The 2021 NFL Draft produced one of the most talented and exciting classes we’ve seen in a long time, certainly at the top. Highlighted by five quarterbacks being selected within the first 15 picks, that draft brought a ton of talent, hope and high expectations to teams across the league.
But rookie years can still be tough, no matter how talented a player is. Here’s a look at how five such players — Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Kyle Pitts and Jamin Davis — can improve in their sophomore seasons.
QB Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars: Situational Football
Lawrence was anointed the next great NFL quarterback after his freshman season at Clemson. It turns out that fulfilling such a prophecy is a lot easier said than done. Lawrence recorded 3,641 passing yards with 12 touchdowns and 17 interceptions as a rookie in 2021. Jacksonville subsequently finished the season with a 3-14 record and the No. 1 overall pick in the draft yet again.
Going into his sophomore season, Lawrence found his own areas to improve.
“I would say situational football, I think, is so much more important in the NFL compared to college,” he told NFL Network earlier this offseason. “I could count on one hand probably the amount of games in college that came down to one or two possessions and in the NFL, it’s pretty much every week. You’re not going to have many games where you win by multiple scores, and I think that was a big adjustment for me and realizing the importance of that and just learning a lot.”
New Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson specifically mentioned third-down and red-zone opportunities as instances where situational football has to improve for Lawrence. His third-down passing grade on the season was 65.9, which really isn’t too bad. But his play in the red zone earned a 46.8 passing grade, one of the lowest in the league.
Jacksonville was the 28th-ranked team in the NFL when it came to converting red-zone chances into touchdowns, at just 51.28%. That'll be a crucial area of improvement for Lawrence and the new-look Jags offense in 2022.
QB Zach Wilson, New York Jets: First-Down Management
Even many Jets fans would tell you Wilson didn’t live up to expectations in his first year. That doesn't mean he can't be the quarterback we believed he could develop into pre-draft, or even that he is behind schedule. It was just a harsh year going from BYU’s level of competition to the AFC East.
Wilson recorded a 56.1 passing grade for the season, which was the third-lowest mark among starting quarterbacks. So, there is plenty that can be improved upon. But one specific, and important, area for Wilson to improve in is his play on first down. He took 13 sacks on first down in 2021, which was the fourth-most of any starting quarterback. Though the Jets’ offensive line was still a work in progress, their pass-blocking grade on first down came in at 70.9, about middle of the pack in the NFL. Their 21.7% pressure rate was also right around league average.
Coming from an offense at BYU that fielded one of the best offensive lines in the country, Wilson endured quite the culture shock after joining the NFL ranks. The speed of the NFL game was always going to require an adjustment, but not allowing his team to take negative yards on first down needs to be a point of emphasis for the second-year quarterback. In doing so, many of the other areas of his game will naturally be elevated, as he will put himself and his offense in more favorable positions.
QB Justin Fields, Chicago Bears: Confidence Under Pressure
Fields’ rookie season was disappointing. Now, that’s not to say the reason for the disappointment was all on his shoulders. He didn’t start the year as the No. 1 quarterback on the depth chart, and even once he was the scheduled starter, he suffered rib and ankle injuries and tested positive for COVID-19 all within the last half of the season. In the end, he started 10 games (played in 12) and threw for 1,870 yards with seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
A fully healthy season should yield good results just by nature of how talented the young quarterback is. Availability will aid in the biggest intangible way Fields can improve.
“Last year was kind of weird,” Fields said, according to the Chicago Sun-Times' Jason Lieser. “It was kind of a weird leadership role; me and Andy would kind of switch off. But now that I am starting off the season as a starting quarterback, I think I'll be more comfortable playing that leader role. There's no more, ‘Oh, he's a rookie, this and that.' It's time now.”
Leadership will come from confidence, and a more confident Fields will manifest itself in positive ways throughout the Bears' offense. Fields earned a 61.5 passing grade for the season, but his grade under pressure plummeted to 34.5. Now, every quarterback is worse under pressure, but a grade that low is simply unreliable.
Despite Fields throwing 10 interceptions, his total season turnover-worthy play rate wasn’t as bad as one might expect. When left clean in the pocket, he posted just a 1.5% turnover-worthy play percentage — lower than that of Matthew Stafford, Dak Prescott and even Josh Allen. However, when pressured, that percentage jumped all the way to 7.3%, one of the highest numbers in the league.
A more confident Fields will bring the more natural leadership he’s seeking and also improve many of his efficiency numbers when plays go off-script.
TE Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons: Red-Zone Play
Pitts’ rookie season was really good production-wise. The former No. 4 overall pick recorded over 1,000 yards receiving, becoming just the second rookie tight end to ever go over the 1,000-yard mark. His 82.2 receiving grade was also a top-10 mark for the position. But while Pitts thrived in many areas, the red zone was not his friend in 2021.
While seeing the eighth-most receiving snaps in the red zone among tight ends, Pitts ranked 28th in the NFL in terms of receiving grade there (60.2). His lone touchdown of the season came in the red zone on the goal line against the Jets in Week 5, but outside of that one throw and catch, Pitts failed to convert targets and attention into six points for the entire season.
Whether you call him a tight end or a wide receiver, he must improve in the money area of the red zone to truly achieve the full value of being a top-five pick.
LB Jamin Davis, Washington Commanders: Slow It Down
There were high hopes for Davis, the uber-athletic linebacker prospect from Kentucky, when Washington selected him No. 19 overall in the first round in 2021. He was able to get on the field right away for the Commanders, but the effectiveness wasn’t there.
When Jon Bostic tore his pectoral muscle in Week 4, it forced Davis to play the full-time MIKE linebacker role as the communicator for the defense. Such a task proved to be a tall one. When Davis had the chance to simply let his athletic ability shine, he did just that. But there were too many times during the season where he was reacting instead of anticipating. This yielded poor PFF grades, including a 48.7 coverage grade, a 48.6 run-defense grade and a 46.8 overall grade.
Perhaps Davis was playing out of position as a MIKE linebacker. Perhaps he’ll be much better naturally as a WILL linebacker with more space to operate in. But regardless of what position he ends up starting at for 2022, the game has to slow down for him. He has to be able to see things in the pre-snap, communicate that with his teammates and then get the most out of his coveted athleticism with good anticipation while the bullets are flying.