The NFL has a shortage of quality quarterback play. Yes, the top-shelf passers are brilliant in their playmaking and true franchise cornerstones, from a 44-year-old somehow getting better (Tom Brady) to a 25-year-old who just got to the Super Bowl (Joe Burrow). But the quarterback pantheon is top-heavy. There’s debate around the league as to whether the NFL has 32 true starters.
That’s where the 2021 draft class enters the picture. A group of six talented young QBs — Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields, Mac Jones and Davis Mills — have much to prove but will help define the 2022 NFL season. That six players from one draft occupy nearly 20% of the NFL’s starting quarterback jobs entering their second season is a rare occurrence (the 49ers haven’t ensured Lance is the starter as Jimmy Garoppolo remains on the roster, but the move is largely expected).
By unofficial count, the last time six drafted quarterbacks entered Year 2 entrenched as starters was 2000. That class played out like many draft classes before and after — with plenty of hits and misses. Daunte Culpepper and Donovan McNabb ascended, Akili Smith and Cade McNown floundered, and Tim Couch was out of the league after five years. All five players were top-12 picks in 1999. Second-round pick Shaun King guided the Buccaneers to a 10-6 record in his second year but didn’t sustain the momentum.
This year’s group enters 2022 brimming with optimism, but history says a few of them will eventually fall flat. So we surveyed a handful of NFL execs, scouts and coaches on which of the Year 2 quarterbacks are poised for a big year. Each ranked the quarterbacks 1-6, and what follows are the composite rankings based on 2022 expectations — not career arc. That’s an important distinction. Scheme, team fit and supporting cast are part of the criteria.
Drafted: No. 1 overall
2021 stats: 17 starts, 3,641 passing yards, 12 TD passes, 17 interceptions, 33.5 Total QBR (334 rushing yards, 2 rushing TDs)
For many, Lawrence’s NFL career begins now. “This will be like his true rookie year,” an AFC scout said. “Hopefully not too many permanent scars from last year.”
That’s how badly the Urban Meyer experiment went in Jacksonville. Lawrence had minimal offensive help and a poor culture under Meyer, who clashed with players and was fired as coach after 13 games. Injuries sabotaged an already lackluster offense. Lawrence’s go-to targets were a 32-year-old Marvin Jones Jr. and slot receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. Lawrence finished with 17 interceptions, tied with the Rams’ Matthew Stafford for the league high.
A few coaches said they expected more from Lawrence in a quarterback-friendly Darrell Bevell scheme that should have provided its share of easy throws. But Lawrence struggled against the blitz, ranking last in yards per attempt (4.9) and 30th in off-target percentage (26.5%) on 141 attempts.
But evaluators saw enough of the traits that made Lawrence the No. 1 pick. “He didn’t have a chance last year,” the scout said. “But having [coach] Doug [Pederson] and new weapons will help him a ton. He needs support, both in personnel and schematically, and then the natural ability can take over. He should have that now.”
The Jaguars have completely rebuilt their passing game in free agency with the additions of wide receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones and tight end Evan Engram. The return of Travis Etienne Jr. from the Lisfranc injury on his left foot could also help. Now it’s up to Lawrence to maximize his potential.
“He’s in a tough spot because while on paper they restocked weapons, I don’t believe them to be legitimate enough,” an NFL scout said. “But he’s got enough ability to overcome some of the problems there.”
Added an NFC coach: “I didn’t necessarily see a transcendent talent from him. [He] didn’t look as explosive throwing or on the move as I expected.”
Drafted: No. 15 overall
2021 stats: 17 starts, 3,801 passing yards, 22 TD passes, 13 interceptions, 50.9 Total QBR (129 rushing yards)
Jones might be atop this list if Josh McDaniels were still his offensive coordinator. Skepticism over the Patriots’ offensive coaching situation for the second-year QB looms large.
“He would be my No. 1 by a lot,” an NFL offensive coach said. “Really efficient and smart player. But who’s coaching him? Is it Joe Judge potentially calling plays?”
