Will Trey Lance start Week 1? When all 5 first-round QBs could see the field

·9 min read

The 2021 NFL schedule is now official.

One question that begs an answer: Following a QB-heavy draft, when will the five first-round quarterbacks start their first games?

And ... might one of them not start a game this season? Don't forget, we've got an extra game — count 'em, 17 in all — for these highly touted rookies. 

Trevor Lawrence

Jacksonville Jaguars (1st overall)

We won't waste your time. Lawrence was the top pick in the draft, is considered a generational talent and has a coach who took the job with the premise that he'd be tied to the hip of said QB.

This is a different situation than, say, Baker Mayfield going first overall in 2018 and not starting until Week 4 that season (thanks, Hue!). Lawrence will be starting Week 1. But what will become of the quarterback who was supposed to start opposite him in that game? It's been oddly quiet on the Deshaun Watson front lately.

Prediction for first start: Week 1 at Houston Texans

Zach Wilson

New York Jets (2nd overall)

Wilson might not have been a household name to many NFL fans one year ago — or even six months ago, for that matter. But we're expecting him out there for the first snap of the opener. What, do you instead have your money on Mike White or James Morgan?

It's a new era of Jets ball. They loaded up on offense with the first four picks in the draft and previously beefed up the offensive line and receiver positions in free agency. New head coach Robert Saleh can wipe the slate clean, and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur has an offense that might suit Wilson's skills quite nicely.

The fascinating part about the Jets' first game is that it comes against the man Wilson is replacing in Sam Darnold. (Yes, it's also the Pat Elflein and Robby Anderson Revenge Games.)

Jets fans, this game is your life.

Prediction for first start: Week 1 at Carolina Panthers

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Trey Lance

San Francisco 49ers (3rd overall)

OK, now we're veering off course. Despite paying a king's ransom to move up for the right to draft Lance, we're far from sure he's your Opening Day starter. After all, Kyle Shanahan said soon after picking Lance that his protege isn't ready ... yet.

Could Jimmy Garoppolo hold off the rookie? That's possible. His contract pays him more than $24 million this season in base salary. The 49ers might want to get something in return for that.

What if Jimmy is moved? That feels about as likely, if not more, than Lance just straight up beating out Garoppolo in a head-to-head battle. Teams such as the Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers might still be looking for a starting quarterback. 

The Texans' general manager, Nick Caserio, once had a hand in drafting Garoppolo, although Houston is not currently in shape to handle taking on his salary. (And it wouldn't get salary cap relief if Deshaun Watson happens to be put on the commissioner's exempt list, in case you're wondering.)

Could Trey Lance start Week 1 for the 49ers? (Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Could Trey Lance start Week 1 for the 49ers? (Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Even still, if Lance is deemed ready early on, we could see a Sam Bradford-to-the-Vikings type of trade with Garoppolo should a QB-needy team emerge. Another option: The 49ers could drop Garoppolo. His salary cap hit, post-June 1, would result in costs this year and next of a mere $1.4 million.

So let's go bold here: We think Lance starts very early and Garoppolo is elsewhere. If we're wrong on that part of it, the feeling is that Lance still could see action Week 1, perhaps getting a series or two.

If Lance starts Week 1, he'd be only the third-youngest starting QB ever at 21 years, 127 days. Atop the list: Darnold (21 years, 97 days), who coincidentally made his NFL debut at Ford Field, and Tommy Maddox (21 years, 81 days).  

Interestingly, former 49ers QB Alex Smith (21 years, 155 days) is currently fifth on the list. No. 8 on the list? Lance's current teammate Josh Rosen.

Prediction for first start: Week 1 at Detroit Lions

Justin Fields

Chicago Bears (11th overall)

Just when you thought the Fields-related angst was in the past ... we give you the Chicago Bears.

Drafting Fields was a stroke of luck with a dash of genius. Props to GM Ryan Pace, on whom we've been hard on at times. He pulled it off. This could be his legacy pick. It was as thrilling a draft moment as Bears fans ever have had.

Now they're splashing a little vinegar on the pumpkin pie. The vibe that head coach Matt Nagy is giving off now is that we need to be patient with Fields. And that makes me anxious. 

