It was easy to hand-wave Gardner Minshew II’s impressive debut back in Week 1. The rookie quarterback took over for an injured Nick Foles late in the first quarter in the Jaguars’ blowout loss to the Chiefs and managed to complete his first 13 passes before finishing 22 of 25 with 275 yards, two touchdowns, and a pick. But a good chunk of those throws came in garbage time and against Kansas City’s soft prevent defense. That created understandable doubt that Minshew, an under-the-radar sixth-round pick who’d been less than impressive in the preseason, could repeat that type of performance.
It’s been far more difficult to look past everything that’s happened during the past four weeks, though. Minshew Mania has taken root: The rookie signal-caller’s mustache, jorts, and jovial personality are a big part of that, of course, but far more importantly, the former Washington State standout has played just as well as―if not better than―he did in his debut. After another strong outing in the team’s 34-27 loss at the Panthers last week, Minshew became the first player in NFL history with 200-plus passing yards and a passer rating of 95.0-plus in each of his first five career games, and has racked up a 67 percent completion rate with nine touchdowns and just one pick in those contests. Thanks to a combination of pinpoint accuracy, controlled aggressiveness, and a little old-fashioned playmaking moxie, Minshew has looked a lot less like an injury placeholder for Foles and a lot more like the future at quarterback for Jacksonville. Foles is still under contract for three more years, but it’s become clear during the past month that the Jaguars’ quarterback job is Minshew’s to lose.
On the one hand, Minshew’s performance during the first five weeks probably shouldn’t be all that surprising. Mike Leach did try to warn us about how wrong the scouting reports were. Minshew won Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2018, and finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting after posting an FBS-best 368 passing yards per game with 38 touchdowns and nine interceptions. But on the other hand, Minshew did have a few factors working against him in the run-up to April’s draft. He was quiet at the Senior Bowl, is shorter than the average NFL passer, and has an average arm; he wasn’t selected until the sixth round, when the Jags took him with the 178th pick. Past that, his 56 percent completion rate, zero touchdowns, and 69.3 passer rating on 96 throws in four preseason games didn’t exactly scream “future star,” either.
But in the immortal words of Ricky Bobby, sometimes things click. In his three quarters of relief action and the subsequent four starts, Minshew has energized a once-stagnant Jaguars offense. He has opened up the team’s passing game, helped put DJ Chark on the map, and consistently put the Jags in positions to win week in and week out. That’s a clear departure from the Blake Bortles era, when the Jags offense all too often snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with untimely turnovers or poor game management.
Minshew still has a ways to go to prove that his initial exciting performances are more than just a flash in the pan. But a deep dive into his numbers and tape definitely don’t paint the picture of a quarterback who’s gotten lucky or is the product of a quarterback-friendly scheme. Minshew displays repeatable traits that all the great quarterbacks possess: accuracy, a good feel for the pocket, and excellent decision-making under pressure.
Let’s begin with his accuracy, because that should be the starting point with every quarterback evaluation. Minshew may possess some physical limitations—you probably won’t see him uncork many 80-yard passes like he’s Patrick Mahomes—but over and over again, the tape has shown a guy who can place the football in the exact right spot for his receivers. In the parlance of Smart Football’s Chris Brown, he “puts the ball on people.” That’s definitely been true when he’s thrown deep. He consistently gives his receivers a chance to win at the catch point by placing the ball on the outside shoulder of a wideout, dropping it down over a defensive back’s outstretched hands.
Minshew’s deep numbers (passes of 20-plus yards) have been very strong. He has gone deep on 13.9 percent of his passes this year (11th most among qualifying passers, per PFF), and on those throws he’s notched a 47.8 percent adjusted completion rate (that eliminates drops and throwaways) to tally a 119.4 passer rating (eighth) with two touchdowns and no picks. Minshew’s 344 deep passing yards ranks second among rookie passers (just 4 yards behind top pick Kyler Murray) and is eighth among all qualifying quarterbacks. He’s been anything but a dink-and-dunk game manager.
Minshew is accurate in the crucial short and intermediate areas as well. It may sound like a small thing, but I’m impressed with how the rookie passer regularly leads his receivers on simple swing passes or out routes, and allows them to smoothly and seamlessly turn upfield and pick up yards after the catch. That touch can often be the difference between picking up a first down or not.
Minshew’s ability to deal with pressure is another critical strong suit. From a clean pocket, he’s been surgical and completed 75.2 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and one interception to notch a 116.3 passer rating—seventh best leaguewide, per PFF. But when things fall apart on the offensive line, he has shown the ability to buy time, and slide up into and around the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield so he can make accurate throws.
He’s also shown an innate ability to extend plays that have completely broken down. There’s a little bit of Carson Wentz in Minshew’s game, whether that means scrambling for a first down or pulling a Houdini escape act to keep plays alive.
Minshew may have to rein in that dogged determination to extend plays―it’s gotten him in trouble a few times and led to a handful of fumbles―but his instinctive poise under pressure is what separates him from most other sixth-round quarterback picks. Hell, it separates him from most quarterbacks, period. As Leach noted in May, “He’s got great pocket presence. That’s probably what he does best.” Through five weeks, Minshew ranks 10th among qualifying QBs in passer rating under pressure (84.8), when he’s tossed three touchdowns and no picks with an adjusted completion rate of 62.5 percent.
The most exciting thing about Minshew’s sterling early-season performance is that it still feels like he’s got room to grow. The rookie passer has been absolutely unstoppable on play-action—he leads the NFL in completion rate (81 percent), yards per attempt (12.5), and is second only to Russell Wilson in passer rating (150.5).
That makes him a perfect fit at quarterback, at least in theory, for a Jaguars team built around its smashmouth run game. But Jacksonville has asked Minshew to throw off play-action on just 12.9 percent of his dropbacks, which ranks 36th out of 36 qualifying passers. One reason offensive coordinator John DeFilippo hasn’t utilized play-action more is that the Jags have averaged more time trailing this year than all but four teams. If Jacksonville can do a better job of avoiding early deficits, that play-action rate should rise and boost Minshew’s numbers along with it. In any case, it might behoove DeFilippo to expand the team’s play-action passing attack.
Jacksonville will have a big decision to make once Foles is ready to return to the field, which would be Week 11 at the earliest. The team gave the veteran signal-caller a four-year, $88 million contract during the offseason in a deal that includes more than $50 million in guarantees. And the Jaguars can’t get out of that contract without incurring massive dead cap hits until after the 2020 season―meaning there’s certainly the chance the team caves to the pressure to play its highly paid passer.
But if Minshew keeps playing like he has during the first five weeks, it would be better for the Jaguars to take the bolder route and look to start building around their breakout rookie. Sure, that’d leave them on the hook to pay for the most expensive backup quarterback in, well, probably ever. But that’s a short-term problem with long-term benefits. Having a good starting quarterback fall into your lap in the middle or late rounds can be a franchise-altering event—just ask the Seahawks or Cowboys.
Jacksonville can trade Foles to a quarterback-needy team during the offseason, eat the dead money, then reap the benefits of having Minshew on an incredibly cheap rookie deal through the 2022 season. That would swing the team’s championship window wide open once again and give the Jags the much-needed cap flexibility to sink major resources into surrounding their quarterback with the pieces of a Super Bowl squad. Ultimately, Minshew’s unexpectedly steely performance―and the question of what to do with Foles―is a good problem for the Jaguars to have. Time will tell, but based on what I’ve seen this season, there are legitimate reasons for the Jaguars to believe they’ve found a franchise quarterback in Minshew.