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There are many reasons the Cincinnati Bengals went from 4-11-1 to AFC champions in 2021. Joe Burrow’s ascent from a rookie who had his season cut short by injury to an elite quarterback is the biggest one, though.
Burrow showed the signs of being a championship-caliber quarterback early. His final season at LSU is one of the greatest we’ve seen from a college quarterback, and he put up respectable numbers as a rookie.
But there’s no denying he elevated his game as a second-year player and put it all together to reach his potential.
So the question now becomes who is going to make a similar leap in 2022? Here, we’ll rank the most likely candidates from the pool of second- and third-year passers.
Talent is only part of the equation. Young quarterbacks need to be put in positions to succeed. So a combination of talent, production and team situation was considered.
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Among the five rookie quarterbacks in 2021 who registered more than 250 pass attempts, only Mac Jones and Davis Mills threw more touchdowns than interceptions.
While the rest of those quarterbacks were first-round picks, Mills is often the forgotten quarterback in the class because he wasn’t selected until the third round.
But at some point, we have to go with what we’ve seen. What Mills was able to do with a lackluster offense in Houston was impressive.
The Stanford signal-caller was working with an offensive line that ranked 29th in PFF’s final rankings and a receiving corps that did not have a receiver over 500 yards outside of Brandin Cooks.
Yet, he managed to show that he can be a quarterback in this league. He finished fifth in deep passing performance by PFF’s metrics and was at his most productive toward the end of the season.
Over the final five games, he had nine touchdowns to two interceptions while passing for 1,258 yards and 7.9 adjusted yards per attempt.
The only thing keeping Mills this low on the list is the lack of a supporting cast. The Texans are still deep in a rebuild. Retaining Brandin Cooks was good, but the biggest addition to their receiving corps was John Metchie III, who tore his ACL in the SEC Championship Game.
Every other team represented did more to surround their young quarterback with the talent needed to grow.
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Trevor Lawrence’s first season was a disappointment. There’s no way around that.
Lawrence had been a presumed top pick since his freshman year at Clemson, so it was going to be hard for him to live up to the hype. But averaging less than a touchdown per game while throwing more interceptions than touchdowns is even below what the most reasonable fan was thinking.
How much of that is Lawrence’s fault is what is hard to pin down.
The quarterback bears some of the blame. Only Mike Glennon and Zach Wilson had worse completion percentages above expectation, per Next Gen Stats. He ranked 32nd in on-target throw percentage.
But it’s hard to quantify how disastrous Urban Meyer’s impact was on the Jaguars team and Lawrence’s development. His handling of Lawrence last season was one of many things that could be called into question.
2022 should serve as a reset of what Lawrence can do in the league. He has a coach in Doug Pederson who won a Super Bowl with Nick Foles. He has an NFL-caliber receiving corps with the additions of Christian Kirk, Zay Jones and Evan Engram.
The offensive line should be better, assuming Cam Robinson can stay healthy.
That Jags might not have been frugal about it, but they did their best to surround the quarterback with enough talent to show 2021 was a disaster that should be left behind.
There’s a good chance Lawrence will remind everyone why he was a No. 1 pick.
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It’s a make-or-break season for Tua Tagovailoa. While most of the names on this list are second-year players, Tagovailoa is entering his third season.
The way rookie contracts are now designed, the third year is crucial for quarterbacks. After watching the Cleveland Browns’ situation with Baker Mayfield and the Carolina Panthers’ with Sam Darnold, the Dolphins are going to want to see Tagovailoa remove all doubt he can be the quarterback of the future.
They’ve certainly given him every opportunity to do it.
You could blame the fact that Tagovailoa hasn’t broken out on his lack of weapons, shaky offensive line and questionable scheme.
The Dolphins have made decisions to change all of that. He’s now throwing to Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle and Cedrick Wilson Jr. because of the work of the front office over the last two years.
Along the offensive line, Terron Armstead and Connor Williams will elevate the unit.
To top it off, Mike McDaniel will be there to help create an offense that accentuates all of Tagovailoa’s talent. The head coach promised to “get all of that greatness” out of his new quarterback when he got the job.
Tagovailoa has shown signs that he can become better than his numbers would indicate. He was tied for the fourth-highest “on-target” throw percentage and had a positive completion percentage over expected, per Next Gen Stats.
Still, the fact that Tagovailoa has had an extra year to break out keeps him behind the top two on the list.
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Mac Jones’ rookie season was admittedly uneven, but he was still the most successful quarterback in the 2021 draft class.
Jones had the typical rookie inconsistencies in the opening weeks of the season but really hit his stride from Games 5-12 in the season. He threw for 12 touchdowns to four interceptions and went 7-1 as the starter.
Then came a rocky end to the season. In December he completed just 52.5 percent of his passes and threw two touchdowns to four interceptions.
The Patriots didn’t do a ton to improve Jones’ weaponry, but sometimes continuity can be huge for a young quarterback.
Jones’ teammate and receiver Jakobi Meyers has come away from OTAs impressed with the young quarterback.
“He’s the real deal. We’re all trying to catch up what’s in his mind, his vision,” he told Mike Reiss of ESPN.
Ideally, Jones’ best numbers would have come at the end of the season. But progression isn’t always linear.
The Patriots quarterback has had an entire offseason to evaluate what went wrong last season and work toward consistently playing like he did in the middle of the season last year.
He’s already demonstrated a high ceiling on the field. If another year to gain comfort and confidence in the system allows him to play at that level consistently, he has a chance to continue to be the most productive quarterback in the class.
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One year after the 2021 NFL draft, Trey Lance still remains the most mysterious of the quarterback class.
We did not get to see much of the North Dakota State product last season. With Jimmy Garoppolo leading the team to an NFC Championship Game, Lance only saw the field in six games, starting two and throwing for five touchdowns to two interceptions.
The relationship between Garoppolo and Lance is reminiscent of the situation that took place in Kansas City right before Patrick Mahomes became the $450 million quarterback he is today.
Mahomes sat behind Alex Smith for a year and ended up hitting the ground running, throwing for over 5,000 yards with 50 touchdowns and an MVP trophy.
Head coach Andy Reid recently called Smith “the greatest thing that ever happened” to Mahomes in an interview with Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd.
That isn’t to say that Lance is the next Mahomes. He is, however, a strong-armed athletic quarterback who is taking over an offense with proven weapons in Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and a Kyle Shanahan running game.
Like Mahomes, Lance has the benefit of walking onto a team that already has all the pieces in place to contend for a Super Bowl.
All that’s left is for Lance to prove that he’s been worth the high price the franchise has paid to get him.