2021 NFL Draft: How will Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones be remembered?

For every Peyton Manning, there is a Ryan Leaf. For every Patrick Mahomes, there is a Mitch Trubisky.

Being a first-round quarterback taken in the NFL Draft does not always translate into success in big leagues. So, with as many as five young signal callers picked up on Thursday night – three taken with the first three picks for only the third time in history – what can we glean from those that have trodden the path they are on previously.

Which category will Trevor Lawrence (No 1, Jacksonville Jaguars), Zach Wilson (No 2, New York Jets), Trey Lance (No 3, San Francisco 49ers), Justin Fields (No 11, Chicago Bears) and Mac Jones (No 15, New England Patriots) fall into?

  • Lawrence on Jags draft selection: ‘It’s a great fit’
  • Shanahan ‘obsessed’ with new QB Trey Lance
  • What are the Bears getting in Justin Fields?

We are limiting our search to span the last two decades and, more specifically, starting with a look at that 1998 Draft in which Manning and Leaf went No 1 and 2 but then saw their careers head in completely different directions.

Getting the wrong guy

As hard as it is to believe, Manning – with his Hall of Fame career, his two Super Bowl rings, his five league MVP awards, his career 72,967 passing yards and 579 passing touchdowns – was not actually a shoo-in for the No 1 overall pick in 1998.

Generally, he was considered the more polished prospect coming out of college, but there were plenty of talent evaluators intrigued seemingly by Leaf’s ‘stronger arm’ and ‘greater ceiling’.

Ultimately, the Indianapolis Colts made the right call and selected Manning with the first overall pick. Leaf went second to the San Diego Chargers but flamed out of the league inside four years, having started just 21 games and posting a pretty abysmal 14:36 touchdown to interception ratio.

No-one yet knows how this year’s prospects are going to fare at the next level, but the San Francisco 49ers certainly made a bold call at No 3, plumping for the ‘stronger arm’ and ‘greater ceiling’ of Lance over the safe pick of efficient passer Jones which many had predicted for them.

Unlike the Chargers, they will be hoping history looks favourably on their decision two decades from now.

Chicago trading up

Trubisky took the Bears to the playoffs twice in the last three years. He has 29 career wins from 50 starts and has thrown 64 touchdowns to 37 interceptions. Hardly Leaf-like numbers.

But Trubisky, after just four years in the NFL, is now a back-up in Buffalo, and while his play in the Windy City was middling at best, his ousting is as much due to the optics of the team having traded up in the 2017 Draft to take him with the No 2 overall pick.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but that move was made with future Super Bowl winner, and league MVP, Patrick Mahomes on the board, as well 2020 passing leader Deshaun Watson.

As Mahomes carried his Kansas City Chiefs team to three consecutive AFC Championship games and back-to-back Super Bowls as a starter, Trubisky floundered under the expectation placed on his shoulders in Chicago.

Yet, that did not put the Bears off from pulling off another aggressive trade this year to go up and get Ohio State quarterback Fields – giving up their picks at 20 and 164 this year, as well as 2022 first and fourth-round selections to do so.

This one needs to go well for Chicago. General manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy’s jobs are very much riding on it.

New wave of superstar QBs

As mentioned, the motivation behind the Bears’ aggressive move is their Mahomes blunder from four years ago. But they would not be the only team to have changed the way in which they evaluate quarterbacks since while the Chiefs QB has taken the league by storm.

Watson – taken two picks after Mahomes, at No 12 in 2017 – has also proven to be a big success on the field, even if his current future in the league looks considerably bleaker after his indiscretions off of it.

And, from the subsequent two drafts, it has been similarly explosive-style playmakers at the position – Josh Allen (No 7, 2018), Lamar Jackson (No 32, 2018) and Kyler Murray (No 1, 2019) – that have enjoyed the most success.

It is no longer good enough to just stand back in the pocket and dissect a defence with accuracy, efficiency and sound mechanics – as much as a certain 43-year-old Tom Brady winning a seventh Super Bowl in February might prove otherwise – teams now crave the X-factor of a Mahomes, Murray or Allen. QBs capable of stretching opposition defenses with both their arm and their legs.

Going back to San Francisco for a second, it is what persuaded them to plump for Lance with their third overall pick, instead of Brady-like clone Jones who, of course, wound up with the Patriots.

