The clock starts ticking once an NFL franchise entrusts its future to a young quarterback. In the past, signal-callers were afforded time to acclimate to the NFL, sometimes for years in the most lenient of scenarios. Those days are mostly over. Quarterbacks are drafted and expected to play sooner rather than later.
Teams are at a significant advantage if they make the most of their rosters when they have passers on rookie deals. According to Spotrac, 14 NFL QBs have contracts whose average cap percentages account for at least 13 percent of their team’s cap room over the span of their deals. Meanwhile, Trevor Lawrence’s rookie deal—which has an average cap percentage of 5.04 percent—is the highest average figure of any QB currently on a rookie contract, giving the Jaguars ample financial flexibility to supplement their roster to support Lawrence. Figuring out whether that QB is worth building around, however, is a process that begins during the passer’s rookie season.
As the 2021 season nears, a batch of sophomore passers will have to prove that they are the future of their respective teams behind center. Below, we assess the situations of each projected second-year starting QB, breaking down the biggest questions facing them and how their supporting casts shape up.
Tua Tagovailoa, Dolphins (2020 no. 5 pick)
2020 stats: 10 games (9 starts), 11 TD, 5 INT, 64.1% completion rate, 6.2 AY/A, 52.5 QBR
Will a full offseason and upgraded supporting cast help Tua look like a legitimate NFL starter?
Tagovailoa faces the biggest up-hill battle of any second-year passer in regard to altering the narrative surrounding him. His 6-3 record as a starter is a strong reminder that QB wins are not a reliable stat. Miami surprisingly thrust Tagovailoa into the starting lineup in late October and proceeded to struggle. He was routinely benched as the Dolphins see-sawed between getting the Alabama star reps and allowing veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick to attempt to guide them into the postseason. Neither goal was achieved—Miami failed to break its four-year postseason drought and Tagovailoa’s play appeared to raise more questions than it provided answers entering the offseason.
Despite speculation surrounding Tagovailoa’s future—with some even wondering whether the Dolphins might try to find his replacement—Miami offered a significant vote of confidence in the southpaw by addressing obvious holes within his supporting cast. The Dolphins ranked 27th in the league in explosive pass play rate (according to Warren Sharp’s database) and pass-block win rate (according to ESPN) last season. They traded the no. 3 pick well ahead of the draft, moving out of prime position to select a new QB. They added deep receiving threats in free-agent signee Will Fuller V and no. 6 pick Jaylen Waddle, while reinforcing the offensive line with former Ravens center Matt Skura and second-rounder Liam Eichenberg. Tight end Mike Gesicki and receivers Albert Wilson (COVID-19 opt-out last season) and DeVante Parker round out what should be a formidable pass-catching corps.
Things didn’t get off to a great start for Tagovailoa on the first day of June minicamp, when he tossed five interceptions during a heavy rainstorm, subsequently drawing the concern of bored NFL fans and pundits who had nothing better to do than overanalyze his practice figures. However, recent reports from Dolphins training camp have been much more positive. South Florida Sun-Sentinel columnist Omar Kelly praised Tagovailoa on Monday for displaying “mastery of this offense” and tremendous accuracy. “Tua, I think he’s gotten off to a good start,” coach Brian Flores told reporters Monday. “Still a long way to go. Still very early. Good command of the offense, his techniques and his QB mechanics, fundamentals.” Practice and training camp reps aren’t what will determine whether or not Tagovailoa succeeds in year two, but if he can carry any of this momentum and confidence into the new season, perhaps he’ll better resemble the player so many remember seeing at Alabama.
Justin Herbert, Chargers (2020 no. 6 pick)
2020 stats: 15 games (all starts), 31 TD, 10 INT, 66.6 completion rate, 7.6 AY/A, 69.5 QBR
Can Herbert carry his hot start into the new season?
Hardly anyone saw Herbert’s breakout rookie campaign coming. Now, Herbert and the Chargers must find a way to manage the expectations that come with that.
Herbert assumed Los Angeles’s starting gig after Tyrod Taylor’s lung was punctured accidentally by a team doctor ahead of a Week 2 matchup against the Chiefs. He never looked back, breaking a handful of rookie passing records and becoming the youngest player to ever throw 30 TDs in a single season, even as the Chargers stumbled to a 7-9 record.
New Chargers coach Brandon Staley has inherited a potential star behind center in Herbert and has a talent-laden roster that features All-Pro-caliber players in wideout Keenan Allen, pass rusher Joey Bosa, and safety Derwin James. There might be reason for concern as Herbert transitions from former coach Anthony Lynn’s offense to learning new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi’s system, which includes elements from the expansive scheme Sean Payton used to enable Drew Brees’s 15-year Hall of Fame run in New Orleans. How quickly Herbert can digest his new scheme and confidently operate on the field will be something to monitor, as will whether Herbert can sustain his high marks under pressure (NFL-best 57 percent completion rate, according to Pro Football Focus), an area he struggled in late in his college career.
The Chargers finished 31st in pass-block win rate (47 percent) and last in run-block win rate (67 percent) last season, so they completely revamped their offensive line this offseason by adding center Corey Linsley and linemen Oday Aboushi and Matt Feiler in free agency and by drafting Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater 13th. Star tight end Hunter Henry left in free agency, but L.A. replaced him with veteran Jared Cook. Austin Ekeler’s season ended after 10 games last year, but he’s fully healthy and should be a factor in the passing game. Allen will pair with Mike Williams, whose role could be expanded within the Chargers’ new scheme. Everything appears to be in place for Herbert to build on his exciting rookie season.
Joe Burrow, Bengals (2020 no. 1 pick)
2020 stats: 10 games (all starts), 13 TD, 5 INT, 65.3 completion rate, 6.7 AY/A, 56.2 QBR
Are the Bengals building the right way around Burrow?