Look, if you have to bite the bullet on the majority of the $10 million paid to Andy Dalton, write it off as collateral damage. Dalton is fine. If he outplays Fields in training camp and the preseason, he's Chicago's Week 1 starter, especially with Aaron Donald and the Los Angeles Rams hosting the Bears in the opener. It would be so horribly Bears if Fields were to somehow get hurt in that one.

Justin Fields might have to wait, but he'll start games as a rookie for the Chicago Bears. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
Justin Fields might have to wait, but he'll start games as a rookie for the Chicago Bears. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

So we can give Dalton time. But if Fields is improving and showing promise in preseason games and camp practices, Nagy had better have a quick hook if Dalton can't hang against a semi-thorny early slate.

This is a tough call. We have to ignore our hearts and rely on our minds to gauge how the Bears might do it. That's scary but this thing is going to work out fine. Even with a few edgy moments prior to Fields first getting his shot.

Prediction for first start: Week 4 vs. Lions. Soldier Field would be on fire that day, no doubt. We think Dalton and the Bears lose at the Rams, pull off a close one at home to the Bengals in Week 2 and then get worked on the road at the Cleveland Browns in Week 3. At one point when he was a Bengal, Dalton owned the Browns, once going four years between picks against them. But when he struggles at the Dawg Pound — just down the road from where Fields starred in college — Dalton will be out of a starting gig.

Mac Jones

New England Patriots (15th overall)

Do you know the only two rookie quarterbacks ever to start a game for Bill Belichick as a head coach? Jacoby Brissett and Eric Zeier. 

Brissett started two games when Tom Brady was suspended the first four games of the 2016 season and Garoppolo got hurt in Week 2. Zeier replaced Vinny Testaverde, who was surprised with his benching in Week 9 of the Cleveland Browns' fateful 1995 season.

"[Belichick said he felt like we had no leadership," Testaverde said after the decision. "He said that I have been playing well, but that players around me have not performed."

So many interesting parallels. That Cleveland team carried high expectations. Sports Illustrated famously predicted them to make the Super Bowl. The wheels fell off in October and the team hit the road for Baltimore months later in one of the most surreal franchise relocations.

Of course, that part isn't happening in New England. But ... aging starter, former No. 1 overall pick, team building expectations after some offseason movement. It's absurd on some level to compare anything of Belichick's final Cleveland team to this Patriots squad, especially after his unimpeachable record in New England.

Still, the Cam Newton-Testaverde comparison isn't the wildest idea. Newton didn't get it done last year. Belichick seemed to love the guy. He just couldn't get by with another season of that level quarterbacking again. 

Enter Jones.

New England Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones almost certainly won't start right away. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
New England Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones almost certainly won't start right away. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Newton is almost guaranteed to start Week 1, barring something unforeseen. Belichick hosed down that speculation before even being asked. But the Patriots will groom Jones at Operation Warp Speed levels. There's a balancing act that needs to happen. 

The style differences between Newton and Jones couldn't be more stark. Newton is a strapping athlete with a big arm (or at least he used to have one) and a game based on his running ability. Jones is a Brady-ish (more Drew Brees-ish or Kurt Warner-ish, if you ask me) precision thrower with limited rushing capabilities.

So offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will have one playbook but two very disparate chapters. Pulling off a Newton-to-Jones transition this season — with success — could give McDaniels (yet) another head-coaching reheat. The Patriots have beefed up their defense and can win some games without an explosive passing game.

Finding the right spot on the schedule is tricky, but we'll see Jones in there at some point this season. 

Prediction for first start: Week 11 at Atlanta Falcons. We'll say Newton makes it through his homecoming start at Carolina in Week 9, but if he's just treading water at that point and struggles the next week at home against Cleveland, it wouldn't be stunning to see a change. Giving Jones a debut start on the road wouldn't be the worst idea. It's a stadium he has played in, and the Falcons' defense doesn't look so hot on paper. 

Giving Jones three starts (including a big one at Buffalo in Week 13) before the Week 14 bye, followed by the final four more (including some winnable ones) down the stretch, could still end up with New England in the postseason at, say, 10-7. (Boy, that still feels weird to type.)

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