The quarterback class for the 2021 NFL draft could be one for the ages, with as many as six quarterbacks who could go in the first round, according to ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay.
It starts at the top with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, one of the best QB prospects in years and the favorite to be selected No. 1 overall. Lawrence squared off in the College Football Playoff with the other top signal-caller in this class, Ohio State’s Justin Fields. Not far behind them — for now — are BYU’s Zach Wilson, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, Alabama’s Mac Jones (also in the CFP mix) and Florida’s Kyle Trask. NFL teams in need of a new look under center will have plenty of options.
But who are these signal-callers and what makes them top NFL prospects? We’ve outlined everything you need to know about them, including their backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses, plus rankings from Kiper and McShay. We begin with Lawrence, the likely No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft, and we end with a few more quarterbacks who could get drafted next April.
Year: Junior | Age: 21 | Career starts: 36
Height: 6-foot-6 | Weight: 220
If you don’t know Lawrence’s name by now, it’s possible you’ve been living under a rock the past few years. He has an NFL-ready frame and a cannon for an arm, and McShay has called him “the best quarterback prospect [he has] seen come out of college since Andrew Luck in 2012.” And all Lawrence does is win.
He was 52-2 as the starting quarterback at Cartersville High School in Cartersville, Georgia, and Clemson has lost just once with him under center over three seasons (LSU beat Clemson for the national title last season). A five-star recruit in the 2018 class, he threw 30 touchdown passes for the Tigers as a freshman in 2018, leading them to a national title. After a slow start as a sophomore in 2019 — he threw five picks in his first three games — Lawrence finished on a tear, guiding Clemson to a 14-1 season while throwing 36 touchdown passes. He entered this season as the odds-on favorite to go No. 1 in the 2021 draft and, in November, participated in Senior Day festivities at Clemson.
Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence steps up in the pocket and slings a dart to E.J. Williams, who goes the distance for a 33-yard touchdown.
Off the field, the tall, long-haired QB was the face of the “We want to play” movement over the summer, campaigning to have a college football season in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. Ultimately, his wish was granted, and Lawrence has led Clemson to a 10-1 season. Its lone loss came with Lawrence on the sideline — he tested positive for COVID-19 at the end of October and went 35 days between starts, missing two games. But when he returned, he picked up right where he left off and threw for 400-plus yards in a win over Pittsburgh.
“I learned a lot about myself, and who I want to be, and became a better person through this whole process,” Lawrence said earlier this month. “But I want that to end in a good way football-wise and be able to play for a championship. That’s been the goal all along.”
Lawrence and the Tigers were stunned by Fields’ Buckeyes in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, though Lawrence threw for 400 yards and had three total touchdowns in the loss.
2020 stats: 3,153 passing yards, 69.2% completion rate, 24 touchdowns and five interceptions in 10 games (plus 211 rushing yards and eight TDs)
What’s next: On Jan. 6, Lawrence officially declared for the draft, and now the countdown is on. The Jaguars have the No. 1 overall pick, but they still don’t have a general manager, so it’s too early to know for sure if he’ll be in Jacksonville next season.
Year: Junior | Age: 21 | Career starts: 21
Height: 6-3 | Weight: 228
When you account for 51 touchdowns in your first season as a starter, you’re going to garner some attention. And Fields has largely lived up to the attention in his second year under center for the Buckeyes.
Fields grew up in Georgia and was a standout on the football field — a five-star recruit who ranked No. 1 in the 2018 ESPN 300, ahead of Lawrence — and the baseball diamond, a middle infielder with perhaps MLB upside. But Fields chose football, committing first to Penn State before changing his decision and heading to Georgia. His final high school season was featured on Season 2 of Netflix’s “QB1: Beyond the Lights.” He spent one season at Georgia behind Jake Fromm before transferring to Ohio State ahead of the 2019 season. He was granted immediate eligibility. In a statement, Fields said, “I have no regrets about my time at UGA and have no hard feelings for the school or football program.”
He immediately made an impact at Ohio State, becoming just the third Buckeyes QB in the past 50 years to win each of his first 13 starts. He was the first Big Ten player with 40-plus passing touchdowns and 10-plus rushing touchdowns in the same season. A Heisman finalist, he led Ohio State to the College Football Playoff, but it lost 29-23 to Clemson in the semifinal. It is his only loss at Ohio State.
Ohio State QB Justin Fields breaks free for a 44-yard run downfield and stiff-arms a defender as he is forced out of bounds.
In August, while other conferences were preparing to start their seasons, Fields established a petition requesting the Big Ten immediately reinstate the 2020 season. The Buckeyes began play in October, and Fields had just 11 incompletions through three games; he had 11 touchdown passes in that time frame. Now 6-0, the Buckeyes are primed for another title run behind Fields’ stellar 89.5 Total QBR.
