NFL

Why are all the rookie QBs struggling?

In August, it seemed like this quarterback class might be the revival of the famed Class of 1983. 

Then the preseason games ended. 

The first three weeks have been a lesson for four of the five first-round quarterbacks. Trey Lance has barely played for the 49ers, and maybe he’s being spared some pain. Here is the combined line for the four first-round quarterbacks — Trevor Lawrence of the Jaguars, Zach Wilson of the Jets, Justin Fields of the Bears and Mac Jones of the Patriots —who started Sunday: 77-of-140 (55 percent), 717 yards, two TDs, seven INTs. That’s a 53.2 rating. The four quarterbacks led their offenses to two combined touchdowns, while throwing two pick-sixes. 

The rookie quarterback class has been awful so far. The best anyone could say about it is Jones hasn’t been abysmal leading an offense that’s 26th in points scored, or that Lance has had a couple nice touchdown plays near the goal line in special packages. 

Lawrence and Wilson share the NFL lead with seven interceptions. Fields looked entirely lost Sunday in his first start, taking more sacks (nine) than completed passes (six). Jones threw three interceptions Sunday and in games not against the terrible Jets, he has led the offense to two touchdowns in 20 possessions. 

The group flop, after such a promising preseason, is disappointing. But the questions should be: Why is it happening? Are they playing too soon? And is this something to worry about long term? 

First, each quarterback has a different core issue to deal with. Lawrence is stuck with a coaching staff that is entirely overmatched (and gave half of the valuable training camp reps to Gardner Minshew II, who was then traded for practically nothing before the season). The Jets have very little blossomed talent around Wilson. Fields ceded reps to Andy Dalton, then looked lost when he played. (He also has a coaching staff that might not be around longer). The Jaguars, Jets and Bears have bottom 10 offensive lines. It shouldn’t be a big surprise that Jones, the least talented of the five first-round quarterbacks, has looked the best. He has the best coaching staff and the best talent around him. And it still hasn’t been great for Jones. 

This shouldn’t be a referendum that rookie quarterbacks shouldn’t play. Cam Newton’s great rookie year ushered in a new era for rookie quarterbacks. Newton, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Derek Carr, Dak Prescott, Carson Wentz, Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert and many others did just fine as rookies. There’s no proof that sitting helps in the short or long term. Every prospect is different and perhaps for this class, some should have sat because they weren’t ready. But the notion that all rookie quarterbacks need to sit has been disproven. 

Now we need to figure out if this class was overhyped and overdrafted, if this is just a three-week sample-size fluke, or if talented players are being damaged in terrible situations. It seems hard to believe everyone was wrong on all of the quarterbacks (we won’t know about Lance until he plays more, of course). They are talented. It seems like a lot of their struggles are out of their control, whether it’s not getting enough protection or having any support from the run game or being coached by Urban Meyer. But concern about long-term damage is real. Bad habits are hard to shake at quarterback, especially if you pick them up early on. 

The more Lawrence is asked to carry a hopeless Jaguars team, or Wilson is getting rushed without defenders even being slowed down, or Fields is stuck with a game plan that doesn’t fit his strengths, or Jones is asked to throw 51 times with his team trailing, the more their development will be stunted. We can trust the Patriots to do their best to protect Jones. The Jaguars, Jets, Bears and their respective coaches can’t and shouldn’t be given that benefit of the doubt. If you care about the health of the NFL, which relies heavily on its pipeline of young quarterbacks, that’s scary. 

There’s a long way to go for all of the quarterbacks. The early results just haven’t been good. The best thing about the group might be that Lance hasn’t struggled. He has played only seven snaps. 

Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields (1) is sacked by Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett (95). (AP Photo/Kirk Irwin)

Here are the power rankings following Week 3 of the NFL season:

32. Jacksonville Jaguars (0-3, Last week: 32)

At least the Jaguars finally are figuring out to play James Robinson. He had 15 carries for 88 yards, with six catches for 46 yards. He also clearly played ahead of Carlos Hyde, which wouldn’t be an issue for 31 other coaching staffs that didn’t coach Hyde at Ohio State. 

31. New York Jets (0-3, LW: 30)

There’s a great argument to be made that the Jets are even worse than the Jaguars, which is hard to do. They’ve been outscored 51-6 over the past two games. Zach Wilson is on pace for 40 interceptions. There’s nothing at all to be positive about. 

30. Houston Texans (1-2, LW: 31)

For all the angst about the first-round quarterbacks, third-round pick Davis Mills didn’t embarrass himself against the Panthers. He played a safe game and that’s a reason Houston scored just nine points, but he was OK overall. We’ll get a chance to see if he can improve over the next couple weeks with Tyrod Taylor out.  

