Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson meet Sunday in a rare matchup — only the fourth time in the common-draft era (since 1967) that quarterbacks drafted first and second overall are facing each other as rookies.
Unlike the first three, Lawrence and Wilson are squaring off late in the season, meaning they have been banged around and scuffed up. They have experienced the hardships of rebuilding, as their respective teams — the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets — are a combined 5-23. No one said the franchise-savior business is easy.
“It’s a good reminder for y’all because we do tend to celebrate the anomalies like the [Justin] Herberts of the world,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said. “But as far as rookie quarterbacks, this is usually what happens. They struggle.”
Out of 31 qualified quarterbacks, Lawrence (31.7) and Wilson (22.6) are ranked 28th and 31st in Total QBR, respectively. Lawrence, the No. 1 pick, is tied for the NFL lead with 14 interceptions. Wilson’s completion percentage (56.2) is the lowest among the 31 passers.
The previous No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdowns?
ESPN NFL Nation reporters Mike DiRocco (Jaguars) and Rich Cimini (Jets) take a closer look at Lawrence and Wilson, who meet at MetLife Stadium (1 p.m. ET, CBS).
What went wrong in 2021?
Pretty much everything.
Former head coach Urban Meyer created a toxic atmosphere in the facility, and he had Lawrence alternating days with the first team with quarterback Gardner Minshew throughout training camp. Running back Travis Etienne Jr. and receivers DJ Chark Jr. and Jamal Agnew, the only deep speed the Jaguars had, suffered season-ending injuries early. The Jags’ wide receiver corps has struggled to gain separation against man coverage, and their pass-catchers lead the NFL with 29 drops. Last season’s leading running back, James Robinson, got hurt and was mysteriously benched twice. The offensive line, especially right tackle Jawaan Taylor (nine sacks allowed), has struggled in pass protection.
Now try being a rookie quarterback figuring out how to play in the league while dealing with all of that.
Over the course of the season, Lawrence has grown tentative and has sometimes hesitated to make throws. He has been wild with some throws, too, and has had little success throwing downfield, completing just 4 of 25 passes that traveled 20 or more yards in the air over the past eight games, per ESPN Stats & Information research. That’s 16%, which ranks 34th out of 37 qualifying QBs. That’s part of the reason why the offense has scored just seven touchdowns over the past eight games. Lawrence needs a lot more help.
But despite all of the mess around Lawrence, he has still made progress.
“He is progressing nicely,” QB coach/passing game coordinator/interim offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “That’s what you do with a young quarterback. There are going to be interceptions — he’s thrown those, that’s going to happen — now if he keeps repeating those mistakes then that’s how you know that he’s not listening and not making those corrections. He’s not repeating those same mistakes, so that’s when you get excited.”
What was Lawrence’s high point?
He led the Jaguars on a pair of scoring drives in the final 6:39 to give the Jaguars a 23-20 victory over the Miami Dolphins in London to snap a 20-game losing streak that was the second longest in NFL history.
Lawrence drove the Jaguars 46 yards to set up kicker Matt Wright‘s 54-yard field goal to tie the game at 20-20 with 3:45 remaining. Then they got the ball back with 1:42 to play. After a false start, a 1-yard loss and a sack, Lawrence completed a 12-yard pass to receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. to put the Jaguars on the Miami 44 with five seconds to play.
“Honestly, five seconds was really less than what we’ve needed, but [the thinking was] I think we have a shot, we can get down quick, call a timeout,” Lawrence said. “It was a situation that really it’s hard to prepare for, but having all of that, all those reps in practice of that situation of getting down, getting the first, getting down, calling the timeout really paid off.”
After calling a timeout, Meyer and OC Darrell Bevell opted to run a play called “slider” instead of attempting a Hail Mary. It’s a quick throw that would take only a few seconds. Lawrence completed a 9-yard pass to Shenault, who slid to the turf, and that allowed Meyer to call timeout with one second to play. Wright then kicked a 53-yard field goal for the victory. The Jaguars have won just one other game (9-6 over the Buffalo Bills) since.
Three reasons to be optimistic about 2022
1. Leadership. The 22-year-old Lawrence showed more leadership in the past few weeks than Meyer did in his 11 months on the job.
When Robinson was benched in consecutive weeks for fumbling, Lawrence eventually told Meyer that they need their best offensive player on the field as much as possible. Lawrence also met with owner Shad Khan on Dec. 14 and shared his thoughts on what had been happening inside the facility and the disappointing results on the field.
The rookie has taken responsibility for every on-field mistake he has made, hasn’t thrown any teammates under the bus (see above) and has rarely shown any frustration on the field. He also has hosted teammates and their significant others at his home multiple times — and while that seems like a little thing, it’s something the players appreciate. Lawrence has already won the locker room, and he hasn’t even finished his first season.
“I’ve said it a few times: When things are crazy, consistency wins and just being the same day in and day out [is important],” Lawrence said. “… It’s just keep being positive, be the same person and be that consistent voice.”
2. Confidence. Despite some poor numbers — one touchdown pass since November began, a total of nine TD passes vs. 14 interceptions, and getting sacked 28 times — Lawrence claims he isn’t experiencing a shred of doubt.
He has said several times that while he and the team are struggling, he’s confident in who he is and what he can do on the field. It would be understandable if he were shaken, but Lawrence has shown incredible poise — especially after Meyer’s viral videos and also in the days since Meyer was fired. Plenty of young QBs have been rattled as rookies and never recovered, but it doesn’t appear that will be the case with Lawrence.
