A year after what many thought would be the most anticipated Jaguars season in well over a decade, which turned into a dumpster fire, the start of a real payoff is about to commence.
Whether it’s right out of the gate Sunday in the season opener against the Washington Commanders at FedEx Field, or at some other point in 2022, the generational quarterback this franchise thought it was getting in Trevor Lawrence is going to surface on a more consistent basis.
Not that this 22-year-old QB with a 32-year-old mind will be immune to bad games or ghastly interceptions, but Lawrence’s track record of success, his temperament and desire for greatness is too good for him not to start ascending.
It’s going to happen. Everybody around him sees the signs pointing to it.
Lawrence is a ticking time bomb — in a good way.
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While he must still adjust to new playmakers, a new head coach and new system, it seems only a matter of time before the Jaguars’ trigger man delivers an explosive quality to this offense. Maybe even emerge as the best quarterback in the AFC South by the end of this season.
Receiver Christian Kirk, the team’s most pricey free agent acquisition with a $72 million contract, saw a telltale sign during the joint practices last month with the Atlanta Falcons.
This wasn’t the rookie quarterback he watched on film from last year. Kirk was impressed how Lawrence adjusted on a particular play from one practice to the next, a foreshadowing that Trevor was going to be a lot harder for opposing defenses to deal with in 2022.
“You see the confidence level rising in regards to what his eyes are seeing,” said Kirk. “A rookie quarterback in general, the game can go fast. The moment it starts to slow down, you can start to decipher the defense and process all the information.
“The first day of [joint practices], he saw a look and didn’t read it correctly. But he said, ‘I can get to that.’ The same look comes the next day, he’s confident with it, throws the ball right where it needs to be. Great players take a mistake or a missed play or [missed] opportunity, and they fix it immediately. For me, Trevor has responded that way.”
The Jaguars’ widespread belief is moments like that are going to keep adding up, to the point where his growth will accelerate and there’ll be more victory celebrations. You likely won’t be seeing Lawrence having a league-high 17 interceptions, and certainly not a nine-game stretch of delivering only two touchdown passes (12 total in 2021).
“You look at certain interceptions, now you see him make those exact same throws for completions or moving on in his progression,” said Jaguars quarterback coach Mike McCoy. “He was locked in to a certain guy [last year], thought the ball should go here. He hadn’t seen that coverage, and now he’s seeing a lot of those things.
“He wants to be a great player. He’s doing everything he possibly can to get better every day. Don’t worry about any comparison, just be the best Trevor possible. That’s what he’s working on.”
Trevor’s maturity a trump card
Those who write off the Jaguars’ disastrous 3-14 season and the whole Urban Meyer debacle last year as a total waste of time are reading it all wrong.
Yes, it was a massive disappointment and nobody saw Meyer sabotaging his career in such stunning fashion, but Lawrence is sure to benefit from easily the worst football season of his life.
Just as NFL quarterbacks build momentum with each success along the way, there’s a growth component to dealing with the struggles. It’s almost impossible for rookie QBs to ignore, albeit the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger in 2004 and Justin Herbert in 2020 were rare exceptions.
Tight end Dan Arnold, who was traded to the Jaguars in Week 4 last season, has played only eight games with Lawrence. But he might well be his quarterback’s biggest proponent in the locker room, at least outside of former Clemson teammate Travis Etienne.
“I think a lot of his growth has to do with some things last year,” Arnold said. “He was left out to dry at some points just because of how hectic everything was here. He had to deal with a lot, and for a 21-year-old, 22-year-old to go through what he did and handle it as well as he did showed an immense amount of maturity.
“That prepared the guy for the league right off the bat and he handled it. That just goes to show how good his potential is and why his ceiling is so high.”
Pederson knows all about the trials of an NFL quarterback because he managed to squeeze 10 years out of being a backup for four different teams, as well as two stints in the World League of American Football.
He acknowledges that a big attraction of the Jaguars’ job wasn’t just the chance to be a head coach again after a five-year run with the Philadelphia Eagles, but the opportunity to mold a quarterback with substantial upside.
During the five months since he began working with Lawrence, that appeal has only grown stronger because of his progress and how he’s taken to coaching.
“I think it’s just down to the player, who the player is and how willing he is to take the coaching and take the criticism, take the good, the bad, and work on his craft,” Pederson said. “That’s with any player, but in this case with Trevor, that’s what we’ve seen from way back in the spring, just the improvement he’s made from OTAs in May and June to now are tremendous.
“Sometimes they’re even just subtle changes, but they’re changes to us, and those are the things you build on.”
Peyton’s big jump in Year 2
Many NFL players see their greatest improvement in their second season, and that especially holds true for quarterbacks.
“There’s so much to learn, so much on your plate compared to what you did in college,” said McCoy, a former starting quarterback at Utah. “Learning a new system, playing with new teammates, all those things. But now [Lawrence] has been in it for a year and having that year of experience is priceless.”
One of the biggest QB jumps in NFL history from the first year to the next occurred with Peyton Manning. He set a league record that still stands with 28 interceptions as a rookie, but then reduced it to 15 the following year and led the Indianapolis Colts to a 13-3 record.