Lance played for a smaller school in college, North Dakota State, making only 17 starts – of which just one of them came in a Covid-19 affected 2020 season – but he also put up some staggering numbers in that time, including throwing for 28 touchdowns and zero interceptions in an unbeaten 2019 season. Oh, and he also ran for 1,100 yards and 14 TDs that season.

Lance is not the only one either. There were plenty calling for the 49ers to take Fields at No 3, having put up arguably even more eye-catching numbers – 20 wins in 22 starts, 5,701 passing yards, 67 TDs to nine picks, and 1,133 rushing yards and 19 scores – against greater levels of completions in his three years in college.

Lawrence can also run the ball effectively, and former NFL quarterback Chris Simms has said Wilson is the quarterback he believes demonstrates the most Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers-like traits.

Welcome to the new NFL.

Gold jacket guys

That does not mean there are not different ways to skin a cat. The success of Manning proves that, and the ageless Brady continues to.

As does Rodgers, who not only disrupted Thursday night’s first round with rumours swirling over his unhappiness in Green Bay, but who is a cautionary draft story himself.

💬 "I don't think it's money; I think he just wants a different situation." 💬

Former Packers corner @WillBlackmon on the Aaron Rodgers to the Niners rumours.

Just over 3⃣ hours to go till the first pick. #NFLDraft 😬

📺 Watch our Draft Preview show LIVE now on Sky Sports NFL pic.twitter.com/ylI4ZuIJnM

Rodgers went in the first round of the 2005 Draft, but to the 24th overall pick – quite the slide down the pecking order for a player who was touted as a potential No 1 pick.

San Francisco – them again – went instead for Alex Smith first off the board, and Rodgers, himself a boyhood 49ers fan, was left to watch on from the green room as player after player was picked ahead of him until the Packers finally picked up the phone.

Smith went on to lead a storied NFL career, which included an incredible return last year from an injury that threatened both the loss of his leg and his life. Smith suffered a spiral and compound fracture to his right leg while playing in 2018. Almost two years later, and after 17 surgeries, he took to the field again and was rightly crowned Comeback Player of the Season for his efforts.

That said, Rodgers he is not. Smith’s career record of 99−67−1 is more than respectable, as is his career yardage total (37,395) and touchdown tally (213). But those numbers are dwarfed by Rodgers’ – 137 career wins, 56,914 yards and a staggering 457 touchdown passes to only 102 picks.

It is another example of making sure you pick the right guy, ending up on the Manning or Mahomes side of the coin.

Cautionary tales

Sometimes, however, picks can just go spectacularly wrong!

Arguably the greatest example of that is the Oakland Raiders’ selection of JaMarcus Russell with the No 1 pick in the 2007 Draft.

The LSU quarterback kicked off his career immediately on the wrong foot by engaging in a contract holdout until the second week of his rookie season. Then when he did take to the field he was plagued by inconsistent play and questions over his weight and work ethic.

Russell would start just 25 games in three years, which saw him throw for 4,803 yards, 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions, being hailed as one of the biggest draft busts of all time before he disappeared into obscurity.

Other cautionary tales from the past two decades include, Mark Sanchez (No 5, 2009) of ‘butt fumble’ fame (look it up!) and Jameis Winston (No 1, 2015), who became the first quarterback ever to throw more than 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in a single season back in 2019.

There are transcendent college stars who have failed to adapt to pro-style offences, like Tim Tebow (No 25, 2010) and Johnny Manziel (No 22, 2014), and then there are some who have simply been unlucky to land with a dreadful team – Sam Darnold (No 3, 2018), Josh Rosen (No 10, 2018), Blaine Gabbert (No 10, 2011), David Carr (No 1, 2002), Joey Harrington (No 3, 2002) – and have been forever stained since.

What of the 2021 class?

That said, there are also plenty of success stories and first-round quarterbacks still going strong in the league to this day.

As well as Rodgers, there are fellow veterans Ben Roethlisberger (No 11, 2004), Matt Ryan (No 3, 2008), Matthew Stafford (No 1, 2009) and Ryan Tannehill (No 8, 2012). And joining the younger brigade of Mahomes, Allen, Jackson and Murray are 2019 standouts Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert, to name a few.

There are also plenty still battling to prove their worth, keep their starting gig or regain one. Only time will tell which trajectory the likes of Lawrence, Wilson, Lance, Fields and Jones will be on and how the 2021 quarterback draft class will ultimately be remembered.

Coverage of the NFL Draft continues on Sky Sports NFL on Friday and Saturday, with the second and third-round picks taking place on Friday from midnight

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