Fields’ downfield accuracy and ability to create plays under pressure help make him one of the top quarterbacks in the class, though he threw five picks in Ohio State’s two toughest regular-season games, leading to questions. Those questions were answered in the Sugar Bowl, as Fields threw for 385 yards with six touchdown passes, including a few “wow” scores down the field.
2020 stats: 1,906 passing yards, 73.4% completion rate, 21 touchdowns and six interceptions in seven games (plus 274 rushing yards and five TDs)
What’s next: Fields and the Buckeyes are headed for the College Football Playoff national championship to play Alabama (Jan. 11, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN). The deadline to declare for the NFL draft has not been set, which would be the next date to watch for the Ohio State quarterback.
Year: Junior | Age: 21 | Career starts: 27
Height: 6-3 | Weight: 210
Wilson got his first scholarship offer in 2015 from Weber State — he was a “a skinny little noodle,” a former assistant said — and committed to Boise State two years later. A late offer from BYU, however, gave him something Boise could not: playing college ball close to his family. Wilson, one of six children, grew up in Draper, Utah, in a family of Utah Utes fans, but the opportunity to regularly see his family throughout college made him shift his allegiances. His father, Mike, served as his private quarterbacks coach through high school, helping him to big numbers both through the air and on the ground at Corner Canyon High School.
Wilson became the Cougars’ youngest starting QB ever at 19 years, 2 months when he took over for them against Hawai’i in 2018, accounting for four touchdowns in a win. Wilson brought BYU to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl that season, where he went 18-for-18 for 317 yards and four touchdowns in another victory. But his sophomore season brought middling numbers (11 touchdown passes, nine picks) and a six-week absence in the middle of the campaign with a fractured thumb.
The 2020 season has been magical for Wilson, however, as he has soared into contention for a top-10 pick. The Cougars went 10-1 in the regular season, and Wilson had 43 total touchdowns with only three interceptions. He ranked in the top five of qualifying passers nationally in yards (3,692), yards per attempt (10.8) and completion percentage (73.2%). He could become the first BYU quarterback selected in the first round since Steve Young in 1984. Wilson finished the season with 425 passing yards and five total touchdowns in the Cougars’ blowout win over UCF in the RoofClaim.com Boca Raton Bowl.
2020 stats: 3,267 passing yards, 73.2% completion rate, 30 touchdowns and three interceptions (plus 242 rushing yards and eight TDs)
What’s next: With his bowl game behind him, Wilson announced on Friday, Jan. 1, that he is entering the draft. The pre-draft process will now ramp up for him, and he could be the second quarterback drafted in April.
Year: Third-year sophomore | Age: 20 | Career starts: 17
Height: 6-4 | Weight: 226
Lance may have played only one game in 2020 (the Bison, who have decided to play a spring season amid concerns over the pandemic, scheduled just one game in the fall against Central Arkansas), but in 2019 he set an NCAA record for most passes thrown in a season without an interception and became the first freshman to win the Walter Payton Award for most outstanding offensive player in the FCS. And to think he was almost not a quarterback.
Lance grew up playing running back until he transitioned to QB and led a wing-T offense at Marshall High School in Minnesota. He learned to play the position by working with his father, former CFL cornerback Carlton Lance, in the family’s backyard. Most of his Power 5 offers were to play wide receiver or defensive back, but Lance ended up at North Dakota State, following Carson Wentz and Easton Stick under center for the Bison.
Trey Lance fakes a handoff and then throws to Hunter Luepke for a 23-yard score, giving North Dakota State a 32-28 lead.
In his only full season as the starter, Lance threw for 2,786 yards and 28 touchdowns and added another 1,100 yards and 14 scores on the ground. He has never lost a college game, leading the Bison to an FCS championship in 2019. In his lone start in 2020, he went 15-of-30 for 149 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. And again, he was effective on the ground, rushing for 143 yards and two additional scores.
Will experience factor into draft position? Lance never faced an FBS team during his college career, and he had just 17 career starts. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, six quarterbacks have been taken in the first round with fewer than 20 college starts since 2006. That list is a mixed bag: Mitchell Trubisky (13), Cam Newton (14), Dwayne Haskins Jr. (14), Mark Sanchez (16), Kyler Murray (17) and Ryan Tannehill (19). Lance will be 20 years old when he is drafted, and he is likely to become the first player drafted into the NFL who was born in 2000.
What’s next: Lance has already decided to forgo his spring season at North Dakota State and enter the draft. With only one game under his belt this year, next year’s NFL combine will be important, as would a potential pro day, so scouts can get a closer look at him.
Year: Fourth-year junior | Age: 22 | Career starts: 16
Height: 6-3 | Weight: 214
Jones grew up in Florida playing Pop Warner, idolizing Tim Tebow and even having a stint as a child model in multiple commercials and advertisements. A four-star recruit out of The Bolles School, he went to Alabama in 2017 after originally committing to Kentucky. He redshirted before serving at Tua Tagovailoa‘s backup over two seasons — but twice replaced Tagovailoa in 2019 as the Crimson Tide’s starter because of injuries.
