Rookie QBs getting crash course in up-and-down life of NFL

By Dennis Waszak Jr.

NEW YORK (AP) — No one said this was going to be easy, rookie.

Playing quarterback in the NFL is no simple task, and this year’s class of newcomers is getting a crash course — filled with sacks, interceptions and losses — in how difficult it is to immediately succeed under center.

Jacksonville’s Trevor Lawrence, the New York Jets’ Zach Wilson and New England’s Mac Jones have started since Week 1. San Francisco’s Trey Lance, Chicago’s Justin Fields and Houston’s Davis Mills have stepped in during the past few weeks. And they’ve all experienced varying degrees of struggles.

No, they’re not in college anymore.

“What’s happening to the rookies, in my opinion, is normal,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said. “What happens otherwise is abnormal. Most rookies struggle in their first couple of years. You can go through the history of all the great ones.”

True, Peyton Manning had a hideous rookie season. So did Troy Aikman and John Elway. Aaron Rodgers had to wait on Brett Favre. Tom Brady needed an injury to Drew Bledsoe to get on the field in his second year — but he ended up winning the Super Bowl. And six more after that. Patrick Mahomes wasn’t a full-time starter until his second season.

“There’s three things that nowadays in college that some of these guys come to our NFL and they haven’t done,” Jaguars offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. “No. 1, they haven’t taken a snap under center, so that’s a change for them. No. 2, they don’t call a cadence. You think that’s a little thing, but that’s a huge thing to be able to bark out the cadence, help you out. Then, they don’t call a play in the huddle. They’re looking off to the side or the coach is changing the play.

“So, just the three most basic things that a quarterback does, not all the quarterbacks that come into the league are doing it.”

That’s sometimes forgotten when Justin Herbert steps in and lights up the league. Or Kyler Murray two years ago.

“There’s an adjustment all of these guys have to go through,” Saleh said. “And what you’re seeing out of this group is probably more of the norm than the Herberts of the world.”

Here’s a look at the six rookie quarterbacks currently starting:


How He Got Here: The No. 1 overall pick out of Clemson was immediately deemed the face and savior of the franchise.

How He’s Doing: Lawrence has thrown for 873 yards with five touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing 57% of his passes for the 0-4 Jaguars. He had his most efficient game last week in a 24-17 loss at Cincinnati, going 17 of 24 for 204 yards. He had no touchdown throws, but ran for a score and also had his first interception-free performance.

What They’re Saying: “You can look around and I’ll take our guy any day in the rookie quarterbacks and how they’re doing,” Bevell said. “Trevor’s progression has been great. He’s doing a great job. He works his tail off. I think his communication with the players on the team and the guys in the offense, communication during the game, all those things he’s just really doing a nice job with it and his play’s getting better and better.”


New York Jets QB Zach Wilson during NFL game against Tennessee Titans, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021, in East Rutherford. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

How He Got Here: The Jets zeroed in on him with the No. 2 overall pick early in the pre-draft process, enthralled by his arm strength and ability to make plays on the run and from multiple arm angles.

How He’s Doing: The former BYU star had a solid debut with two TD passes and an INT, followed by a miserable performance against New England (no TDs, four INTs, 37.0 quarterback rating) and a lousy game at Denver (no TDs, two more INTs and a season-low 54.3 completion percentage). Wilson, sacked 15 times in three games, bounced back with his best game, going 21 of 34 for 297 yards — including passes of 54 and 53 yards — and two TDs with one INT and one sack in the Jets’ first win of the season, 27-24 in OT over Tennessee.

What They’re Saying: “What he’s still adjusting to is just when it goes a little bit off schedule and the pocket collapses and he has to go, just with how fast NFL defenses and defenders move, what he can get away with and what he can’t,” offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur said. “And that’s been something that he’s been working through since, really, rookie minicamp.”


San Francisco 49ers QB Trey Lance (5) passes vs Seattle Seahawks during NFL game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. AP Photo/Tony Avelar

How He Got Here: The 49ers traded up and took Lance out of North Dakota State when many assumed they were going to take Jones. He began the season as the backup to Jimmy Garoppolo.

