2020 NFL Preview: State of the Quarterback

2017. A no. 2 overall pick just a year before, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz lights up the NFL. Wentz, who finishes the campaign with 33 touchdown tosses, leads the MVP race until a season-ending injury in Week 15 and the Eagles to the number 1 seed in the NFC. Philadelphia goes on to win the Super Bowl later that year.

2018. After one start his rookie season, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes explodes onto the scene by becoming the third quarterback to top the 50-touchdown plateau in a season. To the surprise of no one, Mahomes earns MVP honors, and he proves his mettle in the playoffs with two valiant performances and finishes just short of the Super Bowl.

2019. Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson makes good on coach John Harbaugh’s promise of a revolutionary offense. At the ripe age of 22, Jackson transforms the quarterback position with over 1,200 rushing yards for the league’s leading rushing attack, but also demonstrates that he is one of the most dangerous passers with 36 touchdown passes. Jackson’s Ravens set a franchise mark with 14 wins and the AFC’s top seed, and the Louisville product becomes the second-ever unanimous MVP selection.

Three straight years, three sophomore quarterbacks stealing the show from the established greats. This is not normal. Instead of the familiar, patient approach to quarterback development that has characterized teams of the past, the league’s blue bloods have taken a different tact. Wentz, Mahomes, Jackson and their peers are hitting the ground running, winning MVP awards and leading their teams to the postseason because their teams are investing in them, blending philosophy and talent to break open the league. 

Rewind back a couple decades and the prevalent quarterback development timeline sure doesn’t look like “MVP in Year 2.” Ideally, teams drafted promising passers planning to sit them on the bench for their first couple seasons to acclimate them to the professional game, then transition the player into their role of starter. Aaron Rodgers, a 2005 first-round draft pick, sat until 2008 (!) behind legend Brett Favre, which seemed to be a reason behind his success when Rodgers finally took the reins in Green Bay. Throwing out a rookie under center Day 1 seemed like a surefire way to crush confidence or stunt growth. 

In the case of young quarterbacks who were forced into early action, such as Tom Brady or Russell Wilson, their teams optimized their roles as game managers to complement talented defenses. With less of a burden than a franchise guy, the quarterbacks proved a vital piece of their teams’ Super Bowl runs, but neither became an elite, MVP-caliber player until later in their careers. 

The shift toward younger quarterbacks can be traced to the 2011 CBA, which limited rookie contracts and incentivized teams to take advantage of low-cost contracts for young passers. Wilson, the game manager who teamed up with the talented Legion of Boom defense and shared a backfield with Marshawn Lynch, became the poster child for the change. Given the high cost of maintaining a top-tier veteran quarterback, teams with a starting quarterback on a rookie deal had a leg up on the competition — a bargain under center and more cap flexibility to build a dangerous supporting cast. 

Still, the status quo stayed the same — teams with franchise quarterbacks would lock up their guys before they could hit the market, regardless of the bloated cap hit. Where the trend evolved was in Kansas City with Andy Reid and the franchise-altering selection of Patrick Mahomes. At the time, the Chiefs were a top team in the AFC — not a true Super Bowl contender behind quarterback Alex Smith, but one that could go far in January. Instead of sticking with Smith long-term, the Chiefs used their draft capital to move up and pick Mahomes out of Texas Tech. 

Kansas City then set out to make the most of Mahomes’ rookie deal by using their cap savings from the quarterback position to construct a championship-caliber supporting cast that would coincide with Mahomes’ development as a quarterback. Once Mahomes stepped in at the helm at the start of 2018, he had one of the league’s elite arsenals with Chief draftees Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce and free agent acquisitions such as Sammy Watkins. Aside from investing in Mahomes’ supporting cast, and in doing so Mahomes himself, Kansas City also integrated Mahomes’s strengths into its offensive philosophy. The result — 50 touchdowns, over 5,000 passing yards, and the AFC West crown, along with an MVP award for Mahomes. With Mahomes still on his rookie deal for the 2019 season, the Chiefs ran the table and won their first Super Bowl in 50 years. 

