NEW YORK — Quarterback is the most important position in football, which is why teams will do whatever it takes to obtain one.
This year’s rookie crop of signal callers includes five players who were drafted in the first round of the NFL draft in April, including the first three picks. Clemson star Trevor Lawrence went No. 1 overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars, BYU’s Zach Wilson was selected by the Jets with the next pick and the San Francisco 49ers nabbed North Dakota State’s Trey Lance third. The Chicago Bears took Justin Fields out of Ohio State at No. 11 and Alabama product Mac Jones rounded out the rookie first-rounders at No. 15 to the New England Patriots.
The onus is on these organizations to provide a healthy environment for a rookie quarterback to succeed. Lawrence and Wilson are expected to start Week 1 and Lance has a good chance of playing early. It’s not as clear when Fields and Jones will play. The Patriots have Cam Newton and the Bears have Andy Dalton as their incumbent starters, but history suggests the rookies will see playing time. Over the past decade there have been 22 QBs drafted in the top 11 picks of an NFL draft. Ten of 22 have started in Week 1 and 17 of 22 have started by Week 4.
Which of the rookie quarterbacks has the best situation for immediate success? And how does Wilson fit in? To answer those questions the New York Daily News interviewed three NFL experts — Former Jets offensive linemen and ESPN analyst Damien Woody, ESPN draft guru Matt Miller and ex-NFL offensive lineman and current NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger — to assess the rookies.
Does Wilson have the supporting cast?
The Jets have been widely praised for their offseason additions to help Wilson. They have vastly improved their receiving corps by adding Corey Davis, Elijah Moore and Keelan Cole. People have taken notice.
“Lightyears better from last year,” Woody told The News. “This skill unit is kind of like that Neapolitan ice cream where the Jets got different flavors. They got smaller quicker guys, they got bigger guys that can move and do their thing. So it’s like whatever flavor you want, they got it.”
His only question with the Jets offensive weapons is if they can live up to their potential.
“Denzel Mims, what’s he going to do in his second year? What’s Corey Davis going to look like as a number one? Elijah Moore has been balling in shorts. What is he gonna look like when the pads come on. There’s a lot of unknown. But I’m really excited about the skill position group because they have a bunch of dynamic playmakers.”
Another position the Jets upgraded was the offensive line. They drafted Alijah Vera-Tucker after trading up to the No. 14 pick and recently signed former Washington right tackle Morgan Moses. They join Mekhi Becton who flashed his elite talent in his rookie year.
“I think for the first time in a long time the Jets will have a quality offensive line that you can depend on,” Baldinger said.
There’s some questions about the Jets’ running game as the running back spot is an open competition heading to training camp.
“I think there’s a lot of question marks. I really liked Michael Carter. I had a late second-round grade on him. He is just super talented, strong, quick, and a shifty runner,” Miller said. “But if there’s an area where the Jets need to be looking ahead or seeing what’s available, I think it is still running back.”
Miller also believes Wilson is in the toughest situation of the rookie QBs because of the Jets history. They’ve been looking for a savior for decades. He compared it to Baker Mayfield’s situation in Cleveland.
“It’s just been so bad there for so long that you almost are safer betting against the guy,” Miller said. “[Mark] Sanchez was good for a little bit. [Sam] Darnold was so up and down. When you are that type of dynamic playmaker, people expect that from you all the time. If you go out and have a 15-of-20-for-200-yard day, people are gonna be like this kid sucks. The expectations are video game-like because that’s what he did at BYU.”
Can Lawrence live up to the hype
The No. 1 overall pick has been hyped as the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck joined the league in 2012.
“You got that type of cache behind you, I need to see you putting that organization on your back,” Woody said of Lawrence. “When Andrew Luck got drafted to the Indianapolis Colts, guess what happened? They went to the playoffs. I’m not saying that the Jags are going to the playoffs. But that’s the effect that Andrew Luck had. So, there should be some significant improvement with the Jacksonville Jaguars.”
The talent surrounding Lawrence is good.
“I actually really like this receiving corps,” Miller said. “DJ Chark is one of the most underrated players in football. Laviska Shenault is perfect for an Urban Meyer offense, assuming they’re gonna put him in that Percy Harvin, Braxton Miller role. James Robinson was great last year. I know they’re gonna throw the ball to Travis Etienne a lot. He’s going to get 35 to 40 looks.”
