FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When New England Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones threw his first career touchdown pass, teammates tried to give him the football as a keepsake as he ran off the field. But he kept giving it back.
It was a signature moment that reflects Jones’ always-moving-forward approach, which has helped move him to the head of the class among his rookie QB peers.
Six different rookie quarterbacks, including Jones, have started a game this season — the Jacksonville Jaguars‘ Trevor Lawrence, New York Jets‘ Zach Wilson, San Francisco 49ers‘ Trey Lance, Chicago Bears‘ Justin Fields and Houston Texans‘ Davis Mills. That ties for the most through Week 11 of a season over the last 22 years (along with 2012, 2016 and 2019).
And there have been some predicable growing pains.
Rookie QBs collectively have a 35.3 Total QBR, the worst mark since 2010, when Sam Bradford, Jimmy Clausen and Colt McCoy were breaking into the NFL.
Jones has helped raise the bar with a rookie-best QBR of 49.8.
Meanwhile, his 7-4 record is best among rookie quarterbacks. The rest of the field is a combined 5-26. Jones’ completion percentage of 70 is also tops, with the rest of the group at 60.
One secret to the Patriots’ success with Jones has been picking their spots to throw down the field.
Jones’ 7.6 air yards per attempt is the second lowest among rookie quarterbacks. Fields is at a rookie-high 10.5 air yards per attempt. As a result, Jones’ off-target percentage (14.4) is the best among his peers.
Jones’ overall performance, and daily behind-the-scenes approach, has earned him respect throughout the Patriots’ locker room.
“This kid is very serious about what he’s doing. He spends more time in this building than a lot of guys I can ever remember here,” said captain Matthew Slater, who is in his 14th season and is the Patriots’ longest tenured player. “I can’t believe how quickly he’s developed, as far as his understanding of the things we’re trying to do here — and that’s not just offensively. I’m talking about overall culture.”
ESPN NFL Nation reporters break down this year’s 10 rookie quarterbacks.
Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars
Overall pick: No. 1
Stats: 10 games played, 8 TDs, 9 INTs, 35.2 QBR (27th among all QBs)
Jaguars reporter Mike DiRocco’s assessment: Lawrence threw seven interceptions in his first three games but just two since, and he played his best football in Weeks 4-6. In the four games since the bye, however, it has been a struggle (56% completion rate, one TD pass). Lawrence hasn’t been as accurate and until recently hadn’t taken a lot of downfield shots. However, he’s also been hurt by 20 drops — tied with the Jets for most in the NFL — and a group of receivers that is having trouble getting separation.
Highlight: Lawrence led the Jaguars to a pair of field goals in the final 6:39 in a 23-20 victory over Miami in London on Oct. 17. He overcame a first-and-15 to start the game-winning drive, and he completed a 9-yard pass to Laviska Shenault to gain critical yards and got a timeout with one second to play. Matthew Wright followed with a game-winning 53-yard field goal to snap the Jaguars’ 20-game losing streak that dated back to the 2020 season opener.
Moving forward, it looks like: It’s going to continue to be a struggle for Lawrence and the Jaguars offense to score points, mainly because the lack of playmakers and explosive plays. Plus the wide receivers have a lot of trouble winning one-on-one matchups and the drops are just embarrassing. That leaves Lawrence no margin for error — which is unfair for any quarterback, let alone a rookie — and when he is off target his mistakes get magnified.
Zach Wilson, New York Jets
Overall pick: No. 2
Stats: 6 games played, 4 TDs, 9 INTs, 27.1 QBR (31st among all QBs)
Jets reporter Rich Cimini’s assessment: Wilson’s a long way from his cozy cocoon at BYU. This has been a struggle for Wilson, who was handed the starting job with no competition. In retrospect, it would’ve been better to start him on the bench, learning behind a seasoned pro, but the Jets wanted to start his developmental clock ASAP. He holds the ball too long, leaves the pocket too quickly and tries to play hero ball. He looks to make spectacular plays when routine checkdowns will suffice. Some insiders call it the “Mahomes Effect.” Wilson has crazy arm talent, but he must learn to harness it. The offense came to life when he went out with an injury, and that was no coincidence.
Highlight: Wilson’s signature moment was a 53-yard touchdown pass to Corey Davis against the Tennessee Titans. He rolled to his right on a designed bootleg, spotted Davis downfield (his No. 2 read) and motioned for him to go deeper, like we used to do as kids on the schoolyard. Wilson’s pass was a dime that traveled 50 air yards, one of the Jets’ longest passes in recent memory.
