2021 NFL draft: Can a can’t-miss prospect (Trevor Lawrence) … miss?

Eric Edholm
·9-min read

While other 2021 NFL draft prospects are sweating out the final few sleeps before Round 1 on April 29, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence is being showered by Jacksonville Jaguars fans with wedding gifts.

A small group of them even pooled together their money to buy Lawrence and his bride, Marissa Mowry, a $300 touch-screen toaster, which sounds terrific.

Lawrence skipped pre-draft testing on his surgically repaired shoulder to get married. The couple hung out at The Masters last week. Life is good.

And Lawrence appears comfortable enough in his own skin at this stage to have suggested he doesn’t feel the need to bring a me-vs.-the-world attitude into the NFL, even if he felt the need to walk back his comments afterward.

In short, he knows he’s going to be picked first overall. So why worry?

That, of course, doesn’t guarantee he’ll be a surefire NFL success. Lawrence might be the most ballyhooed QB prospect to come out since Andrew Luck, but Luck’s career, while very good on the whole, didn’t match his pre-draft hype as the prospect of a generation.

The work will begin in earnest in June for Lawrence, the Jaguars and new head coach Urban Meyer. The wunderkind meets the woebegone franchise coached by the willful winner. It’s a chemistry experiment the the NFL is fascinated by.

“I’m very curious how that will all work out,” one senior NFL scout (and former GM) told Yahoo Sports, “because you have this guy who is sort of the type-A college coach who had control of everything in college and had some great runs at a few schools. But look how those ended.

“You can’t tell me [Meyer will] just step into this league and dominate. You can’t. I won’t listen to it. I think it’s going to be tough for him at first.”

And Lawrence?

“Look,” the same evaluator said, “we’re in a spot where we’re not drafting Trevor Lawrence, so I haven’t turned over every rock and leaf to dig on him. But it’s pretty clear he’s that guy. Size, arm, running ability, quick thinker — it’s all there.

“But I also wouldn’t anoint him the second coming or anything. I’ll be curious to see how they set everything up for him there. I don’t see some perfect prospect made in a lab. I see a guy with some flaws too.”

Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer (middle) watches as Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence works out during pro day in Clemson, South Carolina in February. (David Platt/Handout Photo via USA TODAY Sports)
Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer (middle) watches as Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence works out during pro day in Clemson, South Carolina in February. (David Platt/Handout Photo via USA TODAY Sports)

How can Trevor Lawrence fail in the NFL?

We spoke to three NFL talent evaluators — the former GM from above, a college scouting director and an area scout who covers Clemson in his territory.

All three ranked Lawrence as their top quarterback, although as the area scout noted, he’s done work only on the quarterbacks in his region (which includes Alabama’s Mac Jones). All three admit that they really like Lawrence — one even used the word “love.”

“He’s pretty humble and even-keeled,” the director said. “It’s easy to see how players would gravitate to him. I don’t think the game will be too big for him. I love the kid as a thrower, as a competitor [and] as an athlete.”

The director said his notes are far shorter on the list of negatives on Lawrence. He watched four games from this past season and two from 2019. On that list were Lawrence’s three playoff games and three ACC games.

And that’s where a smidgen of doubt creeps in.

“What you see quickly is that he’s toying with some of those [lesser ACC] defenses [in] those games,” the scouting director said. "That conference kinda stinks, quite honestly. It’s fine for [producing] prospects, but it makes evaluating harder.

“In his playoff games, it’s a different story.”

Lawrence is a career 66.6% passer. In his two College Football Playoff games in the 2019 season, he completed 51.5% in beating Ohio State (mostly with his legs) in a semifinal and losing to LSU in the title game. Versus OSU in the 2020 semifinal, Lawrence threw for 400 yards but struggled against pressure, took a beating and was bottled up as a runner.

“When the competition level improved, it was less pretty,” the area scout said.

Added the ex-GM: “[Lawrence] wasn’t the best player on the field in some of those games. Joe Burrow outplayed him [in the 2019 championship]. [Justin] Fields was better this year.

“You’ve sort of got a Peyton Manning deal going on here. Peyton couldn’t beat Florida. That followed him to the NFL; he couldn’t beat Tom Brady for a long time, really. So those are the types of criticisms ... I wouldn’t be shocked by hearing them.”

