NFL News & Analysis

Ranking the situations for the NFL's top second-year quarterbacks in 2022

East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson (2) warms up before the game between the New York Giants and the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

The conclusion of the NFL draft marks the last major offseason chance for teams with young quarterbacks to drastically improve the environment around them.

There are still veteran free agents on the market for tinkering around the edges, but by and large, the current state of each franchise is what the six second-year quarterbacks from 2021 are going to be working with as they look to prove themselves in their sophomore seasons.

Here is how each situation ranks, in order from best to worst:

1. Zach Wilson, New York Jets

  • Receivers: B+
  • Protection: B+
  • Coaching: B

The Jets had a much clearer intention of building around Wilson this offseason and prioritized upgrading his receiving corps in the draft. They still hit defense with two of their first three selections, but the third was the No. 1 wide receiver on their draft board in Garrett Wilson from Ohio State. Wilson has a complete skill set for the position, averaging more than 3.0 yards per route run in each of his final two seasons in college with different quarterbacks. Passes thrown his way in his college career generated a 140.6 NFL passer rating, and he should allow last year’s additions — Corey Davis and Elijah Moore — to be more productive in addition to making his own impact.

Tight ends C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin were signed in free agency, and at the top of the second round, the team added a complete back in Iowa State’s Breece Hall. Wilson can’t ask for much more in terms of playmakers to target.

The offensive line finished last season as the No. 11-ranked unit at PFF, and while the Jets had the opportunity to continue to add talent in the draft, they elected to largely stay the course and trust in the development of young players and improved cohesion if Mekhi Becton can stay healthy. 

Robert Saleh is a defensive-minded head coach, and the Jets have aggressively improved that side of the ball this offseason. The offensive structures are under the control of Mike LaFleur, and the Shanahan coaching tree is proven to be arguably the NFL's most quarterback-friendly system.

2. Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers

  • Receivers: A-
  • Protection: B+
  • Coaching: A

Theoretically, Lance still has the best environment for success of any of these young quarterbacks, but his major problem is that there’s another quarterback still in front of him. The draft presented the best chance of the 49ers trading Jimmy Garoppolo to open up the starting spot for Lance.

San Francisco has been pretty sparse in its indications that Lance is the guy, and after a rookie season in which he played just 179 total snaps, he needs to do something special in training camp to lock down the job once and for all.

If he does, his receiving corps is excellent, if unorthodox. The unit's best two players are Deebo Samuel and George Kittle — a “wide back” and a tight end. Samuel is excellent in all areas of the game and would be a great conventional receiver, but what makes this supporting cast so good is how it causes defenses problems within the Shanahan scheme through unusual positions and alignments. 

While the offensive line was outstanding last season, it lost players in the offseason and needs to be wary of the interior becoming a problem. Trent Williams is coming off a 96.6 PFF grade — the highest ever given to an offensive tackle — and is a one-man bulldozer at left tackle.

In terms of coaching, no scheme does more for its players than Kyle Shanahan’s. He is able to maximize the impact of each man on the field and has turned even replacement-level quarterbacks into productive players. Lance couldn’t ask for a better chance in the NFL than Shanahan operating his marionette strings from the sideline, but he needs to win the starting job or it’s all for naught. 

3. Mac Jones, New England Patriots

  • Receivers: B
  • Protection: B+
  • Coaching: B-

The Patriots had a curious (read: bad) draft, but they at least addressed offense and continued to build around Jones as much as possible. Trading away guard Shaq Mason for just a fifth-round pick and using a first on an offensive lineman who ranked 76th on the consensus board and 86th on PFF’s big board can’t be seen as anything but a downgrade, but it is continued investment in Jones. They reached again for receiver Tyquan Thornton, but the Baylor receiver does at least bring blazing speed to the table, a trait missing from the New England receiving corps generally.

All of a sudden, the Patriots might not have a collection of star receivers, but they have a diverse and capable group that Jones should be able to take advantage of. 

Exactly what combination of five offensive linemen takes the field this season is still under construction, but it should be a quality unit, regardless. The Patriots' line finished last season ranked inside the top 10, and that was without Michael Onwenu getting much playing time. Onwenu has PFF grades of 84.3 and 87.0 since coming into the league and has shown a very high ceiling as a starter across multiple positions.

For the first time in years, New England's offense will be called by somebody other than Josh McDaniels. Who exactly is in charge is a little less clear, as there is no offensive coordinator on the staff — only a collection of position assistants and Joe Judge brought back as an offensive assistant. The expertise on staff is defensive-minded, and how the team fares running the offense without McDaniels remains unclear.

4. Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars 

  • Receivers: C-
  • Protection: C-
  • Coaching: B

The Jaguars went on a spending spree in free agency this season and had the No. 1 pick in the draft. So few quarterbacks had the kind of opportunity for a sea change in environment like Lawrence. How those resources were deployed is a little more questionable, with a clear pattern difficult to discern outside of the team overpaying relative to the rest of the marketplace.

Christian Kirk gives Lawrence a new receiver to play with, but his four-year, $72 million contract was a vast overpay even when cutting through the headline figure to something that looks more like a two-year, $37 million deal. Kirk enjoyed a breakout year in Arizona last season as a vertical slot threat but still averaged only 1.81 yards per route run and failed to clear 1,000 receiving yards. He has to be a significantly more dominant player for the Jaguars because their other receivers are Zay Jones and Marvin Jones Jr. Jacksonville has a collection of complementary pieces without the alpha dog they should be complementing. 

On the offensive line, they spent big bringing in guard Brandon Scherff, who isn’t coming off his best year but has been consistently one of the better-graded guards in the league. Scherff didn’t allow a sack last season and should materially upgrade one spot on the line for Lawrence. The team otherwise largely re-upped with what it had and eschewed the opportunity to draft a tackle with the first overall selection. Jacksonville finished the 2021 season with the 24th-ranked offensive line in the league, and it’s tough to see that it’s vastly improved for the start of the 2022 campaign.

The one clear area of improvement is in coaching, where the disastrous tenure of Urban Meyer has been swept away in favor of Doug Pederson, who has a Super Bowl win on his resume. Simply not being in the toxic Meyer environment is the big win here for Lawrence, but Pederson also has a good track record of creating a viable offense to at least get a fair evaluation of Lawrence. Overall, Lawrence’s situation got better, but he still has his work cut out for him. 

5. Davis Mills, Houston Texans

  • Receivers: C
  • Protection: C-
  • Coaching: C+

The Texans traded away Deshaun Watson this offseason in a massive deal that ended their part in the saga that has been dragging on for some time and preventing general manager Nick Caserio’s project from even starting in Houston. Mills might not be the long-term solution at quarterback, but he’s going to get a chance to prove otherwise this season, and the Texans have started to put some pieces in place for him to use.

The team locked down Brandin Cooks and added John Metchie III from Alabama in the second round of the draft. If 2021 rookie Nico Collins can take a step forward in Year 2, that could quietly become a useful receiving group for Mills.

The offensive line is a much bigger issue, and even with a first-round addition in guard Kenyon Green from Texas A&M, it’s a unit that may struggle overall. A.J. Cann has been a below-average starter overall since 2016, with sub-65.0 overall PFF grades in four of the past five seasons. The team needs to get unexpectedly positive play out of Cann or Tytus Howard at right tackle to boost this line.

In terms of coaching, Lovie Smith was hired before the Watson trade had any real line of sight and is realistically just a stopgap until the team can find the man to head this project next offseason. He is also a defensive-minded coach, but his offensive coordinator is Pep Hamilton, a very respected offensive mind with a solid track record with quarterbacks, including coaching Justin Herbert during his spectacular rookie season.

6. Justin Fields, Chicago Bears

  • Receivers: D
  • Protection: D+
  • Coaching: B-

It could be argued that last season’s Bears regime was actively undermining Fields at times, but they were replaced by a new general manager and coaching staff in the offseason. The problem is that Chicago was in a rough state at the time that new staff took over, and so any rebuild had to begin with stripping the thing down to the bare bones. That is typically not conducive to improving the support structure of the incumbent quarterback.

Chicago may have the worst offense in the NFL on paper as we look toward the new season, and the front office has done little to improve it. Allen Robinson II was coming off a bad year but was still Chicago's best receiver by far, and the new players expected to replace him are Byron Pringle, Equanimeous St. Brown and third-round rookie Velus Jones Jr

Fields reportedly watched tape with general manager Ryan Poles and gave his input on which draft receivers he liked, so we can presume he saw something in Jones, but it's still a big stretch to expect that group to do anything to help him look better in his sophomore year.

The offensive line also took a step backward, and it wasn’t in a great place to begin with. Jason Peters got lit up on occasion last season but was overall playing well, particularly given his age. His spot is now being handed to Tevin Jenkins, who played fewer than 200 snaps in his rookie year due to injury. If Peters wasn’t the best player on the line, James Daniels held the honor, and he is also elsewhere in 2022. Lucas Patrick was passable last season for the Packers but is likely a downgrade at that spot. Fields is on track to spend significant time under pressure this season.


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