Please never let me overrate the importance of the preseason for rookie quarterbacks again.
While this year's quintet of first-round picks swam with ease in smooth August waters, the group has flailed its way through September. Trey Lance enjoyed the best Week 3 by playing just three snaps. This shouldn't be that much of a surprise, but the regular-season level of difficulty for Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields and Mac Jones has been a cold splash of water to the face.
Nine years ago, I started this column as a yearlong examination of the five hyped rookie starters of 2012: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden and Russell Wilson. Nick Foles also eventually joined the party. It's striking to look back and see those rookies in better situations, finding success earlier.
Nowadays, rookie quarterbacks are supposedly more prepared for the NFL than ever before. League trends and rules all make passing easier. That sounds great until you examine the 11 rookie starts thus far (including one by third-rounder Davis Mills) and realize the best overall game was probably Jones' Week 1 outing ... in which the Patriots scored one touchdown.
In the big picture, there is no need to panic. I'm writing this ahead of Week 4 to establish how low the baseline is thus far. There will be better days ahead for Lawrence, Wilson, Fields, Jones and eventually Lance. But in this moment, these fresh-faced signal-callers have a long way to travel before matching the rookie exploits of that 2012 class, much less what Justin Herbert accomplished last year.
While it's early, the 11 rookie starts are a far better indicator of how the rest of the season plays out than a handful of preseason series. It's almost as if NFL quarterbacking is hard.
NOTE: Up/down arrows illustrate movement from the Week 3 QB Index. Rankings reflect each quarterback's standing heading into Week 4.
2021 stats: 3 games | 68.8 pct | 1,087 pass yds | 7.7 ypa | 10 pass TD | 2 INT | 20 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 2 fumbles
It's preposterous that throwing for 432 yards against a top defense feels like an off week for Brady. The Rams slowed the 44-year-old down by taking away Tampa's preferred deep throws and pressuring up the middle with L.A.'s own all-time great. A few ill-timed Gronk drops didn't help, either.
2021 stats: 3 games | 77.5 pct | 878 pass yds | 7.9 ypa | 6 pass TD | 2 INT | 19 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 4 fumbles
He's in total control. Forcing this Dallas offense to punt has been an uphill climb for three straight weeks, with Dak the master of all he surveys. The Cowboys have shown versatility while playing three types of games, adapting well with a veteran offense boasting explosive talent and rare continuity. Listening to Peyton and Eli on Monday night, you heard the honest appreciation of kindred spirits recognizing another pre-snap legend. Dak has picked up where he left off last season, except this time he has a healthy offensive line and a frisky defense.
2021 stats: 3 games | 64.7 pct | 1,203 pass yds | 8.9 ypa | 6 pass TD | 2 INT | 13 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 3 fumbles
The craziest part of Carr's scorching start is that he's playing behind perhaps the worst offensive line with the worst running game of his career. A great quarterback elevates others, and Carr is combining savvy decisions with more Big-Time Throws than anyone else, per Pro Football Focus. When there's miscommunication on the Raiders' offense -- such as on Carr's pick-six last week -- I now assume it was the receiver's fault. Carr is seeing the field so clearly.
2021 stats: 3 games | 70.2 pct | 942 pass yds | 10.0 ypa | 9 pass TD | 1 INT | -6 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 0 fumbles
It's wild how easy Stafford and Sean McVay are making this look. No top quarterback combines Stafford's overall lack of dropbacks and lack of pressure with such a high completion percentage on big throws. Give L.A.'s front office credit for sticking with this offensive line when many wanted offseason upgrades. The Rams' offense is ruthlessly efficient -- and they still haven't unfurled so much of what they can do.
2021 stats: 3 games | 68.2 pct | 649 pass yds | 7.4 ypa | 6 pass TD | 2 INT | 6 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 0 fumbles
The numbers don't fully show it, but Sunday night's performance against the 49ers was Peak Rodgers, from his first dart to Allen Lazard to the deceptively difficult, desperation-drive-starting shot to Davante Adams. If defenses keep playing two deep safeties against Rodgers, he will RPO them to death.
