How Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields, Mac Jones, Davis Mills have improved

How Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields, Mac Jones, Davis Mills have improved post thumbnail image

The 2021 NFL draft class saw five quarterbacks selected in the first 15 picks: Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones. All of them had at least two starts as rookies, as did third-rounder Davis Mills. Overall, the results were as expected: first-year quarterback struggles.

Where do things stand for the six second-year quarterbacks entering the 2022 NFL season? Can Lawrence and Wilson (once he returns from surgery on his right knee injury) live up to their top-two-pick hype, and will Lance smoothly jump into a full-time starting role? Will Fields, Jones and Mills all get more acclimated to the pro game? I pulled out my 2021 draft book and looked up the scouting reports for all six QBs, then dug in on where each did and did not improve.

Were the same issues still there for each quarterback? What stood out on tape? And in what areas is each still improving? Let’s look back on the 2021 pre-draft evaluations and identify how all six QBs have developed after one season in the NFL, starting with the No. 1 pick.

Jump to:
Lawrence | Wilson | Lance
Fields | Jones | Mills

2021 draft pick: No. 1 overall
Rookie season stats: 3,641 passing yards, 12 TDs, 17 INTs, 33.5 QBR

The original pre-draft scouting report: “Lawrence is a tall, well-built quarterback who continues to develop into his frame. He has very good decision-making skills, especially in clutch situations. He is a long-levered QB with surprising twitchiness, and he has good release quickness and top-tier velocity as a passer, driving the ball vertically with ease. Although Lawrence is still working on the consistency of his footwork and ball placement — which can be a bit streaky at times — his overall touch, timing and anticipation are very good. He knows how to lead receivers open and spots the ball very well on back-shoulder throws, getting excellent velocity on deeper throws outside the numbers. And he has solid pocket mobility for such a tall quarterback, with quickness in the pocket and a feel for pressure. As a runner, Lawrence is a long strider with very good speed build-up when he takes off. In all, he is a once-in-a-decade type quarterback prospect.”

What I saw in his first season: It’s easy to look at raw production and make conclusions, but even though Lawrence’s rookie-season stat line is unimpressive, I’m not sure there are many QBs who could have even accomplished what he did, given the status of the Jacksonville team. Turmoil within the franchise, a midseason coaching change and a lack of talent around him on offense put Lawrence in a tough spot. And the Jaguars’ offense system just didn’t seem to fit him. Some of the struggles certainly fall on him, but we shouldn’t discount his situation.

You could still see the physical traits and abilities during Year 1 that we saw when he was at Clemson. A lot of arm talent. Great mobility. The suddenness to create when things break down. And a high level of compete. The Jaguars’ protection for him was middle of the pack (60.4% pass block win rate, 18th in the NFL), but Lawrence lacked true playmakers around him. Jacksonville’s 39 drops were last in the league — and seven more than the second-worst team — and its 4.6 yards after the catch per reception ranked 29th.

Lawrence hung in there, which stood out to me because he had never really struggled in his football career. He went 34-2 in 36 collegiate starts over three seasons, and he was five-star recruit when he landed at Clemson back in 2018. Then he had to endure a 3-14 season with Jacksonville to kick off his pro career. Through it all, he kept his competitiveness and never seemed overwhelmed — and he didn’t fold. Can he maintain that confidence as the team keeps rebuilding?

Where he can still improve: I was surprised how long Lawrence was holding on to the ball in 2021. He averaged 2.87 seconds before throwing, which ranked ninth slowest in the NFL, and I think it was a byproduct of not truly buying into the system, though the pass-catchers’ inability to get open certainly played a part. Lawrence wasn’t processing fast enough, but he also wasn’t trusting what he was seeing. He was indecisive, and it led to mistakes — he tied Matthew Stafford for the most interceptions in the league at 17.

I’m curious to see how new coach Doug Pederson tailors the offense to Lawrence’s skill set, especially now that he has a full year of pro experience under his belt. As I said, we still saw all the elite traits. But he needs to get comfortable in the offense and trust his progressions. And while it’s definitely important that he stays confident in his ability to make any throw, I’d like to see him better recognize when it’s time to check down, take a sack or throw the ball away. NFL quarterbacks can’t turn the ball over as much as he did, and a lot of it came from forcing something that wasn’t there.

