The long-awaited first round of the NFL Draft is only 23 days away. Soon enough, all the front office chatter about pocket presence, making plays off-script, and accuracy on the run will be put to the test. Drafting a quarterback early in the first round usually puts a franchise’s trajectory on a fast track to success or sets them back a number of years. This year, a number of teams will have an opportunity to test their luck. As many as five quarterbacks could end up going in the first 15 picks.
This year’s quarterback class is headlined by Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Trey Lance, and Mac Jones. It’s all but a foregone conclusion that Trevor Lawrence will be the number one selection by the Jacksonville Jaguars come April 29th. The Clemson product is the most polished quarterback prospect to enter the draft since Andrew Luck finished his collegiate career as a Stanford Cardinal back in 2011.
We are going to dive into this first-round quarterback class and have some fun with it. I’m going to operate under the almost certain assumption Trevor Lawrence will be the number one pick. We’ll eliminate him from this conversation, but if you haven’t heard of him or are curious about him, here’s 16 minutes of fun. We’ll take a look at the ceilings and floors at the next level for the rest of the first round quarterbacks.
Zach Wilson seemingly came out of nowhere in 2020 to lead the BYU Cougars to an 11-1 record. Wilson threw for 3,692 yards, 33 touchdowns, and just three interceptions. The year prior at BYU, Wilson threw for 2,382 yards, 11 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. Up until this past college season, Wilson was hardly even on draft radars and was a fringe guy to be selected in rounds six or seven. Fast forward, and now we are talking about a guy that the Jets are ‘committed’ to at the number two pick in this year’s draft.
By now, everyone has seen the viral video of Wilson’s across the body toss that was all the talk at BYU’s Pro Day. The Jets are likely chomping at the bit to select Wilson because his play-style meshes very well with the direction that modern NFL offenses are moving towards. Wilson excels at making plays off-script, has speed and agility in open space, and can make every throw on the field.
New York Jets
Zach Wilson’s ceiling in the NFL is extremely high. His ability to develop from his sophomore year to his junior year is very telling. When it’s all said and done, Wilson has the potential to be a franchise-changing quarterback for the Jets. The Jets have quietly put together a decent receiving corps with the likes of Corey Davis, Jamison Crowder, Denzel Mims, and Keelan Cole. If Wilson can come in and be productive in year one, that offense has the potential to make some noise in the passing game.
On the other side of things, Wilson only produced at a big-time level for one year and the toughest team the Cougars faced last season was the UCF Knights. Not exactly SEC talent or anything close to what might be comparable to the NFL level. It is difficult to imagine Zach Wilson being anything less than average, but he has to prove he can play with better competition and make NFL reads.
I would bank on Wilson achieving results in the NFL that are far closer to his ceiling than his floor. I expect him to be a multiple-time Pro-Bowler by the time he hangs it up. It wouldn’t surprise me if he had a prime stretch of four or five years where he was regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in the league. If he continues to develop and the Jets build around him accordingly, they could really have something going up in the Meadowlands.
Pro Comparison: Aaron Rodgers … big shoes to fill
The Trey Lance situation is a complicated one as he was limited to only one game of play this past season. The Missouri Valley Conference stopped competition this past Fall due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, in Lance’s prior season at North Dakota State he was able to amass 2,786 passing yards, 28 touchdowns, and a shocking zero interception total. Lance’s stock really varies as you look at different mock drafts. Some have him going at number three to the 49ers while others have him sliding deeper into the draft.
San Francisco 49ers
With the trade they executed with the Dolphins, the 49ers have made it clear that they intend to move away from Jimmy Garoppolo in the near future. The Niners traded their 12th pick in this year’s draft, their first-rounders in 2022 and 2023, as well as a 2022 third-round compensatory pick for Miami’s number three overall pick this year. Where things become uncertain is who will become the quarterback of San Francisco’s future. Some have linked Mac Jones to the 49ers, while others see Justin Fields’ athleticism as a perfect fit in Kyle Shanahan’s West Coast offense. I see Lance as the better fit in San Francisco and believe Shanahan and John Lynch will opt for him ahead of Fields and Jones.
Trey Lance is the prototype you look for at the quarterback position from a size perspective. He’s 6’3″, 225 pounds, and he’s also got the athleticism to move in the pocket and escape when needed. He’s got an extremely high football IQ and doesn’t take unnecessary risks in the passing game. At North Dakota State he proved that he has the arm strength to make every throw on the field. He’s also an incredibly tough and durable football player that isn’t afraid to lower his shoulder and take on a defender (when needed). Injuries have plagued the 49ers at the quarterback position with Garoppolo in recent years and that will be in the back of their minds during the draft process.
Trey Lance’s ceiling at the next level is extremely high. However, I think there will be a bit of an adjustment period for him as he enters the league. Assuming San Francisco retains Garoppolo this season and trades him next offseason, that would give Lance a full year to learn Shanahan’s notoriously intricate West Coast system. It also gives him the opportunity to be groomed as the starting quarterback next year.
Once Lance has adjusted to the speed of the NFL, I think he has the potential to be a very above-average quarterback in the NFL. I’m not sure I’d put him in the classification of franchise-changing quarterback from the get-go. However, with the right team surrounding him, he could easily be a force on a club competing for division titles regularly. Nobody saw Josh Allen becoming a franchise-changing quarterback at the end of his rookie year, but as he enters year four that’s exactly what he appears to be.
