News & Analysis

2021 NFL Draft quarterback rankings

Dec 19, 2020; Charlotte, NC, USA; Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) on the field in the fourth quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

We’re starting off the positional ranks for the 2021 NFL Draft with arguably the strongest positional group in the class. This quarterback group is special. Whether it’s in top-end talent or depth, the 2021 signal-caller class stacks up favorably against any we’ve seen since we started grading for the 2015 NFL Draft.

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Superlatives

Strongest Arm: Trey Lance

Most Accurate: Justin Fields

Best Runner: Trey Lance

Best Outside the Pocket: Zach Wilson

Best Pocket Presence: Trevor Lawrence

Best vs. Blitz: Mac Jones

Quickest Decision Maker: Davis Mills

Editor's note: PFF's 2021 NFL Draft Guide is live and available to all EDGE and ELITE subscribers. If you're already an EDGE or ELITE subscriber, download your copy here.

1. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

The No. 1 quarterback, the No. 1 prospect and the soon-to-be No. 1 overall pick. Each of the top four quarterbacks in this class has tools. That’s not why Lawrence is the unquestioned QB1. It’s the way he already operates within an offense. His ability to handle blitzes, pressure and anything else defenses throw his way is second to none.

For his career, Lawrence has a 118.4 passer rating when blitzed and a 97.9 passer rating under pressure. The only draft prospects to have at least 200 career pressured dropbacks and a higher passer rating under pressure that we’ve graded are Baker Mayfield (116.0) and Joe Burrow (106.6). Both of those guys were much older when they were first thrust into action, as well.

This isn’t one season or a small sample size — it’s been the case for Lawrence's entire career. And he’s also been exceptional at avoiding sacks over the past three years, with only 44 taken on 293 pressured dropbacks (15.0% conversion rate).

To those that might suggest Lawrence is “tapped out” or hasn’t developed throughout his college career, I’d suggest going back and checking the tape from this past season. He had easily the worst offensive line of his career as well as the worst group of receivers. The offense was on him more so than ever before, and he still earned the highest overall grade of his career (91.2).

2. Zach Wilson, BYU

Wilson’s meteoric rise is no fluke. The talent he possesses in his right arm is exceptional. His ability to throw lasers from any body position is unlike any other quarterback in the class.

There really aren’t too many holes you can poke in his 2020 tape. Even in his “bad” game against Coastal Carolina, he still earned an 82.7 overall grade. Wilson can win both in and out of structure. He carved up the blitz with authority this year, earning a 91.4 passing grade when dealing with five or more rushers.

The biggest knocks on him are things we haven’t seen him do. Play top competition. Face consistent pressure (only 21.6% of dropbacks in 2020). When that’s the case, it’s difficult to weigh those too heavily when the NFL-translatable skills are so ample.

Even facing lesser defenses, Wilson still excelled when his job was made difficult. His 94.2 passing grade on 122 attempts into throwing windows where the receiver had less than a step of separation is the highest we’ve seen in the past four years. Even Joe Burrow was at only 88.8 in 2019, and he ranks second. That is a necessary aspect of playing in the NFL and makes us think the leap from BYU to the league may not be too drastic for Wilson.

3. Justin Fields, Ohio State

Every time I go through the totality of Fields' tape and physical profile, I can’t help but think he’s being overthought by many. He’s arguably the most accurate quarterback in the draft class, is a legitimate threat as a runner and has the kind of hose capable of flipping it 60-plus yards without a windup.

How many guys have failed with that level of physical tools?

Of course, there are negatives. He’s prone to holding the ball too long and taking sacks. His 23.5% career pressure to sack conversion rate is on the high end for the position and actually got worse this year (25%). He’s played with the second-best collection of offensive talent in the country, behind Alabama, over the course of his career.

Finally, his performance this year against the blitz was less than stellar. He held onto the ball way too long (3.1-second average time to throw) and earned only a 75.6 passing grade when he did let it rip. Those things aren't set in stone, though, as Fields can easily improve there. Good luck coaching other quarterbacks to be as pinpoint as Fields has been in his career.

4. Trey Lance, North Dakota State

Lance has a prodigious physical skill set. I don’t think it’s controversial at all to say he possesses the biggest arm in the draft class. The ball jumps out of his hands differently than anyone else in the class at every level of the field.

Add in some wheels at a hefty 227 pounds, and you have a legit dual threat. Lance not only has “short-yardage battering ram” written all over him, but he can also run away from linebackers for big plays.

