Need a quarterback? Think twice as Mac Jones trade stamps 2021 NFL draft as costly warning

The 1983 NFL draft has long served as the benchmark for quarterback bumper crops.

Six passers were taken in the first round, and three (John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino) wound up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Heck, Gary Kubiak went in Round 8 – yes, the draft extended to 12 rounds way back when – and served as Elway’s highly reliable backup for nearly a decade before eventually morphing into a Super Bowl-winning head coach for their Denver Broncos in 2015.

This year’s pre-draft buzz is already swelling with the possibility that 2024 could feature another half-dozen Round 1 passers – USC’s Caleb Williams, LSU’s Jayden Daniels, North Carolina’s Drake Maye, Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy, Oregon’s Bo Nix and Washington’s Michael Penix each displaying the production and/or potential to be considered a franchise quarterback.

Yet Sunday served as a reminder – the latest reminder – of what ought to be a mantra for personnel executives, i.e. Don’t Believe the Hype when it comes to QBs untested by the NFL crucible. That’s because news emerged that the New England Patriots will trade Mac Jones, a deal that can’t become official until the new league year commences Wednesday afternoon, to the Jacksonville Jaguars – a development that further cements the 2021 draft as perhaps the most disappointing ever from the quarterbacking perspective.

A quick review of the protagonists:

Jacksonville Jaguars’ Trevor Lawrence (drafted 1st overall in 2021)

Labeled a generational prospect almost from the moment he set foot on Clemson’s campus in 2018, it was a virtual fait accompli that he’d be the draft’s top pick whenever he decided to enter it. The Jags promptly wasted Lawrence’s rookie year by hiring Urban Meyer as their head coach. But he bounced back to become a Pro Bowl alternate in 2022 after leading Jacksonville to a surprise AFC South crown and comeback victory over the Los Angeles Chargers in the wild-card round of that season’s playoffs.

However Lawrence regressed in 2023, albeit battling myriad injuries, and has yet to show he’s ready to rise beyond the borderline between the league’s second- and third-tier QB1s. His supposed generational arc has been flatter than that of Elway, Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck at similar points in their careers. And now the Jaguars have decided that they need to upgrade the depth chart behind Lawrence, who – even if he winds up ultimately flourishing as expected – probably won’t ever be able to compensate for the overall failure of his draft mates.

New York Jets’ Zach Wilson (drafted 2nd overall)

New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson (2) shakes hands with New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10) after an NFL football game on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger) ORG XMIT: NYOTK
New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson (2) shakes hands with New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones (10) after an NFL football game on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger) ORG XMIT: NYOTK

Gang Green perhaps prematurely ended the Sam Darnold era to select Wilson and, not three years later, is perhaps belatedly ending Wilson’s tenure after GM Joe Douglas – he traded for four-time MVP Aaron Rodgers in 2023 – announced during the scouting combine that he had given Wilson permission to seek a trade.

Statistically, the former BYU star – he dominated the 2021 pro day circuit, much to the Jets’ chagrin – has been at or near the bottom of the barrel during his three-year NFL career among qualified passers: 12-21 record, 57.0% completion rate, 73.2 passer rating with 23 TD passes and 34 turnovers in 34 appearances. The Jets may struggle to even recoup the late-round draft pick the Pats will get for Jones.

Trey Lance (drafted 3rd overall)

The San Francisco 49ers sent the Miami Dolphins four selections (three of them first-rounders) to get into position for Lance … whom they gave up on last summer, sending him to the Dallas Cowboys after four NFL starts for a Round 4 choice amid casting their lot with 2022’s "Mr. Irrelevant," seventh-rounder Brock Purdy. Lance remains a largely unknown commodity who’s unlikely to ever supplant Dak Prescott, the league’s 2023 MVP runner-up.

Chicago Bears’ Justin Fields (drafted 11th overall)

The club's previous regime traded up nine spots to get him. The new front office has sent every signal it's willing to unload Fields, though it doesn’t appear a robust market has coalesced around him … at least not yet. In Fields’ defense, he has shown steady improvement during his three seasons – often electrifying on the move, incrementally more dangerous as a passer – despite being saddled with a generally underwhelming supporting cast, particularly in his first two campaigns. He still has a legit shot to be the face of a franchise … but almost certainly not in the Windy City.

Mac Jones (drafted 15th overall)

Like Lawrence, he’s been a Pro Bowl alternate. Once. Unlike anyone else, he’s led the Patriots to the playoffs – also once – in the post-Tom Brady era. But it’s been all downhill for Jones since that 47-17 wild-card loss at Buffalo concluded his rookie season. He’s been undermined by a carousel of (alleged) offensive coaches and lack of weapons. But, like Wilson, Jones has shown little ability to raise his teammates’ level of play even when the burden wasn’t especially onerous given the presence of an elite defense. Maybe a reset in Jacksonville, his hometown, proves beneficial … but that’s rarely how things go in this league.

And it’s rare that drafts supposedly packed with field generals wind up producing much more than a reliable colonel or two. It’s something current Chicago GM Ryan Poles, who’s seemingly banking on Williams to be his Elway, and (especially) his colleagues – as they try to avoid a Ken O’Brien, Todd Blackledge, Tony Eason or a 2021 washout – would be wise to remember.

Forty-one years ago, teams didn’t reach nearly as much for quarterbacks – only Elway and Blackledge (7th to the Kansas City Chiefs) went in the top 10. Marino nearly dropped out of the first round entirely (though the "reasons" for that are a tale for some other time).

Nowadays, quarterbacks get pushed up the board – frequently by artificial demand as clubs seek talent at a relative discount by the position’s veteran compensation standard. In 2021, that meant less-than Fortune 500 commodities such as Wilson and Lance were called before future perennial Pro Bowlers like Ja’Marr Chase, Penei Sewell, Patrick Surtain II and Micah Parsons, not to mention highly capable wideouts like Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith.

Virtually no one – aside from Fields, his family and a healthy chunk of Bears backers – is going to second-guess Poles for taking Williams. But subsequent squads, even those in need of quarterbacks, better be sure the opportunity cost is worth a shot at a Marvin Harrison Jr., Rome Odunze, Brock Bowers, Joe Alt, Dallas Turner or others in what's shaping up as a blue-chip bonanza of wideouts, blockers and corners.

Run by cagey football entrepreneurs John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan, the Niners were sufficiently endowed to survive getting fooled by a hot IPO like Lance ... before wisely earmarking a touch of VC into Purdy. But three years after the fact, it’s fair to say the Jaguars, Jets, Bears and Patriots find their portfolios well behind the schedules they anticipated in 2021 – the NYJ hoping to be salvaged by 40-year-old Rodgers, and Chicago only in position to recover because Poles won the lottery by dealing last year’s No. 1 pick to the even more desperate Carolina Panthers in another quarterback gamble (Bryce Young) with poor ROI to date.

So be careful what (or whom) you wish for … because it might just be an overpriced backup who sets your franchise back a half-decade or more.


Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on X, formerly Twitter @ByNateDavis.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mac Jones trade before free agency stamps 2021 NFL draft as QBs' worst