The passing of the torch from the old guard of NFL quarterbacks to the next generation of superstar signal-callers has already started. As the likes of Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Carson Palmer, Philip Rivers, and, yes, even Tom Brady slowly inch toward retirement, proven passers like Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, and Alex Smith—plus the top-tier quarterbacks under 30 like Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr, Matthew Stafford, and (hopefully) Andrew Luck—are right there to take up that mantle. Just putting those names to the page reassures that the future of the quarterback position is in good hands long term, and that’s before adding in the new class of upstarts in Dak Prescott, Marcus Mariota, Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, and Deshaun Watson.
It’s still much too early, though, to make the call on a few of the league’s other young quarterbacks. The well-deserved hoopla around Wentz, Goff, Watson, and Prescott has distracted from what Bears rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky, Browns on-again/off-again starter DeShone Kizer, and the Colts’ Andrew Luck replacement, Jacoby Brissett, have done (and haven’t done) this year. Each quarterback plays on bad offenses and for bad teams, and their performances this year range from erratic to downright terrible. But are there reasons for hope that any or all of that trio could develop into future stars? I took a look at the numbers and the tape to try to find positives to build on.
Mitch Trubisky, Bears
Considering he was the second overall pick just six-odd months ago, it doesn’t seem like many people outside of Chicago are talking about the Bears’ young franchise building block. Part of that is because the Bears are an afterthought in the NFC North, and another reason is that through five starts, Trubisky looks, well, like a guy who made 13 total starts in college. He’s often been slow to process what’s in front of him, is still adapting to a pro-style offense after spending most of his time in the shotgun looks at North Carolina, and makes too many mistakes with his fundamentals. In limited action, he’s already broken a cardinal rule of quarterback play: don’t throw back across your body and back across the field while rolling out of the pocket. He’s done this a handful of times—moving to his right with varied results, getting a tipped-ball touchdown out of one of those throws, but a pick on another. And as he’s rushed to learn the footwork, reads, progressions, and deluge of other things you need to do on every snap as a pro passer, we’ve seen a few too many throws like these—where he’ll air-mail a pass over his receivers’ heads, throw off his back foot, or fail to get set to deliver a pass (or all three).
Since taking over for Mike Glennon in Week 5, Trubisky has completed just 59 of 115 passes for 809 yards (7.0 yards per attempt), with three touchdowns and two picks. His 161.8 yards per game ranks 33rd among 34 qualifying passers, better than only Brett Hundley. His 76 rating ranks 33rd of 36 qualifying quarterbacks, and his completion percentage (51.3) is better than only Tom Savage among those 36 qualifying passers. He’s struggled with pressure, taking way too many sacks (16 total—tied for fourth worst since Week 5). And five games in, it’s abundantly clear that the Bears are doing their best to hide their rookie signal-caller in their scheme: In Chicago’s back-to-back wins over the Ravens and Panthers in weeks 6 and 7, for instance, Trubisky completed a grand total of 12 combined passes, connecting on 53 percent of his attempts for 220 yards and a touchdown. Overall, he’s averaged just 23 pass attempts per game, with head coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains instead leaning heavily on their run game for a league-high 54 percent rate since Trubisky was named the starter.
Still, there are reasons enough to believe that Trubisky can develop into a player that makes the franchise and city forget what he cost the team in draft capital. On this throw last week against the Packers, Trubisky dropped back and kept his eyes and shoulders facing to the right—holding the deep safety in his spot in the middle of the field—before launching a perfectly placed rainbow to his left for a touchdown.
Against the Ravens, Trubisky avoided the rush, reset in the changing pocket, and strafed right before launching a pass to the middle. On one hand, you could say that he probably shouldn’t be throwing jump passes from the pocket, but on the other, that was a hell of a throw, and it was impressive that he didn’t drop his eyes on the rushers, but kept his focus downfield to complete a laser pass to his receiver.
That pass also demonstrates one of Trubisky’s strongest traits at this point in his career: his ability to throw on the run. He’s made a handful of impressive throws while booting or sprinting out to his right. On the first in the clip below, he hit his receiver in stride for a first down; on the second, well, that one didn’t count because of a holding call on the center, but it was a great throw nonetheless; and on the third, he put just enough oomph into it to hit tight end Dion Sims in the end zone.
