2021 NFL draft quarterback rankings

Location, location, location.

The concept is widely attributed to real estate but it also needs a home in the National Football League. Talent is an obvious prerequisite for success in professional football, as no player will succeed if they lack the talent to do so. A player’s home is equally important to their success, no more so than quarterbacks that are brought in to save a franchise.

Josh Rosen is a great example. Rosen, taken 10th overall in 2018, was tasked with leading two of the worst offenses in recent NFL history — first in Arizona, then in Miami — and never had a real chance at success.

Patrick Mahomes, taken 10th overall the year prior, is the player he is thanks in no small part to his individual talent, but it is crucially important that he is surrounded by players like Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. It is crucially important that his coach is one of the brightest offensive minds in the history of professional football. Mahomes would certainly be a very good player had he ended up in Chicago or Houston, but he would not be the defense-vaporizing force he is today.

This is all a long explanation for why I have included fits for each of the five quarterbacks likely to be drafted in Thursday night’s first round. All of these men are talented, but the likelihood all five turn into elite quarterbacks is very low. Where they are drafted will go a long way in determining which players do and do not succeed.

Were I managing a professional football team, and not construction projects, I would rate the top two players on this list as top-five picks. They are the two quarterbacks most likely to be franchise players when their fifth-year options come due in a few years.

The next two players would earn first-round grades but I would be reticent to spend an early pick on either. Both of these quarterbacks are raw talents that would benefit from a bit of seasoning before becoming their teams’ full-time starters.

The last man to appear on this list would not be a first-round pick at all. Quite honestly, I do not understand why he will be a top-five pick Thursday night.

Which quarterbacks fit the aforementioned descriptors? Let’s find out.

1.Trevor Lawrence (Clemson)
Playoff game: 33/48, 400 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT v. Ohio State

Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence sits atop every draft board (well, almost all of them) for good reason: He’s very good. So good, in fact, that many pundits compare Lawrence to John Elway and Andrew Luck, two of the best quarterback prospects ever to enter the NFL.

While I see why some compare Lawrence to Elway, I see a lot of Aaron Rodgers in Lawrence’s game. Lawrence is a cool customer who makes playing the position look effortless. He is not a runner in the mold of Michael Vick or Lamar Jackson, but Lawrence will make plenty of plays with his legs.

Lawrence certainly does not possess the massive chip Rodgers has on his shoulder — few players do, to be fair — but his self-confidence motivates him to be “the best that’s ever done it.”

There will be an adjustment period for Lawrence, something he has not experienced since he began playing organized football. Clemson runs a so-called “college offense” and although his new coach, Urban Meyer, is one of the greatest in college football history, neither Lawrence nor Meyer have any experience at the NFL level.

Lawrence has an impossibly high floor and an undetermined ceiling as an NFL quarterback. While we may not know how high Lawrence will climb, we do know the Jaguars will have their first franchise quarterback since the days of Byron Leftwich and Mark Brunell.

- Poise for days. The next time Lawrence looks rattled during a game might be the first.
- Reads defenses at an advanced level and rarely seems surprised at the looks opponents present.
- Throwing mechanics are fast, fluid and consistent. Footwork is almost always on point.
- Takes care of the football. Lawrence did not lose a fumble at Clemson and had an interception rate comparable to Rodgers’ career rate.
- Deceptively athletic. If defenses do not respect Lawrence’s ability to run, they will pay for it.
- Big-time leader who is not afraid of the big stage. Lawrence led Clemson to the national championship as a true freshman. He played in five of a possible six playoff games in three college seasons. Lawrence has lived in the spotlight and never shrinks.

- Relied heavily on RPO reads in college. More than a quarter of his dropbacks (28 percent!) were in RPO situations.
- Lawrence could stand to add a little bulk to his frame, as 220 pounds is a bit light for a guy who is 6'6".

Fit: Jacksonville Jaguars
No need to discuss “best” fit — Lawrence is going no. 1. He will be Jacksonville’s starter when the Jaguars open their season Sept. 12.

Jacksonville’s offense looks promising on paper. The Jaguars have their running back of the future in James Robinson and a trio of receivers — D.J. Chark, Laviska Shenault and Marvin Jones — who will give Lawrence plenty of options. Jacksonville must continue to invest in an offensive line that finished the 2020 campaign ranked 22nd in the league, per Pro Football Focus.

