Just about anyone who has ever thrown a football has dreamed of becoming a first-round — let alone top-15 — selection in the NFL Draft.
Accomplishment. Opportunity. Money. It’s a dream come true.
Five such men lived it last week: Trevor Lawrence (1) to Jacksonville, Zach Wilson (2) to the New York Jets,, Trey Lance (3) to San Francisco, Justin Fields (11) to Chicago and Mac Jones (15) to New England.
As the green room hugs and introductory press conference smiles fade, though, what arrives are the expectations of the job (and draft slot). They are, without question, enormous; often so enormous that they can overwhelm quarterbacks who clearly have the physical talents to succeed.
In recent years alone, Dwayne Haskins, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Robert Griffin III, Blake Bortles, Mitchell Trubisky, Josh Rosen, Jameis Winston, March Mariota and others have struggled as once-hyped top-15 picks.
The days of having rookie quarterbacks watching and learning for a season or three is mostly out of style. That means at least four, and perhaps all five, of the top quarterbacks in 2021 are expected to start at some point this season, perhaps in the season opener.
So who in the class of 2021 is facing the most pressure next season? All of them, in a sense, but there are varying degrees and varying reasons.
Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville
Lawrence has the benefit of time. What he does in September, or even the full season, is not going to matter that much. He’s the franchise. There is no Plan B. He joins a team with a new coach, Urban Meyer, who only took the job because he knew he could draft and coach Lawrence. There will be no early hook, unless he’s astoundingly bad (which seems unlikely).
Payton Manning has already joked about Lawrence breaking his record for most interceptions as a rookie at 28. The implication however is that he’s expected to struggle while taking over a 1-15 team. That’s the good news.
The pressure comes in the future. Lawrence isn’t just a highly drafted quarterback or even a No. 1 overall selection. He’s been hailed as a “generational” talent, compared favorably to Andrew Luck, Manning and other stars. He needs to be really, really good or there will be significant disappointment.
Jacksonville is a small market by NFL standards, but it is also a fishbowl. There are no other professional franchises and no other local stars to steer media attention away. The fan base (and yes, there is a fan base) is desperate to reach a Super Bowl. Already, Lawrence and his wife Marissa are like royalty in town. It’s all eyes on Trevor.
Zach Wilson, New York Jets
Wilson, on the other hand, has plenty of places to hide. Yes, New York is the country’s biggest city and media market, but there are nine professional franchises to spread attention. Everything from more popular teams (the Yankees, the Giants) to massive celebrities (Kevin Durant, Aaron Judge) will provide some cover.
At least for a little while. Once the season starts, expectations will soar. The Jets have been looking for a quarterback savior since Joe Namath, trotting out a new candidate every few years to little avail. Wilson replaces the last guy to try … the competent Sam Darnold, who should be the starter in Carolina this year, allowing the chance to show the Jets what they let get away.
Wilson hails from Draper, Utah and attended BYU. Those are a long way from New York in every imaginable way. Due to COVID, BYU was forced to play a downgraded schedule in 2020. Who knows how ready he is? Plus, this is the Jets. New coach Robert Saleh brings impressive professionalism, but the franchise has wrecked plenty of talented QBs across the years.
Trey Lance, San Francisco
The 49ers traded away two first-round picks (plus a third) in order to move from 12th overall spot to third. Then they grabbed a guy from North Dakota State who essentially played one season of FCS football … back in 2019. Had San Francisco stayed put, they would have needed to only move up one spot (11th) to get Justin Fields or just waited and selected Mac Jones (and thus still had their 2022 and 2023 first-rounders).
This was bold, to say the least. It will either go down as a stroke of genius by general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan or a disaster that will doom both of them and the current talent-laden roster. Middle ground is limited here.
Pressure? You bet. Lance gets to step into a Super Bowl-caliber team, but he’ll have to beat out Jimmy Garoppolo to get on the field. Expectations for winning are immediate. The guys who went and chose him are counting on him to deliver.
This is going to be interesting.
Justin Fields, Chicago
Fans are understandably thrilled that the Bears were able to draft a guy who some scouts thought was the second-best prospect in the draft and led Ohio State to the national title game. They are also so starved for a quality quarterback, that just watching some competence at the position might placate them for a while. That’s good for Fields.
That said, there are some unusual circumstances. Fields was picked by a general manager (Ryan Pace) and coach (Matt Nagy) on the hot seat — so if he doesn’t deliver, both could be fired. Veteran Andy Dalton is a nice early season bridge, but the circumstances suggest Fields will need to get on the field in fairly short order.
In some ways, Fields is there to atone for the 2017 NFL draft, when Pace traded away three mid-round draft picks to move up and draft Mitchell Trubisky, famously passing on Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. That decision has haunted the Bears. Until now.
The thing is, none of that was Fields’ fault. He’s just supposed to make everyone forget about it.
Mac Jones, New England
This is a nice spot to land. There will be some patience, likely more than with any other quarterback. Cam Newton is the expected starter and the Patriots view Jones as a long-term solution at quarterback. He’ll be surrounded by lots of new talent and tremendous coaching.
Bill Belichick won’t be pressured into playing Jones before he believes Jones is ready. Fans, media, ownership … none of it matters. If Jones doesn’t play much as a rookie, then so be it. Neither did Tom Brady.
If there is any added pressure here, it comes from Brady, who won six Super Bowls in 20 years as a starter and is now going for his second in two seasons in Tampa. Jones doesn’t have to be better than Brady right now. That would be unreasonable. Yet fans do view him as the next Brady. Jones could prove to be a great quarterback, of course, and never be Brady.
That just comes with the territory in Foxborough.
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