First-round QB update: Bill Belichick admits Mac Jones has good opportunity in front of him

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We’ve now seen multiple preseason performances from each of the five first-round quarterbacks in 2021. Their body of work been pretty eye-opening to say the least.

All five theoretically could start Week 1, although the Chicago Bears appear poised to start veteran Andy Dalton over Justin Fields initially. Less clear are the situations in New England and San Francisco.

But with fantasy, handicapping and real-football implications at stake with all five, we thought we’d update you on where the quintet stands with a little more than two weeks remaining until the start of the regular season.

Mac Jones

New England Patriots

For weeks now, we’ve heard that this is a real QB battle between Cam Newton and Jones. Both have done some really good things this summer, too. That’s the good news.

But a recent development has changed the landscape in a big way. Newton now is in the COVID protocol for what appears to be an unintentional misstep. Even so, this opens the door for Jones to potentially seize the starting gig in the next few days. 

In fact, Bill Belichick was asked Tuesday point-blank if this is a good opportunity for Jones. "It is," the normally stoic coach answered, per NFL Network's Michael Girardi.

Newton will miss the joint practices with the Giants this week and return Thursday, Belichick said. How damaging might this absence be? That’s the loaded question.

Belichick has never started a rookie QB Week 1 as a head coach. Newton still could be the de facto starter early in the season, starting with the opener against the Miami Dolphins. But this recent snafu regarding the COVID rules and traveling could be enough to annoy the Patriots and pivot to Jones.

There’s also the possibility of a two-QB rotation. Belichick won’t rule out that possibility.

Jones reportedly has had a few ugly days of practice. But on the whole, the returns have been largely encouraging. Through two preseason games, Jones has completed 26 of 38 passes for 233 yards with no TDs, no INTs and one sack taken.

Now Jones will get the bulk of the snaps this week in practice and could tally a lot more in the preseason finale. It’s not clear how the Patriots will handle Newton’s return because Belichick isn’t going to tell us such things.

Newton hasn’t been a slouch in the games, completing 12 of 16 passes for 152 yards, with a 28-yard TD pass. He was especially sharp in the rout of the Eagles.

But Belichick likely won’t tip his hand as to who will start the opener against Miami and old friend Brian Flores. Suddenly, the odds of it being Jones are higher than they were even a week ago, even if Newton might still be the favorite.

With Cam Newton out the next few practices, Mac Jones has a good opportunity to gain ground in the Patriots' quarterback battle. Just ask Bill Belichick. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
With Cam Newton out the next few practices, Mac Jones has a good opportunity to gain ground in the Patriots' quarterback battle. Just ask Bill Belichick. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

Trevor Lawrence

Jacksonville Jaguars

With a theoretical “battle” for the starting QB job going on with Gardner Minshew, Lawrence received one half worth of snaps Monday night against the New Orleans Saints. That workload alone should indicate who will be starting the opener against the Houston Texans.

But it’s also clear that Lawrence and the Jaguars are in search of an offensive identity right now, with one more preseason game remaining.

The first overall pick had a so-so debut against the Cleveland Browns, completing 6 of his 9 passes for 71 yards, including a 35-year beauty to Marvin Jones. But Lawrence also took two sacks and nearly coughed up a fumble.

On Monday, he got nothing going on his first four series before leading two drives deep into Saints territory. Lawrence finished the game completing 14 of 23 passes for 113 yards and one sack.

Lawrence often threw short and late and didn't do much deep; his longest completion was 18 yards. The Saints knocked away at least three Lawrence and pressured him on nearly every snap. Although he got some rhythm going on his final drive of the half, Lawrence took a sack to make it a longer field-goal try (which doinked off the upright).

It wasn't all disappointing. In one particularly impressive moment, Lawrence called a timeout when Laviska Shenault was lined up incorrectly. Lawrence handled it like it was a regular season situation. Score one for the quick-study rookie.

But a few plays later, Lawrence might have given Urban Meyer a worry when the QB launched himself headfirst in the air to gain a first down. This is where the regular season method acting should cease.

Right now it’s clear the Jaguars are in the process of discovering what works and what doesn’t. Sadly, the latter is the longer list right now. Pass protection looked to be a big concern, especially on the edges, for Jacksonville. Lawrence might have been hit more in two preseason games than he was in the 2020 regular season at Clemson.

Lawrence is the big betting favorite at BetMGM for Offensive Rookie of the Year at +325, and we understand why that’s the case. But with every other first-round QB at +700 or better, and knowing it’s a QB-heavy award these days, the value might be with the other four. 

Lawrence and the Jags are in search of an identity right now, and there's more pressure on him to perform early than we feel there is for any other rookie quarterback.

