The picks are in for the 2021 NFL draft, and the early run on quarterbacks likely will be a big part of this class' legacy. The five QBs selected in the first 15 overall picks also could help elevate or sink their respective franchises.
We decided to move the ball downfield a bit and take a look at how those five quarterbacks will fit in their new offensive systems — and when we might expect to see them on the field.
Some will start immediately. Others will require patience. And there might be one or more whose athletic traits are featured early on in a non-starting role prior to being handed the keys to the full offense.
Here they are in the order they were selected:
Jacksonville Jaguars (1st overall)
How will the Jaguars handle Lawrence early on? Yes, he’s the overwhelming favorite to start all 17 games, assuming he’s healthy. Will the Jags ask him to operate pre- and post-snap the way a veteran NFL starter would be tasked with doing?
At Clemson, Lawrence ran an offense that was highly scripted. There were ample predetermined reads and half-field reads, which made Lawrence robotic at times in his execution. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing.)
Jaguars coordinator Darrell Bevell joins Urban Meyer's staff, along with passing-game coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, to help build the offense — both to tailor it to Lawrence’s strengths and expand his duties to see how much they can squeeze out of a terrific talent.
Bevell was Russell Wilson’s offensive coordinator during his rookie season.
“His ability to get Russell Wilson in the NFL and performing at a high level rather quickly was a big reason why he's here," Meyer said.
Bevell’s offense in Seattle was built around moving pockets, a zone run game, play-action and option routes in the pass game. He also coached Brett Favre, tutored Aaron Rodgers as a rookie and helped Matthew Stafford to two strong seasons in 2019 and 2020.
With Wilson, the zone-read game was very much in play; with Favre and Stafford, it wasn’t as much. Lawrence’s athleticism likely would be featured in the offense. Meyer’s experience in the spread-option game certainly will have an influence on the offense’s makeup.
Meyer also placed a high emphasis on adding speed and big-play ability in the offseason, which is another way to help ease Lawrence’s transition.
“Big plays were absent on offense last year, and we have to get better,” Meyer said, “and a lot of it is [based on] speed.”
Based on talent, experience and Lawrence’s draft position, it would be a stunning upset if he wasn’t the Week 1 starter. Even so, Meyer said the Jaguars are going to be “cautious” in picking their opening-game QB.
“The most important thing for Trevor is to learn the offense, it's not to sell billboards around the state of Florida,” Meyer said.
New York Jets (2nd overall)
Even before the Jets selected Wilson with the second overall pick in 2021, new head coach Robert Saleh — a defensive guy most of his life — touted the new offensive system that coordinator Mike LaFleur will run as “the best scheme in the world.”
After the draft pick was made official, Saleh expounded on what that meant.
“I just think this system is built for quarterbacks,” Saleh said. “It is a quarterback-friendly system, it’s designed to help these kids. It’s pitch and catch, max protection, two-man concepts, balls [are] out of their hands, and it’s in and out of their hands as quickly as possible.
“You need to have an accurate quarterback who has a tremendous amount of mental horsepower, and he’s got all of it.”
Wilson had an up-and-down first two seasons at BYU. By the 2020 season, Wilson and the offense realized their full potential. It featured a wide-open passing game and concepts that helped take advantage of Wilson's athletic gifts.
Former BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes borrowed elements of several systems for the Cougars' playbook — the 1970s and 1980s BYU offense that was a progenitor to the Air Raid, staples from the early 2000s Boise State offense that tried to stretch the field horizontally (think screens, drags and fly sweeps) and Matt Canada’s playbook from LSU, which melded the power run, the outside zone series, play-action, vertical shots and plenty of trick plays and misdirection.
LaFleur — brother of Green Bay Packers head coach Matt — has spent the past seven seasons coaching alongside West Coast offense disciple Kyle Shanahan. So expect a lot of that offense to be brought to the Big Apple. That means it figures to be a West Coast-steeped system tweaked with plenty of pocket movement and play-action.
And though LaFleur wasn’t with Shanahan in Washington for Robert Griffin III’s rookie season, Shanahan was wise enough then to realize the high value of adding the zone-read series into the playbook. It paid off with Griffin winning the 2012 Rookie of the Year Award, as Griffin led the NFL in interception percentage (1.3%), yards per attempt (8.1) and yards per carry (6.7).