2. Justin Fields (Ohio State)
Playoff games: 22/28, 385 yards, 6 TD, 1 INT v. Clemson; 17/33, 194 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT v. Alabama

Ohio State’s Justin Fields has become somewhat of a polarizing prospect since the 2020 football season began. Fields and Trevor Lawrence were the runaway top prospects upon entering the college game and seemed to remain that way as both prepared to enter the NFL.

Fields, however, has fallen behind BYU’s Zach Wilson on many draft boards and fell all the way to sixth in Chris Simms’ ranking of this year’s top prospects.

The Zach Wilsons and Trey Lances of the world can come and go, but Justin Fields is still the clear-cut no. 2 prospect in this draft, and he is much closer to Lawrence than Wilson.

Many have criticized Fields’ ability to process his reads but I just don’t see it. Fields ran a complex offense at Ohio State, one that includes route concepts many collegiate offenses do not. He may have taken a beat longer than Wilson or Lance, but Fields simply had more to do before throwing the ball. Fields will have less of a learning curve when he picks up his team’s playbook in the coming days.

One popular assessment I do agree with, however, is Fields’ similarity to former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. Both players were natural leaders in college and tough as hell to bring down. Nobody in their right mind will question Fields’ toughness — he dissected Clemson’s defense after taking a brutal shot to the ribs that briefly knocked him out of the College Football Playoff semifinal last year.

Fields is a better passer than Newton was coming out of Auburn. There is no throw Fields cannot make on Sundays, and at times, he would make the absurd look ordinary in Columbus. Fields completed more than 68 percent of his passes at Ohio State, a testament to the elite accuracy he pairs with his elite arm strength. As long as Fields keeps his footwork — he suffered from occasional sloppiness in that department—he will have no problem transferring his success to the pro game.

There may be a bit of a stigma following Fields into the NFL, which could be the basis for some of the criticism he has endured this winter. Ohio State has been a college football powerhouse for years, but the team has failed to produce even an above average pro quarterback.

Five quarterbacks have started for the Buckeyes since 2012 and went on to the NFL: Fields, Dwayne Haskins, J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller. Haskins was the first Ohio State quarterback since Art Schlichter in 1982 to be drafted in the first round … and was cut after less than two years in Washington, a nearly unprecedented failure for a first-round pick. Barrett, Jones and Miller combined for zero NFL starts and are all out of the league.

Fields is, far and away, the most gifted quarterback to lead the Buckeyes. He may be the most talented Ohio State quarterback ever. If any player is capable of breaking the curse that has plagued Buckeyes quarterbacks, it is Fields.

- All the arm talent in the world. Fields throws frozen ropes with elite accuracy and can also feather passes at all levels of the field.
- Tough as it gets. Not many quarterbacks could do what Fields did against Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal.
- Pocket movement is very effective. Fields buys time in the pocket with subtle movements while maintaining his mechanics and eye level.
- Great leader. Ohio State coaches raved about Fields’ leadership on and off the field.

- Sometimes forces throws that aren’t there. Needs to learn when to take a sack in lieu of putting the ball up for grabs.
- Could stand to pick up the pace on his progressions. Occasionally skips reads entirely and misses open receivers.

Best fit: Carolina Panthers
May as well keep rolling with the Cam Newton comparisons, right? Jokes aside, I love the idea of Fields running Joe Brady’s offense in Carolina. Pairing Fields with McCaffrey, Robby Anderson and D.J. Moore would be all sorts of fun and unlock a level of danger Carolina’s offense has not presented in years.

The question is whether or not the Panthers would draft Fields (or any other quarterback) after the team just gave up three picks, including a 2022 second rounder, for former Jets quarterback Sam Darnold. It seems unlikely at this time, as multiple reports Friday suggested Carolina is trying to move out of the no. 8 spot. Should the Panthers stand pat, however, Fields donning a Panthers hat Thursday night cannot be ruled out.

3. Zach Wilson (BYU)
Bowl game: 26/34, 425 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT v. UCF

Eight months ago, Zach Wilson was not considered a first-round pick. No “way too early” mock draft included the junior out of BYU. Pro Football Focus did not include Wilson in their preseason ranking of the top 100 prospects expected to be available in the 2021 NFL draft.