The evolution of rookie contract optimization isn’t exclusive to Kansas City. A year before, Wentz took off behind one of the league’s best offensive lines and under the guidance of an offensive genius in coach Doug Peterson (a former Reid assistant), and the completeness of Philadelphia’s roster showed in the Eagles’ Super Bowl run and 41-point outburst in Super Bowl LII. The Ravens transformed their offense from pocket passer Joe Flacco to the dual threat Lamar Jackson. In just a couple months, Baltimore constructed an option-heavy attack that optimized Jackson’s strengths as a rusher and decision-maker, with top offensive mind Greg Roman at the helm and head coach John Harbaugh willing to throw out all convention to invest in his quarterback of the future. 

Would these three quarterbacks still play at an All-Pro level in different cities? Perhaps, but it is hard to imagine landing spots more suited to help these stars reach MVP status so quickly. 

Conversely, the cautionary tales around the league warn of the dangers of a lack of investment in a quarterback. Most prominently, the Colts drafted Andrew Luck first overall in 2012 but failed to surround him with the offensive line and organizational stability to make the most of his talents. Indianapolis reached the playoffs in Luck’s first three years under center, but the beating destroyed Luck’s body, and by the 2019 season the player once considered the next John Elway was out of the league. 

Another highly touted quarterback prospect, Sam Darnold, could be headed the same way. Darnold entered the league as a quarterback for one of the worst teams in football (in contrast to the playoff contenders of Philly, Kansas City and Baltimore), and in his three seasons he has lacked the organizational stability and coaching acumen of his peers. The Jets have failed to invest in the offensive line and receiving corps, and Darnold, once a sure thing, is now light years behind his Class of 2018 mate in Jackson and may never live up to his talent ceiling. At any rate, New York has thrown away the prime value years of his rookie contract by failing to surround Darnold with a playoff-worthy team and acclimate their timeline to his. 

The most jarring case study in the league is Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff. In his rookie year, Goff, the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, seemed destined for the later category. Goff lost all seven of his starts as a rookie with a 63.6 passer rating and more interceptions than touchdowns, though the subpar coaching of Jeff Fisher and a deficient supporting cast should carry some of the blame. Everything around Goff changed in Year 2 — offensive wunderkind Sean McVay took over coaching duties and the Rams invested in the offensive line and receiving corps. Everything about Goff on the field changed in the 2017 season as a result. Goff’s passer rating skyrocketed to over 100, with almost 4,000 passing yards and 28 touchdown tosses. Most importantly, the Rams returned to the playoffs for the first time in over a decade, and a year later Los Angeles was in the Super Bowl. Goff was the same quarterback (though you wouldn’t be able to tell from looking at the statistics), but McVay and general manager Les Snead unlocked his potential in a way the previous regime could not.

The implications on the rest of the league are tremendous. Deshaun Watson, one of the league’s dynamic playmakers and another Class of 2017 draftee, has seen his offensive line and receiving corps stripped by the questionable personnel tactics of head coach/GM Bill O’Brien — will the burden on Watson take a visible toll on his game and Houston’s win total? Will teams with rookie or second-year quarterbacks such as Arizona or Miami successfully calibrate their timelines with their quarterback’s? Can quarterbacks near the end of their rookie contracts, such as Darnold and Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield, make a playoff push before their relative bargains expire? 

