As happens every year near the conclusion of December, NFL fan bases are already starting to pin hopes on quarterbacks who have either wrapped up their college seasons or are preparing for bowl games and the College Football Playoff. This year, it may be wise not to attach too many expectations.
One team, probably the Jacksonville Jaguars, will have the great fortune of selecting Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, widely regarded as a prospect in the mold of can’t-miss forebears Andrew Luck and John Elway. Another franchise, probably the New York Jets unless they opt to trade their pick, will be happy to snap up Ohio State’s Justin Fields, whose combination of speed and arm strength defies easy comparison — unless they decide on BYU’s Zach Wilson, whose season-long breakout culminated Tuesday night with a nationally televised shredding of UCF’s defense.
Lawrence has long been anointed, and Fields is the probable, if less definitive, second pick. The search for a franchise quarterback beyond them grows murkier. Wilson, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, Alabama’s Mac Jones and Florida’s Kyle Trask all could become first-round picks, with Wilson nearly assured of that designation. They all have their supporters and detractors, and they all have spectacular attributes and question marks.
There has never been a better time to need a rookie quarterback. The sport has grown more efficient at developing NFL quarterbacks, and gradual rule changes have made it easier — easier, not easy — to learn the position at the highest level. Rookies Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts have all validated their franchises to varying degrees in less than a full season.
This year’s crop and circumstances will challenge teams hoping for a repeat. The Senior Bowl remains on as scheduled, but predicting whether it can be held at the end of January is a fool’s errand. Who knows what form the late-February combine will take? The off-the-field “presence” a quarterback projects can seem overly sanctified, but it matters, and it’s unclear how much one-on-one interaction teams will have with prospects. None of that information-gathering weighs heavier than film, but it rounds out the most important decision a franchise can make.
Luckily for the team picking first, it will not have a decision. Lawrence is that obvious of a prospect. For most of the season, Fields seemed like an easy choice for whichever team picks second — which could be someone other than the Jets if they receive the second pick and then decide to stick with Sam Darnold and trade it for picks. Fields is still the favorite, but Wilson’s ascent has made it at least a discussion.
Wilson underscores the cloudy nature of the quarterback class. At the start of the season, Pro Football Focus — which in recent years has been ahead of the curve on Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Joe Burrow as NFL prospects — did not have Wilson listed among its top 100 prospects. Now it ranks him third behind only Lawrence and Fields.
Wilson moves well, and his arm checks every box. His completion percentage leaped from 62.4 percent as a sophomore to 73.1 percent this year as he passed for 3,274 yards and 30 touchdowns against three interceptions before Tuesday night’s Boca Raton Bowl, when he completed 17 of 21 passes for three touchdowns and 330 yards — in the first half. He finished with 425 yards in a 49-23 victory over UCF, showcasing the release and touch one NFL evaluator compared to Hall of Famer Kurt Warner’s.
Wilson started his 28th game Tuesday night, so the NFL has a lot to study. But the competition he played against adds difficulty to his evaluation. BYU did not face an opponent ranked in the top 35 of the Sagarin ratings this season until it played UCF, and the average ranking of its foes was 98.5. When the Cougars played unbeaten Coastal Carolina, Wilson threw one of his three interceptions in a 22-17 loss.
BYU lists Wilson at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, but some NFL evaluators are eager to see how official NFL measurements compare. NFL front offices may not be as enamored of Wilson as the portion of the internet’s Draft Industrial Complex that has him pegged as a top-five pick, but he’s still a near-certain first-rounder. Two seasoned evaluators pegged him as a late first-round pick.
Then again, quarterbacks tend to rise once the draft arrives. It only takes one team to fall in love with a quarterback for him to be picked higher than expected. The lesson may prove true not only for Wilson but also for Lance, who may be the most polarizing player in the draft. He did not play this year aside from the exhibition against Central Arkansas after North Dakota State’s conference canceled its season because of the pandemic. NFL teams don’t have much tape of Lance to look at, so what they see will be divergent.
Lance entered the season ranked as solidly third among quarterbacks. As a sophomore, he led NDSU to the FCS national title, throwing 28 touchdowns and no interceptions while rushing for 1,100 yards. He probably will be the fastest quarterback drafted, even at 6-4, 226 pounds, no small feat in a year that includes Fields. NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah compared Lance physically to Dak Prescott and Josh Allen. His character and work ethic are viewed as major pluses.
The questions about Lance are just as prominent as his upside. His college experience consists of 16 starts at the FCS level, albeit for a program that produced Carson Wentz and Los Angeles Chargers backup Easton Stick. Despite his production, evaluators are split on his arm. Some see a quarterback in need of a mechanical overhaul. “He’s going to get over-drafted,” one NFL executive said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to provide a frank assessment.
Jones may be the safest prospect after Fields. He had one of the greatest statistical seasons in college football history. His 11.2 career yards per attempt rank first all-time, and he has a career completion percentage of 73.2. He understands how to decipher defenses, but NFL teams will ask: How much of Jones’s success owed to the cast around him? Alabama had by far the best offensive line and wide receivers in the country and possibly the best running back in Najee Harris. Jones’s physical tools are solid but point to a limited ceiling.
Trask is another prospect who could excite some teams and leave others unmoved. He has 23 starts in the SEC from which to judge, and this year, as a redshirt senior, he led the nation in touchdown passes (43) and passing yards (4,125) with just five interceptions while playing in the same offensive system that produced Alex Smith and Prescott. At 6-5, 240 pounds, he has an ideal frame. But in a league growing more reliant on mobile quarterbacks, Trask’s lack of quickness will be an impediment.
It would be a surprise if any of the top six quarterbacks are picked outside the first two rounds, with Lawrence, Fields and Wilson exceedingly likely to be the first three off the board. After that, opinions will be fluid between now and April and vary from team to team. It is a fascinating class of quarterbacks, and they are about to be evaluated during an unprecedented offseason.