NFL

Support System: Which 2021 first-round quarterback is best positioned for a year-two leap?

By Sports Desk May 17, 2022

While quarterback-needy teams grappled with the decision over whether to bet on a member of an underwhelming 2022 draft class at the position, those teams who were astute enough to select a signal-caller from the loaded 2021 class spent their offseasons attempting to stack the deck around the player they handpicked as the future of the franchise.

The 2022 season will be a significant one for Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones, with questions sure to be asked of the five first-round picks if they do not show signs of vindicating their respective franchises for selecting them last year.

Jones arguably already proved himself as the most pro-ready QB of the quintet in an impressive rookie campaign, but 2022 may well reveal how high the ceiling is for the least physically gifted of the bunch. The rest are all aiming to prove they have the skill sets to join the league's expanding and increasingly youthful elite at the NFL's most important position. 

Indeed, the first four quarterbacks off the board in 2021 were all regarded as players with the potential to elevate those around them and take their offenses to new heights. But a quarterback, regardless of his athletic and mental gifts, cannot do it all himself. So who among the 2021 first-rounders has the best supporting cast to help them excel?

To help us answer that question, we at Stats Perform have gone back to look at our post-free agency positional unit baselines that inform our team rankings.

The baselines were produced for seven different units: quarterback, pass blocking, run blocking, route runners/pass catchers, pass rush, run defense and pass defense. The units are comprised of projected playing time for players on the roster combined with the player baselines linked to each of those units.

An individual player has a year-over-year baseline for a unit input (i.e. pass blocking for a team's projected left tackle). His baseline is combined with those of his team-mates and then adjusted for the importance of the position to that unit to produce an overall unit baseline.

The six non-quarterback baselines, plus a look at some of the moves made in the draft by each quarterback's respective team, provide a picture that reveals which of the second-year signal-callers have the talent around them to thrive.

5. Justin Fields, Chicago Bears

Even though the numbers are not impressive, there were clear flashes of promise in Fields' rookie season with the Bears.

While he only finished with a 70.9 well-thrown percentage – seven percentage points below the average for quarterbacks with at least 50 throws – and had a pickable pass rate of 5.36 per cent that was the eighth-worst among that group, Fields did display the upside that led the Bears to trade up for him.

Only two quarterbacks averaged more air yards per attempt than Fields' 10.02 and his three passing plays of 50 yards or more were the most of all rookie quarterbacks and as many as Josh Allen and Justin Herbert managed all season.

You would think, therefore, that the Bears' focus this offseason would be on giving Fields the weapons to produce further explosive plays in 2022. Not so, the Bears waited until the third round to add a wide receiver in the draft – 25-year-old return specialist Velus Jones Jr.

The Bears' reluctance to add to a group of pass-catchers that prior to the draft had the sixth-lowest unit baseline in the NFL hardly suggests at a sophomore surge for Fields in 2022.

And with Chicago's offensive line among the worst in the league for pass protection and run-blocking baseline and its defense in the bottom six for pass defense and bottom three for pass rush, it appears likely to be another year when Fields is swimming against a tide engineered by his own franchise.

4. Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars

Simply having an adult in the room with experience of winning at the NFL level should help Lawrence's cause, with Doug Pederson a substantial improvement on Urban Meyer as head coach.

As is the case with Fields in Chicago, Pederson will hope Lwrence can build on last season's flashes of the talent that led some to label him as the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck in 2012. Lawrence's well-thrown percentage of 76.3 was significantly better than that of Fields, but his 26 pickable passes were the fourth-most in the league.

Unlike the Bears, the Jags invested heavily in getting Lawrence receiving help, doing so in a bemusing manner as they threw eye-watering amounts of money at players who fit best as secondary targets rather than as the leading receiver for a player dubbed a 'generational' quarterback prospect.

Indeed, the lucrative deals handed out to the likes of Christian Kirk and Zay Jones only put them 20th in pass-catching unit baseline prior to the draft. The hope will be that Kirk, who was seventh among receivers with at least 100 targets with a big-play rate of 35.6 per cent last year, can help Lawrence generate more explosives in year two.

And while much of the Jags' roster still reeks of mediocrity, an offensive line that ranked fourth in pass-block win rate in 2021 may give him the time to help justify the Jags' belief in Kirk and Lawrence's other new weapons.

3. Zach Wilson, New York Jets

The Jets received almost universal praise for their draft, acquiring cornerback Sauce Gardner, wide receiver Garrett Wilson and edge rusher Jermaine Johnson II in the first round before then adding the consensus top running back in the class – Iowa State's Breece Hall – in the second.

Their roster looks in significantly better shape than it did at the end of the 2021 campaign, but the Jets were working from a pretty low starting point.

