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How Do NFL Teams Know When a Young QB Is Worth Building Around?

Franchises are facing big decisions about young passers and hefty contract extensions. Their determinations could shape not just their teams’ outlooks, but also how QBs are evaluated.

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When does a team know that it has the right young quarterback? That’s been one of the central questions of this NFL season, and it means different things in different situations. For some clubs, it’s about identifying whether to stick with a flashy rookie passer (like the Jaguars and Gardner Minshew II). For others, it’s a matter of admitting that what initially seemed like a sure bet isn’t all that certain (like the Browns with Baker Mayfield). For those franchises further down the road with their QBs, the discussion revolves around whether to commit to a player for the long run (as with the Cowboys and Dak Prescott or the Bears and Mitchell Trubisky). The stakes of rolling with a hot-handed rookie like Minshew, who’s making $686,000 this season, are different than handing Prescott a potentially market-setting deal worth more than $100 million. But each of these decisions gets at the same overarching question.

In an effort to find out what goes into that process, I canvassed a handful of former players and talent evaluators and asked what they look for as they judge young NFL quarterbacks. Their responses had less to do with traits or accomplishments than with determining whether a young QB has hit certain checkpoints. Out of those conversations, three basic tests emerged that a quarterback should pass at some point during his first few professional seasons.

1. Is this is a player you can win because of, and not in spite of? This is the portion of the evaluation where guys like Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson quickly show that they’re worth a long-term investment. And it’s a question that many quarterbacks—even some who earn lucrative extensions—may never fully answer.

2. Do the player’s strengths outnumber his weaknesses? This line of thinking is paramount when considering the futures of QBs like Mayfield and Jameis Winston, whose highs are undeniably attractive, but whose deficiencies still leave doubts at these (admittedly very different) points in their careers.

3. Has the player had enough opportunity—with proper scheme, coaching, and personnel—to show whether he is a QB you can consistently compete with? The exact time frame needed to answer this question differed among the folks I spoke with, but the ballpark seemed to be around 45 starts, or about three seasons’ worth. That number dovetails nicely with the practical realities of most young QB contracts. Players on rookie deals can be extended after their third season. First-round picks must have their fifth-year option exercised after that year, as well.

Examining these questions as they relate to this NFL season can help us not only understand what’s taken place so far in 2019, but also what might happen in the future. If this offseason was defined by the reasons teams decided to extend their QBs, even when they knew it might not be the most prudent financial move, the coming years may be defined by how these questions both inform and legitimize those decisions.

For the most part, NFL teams follow a similar path when it comes to selecting, evaluating, and retaining QBs. At the start of the 2019 season, 25 of the 32 teams in the league had starting QBs (or in the cases of Denver and Washington, likely future starters) who were drafted by the franchise. Of those 25, 20 were drafted in the first round, and 23 were taken within the first 42 picks. There are scenarios, though, where a team—likely one that’s failed to secure a franchise QB using the traditional model—has to get creative. And there’s no better example of that than this year’s Jacksonville Jaguars.

After cutting Blake Bortles in March (which resulted in, gulp, $16.5 million in dead money on this year’s cap), the Jags looked to the open market to find their next quarterback. General manager Dave Caldwell and executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin landed on Nick Foles, signing him to a four-year, $88 million deal with $45.1 million guaranteed. Foles is 30 years old and has been in the league since 2012, but he’s started only 45 games in his well-traveled career, putting him right around the benchmark of when teams should generally have a feel for his strengths and weaknesses. But Foles’s starts are difficult to parse. Eleven of them came for the Jeff Fisher–led Rams in 2015, which, if we’ve learned anything from the trajectory of Jared Goff’s career, offers little in the way of QB evaluation. Foles essentially earned the Jags job on the strength of his miraculous Super Bowl run with the Eagles following the 2017 season and his strong showing in relief of Carson Wentz during last year’s playoffs. In his most recent two seasons with Philadelphia, Foles started eight regular-season games and averaged 6.6 yards per attempt. That sort of track record typically wouldn’t lead to a $90 million payday, but in this case, his postseason highs were enough for Jacksonville to take a chance.

