Gene Frenette: Trevor Lawrence got free pass as a Jaguars rookie, but those days are over

Expectations to deliver on his massive pre-draft hype will ratchet up significantly in his second season for Jaguars' quarterback Trevor Lawrence, seen here warming up Monday to start training camp,
Expectations to deliver on his massive pre-draft hype will ratchet up significantly in his second season for Jaguars' quarterback Trevor Lawrence, seen here warming up Monday to start training camp,

When Trevor Lawrence was voted recipient of the Good Guy award in December — presented annually by the Jaguars’ media to a player who is most cooperative and congenial with the local press — he expressed in his acceptance speech an appreciation for the fourth estate going easy on him during a tumultuous rookie season.

Now that Year 2 is in full swing with the Monday start to training camp, he knows there’ll be no such exemption.

Two Lawrence honeymoon periods, both his real-life one with wife Marissa last April and the scant criticism he received for underachieving on the field in 2021, are now over.

Realistically, it’s not like the 22-year-old golden boy will be subjected to a hail of media daggers this season whenever he throws an untimely pick in a real game or fails to lead a game-winning drive. But Lawrence will never again have the forgiveness factor in the same quantity that he had as a rookie.

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All those mulligans he got last season — mostly because the Urban Meyer drama and his head coach’s general incompetence shielded him from a ton of blame for a 3-14 record — will be greatly diminished.

Not that he spends one moment fretting over media criticism, which is a good thing because Trevor’s focus should be entirely on getting the Jaguars off the hamster wheel of sustained losing.

Besides, you can’t be an NFL starting quarterback, never mind a No. 1 overall pick, and think the spotlight isn’t going to intensify if the franchise fails to produce a significant turnaround in 2022.

“Yeah, I don’t really care,” Lawrence said on potential criticism if the Jaguars falter in 2022. “I’m not planning on having a bad year, so that wouldn’t matter to me. You guys do what you want. I’ll always treat you guys with respect. . . . Yeah, I’m not really worried about it.”

It’s absolutely the right mindset for Lawrence, who handled an abundance of low points last year with class and professionalism, especially for someone so young being thrown into the chaos of Meyer being fired 13 games into his tenure.

No excuses for putrid offense

The circumstances surrounding Lawrence, at least on paper, are much different now. The Jaguars bought themselves a much better roster in free agency, shelling out a record $259.5 million on seven likely starters that include receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones, five-time Pro Bowl guard Brandon Scherff and tight end Evan Engram. They also acquired another No. 1 draft pick in pass-rusher Travon Walker and traded up for first-round linebacker Devin Lloyd.

This is a respectable, developing roster. Barring a catastrophic injury epidemic, it’d be almost impossible for the Jaguars to not put out a significantly better product.

The absolute floor for the Jaguars should be doubling last year’s win total, with seven or eight wins plenty doable, albeit going against the QB-loaded AFC West is a daunting obstacle.

Still, with Lawrence having the benefit of a full year starting experience and a massive roster upgrade, it’s time for No. 16 to demonstrate he’s the generational talent everyone hyped him to be.

How can the bar not be raised from these deplorable numbers? Beyond Lawrence’s touchdown-interception ratio of 12 to 17, which is not all that unusual for a rookie quarterback, he can’t have a nine-game stretch in 2022 of throwing only two TD passes or 11 games below a 75.0 QB rating.

The Jaguars’ franchise-low 14.9 points per game last year should be a minimum touchdown better, along with a serious reduction in going 39.5 percent of possessions (62 of 157) without a first down.

And for the love of Jedd Fisch, if the Jaguars get a first-and-goal at the Jets’ 5 with the game on the line this year, the offense better find the end zone.

Beyond all player upgrades around Lawrence, he also has a head coach in Doug Pederson who spent a decade as an NFL quarterback and has the experience of navigating a Super Bowl championship season (2017) as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.

“I think building off of last year, the fact that [Lawrence] played the entire season, we can build off that and really expect a sky’s-the-limit mentality with him,” said Pederson.

Frankly, why should there be any kind of Trevor ceiling? He’s competing in a ho-hum AFC South division where it’s conceivable he could be the best quarterback by the end of 2022, despite Matt Ryan (Indianapolis Colts), Ryan Tannehill (Tennessee Titans) and Davis Mills (Houston Texans) having a combined 12-2 career record against the Jaguars.

Primed for Year 2 takeoff

Besides all the meaningful improvements around Lawrence, there’s another reason Jaguars fans should expect to see a significant uptick in his performance: Year 2 is usually a sweet spot for established NFL quarterbacks.

Virtually every proven or entrenched AFC starter — Patrick Mahomes (Kansas City), Josh Allen (Buffalo), Derek Carr (Las Vegas), Deshaun Watson (Cleveland), Lamar Jackson (Baltimore) and Joe Burrow (Cincinnati) — made huge strides in their second season. And the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert, who was 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year, validated his excellence last season.

None of those quarterbacks, including No. 1 pick Burrow, came into the league with anywhere near the buildup of Lawrence, who was compared to the likes of Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck in terms of expectations.

When a question about Lawrence was framed in that context, that he would ascend in his second season like so many other young QBs, Pederson seemed reluctant to go there.

“I don’t like to compare that [him to other quarterbacks], as much as him, working with Trevor, getting him where he needs to be,” said Pederson. “Again, it’s an exciting time for him, us as a staff, to really embrace him and the team and all the pieces we have around him.”

Since it was the first day of camp, that remark had all the makings of an NFL head coach wanting to tap the brakes on anticipating a Trevor breakout season.

But since Lawrence fully expects to do just that, then it’s fair for everyone monitoring his progress to think he can, and should, deliver on his self-belief. That confidence includes Trevor’s assessment that he’s throwing the ball better than ever.

“Individually, personally, I want to prove that I belong here and that I’m the player I believe I am, that the organization believes I am,” Lawrence said. “As a team, I think we have a lot to prove. We didn’t have a great season last year, and I know the guys in this locker room are ready to prove some stuff this year.

“That motivation and just having this new opportunity, having a clean slate, everybody starts at the bottom and having your chance to work your way up. That’s the special opportunity we got this year. We’ve got a good enough team to win as many games as we want to.”

For the first time in his football life, Lawrence is on a comeback trail. He wants to show that 2021 was an anomaly that will soon be rectified.

And if that doesn’t happen this year with a better surrounding cast, then there’s naturally going to be questions about whether Trevor Lawrence can live up to his advance billing.

Free passes, even for NFL quarterbacks who are quality human beings, don’t last forever. (904) 359-4540   

Gene Frenette Sports columnist at Florida Times-Union, follow him on Twitter @genefrenette

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Trevor Lawrence must live up to pre-draft hype for Jaguars