How QBs Lawrence, Wilson, Fields, Jones, Mills have struggled
In recent years, NFL analysts and fans have grown accustomed to the second-year quarterback breakout. Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson won MVP awards in their second seasons, while Carson Wentz was on pace to take home one of his own before suffering a torn left ACL in 2017. Fellow draftees Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen, Jalen Hurts and Jared Goff all took their own major strides forward in their sophomore campaigns.
With five quarterbacks coming off the board in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft, I suspect I wasn’t the only one expecting a breakout or two to join that group this season. Through eight weeks, though, the class of 2021 has been a major disappointment.
Trey Lance went down with a season-ending right ankle injury in Week 2, and sixth-rounder Sam Ehlinger just made his first NFL start in a narrow Colts loss to the Commanders, but the other second-year candidates have struggled. In Week 9, leaving Ehlinger aside, the five other second-year passers posted a combined QBR of just 21.4. Their only win came when one of those five (Mac Jones) won against another (Zach Wilson).
We are about to hit the halfway point of the rookie contract quarterback cycle for these passers. Organizations have to make meaningful decisions about each of them after their third seasons. For first-rounders, that’s when their fifth-year option commitments come up and teams have to decide whether they want to fully guarantee a fifth season with a significant raise. Quarterbacks drafted later enter the final year of their contracts after Year 3, which means it’s time for them to get new deals, as Hurts likely will this offseason.
With half of their evaluation periods in the books, can you say for sure that any of these quarterbacks are the long-term solutions for their teams? Do any of them feel like they’ve taken that leap? Are any of them even playing better than they did as rookies? Inspired by what I saw in Week 8, let’s evaluate those five passers and see whether there are reasons to be optimistic (or pessimistic) about what we’ve seen from them so far.
Pick in 2021 draft: No. 1
Nominally, if you asked people which of these passers was the closest to looking like a franchise quarterback, Lawrence would be the most common answer. It’s fair to write off last season as an Urban Meyer-riddled fever dream. And at his best, Lawrence looks like the total package. Nobody else in this class has his combination of arm strength, physical tools and pocket presence.
And yet, when you account for the lofty expectations surrounding Lawrence as arguably the best college quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck in 2012, I’m not sure he is any closer to what he was supposed to be than the other guys on this list. The strides he was supposed to take with a better coach and a revamped receiving corps haven’t come this season, and it has cost the Jaguars games.
Jacksonville has lost five straight after a 2-1 start. Lawrence looked solid to begin the season, but he has not been on the right side of the ledger for the Jaguars during this slide. His minus-9.3% completion percentage over expectation (CPOE) over that stretch is the second worst in the league, behind only Baker Mayfield. His accuracy isn’t where it should be.
Drops have played a meaningful role, since Jacksonville’s receivers have dropped nearly 7% of his passes during the losing streak, but they don’t explain the whole story. More than 21% of Lawrence’s passes over the past five games have been off-target, the third-worst mark in football. ESPN’s adjusted completion percentage metric accounts for drops and the depth of each pass; the only starters with a less impressive adjusted completion percentage over the past five weeks are Marcus Mariota and Justin Fields.
It would be easy to imagine a scenario in which Lawrence was making mistakes under pressure, or the offense wasn’t giving him the solutions he wants, and those things do happen at times. In reality, though, these problems are popping up in comfortable situations. When he has been unpressured over the past five games, he ranks 27th in QBR, 32nd in CPOE and 31st in off-target rate.
All of this would be forgivable if it weren’t for what Lawrence has done in the red zone. No quarterback has hurt his team’s chances more significantly inside the 20 this season. The Jacksonville offense ranks sixth in the NFL in expected points added (EPA) per play outside of the red zone, but once it gets inside the 20, it drops all the way to 30th in the same category.
Lawrence has thrown three red zone interceptions over that stretch, including one against the Broncos in London on Sunday. No other quarterback has more than one red zone pick over that stretch. Each pass has been a terrible decision, with throws into windows on the sideline that simply did not exist. Lawrence’s picks against the Texans and Broncos were both similar, as they came on sprint-outs in which he didn’t have anywhere to put the football and threw it anyway. To do that on first-and-goal from the 1-yard line — as Lawrence did Sunday — is just egregious.