Moving forward, it looks like: After sitting out four games with a sprained knee, the Jets hope he has benefitted from the time off, which has allowed him to watch three other quarterbacks run the offense. Wilson says he will be more patient, looking for checkdowns instead of forcing passes into dangerous windows. There’s plenty of time for him to change the narrative on his rookie year. He can save the season from total disaster with a strong finish.
Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers
Overall pick: No. 3
Stats: 5 games played, 3 TDs, 1 INT, 40.2 QBR (didn’t qualify for overall ranking)
49ers reporter Nick Wagoner’s assessment: The plan for Lance has shifted a couple of times, first because of an injury to starter Jimmy Garoppolo, and then because of one to Lance. Ideally, the Niners wanted to sprinkle Lance in situationally while Garoppolo held down the starting job. But that hasn’t happened much since the early weeks, in part because Garoppolo has played well. That makes it hard to know how far along Lance is, though he fared OK in his lone start of the season (Week 5 against Arizona) and coaches say he’s made steady progress.
Highlight: Lance’s second career touchdown pass came against Seattle on Oct. 3 when he hit receiver Deebo Samuel for a 76-yard score in the third quarter. Sure, Samuel was wide open, but hitting the layups is as important as squeezing one into a tight window, and the touchdown undoubtedly gave Lance some needed confidence.
Moving forward, it looks like: The question of when Lance will take over permanently looms, but the Niners seem content to let him sit, watch and learn for the time being. If Garoppolo can stay healthy and the Niners stay in the postseason hunt, that will continue. In the meantime, Lance remains the backup and must be ready to go should something happen to Garoppolo. Regardless of when Lance’s time arrives, he has plenty to work on, not least of which is his accuracy as he’s showed an early tendency to miss high when he’s not on target.
Justin Fields, Chicago Bears
Overall pick: No. 11
Stats: 10 games played, 4 TDs, 8 INTs, 25.8 QBR (32nd among all QBs)
Bears reporter Jeff Dickerson’s assessment: The Bears’ initial plan to bring Fields along slowly was scuttled when veteran Andy Dalton got hurt in Week 2. Thrust into full-time action, Fields has mostly been up and down. There’s no question Fields possesses all the tools to be a franchise quarterback (arm, speed, elusiveness) but the rookie needs to learn consistency. The numbers look bad, but Fields has enjoyed some memorable moments, not just on the run, but also as a passer. The coaching staff raves about Fields, and someone is going to turn him into a franchise quarterback, just depends on which regime in Chicago.
Highlight: The end of the Pittsburgh game on Nov. 9. With Chicago down the entire night, the Bears mounted a comeback when late in the fourth quarter Fields led them on a touchdown drive to put them up 27-26 (temporarily). First, Fields completed a beautiful 39-yard pass to No. 1 receiver Allen Robinson, then followed it up on the very next play with a 16-yard touchdown strike to Darnell Mooney. Earlier in the quarter, Fields fired a 28-yard missile to tight end Jimmy Graham; a throw coach Matt Nagy called “elite.” The Bears eventually lost the game 29-27, but Fields had a night to remember.
Moving forward, it looks like: Much of the same. Fields will have some great moments, and some not-so-great moments. That’s the life of a rookie quarterback in the NFL. The Bears probably aren’t good enough for Fields to lead them on a miraculous playoff run. The more likely scenario is the Bears play out the string with Fields making modest improvements each week, although he’s currently nursing a rib injury that could keep him sidelined for at least the time being. But the arrow is still pointing up. Fields is going to be in Chicago for a long time.
Mac Jones, New England Patriots
Overall pick: No. 15
Stats: 11 games played, 14 TDs, 8 INTs, 49.8 QBR (19th among all QBs)
Patriots reporter Mike Reiss’ assessment: The “Bringing A Rookie QB Along 101” class coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have led has been impressive. Jones has steadily grown along the way, initially relying on more of the short passing game before downfield strikes gradually became a bigger part of the plan. Accuracy and decision-making, two of his best traits, have come as advertised. Furthermore, his processing is at a higher level than the standard rookie QB, and the Patriots have put a lot on his plate in that area, just as they did with Tom Brady.
The Mac Jones “not athletic enough, can’t make enough off schedule plays” narrative dying a slow painful death with each win…
— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) November 14, 2021
Highlight: Jones hit his peak in a Week 10 win over the Browns when he was on fire on third down, registering his first 3-TD game of the season and making high-level throws downfield that raise the ceiling for what the offense can become. The performance also stood out because he wasn’t at his best in the two prior games, which had sparked some media-based discussion if he had hit a rookie wall.
Moving forward, it looks like: Jones continues to take care of the football and delivers in clutch situations, which complements a physical running game. It’s the same formula the early-era Patriots championship teams relied upon.