3. This is an attractive job. The presence of Lawrence makes the Jaguars arguably the best job that will be open during the offseason, so Khan should have no shortage of interested candidates. Granted, the roster needs a lot of work, especially on offense, but working with a young, talented quarterback and an owner who has shown a lot of patience (Khan gave Gus Bradley and Doug Marrone four years each, and Meyer was a different situation) is a sought-after scenario for coaches. This will allow Khan to be picky, too. Khan’s track record in hiring coaches and GMs is not good, so that’s a concern, but this is almost a perfect situation in terms of hiring a coach. A fresh start will be good for Lawrence.
What went wrong in 2021?
Wilson is battling an inner conflict, trying to conform to the structure of the offense while maintaining the improvisational ability that made him a star at BYU. It’s a delicate balance, one that has resulted in stretches of hero ball. There have been instances, especially early in the season, when he tried to make dynamic, off-schedule plays instead of taking the safe, checkdown option. Gambler Zach can be fun to watch, but Game Manager Zach is what the coaches want.
“Personally for me, I just need to play loose and not try and be such a perfect pocket passing quarterback all the time,” Wilson said. “That’s the biggest thing. I’m just trying to do so right by the coaches and what they’re asking me to do, and a part of it I need to just be loose and play free and obviously play within the offense but just react and throw the ball like I’ve always known how to throw the ball.”
He struggles to play within the pocket, sometimes escaping at the first sign of duress. That throws off the timing of the offense, a West Coast-based system that demands synchronicity between the quarterback’s dropback and the depth of the receivers’ routes. Wilson’s biggest issue is short-area accuracy — the so-called layups. On throws of 10 air yards or less, his completion rate is a league-worst 58% — about 20 points below his 2020 number at BYU. Some might call it the yips; he should be able to clean that up with a mechanical tweak or two. Wilson also missed four games due to a right knee injury.
Overall, Wilson has a lot to learn. It’s no coincidence that the Jets’ four most prolific offensive games (in terms of total yards) occurred when he was out with a knee injury.
“I’ve been critical of Zach this year,” said ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky, a former NFL quarterback. “I think he’s had moments where his ball handling has been very poor. That’s a big deal in this offense. I think he’s had moments where his feel in the pocket has been very poor. I think he’s had moments when his eyes, specifically two weeks ago, were very poor.
“Then I also think you’ve seen growth where he rips the ball into a seam. I think you’ve seen growth with his patience with the football. I think his play fakes have been better over the past two weeks. … He needs an offseason where he can really grind on the mechanics and fundamentals.”
What was Wilson’s high point?
His signature moment came in a Week 4 upset of the Tennessee Titans, when Wilson launched a 53-yard touchdown to receiver Corey Davis. His most impressive traits were on display in that one play. He rolled to his right, motioned for Davis to run to the end zone and threw a perfect rainbow that traveled 57 yards in actual air distance — one of the Jets’ longest completions in recent history. It was the kind of play we all did as kids, telling our friends to “Go deep!” on the schoolyard. It took chutzpah, and Wilson pulled it off beautifully.
ZACH WILSON 🚀 COREY DAVIS
— PFF (@PFF) October 3, 2021
Since then, Wilson hasn’t enjoyed many highlights — only two touchdown passes in his past six games. Despite the inconsistency, the Jets’ belief in him hasn’t wavered.
“We’re really excited about where Zach is and we’re really, really confident that his arrow is definitely pointing up and it’s only going to get better,” said Saleh, whose youth movement won’t succeed unless Wilson develops into an upper-tier quarterback.
Three reasons to be optimistic about 2022
1. Decision-making. Wilson has improved in this area in recent weeks, and that should continue in 2022. He has gone 81 pass attempts without an interception. That might not sound like much, but it represents progress when you consider he had 11 interceptions in his first 227 attempts. He’s not forcing as many passes into coverage as he did early in the year, and he’s using his physical ability to create off schedule. He said last week was his “biggest game as far as playing free,” meaning he felt relaxed.
He learned quickly that he’s a long way from Provo, Utah, where he enjoyed a cozy pocket and threw into windows the size of Fifth Avenue storefronts. After a stress-free preseason, reality hit him hard. He looked lost in a couple of games (see: four interceptions against the New England Patriots). That, coupled with the weight of playing in the glare of the New York spotlight, could’ve wrecked him. To his credit, he has mostly handled the adversity. That, too, should serve him well in the future.
2. Seasoned staff. He will benefit next season from having a more experienced Mike LaFleur as his offensive coordinator. Like Wilson, LaFleur is a rookie who has experienced his own growing pains. He, too, got off to a shaky start, but he got comfortable around midseason when he started calling plays from the coaches’ booth. Another year with LaFleur, and another year in his complex system, is bound to help.
It will be interesting to see if LaFleur and Saleh make any changes to the quarterback room. Not counting LaFleur, they have three coaches working directly with Wilson, two more than customary. Greg Knapp was supposed to be Wilson’s primary coach, but he was killed in an accident on the eve of training camp. That resulted in a staff shakeup, as longtime NFL assistant Matt Cavanaugh and John Beck (Wilson’s personal coach) were later hired. That made it a crowded room.
“It was enormous, enormous,” Orlovsky said of the Knapp tragedy and its impact on Wilson. “For them not to have that guy that was with him on a daily basis, teaching him the ins and the outs of this offense … it absolutely stunted his growth.”
Stability in ’22 should help.
3. More experienced supporting cast. The same applies to Wilson’s teammates, which includes a pair of rookies — running back Michael Carter and wide receiver Elijah Moore. It’s always dicey when rookies are relying on rookies, but the upside is they can grow up together in the system. Now Wilson needs a playmaking tight end, another receiver and a lineman or two. If the front office can deliver, Wilson will have a chance to rebound from one of the worst statistical seasons for a quarterback in the past 20 years.