NFL QB Rookie Rankings: Jones runs it up on New York while Fields struggles to survive against Buccaneers

The NFL QB Rookie Rankings are taking a break for a week. Only two first-round rookies played in Week 7. Let's dive into Jones and Fields.

The rookie QB play in the NFL has been ugly in 2021. With only two rookies seeing significant time in Week 7, it didn’t feel right to do a numerical ranking of their performances. Instead, we’ll do a deep dive on both of them. We’ll look at how they’ve played and add in the context of their situations to project their short and long-term futures.

NFL QB Rookie Rankings Week 8

First, we’ll discuss the Patriots’ offense and how it’s both helped and hurt Mac Jones so far in his young career. We’ll also try to decipher whether Jones’s success is sustainable in the long term.

Mac Jones

No one besides Jones can wear the crown as the best rookie QB among the 2021 class. His accuracy and seamless processing allow him to run New England’s passing attack efficiently. Jones’ game reminds me of a more cerebral and naturally accurate Jimmy Garoppolo, just with less juice in his right arm.

What Jones has shown so far

No matter where you look for your advanced metrics, accuracy is not something Jones has struggled with as a rookie. The other quarterbacks from his class were accurate in college but are having trouble early on at the next level. We talked about that a bit last week with Trevor Lawrence.

Jones ranks seventh in CPOE (Completion Percentage Over Expected), according to NextGen Stats and the Athletic’s Ben Baldwin. But the numbers vary because Baldwin’s data accounts for throwaways. Either way, it’s clear Jones has been one of the more accurate QBs in the entire NFL, not just among rookies.

However, NextGen provides some excellent context. Let’s compare Jones to Dak Prescott, who currently holds top-three odds in the 2021 NFL MVP race.

Prescott’s intended air yards are 7.9 compared to Jones’ 7.6. So, why is Prescott perceived as more of a downfield passer than Jones?

Well, because despite their almost identical air yards, Dak and Mac’s average completed air yards differ significantly. Prescott averages 6.1 yards completed while Jones sits at 5.2. That doesn’t seem like a massive difference, but that is a big chunk throughout hundreds of attempts.

Jones has made some great rhythm throws downfield in 2021. Still, his downfield passing has been a struggle overall, particularly compared to Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson.

Due to his lack of arm strength, Jones will always have a smaller margin for error than his peers. But as Joe Burrow has shown in his sophomore season, incredible arm strength is not a prerequisite for NFL success. If a few things change for Jones, his fortunes as a downfield passer may improve.

Is the boring playstyle sustainable?

I think it is, but the Patriots’ roster isn’t constructed adequately for it. If N’Keal Harry was actually the player some thought he was coming out of Arizona State, then Jones and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would have a weapon on their hands. Unfortunately, that hasn’t come to fruition.

Week to week, McDaniels can game plan against defenses, finding spots to attack in the short and intermediate areas. New England’s screen game is already good, and Jones’ ball-handling is a massive addition to their screen and play-action game.

This is a personnel issue. Among the NFL’s rookie QBs, Jones has the fewest personnel issues — but not by much. As was the case in 2020, the Patriots simply don’t have any juice at receiver. They need to find some natural separators and a few YAC monsters that can create plays. For a few weeks now, I’ve said that New England’s offense can move the ball, but they lack explosion. Their 12th-ranked success rate and 18th-best EPA/play (Expected Points Added) lead me to believe what my eyes saw on tape.

The Patriots are 13th in the NFL at picking up first downs and touchdowns, doing so on 73% of their series. Reinventing their personnel could improve those figures, much as the 49ers have after adding players like Deebo Samuel and George Kittle.

So, is Jones sustainable? Yes, if you build around him properly, he can survive.

Hunting the good stuff

I understand this has read negatively. I have my reservations about a quarterback with a barely acceptable arm and lackluster athletic ability.

However, Jones has shown more mobility and ability to create than he ever did at Alabama. In 2020, I charted only 9 of his collegiate passing attempts as coming outside of the pocket, a low number nobody else came even close to matching. He’s used his legs well as a rookie, and he very clearly understands the type of runway he needs to pick up yards on the ground, which is a testament to his mental acuity.

Jones has also shown good lateral movement and pressure awareness to buy time within the pocket. He’s easily the most developed of the rookie QBs in the NFL in this area. That ability –along with playing behind a good offensive line — allows him to go through full-field progressions before finding his eventual checkdown if no pass catcher separates.

Get Jones a dude or two on the outside, and New England’s offense will evolve. Until then, they’ll win by unassumingly moving the football down the field and avoiding mistakes.

Justin Fields

Getting blindsided by a blitzing safety on the first play of the game against the defending Super Bowl champions can’t put a player — especially a rookie quarterback — in a good headspace for the next 59 minutes of football. Things spiraled from there.

Justin Fields was sacked 4 times, but he was under siege for the entire contest. It was a struggle from the start for Chicago’s offense, and things didn’t improve throughout the game.

The Bears were going to be consistent in Week 7. Not with how poorly the right side of the offensive line performed throughout the game. Couple those struggles with the interior presence of Vita Vea and company, and Fields and the passing attack never stood a chance.

But when the situation wasn’t a complete warzone, Fields made multiple plays indicative of a future franchise quarterback. He was the most naturally accurate of the quarterbacks from the 2021 draft class, and it shows when he’s kept clean.

Separating the player from the situation

Situation is the single most crucial indicator of immediate success for quarterbacks at the NFL level. Jones has played well in good situations, but he could be even more productive if New England had the personnel to supplement his strengths.

Meanwhile, Fields is in the worst situation among the rookie QBs drafted in Round 1 of the 2021 NFL Draft. Chicago’s offensive line has sped past the spike strips and off the cliff. But even with the world crashing around him, Fields never seemed to panic to the point of paralysis.

In fact, he’s played well when kept clean. He isn’t the processor Jones is in the quick passing attack, but that’s because it’s relatively new to him. Fields played in a downfield attack at Ohio State. In empty formations, he’s shown flashes of getting the ball out quickly and understanding when he needs to get the ball out NOW. But it’s certainly not one of his strengths.

Fields doesn’t currently have a great feel for pressure, either. However, neither did Prescott when he was taking 50+ sacks in a season early in his career. In one offseason, Prescott fixed that issue and cut his sacks in half.

The Bears don’t have a first-round pick in 2022 after trading up to secure Fields. They must get creative to rebuild their abomination of an offensive line. But fans must be patient and — dare I say — trust the process with Fields.

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