Beyond the new coaching staff, the Jaguars made steps toward improving his supporting cast, too. Whether you think he was paid too much or not, there’s no doubt receiver Christian Kirk will help Lawrence. He gets uncovered quickly and has the ability to generate yards after the catch. Tight end Evan Engram shares those traits and will be an impact player as long as he stays on the field. I love what that duo can do for Lawrence in the middle of the field, providing him with security blankets.

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Mike Clay finds value in drafting Trevor Lawrence, who he says still has an elite-level ceiling.

Also remember that running back Travis Etienne Jr. will return after missing his entire rookie season. Lawrence completed just 62.8% of his pass attempts targeting running backs last season, 30th out of 31 qualified QBs. That’s a problem. Etienne caught 102 passes during his Clemson career, so I think he’ll be a great addition for Lawrence, especially considering the familiarity from being teammates in college. It can be tougher at times for tall, long-levered quarterbacks to connect with RBs when they’re forced to quickly adjust their feet and deliver at the last second on some swings, screens, dump-offs, angle routes and checkdowns, but there’s no arguing that Lawrence has to hit the gimme throws and keep the offense on schedule.


2021 draft pick: No. 2 overall
Rookie season stats: 2,334 passing yards, 9 TDs, 11 INTs, 28.2 QBR

The original pre-draft scouting report: “Wilson is a lean quarterback with good mobility and arm strength. He played in a pistol-heavy offense at BYU that featured full-field reads (mostly pro-style concepts). One of his best traits is his ability to extend plays. He has the instincts and agility to create after the initial play breaks down, and he also does a very good job of adjusting his arm angles to generate throwing windows. His ability to throw receivers open also stands out, as Wilson shows above-average touch against zone looks. He doesn’t appear to have great top-end speed, but he’s an instinctive runner with good quickness and competitiveness. Wilson is a premier quarterback prospect with all the mental and physical tools to excel as a NFL starter so long as his undersized frame holds up.”

What I saw in his first season: It was apparent early on Wilson was swimming a bit as he adjusted to the NFL game. He was trying to do too much, and while the Jets’ supporting cast took a step forward, it still wasn’t enough. It was a tough ask all around, and the early-season numbers showed that: In Weeks 1 through 7, before suffering a right knee injury, Wilson threw four touchdowns to nine interceptions.

After returning in Week 12, he looked like a different quarterback, throwing five touchdowns to just two interceptions. I started to see more decisiveness, and he was more poised in the pocket. Sitting on the sideline for a bit can help — just look at Patrick Mahomes, who did it for a full season before getting the QB1 role in Kansas City. It helps you learn the game plan without week-to-week pressure. It’s like watching someone else take the test for you; you can see how they approach certain things and what works and what doesn’t.

Wilson’s off-platform ability and arm strength were big parts of his scouting report coming out of BYU, and they are both still there. But he’ll likely have to ease back into things when moving outside the pocket once he recovers from his bone bruise and meniscus tear. He is expected to miss two to four weeks.

I talked to Jets GM Joe Douglas back at the Senior Bowl and asked how things were going with Wilson. He immediately pointed out how the young quarterback’s confidence never seemed to waver in Year 1, and that makes it easier for an organization to go all-in on him.

Where he can still improve: A lot of the issues that we saw in Jacksonville also come up here. The big thing, as it is with Lawrence, is getting the ball out faster. Wilson averaged 3.0 seconds before getting rid of the ball, second worst in the NFL behind Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts. His 9.9% sack rate was 30th, but the offensive line was 17th in pass block win rate at 60.5%. That doesn’t add up, and responsibility falls on the quarterback being indecisive and the receivers not getting open.

Perhaps the offseason additions will give him better outlets. The Jets used their No. 10 overall pick on receiver Garrett Wilson in April, and then drafted running back Breece Hall on Day 2 to pair with Michael Carter. They signed tight end C.J. Uzomah. Receiver Elijah Moore is healthy after missing some time last season, and the offensive line should be solid despite the knee injury to Mekhi Becton. New York signed guard Laken Tomlinson and then brought in offensive tackle Duane Brown on Thursday. All of this is to say that the Jets are making an effort to give Wilson what he needs to be successful.

