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NFL rookie QB grades: Evaluating every debut in Week 1

The 2021 NFL Draft was always going to be defined by the quarterbacks. Five QBs were taken in the first round this past year, a number that has only been surpassed once (by the famed 1983 class) and matched twice (in 1999 and 2018) in NFL history. Quarterbacks went 1-2-3 in the draft for only the third time ever (after 1999 again and 1971).

Expectations were impossibly high for this new quarterback class, and for the most part they looked how you would expect in Week 1: plenty of struggles mixed with some fleeting moments of brilliance.

On the plus side, all five rookie quarterbacks were taken in the first round this year scored a touchdown in Week 1. Unfortunately, all of them but San Francisco 49ers backup Trey Lance started their NFL careers with a loss.

Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, and Mac Jones each started their first NFL game, while Lance and Justin Fields came off the bench and earned a few reps. This is our review of the rookie QBs through Week 1.

Trevor Lawrence

Lawrence appeared to have an ideal debut matchup as the Week 1 starter for the Jacksonville Jaguars against a Houston Texans team expected to be one of the worst in the league without DeShaun Watson. It didn’t go exactly as planned: Houston pulled the upset, and Lawrence had more lows than highs.

You can watch every play of Lawrence’s debut here. He ended the game 28-of-51 for 332 yards, three touchdowns, and three interceptions. Here’s Lawrence’s first NFL touchdown pass:

The good news for Lawrence: his 332 passing yards are the fourth most ever for a rookie QB making his first start, per ESPN. The bad news: Lawrence said it was his first time ever throwing three picks in one game. It was also the first time he’s ever lost in the regular season.

Grade: B. Lawrence showed his arm talent, and made multiple throws deep down the field, but he has to take better care of the ball. The teams he’s facing are only going to get better from here. Let’s hope Urban Meyer has some new tricks in store.

Zach Wilson

Wilson, the No. 2 overall pick out of BYU, always had his work cut out for him taking over the new starter for a Jets team that went 2-14 last season. The Panthers didn’t take it easy on him. Carolina took a quick 16-0 lead in the first half and put constant pressure on Wilson throughout the game. Credit the rookie for not folding behind a poor offseason line against an onslaught of pass rushers.

Wilson’s final line for the game: 20-of-37, 258 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. The Jets made it a game in the second half, but ultimately lost to the Panthers, 19-14.

Wilson’s first half numbers were rough against Carolina’s pressure. He started to find his footing in the second half when he fired his first of two touchdowns to Corey Davis.

Wilson threw some good balls that didn’t go for big plays. That’s encouraging for Jets fans. He entered the league with a reputation as a gunslinger who wasn’t afraid to take chances deep down the field, and that looks spot on through Week 1.

Now the Jets need to do a better job of protecting him. Wilson was sacked six times and was running for his life pretty much all game. You can watch every play of Wilson’s debut here.

Grade: B. Wilson’s resilience deserves praise against a tough pass rush. The Jets have some intriguing options at wide receiver which should lead to some fun highlights all season, but it won’t matter if the team can’t protect its rookie QB.

Trey Lance

Lance only played one game for North Dakota State in 2020 during the pandemic before becoming the No. 3 overall pick to the San Francisco 49ers. Niners fans might be anxious to see him on the field, but his general lack of experience against high level competition meant head coach Kyle Shanahan gave the nod to Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 1.

It was a smart decision for San Francisco. Garoppolo was solid (314 yards passing, one TD, no interceptions) and the Niners earned a 41-33 win over the Lions.

Lance barely got on the field, but he was able to make his time count. The first NFL pass of his career went for a touchdown.

Lance didn’t throw another pass all afternoon. He rushed three times for two yards but was otherwise glued to the bench as the game got close in the fourth quarter.

Hopefully we see more of Lance next week as the 49ers travel to take on the Eagles.

Grade: Incomplete.

Justin Fields

The Chicago Bears are committed to beginning the season with Andy Dalton after promising him the starting job in free agency. At the time, the Bears likely had no idea they’d be able to trade up for Fields. While the fanbase clamors for the rookie, it would have been hard to play Fields in Week 1 behind a suspect offensive line against Aaron Donald and the Rams fearsome pass rush.

Fields did check in a few different times. He fired a red zone completion on his first NFL pass, and got in the end zone on a rushing play early in the second half.

Fields ended the game 2-of-2 for 10 yards passing. His only rush was the three-yard touchdown run. The Rams beat the Bears, 34-14, in a game that exposed many of the flaws in the roster GM Ryan Pace created.

It sure feels like the Bears don’t have much else going for them this season aside from Fields. Here’s hoping we see the rookie on the field sooner rather than later.

Grade: Incomplete

Mac Jones

The Patriots were happy to scoop up Mac Jones with the No. 15 overall pick in the draft, but it was still shocking to see Bill Belichick cut Cam Newton to go with the rookie from the jump in Week 1. Expectations are always high for the Patriots even after a 7-9 season that saw the franchise fail to win double-digit games for the first time since 2002, but Week 1 showed the offense still has a long way to go with Jones under center.

The Dolphins beat the Patriots, 17-16. New England only managed to score one touchdown. While that’s not going to cut it, Jones did look poised throughout his debut. Patriots fans should feel encouraged by his performance.

You can watch every throw of Jones’ debut here. He finished the game 29-of-39 for 281 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions. His 102.6 QB Rating was the highest of any rookie in Week 1.

Jones got on the board with a short TD throw in the second quarter.

He completed 74 percent of his pass attempts in his debut, which is a new record for a QB with at least 30 attempts. Jones was definitely accurate on short to intermediate passes, but New England will need more deep strikes down the field.

Jones didn’t want to keep the ball after throwing his first TD, saying his team needs to score more touchdowns. He’s right about that, but it was still a positive debut.

Grade: B+. Jones looked confident in his debut, but the Pats need to put up more points. This feels like the sort of performance that can lay the foundation for better things to come in the future.



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