It would only figure that LaFleur does the same. In 2020, as Grimes' offense reached peak efficiency, Wilson logged a 33-3 TD-INT ratio, 11.1 yards per pass attempt and (taking out sacks) averaged 5.3 yards per rush and ran for 10 scores.
“When you look at Zach, a lot of the principles that he played in college you can see it — they ran a lot of our system,” Saleh said. “And so, you can see him making all those throws. You can see the deep bench routes to the sideline. You can see the over-the-middle throws. You can see the boots, the play-action pass game. You can see all of it."
Wilson, like Lawrence, is considered the heavy favorite to start from the get-go, even if the Jets aren’t ready to proclaim that. But with more offensive firepower added through free agency (WR Corey Davis) and the draft (OG Alijah Vera-Tucker, WR Elijah Moore, RB Michael Carter), along with the crossover of Wilson’s college offense and what the Jets will run, it’s expected to be a doable transition from the start.
San Francisco 49ers (3rd overall)
The most fascinating Round 1 QB landed in the hands of Shanahan, which makes for an experiment that could lead the 49ers to the promised land … or loom as one of the biggest leaps of faith in recent draft memory.
Lance’s 17-game career at FCS-level North Dakota State was prolific, completing 65.4% of his passes for 2,947 yards and a 30-1 TD-INT ratio, as well as running for 1,325 yards (a 6.9-yard average) and 18 TDs. What made it more impressive is that Lance was tasked with making protection changes at the line and making full-read progressions on some throws, all at the age of 19.
The Bison’s scheme was vast and diverse, a hodgepodge of pro concepts, power sets (multiple tight ends and fullbacks), the QB run game and play-action run from under center, the shotgun and the pistol.
Lance and Robert Griffin III are two different styles of quarterbacks, but it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine Shanahan dipping into his 2012 playbook for ideas to unleash Lance’s running ability the way he did with Griffin in that Rookie of the Year season.
“When you add on a type of running element — which I’ve always been intrigued with — but when you’ve got a guy who’s got the skill sets, as far as speed and size to where you’re not going to make them a runner,” Shanahan said, “but if you can get in certain formations where the defense knows you will run them, if they don’t honor them, now everything’s different.”
It’s easy to see how Lance’s skills might mesh with Shanahan’s system. There’s good reason why the 49ers have eight running backs, four tight ends and two fullbacks (including do-it-all Kyle Juszczyk) on the roster.
Of course, they also currently have six quarterbacks, too. The only one who matters, as it relates to when Lance might take over, is incumbent starter Jimmy Garoppolo. After missing two chunks of last season with an ankle injury, Garoppolo seemingly has fallen out of favor. Fifteen months ago he had the 49ers up two scores midway through the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.
Shanahan said Garoppolo is the starter now. When Lance takes over for good is anyone’s guess, and it largely will depend on whether Garoppolo can regain his 2019 form and whether Lance is ready for the enormous challenge.
In the interim it wouldn’t be a shock to see Lance be sprinkled in as a runner, much in the way Colin Kaepernick was early in his 49ers career, or similar to how the Saints have unleashed a package with Taysom Hill. Forcing defenses to honor the run threat and play more 11-on-11 football could help add a dimension to the 49ers’ offense that has been missing for some time.
Chicago Bears (11th overall)
Bears fans were over the moon when general manager Ryan Pace slid up nine spots — giving up Chicago's 2022 first-rounder, plus more — to land Fields. Whereas the Mitchell Trubisky trade-up pick confused a lot of Bears fans four years earlier, this one felt like a reason to dance naked on Michigan Avenue.
Now comes the question: When will Fields start?
The Bears have said Andy Dalton is their starter, but coaches say things like this all the time with fingers crossed behind their backs. Even still, Fields probably needs to clearly outplay Andy Dalton to make this a Week 1 thing.
There have been a lot of comparisons to the situation Bears head coach Matt Nagy oversaw in his final years in Kansas City with Patrick Mahomes sitting (save for one Week 17 start) behind Alex Smith before getting his shot the following year.
This is different. If Fields is ready now, he should play. Dalton is what he is at this stage of his career, and Nagy and Pace might be fighting for jobs. Rookie quarterbacks have a built-in excuse for occasionally poor play and they offer hope for the future.
Next week’s schedule release also could give us an idea how and when that baton pass could occur.
