Grading NFL rookie QB preseason debuts: Justin Fields, Zach Wilson impress; Sam Ehlinger surprises most
There were 10 quarterbacks selected in the 2021 NFL Draft. All of them made their professional debuts in Week 1 of the preseason and more than half of them played well.
That shouldn’t be too surprising, because five of them were first-round picks with impressive pedigrees. The other five took the expected bigger lumps, with the last of the QBs taken standing out most.
From Jaguars No.1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence to Colts sixth-rounder Sam Ehlinger, we handed out grades from what we saw from league’s greenest passers from Thursday through Sunday.
Grade: A | Stats: 14-of-20 passing,142 yards, 7.1 yards per attempt, TD, 106.7 passer rating; 5 rushes, 33 yards, TD
There was “The Field of Dreams” game — and then there was the “Dream of Fields” game. Since Fields fell to the Bears in April, fans have been buzzing about him being the long-awaited true QB savior. He did everything to live up to that ridiculous hype in his first live-game action. Fields picked up where he left off at Ohio State with sharp throws, smart decisions and speedy running when needed. The maturity and leadership also were there to boost the offense, important assets in trying to displace Andy Dalton as QB1.
Matt Nagy has done his best to say Fields will start his career as a backup. Dalton has had a pretty good camp back in Bill Lazor’s system. But Fields offers energy, talent and upside the veteran cannot match. With his job on the line in 2021, Nagy needs to make the bolder — not older — and wiser choice.
MORE: LeBron James calls Fields ‘so special’ | Fields the next Russell Wilson?
Grade: A- | Stats: 6-of-9 passing, 63 yards, 7.0 yards per attempt, 86.8 passer rating
When Fields did his thing on Saturday afternoon against the Dolphins, the immediate reaction was trying to question every team that passed on him, starting with the second pick. That’s not fair to Wilson, who showed against the Giants exactly why the Jets were enamored with him as a great fit for Mike LaFleur’s offense.
Wilson didn’t play long and when he was out there, the Jets were run-heavy. When called up on to throw, however, he showed a great connection with the team’s new top wide receivers, Corey Davis and Keelan Cole. Wilson moved around well, didn’t let any pressure get to him and got into a rhythm with his throws. Like fellow rookie Trey Lance with LaFleur’s former team — Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers — Wilson will be helped much by a balanced system, strong supporting cast and play calls tailored to what he does well as a passer and runner.
MORE: Wilson gets raves from Saleh, too
Grade: B+ | Stats: 6-of-9 passing, 71 yards, 7.9 yards per attempt, 2 sacks, 90.5 passer rating
Fields and Wilson were a little more inspiring than Lawrence because there was clarity about what kind of coaching and personnel support they will get as rookies. Lawrence recovered from taking a big inside sack on his first snap against the Browns by zipping shorter throws to the outside and dropping a nice deep ball down the middle. Lawrence will hope some shaky protection and a conservative playbook doesn’t limit him as much in key situations during the regular season.
IYER: Lawrence headed to roller-coaster rookie season
Lance missed a lot of passes and showed his nerves in being dropped four times by the Chiefs’ defense. But he also had the best passing highlight of any rookie QB, with his 80-yard TD pass to open his second series in relief of Jimmy Garoppolo. Shanahan has seen Lance flash a lot more with his passing in camp and you can bet the 49ers didn’t tip their hand much with their real game plans for him, That was evident in Lance not getting a chance to run.
The 49ers were looking for an unlimited physical ceiling when they traded up to take Lance. They got an early reason to believe they made the right call, knowing what the 21-year-old can do when tapping into his potential a little without personnel help from 49ers’ offensive principals.
IYER: The case for Lance to start over Garoppolo right away
Grade: B+ | Stats: 13-of-19 passing, 87 yards, 4.6 yards per attempt, sack, 78.2 passer rating
Jones was known for his confidence and command of Alabama’s high-powered offense. The Patriots aren’t built to light it up in 2021, but they have the baseline of a powerful offensive line and deep, versatile running game. They also will be able to mix up personnel groupings to help Jones, between upgrading tight end (Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry) for 12 personnel and becoming more outside possession-like for 11 personnel (Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne).
There was natural dinking and dunking by Jones, throwing shorter passes to running backs and others with Smith out of the game and Henry not playing. He also showed great touch on a deep ball to the left corner of the end zone that should have been caught. The Patriots will continue to keep Jones in positions where he doesn’t need to hold the ball too long and force things that aren’t there downfield.
IYER: Jones passes eye test enough to win the night over Newton
The ballad of Ehlinger in the NFL has begun with a bang. The Colts feel good about Carson Wentz starting in Week 1 for Frank Reich, but they must feel better that Ehlinger gives them a preferred fallback for their offense than second-year man Jacob Eason. Ehlinger was an inspiring playmaker to lead a great comeback against the Panthers, fearless in both throwing and when taking off and running. He showed the necessary toughness and proved he can do much more to complement Reich’s run-heavy offense than Eason can.
Book was a surprise fourth-rounder for New Orleans, the developmental choice for the bench while the team sorts out how it uses a combination of Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill to start. The Notre Dame product did most with his first career pass, hitting on a 35-yard play on a second-and-16 from the Saints’ 7. He fell short of finishing a rally like Ehlinger but he did look like a comfortable fit in Sean Payton’s offense.
Mond, the third-rounder from Texas A&M, was rather wild in his debut. But consider he wasn’t expected to play coming off some missed camp time because of a positive COVID-19 test. Coach Mike Zimmer didn’t glow about what Mond did in his first game mopping up in the blowout against the Broncos. Mond struggled most with the speed of the game and was focused on getting the ball out too much, even for limited gains. He used his running as a crutch in relation to that. Kirk Cousins can relax that he won’t be challenged anytime soon.
Mills was praised most by his coaches and teammates for his mental toughness, his ability to forget negative plays and focus on making the next plays. The Stanford product did what he needed to facilitate two scoring drives, but he was erratic otherwise against a tough pass rush with the typical mistakes tied to poor decision-making and inaccuracy. Mills needs a lot of developmental time, confirming that Tyrod Taylor is the Texans’ sole contingency for Deshaun Watson in 2021.
Grade: D | Stats: 4-of-15 passing, 35 yards, 2.3 yards per attempt, 2 sacks, 39.6 passer rating
Trask, the second-rounder from Florida, looked the part as Tom Brady’s unofficial mentee with his confidence in the pocket and arm strength to make all the throws. Unfortunately, the execution wasn’t there as Trask got a serious wake-up call against NFL speed from the Bengals’ defense. Trask never got comfortable but despite his high drafting, there’s no pressure on him to rush into refined action with Brady being Brady and having a solid veteran backup in Blaine Gabbert.
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