How He’s Doing: Lance played just seven snaps through the first three games, throwing a TD pass and running for another score. He got his most extensive action last week when Garoppolo left at halftime with a right calf injury. Lance struggled with his accuracy, but finished 9 of 18 for 157 yards, two touchdowns, a 2-point conversion run and 41 yards rushing. He’ll start Sunday for 2-2 San Francisco against Arizona.

What They’re Saying: “He’ll see some things out there that he’s never seen before,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “But what you like about him and stuff that he might not be ready for, he can overcompensate with some of his athletic ability and, to me, how competitive he is and how good of a football player he is.”


Chicago Bears QB Justin Fields warms up before NFL game against Detroit Lions Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021, in Chicago. AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

How He Got Here: The No. 11 overall pick out of Ohio State entered the season as the backup to Andy Dalton, despite many Bears fans clamoring to see the rookie right away.

How He’s Doing: Fields threw two passes and ran for a score in the opener in spot duty. He replaced an injured Dalton the next week against Cincinnati, then started the next two games with Dalton sidelined. Fields is still looking for his first TD pass and has to improve on his 48.1 completion percentage, but coach Matt Nagy committed this week to him starting moving forward for the 2-2 Bears.

What They’re Saying: “The stage for him never gets too big,” Nagy said. “He has been in this position before. I think when you have somebody like that who understands how he has gotten to this point and knows that he’s worked hard to get to this point, that he’s ready for this opportunity.”

MAC JONES, Patriots

New England Patriots AB Mac Jones (10) throws during NFL game vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021, in Foxborough, Mass. AP Photo/Elise Amendola

How He Got Here: The Patriots took Jones out of Alabama at No. 15 overall, making him the first quarterback drafted in the opening round by New England since Bledsoe in 1993. He beat out Cam Newton in training camp and became the first rookie QB to start Week 1 for the Patriots, also since Bledsoe.

How He’s Doing: Jones’ numbers aren’t eye popping for the 1-3 Patriots with four TDs and four INTs, but he has been extremely efficient while completing 70% of his passes in what has been a mostly short-passing game offense. He threw for 275 yards and had 19 consecutive completions — the most for an NFL rookie since 1991, and tying the franchise record set by Brady in 2015 — last week in a 19-17 loss to Brady and Tampa Bay.

What They’re Saying: “He’s certainly responded to anything we’ve asked him to do,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “He’s obviously got a great mindset and great attitude about it. There’s nothing we’ve asked him to do that he’s shied away from or wanted less responsibility. That’s not his nature or personality. I appreciate that in the young man.”


Houston Texans QB Davis Mills (10) looks to throw during NFL game vs Buffalo Bills, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021, in Orchard Park, N.Y. AP Photo/Adrian Kraus

How He Got Here: The former Stanford star was drafted in the third round and wasn’t expected to be much more than a backup this season — and maybe beyond. But with a hamstring injury to Tyrod Taylor and the Texans sitting Deshaun Watson during a contract dispute and legal troubles, Mills is the man under center for now.

How He’s Doing: Well, he’s struggling. He has thrown for 357 yards with two touchdowns and five interceptions in his 2 1/2 games. He tied a franchise record with four INTs last week against Buffalo and his 23.4 quarterback rating is the worst of any starter this season. He’ll likely return to the sideline for the 0-4 Texans as soon as Taylor’s healthy.

What They’re Saying: “Ball security, understanding that your job is to protect the ball and when you go back to pass, an incompletion is OK if the guy is not there, you don’t have to make a play,” coach David Culley said of what he’s looking for from Mills this week. “Again, that’s from being inexperienced and being young, but at this point right now moving forward as our quarterback, that’s something that he has to get better at quicker and faster.”

AP Pro Football Writers Josh Dubow and Mark Long, and AP Sports Writers Kyle Hightower, Kristie Rieken and Andrew Seligman contributed.

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