Then Foles went down with a broken collarbone minutes into Week 1. In stepped sixth-round draft pick Minshew, who’s averaged 7.7 adjusted yards per attempt and thrown 13 touchdowns and four interceptions for a passing offense that ranked eighth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA entering Week 9. Having to reach a quick verdict on a quarterback who hasn’t been in a team’s building for extended time can be undesirable. And now the Jaguars have to make their second such decision in less than a year.

Outside of shoddy pass protection, the Jags boast a very quarterback-friendly offense. Coordinator John DeFilippo has done a solid job of scheming open receivers, to the point that Minshew’s 61.2 percent completion rate is actually 2.9 percentage points less than his expected completion percentage. It’s also difficult to separate Minshew’s production from his receiving corps, led by budding superstar DJ Chark.

Despite questions about the reasons behind his early success, though, Minshew has had plenty of moments when he’s shown the accuracy, eye discipline, and coverage feel of a starting-caliber quarterback. Plus, he’s capable of thrilling plays that seem like feats of magic—just look at what he did to the Jets in Week 8. He’s played well enough to earn a chance somewhere, and the Jaguars will be forced to decide whether that place is Jacksonville.

It might seem irresponsible for the Jags to move on from Foles after handing him such a monster deal mere months ago, but at this point, that contract is a sunk cost. Foles would carry only a palatable $15.1 million cap hit in 2020 for any team that traded for him, and even though the Jags would owe $18.8 million in dead money next season if they shipped him away, that’s still about $3.5 million less than Foles would count against the cap if he were on the roster. If the Jaguars truly believe Minshew is the best option, there’s a path to make it happen. The question that remains is whether they’ve seen enough in nine games to make that determination.

At this point, Minshew has shown that Jacksonville can win games because of him, but those moments have been scattered. In Sunday’s loss to the Texans, Minshew completed just 27 of his 47 passes and threw two interceptions. It was his worst start to date, and left some wondering whether Jacksonville is better off turning to Foles for the rest of the season. Life as the league’s darling young QB is usually fleeting. Consistency is key, and that’s what makes the 45-start benchmark so crucial in determining whether a QB has longevity as a viable starter. Even promising young passers have ebbs and flows, and for many, stagnation sets in before they can reach the next tier of quarterbacks. So far this season, that’s been the concern with one of last year’s most exciting young passers.

Cleveland Browns v Denver Broncos
Baker Mayfield
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Though the chasm between their draft statuses is undeniable, there are obvious similarities between Minshew and Mayfield. Their choices of headwear, undersized frames, outsize personalities, and knack for making spectacular plays all invite the comparison. As do some of the more promising moments from their rookie seasons. Mayfield played eight games in 2018 with current head coach Freddie Kitchens serving as Cleveland’s offensive play-caller. In those games, Mayfield averaged 8.6 yards per attempt and threw 19 touchdowns for an offense that ranked second in DVOA during that span. Most who observed Mayfield then concluded that this was the emergence of one of the NFL’s next great quarterbacks. Through half of this season, though, it looks like all of those people (myself included) might be wrong.

Mayfield has struggled mightily this year. Only the hobbled Cam Newton and the benched Josh Rosen have lower completion rates than Mayfield’s 58.7 percent. He’s thrown just seven touchdown passes and 12 interceptions, and he’s averaging an abysmal 5.8 adjusted yards per pass attempt. It’s not entirely shocking that Mayfield would experience some regression after his red-hot second half in 2018, but this goes way beyond the normal ups and downs of a QB’s typical trajectory. Plenty of factors have contributed to Mayfield’s issues this season, including some shaky play-calling and a lack of offensive rhythm. Yet defensive coordinators around the league have also taken steps to combat what Mayfield did well last season—and take advantage of what he didn’t.

