The draft is another day closer, and while there is always a lot of excitement around the event – especially at this time of year – this draft could be even more special than any we’ve seen in recent memory. There are three elite QB prospects that should all go in the top 3 picks.
An overlooked aspect about QBs is that a young QB is going to need a certain level of talent and quality coaching around them to succeed, and if they do not it is highly likely for them to become busts. It is the drafting team’s responsibility to get the QB and get a suitable environment for them to grow in. Because of that, teams should look for the prospect with the highest ceiling when picking at the top if that prospect’s potential is believed to be reachable in two or three years. The player’s floor also must be relatively high because if a General Manager and coach miss on a QB they could be looking for new jobs not too far down the road.
Film and the use of advanced stats to add additional context is necessary when looking at how good a QB is. The situations for these QBs are interesting as the top two picks are held by longtime QB killers, the Jaguars and Jets. Then at number three the 49ers and their offensive guru of a head coach will be on the clock with a team built to win now.
Urban Meyer and the Jags have both the first overall pick and 10 total picks to work with in the 2021 NFL Draft, but Meyer has only ever coached in college. While he was an elite college coach, he also hasn’t coached since 2018 when he lied about whether or not he knew his wide receivers coach Zach Smith was abusing his wife in 2015. Gotta wonder how the players in the locker room will view him, especially considering he has a hard ass disciplinarian style of coaching that’s been going out of style.
The Jets actually have a potentially good situation with Robert Saleh at head coach and Mike LaFleur as offensive coordinator. The Jets also have cap space and 9 2021 draft picks to help round out a potentially strong roster in the next couple of years, if (a big if) they make good decisions. Saleh and LaFleur come from the San Francisco 49ers and were both on the 2019 NFC Championship coaching staff. LaFleur got to learn under Kyle Shanahan as he was the passing game coordinator. Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur is his brother so this family seems to know something about coaching and climbing up the coaching ladder.
The third pick held by Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers should be destined for stardom. Simply put, if he can get this team to a super bowl with Jimmy Garoppolo as their starting QB, imagine what he can do with a real QB. Shanahan and General Manager John Lynch need to get the QB right quickly or they will likely be looking for new jobs. A 29-35 record through four years deserves some slack because of the QB problems and super bowl appearance, but the clock is ticking again for the Head Coach and GM.
However, the 49ers were impatient when Lynch and Shanahan made the move for Jimmy Garoppolo in the middle of the 2017 season. They could’ve trusted their ability to develop high upside QBs and drafted Baker Mayfield or Josh Allen in the upcoming draft, even though they were more raw products than Garoppolo, even though he was also largely unproven with only two career starts up until that point.
Trevor Lawrence of Clemson has been hyped up to be the number 1 pick of this year’s draft for around two years now. Zach Wilson had an incredible year for the BYU Cougars that vaulted him into this conversation by surprise. Last but not least Justin Fields, who is without a doubt the best QB Ohio State has ever had mainly due to being an excellent passer while also having the ability to kill defenses with his legs. However, all three of the QBs can do those things to an extent, so it comes down to breaking down their abilities as a passer further and ranking them accordingly.
You’ll see some stats you may not be familiar with in this article, so before we dive in here’s a quick key: Big Time Throw% (BTT%) means throws that are very difficult and require excellent ball placement, touch, and are in tight windows. These passes are also typically dowfield. TO Worthy Play% (TWP%) is the percent of the QBs passes that had a high chance of being a turnover or just simply plays where the QB wasn’t being careful with the ball. Average Depth of Target (ADOT) is how far downfield the pass catcher is when targeted. Pressures Turned to Sacks (P2S%) is the percent of times that when a QB was pressured became a sack. Time to throw is the amount of time it took the QB to pass to their intended target.
Each of these stats are also measured while a QB is Under Pressure (UP). For example, UP TWP% would be the turnover worthy plays while the QB is under pressure, UP ADOT is the average depth of target while under pressure, and so forth.
1. Zach Wilson, BYU 6’2” 214lbs.
Traditional stats: (12 games) TD/INT- 33/3; Pass Yards – 3,692; Comp.% – 73.5%; 70 carries for 254 yards and 10 rush TDs
Advanced stats: PFF grades- Overall: 95.4 (2nd); Passing: 95.5 (1st); Big Time Throw%: 8.6%; TO worthy play%: 1.0%; Average Depth of Target: 10.9; Pressures turned to sacks%: 13.9% (low); Time to throw: 2.81 sec; Under Pressure overall: 76.8 (6th); UP BTT%: 11.1; UP TWP%: 0.0 , UP ADOT: 13.8 , UP P2S%: 12.7%, Time to throw: 3.69 sec
Every time Zach Wilson plays something impresses me to a significant degree. He has insane arm talent and an unteachable ability to make the highlight reel off balance throws that make jaws drop when they happen.
Wilson has great athletic ability and can avoid sacks as evidenced by his low P2S% numbers overall and while under pressure. He gets knocked for not seeing a lot of pressure, but from what the tape shows and what the numbers show he did perform at a very high level compared to his peers. The 0.0 UP TWP% is what stands out, which shows even while being chased by linemen he can remain calm and make the right decision. Wilson registered a 90.1 (2nd) PFF grade on throws past 1st read since 2019 with a minimum of 60 attempts to qualify. QBs absolutely need to be able to go through progressions and that suggests to me he may not have as much work to do in this area as other prospects. That incredible arm talent mentioned earlier helped him earn a 99.9 PFF grade on throws past 20 yards with 56 attempts.
