Friday, August 19, 2022

NFL second-year QBs outlook for 2022: Can Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Trey Lance take the next step?

The 2021 NFL Draft class of quarterbacks was a lot like the month of March — in like a lion and out like a lamb. Not since Andrew Luck in 2012 was a quarterback more anointed as a prospect than Trevor Lawrence. His rookie year was forgettable. Zach Wilson rocketed up draft boards after a dazzling final season at BYU. His debut season with the Jets couldn’t have been much worse. 

The 49ers sold half of San Francisco to move up to No. 3 to pick Trey Lance. He barely played in Year 1. Even Justin Fields, a former No. 2 overall recruit in the nation coming out of high school was bad. And Mac Jones, who quarterbacked one of the most effortless national titles I can remember at Alabama, had a seemingly strong start to his season and flatlined down the stretch.

Let’s look back on the 2021 seasons of each of theseall five three of quarterbacks — and Davis Mills, can’t forget about him — and provide outlooks for their 2022 campaigns.

Check previous installments in this series on outlooks for third-year quarterbacks and fourth-year quarterbacks

Jaguars QB Trevor Lawrence

Supporting cast 

The Jaguars had money, and before it burned a hole in their pockets, they spent. And spent some more. And maxed out the credit card in free agency. Christian Kirk and Zay Jones were the big-ticket items at receiver. Brandon Scherff the justifiably expensive blocker. 

Jacksonville’s defense will be better. Can’t get much worse than being 31st in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA, anyway. Feels irrelevant to Lawrence, but a defense putting a young quarterback in 17-0 holes in the first half is an overlooked part of the recipe for disaster for quarterback development. 

Now, this is still not an upper-echelon roster in Jacksonville. It’s better, but still a lower-half-of-the-league compilation of players. In the end, it’s a good enough group that Lawrence shouldn’t be noticeably hindered by those around him. It’s not an environment that’ll bolster Lawrence’s development, though.

Improving his weaknesses

Layups. You have make your layups before you step behind the arc. Need to be automatic from in close. Lawrence, inexplicably, clanked far too many layups as a rookie. Call it Year 1 yips, jitters, whatever. That part of his game needs to be erased. Forever. 

On passes from the line of scrimmage to 9 yards beyond it, Lawrence’s adjusted completion rate of 80.3% ranked 26th among qualifying quarterbacks. In that range, he threw two touchdowns to a ghastly five picks. 

Strengthening his strengths

Lawrence was born with an enviable combination of freaky arm talent and natural confidence as a passer to complete the throws most quarterbacks decide to not let rip. In the final game of the regular season, a resounding win over a Colts team on the cusp of the playoffs, Lawrence made two throws that brought me right back to his Clemson film. It was blissful. Yes, it was just two throws, but they capped what was steadier play down the stretch from the No. 1 overall pick. 

I want to see Lawrence beaming lasers at the intermediate level and down the field in Doug Pedersen’s offense. 

Season outlook 

I still believe in Lawrence. He was too good of a prospect for me to see one NFL season and be out on him. There’s no quantifiable way to measure how much Urban Meyer sapped from Lawrence and every other Jaguars players last season. But it wasn’t a coincidence Lawrence played better after Meyer was relieved of his duties. 

The team is better, Lawrence will be better in 2022. I will say, though, I’m less bullish on his future than I was a year ago at this time, simply based on how dismal his rookie season was.

Jets QB Zach Wilson

Supporting cast

GM Joe Douglas has done some work with the Jets. Wilson’s receiver group now features Elijah Moore, Corey Davis, Garrett Wilson, Braxton Berrios and Denzel Mims. Sure, a young, mostly unproven collection of pass catchers but undoubtedly one oozing with upside. 

Toss in free agent signing C.J. Uzomah at tight end, and it’s obvious — the supporting cast for Wilson outside is plenty good enough. Up front, the guard play should be stellar with Alijah Vera-Tucker and Laken Tomlinson. The tackle situation scares me, given the uncertainty surrounding Mekhi Becton

Improving his weaknesses

Count Wilson among the first-year quarterbacks who took too many sacks in Year 1. Only Joe Burrow and Baker Mayfield had a higher pressure-to-sack conversion rate than Wilson at 26.3%.

And after appearing to be surgically accurate at BYU, Wilson’s 69.9% adjusted completion percentage on all throws ranked 34th out of 38 qualifying quarterbacks. 

Strengthening his strengths

Wilson was an awesome runner in his debut campaign, averaging 6.7 yards per carry while forcing six missed tackles along the way on 29 rushes. Truthfully, beyond that, it would be inaccurate to pinpoint any other strength Wilson showcased during his rookie season. 

