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Are the NFL’s Alabama QBs on the Path to Stardom?

Mac Jones, Tua Tagovailoa, and Jalen Hurts all faced scrutiny coming into the season. It hasn’t been smooth sailing for all of them—but each has shown promise in recent weeks.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Even in a year when Alabama isn’t the indisputable king of college football, the Crimson Tide’s influence across the football landscape remains unmistakable. Nick Saban’s stars have infiltrated the NFL better than any other collegiate program’s; a league-high 53 Alabama products began the season on an NFL team. And while Tuscaloosa is not known as a quarterback factory, three of the 53 are quarterbacks.

Mac Jones, Tua Tagovailoa, and Jalen Hurts (for this exercise, we’re going to forget that he transferred to Oklahoma) each entered the 2021 NFL season facing scrutiny. Hurts, who supplanted Carson Wentz last year, wasn’t named Philadelphia’s starter until just weeks before the season. That was after Philly acquired Gardner Minshew, a move that some considered an indictment of Hurts. A year after yo-yoing in and out of Miami’s lineup, Tagovailoa seemed on the verge of being discarded by the Dolphins. Miami spent much of the first half of the season with Deshaun Watson trade rumors hanging over the team. Meanwhile, Jones became the first first-round QB choice of Bill Belichick’s Patriots, and immediately drew comparisons to the most accomplished signal-caller in league history.

Despite the noisy narratives surrounding each passer, more than halfway through the year the trio’s trajectory is trending more positively than most could have expected. Jones, Tagovailoa, and Hurts have all flashed the ability to be their respective club’s franchise QB. But whether or not high-level play will be sustainable remains the biggest question mark entering the closing stretch of the year. Let’s assess the play and situation of each player below.

How good has Jones been, really?

Jones is a leading Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate, which shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise. In college he was an accurate passer and a savvy decision-maker, and thus looked like one of the most pro-ready quarterbacks in the draft. Jones’s lauded pre-snap recognition abilities have been tangible, and as he’s gotten more reps against NFL defenses, his ability to quickly process what a defense is doing post-snap has shown up time and again. It’s why he’s been the most efficient of the NFL’s rookie passers to this point; his performance in a 45-7 rout of the Browns last week catalyzed his OROY campaign surge.

Even before New England’s 5-1 stretch, Jones was playing successful rookie ball. But offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has straightened things out from an effective play-calling standpoint. A few weeks ago, New England’s offense ranked 26th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings; now the team is 16th. This is the first time Belichick’s staff has had to onboard a rookie starter, and the offense has used a methodical approach that schemes open receivers at shallow depths. The staff deserves credit for leaning into Jones’s skill set by having him work the short areas of the field. Jones has been very good in that regard, as well as when he’s given time in the pocket. According to PFF, Jones has completed 73.1 percent of his clean-pocket throws, which ranks 10th.

There’s concern over whether or not Jones is a daring enough passer when it comes to targeting deeper areas of the field. He’s tied for 14th in deep pass attempts, per PFF. As The Ringer’s Steven Ruiz noted earlier this week, Jones ranks 30th in air yards on plays generating 20 yards or more. Stylistically, he might compare to 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo, whose biggest flaw is his favor of safe, short throws. But Jones avoids turnover-worthy plays more consistently than Garoppolo, while also making more big-time throws.

Where Jones has made up for his lack of deep throws is his ability to keep the offense on schedule, especially on third downs. Jones enters Week 11 ranked ninth among passers in third-down conversion rate (45.2 percent), while completing 64.3 percent of his third-down pass attempts. Since Week 7, he’s posted a QBR of 88 on third downs, which has coincided with the Patriots offensive line getting healthier.

When the Patriots drafted Jones with the draft’s 15th pick in April, everyone knew that was the best possible outcome for Jones. He’s always been considered a player with a high floor, but also a lower ceiling than other prospects in his class. His highlight reel may not feature the same amount of eye-popping throws that his counterparts might have generated so far, but he’s been efficient and poised. For a player with physical limitations tasked with guiding a win-now squad (and for a franchise synonymous with Tom Brady and championships), he’s played well.

Per USA Today’s Henry McKenna, McDaniels warned media Wednesday not to “judge what you see early” from Jones as he continues navigating his rookie season, adding that the signal-caller will evolve. If that’s the case, Jones might run away with OROY honors.

Tua is coming along, slowly but surely.