All three felt the Jaguars have a solid offensive line and believe Robinson and Etienne will produce a good running game. But Miller and Woody have big questions about Meyer.
“I think it’s the worst situation,” Woody said. “It might be rough early because you gotta remember Urban Meyer, this is the first time coaching in the National Football League.”
“Is Urban Meyer gonna be good in the NFL? He’s never coached in the NFL, it’s a very different beast,” Miller said. “I don’t love the staff they put around him. As great as Trevor Lawrence is, you hope that they’re as good as they’re expected to be.”
The next star by the bay?
The consensus among our three experts is that Lance has the best situation. His weapons are excellent, he has a proven offensive-minded head coach in Kyle Shanahan, and the 49ers have a top tier offensive line.
“Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel and George Kittle can beat man coverage,” Baldinger said. “When your receivers can win the way a great route runner in his league can, it just makes life easy for the quarterback.”
What makes the trio explosive is what they do when they get the ball in their hands.
“They have guys who are dynamic after the catch. Whether it’s Kittle, Deebo, they’re all so good with the ball in their hands,” Miller said. “That makes the job easier.”
Woody shared those sentiments.
“These dudes are like YAC (yards after catch) monsters,” Woody said. “So, imagine if you’re a young quarterback and you just dump the ball and people out there breaking all types of tackles. It just makes you look good.”
The 49ers also have a strong offensive line — anchored by 8-time Pro Bowler Trent Williams — which Miller thinks will allow Lance to be the best version of himself.
“I think it helps a ton, just one less thing you have to worry about. I’ve talked to [Patrick] Mahomes about his development his first year when he won MVP and he was like ‘Man, I just don’t have a lot to worry about because my offensive line is amazing,’ ” Miller said. “It makes the job easier. You don’t have to have that internal clock.”
With Lance’s running ability and a dominant offensive line, the run game should be prolific.
“He’s a big strong runner. San Francisco is gonna be expected to be in the top five running the football. They may lead the league in rushing,” Baldinger said. “Whether it’s read option, quarterback sweeps or quarterback keepers. I can see Trey Lance being a part of this rushing attack the way we see Lamar [Jackson] right now.”
Fields and Jones
Our experts aren’t sure when Fields or Jones will hit the field.
But they believe Fields has elite talent and love the talent surrounding him in Chicago. Baldinger and Miller had the former Ohio State star as their No. 2 overall quarterback prospect.
Woody worries about Fields because Bears head coach Matt Nagy and GM Ryan Pace are on shaky ground.
“You got a coach and GM on the hot seat. If they don’t win this year, they’re going to get fired,” Woody said. “I’m highly skeptical. An organization moved up, gave up a lot to get this rookie quarterback and their jobs are on the line. That can make for awkward situations.”
Not much is expected of the former Alabama QB in his rookie season in New England. They expect a run heavy offense and Newton to start the majority of the year.
Rookie of the Year?
Lawrence is the betting favorite, but Woody believes the No. 2 overall pick has a chance to snatch the award away from the Jags rookie.
“Honestly, I think Zach,” Woody said. “Zach Wilson will start from Day 1. He’s in a quarterback-friendly system. I think he has good personnel on offense. I feel like his personnel is better than Trevor Lawrence’s.”
Baldinger is rolling with the rookie in Jacksonville.
“I think Trevor has the best chance right now to be the Rookie of the Year,” Baldinger said. “He’s gonna start right away. The team around him is very young but with his talent … and he’s got some good receivers and a good offensive line.”
Miller believes it’s Trey Lance’s award to lose because of the elite weaponry around him in San Francisco. But he’s worried about the former North Dakota State’s initial playing time.
“The only reason I would hesitate is if he plays enough games,” Miller said. “I think we would need to see Trey probably start like 12 or 13 [games].”
However, Miller’s backup choice is the former BYU quarterback.
“I think Zach could just put up video game numbers,” Miller said. “You wouldn’t be like, ‘Oh my god I didn’t see this coming’ if he came out and threw 25 touchdowns and rushed for four or five more.”