JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Jacksonville Jaguars are a little more than a week away from having the franchise quarterback the team has been trying to find for two decades.
Trevor Lawrence is the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck (and maybe Peyton Manning), the fourth-highest-rated quarterback prospect ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has ever graded and a guy who lost just four games as a starter since his freshman year of high school.
He’s so good that he prompted Gil Brandt, who drafted nine future Hall of Famers in 29 seasons as the Dallas Cowboys‘ vice president of player personnel, to describe him this way: “Trevor Lawrence is [John] Elway athlete [and] Manning accuracy. So I think you’re getting the best of both of them.” A franchise that hasn’t done much right since having the NFL’s best record in 1999 and has lost 10 or more games in nine of the past 10 seasons is expected to take Lawrence with the No. 1 pick in next week’s draft (April 29-May 1, ESPN/ESPN App). Jaguars fans — as well as those inside the organization, especially in ticketing — are understandably ecstatic and hoping Lawrence is the key to the franchise finally having some sustained success and becoming an annual playoff contender.
But a bit of caution to temper the over-the-top expectations: Drafting a quarterback with the first overall pick is no guarantee of a future Super Bowl appearance. Or even a playoff appearance. And, in some cases, not even a season with a winning record.
What does history say?
Eight of the 25 quarterbacks taken first overall since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970 have reached a Super Bowl with the team that drafted them, but only three won a championship: Terry Bradshaw (Pittsburgh Steelers), Troy Aikman (Dallas Cowboys) and Peyton Manning (Indianapolis Colts). Three others — Jim Plunkett (Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders), John Elway (Denver Broncos) and Eli Manning (New York Giants) — won Super Bowls with subsequent teams, with Elway and Manning being traded shortly after they were drafted.
Eli Manning, who was drafted by the San Diego Chargers in 2004, is the last quarterback taken first overall to win a Super Bowl (2007 and 2011 seasons). Only two of the 11 quarterbacks taken first overall since Eli Manning have reached a Super Bowl — Cam Newton, with the Carolina Panthers, and Jared Goff, with the Los Angeles Rams, lost the game. Five of the 11 haven’t even made the playoffs. Bradshaw (four) and Aikman (three) are the only such quarterbacks to win multiple Super Bowls with the teams that drafted them. Eli Manning won two with the Giants, Elway won two with the Broncos and Plunkett won two with the Raiders. Somehow — maybe because of Tom Brady’s ridiculous seven rings (and counting?) — Super Bowl victories have become one of the defining quarterback stats. That might be a little unfair because even those multiple Super Bowl winners had plenty of help, whether it was Hall of Fame receivers or running backs, top-10 defenses or multiple All-Pros and Pro Bowlers.
• Bradshaw played with four other Hall of Famers on offense (center Mike Webster, running back Franco Harris and wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth) in addition to the Steel Curtain defense that included four more Hall of Famers.
• Aikman played with wide receiver Michael Irvin and running back Emmitt Smith, both Hall of Famers, and Smith is the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. Plus, the Cowboys finished in the top 10 in scoring defense and total defense in each of the three years they won the Super Bowl.
• Elway had three other Hall of Famers on offense: running back Terrell Davis, tight end Shannon Sharpe and offensive tackle Gary Zimmerman. Elway’s two Super Bowl-winning teams also finished 11th or better in scoring defense and total defense.
• Peyton Manning’s defense ranked in the 20s in scoring and total defense the year he won the Super Bowl with Indianapolis, but running back Edgerrin James and wide receiver Marvin Harrison went on to the Hall of Fame.
• Eli Manning didn’t have a Hall of Famer alongside him on offense nor did he have a statistically stout defense, but he did get help from two incredible late-game throws and catches as well as a pass rush that harassed Tom Brady in both Super Bowl victories.
• Plunkett won his Super Bowls with his third team, the Raiders, after failing to do so with the Patriots (who drafted him in 1971) and the 49ers. Those Raiders championship teams had plenty of star power. Offensively, they had four Hall of Famers: running back Marcus Allen, offensive tackle Art Shell, tight end Dave Casper and guard Gene Upshaw. And they boasted three more on defense: defensive end Howie Long, cornerback Mike Haynes and defensive end Ted Hendricks.
