It’s been a rough start to the season for rookie quarterbacks.
Through Week 3, rookie QBs have a combined record of 1-10 in their starts, with the only victory going to New England’s Mac Jones in Week 2 against — you guessed it — another rookie, Zach Wilson.
Still, it hasn’t been all bad, as you’ll see in my breakdowns of the five rookies who have logged starts already this year: Trevor Lawrence, Wilson, Justin Fields, Jones and Davis Mills. (Though San Francisco’s Trey Lance has played in two games, he hasn’t made a start, so he was not considered.) Below, I’ve gone in-depth on one thing I like and one thing I dislike about these players’ seasons thus far:
What I like: Lawrence has all the intangibles to be a great quarterback in the NFL, but prior to Week 3, Urban Meyer and Co. weren’t really helping their rookie signal-caller out (more on this in a minute). I loved the game plan coming into Sunday’s contest with Arizona. The Jaguars started to find their identity as a run-first attack, which seemed to calm Lawrence down enough that he could execute the offense. His poise under center in just three games — even though he has frequently been under pressure — proves he’ll get things turned around eventually.
What I dislike: This is more on the coaching staff. By putting Lawrence in favorable situations to succeed, the Jags maintained control over the game until midway through the third quarter. Next Gen Stats had the Jags’ win probability at 71 percent after the James Robinson TD that put Jacksonville up 19-10. Then they got too cute with a flea flicker that resulted in a bad throw, which turned into — even worse — a pick-six. I’ve been in Lawrence’s shoes as the No. 1 overall pick playing on a bad team (no disrespect to the Jaguars, but there is a reason they held the first overall pick after last season), and NFL defenses just wait for you to make these kinds of hero plays, which usually end poorly. Even the best quarterbacks in the league can’t get away with them. Until Meyer starts using Lawrence as a point guard — not the hero — in this offense, the Jags will struggle.
- The First Read, Week 4: Getting ready for Brady vs. Belichick; Chiefs losing ground?
- NFL Power Rankings, Week 4: Rams claim No. 1 spot; Chiefs, Seahawks tumble
- Fact or fiction: Rams team to beat in NFC? Bills most complete AFC squad? Ben Roethlisberger finished?
- Week 3's biggest decisions: 49ers punt away their chances; Raiders follow fourth-down trend
- Matthew Stafford, Rams prove the hype is real in win over defending champion Buccaneers
- Broncos, Raiders atop rudderless AFC through first three weeks of 2021 NFL season
What I like: As the No. 2 overall pick, Wilson has everything you want in a franchise quarterback, and I’ve seen some good things from him early, despite poor results. He’s athletic enough to escape pressure, the route concepts are there and he’s delivered some accurate passes. Unfortunately, the Jets have 11 drops through three games (second-most in the NFL, behind Pittsburgh’s 12).
What I dislike: In addition to a rookie quarterback, New York also has a rookie offensive coordinator. There’s a reason Robert Saleh brought Mike LaFleur with him to New York; the offensive system LaFleur learned under Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco is meant to put the offense one step ahead of the defense. But that’s not what I’m seeing from the Jets right now. Based on my own experience as a rookie QB, I’m guessing this is because Wilson is watching film on the sideline and making adjustments after the fact — and then by the time he gets out there again, the defense has already changed. (Of course, back in 2002, I was looking at pictures on the sideline instead of video.) I remember constantly working to ensure I had answers for everything at the line of scrimmage: What if a receiver falls down? What if my receiver isn’t in the right spot? Who’s my go-to if the play goes off-schedule? The list was endless.
Wilson appears to be getting to the end of his progression and freezing up because, for one reason or another, he’s run out of options — and he’s paying the price for it. According to Next Gen Stats, heading into Monday Night Football, there were 91 sacks in the NFL this season that took more than 4.5 seconds from snap to tackle, with Wilson accounting for a league-high eight such sacks. He needs some help from his play-caller and supporting cast.
What I dislike: I’m putting the dislike section first, because, well, you guys saw what the Bears’ offense looked like Sunday against the Browns. Ick! I have to be honest. I’m over Matt Nagy from a quarterback standpoint. His noncommittal public comments Monday about who will start Week 4 run the risk of completely alienating the rookie after one game, which Nagy himself messed up. When you watch Bill Lazor call plays for Andy Dalton, there’s rhythm, and each play call serves a purpose. We learned Nagy’s faults as a play-caller for mobile quarterbacks when Mitchell Trubisky was still in Chicago, and it was no different Sunday with Fields. The play calls don’t tie together, there are no easy completions and schematically, Fields just looked lost. As he was. The Bears totaled 47 yards of offense in Fields’ debut, and the rookie was sacked NINE times. Many of these sacks occurred because Fields held the ball too long, but there were also plenty of free pass rushers.