It’s the whole throwing accurately and leading a pass-heavy offense part that is the issue with Lance. He averaged only 18 dropbacks a game in his lone year as a starter. His 47.2% on-target rate since the start of 2019 is the lowest of any quarterback in this top five by nearly 10 percentage points. He is the definition of a project. When you have his level of tools, though, that’s a project worth taking on.

5. Mac Jones, Alabama

The numbers are insane. The tools are average at best. Jones will be the ultimate debate at the position on performance versus physical ability.

Going through the tape, it is quite clear Jones had one of the easiest jobs of any quarterback in the country despite playing SEC competition. Some of the windows he was throwing into downfield were absurd.

That being said, he was never a detriment to the offense and operated incredibly efficiently within it. His lowest-graded game of the season was a 72.8 mark against Arkansas, and he utterly carved up top defenses in the College Football Playoff — to the tune of a 91.6 versus Notre Dame and an 87.6 versus Ohio State.

What will that look like without first reads running wide open, though? There are a couple of ways to judge that. The first is with PFF’s decision charting that gave him a 73.8 passing grade when forced to go beyond his first read the past two seasons — the lowest of any quarterback in the top five here.

The other is at the Senior Bowl, where he earned only a 63.8 passing grade on 36 dropbacks throughout the week of practices and then didn’t play in the game. If he didn’t have the Alabama helmet on, there wouldn’t have been much at all in his game that distinguished him from the other quarterbacks in attendance. That’s enough to make me hesitate to draft him highly.

6. Kyle Trask, Florida

Trask lit up scoreboards this past season at Florida en route to 43 touchdowns in 13 games on the season. He has ideal size at 6-foot-5, 240 pounds and NFL-caliber arm talent, although it’s not quite on the level of the guys at the top of the class.

With Trask, one has to buy into the upward trajectory of his career. He went from never having started, even in high school, to a 66.4 passing grade in his first year of 2019 to a 92.4 mark this past year. The problem is that he’s a bit of a statue and his 68.7 completion percentage isn’t anywhere near indicative of his overall ball placement. Only 57.8% of his targets past the line of scrimmage were deemed accurate this past season — the sixth-ranked figure among the 10 quarterbacks listed here.

7. Davis Mills, Stanford

A lot of what you’re buying into with Mills is what he could become. We’ve seen the former five-star quarterback make only 10 starts his entire college career. Already, though, he's flashed some necessary skills. He’s very accurate and efficient within the structure of an offense. In fact, if you take away screens and RPOs, Mills had the second-highest accuracy rate in 2020 of any quarterback on this list.

He also does so quickly. His 2.51-second average time to throw on non-screens and non-RPOs was the fastest of any quarterback in the top 10, finishing .17 seconds over Trevor Lawrence this past season. Getting the ball out quickly and accurately is how a pure pocket quarterback like Mills has to win at the next level. We just wish we could have seen more proof on tape.

8. Jamie Newman, Wake Forest

Newman has to be kicking himself for opting out. He quite easily possesses the best physical tools in this class behind the top four quarterbacks, but it’s almost impossible to buy into them after what he showed at the Senior Bowl after not playing all fall.

In the week of practices, Newman earned a 33.5 passing grade and his six turnover-worthy plays were the most of any quarterback in attendance. Then in the game, it was more of the same with a 51.8 passing grade and five sacks on 20 dropbacks.

The arm, rushing ability and accuracy downfield are still there, but his ability to play within structure is a big question.

9. Kellen Mond, Texas A&M

Mond has been solid for three straight seasons but never quite made any meaningful leap in performance. His career-high 81.3 passing grade this past year pales in comparison to those at the top of the class.

The interesting thing about Mond’s evaluation is that — unlike pretty much everyone else on this list — he didn’t play with anything resembling NFL-caliber weapons. In fact, in his three years as a starter, Mond hasn’t competed with a wide receiver who was drafted. And his top option this past year, Jhamon Ausbon, is a fringe draftable prospect. His highest coveted weapon at the next level was tight end Jace Sternberger, who went in the third round in 2019. That’s not going to get it done against SEC secondaries.

It still doesn’t explain away his well below-average accuracy. Under 50% of his targets beyond the line of scrimmage this past season were deemed accurate. That’s the lowest of anyone on this list who played more than a game.

10. Sam Ehlinger, Texas

There’s a considerable drop-off around this point in the quarterback class. You’re not finding much in the way of NFL skill sets after Mond. Ehlinger has at least played competent football in the past, although you won’t find much high-end play on his tape.

He sports a middling arm and has struggled with his pocket presence over the years. His biggest selling point is arguably his experience, with 1,763 career dropbacks to his name. Ehlinger didn’t take much of a meaningful next step as a senior, however, and finished with only a 76.5 passing grade.

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