Nathan Rourke got ‘reassurance’ from Jaguars to compete to back up Trevor Lawrence while taking ‘first step’ towards being an ‘NFL starter’

Photo courtesy: Tiffany Luke/B.C. Lions

Canadian quarterback Nathan Rourke worked out for a dozen different NFL franchises before reaching a decision on where to continue his playing career, but no teams were able to unseat the Jacksonville Jaguars as his preferred destination.

“They were the No. 1 team throughout this process. We were really trying to make sure that we were exhausting all other leads and making sure that there wasn’t anything better out there. And there wasn’t,” Rourke told 3DownNation in a phone interview shortly after signing his first NFL contract.

“There were teams that made some offers, but ultimately, the situation and the prospect of helping the team out and being able to compete for a number two job was best in Jacksonville. Ultimately, we made the decision that we did because the goal is to be an NFL quarterback and an NFL starter, I think this is a good first step in that direction.”

Rourke inked a standard, three-year rookie contract with the Jaguars on Sunday, which has a minimum salary of $750,000 USD and includes guaranteed money. That brought an end to months of speculation regarding his future. Right from the start, the Canadian and his agent Cameron Weiss highlighted Jacksonville, along with the Las Vegas Raiders and Denver Broncos, as priority targets due to their serious interest.

While other contenders emerged late in the process and made competitive offers, the experience he had during his visit to Duval County on Monday, December 5 set the Jaguars apart from the rest of the NFL teams.

“It seemed to me that there were a lot of people in that building that wanted to see me succeed, were willing to see that through and see my growth and development and give me a chance to grow and develop there,” Rourke recalled.

“Sometimes you’re not sure how many eyes have been on you prior to you getting to a workout. Sometimes they’re seeing you for the first time, sometimes you’ve got somebody in the building that’s really high on you but nobody else knows who you are.”

“With Jacksonville, it seemed like there were a lot of people there that were excited about me being there and thought it worthwhile to come out and meet me if they hadn’t seen me before, or see the workout, or spend some time afterwards seeing what kind of person I was.”

Quarterbacks coach Mike McCoy, a 20-year NFL coaching veteran who briefly played for the Calgary Stampeders in 1999, put Rourke through the paces in Florida. Head coach Doug Pederson, a Super Bowl winner as a bench boss with the Philadelphia Eagles, was also in attendance, though he did not have a chance to speak with the prospective signal caller.

Among those who did engage in conversation was offensive quality control coach Henry Burris. The Hall of Fame CFL quarterback had been hired by the B.C. Lions as a consultant to work with their quarterbacks prior to last season, before an unexpected job offer from Jacksonville caused him to leave the organization. He became one of the voices pushing for Rourke within the Jags’ building and provided the 24-year-old with a sounding board when considering making the jump south from the CFL, a choice Burris himself has experienced.

“He’s been through that kind of debate about whether or not that decision was worth it, all the intricacies and the details that go into that decision. I appreciated his unbiased advice,” Rourke said. “He didn’t say: ‘Hey, you’ve got to come to Jacksonville.’ He said: ‘You’ve got to do what’s best for you and you better weigh out your decision and go into a situation that’s going to help you succeed.'”

Ultimately, that situation was with the same team that hired Burris, where Rourke believes he’ll have the best chance to take the first steps toward his goal of becoming an NFL starter.

The native of Victoria, B.C. is coming off a sensational 2022 season in the CFL during which he completed 78.7 percent of his passes for 3,349 yards with 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 10 games. He also ran the football 39 times for 304 yards and seven scores, becoming the first quarterback to win the league’s Most Outstanding Canadian award since 1980.

Rourke went 8-1 as a starter before undergoing surgery in August to repair a Lisfranc sprain in his foot. Though the injury was originally thought to be season-ending, he was able to return for the final week of the regular season and play the first quarter of a meaningless contest against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

He started the West Semi-Final the following week and threw for 321 yards with two touchdowns in a 30-16 victory over the Calgary Stampeders. He and his team were eliminated from postseason contention against Winnipeg the following week after he threw for 300 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions in a 28-20 loss in the West Final.

After such an accomplished first season as a pro starter, some have questioned why Rourke would choose to sign with an organization where his path to starting is limited. The Jaguars selected generational quarterback talent Trevor Lawrence with the first-overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and the 23-year-old is beginning to hit his stride as a professional, helping lead the team to a come-from-behind victory over the Los Angeles Chargers in the NFL’s Wild Card playoffs on Saturday night.

Lawrence is expected to be entrenched as the team’s starter long-term, a fact that Rourke fully understands. Citing the experience of former Stampeder Bo Levi Mitchell a few years ago, he believes that no NFL team would be willing to offer a CFL quarterback a shot at their top job right away. In the end, many of the places where fans speculated early playing time might be the easiest did not enter into the final discussion.

“There were some situations out there that I thought were going to be pretty viable, maybe they had a veteran quarterback, and for one reason or another, those things fell through,” Rourke recounted. “That’s not to say that they were better or worse decisions or better or worse situations than Jacksonville, but certainly some other options that people might have thought were obvious weren’t on the table.”

By virtue of their stability at the top of the depth chart, what the Jaguars could offer Rourke were assurances that he would get to compete for the number two job behind Lawrence, putting him one play away from the field in the event of an injury. Current backup C.J. Beathard is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this offseason.

“I don’t think without that reassurance I would have made the jump, to be honest,” Rourke acknowledged. “To me, it wasn’t worth it to go down there and be a practice roster player. It was important that I was going to be able to be on an active roster or at least have the chance and then the ball’s in my court at that point.”

Still younger than some 2023 NFL Draft prospects, the Ohio University product has time to develop and put together some strong preseason tape before pushing for a starting job elsewhere. His extensive workout tour has helped establish relationships and familiarity with NFL teams that could prompt a quarterback-needy franchise to trade for him in the future but for now, the focus is on getting better behind Lawrence.

“Trevor’s a great quarterback and I think there’s a lot to learn from him. He’s had a great year this year and I think that system definitely fits his strengths. And I think a lot of those strengths are the things that I can do well as well,” Rourke noted.

“What excites me about the situation is the step that he took from year one to year two in coach Pederson’s offence. I think that if a player of that calibre is able to make that kind of improvement, it really gets me excited to be able to be in that offence, to learn and to hopefully make some strides of my own.”

Rourke has already shown the capacity for exactly that type of dramatic improvement. Coming out of the NCAA, the six-foot-two, 209-pound passer had no NFL interest, his only opportunity coming via a mini-camp tryout as a receiver with the New York Giants in 2021. Less than two years later, he is an award-winning star north of the border who had more than a dozen suitors despite a foot injury.

He will have a plate and several screws removed from his foot at the end of January, commencing the final stage of his recovery process. While he is not yet certain whether the month of rehab will take place in B.C. or down in Florida with the Jaguars training and medical staff, the recently engaged Rourke is already looking at places in Jacksonville — finally able to move out of his parent’s house, where he lived during his first two years as a pro.

Known for his preparedness and decision-making ability on the field, he believes he has made the right choice for his playing future based on the way the Jaguars made him feel valued throughout this process.

“I don’t think it’s a necessity but I think it speaks volumes about the type of organization you’re getting into,” Rourke said.

“If they’re gonna treat an undrafted free agent rookie a certain way, then they probably treat the rest of their players pretty good. That’s a sign to me of a high character, high integrity organization, which is exactly what you want.”

Justin Dunk is a football insider, sports reporter and anchor.