Coaching can’t be overlooked, either. Here’s the list of head coaches for the six quarterbacks taken first overall that did win Super Bowls: Chuck Noll (Steelers), Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer (Cowboys), Tom Coughlin (Giants), Mike Shanahan (Broncos), Tony Dungy (Colts) and Tom Flores (Raiders). Noll, Johnson and Dungy are in the Hall of Fame. Flores will be inducted this summer.
Urban Meyer hasn’t coached a down in the NFL, but he’s one of the best coaches in college football history, winning two national titles at Florida and one at Ohio State and going a combined 148-24 with five conference titles at those schools. That could mitigate some of the pressure on Lawrence.
“Obviously, anytime you’re the first pick overall you’re going to feel some of that weight, too,” ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. “But as far as that franchise needing to go in a different direction, I think the timing for him is good, because you’ve got a high-profile, first-year head coach that has many people every week dissecting his every move as much as the quarterback.
“Like, if that were a Doug Marrone, everything’s going to be on Trevor Lawrence because he [Marrone] has been there for a number of years.”
Jags are on the clock
Where does that leave the Jaguars and Lawrence after 8:30 p.m. ET on April 29?
That’s when the real work begins. During the next few seasons, the Jaguars will need to build the roster with several players that go on to become Pro Bowlers or All-Pros (and maybe even Hall of Famers). Even if Lawrence does turn into the Elway-Manning combo as Brandt believes, he’ll still need some help. ESPN’s Mike Clay has the Jags’ roster grading out 31st out of 32 NFL teams entering the draft.
The Jaguars have four players who have made one Pro Bowl each on the roster (defensive end Josh Allen, wide receiver DJ Chark Jr., cornerback Shaquill Griffin and linebacker Joe Schobert), but only Allen and Chark did it with the Jaguars. Returner Jamal Agnew is an All-Pro.
Even though the game’s greatest quarterbacks had help, they were the key to winning those Super Bowls. That puts immense pressure and expectations on Lawrence, as it has every quarterback taken first overall. But maybe it’s a little more unfair in Jacksonville, because it seems like Lawrence is being counted on to essentially save the franchise. The Jaguars always seem to be considered a relocation risk, and owner Shad Khan is continually seeking new local revenue streams, which included an annual home game in London from 2013 to ’19. That contract with the league expired after last season — when the Jaguars were going to play two games there, which didn’t happen because of the pandemic — and the team would like to renew.
Sustained success and contending for a championship would certainly generate more local revenue. Having Lawrence become the league’s next great young QB would be one of the keys to that.
“Every player [taken atop the draft], it’s like you’ve got to win three or four Super Bowls to account for what it is,” said former Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik. “If he gets in the postseason, he’s doing his job. But Trevor’s a rare guy. If you talk to any player at Clemson the last three years, he’s been continuously praised through the years. I think it’s an opportunity for him to go to a team that’s a little more loaded than people realize and has a chance to make an impact offensively.” High expectations are nothing new for Lawrence. He took over as the starter as a freshman and went on to win two state titles at Cartersville (Georgia) High School, was the nation’s No. 1 recruit and followed Deshaun Watson at Clemson.
“I don’t think there’s anything that he’s going to see in Jacksonville that’s going to make him feel weight that he has not already felt and, to be honest with you, [it] is what he knows,” Herbstreit said. “He’s known that weight to a varying degree since he’s been in middle school. I know that that’s probably his greatest strength: how he’ll handle the pressure of trying to turn a franchise around.”
That’s historically a tough ask, and some really good quarterbacks have been unable to get it done or weren’t able to find sustained success. But there’s a belief Lawrence could become the third quarterback drafted first overall since Eli Manning in 2004 to reach a Super Bowl. “I see no reason why he shouldn’t be a good quarterback,” Brandt said. “You don’t win as many championships in high school as a true freshman starter in the state of Georgia, where football is very good, and then win [a championship] at Clemson if you don’t have something going for you.”