Why am I so passionate about this? Watching Fields take the field against Cleveland was like stepping into a time machine. I was sacked nine times in my second career start with the Houston Texans in a game against the San Diego Chargers. I was purely guessing for most of the game, due to the different looks and pressures from the Chargers’ defense. I had no idea what I was doing — and I had no business being out on the field, as I couldn’t anticipate any throws or decipher route concepts on the fly. That’s what it looked like for Fields on Sunday.
What I like: The only positives I have after watching the Bears’ offense in Week 3 is what I knew coming into the game: Fields has a great skill set and all the intangibles to succeed at this level. He’s a good quarterback. But he will develop terrible habits if he’s put in that situation every week. The only way to get out of this is not to play him this season. Let him sit and learn behind two veteran quarterbacks. And most importantly, prevent him from forming bad habits. (Believe me, I’m not happy that I have the NFL record for most sacks in a season, with 76 — but I’ll gladly keep it. No quarterback should be in that situation, and I’m afraid Fields’ development will come to a screeching halt if he goes back out there right now.)
What I like: While Jones had a tough outing against the Saints on Sunday, he’s playing the best football out of all the rookie quarterbacks thus far. Sure, he threw three interceptions in Week 3, but I can deal with those after watching the film. On his first pick of the day, he was hit hard as he threw the ball, and his second INT was bobbled by his receiver. OK, so the third pick — on which Jones hesitated before throwing the ball behind his receiver — wasn’t great, but the first two were bad luck. For the most part, Jones is in control of the offense, throws with good anticipation and makes the right read a majority of the time. He’s in a good position to succeed.
What I dislike: While he’s playing the best football of anyone in this topper, Jones’ ceiling isn’t as high as those of the others. His improvement will taper off at some point, and after that, the main avenue for him to get better will be learning to process information quicker — much like Tom Brady has done over the years. Jones isn’t a guy who’ll regularly make dynamic throws off-schedule, but he’ll get the job done.
What I like: I saw some good things out of Mills in his debut against the Panthers. He made the most of his opportunity when he was able to spread the field and see the coverage. A third-round draft pick, Mills kept the Texans competitive for three quarters against a good defense, as he finished 19 of 28 for 168 yards and one TD pass, with a 95.5 passer rating. He has a lot of upside — and the support of his teammates.
What I dislike: There were several instances against the Panthers where Mills hesitated and didn’t trust what he was seeing. A lot of that is due to the lack of experience. He played in just 13 games over his final two seasons at Stanford, so he hasn’t had a ton of reps. I’m looking for Mills to be more decisive in his throws and as a decision-maker under center in general.
Top 15 Offensive Players
Each week of the 2021 NFL season, former No. 1 overall pick and NFL Network analyst David Carr will take a look at all offensive players and rank his top 15. For the first quarter of the season, the rankings are based on a combination of:
1) Player accomplishments from the 2020 season.
2) Weekly performances, factoring in strength of opponent.
Rankings will be solely judged on this season’s efforts following Week 4. Heading into Week 4, here is Carr’s list, with arrows reflecting changes from last week’s rundown:
After a disastrous Week 1 effort, the Packers’ offense has returned to its old form, with Green Bay averaging 32.5 points and 338 total yards per game and scoring eight TDs over the last two weeks. Rodgers is, of course, a major reason why, as he’s hitting his receivers in stride and giving them a chance to make big plays. Against a fierce 49ers pass rush on Sunday night, the reigning MVP worked smarter by getting the ball out quickly, with his average time to throw being 2.37 seconds (his second-lowest in a game in the Next Gen Stats era).
The Chiefs aren’t in sync, and they paid for it on Sunday, losing back-to-back games for the first time since Weeks 5-6 of 2019. While Mahomes excelled on quick passes (17-of-18 for 130 yards and three TDs), he struggled mightily on passes of 10-plus air yards against a swarming Chargers defense. It was his first career game with zero TDs and at least two INTs on passes of 10-plus air yards, per Next Gen Stats. His first pick of the day probably should’ve been caught by Marcus Kemp, who tipped Mahomes’ no-look pass before Chargers rookie Asante Samuel Jr. dove to make an impressive pick, and Mahomes simply overthrew Travis Kelce on his second pick. Turnovers are a big concern right now for the Chiefs, who are last in the division.
Wilson had a solid outing against the Vikings — 71.9 completion percentage, one pass TD, zero picks and a 111.2 passer rating — but struggles to move the ball (and a poor defensive effort) in the second half led to his first career loss to Minnesota. He’s still cooking, but he’ll need more out of his teammates to catch division leaders Arizona and Los Angeles.
