An NFL quarterback typically shows his potential by the end of Year 2. The Josh Allen Third Year Leap™ has been reserved for, well, Josh Allen and Troy Aikman. The Year 2 leap isn’t just about whether the quarterback is going to be good or not, but regardless of the starting point from a rookie season, quarterbacks tend to see their biggest improvement during that second season. Those starting points and improvements are going to be different depending on the player, but showing signs of progression is an important step in the career arc of a quarterback.
There were four quarterbacks who saw significant playing time in 2020 and are expected to do so again in 2021. Let’s take a look at what they did last season and what could be the key in Year 2.
All stats provided by Sports Info Solutions unless noted otherwise.
Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals
2020 summarized: A promising debut cut short
Key to Year 2 leap: Deep touch
Burrow came into the NFL following one of the most productive college seasons of all-time. In his transition to Cincinnati, the Bengals kept a number of concepts that worked at LSU. Burrow had the most dropbacks in empty sets during his 2019 season with 164 (27% of his total dropbacks. He only played 10 games in 2020 but still finished with the fifth-most dropbacks in empty among all quarterbacks last season (117, 25.9%).
Relying heavily on those empty formations helped (at least for a time) cover up an offensive line that struggled to pass block. The Bengals ranked 29th in ESPN’s Pass Block Win rate last season. They made moderate changes to the line (and notably passed on Penei Sewell) in the draft, but it’s likely Burrow will again live in empty to get the ball out quickly in 2021.
Empty and quick game isn’t just a self-defense mechanism, though. That’s where Burrow thrived and he was one of the best quick-game passers in the NFL last season. Burrow had the 12th most attempts from a 0- or 1-step drop in 2020. He had the second-most EPA on those drops, behind only Josh Allen, and he averaged 0.31 EPA per attempt. Among quarterbacks with at least 10 such drops, Burrow ranked first in positive play rate (the percentage of plays that produce positive EPA) at 62.5%.
Of course, the problem for the Bengals is whenever Burrow tried to throw deep. Burrow was just 9-of-45 on throws that traveled 20 or more yards past the line of scrimmage. That 20% completion percentage was better than only Dwayne Haskins and Mitchell Trubisky among 36 quarterbacks with at least 20 such attempts. Burrow’s catchable rate and on-target rate were better, but they were still among the bottom third in the league. We wrote about Burrow’s struggles with the deep ball during the season and why many of them weren’t connecting. The hope is switching out A.J. Green for Ja’Marr Chase can provide a benefit for the former LSU teammates.
Burrow’s general accuracy is still great and the way they worked around the deep ball ineffectiveness in 2020 was to hit some back shoulder fades. Burrow was 9-of-10 on back shoulder fade attempts last season with a 15.1 average depth of target and 16.1 yards per attempt. Yes, 10 throws is a small sample, but that averages to one per game and he completed nine of them. Three other quarterbacks attempted at least 10 back shoulder fades in 2020 and those completion percentages were 38.5%, 41.7%, and 40%.
Those leading deep passes are going to need to be more consistent if Burrow is going to take another step. Big plays have to be part of the arsenal for the offense to hang. As a team, the Bengals ranked 32nd in explosive play rate for the entire season and during the weeks with a healthy Burrow.
Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins
2020 summarized: Safe and underwhelming
Key to Year 2 leap: Open it up
The perception of Tagovailoa’s rookie season has taken on a life of its own. It doesn’t help that he was compared to a quarterback selected a pick after him and the optics of being pulled for Ryan Fitzpatrick in multiple games, but Tagovailoa had a difficult starting point. He was coming off a major hip injury that had initially questioned whether the quarterback would physically be able to get on the field during his first season. All rookies had to deal with a shortened and virtual offseason, but Tagovailoa was brought into an offense designed by a long-time Fitzpatrick coordinator, Chan Gailey.
Tagovailoa was also judged against Fitzpatrick’s performance in the same offense but almost all of that came from Fitzpatrick’s performance under pressure. It’s not just that Fitzpatrick performed well under pressure while Tagovailoa didn’t — Fitzpatrick was otherworldly under pressure. Fitzpatrick produced 8.5 EPA under pressure in 2020 while the next highest quarterback with at least 50 attempts under pressure had -11.2. Fitzpatrick was the only quarterback in the league to produce positive EPA on over 50% of his pressured attempts.
In the structure of the offense, on plays in a clean pocket, the peripherals between Fitzpatrick and Tagovailoa were more similar.
Tua Tagovailoa vs Ryan Fitzpatrick, Clean Pocket, 2020
|On Target %
Tagovailoa didn’t get to push the ball down the field often and lacked explosive plays that could lift an offense. There is certainly a big difference between “Alabama open” and “NFL open” but there was also a fairly big difference between “NFL open” and “Miami Dolphins open” last season. Tagovailoa threw into tight windows (defined by NFL Next Gen Stats as a defender within a yard of the intended receiver) on 20.3% of his attempts, the fifth-highest rate in the league. The Dolphins didn’t have any natural separators and had few passing concepts that created space to make it easier on the quarterback or receivers.
That impacted deep throws, especially. Among 36 quarterbacks with at least 20 attempts of 20 or more air yards, Tagovailoa ranked 17th in completion rate (38.5%). His accuracy was generally good but not exactly pinpoint. He ranked 30th in that group for on-target rate but third in catchable rate.
Miami saw that as a team-wide problem and made sweeping changes to the coaching staff and receiving corps. Gailey was out as offensive coordinator after a year and the Dolphins will have co-offensive coordinators with George Godsey as the playcaller. Miami signed Will Fuller as a free agent and drafted Jaylen Waddle with the sixth overall pick in the draft. That easily gives the Dolphins more speed and explosiveness than they had on the 2020 roster. Fuller has been one of the league’s best deep receivers and Waddle can win both down the field and on screens. Tagovailoa could excel with more open downfield shots that would improve explosiveness for the offense.
