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Grading NFL's young QBs: Lance makes 49ers excited for future

/ by Josh Schrock
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Trey Lance, Joe Burrow

A changing of the guard is underway in the NFL. Or, at least, the influx of top-level quarterback talent over the last two drafts would suggest a new era is on the horizon.

Yes, 38-year-old Aaron Rodgers likely will win his second consecutive MVP award, and 44-year-old Tom Brady is still shredding defenses every Sunday. But last Sunday saw first- or second-year quarterbacks start games, and Justin Fields is set to return in Week 18 which would make that number an even 10 should Trey Lance get the nod over an injured Jimmy Garoppolo for the 49ers against the Los Angeles Rams.

RELATED: Jimmy G's status vs. Rams unclear

A third of the league is starting a quarterback who was drafted in the past two seasons. Some are stars. Some are raw. Others don't look the part. As we look to Week 18, the playoffs and the future, here is a grade for each young quarterback's performance this season.

Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers

Let's start at the top.

Herbert rearranged the NFL rookie record book last season, and did so with the Chargers' coaching staff easing his NFL transition by giving him "half-reads." The Oregon product has continued his rise to stardom this season, setting the Chargers' single-season touchdown record with 35 while completing 67.3 percent of his passes and throwing for 4,631 yards.

The 23-year-old has gone from a "half-read" rookie to one of the elite processors in the game in just one season. He continues to show great rhythm and anticipation while having the athleticism to extend plays and the arm talent to make jaw-dropping throws like the one against the New York Giants.

 

After being hampered by a poor offensive system at Oregon, Herbert has quickly gone from risky draft pick to young superstar and the arrow is pointing straight up for the Chargers signal-caller.

Season grade: A

Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals

Burrow has thrown for 971 yards and eight touchdowns in the past two weeks. No, that's not a typo. In doing so, Burrow became the first quarterback in NFL history to have back-to-back games with 400-plus passing yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions.

The 2020 No. 1 overall pick delivered an AFC North title in Year 2 and is playing outstanding football as the Bengals prepare for the Wild Card Round. The LSU product has impressive accuracy and an uncanny ability to evade rushers. But, much like Herbert, Burrow's decision-making in Year 2 is what has taken him and the Bengals to the next level. Drafting Ja'Marr Chase also didn't hurt.

On the season, Burrow has thrown for 4,611 yards, 34 touchdowns and 14 interceptions while completing 70.4 percent of his passes. Add in his unflappable nature and ability to bring his team back from multiple scores and the No. 1 pick in 2020 already has put himself in the conversation with the rest of the NFL's best.

Grade: A

Mac Jones, New England Patriots

All season long, Mac Jones has done exactly what Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels have asked of him. He has been a point guard for the Patriots' offense, made very few mistakes and delivered New England back to the playoffs.

Early in the season, Jones went toe-to-toe with Tom Brady and Dak Prescott, giving the Patriots a chance to win both games. His accuracy and processing have been as advertised. The Alabama product finds open receivers and delivers the ball on time.

On the season, Jones has thrown for 3,540 yards, 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while completing 67.6 percent of his passes. He has been everything the Patriots hoped for and should only improve under the tutelage of McDaniels.

Grade: B-plus

Trey Lance, 49ers

We saw Lance make his first NFL start in Week 5 against the Arizona Cardinals, and while there were a few good moments in what was a 17-10 loss for the 49ers, Lance, for the most part, looked overwhelmed.

The No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft has spent the last two months developing behind the scenes, impressing his coaches and teammates with his scout-team work. But with Jimmy Garoppolo out with a thumb injury, Lance was called on Sunday to start vs. the Houston Texans. While the rookie got off to a shaky start, he settled in and made a number of impressive throws that should have the 49ers excited for what their future holds.

Here's Lance stepping up into the pocket and ripping a laser to Brandon Aiyuk.

On this play, Lance had an easy connection to George Kittle in the flat but instead made a ridiculous throw to Trent Sherfield for the downfield completion.

Obviously, Lance's ability to stretch the field vertically gives the 49ers' offense a dimension it hasn't had with Garoppolo. 

 

Lance was far from perfect. He had some misfires, was picked off when trying to hit George Kittle on a wheel route in between two defenders and didn't always make the read Kyle Shanahan likely would have preferred. But in just his second career start and just third total start since the 2019 season, Lance showcased all the tools that made the 49ers salivate to draft him at No. 3 overall.