Overall pick: No. 64 (2nd round)
Moving forward, it looks like: For now, Trask is the fourth-string quarterback. Yes, he’s on the active roster, whereas Ryan Griffin is on the practice squad, but Trask has been inactive every game and they’re treating it as a redshirt year. He does get some reps as the scout team quarterback. It may be a year or two before he can push for the backup job. “Obviously, he doesn’t get the reps, but in the meetings, he has responsibilities,” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. “So, we’re trying to teach him how to play the position and he has a guy in front of him that he can learn from. [He] couldn’t be in a better situation. You want to learn how to play the freaking quarterback position and Thomas [Brady] is in front of you. … I appreciate the work that he’s putting in. He’s putting in a lot of work to not be playing a snap. That’s how you get better in this league, and you just appreciate that as a coach.”
— Buccaneers reporter Jenna Laine
Overall pick: No. 66 (3rd round)
Moving forward, it looks like: It took Mond four years to put it all together at Texas A&M, so it comes as no surprise the quarterback is very much in the development phase of his NFL career. That’s what the Vikings anticipated wen they drafted him in April — not that he would ever threaten Kirk Cousins for his job this season. What is surprising, though, is Mond has yet to be active for a game. The Vikings brought Mond in to compete as QB2, and he never stood a chance among the other two backups in training camp after missing time with COVID-19. The team signed veteran Sean Mannion before the season to be Cousins’ backup, a sign Mond was nowhere near ready. Most teams don’t use a high third-round pick on a player they don’t expect to be active on game days as an emergency option. Maybe a full redshirt year is exactly what Mond needs to compete to back up Cousins in 2022.
— Vikings reporter Courtney Cronin
Davis Mills, Houston Texans
Overall pick: No. 67 (3rd round)
Stats: 7 games played, 7 TDs, 8 INTs, 30.7 QBR (29th among all QBs)
Texans reporter Sarah Barshop’s assessment: The Texans had a chance to get a long look at Mills after starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor injured his left hamstring in Week 2. In the six starts Mills made, he was 0-6 and struggled at times. His main goal, he said, was to make sure to protect the football, especially after he threw four interceptions in a 40-0 loss to the Buffalo Bills. Coach David Culley said he was happy with the progress Mills made, but Taylor gives Houston the best chance to win.
Davis Mills is the first rookie QB in NFL history to throw for 300 yards, 3 TDs and finish with a passer rating of 140-or higher in a game.
— Houston Texans (@HoustonTexans) October 11, 2021
Highlight: One of the reasons Culley said he had confidence in Mills is the maturity the quarterback has to quickly move on from bad plays or games. Mills came back from the 40-0 loss — his worst performance of the season — with his best. Mills threw two touchdowns in the first half against the Patriots and a third to start the third quarter. The rookie completed 21 of 29 passes for 312 yards with a passer rating of 141.7, but it was not enough to get the Texans a victory.
Moving forward, it looks like: Culley said Taylor is the Texans’ starter when healthy, but it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether Houston will decide to play Mills at the end of the season because the team is out of playoff contention. There are a lot of questions around the Texans’ quarterback position — if and when the team trades Deshaun Watson, re-signs Taylor or drafts a quarterback — so if there lingering questions about Mills’ future with Houston, the end of the season is the time to answer them.
Overall pick: No. 133 (4th round)
Moving forward, it looks like: Book probably won’t be in the running to start for the Saints as early as 2022. But he does have promising potential as a backup, with a chance to compete for more playing time as he develops. This has basically been a redshirt year, but Book has been active at times as the backup ever since Jameis Winston suffered a torn ACL on Oct 31. So there’s a chance we could see him on the field before the season ends. The 6-footer, who won more games than any QB in Notre Dame history (30-5), showed good poise during training camp. And just like in college, Book did some of his best work when he had to move outside of the pocket and extend plays or take off running.
— Saints reporter Mike Triplett
Overall pick: No. 218 (6th round)
Stats: 2 games played, 38.7 QBR (didn’t qualify for overall ranking)
Moving forward, it looks like: Ehlinger’s play in training camp and in the preseason was good enough for the Colts to release Jacob Eason and make Ehlinger the No. 2 quarterback behind starter Carson Wentz. Wentz is locked in as the starter after Indianapolis traded for him with the hope that he’ll be its next franchise quarterback. But that doesn’t mean Ehlinger won’t see the field, because Wentz has dealt with injuries at different points in his career, and the coaching staff has used Ehlinger situationally in the red zone because of his athletic ability.
— Colts reporter Mike Wells