Trubisky’s not been asked to throw much yet, but at least when he does let the ball fly, he’s pushing it downfield. He’s averaged 9.4 intended air yards per throw, per NFL Next Gen Stats (10th), with an average of 8.1 air yards per completion (i.e., the distance the ball travels down the field before the catch), third highest in the NFL. But watching the Bears’ offense compared with, say, that of the Chiefs, Eagles, or Watson-led Texans, it’s clear that Chicago’s intent on fitting their new quarterback into a more traditional run-heavy, under-center, pro-style offense. The Bears sprinkle in some “college style” run-pass options, plays that Trubisky frequently ran at North Carolina, but don’t heavily utilize some of the presnap motion and read-option concepts that the aforementioned teams have worked into their schemes seamlessly and with great success. Trubisky lined up in the shotgun on nearly 98 percent of his dropbacks in college. Since he took over as starter, the Bears have lined up with Trubisky under center on a league-high 63 percent of his snaps. If Fox and Loggains would give Trubisky more opportunities to operate from shotgun looks with read-pass options and read-option looks built in, I believe we’d see a much more explosive, dynamic, and successful quarterback down the stretch. Trubisky could thrive in a system that confuses the hell out of defenses, stretches them both horizontally and vertically, and gives him more clearly defined reads. You can see the rookie quarterback read the linebackers on this play vs. the Vikings, pulling the ball back to make the throw over the middle when they creep toward the line of scrimmage.
Following the Packers’ win over the Bears on Sunday, Green Bay pass rusher Clay Matthews wasn’t surprised they were able to sack the Trubisky five times. “That’s what you expect to do when a team is so one-dimensional,” he said, a shot seemingly meant more for the Bears coaching staff than for the rookie quarterback. Chicago’s overreliance on the run makes them predictable: Since Week 5, the team has run the ball 83 times on first down compared with throwing just 35 times—making it much too easy for opposing defenses to stack the box and stuff the play. That can put the offense behind schedule and present Trubisky with tougher passing situations on second- and third-and-longs. For Trubisky, this season has a similar feel to Jared Goff’s rookie year under Jeff Fisher, and without a change in focus, it wouldn’t be shocking if the Bears rookie continues to struggle. He’s got the athleticism and talent to break out as a bona fide pro passer, like Goff has done this year, but he may need the Bears to introduce more concepts that he was proficient with in college.
DeShone Kizer, Browns
There’s no real need to sugarcoat it: Kizer has been an unmitigated disaster. In eight starts, the rookie out of Notre Dame has thrown for 1,376 yards, four touchdowns, and 12 interceptions (worst in the NFL), while averaging a paltry 5.5 yards per attempt (second worst) and 172.0 pass yards per game (32nd out of 34 qualifying starters). His 52.8 completion percentage ranks 34th out of 36 quarterbacks; his 54.4 passer rating ranks 36th out of 36. He’s 33rd out of 33 in DVOA, and 35th out of 37 per Pro Football Focus grading. Look, there’s nothing in those numbers that stands out as even remotely good, folks.
Of course, it’s hard to separate Kizer’s poor play from what’s been borderline coaching malpractice by Hue Jackson and the Browns organization. Instead of either: (1) giving their 21-year-old rookie passer (the youngest starting passer in the NFL) a year or two to learn the offense and develop in it before throwing him out to the wolves, or (2) starting him immediately while understanding he’ll need to take his bumps and catch up to the speed of the pro game, the team has instead gone with Option 3: systematically ruining his confidence by first throwing him to the wolves and then benching him immediately (on two separate occasions) when he makes a mistake.
Still, it’s not too late for Kizer to turn things around, and his performance Sunday against a good Lions defense should provide some reason for optimism. In Cleveland’s 38-24 loss to Detroit, Kizer made several impressive tight-window throws, the first to Sammie Coates up the sideline for 38 yards, the second to tight end David Njoku up the seam, and the third to Ricardo Louis down the sideline late in the fourth quarter. Only one of these throws was caught, mind you (we’re still talking about the Browns here), but on each pass, Kizer threw on time and put the ball right where it needed to be.