Those of us who fell hard for Baker last year succumbed to a common yet faulty line of thinking as it relates to quarterbacks: We put far too much stock in the highs and didn’t pay nearly enough attention to the potential lows. As a rookie, Mayfield showed many of the traits that made him the no. 1 pick. He was impressively accurate to all levels of the field. He exhibited underrated arm strength for a player his size. His subtle mobility allowed him to keep plays alive and take shots down the field. But his bad habits also showed up. He occasionally bailed from the pocket too early. He drifted away from pressure. Those habits have become more pronounced in his second season, and defensive coordinators have pounced on them. When settled and working in rhythm, Mayfield is still an accurate passer capable of delivering throws into tight windows. But the balance between his good and bad tendencies has shifted. Mayfield’s strengths, while still apparent on some plays, no longer outpace his weaknesses.

And therein lies the danger of using a quarterback’s best moments as an indicator of what’s to come. It’s tempting to look at what Mayfield did last season and assume that more of those performances are a guarantee. But quarterback development isn’t linear. Take Winston, for example. When he is rolling, the Bucs have fielded one of the most explosive passing games in football. He’s shown glimpses of being a great anticipatory thrower who can complete passes without much receiver separation. But quality defensive coordinators have learned how to use that decisiveness to their advantage, and Winston hasn’t figured out how to adapt. The Bucs rank 28th in turnovers per drive, after finishing in the bottom four in the previous three seasons. Now Winston is in his fifth season, and there’s little reason to believe that his positives on the field will ever overpower his negatives.

Spectacular QB highs are undoubtedly valuable, but for a player to be an answer long term, he has to produce a relatively limited range of outcomes. The best version of Russell Wilson—like the one we saw in Sunday’s 40-34 win over the Buccaneers—can easily throw for 378 yards and five touchdowns while carrying the Seahawks to a win. But even the worst version isn’t going to torpedo Seattle’s chances. Against the Cowboys in Week 3 of last season, Wilson completed just 16 of 26 passes for 192 yards with a pair of touchdowns. It was a pedestrian game by his recent standards, but Seattle still blew out the Cowboys 24-13. The problem for most franchises, though, is that few quarterbacks belong in the same tier as Wilson, Mahomes, and Watson. And in the cases when a quarterback doesn’t immediately ascend to their level, it can take a long time to determine whether his lows fall into an acceptable range.

This leaves most franchises in an unenviable situation when it’s time to make a decision about an extension. The Jags and Browns, who are still in their first and second years with their young QBs, respectively, have more time to sort things out. But other franchises that have already passed the three-year mark have shown that whatever teams decide, there are plenty of consequences.

The past year has been dominated by conversation about extensions for rookie-deal quarterbacks. Dallas hemmed and hawed during the offseason about Prescott’s worth; despite owner Jerry Jones’s comments that a deal is imminent, the Cowboys still haven’t landed on an answer. The Eagles handed Wentz a four-year, $128 million extension in June—albeit one with a notably team-friendly structure, thanks to a series of roster bonuses rather than a massive signing bonus that’s prorated over the life of the deal. The Rams rewarded Jared Goff with a record-setting, four-year, $134 million deal last month, with $110 million in practical guarantees. The move came about two months after Rams head coach Sean McVay said that there was a “zero percent chance” that the franchise wouldn’t be giving Goff a lucrative deal.

Both the Rams and Eagles extended their QBs after just three seasons. Both believed they had seen enough to determine they’d found the right guy to build their respective systems around. And before the start of this season, it was tough to blame them. Wentz has shown that he’s capable of playing at an MVP level. Goff guided a top-five passing offense by DVOA last season and took the Rams to the Super Bowl. Even as questions remained about McVay’s role in Goff’s production, performances like Goff’s near-perfect, five-touchdown night against the Vikings in 2018 showed that he, like Wentz, was a quarterback capable of elevating his offense. For some observers, though, Prescott had yet to reach that level. Through the first half of the 2019 season, those determinations seem less certain, and we’re seeing once again how difficult evaluating young NFL QBs can be.

