Game Theory

Which NFL rookie QBs will be most productive in 2021? My analytics-based top-five rankings

The first three overall picks in the 2021 NFL Draft were used on quarterbacks, marking the first time that had happened since 1999. So it's safe to say there will be plenty of interest in how the rookie quarterbacks of 2021 -- a group that included five first-rounders in total -- will fare. 

For my latest entry in a series that uses contextualized data and my computer-vision models to project which rookies will be the most productive in 2021, I turned my attention to the quarterbacks. Below, you can see how I'd rank the top five rookie signal-callers according to their projected ability to hit the ground running:

Rank
1
Trevor Lawrence
Clemson
Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville Jaguars
Draft pick: Round 1, No. 1 overall

Next Gen Stats shows that last season, Jaguars passers threw 14 interceptions when not under pressure, which was the second-most in the NFL (only Philadelphia threw more). Since 2018, Lawrence has thrown 68 touchdowns when kept clean, the second-most in the FBS over that time period (per Pro Football Focus), against just 13 interceptions. That said, performance when not under pressure helps determine what a passer is like under the most ideal circumstances -- performance under pressure, on the other hand, helps show what they're likely to experience as a pro. In this class, Lawrence is the only QB who has played 200 snaps against the blitz over the past three seasons, and PFF graded him above 90 on such passes. My computer vision shows that the No. 1 overall pick threw a lot of quick passes (such as screens) in college. In terms of getting his feet and hips set quickly when making these quick throws, he ranks in the top 2 percent of my eight-season sample (that is to say, based on the percentage of quick passes where a QB's base was set in 1.5 seconds or less). In my sample, QBs who entered the NFL with the ability to maintain a stable base also mastered the quick-passing game at the pro level more quickly -- and at this point, we can expect Lawrence to follow suit. As far as fantasy football is concerned, Lawrence is my 16th-ranked quarterback for 2021, meaning that while he has the opportunity to change Jacksonville's future, pump the brakes on over-drafting him this season.

Rank
2
Zach Wilson
New York Jets
New York Jets
Draft pick: Round 1, No. 2 overall

Only two teams fared worse than the Jets' passers last season in terms of completing passes when not under pressure (64.1 percent, ranking 30th, per NGS). At BYU last season, Wilson's 11.5 yards per attempt when not under pressure was the best in the FBS. Based on Wilson's résumé, it seems like one of the most probable ways new Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur will look to create passing gains is by using play-action. PFF shows that Wilson earned 12.6 yards per attempt on play-action passes in 2020, third-most in FBS, and connected for 20 touchdowns with zero interceptions on such passes. While he'll have to adapt to NFL speed, and while the O-line will be a unit to track through the preseason, his ability to execute play-action and quick passes will create a foundation for securing first downs. Last season, Wilson ranked fourth in the FBS on quick passes with a 79.5 completion percentage, and he was fifth in yards per attempt on such throws, with 9.1. Wilson also performed well against the blitz, posting the third-most touchdown passes (16) and fourth-highest completion percentage (69.7) on such plays.

Rank
3
Justin Fields
Ohio State
Chicago Bears
Chicago Bears
Draft pick: Round 1, No. 11 overall

In 2020, 21.0 percent of Bears pass attempts were thrown into tight windows, which was the highest rate in the NFL. Tight windows occur when targeted receivers have less than 1 yard of separation, and a high rate of tight-window attempts can be an indicator that defenses are able to anticipate the offensive plays a team is calling. Fields provides coach Matt Nagy with the opportunity to diversify his attack. From 2018 to 2020, Fields produced a TD-to-INT ratio of 54:4 from a clean pocket, PFF's best such mark in that span. Fields also showed top-ranking production ability on deep passes (posting a 50 percent completion rate on throws of 20-plus yards since 2019, per PFF, ranking sixth-best in the FBS) and off play-action (with a 146.4 passer rating on play-action in 2020, third-best in the FBS, according to PFF), and he showed he could connect on attempts of 10-plus air yards when his base was not set (55.5 percent completion rate on such throws since 2019, per my computer vision). Those are all great indicators when it comes to projecting his NFL production. Also, take note of the Ohio State product's 630 rushing yards on scrambles since 2019 (with five TDs). Nagy's recent public comments indicate Andy Dalton is in line to begin the season as Chicago's starter. If Fields were to be named the QB1 ahead of Week 1, his fantasy value would catapult him to the top of this rookie list -- but he'd still fall outside of the top 13 of all QBs.

Rank
4
Trey Lance
North Dakota State
San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers
Draft pick: Round 1, No. 3 overall

NGS shows that San Francisco's pass catchers averaged 2.3 yards of separation on deep passes last season, after averaging 3.2 on such passes in 2019. Both of those numbers were the best in the NFL and help quantify just how much space Kyle Shanahan's scheme can create. Lance's college data only gives me 17 games to work with, which is a very small sample size and introduces a lot of volatility into his projections, but I feel more confident forecasting his fit in this system than others because of the rushing concepts and great offensive line. In Lance's 17 starts, he put up a passer rating of 131.5 on play-action attempts, with 19 touchdowns and only one interception, per PFF. What about non-play-action passes? He logged a passer rating of 113.8, with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions. There's even more encouraging data with regard to ball security: per my computer-vision intel, of the QBs in this draft crop, Lance posted the lowest percentage of throws that were either picked off, batted down or thrown closer to a defender than the intended pass-catching target (the latter figure approximates the number of passes in danger of being picked off). The versatility on his résumé -- he's logged time under center and in the shotgun -- will allow for formation diversity. Then there's his knack for alternating arm angles and delivering off-platform throws with accuracy. On top of all that, he's a legit factor on the ground, with 49 missed tackles (out of 182 rushing attempts) on his ledger and 913 rushing yards (out of 1,311) coming after contact, per PFF. As with Fields, Lance's fantasy value would dramatically increase should he be named the Day 1 starter in San Francisco, but it would not push him into draftable range in regular roster formats.

Rank
5
Mac Jones
Alabama
New England Patriots
New England Patriots
Draft pick: Round 1, No. 15 overall

Patriots passers were under pressure on 28.7 percent of dropbacks last season, which was the sixth-highest rate in the NFL. Sometimes being under pressure is more of a function of O-line play, and other times, it shows a quarterback held onto the ball for too long. At Alabama last season, Jones had a whopping 84.9 completion percentage on quick passes, which was the highest rate in the FBS, along with 9.4 yards per attempt, which ranked second-best.


High rates of pressure can also reveal that plays broke down regularly, or that a team didn't have the correct personnel in place to maintain efficiency. It's probable that the Patriots, who made several additions to their roster this offseason, including tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, are valuing how well Jones executed what was asked of him last season. Ready for the numbers that prove how well Jones executed for Nick Saban? Here goes: Jones excelled against man coverage, posting the best yards-per-throw mark (12.6) and completion percentage (71.8%) against man in the FBS, per PFF. But Jones was no slouch against zone, logging the most touchdown throws (15) and the top completion rate (79.3%) vs. zone, according to PFF. And no one threw more touchdown passes on attempts of 10-plus yard than the Crimson Tide product (29), who had the second-highest completion rate on such throws (66.9).

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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