Lawrence has 14 incompletions over the past five games on passes that had an expected completion percentage of 80% or more, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Some of these are drops (most notably in the Texans game), but many of them are just poorly placed passes on throws at or around the line of scrimmage. Only one came Sunday, a screen to JaMycal Hasty that seemed set to turn into a big play, only for the pass to be overthrown in the process of the Broncos reacting to the screen.
Trevor Lawrence might have good matchups ahead, but he’s a generally shaky fantasy QB2. Video by Tristan H. Cockcroft
Is it fair to worry whether this is going to continue to be a concern for Lawrence? While he was an elite quarterback prospect by just about any measure, accuracy wasn’t his strongest suit at Clemson. By the same adjusted completion percentage metric, he ranked 27th in the nation between 2018 and 2020; good, certainly, but behind such passers as Fields, Zach Wilson and Jalen Hurts. The Jaguars have players who can create after the catch, so Lawrence is leaving opportunities on the table by missing these short throws.
The good news for the Jags, at least relative to the competition, is that Lawrence had the best stretch of the season for any of these second-year quarterbacks. Over that 2-1 start, his 72.9 QBR was the league’s sixth-best mark. He completed more than 69% of his passes, posted a positive CPOE and tossed six touchdown passes against one pick. Any of the teams with the passers on this list would trade away a draft pick next week if they could guarantee that sort of three-game stretch from their quarterback in the weeks to come.
Relative to these other passers, exhibiting some semblance of a professional ceiling is a promising sign for Lawrence. Compared to his pre-draft expectations, though, he is still struggling to match up. It’s too early to drastically recalibrate what we think he is capable of doing at the NFL level, but for a signal-caller who seemed to be a plug-and-play superstar by the end of his freshman season at Clemson, he clearly is further away from stardom than it seemed.
Pick in 2021 draft: No. 2
I’ll spoil it for you here without needing to go to the end of the column: I’m most concerned about Wilson, who might be playing the worst of any quarterback in the entire league over the past few weeks. Nobody is making more puzzling decisions or putting the ball in danger more than him, and that’s extremely worrisome for a Jets team that is legitimately competing for a playoff berth.
Let’s go back to a Week 7 clip before I get into what happened in Week 8. Sometimes, a lucky break or a seemingly harmless play can lead to something worse. Here’s a Wilson incompletion from the win over the Broncos:
Zach? Zach??? pic.twitter.com/wXTDMBFPW4
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) October 24, 2022
Wilson looks under pressure here, but he helps create the pressure by scrambling out of the pocket instead of stepping up. The play turns into a scramble drill, and he decides to turn into Josh Allen or Patrick Mahomes. He does an impressive job of scrambling away from two defenders and extending the play, but he then throws across his body to the middle of the field in an attempt to find a late completion. These throws occasionally turn into miraculous completions, as was the case for that famous Sam Darnold pass against the 49ers, but they more often lead to interceptions.
It would be one thing if that were one isolated mistake in an otherwise solid game, but Wilson’s performance against the Broncos was one of the worst games I’ve seen a quarterback play all season, especially in a victory. He had several other ill-advised decisions, often while scrambling. He created pressures out of a clean pocket. He put the ball in harm’s way or missed open receivers with throws that weren’t in the right place. It was the sort of day that gets forgotten by fans in the excitement of a victory but keeps the coaching staff up at night.
Enter Bill Belichick and the Patriots, who have been attacking underwhelming Jets quarterbacks for more than two decades now. Wilson actually was pretty reasonable early in Week 8, but just before halftime, the dam burst. Facing a sim pressure from the Patriots and a free rusher in Matthew Judon, he correctly identified his hot receiver and attempted to toss the ball to an open Ty Johnson. A casual pass off his back foot sailed, however, and was picked off by Ja’Whaun Bentley.
It got worse. After a boot concept failed to yield any promising leads, Wilson scrambled in an attempt to use time to get someone open. Again, he threw a pass under pressure, but while this one wasn’t to the middle of the field, the only player within 4 yards of the throw was New England safety Devin McCourty. Wilson might very well have been trying to throw the ball away, but by waiting until the last possible second without resetting to get rid of it, he wasn’t able to launch the ball out of bounds.
