JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Jacksonville Jaguars rookie Trevor Lawrence has been called a generational talent, and ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. rated him the fourth-best quarterback prospect he has ever graded.
Lawrence threw for 10,098 yards and 90 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, completed 66.6% of his passes, and ran for 943 yards and 18 more touchdowns in three seasons at Clemson.
Winning and championships are part of who he is: Lawrence had four losses total as a starting quarterback in high school and college. He won two state titles, three ACC titles and a national title.
He was the No. 1 overall draft pick and is paired with head coach Urban Meyer, a spread offense guru who never had a losing season in 17 years as a college coach and won two national championships at Florida and another at Ohio State.
So it’s understandable if the expectations for Lawrence in his first season in the NFL might be astronomical. Could he:
Become just the fifth rookie to throw for more than 4,000 yards (or break Andrew Luck’s record of 4,374 yards)?
Surpass Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert‘s rookie record of 31 touchdown passes?
Be named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year?
Lead the Jaguars to the conference championship game, as the New York Jets‘ Mark Sanchez, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, and the Los Angeles Rams‘ Dieter Brock did as rookies.
Become the first rookie QB to lead his team to the Super Bowl?
While the individual rookie records might be realistic because young quarterbacks are thriving after the NFL adjusted rules to open up the passing game — plus, there’s a 17th regular-season game this year — leading the Jaguars to a winning record and playoff appearance is almost certainly too much to ask. Historically, it hasn’t been easy for quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall (the best comparison because those players face more pressure to deliver) to do.
Since 2000, the 14 quarterbacks taken first overall in the NFL draft have averaged 3.8 victories, 13 touchdown passes, 12 interceptions and a 56% completion rate as a starter in their rookie seasons, per ESPN Stats & Information. Since 1970, Luck only quarterback, of 25, taken first overall to have a winning record as a rookie. Even that was an unusual situation, because the Colts won 10 or more games from 2002 to 2010 with Peyton Manning, but he missed the 2011 season with a neck injury and the Colts went 2-14 without him. Luck joined a team with Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton, and set the aforementioned rookie record for passing yards.
John Elway is the only other QB taken first overall since 1970 to lead his team to the playoffs (though he didn’t play for the Baltimore Colts, the team that drafted him). He began the 1983 season as the Broncos’ starter, but was benched for Steve DeBerg before starting again after DeBerg got injured. Elway went 4-6 as a starter and threw seven TD passes and 14 interceptions and completed 47.5% of his passes.
Only eight of the 25 QBs taken first overall even started a full season. During the past decade there have been five: Kyler Murray, Luck, Jameis Winston, Cam Newton and Sam Bradford. Murray won five games, Winston and Newton six and Bradford seven — those victory totals were all better than their teams managed the year before.
Lawrence’s situation is more comparable to what Murray, Winston, Newton and Bradford faced because the Jaguars aren’t a plug-in quarterback away from success. They were 1-15 in 2020, and the defense gave up the most points and yards in franchise history and is switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 under coordinator Joe Cullen.
So victories likely will be hard to come by in 2021, but one former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst says winning shouldn’t be the focus anyway.
“You can’t ask that [making steady progress and developing into an NFL quarterback] from the player and also burdening him with winning football games,” said Dan Orlovsky, who spent seven seasons in the NFL with Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis and Tampa. “That’s where a lot of teams, in my opinion, that take young quarterbacks, fail. ‘I want you to develop, but you’ve got to win us games on Sundays.’ Those two things don’t happen. Because we all hate losing. When winning by any means necessary enters my brain, I revert back to old habits — and bad habits — because I’m just doing whatever it takes to win and that’s when the development gets halted.
“And so that’s the big thing for Urban and Jacksonville. I think it’s going to take tremendous discipline by ownership, general manager and head coach. I think it’s going to take patience by all those people. But it’s got to take that commonality that they are marching towards that same thing, but not burdening Trevor Lawrence with being result-focused but process-focused.”
Except that’s not how Meyer is wired. He believes it’s possible to do both, and his collegiate record is proof: 187-32 and 10 or more victories in 12 of his 17 seasons. Meyer has repeatedly said the goal is to win now, but admits it’s also not easy to do with a rookie quarterback — and there’s a risk in putting too much on Lawrence.