This next stat when mixed with the rest of the numbers and film makes it undeniable Zach Wilson is the top prospect. PFF graded him 94.2 (elite) on tight window throws which is another ability that you can’t just teach. He might not be great his first season depending on the talent surrounding him, but he’s someone who can have a monster year 2 or 3 in the NFL and beyond.
Wilson wants to win and be one of the all time greats. His aspirations are high but he’s a gamer. He has the highest potential in the class and a high floor. As long as the team that takes him isn’t being run by a bunch of dumb asses he should become a superstar.
2. Justin Fields, Ohio State 6’3” 227lbs.
Traditional stats: (8 games) TD/INT- 22/6; Pass Yards- 2,100; Comp.% – 70.2%; 81 carries for 383 yards and 5 TDs
Advanced stats: PFF grades – Overall: 93.6: (3rd); Passing- 92.2 (6th); BTT%- 7.8%; TWP%- 2.3%; ADOT – 10.4; P2S%- 25.0% (high); Time to throw – 3.11 sec (long); UP overall – 69.8(12th); UP BTT%- 11.3%; UP TWP% – 3.3%; UP ADOT – 10.5; UP P2S% – 25.0%; Time to throw – 4.10
Fields is another prospect with incredible arm talent that can’t be taught and is an even more dynamic runner than Wilson, although he’s not as good of a passer. Fields started for the Buckeyes in 2019 and led them to a 13-0 Big Ten title winning season and put the Buckeyes back in the College Football Playoff. That season ended with a heartbreaking loss in the CFP to Clemson 29-23. During the 2020 season he took them to the national title game where they got fucked up by the Alabama Crimson Tide 52-24.
The numbers show he was careful with the football overall and when under pressure which is a great trait to see. He takes sacks at a high rate and holds onto the ball for a long time which isn’t good, but it can be worked on. Since 2019 on throws past 1st read he ranks the highest with a 90.6 grade showing he has strong command and knowledge of the offense. PFF graded his deep ball 96.5 (T-11th) which displays his accuracy and arm strength in that area of the field. Being able to push the ball downfield in today’s NFL is critical. In addition, Fields has PFF’s top QB rushing grade with an 85.3 grade. He’s dynamic in multiple ways and can keep plays alive.
He has great work ethic and leadership skills and he showed toughness after taking a huge shot to the ribs by Clemson linebacker Tyler Skalski in the CFP semifinal and then coming back in to help his team finish what would be a 49-28 beating of Clemson. If given an opportunity with a coaching staff that has the patience to develop him for 2 or 3 years they should be very pleased with the results.
A potentially big area of concern is that he can’t always fit a ball into a tight window. PFF graded such throws at only 65.5, which is below average. Some media outlets are saying his epilepsy should be worried about, but that shouldn’t bother him considering that it didn’t last season or this season.
3. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson 6’6” 213lbs.
Traditional stats: (10 games) TD/INT- 24/5; Pass Yards – 3,153; Comp.% – 69.2%; 68 carries for 203 yards and 8 TDs
Advanced stats: PFF grades – Overall: 91.2 (8th); Passing – 90.3 (10th); BTT% – 7.1%; TWP% – 3.4%; ADOT – 9.0; P2S% – 15.7%; Time to throw – 2.35 sec; UP Overall – 54.5 (horrible); UP BTT% – 9.3%; UP TWP% – 7.4% (high); UP ADOT – 14.4; UP P2S% – 14.6%; Time to throw – 3.24
As previously mentioned, Lawrence has been expected to be the number 1 pick in this class for about 2 years now according to mainstream sports media. Personally, I don’t see the generational prospect he’s been hyped up to be. He’s an elite prospect because of the arm strength, ball placement, and athletic ability, but the film and numbers show he’s a riskier prospect than what’s been said by major sports news sources.
Lawrence is obviously good, but his three years at Clemson gave him nearly perfect surroundings for a quarterback. With good protection, great playmakers and great coaching, most talented college quarterbacks would have had great success as well. The numbers mentioned above show he’s quite awful under pressure and had a bad habit of making risky decisions. His TWP% while under pressure was a high 7.4% this season but only 3.2% a year ago. A reason for this is that in 2019 he had big bodied NFL wide receiver talents Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross but this last season he didn’t.
There are more concerns as PFF graded him 78.6 on throws past 1st read since 2019, which is average among quarterbacks and well below Wilson and Fields. Lawrence saw a very high 27% of his passing yards from RPOs and screens, meaning that more than a quarter of his yards came from play designs that any decent college quarterback should be able to execute. Another potentially big concern is his low 67.0 grade on tight window throws in 2020. His situation was easier than what most draft experts are willing to say. I don’t think he’s the generational talent he’s been hyped up to be but he is still an elite prospect worth developing – he just also presents a good degree of risk.
Lawrence is expected to be picked 1st overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Lawrence is definitely a great prospect, but he’s also in a loaded quarterback class in which other prospects have higher ceilings. He could be a horrible fit for Jacksonville given they don’t have good pass protection and don’t currently have the weapons Lawrence will likely need for success. If he does have the protection and weapons necessary he could get going in his 2nd or 3rd season and become a star himself, but if not, he could be another bust ruined by his surroundings.