Though he caught the nation’s attention as Alabama’s quarterback, Jones didn’t enter the 2020 season with much draft hype. He wasn’t even a lock to hang on to his starting role, with five-star freshman Bryce Young also heading to Tuscaloosa. But after stacking up elite numbers en route to an 11-0 record, he is square in the middle of the Round 1 mix. Kiper and McShay debated Jones’ status in November, with Kiper noting Jones’ prowess on downfield throws. Jones has four games with more than 400 passing yards and six with at least four passing touchdowns this season. He hit both of those marks in a shootout win against Florida in the SEC championship game, and he had four more touchdowns in Bama’s win over Notre Dame.
Jones has started just 16 games for the Crimson Tide, so it’s possible he could return for another season to try to be the No. 1 QB in the 2022 class.
2020 stats: 4,036 passing yards, 77% completion rate, 36 touchdowns and four interceptions (plus one rushing TD)
What’s next: Jones and the Crimson Tide rolled over Notre Dame in Rose Bowl Game Presented by Capital One, and next up is the national title game. Will Jones declare for the draft? We’ll know more after that game.
Year: Fifth-year senior | Age: 22 | Career starts: 22
Height: 6-5 | Weight: 240
It has been a long road for Trask, but his breakout 2020 season puts him deservedly in this group of high-end quarterbacks in this class. First, he didn’t even start for a high school team after his freshman year. Why? Former Houston Cougars and current Miami Hurricanes signal-caller D’Eriq King also went to Texas’ Manvel High School. Then Trask went to Florida and didn’t see much action; he redshirted in 2016 and then rode the bench for two seasons behind Feleipe Franks, who is also in this class. After Franks was injured in 2019, however, Trask went in and threw for 2,941 yards, 25 scores and seven interceptions. He retained the job, while Franks transferred to Arkansas.
Trask has taken his game to another level this season. He set the Florida record for most touchdowns thrown in a season (43) and became the first FBS player in 15 seasons (and only one in SEC history) to throw at least three in nine consecutive games. He has done it in 10 of 11 games this season. Trask is a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
Kyle Trask is going off for Florida, tossing five touchdowns in the first half against Arkansas.
2020 stats: 4,283 passing yards, 68.9% completion rate, 43 touchdowns and eight interceptions (plus three rushing TDs)
What’s next: Trask had a rough time in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, throwing three first-quarter interceptions and completing just 57.1% of his throws in the blowout loss to Oklahoma. He accepted an invite to the Senior Bowl, however, and will have another opportunity to make a case for the first round. Senior Bowl activities will take place during the final week of January in Mobile, Alabama.
Best of the rest
These are the other draftable quarterbacks in the 2021 class, and each could rise during the pre-draft process (listed alphabetically):
Ian Book, Notre Dame Fighting Irish: Book is 30-5 in his career as the starter at Notre Dame, and he has thrown 49 touchdown passes to just nine interceptions over the past two seasons. At 6-foot, Book is undersized, but Kiper ranks him as the No. 9 QB in this class. Book will also be at the Senior Bowl.
Sam Ehlinger, Texas Longhorns: Ehlinger has thrown for 11,436 yards and put up 127 total touchdowns (93 passing, 33 rushing) over 43 starts at Texas since 2017. His dual-threat ability could be enticing for an NFL team. Kiper and McShay both rank him as the No. 10 QB in this class. Ehlinger injured his shoulder in the Valero Alamo Bowl win and missed the second half, though the severity of the injury is unclear. He is on the roster for the Senior Bowl.
Feleipe Franks, Arkansas Razorbacks: A transfer from Florida, Franks broke an ankle in his junior season with the Gators in 2019 and lost his starting job to Kyle Trask. He completed 68.5% of his passes with 17 touchdowns and four picks in his lone season at Arkansas. At 6-foot-6, 230 pounds, Franks has an NFL-ready frame and intriguing skill set, and Kiper thinks he is likely to be a Day 3 pick. The Razorbacks’ bowl game against TCU was canceled.
Kellen Mond, Texas A&M Aggies: Mond won 31 games as the starter for the Aggies, trailing only Corey Pullig (33) for most wins by a quarterback in Texas A&M history. His accuracy was a question headed into the season, but he completed 63.3% of his passes and threw just three interceptions as a senior. McShay ranks him as the seventh-best QB in this class. Mond will be at the Senior Bowl as well.
Jamie Newman, Georgia Bulldogs: After throwing 26 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions at Wake Forest in 2019, Newman joined Georgia as a graduate transfer. Before the season kicked off, however, Newman opted out because of COVID-19 concerns, so he didn’t play a down for the Bulldogs. The 6-foot-4 Newman is another signal-caller who will be at the Senior Bowl next month.