If you hop onto The Draft Network’s Mock Draft Machine and run an early simulation on the 2021 NFL Draft, you’ll notice that the Jacksonville Jaguars are picking first overall. We set our preseason draft order according to Super Bowl odds, of which the Jaguars share the worst (+25000) with the Washington Redskins.
At that first overall pick, the Jaguars are selecting the player you expect them to: Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Lawrence is currently -300 to go at the first overall selection in 2021, massively favored relative to Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell (+400) and Ohio State QB Justin Fields (+500). Lawrence has been billed in the early stages of his career as a Luck-caliber prospect; truly a once-in-a-decade passer.
If the Jaguars are picking first overall, everything went wrong, and they’ll certainly take Lawrence to begin the next, hopefully fruitful era of their franchise. But when you look at the team’s current roster, you don’t expect quarterback to be the problem.
An exodus of star talent has the Jaguars relying on players like Taven Bryan, Abry Jones, and Rashaan Melvin where they once had Calais Campbell, Marcel Dareus, and Jalen Ramsey. The Jaguars are eating a concerning $37M in dead cap as a result of many veteran cuts and trades, as well as the $18M whopper left behind by Nick Foles’ ill-advised free agency money bomb.
Of course, Foles was replaced during the 2019 season by sixth-round rookie QB Gardner Minshew, and Minshew elevated the team. The starter in all six of the Jaguars’ wins in 2019, Minshew was the most efficient of all the rookie passers last year, with an adjusted net yards/attempt of 6.45 and a 21:6 TD:INT ratio.
Out of Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense at Washington State, Minshew brought to the NFL the traits that made him such an unlikely success story as a one-year starter and graduate transfer. Minshew is a brisk pre-snap processor who understands the limits of his game as circumscribed by his arm strength. The field shrinks for Minshew because he can’t attack tight windows late with extra velocity or downfield throws late with the necessary distance, so he’ll commit to one-on-one shots early and give receivers a chance at deep balls while recognizing when underneath routes are open and quickly distributing for YAC gains.
Minshew’s stats impress and are reflected in the film, but there’s reason to expect some heavy regression. Minshew was the best passer in the NFL on attempts with at least 20 air yards, with a passer rating of 129.0, but only attempted deep passes about 10% of the time. With no deep interceptions and such a small sample size, we should expect Minshew’s deep success to drop back down to the league average, especially if wide receiver D.J. Chark’s contested catch rate regresses as well.
It’s also reasonable to expect Minshew’s deep success to regress because he wasn’t really that accurate of a passer overall. Minshew was the second-worst in the league in NFL Next Gen Stats’ completion over expectation stat, which considers separation, depth of target, and pass rush to define completion expectation. Minshew’s completion percentage adjusted for drops was 32nd in the league, between Eli Manning and Mitchell Trubisky.
With that said, Minshew can function well as a point-guard style quarterback who parses defense quickly and makes smart throws, and as the Jaguars’ offense gets better around him, those plays will become more explosive. Improved receiving weapons beyond Chark, like second-round YAC monster Laviska Shenault, should turn more of Minshew’s shallow throws (7.5 intended air yards, below league average) into positive gains.
Meanwhile, traditional West Coast coordinator Jay Gruden replaces the fired John DeFilippo, who gave Minshew the lowest percentage of play-action pass attempts in the league last year, despite the fact that Minshew’s completion percentage rose by 18.9% and yards/attempt rose by 4.4 when throwing after a play-action fake. Given that Minshew’s a quick processor, it makes sense that he’d be adept at interpreting defenses after dropping his eyes for a play-action fake, and his struggles hitting tight windows are similarly alleviated by misplaced short zone defenders.
Minshew’s best trait, however, remains his pocket management. After his first career start against the Texans in Week 2, here’s what I wrote on Minshew’s ability to manipulate space to buy time, escape pressure, and create outside of structure.
Minshew can and did survive pressure during the Texans game, but what he did more frequently was manage the pocket with expediency and anticipation, negating pressure before it arrived by moving his launch point and ruining pass rushers' angles. His climbing of the pocket had the added bonus of suckering in second-level defenders...with the threat of the run, widening the passing lanes he eventually attacked behind them.
Again, this point returns to mental processing for Minshew. He’s a smart cookie with delightful anticipation, so he feels rush lanes developing and closing before the moves are even made, and can avoid pressures that would have registered as hurries or hits for other passers. Of course, Minshew still takes a healthy amount of hits and sacks, as he’s not an elite athlete and will hang around in the pocket, but when Minshew works the pocket he’s at his best.
Minshew’s rookie season was better than anyone could have hoped for the sixth-round selection, a bit more than a year removed from the third-string job at Alabama and a graduate assistant future. But nothing he did in Year 1 looks like a deterrent for the Jaguars to go chasing Lawrence with that No. 1 overall pick; and, with regression expected for Minshew, nothing he’ll do in Year 2 will be a deterrent either.
But if Minshew is able to hang around his current production levels, do some more good work off of play-action, scamper his way to a couple of wins, he won’t so much prove a better option than Lawrence than he will price the Jaguars out of the pick. Minshew’s ceiling in the NFL is low, but it is high enough that he could drag the franchise into the purgatory only known by middling, fringe-starter quarterbacks who aren’t bad enough to give you an early pick for a potential star, but not good enough to consistently churn out winning seasons.
The Jaguars must be careful with Minshew. If he is the quarterback of the future, he’ll prove it this year—but his career arc is that of a Derek Carr or Andy Dalton, and no more. Allowing Minshew to play out this year at that level, win games at that level, is implicitly tethering yourself to his eventual outcome. It’s jumping out of the plane with a skydiving partner: by the time you realize this might be a bad idea, you’re already strapped together and plummeting down to earth.
So the Jaguars are the running favorite to grab Lawrence next year, and as such, what seemed like such good fortune last year might be the worst news for this year. Minshew is a fully-functional NFL quarterback, and while his rookie year may have been a blaze of glory that he never repeats, his backup-level play could win the Jaguars more games than they bargained for in 2020.