Zach Wilson

New York Jets

Like Lawrence, Wilson was 6 for 9 passing in his preseason debut. But it was a downright tame outing compared to his next effort this past weekend against the Packers.

The QB picked one slot after Lawrence made some truly hair-raising throws in the 23-14 win at Lambeau Field, even if Green Bay didn’t have its starting defenders on the field. Wilson completed 9 of 11 passes for 128 yards, with two touchdowns (both to Tyler Kroft), no interceptions and a QB rating of 154.7. It’s not a stretch to say that it represented a big step up from his first game.

What made Wilson’s performance impressive was how decisive he was. Even when there was pressure, Wilson found ways to conjure up some magic.

Although his practice performances have been somewhat up and down, according to reports, it’s the game Wilson delivered at Green Bay that should give Jets fans real hope.

We expect some growing pains and maybe even a few downright ugly games this season as the Jets' expected Week 1 starter. But there could be enough high notes to give Wilson some buzz heading into the 2022 offseason.

According to Pro Football Focus, Wilson leads all rookies in the preseason in big-time throw percentage (9.1%); turnover-worthy play percentage (0.0%); sack percentage (0.0%); yards per attempt (9.2); completion percentage (77.3%); and average time to throw (2.5 seconds).

Is Wilson worth a long-shot play for OROY at +1000? You figure he’s in line to get 17 starts, barring injury, and he plays in New York. If the kid does anything spectacular, he’ll be on billboards before we know it.

The Jets have never had a Rookie of the Year QB. They’ve had one Pro Bowl QB season (Brett Favre in 2008) since 1998. The hype would be out of control, and that could be the tiebreaker Wilson needs to edge out a crowded rookie field.

A small play on this perhaps? To that we say … why not?

Trey Lance

San Francisco 49ers

The Lance bandwagon was running out of seats after his preseason debut. A few might have hopped off early in his second exhibition outing, but they no doubt came running back after seeing how Lance picked himself up in that game.

Neither of Lance’s outings have been boring. Or consistent, for that matter.

The No. 3 overall pick ripped an 80-yard TD pass on his second throw in the opener but then completed only four of his next 12 passes and took three sacks in that span (four in the game).

In the second preseason game, it was the other way around: a slow start (1 for 5 passing, 9 yards, INT, sack) followed by a hot finish (7 of 9 passing, 93 yards, two TDs).

Lance’s talent has shown out. His lack of full-time readiness also is notable. It has been a bit of a dizzying few weeks.

The feeling here is that Jimmy Garoppolo is your Week 1 starter. But seeing Lance receive some playing time — not unlike what the 49ers eventually did with Colin Kaepernick when Alex Smith was starting — as part of some designed packages wouldn’t be stunning.

Lance has received limited snaps with the 49ers’ first-team offense, both in practice and the preseason games. But he’s receiving more, it appears. His time is coming for sure. It just feels like a Week 1 start is a stretch at this point, even if Garoppolo hasn’t been great in his brief game outings.

Justin Fields

Chicago Bears

Justin Fields has stood out for the Chicago Bears this preseason but likely will be on the bench come Week 1. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Justin Fields has stood out for the Chicago Bears this preseason but likely will be on the bench come Week 1. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Matt Nagy has steadfastly said Andy Dalton is the Bears’ Week 1 starter. Nagy said it the night the Bears traded up for Fields, and he’s stuck with that story into August. Dalton will sit out the preseason finale, which Fields will start and reportedly will play about one half.

Expect Dalton out there against the Rams in Los Angeles in Week 1. After that, Fields Watch begins. Barring a total trainwreck (or one frightening Aaron Donald collision) in the opener, Dalton might also get Week 2 at home against his former Bengals team.

But if Dalton struggles early in that one, woo boy …

Fields had to show some veteran poise in imploring Bears fans not to boo Dalton while he’s at work, but that might be the one thing the rookie says that will fall on some deaf ears.

The truth is that, yes, Fields has looked far more exciting and electric than Dalton has, and that’s not at all shocking. But it’s not as if Fields has seen a ton of reps with the first-team offense or faced a first-string defense in the preseason.

We’re huge Fields fans and believe his best is yet to come. He’s been very exciting in the preseason with some rookie moments. Taking that brutal hit Saturday against the Bills might not be his fault, per se, as it looked like an issue in slide protection. But Fields also needs to expect the unexpected a little better. Little things that could turn to big things.

Fields has made more splash plays than Dalton, has played turnover-free ball and leads the Bears in rushing yards (79 yards and a TD on nine carries) in two preseason games. But the Bears have a plan to hold him back for now.

Is it the right call?

Whatever the case, we're still quite tempted to get some action on Fields at +700 for Offensive Rookie of the Year. It would not be stunning in a 17-game regular season to have Fields earn, say, 13 or 14 starts and still be in the running for the award if he plays well in that span.

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