Week 16 was always forecast to be a highly profiled rookie quarterback matchup coming into the 2021 season. No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence and his Jacksonville Jaguars will meet No. 2 pick Zach Wilson and his Jets Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
It’ll be the first time since the 2015 season when two rookie quarterbacks, who were the No. 1 and the No. 2 overall picks, will face each other the same year they were drafted — Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota battled in Week 1 of that year. Mariota won that matchup and threw four touchdowns to lead the Titans to a 42-14 victory over the Buccaneers. It’s also only the fourth time in the common-draft era that quarterbacks drafted first and second overall will face each other as rookies.
Lawrence and Wilson were both highly touted prospects coming into the NFL. Lawrence was considered a can’t miss prospect and Wilson was compared to Aaron Rodgers (also his favorite player).
Despite the high praise, both of their rookie seasons revealed just how difficult playing quarterback as a rookie in the NFL is, especially amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Lawrence is tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with 14 and has thrown only nine touchdowns. And Wilson’s first year resume so far includes just six passing touchdowns, 11 interceptions and 56% of his throws completed, which is the worst in the NFL.
“It’s a good reminder for y’all because we do tend to celebrate the anomalies like the [Justin] Herberts of the world,” Robert Saleh said. “But as far as rookie quarterbacks, this is usually what happens. They struggle.”
Even through the poor play, both quarterbacks were able to flash the elite talent that convinced their respective teams to draft them in the first place.
Lawrence’s high point was in London against the Dolphins in Week 6, when he threw for 319 yards and a touchdown to clinch the Jags’ first win of the season. And Wilson’s electric play making against the Titans in Week 4, when he threw for 297 yards and two touchdowns, produced one of the best rookie performances from the 2021 class.
But Sunday’s matchup, however highly anticipated for the two talented rookie QBs, will show just how much harder their tasks are amid the NFL’s ongoing battle with COVID-19, which seemed to hit the Jets hardest over the last week.
The Jets were blitzed by a rash of new COVID-19 positives, leaving Wilson without his head coach and 19 other players who tested positive during the week.
Saleh tested positive on Wednesday and was not cleared to return. He designated tight ends coach Ron Middleton to take over head coaching duties against the Jaguars.
Starting left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker and right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif will also not be available Sunday.
Wilson also will be without his remaining starting pass catcher, Jamison Crowder, who’s dealing with a calf injury. He was already without his starting receivers in Corey Davis and Elijah Moore.
But Saleh remained bullish about Wilson’s mindset during these trials.
“He is in such a great place mentally,” Saleh said. “I wish you guys could be there every day when we have all these conversations from Week 1 until now, he’s in such a great head space. I think he’s really understanding the concept of keep the main thing, and the main thing is him doing his job to the best of his ability, having great tempo, great footwork, great eye placement, and getting the ball where it needs to go and whatever the result is, it is.
“Is it a little bit more difficult because of the lack of continuity with all the different pieces coming in and out of the lineup? Yeah, it’s difficult, but at the same time, his job is to do his best.”
Sunday’s receiving corps will center around Denzel Mims, Braxton Berrios and Keelan Cole.
“It’s challenging, really just the connection of being able to just throw to these guys,” Wilson said. “But really, I just got to control what I can control and just go through the plays as I know, just try and handle it all the best I can.”
Luckily for Wilson, the Jaguars are 27th in points allowed per game (26) and own a porous pass defense. Opposing QBs have been able to complete 70% of their passes (highest in the NFL) with a passer rating of 101 (fifth highest) against the Jaguars.
So while he’ll be without his top three receivers, the Jaguars pass defense might make watchers forget Wilson is without his best receivers.
COVID-19 also hit the Jets defensive and special teams, sidelining: Michael Carter II, Foley Fatukasi, John Franklin-Myers, Justin Hardee, Hamsah Nasirildeen, Sharrod Neasman, Blake Cashman, Ashytn Davis, Jonathan Marshall, Noah Dawkins, Lamar Jackson, Tanzel Smart, Jeff Smith and Hamilcar Rashed.
That’s seven key contributors and two special team aces Gang Green will miss.
The good for the Jets is special team standouts Hardee and Jeff Smith were activated off the COVID-19 list on Friday, the only players activated off the list expected to play on Sunday.
“It’s hard, but it isn’t hard,” Middleton said of the challenge. “You can only control the things you can control, and you have no control over who’s going to pop or who you’re going to have. You just have to work the ones that you have and prepare with the ones that you have.
“Tomorrow isn’t promised to you. Live for the day and take advantage of it, of the opportunity and situation that you’re in right then.”
The Jaguars are expected to be without three starters Sunday. Standout pass rusher Josh Allen, receiver Laviska Shenault and guard Ben Bartch were placed on the COVID list. Allen leads the Jaguars in sacks with 5.5 and Shenault Jr. is second on the Jaguars in receiving with 544 yards.
Source: Berkshire mont