29. New York Giants (0-3, LW: 27)

The Giants lost Blake Martinez, Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton to injury in the first half. They might have won with those players all game. But the reality is they didn’t win, they’re 0-3, and it’s going to be a rough few months in that market if the record keeps slipping further under .500. At least the Giants have the horrid Jets to share those headlines.

28. Detroit Lions (0-3, LW: 29)

The Lions can complain about the delay-of-game penalty that officials missed before Justin Tucker’s field goal, or the bad luck on that kick that bounced in. But why rush only three on fourth-and-19, allowing Lamar Jackson all day to find Sammy Watkins downfield to set up the field goal? Why do coaches think that’s a good idea? 

27. Atlanta Falcons (1-2, LW: 28)

The Falcons won the award for at least being better than the Giants. It’s not like that win makes the Falcons a playoff contender, but life is better in an NFL facility after a win. Arthur Smith and his team will enjoy this one.  

26. Chicago Bears (1-2, LW: 23)

The Bears had 47 yards as a team and averaged 1.1 yards per play. You can watch the NFL a long time and not see a team average 1.1 yards per play again. Myles Garrett said after the game that the Browns were shocked that Matt Nagy’s game plan did nothing to play to Justin Fields’ strengths, and that figuring out Nagy’s offensive plan “came to us easily after the second possession.” For a coach who is already on the hot seat, those comments are damning. 

25. Indianapolis Colts (0-3, LW: 22)

The Colts play at the Dolphins, which is no gimme for them, then at the Ravens. This could be 0-5 in a hurry. Indianapolis has plenty of talent, but also plenty of injuries and now a huge hole to dig out of.

24. Philadelphia Eagles (1-2, LW: 24)

That Monday night loss was ugly. The defense had played well before meeting the Cowboys, and they were shredded. There has to be a worry that Jalen Hurts can’t find any consistency. There’s nothing to be optimistic about after that blowout loss. 

23. Washington Football Team (1-2, LW: 21)

In three games, Chase Young has nine tackles, no sacks and just one quarterback hit. He’s not the only reason Washington’s defense has been a major disappointment this season, but it’s not going to turn around unless Young plays a lot better.

22. Minnesota Vikings (1-2, LW: 26)

Alexander Mattison had an eye-opening day, with 171 total yards. Dalvin Cook has some durability issues and it seems the answer is to start having more of a shared backfield. They are both pretty good players.

21. Miami Dolphins (1-2, LW: 15)

A lot of attention will be given to the offense (Jacoby Brissett averaged a meager 4.4 yards per attempt), but what about the defense? It couldn’t hold a lead or get a stop in overtime. The Raiders had 497 yards. The Dolphins are supposed to be a good defensive team but that’s questionable through three weeks.

20. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2, LW: 10)

Look, the offensive line is bad. Everyone knows that. That doesn’t mean Ben Roethlisberger is playing well. He is not, in any way. The fact that Najee Harris caught 14 passes speaks to Roethlisberger’s inability to throw it downfield anymore. It isn’t a good situation.

19. Cincinnati Bengals (2-1, LW: 25)

Hey, remember when Ja’Marr Chase couldn’t catch the ball and that’s all anyone wanted to talk about in August? Yeah, that might have been an overreaction. He has four touchdowns already. The Bengals can go to 3-1 with a win over the Jaguars, which is a really fun spot for Cincinnati to be in.

18. New England Patriots (1-2, LW: 16)

The Patriots suddenly find themselves at 1-2 with Tampa Bay coming to town. Without an upset there, they’d be 1-3 with three home losses. Sunday night is a big game in New England for more than the obvious reasons

17. Seattle Seahawks (1-2, LW: 6)

The Seahawks’ defense might be a problem. The Titans beat them up on the ground, and the Vikings had no trouble moving the ball on the ground or through the air. Pete Carroll usually figures things out, but the additional challenge this year is playing in the rugged NFC West. 

16. Tennessee Titans (2-1, LW: 19)

A.J. Brown is banged up and missed most of Sunday’s game. Julio Jones was strangely absent for most of the second half Sunday, with only a vague and confusing answer as to why. “Just trying to manage where he’s at, and the type of game the end of the game would be,” Mike Vrabel said of Jones, via the Tennessean. It’s a good thing the AFC South won’t pose any threat to the Titans as they get healthy.

15. Dallas Cowboys (2-1, LW: 20)

It’s starting to feel like the Cowboys might be a rare team with two 1,000-yard rushers. There’s no reason for Dallas to scale back Tony Pollard, and Ezekiel Elliott is still just fine. 

14. Carolina Panthers (3-0, LW: 14)

The CJ Henderson trade is a good risk for the Panthers. There have to be reasons the Jaguars wanted to give up on the ninth pick of last year’s draft after one year and three games, but the Panthers had a need at cornerback after Jaycee Horn’s injury and they didn’t give up much to find out if a change of scenery helps a talented player.

