Questions abounded about the group in real time. Were teams really that in love with Mac Jones despite his limitations, or was it something of an elaborate ruse? Could Trey Lance overcome the fact he had barely played regularly above the high school level, and if so, how long would his development take? Was Trevor Lawrence actually the closest we had seen to a plug-and-play franchise changer since Andrew Luck? Would Justin Fields be able to adjust to a more prostyle passing game? Were some evaluators projecting too much for Zach Wilson, given that he was a one-year wonder who faced suspect competition at BYU?
Was this class really worthy of vacuuming up so much draft capital, or was rampant quarterback need driving the market to inefficient extremes? The questions were especially pointed given the toll the pandemic took on the 2020 college football season, with seasons abandoned or truncated and teams playing with makeshift rosters facing constantly changing schedules. College athletes, regardless of sport, faced unprecedented challenges at the height of the pandemic, and evaluating them at that time — and moving forward — was fraught with difficulty.
Thus far, for the Class of 2021 quarterbacks, the returns have been suspect.
“I think some teams overreached, and it’s starting to show,” said one NFL general manager, whose team evaluated quarterbacks in the 2021 class but opted not to use premium draft capital on one. (He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is limited from commenting publicly on other teams’ players.)
“How many of them will be drafting a quarterback again in a year or two?” the GM asked. “That was the toughest year to evaluate players, and quarterback is always the toughest position to evaluate even when things are normal.”
A different longtime NFL executive and evaluator offered some pushback on the skepticism, though it’s difficult to find too many who are stumping for this class. “It’s still too soon to say,” he said, noting that rookie quarterbacks “used to sit two years before they played and most of these kids barely even played in college. I know everybody wants to chew them up and spit them out, but let’s give them a little time.”
Perhaps tellingly, the prospect who engendered some of the greatest skepticism, Fields, is the one playing the best football right now. The others are not distinguishing themselves, and there hasn’t been anything close to the early ascent we’ve witnessed from Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson and Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow or even, gulp, Baker Mayfield (fleeting as it was) in recent years. The seven quarterbacks from the 2021 class who have played this season have a collective passer rating of just 81.9, according to TruMedia data (90 is the league average), completing 62 percent of their passes for 6.81 yards per attempt, slightly below the NFL average. They have a fairly brutal ratio of 44 touchdowns to 36 interceptions, and their teams have a 16-28-1 record in the 45 games they’ve started.
We have yet to see Kellen Mond (Minnesota Vikings), Ian Book (Philadelphia Eagles) or Kyle Trask (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) play this season — none is viewed as the heir apparent for their franchise — while the seven who have played need continued refining and growth, if not hopes and prayers. Here’s a look at each of them.
Immediate superstar he was not, though being saddled with an inept head coach in Urban Meyer as a rookie did him no favors. Some members of that 2021 Jaguars staff whispered private concerns about his prospects as an elite drop-back passer, able to read all quadrants of the field. His redzone decision-making also needs work. “To get the best out of him you have to lean on his legs and get him on the move and go heavy with run-pass options,” one former staffer who was not authorized to publicly discuss Lawrence told me last year. Lawrence has the highest rating of anyone in this class this season (89.7) and the most touchdown passes (13, one more than Fields), though it remains to be seen if he’s truly transcendent. “I’m not convinced he’s going to be that guy,” said a top executive of one team that has faced the Jags this year.
Zach Wilson, second overall, New York Jets
The Jets have habitually botched their quarterback evaluations over a generation of front office regimes. Wilson has been downright overwhelmed at times, with a ghastly quarterback rating of just 6.6 when under pressure, according to TruMedia, easily the lowest in this class. He has struggled for consistency even within a scheme that tends to not ask too much of him. He again missed time this season because of injury, some scouts continue to question his instincts and he has more interceptions (five) than touchdown passes (four). “We never would have taken him that high,” said one GM who closely evaluated that draft class. “I think he’s going to be a problem for them.”
Trey Lance, third overall, San Francisco
The 49ers mortgaged the future to take the third quarterback in this draft, but he looked like a developmental project — for obvious reasons — when anointed the starter to open the year. Then he saw his season quickly wiped out by a broken ankle that will curtail the next crucial offseason. Lance has attempted all of 420 passes in games since the 2017 high school season, 102 in the NFL and 318 at North Dakota State. He will enter next season, when he’s recovered, having started 21 football games since high school. And those who wondered about his durability are even more concerned now.
Justin Fields, 11th overall, Chicago
Once the Bears got around to leaning into his strengths and building an option run game around him, he has taken off. That has opened up more potency and accuracy in the passing game. The Ohio State product is still very much a work in progress (see: last week’s pick-six), but one with a high ceiling. Borrowing from the Baltimore Ravens’ rushing attack has helped, and several executives suggested Chicago should follow the model of the Eagles, who constructed an offensive line and an assembly line of pass catchers for Jalen Hurts.
Mac Jones, 15th overall, New England
He looked the part of game manager last year, but he embodies this class’s sophomore slump now. Having Matt Patricia impersonating an offensive coordinator doesn’t help, but Jones has been throwing jumpballs to opposing defenders all season, briefly lost his gig to Bailey Zappe, and has essentially the same passer rating as Wilson (76), with seven picks to just four passing touchdowns. The quick (if temporary) hook — with fans now clamoring for more Zappe — might not bode well. “I think Belichick will trade him (in 2023),” one GM said. “He moves fast when it’s not what he thought it was going to be. He doesn’t care how high he drafted them.”
Davis Mills, third round, Houston
The Texans’ extended tank-job has afforded abundant time to assess a player with modest upside and arm talent. And the larger the sample size, the more Mills looks the part of a backup. “He’ll hang around this league a long time,” said the evaluator, who watched him at Stanford, “but you don’t want him playing every week.” Mills has an 81.7 rating with 11 touchdown passes and nine interceptions, and undoubtedly the Texans will finally invest first-round capital in a quarterback in 2023. Coach Lovie Smith said “I just don’t think it’s time” to bench Mills this week, but it might be coming soon.
Sam Ehlinger, sixth round, Indianapolis
The 24-year-old got caught in a tug of war between owner Jim Irsay — who forced Ehlinger upon his football people a few weeks back — and since-fired head coach Frank Reich (shocker: the boss won the war). Ehlinger has useful legs but in no way looked ready to play NFL football in two outings before new coach Jeff Saturday turned back to veteran Matt Ryan last Sunday. If the owner remains high on him, maybe he can join Saturday’s staff soon enough (I kid), but the Colts will be all-in on using the highest pick possible on a quarterback next spring.