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Gauging the level of concern for five disappointing 2021 first-round rookies

Indianapolis Colts safety Khari Willis (37) pressures Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) who scrambles and throws a touchdown pass to wide receiver Marvin Jones (11) during the third quarter of the game on Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Fla. The Indianapolis Colts Versus Jacksonville Jaguars On Sunday Jan 9 2022 Tiaa Bank Field In Jacksonville Fla

One season of disappointing play isn’t enough to close the book on an NFL player.

In a series of data studies two years ago, PFF’s Timo Riske determined that the step from college football to the NFL comes with a steep learning curve. A player’s rookie season is less predictive for future performance than other years.

Those shouldn’t be controversial findings. Situation matters, and young players develop to the speed of the NFL game at different paces. There’s also anecdotal evidence of players who prematurely drew first-round “bust” labels only to make second-year leaps, which supports that data. 

New York Giants left tackle Andrew Thomas went from allowing 57 quarterback pressures as a rookie in 2020 — the second most in the NFL — to earning a top-10 PFF pass-blocking grade (82.1) among qualifying left tackles in 2021. He improved with a year of experience and another offseason to work at his craft.  

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Last offseason, I wrote this same article looking at five 2020 rookies who had disappointed, noting: Given the performance of several other rookie tackles — namely Tristan Wirfs — the Giants would probably like a redo at fourth overall, but it’s still much too early to bury Thomas with a ‘bust' label.”

Hopefully, we can quell some fan uneasiness surrounding a few more disappointing rookie performances from first-round selections in the 2021 NFL Draft. 

Pick No. 1: QB Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars

2021 regular-season PFF grade: 59.6 (27 / 32 at QB)

Let’s start with the bad. Lawrence ranked near the bottom of every basic passing efficiency statistic: His 6.0 yards per attempt was the lowest out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks, and his 59.6% completion rate and 71.9 passer rating were both third-lowest. Jacksonville ranked 27th in the NFL in Expected Points Added (EPA) per pass play, and Lawrence’s 26 turnover-worthy plays during the regular season tied for third-most in the NFL behind only Ben Roethlisberger and Taylor Heinicke.

Despite all that, there’s reason to believe Lawrence still has the best chance of any rookie quarterback in the 2021 NFL Draft to produce an elite career. 

A big part of that is because Lawrence’s expectations coming out of Clemson were so high following three consecutive seasons with a PFF grade above 90.0. It doesn’t make sense to throw those priors out the window. 

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During his rookie season, Lawrence also flashed the physical talent that helped make him the clear-cut No. 1 overall pick in a deep and talented quarterback class. His poise and ability to maneuver in the pocket is perhaps the biggest positive to take away from his 2021 performance. Lawrence finished among the top-10 quarterbacks in the NFL in dropbacks per sack taken with 21 — an often overlooked aspect of quarterback performance.

Jacksonville's No. 1 priority this offseason is to provide more support for Lawrence. 

Unfortunately, perfect throws with a defender in his face — like the one above — fell incomplete too frequently last season. Jacksonville ranked among the league’s bottom-five receiving corps with 32 dropped passes, a 37% contested catch rate and 4.7 yards after the catch per reception in 2021. D.J. Chark Jr.’s early season departure due to injury didn’t help what was already one of the worst units in the NFL. 

Another potential move in the right direction could be to bring in an offensive scheme that doesn’t force Lawrence to play quite as much “hero ball.” His average time to throw at Clemson was nearly half of a second lower than it was as a rookie in Jacksonville, and Lawrence really struggled in those late-in-play situations in 2021. He recorded a sub-50.0 completion rate and 57.0 passer rating on throws over 2.5 seconds after the snap. 

That’s all before getting into the Urban Meyer disaster. There is plenty of reason to give Lawrence a mulligan for his underwhelming rookie results and see how he performs in a new offense with more talent around him.

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Pick No. 2: QB Zach Wilson, New York Jets

2021 regular-season PFF grade: 59.3 (29 / 32 at QB)

Lawrence and Wilson both put up disappointing results as rookies, but they struggled in different ways. 

PFF’s lead draft analyst Mike Renner recently dropped Wilson to fifth in a re-rank of the 2021 quarterback class after Wilson held the No. 2 spot entering the draft.

Renner wrote of Wilson’s spot on the list: “With Wilson, you saw the tremendous arm talent, and you saw it repeatedly. His ability to make plays out of structure was truly jaw-dropping at times. The problem is that’s where nearly all his impressive plays came. A distinct lack of confidence marred his play from the pocket.”

That lack of confidence in the Jets’ system showed in Wilson holding on to the ball without pushing it downfield. Here are the five quarterbacks to record an average time to throw over 3.0 seconds with their corresponding average depth of targets last season. 

Player Average time to throw Average depth of target
Jalen Hurts 3.20s 9.3
Jameis Winston 3.09s 9.5
Justin Fields 3.06s 10.1
Lamar Jackson 3.06s 10.0
Zach Wilson 3.05s 8.0

Holding on to the ball like that, just to check it down without taking advantage of longer developing and more valuable routes downfield, is not a recipe for offensive success. It showed in Wilson’s results. 


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