As a collegiate passer, Wilson’s ability to make outside-of-structure, off-platform throws was scintillating, and likely a major reason he was picked at No. 2 overall. Keep that in mind.

Season outlook 

The Jets’ offensive line is slightly concerning. Wilson did not get proper experience in college dealing with pressure, and it showed in Year 1. The cast of receivers he has at his disposal will help to morph many high-percentage throws into large gains, and there’s plenty of speed on the roster to stretch defenses vertically. 

While it was only one season, I saw enough awesome from Wilson at BYU in 2020 to not lose hope in him just yet, and Douglas has done admirable work building around him. Wilson won’t be a Pro Bowl quarterback in 2022 but will give the Jets a glimmer of hope for his future as the leader of their franchise. 

49ers quarterback Trey Lance

Supporting cast 

Right after the 2021 draft, I ranked every rookie quarterbacks’ situation — coaching, supporting cast, defense, offensive play-caller, the works — and Lance was in the resounding best environment to succeed. 

That environment has hardly changed, with Deebo Samuel seemingly set to play his normal role in San Francisco, George Kittle ready to dominate after the catch and Trent Williams protecting Lance’s left side. 

Kyle Shanahan is probably the game’s most creative, efficient play-caller. Lance is in a luxurious scenario. 

Strengthening his strengths

I’ll keep this short, because we barely saw Lance as a rookie — just 71 attempts in two contests — but at North Dakota State his cannon arm and elite athletic traits are what pushed the 49ers to trade up to pick him after one full season starting at the FCS level. 

He needs to be a legitimate dual-threat quarterback who not only takes the easy, schemed-open-by-Shanahan throws but consistently beams it down the field. 

Improving his weaknesses 

In those two appearances as a rookie, it was obvious. Lance was not reacting to coverages as quickly as he’ll ultimately need to to thrive in the NFL. And that wasn’t shocking given his minimal collegiate experience at a lower level of competition than the vast majority of first-round picks at the position. 

The speed at which he processes what he sees and understands where certain route concepts against particular coverages dictate where he needs to throw the football, will be most vital to his development in Year 2. 

Season outlook 

I’m pinpointing Lance as the enormous breakout quarterback from the 2021 class. He has the athletic and arm-talent gifts similar to most of the game’s best young passers, an awesome collection of talent around him, and Shanahan calling his plays. The defense is solid. 

Lance will drift into young star territory during his second season in San Francisco.

Bears QB Justin Fields

Supporting cast 

Fields has to navigate through what’s a challenge for many second-year quarterbacks — a complete regime change after his rookie season. New GM, new head coach, new terminology, new team-building and game-plan philosophies. 

With that new regime came a clear desire to rebuild, clean up the roster, feast on dead cap for a year while the roster suffers before spending big in free agency later. That plan has left Fields with one of the least-intimidating receiver groups in football. At least there’s Darnell Mooney, who’s been an underrated, electric weapon in his first two seasons. The tight end group, featuring budding star Cole Kmet, is intriguing and the offensive line has the dynamics to surprise people. It’s still one of the least supportive supporting casts in football.  

Improving his weaknesses

Fields has to get rid of it quicker. I’m a fan of the ad-libbing experience. Really am. But there are times when the ball has to come out, when first downs through the air are passed up by a young thrower because he didn’t get to the second read or blatantly missed the open first progression. 

Despite the athletic prowess Fields possess, he was sacked on 11.8% of his drop backs, a catastrophically high figure. Sure, some pressures were counteracted by amazing scrambles, but a sack is the ultimate drive-killer beyond a turnover. Check Fields’ sack rate throughout the season for a quick glance as to how he’s playing. 

Strengthening his strengths 

Like most quarterbacks with his physical capabilities, Fields is best — and was best at Ohio State — when he was unleashing the arm on rockets down the field. There was one game last season, ironically in a close loss in prime time to the super-stingy Steelers, when Fields looked like the prospect I scouted from the Buckeyes program. 

Five big-time throws on 29 drop backs — 17.2% big-time throw rate! — with a whopping 10.0 yards-per-attempt average and a season-high 16.4 yard-average-depth-of-target figure. That’s the Fields the Bears need to tap into this season. 

Season outlook 

Fields took too many sacks as a rookie, a problem that ails many first-year quarterbacks, even the eventual great ones. What I did like about his Year 1 — he wasn’t afraid to lean on his legs, and his scrambling often counteracted his ultra-high 11.8% sack rate. Fields ran it 72 times at 5.8 yards per and forced 11 missed tackles. Small sample size, yes. But that 15.2% forced-missed-tackle rate is a big number. 

I also saw glimpses of needle-threading ability from the former Ohio State star. Fields is too good of an athlete with too live of an arm to not succeed in the NFL. The Bears have done him minimal favors given the receiver group that’s been assembled around him. The offensive line will be sneaky good. Fields will be clearly better in Year 2. 