Another weak spot that mirrors what we saw with Lawrence in Jacksonville is hitting the layups. Wilson’s completion percentage when targeting running backs was 57.1% last season, worst in the NFL. His 57.0% rate when targeting any receiver behind the line of scrimmage (49 of 86) was also the bottom of the league. It seems like a little thing, but it can add up to a big problem. Missing the layup passes can throw off an entire drive. Perhaps Hall — who caught 82 balls at Iowa State — will help.

Hitting those easy ones will also help a great deal in letting Wilson do what he does best. Picking up a few yards on first down with a swing pass makes for a better setup on second down — and builds confidence. Now you’re taking a shot in a second-and-4 situation, rather than forcing it on third-and-13. Staying in rhythm will put Wilson in better spots to succeed when it’s time to get creative and extend with the off-platform stuff that he does so well.

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Field Yates and Mike Clay are optimistic that Zach Wilson and the Jets’ offense will improve this season.

Lastly, Wilson’s frame was a concern at draft time last year. He closed out his rookie year at 208 pounds, but he’s up over 220 now. He looks the part, and it will be a big factor in keeping him on the field and, of course, trending the right way.


2021 draft pick: No. 3 overall
Rookie season stats: 603 passing yards, 5 TDs, 2 INTs, 33.4 QBR

The original pre-draft scouting report: “In 2019, Lance set the NCAA record for most passing attempts without an interception in a complete season. He has an exceptional build and great arm strength. He extends plays and makes off-platform throws with frequency. He’s efficient dropping from under center, and he excels at selling play action. Lance has fast eyes and does an exceptional job with ball security. He shows good downfield touch, but his biggest weakness is a lack of consistently accurate ball placement, especially on shorter throws and throws outside the hashes. He wasn’t asked to make many anticipatory throws at NDSU. He’s a bruising runner with good top-end speed. Lance’s relative inexperience (17 starts) and FCS level of competition are concerns, but he has elite physical abilities.”

What I saw in his first season: Lance is the tricky one here because he barely played, sitting behind Jimmy Garoppolo. He got snaps in six games, starting two. After 17 starts in college — all at the FCS level — Lance now has 19 total starts under center since heading to North Dakota State in 2018. And just three of those have come in the past two years. Consider that Lawrence started 36 games in college alone, and he was QB1 17 times last season — nearly as many starts as Lance has seen over four years.

There is no denying the physical traits, arm strength and mobility, but we have to be realistic with Lance. This is really a rookie season for him, and while he has the tools to be a standout right away, some bumps in the road should be expected.

Where he can still improve: Consistency of ball placement has been an issue for a while with Lance, and it’s still a concern. He completed 57.7% of his passes last season, and his minus-5.7% completion percentage over expectation ranked 44th out of 49 QBs with at least 70 passes (via NFL Next Gen Stats). Lance was also off-target on 18.6% of his passes.

Part of that is the lack of experience, but he’s also still inconsistent with his footwork from snap to snap, and he has to build more trust in his reads. The good news? Lance is in the perfect spot to improve his efficiency. I fully expect head coach Kyle Shanahan and new QB coach Brian Griese to coach him up and give him the best possible chance to succeed. The traits are there, but Lance needs reps and the right situation. He should have both this season.

Lance has the tendency to want to get it all with a big play, but he’ll have to learn to trust his coaches and stay within the system. The Niners’ offense is as on-schedule as any in the league, and picking up 3, 4, 5 yards here and there will open things up. The shots off play-action, along with the opportunities on bootlegs, will develop naturally. Lance just has to buy in and not force the big play when it isn’t necessary. Having the likes of receiver Deebo Samuel and tight end George Kittle working after the catch will help. San Francisco was tops in the NFL last season in yards after the catch (6.6).

There’s also the matter of the offensive line, which has some holes on the interior. Tomlinson signed with the Jets, leaving Colton McKivitz and Daniel Brunskill as the starting guards. Jake Brendel, who has three starts and 238 offensive snaps since entering the league in 2016, is the current starter at center. And on the outside opposite Trent Williams, Mike McGlinchey is coming back from a torn quad. Lance could see a lot of pressure this season, and he will need his big frame and bruising running ability to escape and extend at times.