The third interception throw was in more desperate straits, as the Jets trailed by nine on a third-and-7 in the fourth quarter. It was also a pass at the end of a scramble into what some might call quadruple coverage. The Patriots didn’t really have four men on Tyler Conklin, but there were four defenders between Conklin and any other New York player, and the pass wasn’t even catchable by the tight end. None of the three pass attempts was a smart decision.
Zach Wilson throws three interceptions including two bad ones to Devin McCourty as the Jets fall to the Patriots.
When Wilson gets out of the pocket and throws, bad things usually happen. The league as a whole is worse when it gets outside the pocket, posting a combined QBR of 39.9, but Wilson’s 4.3 mark ranks 29th. He’s 5-of-28 for 137 yards with two picks, both of which came Sunday. He has generated 7 yards per scramble this season, but he has scrambled only seven times across his five starts.
Inside the pocket, Wilson has been better, even if there are still some issues. His QBR inside the pocket is 53.6, which ranks 14th. He’s averaging a hair under 8 yards per attempt, although much of that is after the catch; Wilson’s average of 7.5 YAC on throws inside the pocket is the most in football.
Sometimes, high YAC numbers can be a product of hitting receivers in stride. Other times, they’re a product of the types of passes you throw; targets at or near the line of scrimmage or to running backs on screens and swing passes produce more YAC than downfield throws, even if they require less from the quarterback.
With Wilson, both are true. Nearly 29% of his pocket passes are at or behind the line of scrimmage, which is the fifth-highest rate in the league. If we just look at passes thrown 5 yards or more past the LOS, though, he’s also in good shape: He averages 7.1 yards after catch per pocket pass, which is a full yard-and-a-half ahead of anybody else. Flip it to 10 yards past the line of scrimmage and Wilson’s passes average 12.9 YAC when nobody else tops 7.5 YAC on those passes.
At the same time, Wilson’s CPOE on those throws from the pocket is minus-7.8%; only Mayfield has been worse in 2022. Again, drops play a factor with CPOE, but the only passers with a worse adjusted completion percentage from the pocket are Fields, Mayfield and Cooper Rush. For an offense that would ideally operate from under center, Wilson hasn’t been able to do so; his 9.0 QBR on dropbacks under center is comfortably the worst mark in the league.
The good news is that other young quarterbacks have these problems. Passers struggle to set their feet when they scramble or don’t reset before releasing throws, leading to inaccurate passes. They blanch at operating outside of their preferred starting point. They struggle to get on the same page with their receivers in scramble drills. Wilson should improve there as his career goes along.
The bad news is that he hasn’t yet. I don’t see much difference between Wilson as a rookie and Wilson in his second season. The circumstances have changed, which has allowed the Jets to win games more often without relying on their starting quarterback, but it’s tough for me to look at how the Jets are winning and believe he is a driver as opposed to a passenger.
If you’re thinking of a Jets quarterback who flashed but never got better in a sustainable way during his time with the team, you’re thinking of the guy who feels like the closest comparable for Wilson at the moment. Darnold was the same quarterback for three years, and then beyond a brief spell when he was always playing from ahead in Carolina, he was that quarterback with the Panthers, too.
Darnold did that with a middling offensive line and subpar receivers. Wilson has a deep receiving corps, although his line has been hit hard by injuries, most recently to Alijah Vera-Tucker. Even allowing for those line issues, Wilson has more than enough help to play better. If he is what keeps the Jets from making the playoffs, the honeymoon period will be over.
Pick in 2021 draft: No. 15
The honeymoon seemingly already is over for Jones in New England, where the Pats faithful lustily booed him last Monday night and called for backup Bailey Zappe. They got their wish after Jones was fooled into throwing an interception, although it didn’t do much good after a hot first two possessions from the backup. Coach Bill Belichick suggested he intended to reinsert Jones into the game, but after the pick, he didn’t play a single offensive snap.