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Patriots QB Mac Jones

Supporting cast

The Patriots lacked firepower on the perimeter in Jones’ rookie season and added Tyquan Thornton — a nearly 6-foot-3 wideout with sub 4.30 speed — and traded for DeVante Parker. Not bad. As a whole, it’s a receiver group without a true star yet one that boasts quality depth. 

The offensive line is one of the best in football, although there’s much pressure on surprising first-round pick Cole Strange to fill the vacancy from the trade of ultra-reliable Shaq Mason. This is not a supporting cast that will necessarily carry Jones. Yet it’s not one that will allow him to have many excuses after Year 2. 

Strengthening his strengths

Taking care of the football. From his rookie season, it was Jones’ calling card. Heading into Week 15, Jones had only eight interceptions and five fumbles on 419 drop backs, low figures for a first-year pro. He finished the regular season with a 2.5% turnover-worthy play mark, the sixth-lowest among all qualifying quarterbacks. 

For as much as big-time throws have started to separate passers in the NFL, there’s certainly value in those who can keep the ball out of the opposition’s hands. 

Improving his weaknesses

Jones represents the polar opposite end of the what’s trending at the quarterback position today. He’s a limited scrambler and improviser and doesn’t have a big arm. In an era in which holding on to the football for a long time is not necessarily a death knell at the position, Jones’ get-it-out-quickly style aligns with what Tom Brady brought to the field every week in New England for 20 years. 

His 2.63 average time to throw tied for the 10th-lowest rate in the league with Joe Burrow. It’s a rather quick number that was faster than Dak Prescott, Justin Herbert and Derek Carr. While quick-strike capabilities aren’t suddenly bad, they do indicate the “off-structure” play is limited in Jones’ game. As a rookie, he completed just 21 of 45 throws outside the pocket, the third-lowest total amount of completions among full-time starters. 

Season outlook 

I’ve been on the record with this take — Jones had one of the more overrated rookie seasons at the quarterback position in quite some time. Probably since Sam Bradford in 2010. Universally lauded as a dazzling debut year in the NFL for the first two-thirds of it, Jones wasn’t making many difficult throws each week, and the Patriots’ seven-game winning streak was buoyed by stingy defensive efforts. Down the stretch, when Jones was needed to make difficult throws either against pressure or tight coverage, he flopped.

I do think Jones can be a decently successful precision-based quarterback in a league increasingly loaded with amazing improvisers. But I can’t envision him playing with the likes of the rest of the NFL’s youth movement at the quarterback spot because of his athletic and arm-talent restraints. 

Texans QB Davis Mills

Supporting cast

Mills likely lost second-round receiver John Metchie III for the season earlier this week, and because of the disastrous rebuild that happened in a flash in Houston, the Texans aren’t a team we immediately think about when pondering the league’s best rosters. 

And while it’s gotten better over the past few years, it’s still a low-level cast of characters around Mills. But Brandin Cooks remains. He’s been the most underrated wideout in the league since he entered in 2014. Only Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans, Antonio Brown and (barely) Davante Adams have more yards from 2014 on than Cooks. And the dude has, for some reason, been on four teams. 

Nico Collins flashed as a rookie and has intimidating size, and the perpetually porous offensive line should be stronger with the addition of first-round blocker Kendrick Green

Strengthening his strengths

To find strengths in Mills game, one has to focus on the final three games of his rookie season. Remember, in Year 1 for a quarterback, we’re looking for any semblance of flashes to cling to entering the second season. In those contests, Mills looked like an established, high-end veteran passer. His 7.5% big-time throw rate was monstrous, and he tossed six touchdowns to just one interception. 

Improving his weaknesses

Mills was a classic rookie under pressure in 2021. The sign of the slightest bit of it transformed him from an otherwise 98.1 rated passer to a quarterback with a 60.1 rating. From taking too many sacks, to aimlessly throwing the football while falling to the turf to making hurried decisions too often, Mills has to improve when his pocket isn’t squeaky clean. 

Season outlook 

Mills finished the 2021 regular season as the highest-graded rookie quarterback in my season-long series in which I watched all the drop-back throws from the first- and second-year quarterbacks and graded each game. The sixth quarterback picked in a super-hyped class was the best in Year 1. Imagine that. 

While playing with only average athleticism, Mills is dangerous to opposing defenses because of his high-end arm talent and quality accuracy down the football field. He’ll play similarly to how he did as a rookie — with marked albeit small statistical improvement. While it won’t be an encouraging enough season for Houston to shy away from a quarterback in the first round of the 2023 draft, Mills will play his way into a quarterback competition next season, maybe even on another team. 

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