2021 stats: 3 games | 70.3 pct | 940 pass yds | 8.5 ypa | 9 pass TD | 3 INT | 66 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 0 fumbles
Brandon Staley's Chargers defense limited Mahomes to 260 yards on 44 throws by allowing the underneath stuff. As great as the raw numbers above look, Mahomes has hurt the Chiefs with impatient interceptions late in the fourth quarter of back-to-back losses. The mix of those mistakes, a lack of Mahomes' usual Big-Time Throws and some long, slow Chiefs scoring marches has made Kansas City's offense look briefly defensible. This usually doesn't last.
2021 stats: 3 games | 69.8 pct | 956 pass yds | 7.6 ypa | 6 pass TD | 3 INT | 27 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 1 fumble
Herbert's ability to change his arm angle and deliver rocket shots can overshadow his incredible accuracy. I love that he knows how to take heat off when necessary, like on the 16-yard back-shoulder toss to Mike Williams in the red zone, setting up the Chargers' game-winning score. I love that he can throw rolling left so well. I don't love three touchdowns overturned by penalties in two weeks, but I do agree with Bolts coach Brandon Staley: Herbert is a gangster.
2021 stats: 3 games | 60.9 pct | 761 pass yds | 8.8 ypa | 3 pass TD | 3 INT | 251 rush yds | 2 rush TD | 4 fumbles
You could write an action-packed book about Lamar's start to the season. Every game ending -- seemingly every play -- is crazy. The high-level throws have been more abundant, especially in Detroit. He's been too loose with the ball, but just marinate for a minute on the fact that the same man leads the NFL in yards per completion and yards per carry. Jackson is also fourth in the league in rushing, carrying his franchise more than ever.
2021 stats: 3 games | 76.5 pct | 1,005 pass yds | 9.9 ypa | 7 pass TD | 4 INT | 70 rush yds | 3 rush TD | 0 fumbles
Cardinals opponents are playing zone and forcing Murray to hit throws up the seams, which was a struggle in the past. He's pulling it off with aplomb now, playing with a calm befitting of a man who is doing Yoga as a touchdown celebration. The separation between Murray and No. 1 on this list is not huge, but his weekly YOLO interception groaner knocks him down such a stacked top tier.
2021 stats: 3 games | 73.9 pct | 918 pass yds | 7.7 ypa | 8 pass TD | 0 INT | 37 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 2 fumbles
Wess recognized before anyone except Kyle Shanahan that Peak Kirk Cousins was not to be trifled with. A strangely streaky shooter, Cousins is tough to stop when in rhythm. The Vikings are allowing him to dictate the action more before the snap, using more 11 personnel and less play-action. It's as if they are letting him graduate to a higher level of quarterbacking. In a normal season, this stretch of play would have him in the top five of this list.
2021 stats: 3 games | 73.3 pct | 895 pass yds | 10.4 ypa | 7 pass TD | 0 INT | 32 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 0 fumbles
There's no question Wilson has played efficient, mistake-free football. It feels bizarre for a player with the raw stats above to be anywhere out of the top five. But my perspective that Wilson hasn't lit up the skies on a down-to-down basis quite as much as the players above is supported by him ranking 14th in PFF's grades, 15th in QBR and 15th in EPA/play. The Seahawks' passing game is playing well enough, but they need their defense to get off the field.
2021 stats: 3 games | 62.2 pct | 807 pass yds | 6.4 ypa | 7 pass TD | 1 INT | 88 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 2 fumbles
When Allen is at his best, like on Sunday, he can seem like a quarterback created in a lab. There is no defense for his deep throws on rollouts. Emmanuel Sanders is proving to be an upgrade on John Brown, and the Bills' offensive line has played better each week. Allen is only this low because he had two relatively down weeks out of three and the top of the position is outrageously good.
2021 stats: 3 games | 64.7 pct | 756 pass yds | 7.4 ypa | 4 pass TD | 3 INT | 100 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 3 fumbles
The Titans' offense has been uneven. Now the unit could be missing A.J. Brown and Julio Jones on Sunday. Tannehill has been forced to escape pressure and run more often, something he does with increasing effectiveness. I wonder if more turnovers will pop up because there are fewer easy throws in this attack.
2021 stats: 3 games | 73.8 pct | 780 pass yds | 9.8 ypa | 2 pass TD | 2 INT | 48 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 1 fumble
It's remarkable how consistent Mayfield is each week. To wit, last Sunday's win over the Bears included a surprising amount of struggles against pressure, and the quarterback has already taken nine sacks on the season. Is this Sunday's visit to Minnesota a chance for Baker to face his future self in Kirk Cousins?