On another play late in the first quarter, Kizer avoided pressure, kept his eyes downfield, and hit Kenny Britt for a big gain. That play came back due to a hold (it’s the Browns), but again, Kizer showed a number of traits coaches look for in young quarterbacks—escapability, accuracy, and ability to improvise.
Kizer showed off his mobility on a few plays, scrambling for big gains:
And on one impressive throw in the fourth quarter, he moved Detroit safety Glover Quin with his eyes, looking to his right long enough to freeze Quin before coming back to his left to hit tight end Seth DeValve up the seam. That play set up a 1-yard quarterback keeper for a touchdown.
Of course, there was a bone-headed decision to audible to a quarterback sneak just before the half when the Browns had no timeouts (it failed), but Kizer showed toughness and resiliency (he came back late in the game after injuring his ribs). He was accurate, decisive, and made a few big plays to finish 21 of 37 for 232 yards with one touchdown, and one pick while adding another 57 yards and a score on the ground. That performance was a sea change from what we saw out of the rookie early in the year, and it could be a sign that a light has come on for him. Kizer’s got a long way to go, but he can certainly build upon his first good game as a pro.
Jacoby Brissett, Colts
Most people probably still view Brissett, the second-year signal-caller out of NC State that the Colts acquired in a trade with the Patriots in early September, as a bridge quarterback until Andrew Luck returns to the field. That’s probably what he’ll be. But with Luck’s ill-defined recovery schedule in mind—and with word that he’s in Europe seeking treatment for his shoulder—there’s at least a little bit of concern that the Colts’ franchise player may never see the field again (or that Colts owner Jim Irsay will run him out of town). In any case, Brissett has shown a lot of potential as a future star in Luck’s stead, and he’s by far the furthest along of any of the three passers on this list (it helps he got to study under Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, and Tom Brady for a year).
Brissett’s stat line doesn’t jump off the page: 60.9 percent completion rate (27th in the NFL), 2,172 yards (14th), nine touchdowns (25th), 7.4 yards per attempt (12th), 217.2 yards per game (25th), and an 86.7 rating (21st). He ranks 25th in DVOA among quarterbacks, 25th in total QBR, and grades out 20th overall per Pro Football Focus. But he’s a strong-armed and aggressive passer who isn’t afraid to throw the ball downfield, and in just nine starts, he’s already connected on four touchdowns of 60-plus yards, tied with Alex Smith for the league high and the first Colts quarterback to do that in a season since Johnny Unitas in 1966. Brissett excels on play-action, with a 112.8 rating (eighth best) and 10.4 yards per attempt (fifth) on those throws, per Pro Football Focus. Against the Texans, he hit T.Y. Hilton on a beautiful post route off of play-action for a touchdown, and then against the Steelers last week, hit Donte Moncrief up the sideline for a 60-yard score.
That strong arm pops off the tape. He’s hit a couple of Jon Gruden’s favorite throws this year, the “turkey hole” shot up the sideline, over the top of the cornerback and in front of the safety. Those passes require accuracy and plenty of velocity:
The second thing that stands out is Brissett’s chemistry with tight end Jack Doyle. Doyle’s quietly on pace for a 92-catch, 800-yard season thanks to what seems to be a tractor-beam type of force between quarterback and receiver.
The third thing—and I’ve seen this a lot watching Dak Prescott throw passes for the Cowboys—is that Brissett consistently does a great job of hitting his receivers in stride, giving them a chance to pick up yards after the catch or turn upfield with ease.
Like Kizer and Trubisky, Brissett remains a work in progress. He tends to hold onto the ball too long, a result of indecision, and that’s part of the reason he’s been sacked (35) more than any quarterback in the NFL so far (though part of that is obviously on his offensive line, too). The Colts offense has stalled in the red zone much too often, and the team ranks dead last in the NFL in touchdowns per trip inside the 20-yard line. But the combination of a strong arm, accuracy (he ranks just 27th in completion percentage but 10th in accuracy rate, which accounts for drops, throwaways, batted passes, etc.), and poise gives Brissett a chance to develop into a top-tier quarterback, whether that’s for the Colts or another team.