With the 2021 NFL schedule now released and our games we’re looking forward to highlighted, we can now turn our attention to what might happen this season. There’s plenty of prognostication to be done on whether teams will be good or bad, and who might be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February, but for some of the worst NFL teams from a year ago fans are now anxiously awaiting seeing their new QBs debut.
Five quarterbacks were taken in the first 15 picks of the 2021, second only to 1983 when six passers were taken in the first round. That ‘83 draft gave us legends like John Elways, Dan Marino, and Jim Kelly — but also Todd Blackledge, Tony Eason, and Ken O’Brien, massive disappointments when compared to the trio of Hall of Famers. Time will tell where the class of 2021 fits in NFL history, but we can shed some pretty reasonablt guesses on when these rookies will suit up and start.
Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars
This one is a very easy lock. Unless something dramatic happens in training camp, we’ll be seeing Lawrence from Week 1. It might be a little early to jettison Gardner Minshew this quickly, but ever since Jacksonville secured the No. 1 overall pick they’ve been looking to a future with Lawrence under center.
Prospects from this class largely fell into two camps: The NFL ready, and the risky upside projects. Lawrence split the middle perfectly, offering the capability of starting from day one, and plenty of room to grow in the league and become even better than he is now.
Projected start: Week 1
Zach Wilson, New York Jets
I’ll be the first to say I’m not the biggest Wilson fan as a prospect. In scouting him prior to the draft I saw the flashes of ability people are believing in, but also some worrying habits that need to be coached out. He loves to throw up 50/50 passes and put faith in his receivers, which is awesome if you’re playing for BYU against terrible opponents and know your receivers have the athletic edge, but it’s going to be almost impossible to do that reliably in the NFL. Also I notice a tendency to take off and invent his own play a little too often, rather than go through his full progression.
That said, the Jets have faith in Wilson — and literally have no other quarterback on the roster. This will change before the start of the season, but unless Wilson severely struggles in training camp the team seem comfortable throwing him out there and seeing if he can sink or swim
Projected start: Week 1
Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers
After months of rumors about which way the 49ers would go in the draft, they ended up going with the upside potential of Trey Lance over the NFL-ready, low ceiling Mac Jones.
There’s a lot to link about Lance’s potential in the NFL, but he’s not quite ready to put a team on his shoulders yet. With the Niners having Jimmy Garopollo under contract there’s freedom to sit Lance for a year and let him learn the system, but something tells me they’ll grow impatient.
I don’t believe San Francisco has enough tools to win consistently with Jimmy G under center, and they don’t either — otherwise they wouldn’t have traded up for Lance. I think he rides the bench for a few weeks, then gets the nod.
Projected start: Week 7
I see a perfect place here to make the transition. The 49ers will be coming off a bye week, then have a long week of practice before facing the Colts on Sunday Night Football. The Colts are good, no doubt, but this is the kind of perfect mid-tier game to put a quarterback in. This gives Lance a couple of months to show what he can do, then be ready for 2022.
I asked Kyle Posey at Niners Nation for his thoughts on when Trey Lance will start.
“The big question among 49ers fans is when will Trey Lance take over for Jimmy Garoppolo? Everyone has Week 8 circled on the schedule, and for a good reason. On Halloween, there’s a potential matchup between the Chicago Bears first-round pick, Justin Fields and Lance.
It would be a surprise if Lance were to start Week 1. While he was the No. 3 overall selection and San Francisco traded multiple first-rounders for the former North Dakota State product, making the jump from the FCS to the NFL without having played a full season the year prior is a difficult adjustment for anybody.The 49ers’ bye week is during Week 6. That’s a natural landing spot for when most teams make the transition to a rookie signal-caller. There are several variables at play here, though. Many expect Lance to have a “package” where he plays anywhere between five and 15 plays a game. The more successful Lance is during his early playing time, the sooner we could see the future of the 49ers under center.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t factor in Jimmy Garoppolo’s injury history. If we do that, it’s unfair to ignore the scenario where Jimmy G plays well enough to where the Niners don’t consider messing up the chemistry they have on offense.When do we see Lance as the full-time starter? The best-case scenario would be around the bye week so that he’s able to get some playing time under his belt. While the Lions and Eagles aren’t scaring anybody, there will always be a concern when you start a rookie Week 1. Lance would have to be really, really good to unseat Jimmy G to start the season.”