2021 stats: 3 games | 76.8 pct | 827 pass yds | 8.7 ypa | 4 pass TD | 0 INT | 44 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 0 fumbles
Teddy has long had the reputation of a caretaker, but he is truly channeling Alex Smith in Kansas City this season. When he misses, he misses in a spot where only his receiver can catch the ball. Life will get tougher with K.J. Hamler's ACL tear, but the biggest risks Bridgewater has taken have come on scrambles where he's left himself vulnerable to big hits.
2021 stats: 3 games | 65.4 pct | 782 pass yds | 7.5 ypa | 2 pass TD | 0 INT | 161 rush yds | 2 rush TD | 3 fumbles
Still the Giants' leading rusher, Jones played a mostly clean game in the loss to Atlanta with a handful of "wow" throws despite more injuries and ill-timed O-line meltdowns around him. He's not quite good enough to overcome these surroundings, but the progress is there.
2021 stats: 3 games | 70.7 pct | 640 pass yds | 8.5 ypa | 7 pass TD | 4 INT | 9 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 0 fumbles
That was a relief. Burrow's impressive escape from the pocket on his very first snap Sunday set the tone for his best day back from ACL surgery by far. He was confident in his movement and making quick decisions. He was on target, including a few throws down the field. Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase were the keys to winning their first game together in hostile Heinz Field and they enjoyed every second of it.
UPDATE: Burrow completed 25 of 32 passes for 348 yards and two touchdowns in Thursday's 24-21 win over Jacksonville.
2021 stats: 3 games | 68.2 pct | 888 pass yds | 8.3 ypa | 3 pass TD | 1 INT | 17 rush yds | 3 rush TD | 4 fumbles
Every week, Darnold shows a little more. There were plays against Houston where he made it to his second and third read, and there were plays Darnold made on his own after his protection fell apart. While his league-leading fumble total is a big concern, and he needs to get Robby Anderson and Terrace Marshall Jr. more involved, Darnold looks stable enough to survive without Christian McCaffrey for a while.
2021 stats: 3 games | 70.9 pct | 707 pass yds | 6.0 ypa | 4 pass TD | 3 INT | 10 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 2 fumbles
We are entering the fourth week of Matt Ryan Deep Completion Watch. He didn't even attempt a pass over 20 yards against the Giants and remains 0-for-3 on the season in the category. With that said, ole Matty Ice did make an appearance, helping the Falcons score 10 straight late in the win at New York, with a few key throws to rookie tight end Kyle Pitts.
2021 stats: 3 games | 67.4 pct | 760 pass yds | 8.0 ypa | 4 pass TD | 1 INT | 26 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 3 fumbles
Sunday night's performance was Jimmy G's career in a nutshell. Just when you are out, he pulls you back in with a crucial touchdown drive. But just when you are in, he gets happy feet in the pocket and throws the ball backward. The 49ers' running game needs to be better because Garoppolo is not built to carry this offense.
2021 stats: 3 games | 60.4 pct | 692 pass yds | 6.5 ypa | 3 pass TD | 1 INT | 60 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 1 fumble
Indy's offense is best understood by a 17-play field goal drive while trailing in Nashville. No one questions Wentz's toughness, and he continued to play serviceable ball vs. Tennessee despite his limited mobility. Serviceable ball, however, won't get it done behind a Colts offensive line devolving by the week.
2021 stats: 3 games | 63.8 pct | 801 pass yds | 6.2 ypa | 3 pass TD | 3 INT | 10 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 2 fumbles
The Steelers' 18-play, 85-yard, 9:03 field goal drive in the fourth quarter felt like self-harm. They drained the clock for the Bengals, then Roethlisberger held the ball too long on yet another sack and Mike Tomlin called for one of the most tepid field goal attempts in Steelers history. When Bengals receiver Tyler Boyd suggested the Steelers "gave up," this is what I assumed he was talking about.
2021 stats: 3 games | 62.9 pct | 384 pass yds | 4.3 ypa | 0 pass TD | 1 INT | 49 rush yd | 1 rush TD | 1 fumble
Jacoby will never lack for effort. He needed to connect on three fourth downs and a two-point conversion to keep the Dolphins alive at various points last week -- and he hit them all, with beautiful throws on a fourth-and-8 and a fourth-and-20 while rolling left. He's everything you want in a backup, but the Dolphins' offensive line is making offense nearly unplayable.
