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What’s next for Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence?

Answering important questions about an ascending star in Trevor Lawrence

Jacksonville Jaguars v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

JACKSONVILLE (Fl.) — Location bias aside, the Jacksonville Jaguars are good again.

The franchise originated in 1995, raised by a disciplinary coach and southpaw quarterback. Tom Coughlin and Mark Brunell led the most successful expansion team in NFL history to four straight playoffs in the late ‘90s.

Almost three decades later -- with just three postseason wins from 2000 to 2021 -- the organization has been reborn. A new training facility is in its first year of use; stadium renovation talks are ongoing; jersey updates are around the corner; and the rebranded football team is now led by a Super Bowl-winning coach and generational quarterback.

Doug Pederson and Trevor Lawrence brought Jacksonville to a 9-8 record and Divisional Round appearance in their first year together. It began with six one-score losses through the first two months, climaxed with four fourth-quarter comebacks in the holiday season, and ended at the hands of the eventual champs at Arrowhead.

The Jaguars’ late-season push started after Lawrence threw two interceptions in an ugly Week 8 loss to the Broncos. He reflected on a podcast this summer, “That Denver game, that was probably my lowest point in my two-year career from a playing perspective.”

From that point on, Lawrence ranked third among all passers in Expected Points Added and success rate (per Sports Info Solutions). He hiked his passer rating from 71.9 as a rookie to 95.2 last season, the largest year-to-year improvement in league history (per NFL Research).

A boost in performance from one of the highest-rated recruiting prospects of all time probably didn’t shock many football fans. We all know Lawrence, who broke school records at Clemson and was drafted first overall by Jacksonville, is a gifted player. And the Jaguars spent last offseason building a better coaching staff and receiver room around him.

But the 2022-23 season doesn’t reflect a quarterback who was always supposed to be good, finally playing up to his standards. It featured an athlete who was forced to adapt, and did.

What actually changed for Lawrence last year?

Lawrence cut back on the high-variance throws that previously worked in high school and college. That golden right arm and 6’ 6” frame still afforded him rare throwing windows, but he flexed his brain more than anything after Week 9. The speed at which he was processing defensive leverages and coverages... phew.

Lawrence was first in passing yards and scores, and second in passer rating and PFF grade, on throws under 2.5 seconds after the snap from Weeks 9-18. He simply became a machine on short-to-intermediate passes, despite his ability to throw a pigskin a quarter mile. Pederson and upgraded weapons were critical cogs but Lawrence made the system go.

Take this play against the Chargers in the Wild Card round. To Pederson’s credit, he’s one of the best in the league at creating different looks out of a few key concepts to create mismatches for the personnel at hand. One of the staples of his playbook, Mesh, is run here with tight end Evan Engram brought into the backfield via motion.

Engram runs a rail route, typically executed by a tailback who is stretching the field vertically while wideouts occupy shallower areas. Lawrence looked to him after the snap but saw Derwin James ready to carry Engram upfield. As he hits the back of his three-step drop, Lawrence moves to his second read -- Zay Jones -- but again sees a defender nearby. No matter. Lawrence kept his helmet pointed at Zay for an extra millisecond to subtly move Los Angeles’ linebacker before rifling the ball to Marvin Jones for the fourth-down conversion.

Pederson sets up targets and Lawrence knocks them down. He’s also managed to avoid being knocked over himself: only Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, and Josh Allen have a lower sack rate than Lawrence (4.7%) since he entered the league.

And now, Lawrence is avoiding negative plays entirely, as he halved his interception rate from 2.8% as a rookie (eighth-worst) to 1.4% last year (sixth-best).

Offensive coordinator Press Taylor told Go Long this offseason that the coaching staff urged Lawrence to play less like Superman and more like Clark Kent.

“He’s capable of doing those things. But it’s the routine, the day-in and day-out, the down-in and down-out. On first and goal from the 2-yard line against Houston, and we have a movement play, you don’t have to throw the ball. Nobody’s open? Throw it out of bounds. We’ll probably score the next play. Valuing the importance of the ball, it was him understanding all that as he went. We need him to be a point guard a lot of times.”