Justin Fields, Chicago Bears
One of the best picks of the 2021 draft, the Bears made the bold decision to move up and find their quarterback of the future. A lot of people feel Fields needs to sit for a long time to adjust to the NFL after coming from a pass-happy Ohio State offense that made life easy for quarterbacks, but I think these hesitations are a little overblown.
While I do agree sitting Fields is the best move to start, I think the team, and fans will demand getting to see their hot new rookie — especially after enduring week after week of boring Andy Dalton football. The only potential stumbling block is if Chicago regains their 2020 form and looks like a playoff team during the first half of the season. I could see the potential there for the team to want to keep the status quo, rather than make a switch.
For now I’m going to operate under the assumption that Dalton, like he’s been his whole career, isn’t good enough to get the job done.
Projected start: Week 12
I am too in love with this scenario. Can you imagine Justin Fields getting his first start against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day? The Bears front office might be afraid of throwing him into a national game with everyone watching, but if he’s been impressing in practice this could be the perfect time to cement his legacy. The Lions are also a soft spot in the back-end of Chicago’s schedule, so this makes a lot of sense.
I asked Lester Wiltfong of Windy City Gridiron to tell me when he thinks we’ll see Justin Fields.
“With an actual offseason of camps and preseason happening this year, we all should get a good glimpse of Justin Fields’ talent, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him win the QB1 job from Andy Dalton. That isn’t the Bears’ plan right now, but plans have a way of changing once the players get on the field. Head coach Matt Nagy says they’ll be smart with his development, that they’ll bring him along at a good pace for him and the team, but that the player that gives the Bears the best chance to win will be the starting quarterback. Fans are somewhat split on the sit or start debate right now, but in my opinion there is only one correct answer. Justin Fields should play when he shows he’s ready to play. Whether that’s week 1 or week 18, once he’s ready, he’s the man.”
Mac Jones, New England Patriots
Like peanut butter and jelly, spaghetti and meatballs, and the entire cast of The Golden Girls, the most pro-ready quarterback in the draft heading to a team that will know how to use him just fits together perfectly.
That said, I don’t think Bill Belichick will feel the pressure of committing to Jones as a starter from the jump. Yes, this is a different situation to 2001 when Tom Brady took over for Drew Bledsoe due to injury, because Jones was taken with a 1st round pick, I still think with Cam Newton on the roster they’ll have time to let Jones sit and learn. Heck, maybe even build up his frame a little.
Honestly, I think Newton might struggle again in 2021. He just doesn’t look like the same player he was in Carolina prior to injury. It’s crushing, but it is what it is.
Projected start: Week 15
It’s a long wait until the Patriots bye week, but it makes the most sense here. There’s no need to rush the process, especially if New England is out of the playoff picture, so give Jones a month to get used to the league.
Here’s what Bernd Buchmasser of Pats Pulpit said about Jones starting.
“You don’t draft a player 15th overall to have him sit on the bench — especially if that player is a quarterback. The expectation is that he will become the face of your franchise at one point. Mac Jones is obviously no exception, but while he will be the guy one day there is no guarantee he’ll take over as the Patriots’ QB1 as early as 2021. With Cam Newton returning to play in an offense with a significantly improved supporting cast (at least on paper), the team can afford to be patient with the less experienced Jones. Sure, he will get his chances to prove himself throughout the season, but as long as Bill Belichick thinks Newton gives his team the best chance to win he will be the starter.”