The Patriots do not have a true offensive coordinator/playcaller listed on their coaching staff. Bill Belichick disciples and former NFL head coaches Judge and Matt Patricia are serving as offensive coaches, and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss has said he wouldn’t be surprised if Patricia gets playcalling duties based on how the offseason has shaken out. The Patriots also have running backs coaches Ivan Fears and Vinnie Sunseri, wide receivers coach Troy Brown and tight ends coach Nick Caley. Belichick should have a strong presence on the overall operation, too.
Not every voter is panicking about New England, citing Jones’ strong rookie year with a 67.6% completion rate on his way to the Pro Bowl. As far as operating an NFL offense goes, one NFC exec said Jones might be the best in the class. The Alabama product ranked eighth in the NFL in third-down accuracy (63.9%) among players with at least 100 such attempts last season. “Poise and efficiency,” an NFC scout said. “That’s him. It will be largely the same system with the same head coach, and they will streamline things for him.”
Dan Orlovsky questions the New England Patriots’ offensive plan going into the season.
Could the Patriots expand the pass game under Jones in 2022? There are differing takes there.
“He was way too protected last year,” the offensive coach said. “They didn’t let him push the ball at all.”
But others wonder if the receiving group holds the offense back. “[Jones is] not a guy you win with because of him at this level yet,” an AFC scout pointed out. “The tight ends will have to produce and the running game. Win with defense, and let him manage the game.”
Drafted: No. 2 overall
2021 stats: 13 starts, 2,334 passing yards, 9 TD passes, 11 interceptions, 28.2 Total QBR (185 rushing yards, 4 rushing TDs)
On paper, Wilson’s rookie year couldn’t have gone much worse. He went 3-10 as a starter and had the league’s lowest completion percentage (55.6%) among full-time quarterbacks. A knee injury cost him four games, and his supporting cast was lackluster.
But he settled down late in the year: Over his final seven games, he had five passing touchdowns and two interceptions. Wilson’s QBR rose slightly during that span — from 24.8 through his first six starts to 31.0 over his last seven — and the Jets were pleased with the progress. Wilson was blitzed 32% of the time over the final two months and had less time to pass (2.9 seconds per attempt, down from 3.1 earlier in the year) yet was more productive.
“He dug himself out of a big hole mentally and physically,” an NFC offensive coach said. “That was impressive. And he has special arm talent.”
Wilson will have more support this year, thanks to the additions of first-round receiver Garrett Wilson and tight ends C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin. The offensive line continues to improve. Second-round running back Breece Hall was considered by many to be a top-20 player in the draft. Elijah Moore appears poised for a Year 2 breakout, and Corey Davis has said he’s more comfortable in the Jets’ offense than he was in 2021. And by all accounts, Wilson has had a banner offseason, bulking up to around 220 pounds and visiting three different states for personalized throwing sessions with teammates.
The Jets want Wilson to make the layups this season — take the easy throw on the plays that are schemed up for him. They already know he can make the spectacular throw with his arm strength and mobility. In Week 4, Wilson’s 54-yard completion to Keelan Cole traveled 59 yards in the air, and he did it off one foot and moving full speed to his right to dodge a defender. Wilson’s five completions of 40 or more yards tied for 22nd in the NFL, which is respectable considering he missed significant time.
“Lots more around him, but it’s still the Jets,” an AFC scout said. “Never know what you’re going to get.”
Added an NFC exec: “They could be a playoff team if he protects the football and stays healthy.”
Drafted: No. 11 overall
2021 stats: 10 starts, 1,870 passing yards, 7 TD passes, 10 interceptions, 26.4 Total QBR (420 rushing yards, 2 rushing TDs)
Yes, Fields’ supporting cast is a concern for many around the league. It’s usually the first thing brought up.
“God bless him and good luck,” an AFC scout said. “Good thing he can make things happen on his own. Long road ahead.”