“Reality is that everybody in this organization knows, whoever is going to be on that field is going to give us the best chance to win,” Meyer said. “We’re not looking four or five years down the road, but the reality is that you’ve got to — it’s the No. 1 pick overall. So, [offensive coordinator Darrell] Bevell and [passing game coordinator Brian] Schottenheimer, I’m leaning on them, but ultimately, I’ve got to make a decision for the guys that’ll help us win. But that’s a great question, that’s a daily conversation as well.”
Rookie quarterbacks — not just those taken first overall — have a hard time posting winning records, but it’s not out of the question for Lawrence and the Jaguars to make an eight-game jump in 2021. Per research by ESPN Stats & Information, Russell Wilson (11-5), Luck (11-5) and Robert Griffin III (9-6) each had a winning record as a starter in 2012 and four others have done so since 2013: Dak Prescott (13-3 in 2016), Lamar Jackson (6-1 in 2018), Drew Lock (4-1 in 2019) and Tua Tagovailoa (6-3 in 2020).
What’s more likely is the Jaguars are markedly better than 1-15 in 2021 and make bigger strides in 2022 as Lawrence and Meyer adjust to the NFL. What Buffalo did with Josh Allen and Cleveland did with Baker Mayfield should be the blueprint for the Jaguars with Lawrence, Orlovsky said.
The Bills had two winning seasons in 13 years before drafting Allen seventh overall in 2018. Allen struggled as a rookie, completing 52.8% of his passes and throwing for 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He improved in his second season (58.8%, 20 TDs, 9 INTs) and the Bills made the playoffs for only the second time since 1999. Last season, Allen led the Bills to the AFC East title — the franchise’s first since 1995 — and the AFC Championship Game.
Cleveland selected Mayfield first overall in 2018, but started Tyrod Taylor in the first three games before Mayfield took over in Week 4, making him the 30th quarterback to start a game for the Browns since 1999. He threw 27 touchdowns and 14 interceptions and completed 63.8% of his passes as a rookie, and while his numbers dipped in 2019 (59.4%, 22 TDs, 21 INTs), he rebounded in his third season and the Browns made the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and posted their second winning season in that same span.
Like the Bills and Browns, the Jaguars organization is desperate for a franchise quarterback and the success that would bring. Jacksonville has lost 10 or more games in nine of the past 10 seasons and has had one winning record and one playoff appearance since 2007. While returning to the playoffs might be unrealistic, it’s possible Lawrence will continue the trend over the past decade of rookie QBs putting up big numbers.
Since Cam Newton became the first rookie quarterback to surpass 4,000 yards passing in 2011, three others have done it, including Herbert last season (4,336 yards, 38 shy of Luck’s rookie record). Mayfield threw 27 TDs in 2018, which broke the rookie record shared by Manning and Wilson (26), and Herbert became the first rookie to surpass 30 touchdown passes last season.
The Jaguars return their entire starting offensive line, 1,000-yard rusher James Robinson and 2019 Pro Bowl receiver DJ Chark Jr., and also added veteran receiver Marvin Jones Jr. and rookie running back Travis Etienne. Barring injury, Lawrence, at the very least, has a chance to rewrite the Jaguars’ rookie passing records.
Lawrence’s expectations in 2021 are a little more modest.
“I want to just master the offense,” Lawrence said. “I want to have complete control and know everything and be comfortable. You can’t really play free and play really well if you don’t know what you’re doing.
“That’s the plan and it starts with the quarterback. Obviously, I have to be ready and I’m going to do everything I can to ensure that that is the case. I’m excited to get started.”
Facing massive expectations is not exactly unfamiliar territory for 21-year-old Lawrence. He has lived with them pretty much since he became a teenager.
He won the starting job as a high school freshman, led Cartersville (Georgia) High to 41 consecutive victories and two state titles and broke state records for passing yards and touchdowns. Lawrence was the No. 1 recruit in the country and signed with Clemson, where he won the starting job and the national title as a freshman. He led the Tigers to three College Football Playoff appearances and finished his three-year career third on the school’s all-time passing yardage list and second on the all-time TD passes list.
Regardless of any expectations placed on him — realistic or not — there’s no way Lawrence will buckle, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
“He’s well prepared,” Swinney said. “What he’s stepping into, the expectations, all those things, that’s his normal, and it has been for a long time.”