Brady didn’t have a bad day vs. the Rams by any means (41-of-55, 432 passing yards, one TD, 103.0 passer rating), excelling primarily on passes of fewer than 10 air yards. He completed 31 of his 36 pass attempts on short passes for 238 yards and his lone TD. But he struggled to regularly stretch the field against a defense full of playmakers. There was a sense when watching this game that we’ll see this matchup again come January, but for now, you know darn well that Brady is focused on the next task at hand: returning to Foxborough to face the franchise he won six Super Bowls with. It’s very fitting, then, that he needs just 68 passing yards to pass Drew Brees for the most in NFL history.
Rodgers and Adams put on a show Sunday night, as the veteran wide receiver finished with 12 receptions (18 targets), 132 receiving yards and one TD. Further displaying his versatility in the passing game and illustrating why he’s such a tough cover, Adams caught at least two passes on five different route types (go, slant, flat, out, in) against San Francisco’s depleted cornerback group, per NGS.
Henry continued to cruise against the Colts, recording his 22nd career 100-plus-yard rushing game. The Titans have won their last seven games when Henry hits the century mark. With the next two contests against rebuilding teams (at Jets, at Jags), expect Henry’s next real test to come against Sean McDermott’s Bills in a Week 6 prime-time matchup.
Welp, my bold prediction couldn’t have been further from reality, as Kelce had seven catches for 104 yards on 11 targets in Sunday’s loss to Los Angeles. There are some guys who simply take over games, no matter the caliber of defense trying to stop them. Kelce is just one of ’em.
The Raiders are 3-0 for the first time since 2002 (the year I was drafted!), and my brother deserves a lot of credit for the team’s success. Derek, who spearheaded two scoring drives in overtime vs. Miami, joined fellow AFC West quarterback Mahomes (2019) as the only QBs in NFL history to win each of their team’s first three games of a season and have 350-plus pass yards and two-plus TD passes in each game. He’s leading this team in the right direction heading into a highly anticipated Monday Night Football clash with the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium.
Allen and the Bills’ offense made Washington’s defense look pedestrian Sunday, scoring 21 unanswered points to start the game before running to a convincing 43-21 win. The newly paid quarterback improved on his first two outings of the season, putting up 358 passing yards, a 129.8 passer rating and five total touchdowns (four passing, one rush) against zero picks. This team, which hosts the Texans next weekend, is working out the kinks — and is far from its best.
Hopkins had a relatively quiet day (welcome back to relevancy, A.J. Green!) with three receptions for 21 yards against the Jaguars. I don’t expect him to disappear for too long, with Arizona traveling to Los Angeles to take on the division-rival Rams in a battle of undefeateds in Week 4.
Hill has seen a decrease in production over the last two games. With five catches for 59 yards against the Chargers, Hill has now had zero receiving TDs and fewer than 60 receiving yards in back-to-back games for the first time since Weeks 11-13 of 2019. Ironic that the Chiefs have lost both games in which Hill wasn’t involved much? Maybe. Either way, Hill is one of the most dynamic players anytime he takes the field, so the Chiefs must find a way to get him the ball.
The Raiders have started to get everyone involved on the offense, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that Waller is Derek’s favorite target. It’ll be fun to see how Jon Gruden uses Waller, who finished with five catches for 54 yards in Sunday’s win, against Brandon Staley’s stingy defense next week.
Herbert has always had the goods, but the thing I must point out about Sunday’s win at Arrowhead is what he did in the fourth quarter with the game on the line. Trailing heading into the final frame, Herbert completed seven of his 13 pass attempts for 113 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning TD drive with 36 seconds remaining. This is a special player who has the Chargers trending in the right direction.
Stafford breaks into the rankings after slicing and dicing Todd Bowles’ Super Bowl-winning defense. The veteran quarterback looks comfortable in Sean McVay’s offense through three games, with nine pass touchdowns to just one INT, a 70.2 completion percentage and 129.8 passer rating. His experience combined with elite talent will be hard to stop in Sean McVay’s scheme.
Murray has his team sitting pretty at 3-0 heading into a meeting with the 3-0 Rams. Murray has been quite impressive so far this season, logging a rushing TD in each game while compiling a 76.5 completion percentage, 335.0 passing yards per game and a 113.4 pass rating (all passing stats would be career highs for the season). The Cardinals have been in close games, but Murray has stayed focused and executed through adversity.
DROPPED OUT: Christian McCaffrey, Panthers (previously No. 4); Stefon Diggs, Bills (No. 14); Lamar Jackson, Ravens (No. 15)
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