A breakout campaign vaulted Wilson from third-day selection to the front of the first round, as most NFL insiders expect the New York Jets to select Wilson with the second overall pick. Wilson would immediately become the Jets’ starter and the latest in an increasingly long line of highly drafted prospects tasked with becoming Gang Green’s first franchise quarterback of the modern era.

Fast risers like this have always made me wary and Wilson is no exception. Make no mistake, Wilson has the physical tools to succeed as a pro. Arm strength is certainly not a concern for Wilson, nor is his accuracy. Wilson can change arm angles with no issue and no effect on ball placement.

Wilson seems to rely too much on his arm strength when in trouble, which led to some bad throws in college and simply will not work in the NFL. Defenders are too smart and too fast.

The speed of opposing defenders may cause Wilson additional problems in the pocket. There were more than a few times Wilson seemed to drop his eye level, which is going to get him in trouble early and often in his pro career. If Wilson’s coaches cannot break that habit, Wilson will be seeing the same ghosts another highly drafted Jets quarterback recently saw.

- Pro-caliber arm strength — not elite, but very good. Wilson will be able to make every throw he needs to on Sundays.
- Great accuracy at all levels of the field. Depth of target does not affect the accuracy of Wilson’s passes.
- Mobile in and out of the pocket. Enough athleticism to make defenses pay when they don’t respect his ability.
- Smooth mechanics from head to toe. Footwork is good and upper body motion is consistent, even when changing arm angles. No jerkiness to his throwing motion on short, intermediate or deep throws.

- Only one year of exceptional production, all of which came against non-Power Five competition. Wilson has yet to prove he can produce against elite defenses.
- Production in first two years at BYU was dreadfully average.
- Narrow frame — needs to add bulk to thrive at next level. Most NFL quarterbacks as tall as Wilson (who is 6' 3") weigh more than 210 pounds.
- Missed time due to injury as a freshman and sophomore. His slight stature and history with injuries could be cause for concern.
- Sometimes seems to decide on his target before the play develops. This predetermination causes him to skip over, rush, or simply miss some of his reads.

Fit: New York Jets
Before Wilson was connected to the Jets, the Denver Broncos seemed a great fit. Denver is loaded at the skill positions, with Courtland Sutton returning from injury to join the likes of Melvin Gordon, Jerry Jeudy and Noah Fant in a young, exciting offensive core. Dropping Wilson into that offense would be a lot of fun to watch.

Instead, Wilson will target the likes of Jamison Crowder, Denzel Mims and the newly acquired Corey Davis in what could be an intriguing Jets passing attack. Wilson’s blindside will also be safe thanks to 2020 first-round pick Mekhi Becton, who looked like a future star during his debut campaign.

4. Trey Lance (North Dakota State)
Bowl game: N/A

Quarterbacks with limited starting experience in college often struggle to adjust to the pro game.

After starting 16 games over two seasons at USC, Mark Sanchez was drafted fifth overall in the 2009 NFL draft by the New York Jets. Sanchez spent four seasons as a full-time starter, never throwing for more than 3,500 yards or completing more than 57 percent of his passes in a season. Sanchez also struggled with turnovers, throwing 69 interceptions in 62 starts for the Jets. Sanchez bounced around the league before retiring in 2019.

Former Bears starter Mitchell Trubisky made only 13 starts for North Carolina before going second in the 2017 draft. Trubisky’s counting stats are not bad on the surface, but anyone who has watched the Bears over the last four years knows how bad Ryan Pace missed on the former Tar Heels quarterback.

Lance is the next in line. A likely top pick Thursday night, Lance started only 17 total games as a collegiate quarterback. Unlike Sanchez and Trubisky, however, Lance made zero starts against elite competition.

In Lance’s defense, the former Bison starter has done everything asked of him, and done it well. Lance is a dual-threat quarterback with all the physical tools needed to succeed at the position. Although he ran for 1,100 yards in leading the Bison to the 2019 national championship, Lance always looks to throw first and run second. That is crucial if Lance is to succeed in the NFL.

