It’s hard to talk about college football without hearing the name Trevor Lawrence. The 21-year-old star quarterback from Clemson University (S.C.) has made headlines since he arrived onto the college scene in 2018, and it shouldn’t come as any surprise that Lawrence is projected to go first in the 2021 NFL Draft — especially with 3,153 passing yards, a 69.2 completion percentage and 24 touchdowns in the 2020 season alone. Yet I can’t help but wonder if the hype is too grand.
As a D.C. native, I’ve found it difficult to root for any Washington sports team. But the Washington Football Team has made it particularly challenging to cheer for consistently bad teams. In 2012, though, it seemed like our strokes of bad luck were about to change with Baylor University’s (Texas) superstar quarterback Robert Griffin III “RG3.”
Like Lawrence, RG3 produced incredible collegiate stats: in the season before he was drafted, Griffin threw for 4,293 passing yards and 37 touchdowns with a 72.4 completion percentage. In his first season in the NFL, he put up moderate numbers, with 3,200 passing yards on a 65.65 completion percentage and 20 touchdowns, but his rookie stat line was a great start for the 2012 second overall pick. Then, that postseason, during Washington’s wild-card game against the Seattle Seahawks, Griffin tore his right ACL, lateral collateral ligament and meniscus, resurfacing an ACL injury he suffered in 2009 at Baylor. Of course, all good things must come to an end, but Washington fans didn’t expect RG3’s tenure to end so hastily. After his injury, RG3 was never quite the same player, gradually trickling out of the public eye and sinking further on the depth chart of numerous teams.
Sure, the situation was circumstantial: Griffin’s health had already been compromised in college, putting him at a higher injury risk for later in his career. But this isn’t the first time a top NFL draft pick has failed to meet expectations for one reason or another.
Just this past year, quarterback Joe Burrow from Louisiana State University was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals with the overall first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Although it is only Burrow’s first year in the league, the rookie’s numbers were exciting. By late October, Burrow was on pace to break the NFL record for rookie passing yards of 4,374. However, the star rookie ended the season with 2,688 passing yards and only won two games as a Bengal after an unfortunate hit on Nov. 22 tore Burrow’s left ACL and MCL and damaged his PCL and meniscus.
While injuries do not necessarily define a quarterback, the likelihood of these injuries can be a predictor of a quarterback’s success. Burrow may have been on pace to break the rookie season passing record, but he was also on track to suffer the most sacks since former Houston Texans quarterback David Carr in 2002. In Burrow’s first four NFL games, he was sacked 15 times. Even though the Bengals’ offensive line improved, with Burrow only getting sacked eight times in his last four games before the injury, it was only a matter of time before the repeated hits became consequential. In general, having a strong offensive line can be a true testament to a quarterback’s ability to perform. Recent Super Bowl teams have had high-ranking pass-blocking offensive lines — the New Orleans Saints in 2009, the Green Bay Packers in 2010 and the Baltimore Ravens in 2012.
With that being said, Burrow and other top draft picks are often put into difficult situations due to the nature of the game and the structure of the draft. Since the team with the worst record is allotted the first pick, the team is typically in dire need of star talent. In Burrow’s case, the Bengals had just come off a 2-14 season before they drafted him. Their offensive line had been a huge hole in Cincinnati’s game, and then-quarterback Andy Dalton was putting up disappointing numbers with a 59.47 completion percentage and 37 sacks.
Lawrence will be going into a similar, if not worse, situation. The Jacksonville Jaguars, who have the first overall pick this year, will likely select Lawrence. After a disappointing 1-15 record this past season, the Jaguars desperately need a leader and hopefully someone who can help them bring home their first-ever Super Bowl. I worry, though, that Lawrence will struggle to be that guy due to the Jaguars’ struggling offensive line. Ranked 26th in the NFL in 2019, the offensive line has too many weak links. Left guard Andrew Norwell has been struggling since 2017, while left tackle Cam Robinson allowed five sacks alone this season. An offensive line does not define a team, but as seen countless times in the NFL, it’s hard to be a successful quarterback without sufficient parts in place.
For Jacksonville and Lawrence’s sake, I hope I’m wrong. Lawrence is without a doubt the best quarterback in the upcoming draft class, but I fear that outstanding college statistics will not be enough to have success in the NFL. That’s not to say that Jacksonville should not select Lawrence with their pick — he is the obvious choice and has the potential to do great things as a Jaguar. But it will be crucial for Jacksonville to tighten up their offensive line so that Lawrence has the ability to do what he’s done at Clemson: be an outstanding quarterback.