Back in the starting lineup for the entire game this week, Jones still looked discombobulated. His interception came on a tipped pass by a pass-rusher, but he averaged just 5.5 yards per attempt and didn’t complete a pass longer than 22 yards downfield. Facing a dangerous Jets defensive line, he was sacked six times on 41 dropbacks. The line didn’t have a great day, but he was part of the blame on a few of those sacks, either for not getting the ball out on time or not successfully scrambling away from pressure.
Unlike Lawrence and Wilson, Jones was successful as a rookie. Taking over as the Week 1 starter, he looked mature and comfortable under center from the jump. The Patriots were careful to not place too much on his shoulders, as they typically went to screens and draws in third-and-longs, but he played winning football as a part of a playoff team in New England.
Jones doesn’t look like the same guy this season. What has changed versus the passer who looked like a veteran pro in 2021?
To start, Jones is turning the ball over. In 2021, he started 17 games and threw 13 interceptions, throwing a pick on 2.5% of his pass attempts. He has seven picks across five starts this season. His interception rate has more than doubled; at 5.1%, it’s the highest in the league. He was benched after an interception last week and added another this week.
Jones deserves a portion of the blame for both interceptions. Last week, the Bears confused him with a post-snap rotation, showing a two-high look before the snap and then rolling to a Cover 3 shell afterward. He thought he had a window to hit a pass up the sidelines before the snap but either didn’t confirm or wasn’t able to confirm that the coverage was still the same afterward. The interception Sunday was on a pass tipped by edge rusher Bryce Huff, but he also held the ball for 3.4 seconds before attempting to get rid of his pass.
The high ankle sprain Jones suffered on his third interception of the game against the Ravens in Week 3 can lead to inaccurate passes and giveaways, but he also had four interceptions before the injury, too. He has struggled to get on the same page with DeVante Parker, who has often been targeted on those interceptions. Parker has been inconsistent as a receiver and downfield threat, and the Patriots have struggled to integrate him into their offense. Parker went down early in the Jets game and didn’t return, and I’m not sure the Patriots struggled much for his absence.
What was uncommon about Jones as a rookie, especially given his relative lack of experience at Alabama, was how comfortable he was operating before the snap. His preparation and ability to read pre-snap coverages and pressure packages helped get the Patriots into favorable looks and created easy completions. Some quarterbacks never grow comfortable with that element of the game; he was way ahead of the curve a year ago.
One of the ways we can measure that is by looking at what Jones did in quick game. On throws within 2.5 seconds of getting the ball, his 64.8 QBR ranked 21st, which is passable for a rookie. His 77.4% completion percentage on those passes was the fifth-best mark, behind stars such as Patrick Mahomes, Derek Carr, Dak Prescott and Aaron Rodgers. Jones ranked 11th in adjusted completion percentage, but this was a promising start to his career.
This season, Jones’s 16.8 QBR on quick game ranks last in the league. Nothing is working. He is averaging just 3.6 yards per attempt on those throws, which is just a little more than half the league average. His CPOE on those throws is minus-8.6%; the only quarterback worse is Fields, who we’ll get to in a moment. The average quarterback turns about 33% of his quick game dropbacks into first downs; Jones is at 11.1% on 54 dropbacks.
Mac Jones gets his arm hit and his pass flutters in the air only to be picked off by Michael Carter II.
Play-action also has been a huge component of the New England offense going back to the Charlie Weis days, and Jones hasn’t been good there in either season. He ranked 24th on play-action as a rookie and is 29th in the same category this season. The league as a whole sees its QBR rise by about 15 points with play-action as opposed to without any run fake, but his QBR in the two categories is virtually identical in 2022.
It’s fair to wonder how much of this is the move to Matt Patricia’s offense, given that the former Lions coach shifted toward more zone-based runs, which changes the play-action approach. I also think the difference between the 2021 and 2022 attacks is a little overblown, and any coach worth their salt should be molding their scheme to their quarterback anyway. For some quarterbacks, the game slows down in Year 2. Right now, it looks like the opposite has happened for Jones.
Pick in 2021 draft: No. 11
If you saw the game plan against the Patriots in Week 7, you saw a prototype for what the Bears would like to do on offense with their second-year quarterback. Fields was devastating on scrambles, had several designed runs for big gains and worked a heavy dosage of boot concepts and rollouts. When he uses a play-fake and gets outside the pocket, his QBR is a respectable 22nd in the league. He also ranks second in the league among all players in rushing EPA, trailing only Lamar Jackson. Fields’ 11 rushing first downs over expectation is the third-best mark.