Burrow’s rookie campaign was one of the few bright spots to emerge from Cincinnati last season, even if it was cut short in Week 11 due to a season-ending knee injury. Ahead of the draft, the Bengals faced a hugely important question in regard to building their offense around Burrow: select a franchise offensive tackle or a star receiver? Cincinnati wound up choosing the receiver, LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase—whom Burrow had established an elite rapport with during his 2019 Heisman campaign. With Burrow fully recovered from his injury, that decision will play a major role in how the 2021 season plays out for Burrow and the Bengals.
Cincinnati boasted a high-volume passing attack, but also had one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines (29th in ESPN’s pass-block win rate) in 2020. The Bengals addressed their offensive line in free agency (Riley Reiff) and later in the draft (they took Clemson’s Jackson Carman in the second). It remains to be seen whether that will prove enough of an upgrade to elevate the Bengals OL into competence. Keeping Burrow upright is the only way to ensure that Cincinnati will get the most out of its skill players, although it appears the team is betting that fielding so much firepower will compensate for any issues up front. Chase joins a collection of skill players that features tailback Joe Mixon and receivers Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins.
Jalen Hurts, Eagles (2020 no. 53 pick)
2020 stats: 15 games (4 starts), 6 TD, 4 INT, 52.0 completion rate, 6.8 AY/A, 41.0 QBR
Can Hurts prove that he’s the Eagles’ QB of the future?
The Eagles blew it all up this offseason, firing coach Doug Pederson and trading QB Carson Wentz. Jalen Hurts stood in the eye of the storm last year. The second-rounder took over for Wentz late in the season and was fine, but didn’t do much to suggest Philadelphia views him as its franchise QB. With first-year coach Nick Sirianni on board, there’s now opportunity for Hurts to do just that.
The problem might be that Hurts doesn’t have much to work with entering his second season. The Eagles offensive line, when healthy, has the chance to be a solid unit. But whether receiver Travis Fulgham’s breakout can be sustained, Jalen Reagor’s first-year blues can be turned around, and rookie DeVonta Smith can be as dynamic an NFL player as he was in college will play a huge role in how well Hurts plays this season. Philly’s offense ranked 28th in both Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings and explosive pass rate (6 percent), highlighting the disappointing play of the unit last year. With a chance at a full offseason and a fresh system, there’s reason to consider that the Eagles will improve on the offensive side of the ball, with Hurts as a catalyst.
“I think we’re taking steps every day,” Hurts told reporters Monday. “Getting comfortable in the offense and getting a feel for everything and more importantly getting a feel for what Coach Sirianni, Coach BJ, and Coach Steichen, what they want me to do and how they want me to do it.”
Noteworthy Projected Backups
Jordan Love, Packers (2020 no. 26 pick)
2020 stats: None
Will Love be ready to perform when the time comes?
Despite having yet to take an official NFL snap, Love spent much of the offseason possibly in line to replace Aaron Rodgers this season. Rodgers is coming off an MVP season and back-to-back NFC championship game appearances. Imagine the pressure facing a 22-year-old who hasn’t been active for a game yet.
The Packers “threw everything” at Love during minicamp. Luckily for Love (and Green Bay), he won’t be relied on to lead a Super Bowl–ready roster. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t an important year for Love. In May, Packers GM Brian Gutekunst told reporters that Love has “a long way to go” before he’s ready. He still clearly needs to develop before he’s entrusted with the reins to Matt LaFleur’s offense. Following an engrossing offseason saga, Rodgers will return for at least one more season after agreeing to a revised contract that should allow him to leave Lambeau Field after the 2021 campaign. At least with Rodgers around, Love won’t be forced to carry the burden of developing while trying to lead a contender. More importantly, perhaps, now there’s a stronger idea of just how soon he’ll be expected to step in. The clock on Love is officially ticking.
Jacob Eason, Colts (2020 no. 122 pick)
2020 Stats: None
Can Eason perform well enough to convince the Colts not to trade for a veteran?
With Carson Wentz expected to be out for between five and 12 weeks after undergoing foot surgery, Colts coach Frank Reich told the second-year passer “it’s your show.” It’s quite a show to orchestrate.
Eason, 6-foot-6 and 231 pounds, is a fourth-round pick who split his college time between Georgia and Washington. A former five-star prospect, Eason has not yet appeared in any NFL games. Regardless, considering Indianapolis’s playoff-ready roster, he’ll be expected to keep the team afloat, at least. The Colts have a pass-catching group with upside, featuring Michael Pittman Jr., Parris Campbell, Mo Alie-Cox, T.Y. Hilton, Jack Doyle, and Zach Pascal. The offensive line, anchored by Quenton Nelson (who will undergo a surgery similar to Wentz’s) and Braden Smith, added Eric Fisher and Sam Tevi to lead the way for a talented backfield of Jonathan Taylor, Nyheim Hines, and Marlon Mack. Eason’s supporting cast should only help elevate his game.
The biggest concern for Eason will be whether or not his play is strong enough to keep the Colts from spending any additional draft capital on a QB this offseason. Indy’s QB room consists of Eason, rookie Sam Ehlinger, Jalen Morton, and Brett Hundley, who just signed following Wentz’s injury. The Colts already used a conditional second-rounder to acquire Wentz (it will become a first-rounder if Wentz reaches certain playing time thresholds, which now doesn’t seem as likely). If any of the Colts QBs fail to prove sturdy, Indy could feel pressed to look to an expendable veteran, such as Chicago’s Nick Foles, Las Vegas’s Marcus Mariota, or Jacksonville’s Gardner Minshew. Per ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, if Wentz’s surgery and rehab “gets complicated, then another” veteran QB will be considered.