The most intriguing question, and where this trend will continue to evolve, is the progression of the current wave of quarterbacks. There has never been a three-year period of quarterback classes as talented as 2016-2018 (1983 and 2004 had good classes, but this span exceeds them). Now, many of those quarterbacks have graduated from their rookie deals to well-deserved mega-contracts, whether it’s Mahomes on his massive $500 million contract or others like Dak Prescott, Watson, or Jackson eyeing their paydays. Instead of saving money on a young quarterback and building a rock-solid supporting cast, their teams will attempt the new challenge to keep their talent intact while spending major dough on the quarterback position. Will guys like Mahomes and Carson Wentz be just as good with the inevitable drop in talent, or will the rookie contract construct still hold its ground as the best way to emerge in the title race? That question is keeping the NFL holding its breath and will dictate the next chapter of NFL history.

I believe the groundbreaking talents of this new generation of quarterbacks will win that battle. Yes, top quarterbacks with huge cap hits have failed to win the Super Bowl, but 1) Tom Brady has been winning most of those (and his extremely team-friendly contract in New England makes him an outlier) and 2) many of those quarterbacks, such as Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees came close. No NFL team should pass up one of these proven franchise players if the goal is to win a Super Bowl (translation: Dallas, get Dak paid). The Mahomes and Jacksons of the league are going to win because they are transcendent talents, especially in a league with as much parity as ever with the fall of the New England dynasty. The new challenge will become how well these top teams can draft and develop their supporting casts while letting pricy free agents walk out the door.  

There has never been a more exciting time to be an NFL fan. Even with all-time greats like Tom Brady and Drew Brees on their last legs as NFL starters, the quarterback position, the engine that drives the country’s most popular sport, is entering its golden age. Quarterbacks alone are making Sunday games a top draw — the jukes and spins of a Lamar Jackson, the last vestiges of a Tom Brady, the no-look wizardry of a Patrick Mahomes, the mad scrambles of a Deshaun Watson, the impeccable touch of a Russell Wilson, the swagger of a Gardner Minshew. The sport is in good hands — a league full of exciting playmakers who promise a future of football more irresistible than the sport has ever been.

2020 QB Rankings

Combining past and present, with an emphasis on making myself look good in six months. 

Tier One: The Elite

1) Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs — Uncontested No. 1. Expect a big year.

2) Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks — He’s MVP-level great, but he hasn’t proven he can win in the playoffs as his team’s top option.

3) Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens — Excited for the MVP encore. How will he get better?

4) Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans — Can an elite quarterback win with a terrible team?

5) Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints — Still accurate, but can’t run out of steam in January.

6) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers — Either he’ll become more comfortable with Matt LaFleur, or this thing will go spectacularly haywire.

Tier Two: The Franchise Quarterbacks

7) Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Brady has a fantastic chance to prove himself in a new city with an elite supporting cast.

8) Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys — The numbers were up, but wins were down. Which Dak will we see in 2020?

9) Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles — Wentz has to hope for a more healthy supporting cast to stave off Dallas.

10) Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions — He’s been great on a bad team, and a Wild Card berth would be impressive if he can up his game against top opponents.

11) Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers — Big Ben could have one last run in him if he returns to 2018 form.

Tier Three: On the Cusp

12) Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers — The bright lights crushed Jimmy G in the Super Bowl, but he should get another chance.

13) Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams — Time for Goff to prove he’s worth the money and can be the leader of a Gurley-less offense.

14) Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals — Could jump up to the elite echelon with a super sophomore season, but has to win first.

15) Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons — The 2016 season is fading by the day.

16) Philip Rivers, Indianapolis Colts — Familiar coaches and a super O-line bode well for Rivers in Indy, but the weapons are a massive downgrade.

17) Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans — I need a larger sample size to trust Tannehill, and he’ll likely get one if Derrick Henry can’t keep up his workload.

18) Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings — Cousins looked a little bit less like a bad deal in 2019, but it always helps when Dalvin Cook stands behind you. 

Tier Four: Solid Starters

19) Derek Carr, Las Vegas Raiders — I’m not sold he’s the guy in Las Vegas, but he’s flashed Pro Bowl potential before.

20) Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns — Not a bust yet, and 2020 is as good an opportunity as ever to turn the ship around.

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