13. Los Angeles Chargers (2-1, LW: 17)

Mike Williams is a good example of why coaching matters. The old staff seemed content to have the former No. 7 overall pick function primarily as a deep threat. He had moments of success but through four seasons it seemed like he was capable of more. A new staff expanded his route tree and now Williams looks like an elite receiver. That would give the Chargers two of them, because Keenan Allen is still a star.

12. Baltimore Ravens (2-1, LW: 8)

The Ravens are the NFL team that epitomizes parity — they could be 3-0 or 0-3 if just a handful of plays turned out a different way. The Ravens are on the fortunate side, to be 2-1. They’ll have to play a lot better to keep up that pace, especially with the Browns looking strong.

11. Cleveland Browns (2-1, LW: 12)

If the Browns’ defense is as good as it looked on Sunday, this is a Super Bowl contender. Myles Garrett is on his way to a defensive player of the year award. Jadeveon Clowney had two sacks. The Browns are good up the middle too. They sacked Justin Fields nine times, which might be more about Fields (and Matt Nagy’s game plan) than the Browns defensive line, but it was an impressive show.

10. Denver Broncos (3-0, LW: 9)

Teddy Bridgewater has been fantastic. But like everything else related to the Broncos, we don’t know how much to believe. When you’ve beaten three 0-3 teams, it’s hard to tell. But the good news is the Broncos are winning games they should. That’s not a given in the NFL.

9. Kansas City Chiefs (1-2, LW: 4)

It’s weird to see the Chiefs in last place of the AFC West. There’s no reason to panic yet. They’ve lost two very close games. The defense needs to improve and they’ll need to figure out options on offense other than Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, but the Chiefs are still a Super Bowl contender. They just might not be the big favorite we thought they were. Still, dropping them too far in these rankings would look foolish in about a month. 

8. San Francisco 49ers (2-1, LW: 2)

Losing is never good but the 49ers shouldn’t feel that bad about Sunday night. They just left Aaron Rodgers too much time. But the comeback to take a late lead was impressive. Jimmy Garoppolo came through when he had to. The 49ers will be fine. 

7. Green Bay Packers (2-1, LW: 13)

Mason Crosby has quietly had a heck of a career. He has hit 81.9 percent of his field-goal attempts over 15 seasons, all with Green Bay. His 1,702 points are 648 ahead of any other Packer. He has the eight longest field goals in Packers history. He has some great clutch kicks, including another one on Sunday night. He has carved out a nice place in the franchise’s pantheon, even though he somehow has never made a Pro Bowl.

6. New Orleans Saints (2-1, LW: 18)

Jameis Winston’s passing yardage in his three games with the Saints: 148, 111, 128. The Saints are 2-1 with two good wins, but it’s going to be very hard to keep winning if the offense isn’t much better. Winston is better off when he doesn’t need to do it all, but having a quarterback with 387 yards in three games isn’t going to work long in the modern NFL.

5. Las Vegas Raiders (3-0, LW: 7)

The best thing about the last two Raiders’ wins, and Derek Carr’s performance, might be that it hasn’t been the Darren Waller show. Waller has played well, but the Raiders are getting big catches from multiple players. Henry Ruggs III is showing up, Bryan Edwards has made some huge catches and Hunter Renfrow is still a good slot receiver. Those three combined for 12 catches, 244 yards and a touchdown in Sunday’s win. They will get Josh Jacobs back too. It’s a good all-around offense.

4. Buffalo Bills (2-1, LW: 11)

The Bills might be a team that flies under the radar for a while, because they lost in Week 1. Since then, their offense has scored 78 points. The defense has a shutout and gave up just 290 yards and 13 first downs in Week 3. The Bills haven’t even really got Stefon Diggs going yet either. And they get the Texans at home next. The Bills are ahead of some 3-0 teams because I’m confident they’ll be an elite team the rest of the season. 

3. Arizona Cardinals (3-0, LW: 5)

Kliff Kingsbury had a heck of a bad coaching decision Sunday, opting for a 68-yard field goal attempt that got returned for a 109-yard touchdown. The Jaguars are so bad they lost anyway and took Kingsbury off the hook, but it’s the kind of decision that makes you wonder if we can trust Kingsbury going forward.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1, LW: 1)

The Buccaneers had the best injury luck in the NFL in 2020. Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting is on IR. On Sunday, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul and receiver Antonio Brown were out. Rob Gronkowski took a big hit and left the game for a while. One of the many reasons it’s hard to repeat is that no team is guaranteed to have a somewhat healthy season. 

1. Los Angeles Rams (3-0, LW: 3)

There should have been skepticism that Matthew Stafford would fit in perfectly with the Rams. Well, he has. The Rams’ gamble seems to be paying off, and this looks like a team that can win it all. That win on Sunday against the Buccaneers was impressive, and a strong message to the rest of the NFL. 


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