He remains raw as an NFL quarterback, but it's easy to see him becoming a star if he develops on the proper trajectory.

Grade: B (limited action)

Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles

Hurts has had an up-and-down first full season as the Philadelphia Eagles' starting quarterback. The Oklahoma product by way of Alabama had some stinkers early in the season, but he has come on late and had one of his best games Sunday against the Washington Football Team.

With the run game not working and the offensive line struggling, Hurts put together a clean game, completing 65.4 percent of his passes while throwing for 214 yards in a 20-16 win that clinched a playoff berth for the Eagles. While Hurts has only eclipsed the 300-yard mark twice this season, and hasn't done so since Week 4, he has steadily improved and shown an ability to put the Eagles on his back when his team needs him to.

It's not always flashy with Hurts, but he has accounted for 26 total touchdowns and continues to grow as a passer. Last season, the Eagles went 3-8 with Carson Wentz as the starting quarterback. They are 8-7 with Hurts under center this season. Wins aren't a QB stat, but that's not nothing.

Grade:  B-minus

Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars

There isn't a lot to be said about Lawrence that hasn't been uttered since the moment the Jaguars hired Urban Meyer.

The Jags have been dumpster fire all season and Lawrence has paid the price. Jacksonville has no speed on the outside, the offensive scheme has been poor and Meyer's 13-game train wreck tenure was a constant distraction.

Lawrence has struggled as a result, but the tools that had many viewing him as the next generational quarterback are still there and he deserves a mulligan for this season.

Peyton Manning threw 28 interceptions as a rookie and he turned out OK. I'm not worried about Lawrence yet.

Grade: C

Justin Fields, Bears

Much like Lawrence, Fields has been hampered by Matt Nagy's inability to run an offense tailored toward his strengths. As a result, Fields has had some shaky moments, like his 68-yard performance against the Browns and his three-interception game against the Bucs.

However, Fields has had some great moments this season with most of them coming either when offensive coordinator Bill Lazor was calling the plays or when Nagy was unable to coach due to COVID-19 protocols.

When Nagy has ceded offensive control, the Bears offense has had more sense to use Fields as a runner, instead of an insistence on keeping him in the pocket, and more expansive route combinations. Even with Nagy getting in the way by running limited boots and rollouts, Fields still has had moments where you see how special he can be if the right staff is put around him.

 

There was this throw against the Steelers.

And this one. 

We can't forget his jaw-dropping scramble vs. the 49ers. 

Fields has all the tools to be a special quarterback, but the Bears' next coaching hire is critical. 

Grade: C

Zach Wilson, New York Jets

Wilson struggled mightily early on in the season. The game looked fast for the BYU product, he held the ball too long, took too many sacks and was prone to turnovers.

However, Wilson has looked better late in the season which is exactly what you want to see from a young QB in his first season. Wilson had his best performance of the season in Sunday's loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He had his lowest time to throw, but did so while taking shots downfield. He hasn't thrown a pick in his last four games and has made a few eye-opening throws.

It was a disaster early for Wilson and the Jets. He still has a long way to go, but at least things are trending in the right direction. 

Grade: C-minus

Davis Mills, Houston Texans

The Texans' long-term plan at quarterback remains up in the air, but Mills has shown some nice stuff in his second stint as the starter.

He completed 21 of 27 passes for 254 yards and two touchdowns in a Week 16 win over the Los Angeles Chargers, but came back to reality in Week 17 against the 49ers, throwing for just 163 yards while having some clear misses and making a few costly mistakes.

But the arm talent flashed as he connected on a deep throw to Brandin Cooks that traveled almost 60 yards in the air. However, it was negated by a holding penalty.

Mills also leads the NFL with a 113.3 passer rating in the red zone and has three 300-yard passing games this season while all other rookies have four combined.

The Texans might have something.

Grade: C-minus

Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins

Things continue to be shaky at best for the Dolphins quarterback. Tagovailoa has been an exceptional RPO quarterback this season, but he needs to be able to do more if Miami plans to stick with him as its franchise quarterback.

Tagovailoa is an accurate thrower but he is hampered by his questionable decision-making and inability to stretch the field vertically in a way that can elevate the Dolphins' offense.

There's reason to believe his ceiling still is high, but neither his stats (2,544 yards, 15 touchdowns, 10 interceptions) nor the eye test scream franchise QB after two seasons.

Season grade: D-plus

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