Year 2 for a quarterback is when it happens… or it doesn’t. Studies have shown quarterbacks tend to take their biggest leap in production in their second season and those who fail to do so typically don’t turn out to be above average starters for the long-term.
Today, in Tables I Probably Won’t Use in Football Outsiders Almanac 2020:
The average year-over-year improvement for quarterbacks who started in both Year X and Year X-1! pic.twitter.com/k9Tb8dV9oI
— Bryan Knowles (@BryKno) May 22, 2020
Five rookie quarterbacks played significant time in 2019 and while all had differing expectations entering their first professional season, all five will be looked upon to make the leap in 2020. That leap will look different for each quarterback, so we can take a look at the biggest key for each of the five members of the 2019 quarterback class as they enter the all-important Year 2.
Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals
2019 summarized: Clear talent and promising traits held back by poor surrounding talent
Key to Year 2 leap: Keep it moving forward
As the first overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Kyler Murray had high expectations that were mostly met. Murray flashed the most potential of the draft class, even if some of the results were underwhelming, where he was below average in a number of passing stats. Murray finished the season with just 6.9 yards per attempt, which came out to a YPA+ of just 92 (8% below the scale of 100 as average). He also ran a high sack rate (82 Sack%+), due in part to a poor offensive line and in part to his style of play. His touchdown rate of just 3.7% (90 TD%+) was also well below the league average.
While the Cardinals adjusted scheme and philosophy as the season progressed, a lot of Murray’s lack of standout production came by design as the offense worked around a lack of talent, especially at wide receiver. No team used more screens during the 2019 season than the Cardinals with 97, per Sports Info Solutions. The next highest team was the Cleveland Browns with 75. Arizona relied on wide receiver screens more (56) and just those alone would have ranked as the seventh-highest overall total of screens in the league.
Arizona’s high usage of screens worked (their wide receiver screens had an impressive 0.15 EPA per attempt and 55.4% positive play rate, well above the -0.07 and 42.6% league averages) but those throws kept Murray and the Cardinals from attacking deep more often. This was especially true on first down, when 41% of Murray’s attempts came at or behind the line of scrimmage, easily the highest rate in the league.
Murray, perhaps unsurprisingly, was a much better deep thrower than he was in the short and intermediate game.
The problem was the Cardinals did not have the threats at wide receiver to create a consistent downfield passing game. Larry Fitzgerald led Arizona wide receivers with 84.6% of the offensive snaps played followed by Christian Kirk at 75.5%. After that, the Cardinals used a revolving cast of receivers based on who was healthy and efficient. Now DeAndre Hopkins will be added as the No. 1 option, which should help with a focus on passes thrown beyond the line of scrimmage. Fitzgerald and Kirk will also play bigger roles as could Andy Isabella and Hakeem Butler, two 2019 draft picks with upside.
A better downfield passing attack should also help Murray get more value out of his legs. Last season, Murray put up 11.9 EPA on 50 designed quarterback runs including read-option keepers. But on 32 rushing attempts on scrambles or broken plays, Murray had -5.5 EPA, per SIS.
Daniel Jones, New York Giants
2019 summarized: Better than expected, still not good
Key to Year 2 leap: Awareness
As a draft prospect, Daniel Jones was incredibly polarizing. His rookie year didn’t do much to change that. The takeaways from Jones’s first season as a starter vary by the eye of the beholder. There were just enough flashes to believe Jones can be an above-average starter in the league but there were also potentially fatal flaws that if not fixed could derail any positive progress.
Nothing highlights that more than Jones’s play under pressure. Many of Jones’s highlight plays came standing in the face of pressure. But that ability to stand strong in the pocket came more from obliviousness to that pressure coming than an ability to handle it. Even with Jones’s highlights under pressure, the results were underwhelming: 5.3 yards per attempt (21st of 26 quarterbacks with 100 or more attempts under pressure), -0.66 EPA per attempt (24th), and 31.1% positive play rate (22nd).
Jones added muscle this offseason to help his fumbling issue (he led the league in fumbles last season), but it’s unlikely that means anything if the quarterback is not aware of an incoming hit. Jones’s ability to hold onto the ball will come much more from an improvement in reading and feeling pressure than having a stronger grip on the ball when the hit occurs.
Better pocket presence might decrease the volume of the crazy throws with a defender in his face, but it would also eliminate those low-end plays that were more detrimental than the good throws were positive.
