There was some thought among general managers I spoke to in the run-up to the NFL Draft that perhaps this year we might see more rookie quarterbacks ride the bench. The proverbial "redshirt" year might be back in vogue in 2021, after a recent rush of novice QBs playing right away.
Now, they are not so sure. And neither am I.
Don't get it twisted, sitting for a while and learning seems in order for most of this crop, especially with last year's college football season compromised in ways we never before could have fathomed, much less experienced. Development was stalled, or stilted, across every level of football, so it only stands to reason that there might be some residual impact of that this coming season. Would make sense for teams to account for that in the offseason and preseason plans for young players, particularly those who play such an important position.
But now that we know which teams selected which quarterbacks, and with which picks, and through which means (trading up in the case of the 49ers and Bears), you can't help but wonder how soon the first-rounders end up playing, and how many of them play too much too soon, and do too much, much too young. Because that is inevitable in this process, and if NFL teams were anything close to experts at identifying and cultivating quarterback talent, then we wouldn't have an endless carousel of transactions at this position (often involving many of the repeat-offender franchises year after year).
History tells us that two of these kids will be stars and two will eventually wash out completely (not on their own, mind you, but with an assist from those coaching them and playing with them) and one might barely see the field at all for the entirety of his career. With five going in the first 15 picks, the stakes are even higher and the risk/reward returns even higher and, again, at least three of these kids should probably sit out most if not all of 2021. ... But with jobs on the line and so much PR and hype tied into these selections, that likely won't be the case.
Here is a very early look at when I believe these kids will begin taking over as starters, and when it might make most sense for them to do so (and, yeah, I'm going to be a little cheeky with some of these recommendations):
Trevor Lawrence, Jaguars (Week 1)
No need to overthink this one. He has been the best quarterback in this country in his school grade since like the sixth grade. He was ready for the NFL a year ago, if not two years ago. He got abundant seasons in a big-time program at Clemson playing in massive game after massive game in the playoffs each year against the best competition on the planet. Plug and play. Just don't get him hurt and just don't get in the way. He will lead your offense to new heights. They have an interesting group of skills players for him to work with, though I am a little unsure they have best invested resources in terms of protecting him up front.
Zach Wilson, Jets (Week 1); should start Week 7
I know this isn't sexy, and I know there is no chance this will happen, but I would allow this new roster to congeal a bit and feel out its strengths and weaknesses before throwing this very green (excuse the pun) 21-year-old into this cauldron. Of course, I am wasting my time because they don't even have a capable backup on the roster yet, which tells you all you need to know about what they are selling in N.Y. and who is playing in the opener. They aren't even feigning competition. Maybe they sign Nick Mullens, but we are already into the offseason program. This is Wilson's team, for better or worse, and let's just say I have reservations about him being ready and them being ready around him. Week 7 the Jets are coming off a bye and playing at New England. That would be around when I'd want to bleed him in, but it seems like a moot point.
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Trey Lance, 49ers (Week 11)
Follow me here -- he will see the field in various packages right away. But they are paying Jimmy Garoppolo another $25M to play football and trying to win right now and the last time Jimmy G was healthy for a meaningful stretch of time they were in the Super Bowl. Now, will he succumb to injury again, especially in a longer season? Very well might, and three months into the season in particular might be around when things break down a bit with him. I could see a scenario where a healthy Jimmy G plays all year like Alex Smith his last year in K.C., and Lance doesn't start until Week 18, if there is nothing at stake for the playoffs by then. I could also see a scenario in Week 11 (at Jacksonville vs. Mr. Lawrence), where if the 49ers aren't going great and they lose to the Rams the week before that the kid takes over with the 49ers facing lesser defenses for the most part the rest of the way, if they need a spark. It would add some spice to that game at Jacksonville, that's for sure.
Justin Fields, Bears (Week 4)
I would not be surprised if he beats out Andy Dalton from the onset. I would also not be surprised if, even under that scenario, he sits for a while. We are still very close to peak-Trubisky and this regime is on the thinnest of ice and can't botch another QB situation. The Dalton signing was odd -- like so many Bears QB moves -- and they probably want to justify it to some degree and let Fields back up a few games and see what Dalton can do with a team that squeaked into the playoffs last year. They are at the Rams and home to the Bengals and then at the Browns -- two tough away games -- before facing the rebuilding Lions in Week 4. That feels about right. Fields is going to be ready by then and the offense will need a charge. And with jobs on the line after a slow start, it will make sense to the powers that be to let the fans see what the kid can do. The early messaging from the coaching staff seems to be setting this up like a Tyrod Taylor/Baker Mayfield situation, where they are tempering initial expectations and laying the groundwork for Dalton to get first dibs on the offense.
Bill Belichick will let this play out through the summer between Jones and Cam Newton. I suspect Jones shows he can better run the totality of the offense and Newton has a role in certain situations where he can charge the run game and beat people with play action out of jumbo looks. Maybe Newton's throwing motion and accuracy will return to previous form, but if it is anything like last year, the rookie is going to prevail. For the sake of drama, however, it would be a juicy subplot if his starting debut comes in Week 4, with Tom Brady and the Super Bowl champs coming to New England for the GAME OF THE CENTURY! It's actually precisely the kind of thing The Hoodie would want to avoid, but it would add a little spice to an early regular season that is already burning up the secondary ticket market.