is about health. Lawrence had labrum surgery on his non-throwing shoulder early this year and wasn't going full speed in mid-June due to a hamstring setback (though the team said he could start a game that week if necessary).
This was always Lawrence's predetermined expectations spot, though. Few quarterbacks arrive alongside the belief they will uplift whatever roster they join—immediately—but he is one of those.