With Jason Garrett as the new offensive coordinator in New York, the Giants are expected to adopt a more vertical-based offense. That doesn’t exactly help limit Jones’s time in the pocket, as his struggles increased the deeper his dropbacks were in 2019.
Some more context on these Daniel Jones drops. Here are his EPA/att rankings among QBs in 2019 (min. 50 att) and league average for each drop.
0/1 step: 1st of 28 (avg: 0.00)
3 step: 40th of 41 (avg. 0.00)
5 step: 26th of 26 (avg. 0.07)
— Dan Pizzuta (@DanPizzuta) May 5, 2020
Part of the awareness in a new offense also needs to extend to reading the defense after the snap. Jones was great in the quick game, especially off RPO’s where Jones led the league in EPA per attempt among 22 quarterbacks with at least 10 such attempts. However, Jones only had 18 RPO attempts which ranked 12th most among quarterbacks and well below the league leaders in the 30’s and 40’s. Jones would benefit if those throws will be more ingrained in the 2020 offense but Garrett’s vertical element could ask for more standard dropbacks, where Jones struggled last season.
At his best, Jones was accurate when the read was defined but if the defense presented a look Jones was not ready for, he hesitated and added hitches before his release that usually caused the ball to arrive late. John Shirley of Sports Info Solutions did a study that showed quarterbacks typically improve on deeper dropbacks as they progress through their careers. The question for Jones will be how much that will happen.
Jones could improve and still be among the league’s least productive quarterbacks on 3- and 5-step drops. But if Jones can grasp this new offense and put up even average production on those deeper drops, the Giants could be on to something.
Dwayne Haskins, Washington Football Team
2019 summarized: WFT? More like WTF, amirite?!?
Key to Year 2 leap: Experience
No rookie quarterback came into a worse situation last year than Dwayne Haskins. Despite being Washington’s first-round pick, there was a clear disconnect between the front office and coaching staff in terms of how they viewed Haskins, especially as a Year 1 starter. You can read about the yo-yo management of Haskins’s playing time in the Washington chapter of the 2020 Sharp Football Preview, but he was given limited practice reps through the first half of the season despite being forced into a Week 3 game for a benched Case Keenum and entering a Week 8 game for an injured Keenum before finally taking over as the full-time starter in Week 9.
But even after Haskins was inserted as the starter, the results were disastrous. From Weeks 9-17, Haskins finished 31st in EPA per attempt and 28th in positive play rate among 35 quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts. He was also just one of two quarterbacks, along with Eli Manning, to finish with negative EPA on throws to the intermediate level of the field.
If there was good news for Haskins, it’s that he did improve in each game he played until he was forced to leave a Week 16 game against the Giants due to injury. That Giants game, though, was easily Haskins’s best of the season and he had largely outplayed Daniel Jones before the injury.
Dwayne Haskins EPA Game Log, Weeks 9-16
It would be one thing if an experienced starter was thrown into the fire the way Haskins was to start his career, but Haskins only had one year as a college starter before he joined the mess of the Washington Football Team last season. This year, even with the current circumstances, Haskins will be able to prep as the starter from Day 1.
Another positive for the 2020 season is a new coaching staff and system in place that could be more beneficial to Haskins’s play. Jared Goff is a recent example of a quarterback who had a terrible rookie year only to see a Year 2 leap thanks to a better coaching staff and offensive system.
There are also indicators that Haskins’s 2019 wasn’t exactly as bad as it looked. SIS charted Haskins with one of the league’s highest on-target rates on passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air (second of 34). However, just a third of his deep passes were completed. Haskins was also the only quarterback of those 34 with at least 20 deep attempts to not have a touchdown pass on one of those throws. With more throws schemed open in the short and intermediate area and better luck on some deep passes, Haskins could easily find himself in a much better position for Year 2.
Drew Lock, Denver Broncos
2019 summarized: A mixed bag in a limited sample
Key to Year 2 leap: Decision-making
We know very little about Drew Lock. There were some highlights and lowlights during his five-game stretch as the starting quarterback when the Broncos went 4-1. That record has led some to be bullish on Lock’s progression as a quarterback, but what actually happened on the field doesn’t exactly tell the same story.
Lock came into the NFL as a strong-armed prospect who could at any time launch a beautiful pass or be just as likely to throw the wildest interception anyone has ever seen. This is the quarterback who in college threw a pick-6 on a screen after his running back had fallen down.