Lawrence himself told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler in August, “Making good decisions, getting it to the right guy in space, not forcing the ball -- I’m just trying to get better and better at that, just knowing when to be aggressive and when to pull back.”

Where can Lawrence still improve?

If you went back and watched the 2018-20 Clemson Tigers, or even the 2014-17 Cartersville High Purple Hurricanes, you might come away thinking that Lawrence can show off on the driving range but might need a little work around the greens. If you only viewed the first two years of his NFL career, you would say the opposite.

Jacksonville ranks dead last in passing plays of 30-plus yards over the past two seasons. Each year, on throws of 20-plus yards, Lawrence finished outside the top 20 among eligible quarterbacks in adjusted completion percentage, yards per attempt, and passer rating.

Deep passing should be the mark of an elite quarterback, not his kryptonite. The question for Lawrence this season is whether he can pair his newfound quick game dominance with the highlights we’re accustomed to seeing from superstars, not just a 12-yard gain off Mesh.

Beyond explosive pass plays, the Jaguars haven’t been a top-flight offense because of their performance near the pylon. Each of the past two seasons has seen Jacksonville finish in the bottom half of the league in red zone touchdown rate. But the best red zone teams are the ones that get there, as efficiency within the 20-yard line tends to balance out in the long run. The Jaguars ranked seventh in the number of drives that reached the red zone in 2021.

We might’ve seen Lawrence’s production on deep throws and scoring situations climb naturally in 2023, but with Calvin Ridley in town, there won’t be a reason to hope.

The former Falcon ranked fifth in ESPN’s overall receiver ratings and 10th in yards per route run among all players in his 2020 All-Pro campaign. Though Ridley hasn’t played a game since October 2021, all early signs out of Jacksonville point to a comeback campaign.

What can we learn from other quarterbacks?

There’s no one reason that Tom Brady became the winningest player in football history, but if you had to narrow it down, he took what the defense gave him better than anyone. As Steelers All-Pro defensive end Cam Heyward noted last year, “It’s remarkable how he knows how to find the vulnerable spots, how he knows how to find the perfect play.”

Brady had a Jordan-esque work ethic and a Jackson-like head coach, and that certainly helped form a dynasty in New England even more impressive than the ‘90s Bulls. But Michael was one of the greatest athletes in sports, ever. Tom was drafted 199th overall.

Think about all the times Brady drove down the field for the chance to win a game. How many times do you remember a badass walk-off 50-yard touchdown? And how many times did he carve up defenses with 5-to-10-yard gains at a time to get into field goal range?

That ability -- take what the defense is giving you -- is much easier said than done. (I know I’m not the only one who fixates on one route in Madden and throws it no matter what.) That’s why Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow have been lauded for the achievement.

Steven Ruiz of The Ringer examined Mahomes’ 2022 transformation in Kansas City.

“The NFL’s most exciting (and most effective) quarterback decided that the way to get better was to play a more boring brand of football—one with fewer big plays.”

Ben Solak, also of The Ringer, wrote about Burrow’s extraordinary season for the Bengals.

“Joe Burrow did what quarterbacks don’t really do; what players don’t really do: he changed his play style without an accompanying dropoff in efficiency.”

Mahomes and Burrow each started their careers captaining high-powered offenses before moving to more conservative throws as defenses adjusted. We’ve watched them balance the scale of modern decision-making on an NFL field (more on that later).

Lawrence didn’t get the same benefits when he first arrived in Jacksonville. Through his first two seasons, the Jaguars are 12-22 in the regular season, while Mahomes and Burrow have faced off in consecutive conference championships- including five straight for Mahomes.

But Lawrence learned the same lesson as his AFC rivals last year. He just did it without being on the top of the mountain first.

Remember what happened when Randy Moss arrived in Foxbourgh? That’s admittedly an irresponsible comparison -- Moss broke the league’s single-season touchdown record in his first season with Brady -- but there are also plenty of recent examples of premier receivers boosting the development of ascending quarterbacks (e.g., Stefon Diggs and Josh Allen).

