Ask anyone around the NFL about rookie quarterbacks and they’ll tell you that fit is far more important than raw potential. Even the most talented quarterbacks can find themselves languishing in the league, failing to ever reach their ceiling because they were drafted by a team that failed to set them up for success.
This is why the yearly tradition of pitting quarterback vs. quarterback when it comes to the draft is such a fool’s errand. Time and time again, we see that fit determines success more than any other factor. Heck, look at 2012. Here you had endless discussion about Andrew Luck vs. Robert Griffin III, and who would be better in the NFL. Luck landed in a stable situation in Indianapolis and flourished, RGIII was drafted into a Washington dumpster fire. Now, less than a decade later, it’s No. 8 pick Ryan Tannehill who’s going to have a better career than both of them — and he needed to escape a bad landing spot in Miami to show his potential.
The 2021 NFL Draft is the most quarterback-heavy in recent memory. As many as five quarterbacks could be selected in the top-10 picks. There’s very little debate over No. 1, with most accepting that Trevor Lawrence is the best in the class, but it gets murky from there. So, instead of just ranking this year’s passers in terms of their potential, today we’ll look at the best plausible landing spot for each QB, and what these teams will get by taking them.
Best fit: Jacksonville Jaguars
This is the perfect case of talent meeting fit in the NFL Draft. Jacksonville is in dire need of a superstar at quarterback, and Lawrence is a rare talent at the position. The entire organization is in need of leadership, particularly on offense, and this is an intangible quality Lawrence showed in spades while at Clemson. Every quarterback says they want to be a leader, because it makes for great sound bytes, but over the course of his career Lawrence showed a hunger, and a desire to put the team on his shoulders, accept the criticism, as well as the praise, and lead by example.
That level of maturity is going to be tested from the jump, because a rookie quarterback entering the NFL and being expected to run the Urban Meyer offense puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the quarterback — so they need to be someone willing to meet the challenge.
Meyer’s spread offense hinges entirely on quarterback decision-making. It asks for a player who can make quick decisions, take advantage of what the defense gives them, and exploit these advantages. In 2012 Meyer made a simple, but salient point about the importance of quarterback play in his offense.
“The one thing about our offense, you can’t have a bad quarterback. And the quarterback can’t have a bad day or you’ll lose.”
Lawrence was made to have this pressure put on him. By no means is he perfect. There are times he waits a little too long to make throws, and others where he’ll miss a seemingly easy pass — but on average his decision making is unparalleled in this class, and his downfield vision, regardless of the pass rush in his face will make him a star.
This fit is so perfect it feels almost like the Jaguars hired Urban Meyer knowing they’d be taking Trevor Lawrence.
Best fit: Denver Broncos
All signs are pointing to Wilson being taken No. 2 overall by the Jets, but I have to admit — I think it’s a mistake. In watching Wilson’s film I saw a pattern emerge, and it’s one that really worries me.
BYU played one of the softest schedules in all of college, ranked 67th in the nation. Wilson was in the ideal position to succeed, and he did for the most part. However, what I see is a quarterback who took a ton of risks that won’t translate on Sunday. Too often Wilson threw jump balls to his receivers, missing his progression on a safer, chain-moving throw. You can look at that as “having faith in his receivers,” which is good — and he should have, especially when you’re playing the likes of North Alabama.
Wilson always had days to throw downfield because of a clean pocket. Despite this he still had a tendency to move through his progressions too quickly and miss easy options. In the event he was pressured Wilson was too quick to take off and run. His athleticism was enough against his competition to pick up big yards, but this could become a liability in the NFL.
So, why is he a fit for Denver? In short: He needs an environment that emulates his time at BYU as much as possible. The Broncos have a solid offensive line compared to other QB-needy teams at the top of the draft, and that will give him the protection to allow him to make the throws he attempted in college, with a burgeoning young receiver in Jerry Jeudy who can make him look good.
I can’t shake this feeling that Wilson is going to be a bust though. After watching film I’m not confident in him to be an elite quarterback in the NFL, and it concerns me to think he’ll be selected with that expectation on him.
Best fit: Atlanta Falcons
There seems to be contention over whether Atlanta are ready to draft their quarterback of the future now, or if they want to wait a couple more years — but I believe they should, because the best player for them could be sitting in their pocket.
Justin Fields is by no means a polished, NFL-ready product. He bounced from Georgia to Ohio State, learning the Buckeyes’ offense and having success, but struggling a little at times too. That’s been ludicrously conflated with an inability to learn, which, honestly, is the kind of lazy, racist take that gets hoisted on black quarterbacks, so it shouldn’t be a surprise.
What I see when I watch Fields is a player with tremendous NFL potential, and an ability to do all the things teams crave — but sometimes without consistency. Fields has great vision, goes through his progressions well, and uses his tremendous athleticism and legs as a final option, rather than a weapon. He’s always looking downfield for a pass before deciding to run. It’s for these reasons Atlanta is a perfect landing spot.
