Quarterback Trevor Lawrence has seemed destined for NFL greatness ever since his first season at Clemson. He won a national championship as a true freshman, compiled a 34-2 record, never lost a regular-season game as a starter and became the clearest can't-miss quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck.
"There's definitely some agreement that he's on Luck's level," one AFC area scout said of Luck before the draft, per NFL Media's Chase Goodbread. "Luck wasn't as successful in college as this guy, but their skills are very comparable."
While Luck's NFL tenure ultimately resulted in repeated injury and a surprising early retirement, he had instant success as a pro. He took the Indianapolis Colts to the playoffs, made the Pro Bowl and passed for 4,374 yards, 23 touchdowns and 18 interceptions as a rookie.
Lawrence is in a situation that parallels the one in which Luck found himself nine years ago. He's joining a bad AFC South team in a division that had two teams above .500 the previous season, with a rookie head coach, and he carries the weight of being the NFL's "next big thing" at quarterback.
However, the freshly-minted Jacksonville Jaguars franchise signal-caller won't have the immediate success that Luck found.
Lawrence is the future in Jacksonville, and that future will begin in Week 1 against the Houston Texans. Lawrence was named the Jaguars' Week 1 starter over Gardner Minshew II after a pair of promising but inconsistent preseason outings—he went 20-of-32 for 184 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions.
"We wanted him to earn it, as we do with every position," head coach Urban Meyer said, per ESPN's Michael DiRocco. "We felt he has, after [Monday] night's performance was—it was good, obviously not great."
Good, not great, is what we'll see a lot of from Lawrence this season. The physical talent is there, and Lawrence's supporting cast—which includes James Robinson, DJ Chark Jr., Laviska Shenault Jr. and Marvin Jones Jr.—is not the league's worst. However, there are some aspects of Lawrence's situation that are going to be very problematic.
While Lawrence's situation is similar to Luck's in 2012, they are not identical. Chuck Pagano was then in his first season as a head coach, but he had more than a decade of NFL coaching experience. Meyer has never coached at the NFL level.
Meyer won three national championships in college, but he has never developed a quarterback in the NFL or managed professionals amid a losing season. His initial approach in Jacksonville may already be wearing thin.
"He's got to change a few things. He brought a bunch of college-like things to the program, which I don't necessarily agree with," CBS Sports' Pete Prisco told The DA Show on Tuesday (beginning at the 3:25 mark). "And I've heard some of the players aren't thrilled with him either."
Luck had the guidance of a brilliant offensive coordinator and interim head coach in Bruce Arians. While Jaguars offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell is experienced, he isn't a two-time AP NFL Coach of the Year, as Arians now is.
Bevell's offense has not looked good in the preseason with Lawrence under center, as The Athletic's Andy Staples recently noted:
"For the second consecutive game, it was painful to watch the first offense the Jaguars put on the field. The tempo was sluggish. No. 1 draft pickstill held the ball too long at times. The protection was faulty. The receivers couldn’t get separation. ... A team that went 1-15 last year and spent two first-round picks to upgrade its offensive explosiveness couldn't generate any explosive plays, and it certainly didn't seem coaches trying to throw regular-season opponents off the scent was the cause."
Lawrence currently lacks chemistry with the rest of Jacksonville's offense, and the loss of the other first-round pick isn't going to help matters.
The Jaguars drafted Lawrence's college teammate and running back/receiver Travis Etienne Jr. 25th overall. However, he suffered a Lisfranc injury in Week 2 of the preseason that ends his inaugural campaign before it even had a chance to start:
It's worth noting that the Jaguars' offensive line has been without starters Andrew Norwell, Cam Robinson and Brandon Linder, which has led to some poor preseason pass protection. That trio made up a line that surrendered 44 sacks in 2020, though, so poor line play is still likely to exacerbate the offensive issues in the regular season.
Those issues, a lack of NFL experience at the top of the coaching staff, and Lawrence's rookie status are going to prevent Lawrence from having the sort of strong career start we've seen recently from rookie quarterbacks like Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson, Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert.
While Jacksonville's underwhelming roster—one that won a single game in 2020—and preseason issues are apparent, Lawrence remains the early favorite for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
However, the Jaguars and the rest of the NFL world should not view this as the bar for the former Tigers star. Jacksonville also shouldn't expect to make a playoff push in 2021.
Lawrence will inevitably make his fair share of rookie mistakes, taking unnecessary sacks, throwing interceptions and making poor decisions. As physically gifted as he is, he is still a rookie learning to adapt to the NFL.
"Everything is moving too fast for him," ESPN's Harry Douglas said on First Take. "...so he's not getting the ball to places that he needs to get it to at the right time."
Unfortunately, the Jaguars lack the elite talent and the head-coaching experience needed to lower Lawrence's learning curve.
Instead of hoping for a playoff run, Jacksonville should be happy to chase a four or five-win improvement this season. Instead of expecting Lawrence to set rookie records and win awards, they should be pleased to see him make steady improvement and get out of the season healthy.
Holding too high of expectations for Lawrence would be a major mistake. The Cincinnati Bengals leaned heavily into Burrow's natural skills last season, allowing him to throw an average of 40 times per game. A subpar roster and poor offensive line play caught up to them, though, as Burrow was sacked 32 times in 10 games and ultimately tore his ACL and MCL in his left knee.
There's nothing wrong with allowing Lawrence to learn on the field, but the Jaguars cannot anticipate him carrying the team as a rookie. While it may be difficult for Lawrence—and Meyer, for that matter—to play a basic brand of football while watching the losses mount, Jacksonville cannot risk its quarterback's future simply because Lawrence is supposed to be great right away.
"Overall, Lawrence is living up to the hype he received as the top high school quarterback in the country and looks like a Week 1 franchise quarterback with the upside to win multiple MVPs and only injuries or an incompetent franchise will put him on a path toward failure," Nate Tice of the B/R Scouting Department wrote.
One could argue that Jacksonville has been an incompetent franchise. It has made one playoff appearance in the last 13 years and watched first-round quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert and Blake Bortles fail. The goal, of course, is to change that perception.
It starts with developing Lawrence for the long-term, keeping his confidence intact and maintaining his health. As great as Luck was early in his career, that career only spanned six active seasons. David Carr and Tim Couch were gifted quarterbacks, too, but had their careers derailed by injuries, losses of composure and losing cultures.
Now that Lawrence is the starter, he must be allowed to develop at his own pace, protected by simple schemes and afforded opportunities to learn from his mistakes.
Lawrence has the potential to be an elite signal-caller in the NFL, possibly an all-time great and a future Hall of Famer. If he's going to reach that potential, though, Jacksonville must temper its expectations for him in 2021.