"So how great is that for a young rookie to come on in and learn from a guy like [Dalton] and Nick Foles and see there's things that he can take from them and really put into his toolbox and use to make him be the greatest quarterback he can possibly be," Nagy said after the Bears picked Fields. "As everybody has talked about, I went through that in 2017. So is it gonna be the same thing? I don't know. But at least we have some type of blueprint to at least work off of and be able to just kinda use that to start and see where it goes."
Fields, unlike Dalton, is an elite athlete with an aggressive approach to vertical passing. Dalton has made his career on shorter, safer passes and avoiding turnovers. Their styles are pretty different.
What Fields most was nicked for in his 2020 play at Ohio State was his slightly slow processing speed and anticipation. He’s more of a see-it, throw-it QB at this stage, and it could take some time for that to change — especially against faster and more complex NFL defenses.
The Bears might be spurred into making a QB change if Dalton plays too conservatively. This is not an offense replete with make-you-miss receivers and dynamic playmakers, outside of Allen Robinson.
Fields has the athleticism to add a run dimension to the offense. Don't overlook his downfield aggressiveness as a factor that could tilt things in Fields’ favor.
“That is a strength of his. And maybe with him we’ve gotta go [with a] touchdown-to-touchdown mentality — get some of that,” Nagy said. “That’s where that needs to go with all of our quarterbacks, but you’re hitting to the point of what one of his strengths is.”
New England Patriots (15th overall)
As Yahoo Sports’ Jay Busbee pointed out this week, being a rookie quarterback for Bill Belichick often requires a lot of clipboard duty. Not many rookies historically have played — period — under Belichick. If they’ve seen the field it often has been in mop-up duty.
But something about the Patriots picking Jones feels different. It’s the highest Belichick ever has drafted a QB; the previous high was Garoppolo at No. 62 overall. Also, the Patriots’ quarterback situation remains murky.
Cam Newton is the starter, Belichick said almost immediately after drafting Jones. What will change that? “Somebody will have to play better than [Cam] does,” Belichick added.
In Newton’s first three games with New England last season, he completed 62 of 91 passes (68.1%) for 714 yards, two TDs and two INTs. After a bout with COVID-19, Newton returned and struggled. In his next 11 games, Newton completed 159 of 247 passes (64.4%) for a mere 1,701 yards, three TDs and eight INTs.
Newton ran the ball effectively most of the season and capped the year with a 3-TD, no-pick performance over the hapless Jets. So which version of Newton will show up to training camp this year? He was hurt by signing late and not having an offseason program or a full camp, and he was held back by the Patriots’ limited weaponry at the skill positions.
Even so, Jones’ performance during Alabama’s championship season, running through a gauntlet of opponents during a 13-0 campaign, can’t go overlooked. His numbers stacked up with those of his predecessor, Tua Tagovailoa, as Jones completed an NCAA-record 77.4% of his passes in 2020 for 4,500 yards, 41 TDs and four interceptions. As you no doubt have heard, his game more resembles Tom Brady as a pocket passer than it does Newton as a dual threat. Jones was credited with having some Brady-esque qualities: toughness, smarts, precision and mental readiness.
“I’ve been on record saying this: I honestly think he’s the most qualified rookie quarterback to start in Year 1,” said former Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who now is the head coach at Texas.
One veteran outsider agrees. Former college and NFL head coach June Jones, who already extolled the virtues of Mac Jones to Yahoo Sports while promoting his CoachTube.com series, touting Jones as a better prospect than even Trevor Lawrence, is doubling down on his Jones love.
“Mac will be the rebirth of Tom Brady,” June Jones told us recently. “I still say he is more ready to play in an NFL system that all of the players in this draft, even more so than [Zach] Wilson, whom I really like as well, as you don’t have to put in plays for quarterback-type runs, [which] will have to take place for Trevor and Trey [Lance] to play right away.”
The call will come down to Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. How they’ll juggle the disparate skills of Newton and Mac Jones will be fun to watch play out in camp and in the preseason and it’s anyone’s guess when a potential switch might happen.
Whenever it does, expect the Patriots’ offense to resemble what Brady ran early in his career and what Matt Cassel ran in the 2008 season when he replaced Brady (torn ACL) in Week 1: a pared-down version of the Patriots’ hybrid passing scheme that Brady helped turn into one of the league’s best eventually.
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