History is working against Lance. Not only is he inexperienced compared to his fellow draft mates, Lance faces a massive jump in opposing talent as he makes the move from the Football Championship Subdivision to the National Football League.

- Arm strength is not a concern. Lance adds touch and accuracy to his deep throws and hits outside routes with ease.
- Dynamic runner. True dual threat — ran for 1,100 yards in 2019.
- Appears comfortable working through progressions and isn’t over-reliant on his running ability.
- Takes care of the ball. Threw just one interception throughout his college career.
- Effort and passion will not be an issue. He does not give up on plays.

- Lacking experience. Made only 17 starts in college, none of which came against a team outside the FCS.
- Not used to carrying the load as a passer — all but two of Lance’s starts saw him throw 23 or fewer passes.
- Arm mechanics are fine but body moves around a lot through the throwing motion. That hurts his accuracy and leads to some bad throws.
- Misses open reads more than he should.
- There are times his running ability was able to bail him out of situations that will not work on Sundays.

Best fit: Atlanta Falcons
Matt Ryan turns 36 next month and is nearing the end of his Falcons career. Barring injury, however, Ryan will be Atlanta’s starter this fall. That would allow Lance to learn from an intelligent veteran quarterback and study hard under new Falcons head coach Arthur Smith. Now that the former Titans offensive coordinator is running the show, Atlanta’s offense will likely lean on the run game a bit more and feature plenty of play action, which dovetails nicely with Lance’s experience with the Bison.

If you want a dark horse candidate, look toward the Minnesota Vikings. Lance is from Marshall, Minn., and nearly attended the University of Minnesota. Kirk Cousins will certainly be the starter in 2021, but Minnesota would save a staggering $35 million if they part ways with Cousins before the start of the 2022 league year.

5. Mac Jones (Alabama)
Playoff games: 25/30, 297 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT v. Notre Dame; 36/45, 464 yards, 5 TD, 0 INT v. Ohio State

Speaking of Kirk Cousins, let’s have a chat about Alabama’s Mac Jones.

Time after time, I would watch Jones’ game tape and see Cousins. Both are largely immobile quarterbacks who use elite accuracy to mask their physical limitations.

Cousins has proven to be a serviceable starter in Washington and Minnesota, but Cousins was a fourth-round pick. Jones is being discussed as high as third overall. High picks like that are not supposed to be used on a player whose ceiling is “the next Kirk Cousins”.

Now, you may (rightfully) say: Josh! Jones threw for 4,500 yards last season and torched Ohio State for nearly 500 yards and five scores in the national title game! How can he be as mediocre as you say?

Like so many others, I will point to the immense talent surrounding Jones. Alabama’s quarterback threw the ball to two receivers, Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, who are all but certain to go in the first round. His running back, Najee Harris, may also be selected before the first round comes to a clsoe. The hog mollies tasked with protecting Jones are among the country’s best. And that’s not considering the two other first rounders Jones played with in 2019: receivers Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III.

Jones’ ability to throw with anticipation is incredible. There may be no quarterback in the 2021 draft as good as Jones in this department. That cannot mask Jones’ average arm strength, which will prevent him from making throws Lawrence, Fields, Wilson and Lance make with relative ease.

- Elite ability to throw with anticipation. There were countless instances where Jones released the ball before his receiver was open.
- Upper body mechanics are consistent on all types of throws.
- Smart player who uses his intelligence to make up for physical limitations.

- Average arm strength. He is simply unable to make some of the throws that will be required of him in the NFL.
- Struggles to create outside of the pocket or the structure of the play.
- Relied on first read far too often. Among the five players on this list, Jones threw to his first read most often and had the lowest completion percentage on passes to second and third reads.
- Footwork needs improvement. Feet dance far too much on play action and deep passes.

Best fit: New England Patriots
Earlier this week, Jones became the odds-on favorite to be drafted third overall by the San Francisco 49ers. It would be a mistake for John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan to select Jones that early, as Jones is not a marked upgrade on current starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo … and if you have read any of my work over the last couple years, you know I don’t think much of Garoppolo.

Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels have plenty of history coaching an immobile quarterback with average arm strength. Jones is nowhere near Tom Brady’s level, of course, but Jones’ current skill set is not that different than Brady’s, especially in Touchdown Tommy’s final few years in Foxborough.

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