What’s a good way to measure Lawrence’s future production?

Robby Greer of nfelo found that there’s no one metric that stands out above the rest when it comes to evaluating quarterback play. Rather than point to one single stat, a better method is the three-legged stool of quarterback play, theorized by Adam Harstad of Football Guys.

“Sometimes I like to think of QB play in neutral situations as a three-legged stool. You have yards per attempt ... You have INT%. And you have sacks. And pressure forces you to make trade offs on those three legs. You can either sacrifice YPA (by checking down / throwing OoB), sacrifice INT% (by forcing the ball), or sacrifice sack% (by trying to fight through the pressure). Whatever choice you make has consequences.

“The very best of the best QBs can be good in all three areas. Even then there are trade offs. Peyton [Manning] was a god at avoiding sacks and getting positive plays but his Int% was merely “pretty good”. [Aaron] Rodgers has sparkling positive play and INT rates, but eats sacks at a rate significantly above league average.”

As Solak detailed, Burrow escaped it. He previously had a high sack rate in order to regularly push the ball downfield, similar to Russell Wilson in his Seattle years. But then Burrow decided to simply stop taking sacks without ceding a big dip in yards per attempt.

Mahomes, meanwhile, is God disguised as a football player. He ranks top-10 all-time in sack rate, interception rate, and yards per attempt. No other quarterback is remotely close.

As for Lawrence, we already mentioned his impressive sack rate and improved INT rate. Here’s a look at how he’s performed (and where he ranks) if we split his career into fourths.

Trevor Lawrence’s career to date

- 2021 Weeks 1-9 2021 Weeks 10-18 2022 Weeks 1-9 2022 Weeks 10-18
- 2021 Weeks 1-9 2021 Weeks 10-18 2022 Weeks 1-9 2022 Weeks 10-18
Sack rate 4.0% (7th) 5.5% (13th) 3.6% (4th) 4.9% (7th)
Interception rate 3.0% (26th) 2.6% (23rd) 1.9% (14th) 0.7% (4th)
Yards per attempt 6.2 (32nd) 5.9 (28th) 6.7 (22nd) 7.4 (10th)
Among passers with at least 100 attempts via Sports Info Solutions

Over the second half of last season, Lawrence joined Mahomes and Jared Goff (!) as the only quarterbacks who ranked top-12 in each leg of the stool.

Now, with Ridley dressed in teal, Lawrence’s yards per attempt will continue to rise. He’s expected to put up huge numbers in general. But the true test of his greatness will be how he balances last year’s lesson -- take what the defense is giving you -- with a viable vertical threat now lining up outside. Can he keep those sack and interception numbers low while improving on deep passes and in the red zone? Or will he go back to forcing the ball again?

To use his own words, Lawrence must know “when to be aggressive and when to pull back.” It’ll be easy to get wrapped up in touchdown totals and MVP odds and player comparisons, but remember the three stools when you try to (objectively) evaluate his future play.

What’s next for Trevor Lawrence?

Calvin Ridley might solve Jacksonville’s deep passing and red zone woes single-handedly. That would launch the Jaguars into top-five scoring stratospheres, but the title of No. 1 scoring offense could be reachable if Lawrence continues to improve in his own right.

The fact that he isn’t playing in a new system can’t be understated. For the first time in his NFL career, Lawrence will be comfortable in the offense before Week 1.

Christian Kirk was asked this week about coaches giving Lawrence more responsibilities.

“The keys are his. We have a saying, ‘Trevor can get to anything at any time.’ It’s basically his toolbox of all the tools he’s been equipped within the offense, and when we go out there, if he sees something on the fly or if the defense comes out in something we maybe weren’t expecting, he knows where to go and how to put us into a better play.

“They trust him to be able to do that and that’s a thing that we did really well, especially towards the end of the year. Just being able to read and react and him thinking on his toes.”

From scheme familiarity to play-calling to skill positions, Lawrence’s toolbox is fully loaded. The only thing preventing him from fulfilling his potential is himself.

In other words, the Jacksonville Jaguars are good again, and only one question remains.

Will the prince take the throne?