The problem is just about everything else. In virtually every situation, Fields is completing way fewer passes than we would expect. Remember a minute ago, when I mentioned that Jones’ CPOE was behind everyone but Fields? Jones is at minus-8.6% and Fields is at minus-17.2%. His 46.1% adjusted completion percentage on quick game is the worst for any quarterback in the first eight weeks of the season over the past decade.
What about play-action, which should be a focal point of this offense given the running game? It’s not great here, either. Fields ranks 33rd out of 35 quarterbacks in both CPOE and adjusted completion percentage. He is hitting big shots when he does connect on play-action — his 12.9 yards per completion rank 11th in the league — but he’s not hitting those throws often.
The only quarterback with a worse overall adjusted completion percentage is Mayfield, who was benched and probably helped get his coach fired. Fields’ off-target rate on the whole is 20.8%, which ranks behind every starting quarterback besides Davis Mills (21%).
Accuracy hasn’t been great, but Fields’ biggest problem has been taking sacks. He was sacked four times on 27 dropbacks by the Cowboys on Sunday, and that actually somehow improved his sack rate. He has now been sacked on 13.6% of his dropbacks this season. No other regular quarterback is above 10%. The last time a quarterback posted a sack rate that ugly over the first half of the season was in 2006, when Andrew Walter went down on 15.6% of his dropbacks for the Raiders. Before Walter, the leader was two different seasons from David Carr, who was battered and bruised for the Texans.
Carr wasn’t the same quarterback after he spent time with the Texans and became acutely aware of the likelihood that he would be running for his life. Fields is more comfortable running and hasn’t exhibited the same sort of panic, but there have to be concerns that he’ll develop bad habits. Quarterbacks can’t survive if they’re looking down at the pass rush and bailing at the first sign of danger, and that’s inevitable when you’re getting sacked as often as him.
Fields doesn’t have a great offensive line, as the Bears started with a subpar unit on paper and then dealt with injuries. The evidence, though, suggests it isn’t to blame for many of these takedowns. By ESPN’s pass block win rate metric, the Bears have the league’s third-best pass-blocking unit, a number that I will admit shocked me. I’m not sure I’m quite as optimistic as our automated analysis suggests, but it is a reminder that he isn’t getting sacked in hopeless situations all the time.
Instead, Fields is taking sacks after scrambling, or while trying to extend plays or in situations where he should be throwing the ball away. I don’t think his sacks in the Cowboys game fit into that category, but he had one classic example in the Patriots game the prior week. Some of those are scrambles that end with him running out of bounds for no gain or a short loss, but he is being hit on 42.1% of his dropbacks, which is the most of any quarterback and more than double the league average.
All the hits and pressure lead to mistakes. Fields is throwing interceptions on 3.8% of his passes, which is the fourth-worst mark in football. He also has fumbled 11 times, which is tied for the league lead alongside Matt Ryan. Lost in the (rightful) praise about Fields’ performance against the Patriots in Week 7 is the fact that he fumbled four times. The Bears luckily recovered those and the other two bouncing footballs in the game, which played a huge role in their victory. Fumble recovery rates are random from week-to-week and year-to-year, and as we saw Sunday, bad things can happen when the other team recovers the football. Micah Parsons fell on a football and took it to the house for a score.
Liz Loza and Field Yates explain why Justin Fields’ fantasy value continues to rise.
Obviously, we know Fields doesn’t have great talent around him, either up front or at receiver. Coordinator Luke Getsy and the Bears’ staff have been able to build a successful rushing attack around the trio of Fields, David Montgomery and Khalil Herbert — a much-needed pleasant surprise for the offense — but the passing game has looked utterly hopeless for stretches.
The thing that’s still so obvious watching Fields is how and when he’s at his best. When he is left to rely on his physical tools and his instincts, he looks great. As a scrambler and working off scramble drills, he can look like the best player on the field. While great scramblers like Allen and Jackson have their own styles, Fields just glides up the field for big gains when given the opportunity. Under pressure, he’s capable of making magic happen.