2021 stats: 3 games | 69.9 pct | 801 pass yds | 6.5 ypa | 5 pass TD | 2 INT | 64 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 2 fumbles
Jared Goff playing in Detroit is exactly how I imagined it would be, and there's something to be said for that. While he still may struggle with blitzes, the Lions have moved the ball pretty well for a team where Kalif Raymond is the WR1. There aren't going to be many big plays, but Goff gives his squad a chance.
2021 stats: 3 games | 67.5 pct | 737 pass yds | 6.1 ypa | 2 pass TD | 3 INT | 28 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 2 fumbles
All week, the New England media asked for Jones to throw deep more often. He obliged with 11 attempts over 20 yards ... completing one. This was a failure of scheme, personnel, protection and mostly Jones misfiring. Defenses will continue to dare Jones to go long and dare Patriots receivers to win on the outside until they can make them pay.
2021 stats: 3 games | 60.3 pct | 387 pass yds | 6.1 ypa | 7 pass TD | 2 INT | 60 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 0 fumbles
The Saints have yet to top 150 yards passing in a game and one of Winston's touchdowns Sunday came on an ill-advised, failed attempt to throw the ball away. The confusing part came when Winston was protected well and looked hesitant to pull the trigger. An overly safe version of Jameis who still makes mental mistakes is a troubling version of Jameis.
2021 stats: 3 games | 66.0 pct | 780 pass yds | 8.0 ypa | 5 pass TD | 2 INT | 179 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 2 fumbles
The all-or-nothing Philadelphia offense has produced a lot of nothing in the last two weeks. While this team clearly needs more sustaining, intermediate throws in the passing game, these Eagles don't make sense unless they run the ball well. They barely tried Monday night.
2021 stats: 3 games | 69.4 pct | 670 pass yds | 7.9 ypa | 5 pass TD | 3 INT | 44 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 0 fumbles
Washington was very lucky to get 21 points against Buffalo in a performance that was much worse than the box score indicated. Heinicke had at least three turnover-worthy plays without the splashy moments to make up for it. He scrambled early and often when he couldn't find his primary receivers open, but the Fitzpatrickian improv style didn't play this time.
2021 stats: 3 games | 55.2 pct | 628 pass yds | 6.0 ypa | 2 pass TD | 7 INT | 21 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 1 fumble
Life didn't get any easier against Vic Fangio, which wasn't a huge surprise. Wilson short-hopped an open throw outside the numbers on his first third down, which was a bad omen on a day where he usually threw to his first read or held the ball too long. It'd be great to see some positive signs against a vulnerable Titans defense this week.
2021 stats: 3 games | 54.2 pct | 669 pass yds | 5.7 ypa | 5 pass TD | 7 INT | 46 rush yds | 0 rush TD | 2 fumbles
You had to squint hard to find much progress in Lawrence's third start. Most of his yards came in garbage time, he was loose with the ball again and his running game and special teams keyed two of the Jags' three scores. At least Lawrence always has a few throws that keep you coming back, like the gorgeous touchdown to D.J. Chark after scanning the entire field.
UPDATE: Lawrence completed 17 of 24 passes for 204 yards, with zero passing touchdowns or picks, while rushing for 36 yards and a score in Thursday's 24-21 loss to Cincinnati.
2021 stats: 3 games | 40.0 pct | 138 pass yds | 3.9 ypa | 0 pass TD | 1 INT | 46 rush yds | 1 rush TD | 1 fumble
It was as if Matt Nagy used his Andy Dalton game plan with Justin Fields despite those quick-game concepts playing against Fields' strengths. The Browns were sitting on all those short routes, and Fields learned a hard lesson about how much more difficult it is to escape sacks in the NFL. It can only go up from here -- well, unless the rookie's heading back to the bench.
2021 stats: 2 games | 58.7 pct | 270 pass yds | 5.9 ypa | 2 pass TD | 1 INT | -1 rush yd | 0 rush TD | 1 fumble
He can spin it when perfectly protected, but the bar was a bit too low when Mills received plaudits for leading the Texans to nine points in a highly managed TNF performance. This is to be expected from a third-round rookie, but any time Mills faced any pressure, the play was essentially over.
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