The 2021 NFL QB Class Is Proving That the Pocket Passer Vs. Mobile Threat Debate Is Dead

The 2021 NFL QB Class Is Proving That the Pocket Passer Vs. Mobile Threat Debate Is Dead

The debate over the 2021 NFL quarterback class is over. It’s probably been over for a while, but Sunday’s games seemed to provide official resolution to the discussion that dominated the football world two and a half years ago. The day started out with the no. 1 pick in that draft, Trevor Lawrence, leading his Jacksonville Jaguars to a 23-7 win over the Atlanta Falcons, and it ended with Zach Wilson nearly pulling off a shocking upset of the Kansas City Chiefs before literally fumbling the game away. In between those two bookends, we saw Justin Fields play his best half of football before melting down in a loss to the previously winless Denver Broncos, and Mac Jones getting benched during a blowout loss in Dallas. And Trey Lance … well he didn’t play, but he did get a front-row seat to Jones’s brutal day while serving as the Cowboys’ emergency third quarterback option.

Outside of Wilson’s performance, which was arguably the best of his career before the fumble, this is largely what we’ve seen from these passers since they entered the league: Lawrence dragging an underwhelming Jags roster to a win thanks to slick pocket movement, lightning-quick processing, and a few ridiculous displays of talent; Fields, at times, looking unstoppable as a dual threat but failing to maintain that pace when the defense keeps him in the pocket; Jones being unable to elevate an outmatched Patriots offense and his attempts to do so resulting in laughably bad turnovers. And though Wilson looked much improved compared to the unplayable quarterback he was last season, he ultimately wasn’t good enough to reward another valiant effort from the Jets defense.

If it wasn’t already clear before the season, it is now: Aside from Lawrence, there isn’t another franchise quarterback in this bunch.

That conclusion doesn’t seem shocking now, because it’s felt inevitable for a while. But it’s easy to forget that this class was once held up as a referendum on quarterback prospect evaluation. Jones was seen as a throwback prospect who could prove that mobility wasn’t a prerequisite for success, even in the modern game. Lance was the high-ceiling prospect who made up for an unprecedented lack of playing experience with a rare athletic profile and an electric arm. Fields and Wilson were viewed similarly: Both were prolific in the pocket and dangerous outside of it, even if they never had to rely on their athleticism thanks to stellar supporting casts. And Lawrence was a generational prospect who did everything well. Lawrence was the consensus QB1, but how you stacked the rest of the class depended on your taste in quarterbacks.

Jones got off to the fastest start of the group—due largely to a well-rounded offensive approach that asked the quarterback to be a distributor rather than a playmaker. And that prompted Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy to say this to Sports Illustrated in early 2022, after Jones led the Pats to the playoffs: “He’s reinforcing that there doesn’t need to be a complete departure from how we looked at the quarterback position. Now, is it great when you have an athlete? Sure it is, because they open up so many other other opportunities. But Mac brought us back to where we had been in the past, that you can still win with that kind of guy.”

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Nagy didn’t pull that theory out of his ass. It was a justifiable take at the time. A year earlier, we had seen a 40-something Tom Brady win a Super Bowl while barely leaving the pocket. Aaron Rodgers, who was about to enter his 40s, had just won his second consecutive MVP trophy. Some of Jones’s more talented draft classmates fell flat on their faces during woeful rookie seasons and here was this immobile guy with a mediocre arm leading the Patriots to the playoffs.

The pocket-passer archetype may not have been all the way en vogue at the time, but the idea that you didn’t need a quarterback who could move to win in the modern NFL was still somewhat popular … at least until the entire country watched Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen light up Arrowhead Stadium in an unforgettable playoff shootout a few weeks later. That game showed the potential of a true dual-threat quarterback—one who is just as dangerous in the pocket as he is outside of it—and it was difficult to imagine someone with Jones’s skill set ever being able to keep up.

The past 19 months have only reinforced that idea, as the top of the NFL’s quarterback hierarchy has become dominated by dynamic talents like Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson, and Jalen Hurts, while more singularly skilled passers—like Kirk Cousins and Dak Prescott—have been somewhat squeezed out. It’s now abundantly clear that mobility is no longer just some ancillary skill for a quarterback; in today’s game, it’s a necessity—another box that a QB prospect has to check off, along with accuracy, arm strength, intelligence, leadership, etc., during the evaluation process.

Let’s get one thing clear about this class: Jones, while probably not a long-term starter for the Patriots, or any franchise for that matter, is clearly QB2 behind Lawrence. If we exclude the Jaguars quarterback, Jones is the best passer of the group by a wide margin. He’s put up the best numbers, and he’s done the most winning.