To put it bluntly, Lance’s ultimate floor in the NFL is just being an incredible Mid-Major quarterback in college, but not being able to achieve much success at the next level. In my mind, the difference between him and Fields is incredibly narrow, but I’d give the nod to Lance ever so slightly.
Pro Comparison: smaller version of Josh Allen
Justin Fields is easily the most athletically gifted quarterback in this year’s draft class. Fields started his collegiate career at Georgia before transferring to Ohio State where he was granted immediate eligibility for the 2019 season. Fields led the Buckeyes for two seasons and his best numbers came in his first year under center. In 2019, Fields threw for 3,273 yards, 41 touchdowns, and only three interceptions.
Before the 2019 season, there weren’t a lot of college quarterbacks being mentioned as certain 2021 first-round draft prospects beyond Trevor Lawrence. Fields’ impressive season cemented him in that conversation. The Falcons could grab a quarterback at four, but I think they’ll go in a different direction. That means Fields lands with the Broncos at nine.
Drew Lock has been wildly inconsistent since taking over the starting job in Denver. Lock was tied for the lead league with 15 interceptions last season and he ranked 32nd with a quarterback rating of 75.4. If Fields falls to the Broncos at nine, it’s hard to imagine a situation where they pass on him. Denver’s offense has quality skill players in Melvin Gordon, Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, Noah Fant, and K.J. Hamler. Bringing in Fields would be a great addition to a young and talented nucleus.
As mentioned earlier, Fields possesses elite speed and agility in the open field. Fields can make every throw you could want. His deep ball is the best throw he has in the arsenal. He’s also very adept at putting touch on the ball and lofting passes over the heads of linebackers and defensive backs. When he wants to, he can zip the ball with the best of them and easily places passes into tight windows.
Similar to Lance, there is much to be excited about pertaining to Justin Fields’ upside and potential ceiling. Fields is an exciting raw athlete that still has polishing to do as a passer in the pocket. If he can continue to develop in the pocket, Fields’ ceiling as an NFL quarterback is ultimately a bit higher than that of Lance’s. His ceiling in the NFL is being a dual-threat franchise-changing player.
However, it would not surprise me if Fields were to struggle a bit with consistency in the NFL, especially during his first few seasons. I think there are some fair concerns about Fields as a passer at this point. At Ohio State, he had some struggles related to ball placement on his throws. There were also instances where he took unnecessary risks downfield when a check down was probably the wiser decision.
I’m not sure that Fields will ever become one of the best passers in the league. Regardless, I think he will be an above-average NFL quarterback because of the threat that he poses in the air and on the ground. I wouldn’t classify him as a potential franchise-changing type of quarterback yet. With continued development in the passing game that designation isn’t out of reach.
Pro Comparison: a more athletic version of Dak Prescott
The pre-draft quarterback carousel would not be complete without mentioning Mac Jones. Jones had an interesting path to becoming a first-round draft pick. Jones was a four-star recruit that originally committed to Kentucky out of high school before flipping his commitment to Alabama. In 2018 and 2019, Jones sat behind Tua Tagovailoa. A little more than halfway into the 2019 season, Tagovailoa suffered a season-ending hip injury that opened the door for Mac Jones to start. Jones played exceptionally well during the remainder of the 2019 season and backed that success up in 2020. This past college season Jones threw for 4,500 yards, 41 touchdowns, and only four interceptions. It definitely didn’t hurt that Jones had the best collection of college receivers to throw the ball to in the nation. Nonetheless, Mac Jones was a technician for the Crimson Tide in 2020.
New England Patriots
Let’s assume there are no more trades in the first round, the next team that is in need of a quarterback is the Patriots at 15. Last year, the Patriots were riddled by bad quarterback play from Cam Newton and a small sample size of Jared Stidham. The Patriots recently re-signed Newton to a one-year deal, but are still looking for their quarterback of the future a little more than a year after Tom Brady’s departure. Based on his similar skillset and athleticism compared to Brady, it would be interesting if Jones were to be selected by the Patriots. If he does fall all the way to 15, there’s no way that New England could pass on the opportunity to grab him.
Mac Jones possesses a lot of traits that front offices value in a quarterback. He’s incredibly accurate, has good pocket presence, and is able to throw with anticipation. At Alabama, Jones proved that he has the ability to put great touch on his passes by lofting balls in between linebackers and defensive backs. He was also able to work through his progressions when time permitted. Jones’ ceiling in the NFL is being the master of an offense, remaining consistently accurate, and rarely ever turning the football over.
Read More: Mac Jones film analysis and draft profile
Mac Jones has the lowest potential floor of all the quarterbacks that will be selected in the first round. Jones’s arm strength isn’t great and that is something that will test him at the next level. He’s essentially a statue in the pocket and without at least average protection he won’t last. Jones was a one-year wonder at Alabama and with the offensive skill players surrounding him last year, it does pose some potential concerns. Fair or unfair, Mac Jones will be questioned as a system quarterback or game manager until he proves that he’s more than that at the next level.