Goff’s late-season struggles from 2018 have bled into this year as the cushy QB surroundings McVay’s offense provided last season have deteriorated. The Rams’ ruthless efficiency on first down has largely disappeared, and, faced with more obvious passing situations, Goff has had issues as a dropback passer. He’s completing just 61.6 percent of his dropback passes, which ranks 17th among qualified QBs. The Rams have also gone from having one of the best offensive lines in football to one of the worst. Goff has been pressured on 130 dropbacks through eight games this fall, which ranks fifth among qualified QBs; last year, that number was 197 for the entire season. And while Wentz has been excellent in stretches so far in 2019, Philly’s offense has taken a step back from the planet-destroying force it was during the team’s Super Bowl run two years ago.

As Goff has floundered in Year 3 under McVay and the Eagles have slowed down in Wentz’s fourth season, Prescott is playing the best football of his career under first-year Dallas play-caller Kellen Moore. The Cowboys lead the league in offensive DVOA, and Prescott ranks behind only Ryan Tannehill in the difference between his actual and expected completion percentages (8.1 percentage points). After the Rams chose to extend Goff and the Cowboys chose to wait on Prescott, changes in circumstances have both players looking like drastically different quarterbacks then they did when those decisions were made. Their performances have led to questions about which of the key boxes Goff and Prescott have checked to this point in their careers. Playing in a modern NFL system for the first time, Prescott looks like an MVP candidate capable of lifting an entire offense, while Goff has languished as the circumstances around him have worsened.

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants
Dak Prescott
Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

The problems that Goff has had following his first season and a half in McVay’s system lead to questions about when the clock on a QB’s first 40 or 45 starts should actually begin. Goff had one of the worst rookie seasons of all time under Fisher in 2016, to the point that those starts should probably be discounted in evaluating his potential. The same is true for Trubisky in Chicago. Saddled with an antiquated offensive system under former head coach John Fox, Trubisky was horrid as a rookie in 2017. He completed just 59.4 percent of his passes and averaged only 6.1 adjusted yards per attempt. When Matt Nagy was hired in 2018, those numbers jumped to 66.6 percent and 7.3. Unfortunately for both Trubisky and the Bears, that wasn’t indicative of what was to come. Trubisky has regressed in every way this season. His 5.47 AY/A would be tied for the 29th-worst mark for a QB with 300 pass attempts this decade—tied with Jay Cutler.

Entering Week 10, Trubisky has made 33 career starts; by season’s end, he’ll be perilously close to the 45-start benchmark, and it’ll be time for the Bears to decide whether to exercise his fifth-year option. At this point, Chicago should likely know that Trubisky isn’t the answer. He looked completely lost in the team’s ugly showing against the Eagles on Sunday, and at this point, even the most ardent Trubisky believers are at a loss. That said, teams have committed to quarterbacks for the wrong reasons before. Franchises would ideally have multiple seasons to evaluate their QBs in the system of their choosing, but many will never have that luxury. The 49ers saw only five starts from Jimmy Garoppolo in 2017 before handing him $74 million guaranteed. That’s worked out well for San Francisco so far, but the past few seasons are littered with the bones of horrid free-agent deals that teams handed out to unproven starters (just ask the Bears about Mike Glennon).

This year has reinforced what we’ve long understood about evaluating young NFL quarterbacks—no matter how far along most are in this process, it will always be nearly impossible to know for sure whether they’re the answer. But even faced with that uncertainty, teams still have potentially franchise-altering decisions on the horizon. The Bucs will have to decide this offseason whether to extend Winston or to let him walk in free agency. Dallas needs to determine whether Prescott is worth a deal similar to the ones earned by Goff and Wentz, or whether they’d rather give him the franchise tag and kick the can down the road. Jacksonville will have to pick between the hotshot rookie and the QB the franchise gave $50 million guaranteed this spring. None of those deliberations will be easy, but when it comes to knowing you’ve picked the right QB, finding the answer rarely is.

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