Jones has outplayed Fields, Wilson, and Lance, three quarterbacks who were seen as superior talents in the run-up to the 2021 draft. That seems like it should be a win for the pocket passers, but I’m not sure that it is. While Jones has largely been the player his predraft scouting reports billed him to be, and the other three haven’t come close to living up to their hype, Jones’s contributions haven’t led to more success for New England’s offense. The Pats have scored 30 or more points only twice in Jones’s 35 career starts, and they’ve scored just 55 points this season. Fields’s Bears, meanwhile, have scored 30 or more points four times in Fields’s career, including a four-game stretch in 2021 in which they accomplished that feat three times, and they’ve also scored 20 more points than the Patriots this season—even given the franchise’s mountains of dysfunction. Fields is in an unenviable position as the leader of the dilapidated Bears offense, but when Chicago actually utilizes his mobility, it has been enough to elevate the group in ways that Jones’s skill set never could.

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It’s not much of a sample size, but you can say the same thing about Lance, whose career EPA per dropback and yards-per-attempt average have Jones beat, per TruMedia.

If you want a more apples-to-apples comparison, how about Cam Newton in this same Patriots offense? During Newton’s lone season as New England’s starter, he led the offense to four performances of at least 30 points. Again, Jones has done that only twice. So even a run-down Newton, playing with a more limited supporting cast, gave the Pats offense a higher ceiling than the 2021 first-round pick ever has.

There are no encouraging stats for Wilson. He doesn’t have the rushing production Fields has; or the team success that Jones has; or even the Kyle Shanahan-aided efficiency of Lance (in a limited sample size). Before Sunday night’s game, there were very few signs that Wilson could ever be a serviceable starting quarterback. He’s looked nothing like the passer who wowed college football fans during a truncated 2020 season. That version of him drew comparisons to Mahomes and Rodgers thanks to his fluid throwing style and play out of structure. It probably helped that Wilson’s BYU team was stacked with veteran talent and played a weak schedule due to the school’s independent status. But Wilson dominated.

That was really the only time we’ve seen him look anything like an NFL prospect. He had struggled against tougher opponents the previous season. He was not even close to being on the radar of NFL scouts before his breakout campaign. And given his smaller stature, he didn’t really look like your typical first-round prospect even after his prolific junior year. Any deep dive on Wilson’s college tape would have shown him to be a skittish pocket passer who took advantage of wide-open pockets during that final season at BYU. When he was forced to play from a tight pocket—even in 2020—he looked a lot like the quarterback we’ve seen flailing about in Jets green for the past two-plus seasons.

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Wilson is a talented quarterback. Through all of the bad play, that still shines through every now and then. We’ve seen some of the impressive off-platform throws and marauding scrambles that were all over his BYU tape, but, as was the case in college, there hasn’t been much substance otherwise. (Even against the Chiefs on Sunday night, Wilson mostly played a safe game that didn’t involve much high-level quarterbacking. The Jets called many schemed-up plays with only one or two reads and did a good job of keeping him out of obvious passing situations. So, sure, he finally made it around the cul-de-sac without falling off his bike, but we can’t ignore that, in his third year, he still needs training wheels to remain upright.)

If there’s a common thread connecting the failures of Wilson, Fields, Lance, and Jones—four wildly different quarterbacks—it’s the lack of a well-rounded skill set. Jones has the passing acumen but lacks talent. Wilson has plenty of talent but is incapable of properly harnessing it. Fields is one of the NFL’s most explosive playmakers with the ball in his hands but he can’t execute a normal dropback passing game. And Lance’s size and athleticism weren’t enough to make up for his many deficiencies as a passer—and his unfortunate injury history.

And then there’s Lawrence, the quarterback who got off to the roughest start in the class while playing under Urban Meyer. He tied for the league lead in interceptions his rookie year and went the entire month of December without throwing a single touchdown. Even Davis Mills had a better first-season campaign. Fast-forward to 2023, though, and Lawrence is the only quarterback from the class who has locked down a long-term starting gig. There are no holes in his game. He’s a better pocket passer than Jones, he uses his mobility better than Fields, and his trick-shot throws are even more impressive than Wilson’s.

In hindsight, we should have just applied Occam’s razor to the 2021 draft debate. The best take was always the most obvious one: The pocket passer vs. mobile threat question is no longer relevant. If you can’t find a quarterback who can do both, you better keep looking.