With a fully healthy offseason, an offense that could play to his strengths, and a receiving corps that can create its own separation, Tagovailoa has a chance to open things up and show off what made him a high pick and a highly efficient quarterback in college.
Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers
2020 summarized: The leap was already made
Key to Year 2 leap: Better basics
Talking about a Year 2 leap for Herbert is less about how much he can improve and more about what he can do to sustain his overall production. That does come with improvement in some areas while Herbert thrived in situations that aren’t typically sustainable from year-to-year.
Herbert was one of the best quarterbacks under pressure last season. He was second in EPA (though still negative) but what’s encouraging is how much his success came from avoiding terrible plays rather than creating unlikely big ones. Herbert has the third-highest completion percentage but also had the sixth-lowest sack rate among 36 quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts under pressure. His rate of plays that produced worse than -1 EPA was the fourth-best behind Ryan Fitzpatrick, Patrick Mahomes, and Josh Allen.
From a clean pocket, Herbert’s performance was much closer to normal. He was 14th in EPA and 16th in EPA per attempt from a clean pocket but just 25th in positive play rate. Herbert and the Chargers were great at hitting some explosive gains, but were less consistent on a play-to-play basis. That’s where Herbert can show off his progress in Year 2.
He’s likely (read: hopefully) set to see more clean pockets in 2021. Herbert had the 10th-highest pressure rate in the league last season behind an offensive line that ranked 31st in Pass Block Win Rate. After the additions of Corey Linsley, Matt Feiler, and Rashawn Slater, the Chargers’ offensive line could be one of the NFL most improved units.
With a new coaching staff under Brandon Staley that includes offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, Herbert should also be in an offense that fits more to his strengths. Picture a Herbert throw in your head right now and it’s likely a wild deep pass hit for a big gain. It might surprise you then that he ranked 31st in average depth of target, below Tua Tagovailoa, who we just mentioned didn’t push the ball down the field all that often.
Much of that was due to how often Herbert threw behind the line of scrimmage. No quarterback threw more passes that did not reach the line of scrimmage than Herbert (111). His average throw depth on those attempts was -4.3, easily the lowest of quarterbacks with at least 50 such attempts. Herbert actually had an insanely high positive play rate (62.5%) on those throws but that production is much less about the quarterback.
Focusing on just throws beyond the line of scrimmage, Herbert still ranked 26th in positive play rate but sixth in that rate of plays that proceed over 1.0 EPA.
Relying on big plays and performance under pressure isn’t something many should bank on repeating, but the flashes Herbert showed in those situations rightfully spark optimism for a foundation that can be built upon in the future. Even if the rate of big plays decreases, an improvement in down-to-down consistency could continue to lift the Chargers’ offense and set up even more progress even if the raw numbers might not show it.
Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles
2020 summarized: Wildly uneven in the wildest circumstances
Key to Year 2 leap: Any kind of structure
The circumstance in which Justin Herbert became his team’s starter was insane — Tyrod Taylor suffered a punctured lung in a Week 2 pre-game procedure — but at least Herber was expected to be the Chargers’ starter at some point during the season. Hurts, a second-round pick, was expected to be a backup and gadget player but the crumbling of the Philadelphia Eagles’ infrastructure threw Hurts onto the field as the replacement for Carson Wentz over the final four games of the regular season.
A four-game sample isn’t a lot to go off and considering the collapse of everything around the Eagles at the end of last season, even less is projectable heading into 2021. The good news is Hurts significantly outplayed Wentz in the same offense:
Jalen Hurts vs Carson Wentz, 2020
|On Target %
Outplaying Wentz, though, is about the lowest bar that could be set. Many of Hurts’s metrics still ranked among the lowest in the league. Still, few quarterbacks were placed in a tougher position. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, no quarterback had a lower Expected Completion Percentage than Hurts (55.5%), although his actual completion percentage still came in 3.4% below that mark.
Much of the game plan with Hurts at the end of the season involved the quarterback throwing the ball deep without much chance of a completion. In that situation, Hurts did what he could. Among 44 quarterbacks with at least 10 deep attempts (20+ air yards), Hurts only ranked 24th in completion percentage but ranked 15th in catchable rate and 13th in on-target rate. His 9.3 aDOT on all throws was the second-highest in the NFL behind his current backup, Joe Flacco.
Hurts could benefit from any offensive structure that could allow him to rely on short-to-intermediate passes. 43.6% of Hurts’s passes traveled at least 10 air yards last season, the highest rate in the league. The second-highest rate was 38.8%.
Another problem was when Hurts went short, there weren’t a lot of options to make things happen after the catch. Hurts’s -0.08 EPA per attempt on throws within 10 yards of the line was the fifth-worst in the league. The addition of DeVonta Smith could help in that area, and really all other areas.
A knock on Hurts was his processing speed and the Philadelphia offense didn’t get him a lot of help. Under Nick Sirianni, the middle of the field should be a bigger focus with more space to work. That just wasn’t the case last season. Here’s where Hurts threw his passes over the final four games of 2020:
There is also the aspect of Hurts’s rushing ability, which he relied on in 2020. Hurts had 65 non-keel or sneak rushing attempts last season and slightly more than half 53.8% were designed runs. The effectiveness of those runs was sapped by five fumbles, even though only one was lost. A more expansive designed quarterback run game could open things up for Hurts and allow for more big gains on the ground to complement the passing structure.