Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

Fixing Each Rookie NFL Quarterback After Disappointing Starts

Chris Roling

NFL fans have been spoiled with hot starts by rookie passers in recent years. 

Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert lit it up last year. Kyler Murray showed promising flashes in 2019. Even fourth-round rookie Dak Prescott completed 67.8 percent of his passes with 23 touchdowns and four interceptions in 2016. 

That makes the mediocre starts for this year's first-round passers especially disappointing.

We're only three games into the 2021 NFL season, but the returns haven't been as explosive as expected for No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence, No. 2 pick Zach Wilson, No. 11 pick Justin Fields and No. 15 pick Mac Jones. Besides mediocre stat lines, they're a combined 1-10, with the lone win coming from an all-rookie showdown. Meanwhile, No. 3 overall pick Trey Lance is still largely riding the pine in San Francisco.)

For Lawrence, Wilson, Fields and Jones, their coaches and teams can make schematic and personnel changes to help them rebound. They still have 14 games to shake off a sluggish start and get their names up there with the likes of Burrow and Herbert. 

Mac Jones, New England Patriots

Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

To help Mac Jones, the New England Patriots need to shorten the field.

Jones went 30-of-51 for 270 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions in the Patriots' 28-13 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. His 5.3 yards per passing attempt was by far his worst in a game to date.

ESPN Stats & Info noted Jones went 1-of-8 for 17 yards and an interception on throws of 15-plus yards in the first half, four of which were overthrows. He was 9-of-11 for 88 yards on shorter throws.

The Patriots had to play catch-up after falling behind 14-0 and then 21-3, but they can't let game flow ruin what works. After paying up for tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry in free agency, they need to draw up a short and intermediate passing game to make things easier on the rookie.

New England should also try to lean on its strong stable of running backs. Jones ended up leading the team in rushing yards (28) and attempts (six) against the Saints, as all-purpose back James White left early with a hip injury.

Dialing back the game plan to keep Jones in a rhythm should help him gain more confidence moving forward.

Justin Fields, Chicago Bears

David Dermer/Associated Press

If Justin Fields draws another start this week, the Chicago Bears need to design a game plan around his strengths and weaknesses rather than throw him into a game plan clearly drawn up for veteran Andy Dalton.

ESPN's Bill Barnwell said it best after the Bears' 26-6 loss to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday: "When we were all like 'How can the Bears pretend that Justin Fields isn’t a better option than Andy Dalton?' we didn’t realize that the Bears were going to use Justin Fields as if he were Andy Dalton."

Fields has the ability to move the pocket with his legs or get downfield and make big splash plays, but he was mostly restricted to the pocket against a Myles Garrett-led pass rush. He wound up finished 6-of-20 for 67 yards while getting sacked nine times in his first career NFL start.

Of Fields' 30 dropbacks, only four used pre-snap motion and only two apiece were designed rollouts or quarterback runs, ESPN's Paul Hembekides. Chicago's coaching staff put him in a position to fail with a vanilla offense that didn't lean into his strengths at all. 

Until their offensive line and play-calling improve, the Bears are going to fail Fields for however long he starts in place of Dalton.

Zach Wilson, New York Jets

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Where to start with Zach Wilson and the New York Jets?

The offensive line is terrible, having allowed a league-high 15 sacks in three games, including five for 41 yards lost in Sunday's 26-0 loss to the Denver Broncos. We're talking meme-worthy film reps of the line failing to pick up basic assignments on stunts. 

Better coaching can fix some of the problems in the trenches. Jets pass-catchers could also help Wilson by cleaning up their issues with drops

The No. 2 overall pick went only 19-of-35 for 160 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions against Denver, but it's hard to be critical when he can't trust his line to block or his targets to reliably catch the ball. The Jets are only averaging 3.9 yards per carry, which doesn't help matters, either.

Wilson's mobility to extend plays and then take shots down the field was one of his big selling points heading into the draft. However, the Jets haven't schemed up many rollouts or moving pockets that extend plays and make things easier on the offensive line.

Wilson is a modern-style passer whose mobility and arm give him a huge ceiling. He needs his coaches to play more to his strengths and his supporting cast to fix issues with fundamentals to get the Jets' season back on track. 

Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars

Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

Trevor Lawrence might be on his way to rookie interception records if the Jacksonville Jaguars don't do something to help him.

The No. 1 overall pick has thrown seven interceptions in his first three games. He's the first rookie to do so since Deshone Kizer, who led the Cleveland Browns to an 0-16 record in 2017.

For every hype-fulfilling touchdown strike Lawrence seems to make, like his lone touchdown to D.J. Chark Jr. in Sunday's 31-19 loss to Arizona, he seems to double up on bone-headed mistakes. At the end of the third quarter, he threw a duck on a flea-flicker that the Cardinals returned for a touchdown. 

Jacksonville's front office isn't standing pat. On Monday, the Jaguars traded cornerback C.J. Henderson to the Carolina Panthers for tight end Dan Arnold, who will immediately become their best target at the position.

But that's hardly enough.

The offensive line needs a talent boost after allowing five sacks and generally struggling. The Jaguars should either make another minor trade or check in on top free agents such as Mitchell Schwartz. 

They should also lean more on a ground game that's averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Star running back James Robinson is sitting on only 31 attempts over three games, which is indefensible.

Before Week 3, Lawrence ranked 37th leaguewide when throwing against a blitz, according to Ben Volin of the Boston Globe. Easier, quicker concepts and a bigger emphasis on the running game might eventually lead to fewer mistakes and more wins.

   

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