The Dolphins have handled Tagovailoa’s development strangely, to say the least. Coming off a rookie season of platooning with Ryan Fitzpatrick and an offseason of questions surrounding whether Miami would pursue a new starter, Tagovailoa had to deal with speculation that the Dolphins would trade for Watson—who’s facing 22 lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct—ahead of the trade deadline earlier this month.

Weeks later, Tagovailoa remains installed as the Dolphins starter. He’s battled a fractured finger, which led to another benching decision last week against the Ravens. The southpaw was named the team’s backup to Jacoby Brissett—healthy enough to be on the bench, but not enough to start. He eventually replaced Brissett in the third quarter, then led the Dolphins to a 22-10 upset victory in which he went 8-for-13 with 158 yards and a 1-yard rushing score.

The Dolphins won 10 games last season thanks to their defense, which has seriously regressed this year. Miami looked to bolster the offense this offseason, trading up to draft Alabama wideout Jaylen Waddle, Tagovailoa’s collegiate teammate, along with two offensive linemen. But only Waddle has lived up to expectations. The Dolphins offensive line, which ranked 27th in ESPN’s pass-block win rate last year, is even worse this season, currently 32nd. Impressively, however, Tagovailoa has avoided taking sacks extremely well. Through Week 10, he’s the only QB who’s been sacked fewer than 10 times despite being pressured on more than 20 percent of his attempts, per Pro Football Reference.

It’s difficult to make much of Tagovailoa’s performance because the situation surrounding him has been so uncertain and uncomfortable. But over the next few weeks, he will effectively be auditioning for his job beyond 2021. He hasn’t done anything to make the Dolphins aggressively pursue replacing him, but he certainly hasn’t done enough to solidify his standing, either. The next eight weeks need to provide an answer one way or the other, or else Tagovailoa and the Dolphins might find themselves doing the same dance in 2022.

Can Hurts continue successfully driving the Eagles’ run-heavy offense?

Earlier in the year, Philadelphia seemed interested in finding a new franchise passer. The team’s 2-1 stretch over the past three weeks makes that period seem far in the past. First-year coach Nick Sirianni has leaned into a run-based offensive strategy and it’s generated some exciting results. Hurts has been at the center of the turnaround.

Last week against the Broncos, Hurts became the first Eagles QB to rush for 50 yards or more in four consecutive games since Michael Vick in 2011. According to Ben Baldwin’s database, through the last three weeks, Philadelphia has rushed the ball on 67 percent of its early downs (second), a dramatic shift from its 40.7 percent early-down rushing rate through the first seven weeks (25th). Per The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia, Hurts’s remarkable rushing efficiency (59.6 percent success rate) is the highest among players with at least 75 carries this season.

The past three weeks have proved that relying on a successful run game can be effective when it’s focused around a mobile passer, especially someone as good at running as Hurts is. Over that span, Hurts owns the highest deep-pass rate (24.1 percent), is fourth among passers in intermediate completion rate (73.3 percent), and ranks third in average depth of target (11.8). He’s completed 66.7 percent of his passes over the stretch, keying a significant jump in his overall completion rate. This year, Hurts is converting 10 percent more of his attempts than he did in 2020, while other behavioral metrics have been relatively stable.

Jalen Hurts’s Advanced Passing Numbers

Year Comp % Expected Comp % Catchable % On-Target % ADOT Tight-Window %
Year Comp % Expected Comp % Catchable % On-Target % ADOT Tight-Window %
2021 62.2 +0.6 85.5 75.5 8.7 14.9
2020 52.0 -3.4 82.0 72.1 8.3 14.2
Data via Next Gen Stats, Sports Info Solutions

Play-action has been crucial for Hurts. Over the past three weeks, he’s completed 83.3 percent (fourth) of his throws off play-action while posting 12.3 yards per attempt (tied for fourth). On non-play-action passes, he’s completed only 58.3 percent of his throws (35th) and posted a YPA of 6.2 (24th). That leaves plenty of room for the 23-year-old to improve, but Sirianni has done well by gearing his offense to highlight Hurts’s strengths. He’s capable of making accurate throws downfield with ease. Here’s three throws against the Broncos defense where Hurts demonstrated his arm talent:

With another tough matchup due against the Saints defense (which ranks sixth in defensive DVOA, including first in rush defense DVOA), Hurts has another opportunity to prove that he can guide the Eagles offense to success.