When Fields is forced to work within the confines of his offensive structure, he hasn’t been anywhere near as impressive. This wasn’t the case at Ohio State, and it’s likely more a product of the talent around him and the limitations of the offenses so far than it is about his capabilities of working within a successful NFL scheme.
For Fields, more than any other passer, 2022 is about survival. There’s cap space waiting next season, as the Bears are essentially using this season to reset and rebuild after the Ryan Pace era. If Fields can stay healthy and not get trapped into too many negative habits, there’s going to be a better offensive line and receiving corps around him next season. Given how frequently he’s getting hit, I’m just worried he makes it to 2023 in one piece.
Pick in 2021 draft: No. 67
Let’s finish with Mills, who won the Texans’ starting job by virtue of what he did at the end of 2021, when he posted a 98.6 passer rating and 50.9 QBR over a five-start stretch to end the season. He faced weak competition during that stretch, but he also played one of the league’s toughest slates during his first six-game stint as a starter earlier that year.
During the offseason, the Texans resisted the urge to add a significant backup to Mills, preferring to let things fly with Kyle Allen. Depending on how you viewed Mills, this seemed to either be a smart move to build confidence in a second-year starter or a foolish decision to leave them bereft behind an inexperienced passer. Through the first half of 2022, it feels like the latter.
Mills hasn’t looked anywhere near as exciting as he did during that breakout campaign. The problem has been a lack of consistent success. He has turned only 25.8% of his pass attempts into first downs in 2022. To put that in context, he ranks 33rd out of 34 qualifying passers. Everyone else is above 29%. The only guy below Mills is Mayfield, who is at 22.2%. It’s extremely difficult to have a functional NFL offense when the quarterback is throwing for first downs only 25% of the time.
Offenses can make up for a lack of efficiency by hitting deep shots, and Mills has been better there. His 96.9 QBR on deep throws ranks ninth, and he’s averaging 17.3 yards per deep attempt this season. He has thrown two picks on 24 dropbacks, which doesn’t help matters, but the Texans could stand to try and scheme up more opportunities for him to try to hit big shots downfield.
Mills doesn’t have great receivers beyond Brandin Cooks, but he just hasn’t been accurate. His 21% off-target rate is the worst in the league, and his 66% adjusted completion percentage ranks 28th out of 33 qualifiers. And while a quarterback such as Fields averages 7.5 yards per attempt, Mills is at 6.4 yards per throw, which ranks 29th. The Texans don’t succeed often enough in their passing game and don’t generate enough yardage on the plays where they do complete a pass.
On top of that, Mills creates his own problems. He has six interceptions and four fumbles in seven games. To be fair, his interception against the Titans on Sunday wasn’t his fault, as Houston split out two tight ends and had them run into one another on what was supposed to be a slant to Brevin Jordan. Like many of these passers, Mills has been let down by drops, with a Cooks drop of a would-be touchdown against the Broncos coming to mind in what ended up as a 16-9 defeat.
Mills’ sack rate is right at league average, but he needs to be better about avoiding pressure. One sack against the Titans saw him drift out of the pocket backward, creating easy rush lanes for edge rushers who had previously been blocked out of the play. This is a common habit for young quarterbacks, especially those without the mobility to then run away from those rushers.
The Texans don’t really have any alternative, given that Allen wasn’t any better during his time as the starter in Carolina. In terms of organizational investment, though, the Texans aren’t locked into Mills in 2023 in the way that each of these other teams are with their starters. The Bears traded two first-round picks to acquire Fields.
The Texans used a third-rounder and have two first-round picks coming up in 2023, both of whom project to fall in the top five. General manager Nick Caserio drafted Mills, but the Texans have nothing significant tying them to Mills after this season. It would hardly be a surprise if they drafted a quarterback with one of those picks and pushed Mills to the bench.
If Mills wants to take advantage of what might be his only chance as an NFL starter, there’s no time like the present to level up. He needs to grow more comfortable and confident within the pocket, make better decisions with the football and keep the Texans offense on schedule. One second-half hot streak earned Mills a starting job in 2022. He’ll need another one to keep it for 2023.
#QBs #Lawrence #Wilson #Fields #Jones #Mills #struggled