2021 draft pick: No. 11 overall
Rookie season stats: 1,870 passing yards, 7 TDs, 10 INTs, 26.4 QBR

The original pre-draft scouting report: “Fields has exceptional physical tools and very good accuracy. He gets very good zip on deep outs and vertical throws. He shows a quick release — he can snap his wrist and the ball jumps off his hand. The biggest knock on Fields is that he wants to see his receiver come open. He will need to do a better job of anticipating throws and throwing receivers open. He is a good mover in the pocket and frequently breaks tackles to extend plays. He does a solid job of keeping his eyes downfield when extending plays and locates late-opening targets. Fields has some developing to do as a processor, but if placed in the right system and situation, he should quickly become a top-tier NFL starter.”

What I saw in his first season: Accuracy woes and a ton of sacks swallowed up Fields’ first season in the NFL, but that tremendous zip on the ball, nice quick release and mobility we saw from him at Ohio State were still present. He hit on 42.5% of his passes thrown 20-plus yards in the air (13th in the NFL and second among rookies), despite an underwhelming supporting cast around him, and his 420 rushing yards were fifth among QBs.

Fields ended up with 10 starts, first getting the call in Week 3, but injuries kept him off the field quite a bit after Halloween. The overarching problem I saw was Fields never seemed comfortable in the offense. Nothing seemed to flow naturally on that side of the ball, and I’m curious how the new coaching staff will build that unit around the franchise QB. But it also falls on Fields to buy in and build some confidence.

Where he can still improve: Like many rookie QBs last season, Fields clung to the ball too long and failed to hit his mark too often. What’s surprising is his accuracy was a plus trait entering the draft. But Fields was off-target on 20.2% of his passes last season — second worst in the NFL behind Wilson (23.8%) — and his 2.91 seconds before pass average was the sixth worst in the league. In all, he completed 58.9% of his passes despite just 18 drops from receivers (tied for ninth fewest). Holding on to the ball too long and then being off-target is a dangerous combination.

The failure to get the ball out on time also led to 36 sacks. Despite the Bears earning the league’s sixth-best pass block win rate (66.1%), Fields had an NFL-low 10.3% sack rate. To me, that is a quarterback not trusting his system or his reads. He has to speed up the progression and build trust in what he’s seeing. Then the accuracy will climb and the sacks was fall. Confidence leads to good ball placement.

The Bears haven’t exactly helped him there, too. They didn’t have a first-round pick in April, and salary cap issues kept them largely on the sidelines during free agency. An already-poor group of skill position players probably got worse this offseason, not better.

Receiver Allen Robinson II ended up with the Rams, leaving Darnell Mooney, Byron Pringle and third-round pick Velus Jones Jr. as the top three wideouts on the depth chart. Chicago did trade for N’Keal Harry, but the 2019 first-rounder suffered a left ankle injury during camp. Fields’ targeted receivers were “open” just 39.3% of the time, 48th out of 49 qualified QBs per NFL Next Gen Stats, and improvement might not be on the way.


2021 draft pick: No. 15 overall
Rookie season stats: 3,801 passing yards, 22 TDs, 13 INTs, 50.9 QBR

The original pre-draft scouting report: “His pocket presence and ability to maneuver within the pocket really stand out on tape. Jones has shown high-level ball placement on short to intermediate throws and has very good timing and anticipation. He processes things quickly and has outstanding football sense, and he consistently displays the ability to lead receivers to yards after the catch. Jones also understands trajectory and can layer the ball between defenders. The only concern is he has a tendency to underthrow the deep ball, with his outstanding wide receivers at Alabama frequently bailing him out. While he has good mobility, Jones is not much of a threat as a runner.”

What I saw in his first season: Jones might have been the fifth quarterback off the board in 2021, but he was arguably the best of the class in Year 1. He showed poise, feeling pressure and avoiding it. He’s not a great runner of the football, but his movement in the pocket is very good. He got through his progressions quickly and got rid of the ball — his 2.71 seconds before pass was ninth best in the league.

Jones also took the wins where Lawrence and Wilson didn’t, connecting on the short passes and getting the running backs involved out of the backfield. Jones’ 83.5% completion percentage when targeting running backs was fourth in the NFL and more than 20% better than either of the class’ top two draft picks. And when targeting receivers under 20 yards downfield, his 12.4% off-target rate was 13th in the NFL.