There won’t be a weight of expectations to start from day one. Fields will be able to sit behind Matt Ryan and have some breathing room while learning his third offense in three years. The foundation set in Atlanta is already strong, albeit in need of some tweaking. So why not get a potentially elite player and have him ready after you sort out those other small issues?
I understand that Ryan does have a couple of years left in him, but the best teams plan ahead — especially when the draft breaks in a way where they could get a potentially elite talent at quarterback, and get him ready to play in the NFL before needing to make the transition.
Best fit: New England Patriots
An athletically questionable quarterback with NFL potential based on his processing speed and decision making. Let me know if that sounds like any Patriots QB you know? Perhaps a Hall of Fame one with six rings maybe? Okay, it’s exceedingly dumb to compare Mac Jones to Tom Brady, but hopefully you get where I’m going here.
Jones is not a perfect fit for every team. In a league where teams are craving more and more athleticism at the quarterback position, Jones is on a bit of an island when it comes to how he gels with the modern game. I get that there are a lot of teams in love with how he sees and thinks about the game, but there comes a point where there will be a definite ceiling on his potential because of his physique and athleticism. It’s as simple as that.
If I’m Mac Jones I’m salivating at the idea of going to New England and working with an organization who understands how to get the most out of a quarterback with my skillset. There won’t be the pressure to start from day one, considering the Patriots just re-signed Cam Newton, but even Newton can give something to Jones: Confidence.
In watching Jones play you see the smart decision making too, but sometimes he’s too conservative for his own good. Taking the checkdown route and picking up easy yards is definitely a smart play, but we know that dinking and dunking downfield isn’t a way to consistently win in the NFL. While Jones doesn’t have the biggest arm in the draft, he has better passing skill than he sometimes even gives himself credit for. There are times he could throw a pass into a tighter window, or drive the ball downfield more — but decides not to.
Cam Newton is not lacking for confidence, and I think being in the quarterback room with someone like that could actually make Mac Jones better as a result. At that point he’d be even better equipped to be a Bill Belichick quarterback.
Best fit: San Francisco 49ers
I understand signs are pointing to San Francisco being enamored with Mac Jones, and I kind of get it — but I think they’re overlooking an even better fit for both parties.
I’ve been tremendously impressed watching video of Trey Lance as another player with astounding NFL potential who still needs to put the rest of the pieces together. Lance isn’t afraid of contact, he’ll stand tall in the pocket and make throws, knowing he’s about to take a big hit in the process. He also excels at making difficult passes quarterbacks in the league are expected to make, like dropping a dime to a receiver on an out route, while lofting the ball over a defender in the flat. These are the kid of throws that never get picked up in highlight reels, but the ones NFL teams salivate over when seeing a prospect, because they know it means a player can move the chains.
There are some hitches with Lance’s game. His anticipation isn’t always there on throws, and he doesn’t always put his receivers in the best position to pick up yards after the catch. Lance also tends to get busy in the pocket, but in unproductive ways. There are times he has a lot of wasted body movement as he shuffles around in the pocket, changes his stance, moves his eye level — all detract from the basic act of throwing a football. Small issues that can be corrected, especially with time.
It’s here the 49ers enter. I know their desire to get a quarterback is strong, but they don’t need to pull the trigger on starting a rookie right now. Jimmy Garopollo is still serviceable enough for another season while the coaching staff gets ample time to iron out these issues with Lance.
To me, you don’t trade up to No. 3 and give up a ransom in order to hit a double. It’s an old cliche I know, but the 49ers need to get a home run out of this pick — even if they have to wait a little for it. For my money I think Trey Lance is worth the wait, and if he can iron out these issues in his game, we really could be seeing a very special quarterback in the making.
What about the Jets?
I know New York fans are probably upset they’re not mentioned here, but I have a pretty easy answer for it: This isn’t the year. Trevor Lawrence would have been the guy to take for the Jets, but they played out of that possibility in 2020.
This isn’t a team who is a QB away from competing, they’re almost an entire team away. Throwing a rookie passer into this situation won’t serve the player, or the team in the long run. The Jets still need major upgrades at receiver, and on the offensive line — which leads me to the belief that taking Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell would be the correct move, even though it’s not likely it will happen.
I love a lot of what New York has done in the last six months. Hiring Robert Saleh was inspired, and there aren’t enough superlatives to describe what an upgrade he is over Adam Gase. Trading away Sam Darnold and getting something in return was great as well. Risking the rebuild from the jump on the wrong quarterback is a mistake, and I’m afraid they’re going to make it.
Seriously Jets, just get better for now. Understand 2021 will be rough, and position yourself to take Spencer Rattler, Sam Howell or JT Daniels a year from now.