When Lock came on as the starter in 2019, he didn’t make many mistakes but he wasn’t really allowed to given how the offense was structured around him. The Broncos limited the damage that could have been done by keeping things incredibly simple in the offense. Lock had the sixth-lowest average depth of target (aDOT) of 39 quarterbacks who qualified for the NFL Next Gen Stats leaderboard. He also tied with Teddy Bridgewater for the third-lowest average depth of completion. Lock’s game against the Texans was the only start in which he eclipsed 6.4 yards per attempt. That short and safe strategy decreased the risk — Lock had just a 1.9% interception rate and 2.9% sack rate — but it also took away some of the upside of what could potentially make Lock a plus-starter.
Still, even those positive results did not tell the whole story. With the short passes, Lock still had a negative CPOE (completion percentage over expectation, -1.7%). Even though Lock threw just three interceptions, another 10 passes were defensed per SIS and a few of those easily could have been interceptions. Two of Lock’s three interceptions came from his 11 passes that traveled at least 20 air yards, marking a 9.1% interception rate on such throws. When Lock was unleashed, there wasn’t much positive. Only 27.3% of those deep throws were completed and one was a meaningless 33-yard completion well short of the end zone as time expired at the end of a half.
But in college, Lock was one of the few “big-armed” prospects able to back up that arm with production on the deep ball. He was more accurate than similar prospects like Josh Allen. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a vast improvement in that area should Lock be able to push the ball down the field more often in 2020.
With a new offensive coordinator and additional weapons in Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler on top of Cameron Sutton and Noah Fant, the Broncos will likely put more on Lock’s plate this season to see how much he can handle. If Denver can figure out how to unleash the upside of Lock’s arm talent while also keeping his decision-making in check, there could be potential for valuable quarterback play.
Gardner Minshew, Jacksonville Jaguars
2019 summarized: More than just a meme
Key to Year 2 leap: Airing it out
Little was expected of Gardner Minshew as a rookie, a sixth-round pick who was never supposed to see the field. But behind the mustache, sunglasses, and jean shorts came surprisingly productive quarterback play in Jacksonville. Minshew still finished with negative EPA for the season but look just as good or better than his fellow rookie quarterbacks who were drafted much earlier.
Minshew’s best asset might have been his deep touch and accuracy but that wasn’t something the Jaguars asked him to do often enough. Just 45 of Minshew’s 470 attempts (9.5%) traveled at least 20 air yards. He was fourth in on-target percentage and second in completion percentage on such throws, per SIS. Minshew had great timing and chemistry with D.J. Chark on downfield back shoulder fades and the quarterback showed great anticipation on his deep passes — he wasn’t just a see it open and throw it passer.
The Jaguars were also second-to-last in the rate of play-action (just 14%) last season. Increased use of the play fake could open up throwing lanes for Minshew and allow the receivers to create more separation. (Chark was already the best separator on deep targets.) Those deeper drops, whether just on deep passes or off play-action were where Minshew thrived in 2019. He was third in EPA per attempt on pass attempts with a 5-step drop.
It will also help that a pass-catching running back has been added to the mix. Chris Thompson followed former Washington coach and new Jacksonville offensive coordinator Jay Gruden in free agency. That can at least limit the empty targets and receptions that went to Leonard Fournette so often in 2019. Only three quarterbacks last season had lower EPA than Minshew (-13.2) on throws to running backs with at least 50 such attempts. Transferring those targets (Minshew had 101 of them) to more valuable players and areas of the field is an easy way to boost efficiency for 2020.
Despite being in the Mike Leach “Air Raid” system at Washington State, many of Minshew’s passes were also short in college. The idea was built around creating space for open throws. But a rookie, Minshew showed the ability to be consistently good at high-value targets. Given the structure of the receiving corps with Chark, Chris Conley, Keelan Cole, and Dede Westbrook, it’s hard to imagine an offense outside of Kansas City better suited for a deep passing attack.
Places where Minshew struggled, like the short, quick game — are easier to improve upon and have a lower upside than the areas where Minshew showed success in 2019. His college experience also shows the short, quick stuff can be there for him if the offensive personnel allows it to be.
The Jaguars might be in a tanking situation for 2020 in search of their next franchise quarterback, but there’s a realistic scenario where they let their current quarterback loose and he plays well enough that a tank won’t be in the cards.