Another scout said Fields’ skill set is similar to Lance’s — but with a better intermediate-to-deep ball — yet doesn’t have the supporting cast to maximize his potential in the short term. It appears GM Ryan Poles is taking the long-term approach to building a winner, eschewing expensive short-term fixes in free agency to let the roster breathe. Several big-money contracts from the previous regime will be more manageable in 2023, when the Bears will have a stronger roster. That leaves the playmaking positions fairly thin for Fields, who enters a crucial Year 2. Additions Byron Pringle and third-round pick Velus Jones Jr. should help but aren’t exactly No. 1 options alongside Darnell Mooney.
Regardless, I’m told the Bears are happy with Fields’ development this offseason, with better mechanics (quicker release) and some improvement in throwing on the move. The Bears are excited for offensive coordinator Luke Getsy’s system, which should give Fields more space to operate.
“They aren’t going to be great, but he’s got big-time ability,” an NFC offensive coach said of Fields. “He’ll be able to make plays.”
Improved accuracy would also be huge for Fields, who threw seven interceptions over his final six games last season.
Drafted: No. 3 overall
2021 stats: 2 starts, 603 passing yards, 5 TD passes, 2 interceptions, 33.4 Total QBR (168 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD)
Lance is easily the toughest evaluation on this list, largely because of the lack of snaps over the past two years (178 in spot duty with San Francisco last season after just one full game with North Dakota State in 2020).
“He’s in the best spot by far, but I don’t know if he’s ready,” an AFC scout said. “Coaching and system will help him tremendously.”
Coach Kyle Shanahan’s attack mixed with Lance’s skill set will be “impressive to watch” in 2022, an NFC scout said. “The throws he makes in flashes are insane,” the scout said. “The athleticism and toughness to go along with it are real. He’s had time to get his feet wet while observing. I think that always ends up well for the ones with high ceilings like him.”
There has been steady speculation about Lance’s readiness after a year mostly behind the scenes developing with 49ers coaches and players in practices. I’ve heard the 49ers are not concerned with Lance’s arm strength and want to see him continue to apply all that he has learned in game-simulated settings, navigating the chaos from inside and outside the pocket. He threw a lot from the pre-draft process right through the regular season, so he took some time off to rest following the season. Over time, the 49ers have seen improvements in his delivery and footwork, two points of emphasis.
Now, some people around the league weren’t overly impressed with his game action, with one offensive coach saying his throwing motion still looked “wonky” and that he didn’t seem comfortable while throwing on the run. The numbers say Lance was fine from outside the pocket, completing nine of 15 passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns.
“He will be fine. Talented. Will make plays with his legs,” an NFC exec said. “Best playcaller in the game will put him in a position to succeed.”
Then there’s this from an NFC offensive coach: “I think they were 100 percent taking Mac [Jones] until they saw their fan base [overreact].”
Drafted: No. 67 overall
2021 stats: 11 starts, 2,664 passing yards, 16 TD passes, 10 interceptions, 35.5 Total QBR (44 rushing yards)
Mills was not a throw-in in these rankings. He pushed Fields and Lance for the fourth and fifth spots, respectively. Evaluators saw good quarterback play from the third-round pick, who completed 66.8% of his passes on a bad team. And Mills ranked 11th in the NFL in third-down passing accuracy among candidates with at least 100 third-down throws, completing 70 of 110 passes (63.6%) and trailing only Jones (63.9%) among rookies.
“He was just playing the position really well,” one NFL assistant coach said. “He didn’t have a lot around him, and he didn’t have many rookie mistakes in the games I saw. He can work through the progressions from the pocket, great mechanics, fundamentally sound, accurate at all three levels, can drive the ball and layer the ball. Really checked a lot of boxes.”
Before the 2021 draft, some teams had concerns about Mills’ injury history, including multiple knee surgeries dating to high school. He appears to have overcome it.
“Talented kid. Love [coordinator] Pep [Hamilton] coaching him, too,” an AFC exec said. “But his team stinks. And his upside isn’t as high as some of the others.”
Added an NFC offensive coach: “Like him a lot, but that organization seems to be in a holding pattern.”