The Patriots’ system ultimately was a good fit for Jones, and I was impressed with how quickly he adapted to the offense. He seemed to understand that he was a rookie learning on the job and didn’t try to do too much, working with the talent around him to take what was given to him and not press.

Where he can still improve: The accuracy definitely still needs to improve when driving the ball down the field. We saw Alabama’s talented receiver group make up for his inconsistent ball placement on deep shots and adjust to off-target vertical throws during his final college season, and it’s still a bit of an issue. Jones’ 37.3% completion percentage and 40.7% off-target rate when throwing at least 20 yards downfield each ranked 21st in the NFL last season. He also had a minus-2.2% completion percentage over expectation when throwing 20-plus yards downfield, per NFL Next Gen Stats (35th).

Then there is the matter of the Patriots’ offense, which has been a mess so far this preseason. First, who is calling the plays? Senior football advisor/offensive line coach Matt Patricia and offensive assistant/QB coach Joe Judge split the playcalling duties in New England’s preseason opener on Thursday against the Giants. How will this play out? It’s not easy for a second-year QB to navigate unclear playcalling responsibilities.

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Tim Hasselbeck discusses the challenges for Mac Jones with the Patriots using two different playcallers in their first preseason game.

Second, the supporting cast isn’t elite. DeVante Parker joins Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor and rookie Tyquan Thornton on the outside, and Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith will team up at tight end. Who is the reliable veteran there?


2021 draft pick: No. 67 overall
Rookie season stats: 2,664 passing yards, 16 TDs, 10 INTs, 35.5 QBR

The original pre-draft scouting report: “Mills is a right-handed quarterback with an NFL frame, good arm strength and functional mobility. He showed good poise and resiliency leading Stanford to a come-from-behind win against UCLA in the regular season finale. His relative inexperience (11 career starts) is a concern. He played in a pro-style offense and he flashes the ability to get through his progressions, but he also locks onto receivers and makes questionable decisions. There’s room for improvement when it comes to recognizing and beating pressure. He’s accurate when he gets the ball out in rhythm and on time. His mechanics are inconsistent though, and he’s streaky. He’s not an elite athlete, but he’s mobile enough to get outside the pocket and flashes the ability to extend plays. He’s not much of a threat when he scrambles. He projects as a potential middle-round pick.”

What I saw in his first season: Mills’ pre-draft evaluation was a tough one because we were looking at only 11 starts. He got 11 more in 2021 as a pro — and I was impressed with what I saw. Mills appeared poised despite being tossed into the starting role on a bad team as a third-round rookie. When he was in rhythm, he was super accurate. He was off-target on just 16.1% of his throws (16th in the NFL), and he joined Jones as the only rookies with a positive completion percentage over expectation, per NFL Next Gen Stats (0.4%).

Mills also seemed to have a strong command of the offense, and he got the ball out quickly, which certainly helped him navigate Houston’s 27th-ranked pass block win rate (53.8%). Mills got the ball out in 2.67 seconds on average, the sixth-fastest time to throw in the league. He handled a tough spot very well and showed real toughness in the pocket.

Two areas where I actually saw real improvement from his college tape were battling pressure and getting through reads. Yes, his 9.0 QBR under pressure was still 27th in the NFL, but remember the offensive skill players he had at his disposal and the fact that he was pressured quicker than a lot of other QBs. He made strides there, though there is still work to be done.

Part of the reason he improved under pressure? His improvement in processing and reading the field. He didn’t lock onto the first target as much as he did at Stanford.

Where he can still improve: Mills still has to develop his mechanics. His footwork is inconsistent, and the year of NFL experience should help there.

I’m also a bit concerned about the supporting cast. Brandin Cooks is an excellent receiver, but Mills’ top options beyond Cooks are Nico Collins and Chris Conley. Perhaps Houston gets the running backs more involved, with a trio of Marlon Mack, Rex Burkhead and rookie Dameon Pierce. Regardless, Texans receivers had the 26th-best yards after catch last season (4.8 per reception) — that has to improve.

NFL teams barely had any tape on Mills last season, and now they have a full season’s worth. There is going to be an adjustment. He needs to be more consistent with his accuracy, and he has to continue to improve in all the areas where he showed progression last season.



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