Teams and their marquee players are easing into the new 17-game schedule. Preseason games are never worth extreme analysis, but these first two weeks of exhibition contests have been especially unenlightening. Except for those burgeoning rookies.
The quarterbacks are playing well enough for their teams to feel that familiar pressure to play the kids right away. It’s a double-sided pressure. There is the inevitable fan base clamoring for the exciting new thing. And then there is the current team-building trend to leverage having a precocious quarterback talent on a manageable rookie contract and work quickly to build a championship-caliber roster before the quarterback hogs all the salary cap space.
In Jacksonville, it should be a given that No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence will start. Lawrence is still in a competition with Gardner Minshew II, but it would be a shocker if the former Clemson star didn’t prevail. With the New York Jets, No. 2 pick Zach Wilson may have the tightest grip on a starting job after his impressive two-touchdown performance against Green Bay on Saturday.
“His process is light-years ahead of what a normal rookie’s process will be,” Jets Coach Robert Saleh told reporters afterward.
It gets a little murkier for San Francisco and No. 3 pick Trey Lance, for Chicago and No. 11 pick Justin Fields and for New England and No. 15 pick Mac Jones. Those quarterbacks are in competitions against veterans who have had varying levels of NFL success, and they play for franchises that don’t consider themselves to be rebuilding.
When Andy Dalton was on the field Saturday, Bears fans chanted Fields’s name. They want to see their future, not a 33-year-old who last made it to the Pro Bowl five years ago. After the game, Fields stood up for Dalton and lectured the fans.
“I noticed it, of course,” Fields said of the cheers. “The fans are awesome, but they also have to realize Andy is a human being, too. Andy is out there on the field right now, so I really think it’s kind of disrespectful to Andy, them cheering my name like that. They have to trust in Coach to make sure he’s making the right decisions and cheer Andy on. That’s not helping Andy play better, them cheering my name. That’s not doing that. So I would say my advice to them would be just cheer for who’s out there playing on the field.”
It was a classy gesture. Fields sounded like a good teammate, and regardless of who wins the starting job the Bears should have camaraderie in their quarterback room. Chicago fans won’t like being scolded, but Fields is just a 300-yard game away from making them forget.
Should he get a chance to have that kind of performance immediately? Well, let’s think about it for a minute.
The NFL just exited a revelatory decade of quarterback development. The past 10 seasons shattered the notion that great quarterbacks require a slow and tedious growth process. Time is a crazy thing: Cam Newton is now locked in a tight battle with Jones to be the New England starter, but in 2011, he burst into prominence with the Carolina Panthers and became the first rookie to throw for 4,000 yards. By age 26, he had made three Pro Bowls, captured the MVP award and led the Panthers to the Super Bowl. He was the first in a line of modern quarterbacks — many of them athletic and highly mobile — who excelled during the lengthy learning period.
From 2011 to 2020, 32 quarterbacks were selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Only nine of them weren’t starters for the majority of their rookie seasons. It still can take three to five years for a quarterback to comprehend and command an offensive system fully, but quarterbacks are ready to win earlier than that now. Their rapid NFL indoctrination is a result of playing in more sophisticated systems growing up, while franchises are also more flexible in tailoring their offensive philosophies to fit the quarterback’s skill set. The cookie-cutter pro style offenses have given way to hybrid pro/spread tactics that allow quarterbacks to utilize their athleticism and instincts.
When in doubt, play the kid. If the young quarterback is close enough in the competition, it often warrants taking the risk and opening that window to try to win while the player isn’t making top dollar.
However, the strategy doesn’t apply to every situation. Of those nine quarterbacks who sat for most of their rookie seasons, you find names such as Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Jared Goff. Mahomes and Goff sat for almost all of Year 1. Jackson didn’t play early, but when he replaced Joe Flacco in the middle of the 2018 season, he led the Baltimore Ravens to a 6-1 record and a come-from-behind playoff berth.
Beneath all that urgency, there’s a place for patience. Each team needs to apply the lessons of the past decade and determine the best way to groom its young quarterback. It requires a nice touch, a strong vision and honest player evaluation.
The top of this 2021 quarterback class will test the football acuity of these organizations as well as the league’s current best practices more than any group in recent memory. This is an interesting mix of talent and challenges. Lawrence is the supposed can’t-miss quarterback who must redefine the expectations in Jacksonville. Wilson has been on a meteoric rise the past year. Lance makes amazing, flashy plays, but because he had a short college career, he must play catch-up. Fields may be under the most pressure to make a significant impact quickly. And Jones is a throwback, so he’ll have to change the growing perception that pocket passers aren’t as desirable anymore.
History suggests that all five won’t become stars, or even significant starters. But so far, they’re all showing flashes. Fields won’t be the only one hearing people shout his name. For the next three weeks, the chants will grow louder.