He went on to become a five-time league MVP and two-time Super Bowl champion. Former Colts head coach Tony Dungy, who didn’t get to Indianapolis until Manning’s fifth season, vividly remembers his quarterback telling him how critical a miserable 3-13 rookie season was to his development.
Dungy looks at Lawrence — he wears No. 16 partially out of homage to Manning because his parents grew up huge Tennessee fans — and wouldn’t be surprised if a similar progression unfolds.
“Peyton told me it was invaluable playing that first year, even though he threw 28 interceptions,” said Dungy, an analyst for NBC Sunday Night Football. “That’s because the next year, he would already have mental notes on a certain cornerback or that [defensive] coordinator from Tennessee and what they did. Trevor will do the same thing.
“I remember saying to Peyton one time after a good play, ‘How did you know the blitz was coming?’ He said he heard the same defensive call from three years earlier. It’s amazing the stuff these guys pick up and file away from playing. Trevor will grow from all those experiences.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that Lawrence had his best and most efficient game in the final week of his rookie season against the Indianapolis Colts, a dominant 26-11 victory.
There were few more memorable plays the entire year than the 3-yard touchdown pass to Marvin Jones that essentially sealed the outcome. Lawrence snared a high snap from center Tyler Shatley, then was forced to immediately run from pressure due to an oncoming edge rusher. While sprinting backward to his right, he threw a pass 27 yards that hit Jones in stride in the back corner of the end zone.
Not many NFL quarterbacks would have the athleticism, presence of mind and getaway speed to make that play. Count on Lawrence making highlight-reel throws like that more often in 2022.
Why? He simply has a multitude of factors working in his favor that weren’t there last season. Beyond the normal improvement you expect to see from a gifted QB in his second year, Lawrence also has a better arsenal of weapons. Plus, an upgraded defense should easily surpass the 10 starting possessions he got last year in the opponents’ territory.
Most importantly, having a former NFL quarterback in Pederson as head coach cannot be overemphasized. Lawrence also has three assistant coaches — offensive coordinator Press Taylor, passing game coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and McCoy — working closely with him that all played the position.
“The stability coach Pederson has brought, that’s going to be as big as anything for Trevor,” said Dungy. “He will have stuff in the package the quarterback likes. Trevor is going to benefit playing for Doug. I think Trevor’s marriage with Doug and that staff is perfect.”
Trevor winning over locker room
Since Lawrence is the unquestioned face of the franchise, teammates get more questions about him than any other player. The positive responses about his long-term future is rather effusive.
Whether it’s from reviewing games/practices or daily interaction with their quarterback — who also took care of his receivers’ hotel expenses for a bonding trip in the Bahamas — the Jaguars are sold on Trevor living up to his vast potential.
“You guys [in the media] are going to see it,” said Marvin Jones. “As you play more and more, you start to get that command as a quarterback. The confidence in himself is only growing.”
Fellow receiver Zay Jones, who came over from the Las Vegas Raiders, simply likes the way Lawrence carries himself on a daily basis.
“The thing I admire about Trevor is he seems very sure of who he is,” said Zay. “What I mean by that is he’s not trying to be somebody else. No disrespect to any great quarterback, but he’s not trying to be Joe Montana. He’s Trevor. He moves at his own pace, whether right or wrong.
“I respect that in such a younger player. If you’re not comfortable with yourself coming into this league, you can be thrown in so many directions. To me, he never seems to panic on anything.
“Let’s say he’s having difficulty with something or showing us something, he always tells [us], ‘We’re going to get to that. Let me get back to you, give me some time to figure it out.’ He’s never panicking. There’s a poise about him.”
Lawrence has talked incessantly about the trust factor elevating with him and his teammates, but he saves his greatest appreciation for a stable working environment that should allow him to flourish in Year 2.
“It’s exciting just to see how far we’ve come within a year, through my lens, obviously it’s different for everyone,” said Lawrence. “To see the improvement of guys that were here, to see how much better we’ve gotten, and obviously the new additions have helped a ton, and just the whole mindset.
“I think the culture has really flipped, and that’s something that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s taken a lot of work by a lot of people and I think we’re at a great spot right now. … Obviously, you got to sustain it, and I’m just really excited to now have an opportunity to prove it. This one [game vs. Commanders] counts. And we’re going to have 17 games at least to prove who we are.”
He may not have a true No. 1 receiver, but Lawrence is no longer handicapped by minimal weapons, a head coach ill-prepared for the NFL or mounting dysfunction impeding his progress.
“There’s a reason he was the most touted quarterback prospect in the NFL and why the Jaguars wanted him so badly,” said Arnold. “He’s got a really good grasp of the offense. We got the right guy to go win some football games.”
Trevor Lawrence has navigated a brutal rookie season. Now it’s time for him to show the NFL that he’s ready to soar.
[email protected]: (904) 359-4540
Gene Frenette Sports columnist at Florida Times-Union, follow him on Twitter @genefrenette