Coming out of free agency, only six teams had a lower unit baseline among their pass-catchers than the Jets, whose offensive line was in the bottom half of the league in pass protection baseline and in the run-blocking baseline.

Johnson's arrival and the return of fellow edge rusher Carl Lawson from injury should provide a clear boost to a pass rush that was fourth in unit baseline last year while a secondary that exited free agency just outside the top 10 in pass defense baseline appears much better equipped to provide support to Wilson and the offense.

However, Wilson had the worst well-thrown percentage (66.6) of any rookie quarterback last season, with Fields (5.36) and fellow rookie Davis Mills (5.56) the only two quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts to have a higher pickable pass rate than Wilson's 5.21 per cent.

The Jets are relying on Mekhi Becton to get healthy and play a full season at left tackle and, though they have some more established options at tight end and receiver, are also putting a lot on a rookie receiver in likely leaning heavily on Garrett Wilson to elevate his second-year quarterback.

It has been a successful offseason for the Jets, but a lot needs to happen for their hopes of a second-year leap for team and quarterback to come to fruition.

2. Mac Jones, New England Patriots

Were it not for the outstanding season enjoyed by Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, Jones may well have won NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

The outstanding accuracy Jones demonstrated at Alabama translated to the pros, Jones producing a well-thrown ball on 80.1 per cent of attempts. He achieved that feat while averaging more air yards per attempt (8.11) than both Lawrence and Wilson, yet there is reason for trepidation around thoughts of him progressing significantly in his second year.

Jones' passer rating on throws of 21 or more air yards was 65.4 – 31st among the 41 quarterbacks to attempt at least 10, illustrating the limited ceiling of a quarterback whose arm is not on the level of his fellow 2021 first-rounders.

Yet Jones does have the benefit of one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. After free agency, the Patriots' O-Line was tied for sixth in pass protection unit baseline and fifth in run blocking baseline.

They replaced guard Shaq Mason, who was surprisingly traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, by making the similarly eyebrow-raising move of selecting Chattanooga guard Cole Strange in the first round of the draft. Strange's arrival should solidify the interior of the line and allow the Patriots to stick to a formula of leaning on the run game to take the pressure off Jones.

New England's receiving corps is at best uninspiring and the Patriots' failure to address a depleted secondary may prohibit playoff aspirations, but the strength in the trenches means Jones is in a better position to achieve short-term success than most of his second-year contemporaries.

1. Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers are set to step into the unknown in 2021, with all signs pointing to Lance playing his first full season since his lone campaign as the starting quarterback at North Dakota State in 2019 despite Jimmy Garoppolo's continued presence on the roster.

Handing the keys to an offense that was in the NFC championship Game over to a quarterback with only two career starts to his name represents a substantial risk, but it is a risk the Niners are in an excellent position to take.

While there remains no sign of the impasse between San Francisco and All-Pro wide receiver Deebo Samuel coming to an end, the Niners left free agency with a group of pass-catchers ranked sixth in the league in unit baseline. They added to that group in the draft by selecting SMU speedster Danny Gray in the third round.

San Francisco's pass defense was also in the top half of the league in that regard going into the draft, while its pass rush was third in unit baseline and could have an even higher ceiling in 2022 if Drake Jackson adapts quickly to the pros. The Niners' second-round pick registered a pressure rate of 24.2 that was the fifth-best among edge rushers in this draft class in 2021.

The Niners ranked in the top 10 in pass block win rate and seventh in run block win rate last season, yet their biggest issue may be maintaining that standard after losing left guard Laken Tomlinson to the Jets amid doubts over whether center Alex Mack would retire.

Lance could, therefore, be playing behind a largely inexperienced O-Line this coming season. However, the data from his small sample size last year hinted at him having what it takes to elevate those around him. He averaged 10.10 air yards per attempt – the second-most in the NFL – and no player to average at least 9.0 air yards had a better well-thrown percentage than Lance's 77.1.

His challenge will be to maintain that combination of aggression and accuracy over the course of a full season.

If the Niners can come to an understanding with Samuel, Lance will have one of the most versatile weapons in the NFL to help him build on those encouraging flashes. He'll also benefit from the support of a stout defense built on the strength of its front and a diverse running game that will likely grow even more varied with him under center.

The trump card for Lance is head coach Kyle Shanahan, who is arguably the pre-eminent offensive mind of the modern NFL. Between the talent on both sides of the ball and Shanahan's ability to draw up a running game and put receivers in space, the Niners are a high-floor, high ceiling team.

There may be doubts about Lance, but there should be no doubt he is the quarterback in the best situation to silence those concerns.

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