Some perspective: Clemson’s record with Lawrence at QB was a stunning 34-2. In the two games he missed in 2020 after testing positive for COVID-19, Clemson fell behind by 18 to Boston College and barely won, followed by a loss at Notre Dame. In the rematch vs. the Irish in the ACC title game, the Tigers won handily, 34-10.

Lawrence led the Tigers to a national championship as a freshman, smoking Alabama in the 2018 season. His record, going back to high school, is 86-4. His only losses have come in postseason games. 

“Anyone saying he’s not a winner looks foolish,” the area scout said.

But …

“It’s when the lights are brightest and the heat is on the hottest,” the ex-GM said, “that’s when you see the cracks in the armor. Not saying he can’t handle it. Just that it’s easier to see the panic set in and those flaws against pressure come out. That’s what you worry about.

“And I just know that early [in the 2019 season], he looked off. Maybe it was the great expectations he faced. He threw some hero balls that were picked. He played tight. Last year was better; he was more loose. But I wonder if that [2019 season] was a preview of what his [rookie season in the NFL] could look like.”

What specific shortcomings concern evaluators?

We asked our three evaluators, point blank, to name their biggest concerns with Lawrence as a prospect.

Area scout: “The touch and placement weren’t always there. Too high, too low, not [in a spot] where the receiver can catch it and run with it the best. Better [in 2020 than in 2019] but still not ideal.”

Scouting director: “You see him rush his process against pressure; he hurries through it. That needs to be baked into Urban’s thinking. ‘Let’s not put him in bad spots because we want to go four- and five-wide every play like Clemson did.’”

Ex-GM: “NFL teams are going to sit on his first reads and force him to be creative. How does he react? 

"Does he become a runner? Or does he come off [his first read] and hit the next guy? You see him staring down some receivers at times. It’s fixable, but it’s there. 

"The accuracy bugs me too. Take away those [predetermined reads] and screens from that offense and his completion percentage would go way down.”

The ex-GM has a point. Lawrence certainly benefited from a screen-heavy offense with a lot of predetermined reads that helped boost his stats. PFF lists Lawrence as having the most screen yards of any quarterback in college football last year with 686, more than 20% of his total.

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And though Lawrence has a big arm that can spray the ball all over the field, it’s certainly worth noting that Clemson wasn’t some vertical, bomb-it-out offense. More than half of Lawrence’s 334 passes last season were either targets behind the line of scrimmage (86 attempts) or under 10 yards of depth (105 attempts), according to Pro Football Focus.

His combined stats on those two distances of throws: 166 of 191 passing (87%), 1,475 yards, seven TDs, no INTs.

On passes 10-plus yards downfield, Lawrence completed 65 of 126 passes (51.6%) for 1,678 yards with 17 TDs and five picks.

We spoke with one former college and NFL head coach, June Jones, who has Lawrence has his third-rated quarterback in this class

Why? Well, here’s part of what Jones said:

“He’s a very talented kid, don’t get me wrong, and I think he’s a winner. He can do things that other quarterbacks can’t do, such as run.

“But what I’ve noticed is, when you see him drop back and throw, let’s say, a 9-route down the field, on those completions that he had over 20 yards, a lot of times his receivers make great plays on those balls. And they weren’t right on the money, they weren’t right in stride. The receivers sometimes had to work for the deep ball with him than what [you’d expect from] a great quarterback.”

Jones is correct that Lawrence’s downfield touch and accuracy pales in comparison to Ohio State’s Justin Fields or Alabama’s Mac Jones. Fields completed 61 of 89 passes (68.5%) 10-plus yards downfield for 1,295 yards with 19 TDs and five INTs in eight games. Jones hit on 105 of 157 of those passes (66.9%) for 2,632 yards, 29 TDs and four picks.

“Fields is more of that vertical passer [compared to Lawrence], at least in terms of how they were used in college,” the scouting director said. “Now what you have to ask or determine is, is that how they should or shouldn’t be used in the NFL?”

The Jaguars will make Lawrence their pick. He enters the franchise with the world of expectations on his shoulders. Will Urban Meyer use him correctly? Or could he be one of the most surprising failures in recent draft classes?

“If he fails it won’t be for talent,” the ex-GM said. “He’s got it all, and I think he grasps the mental part. But he ain’t some perfect specimen either.”

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