Five quarterbacks were drafted in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft. Four of them — Trevor Lawrence (Jaguars), Zach Wilson (Jets), Justin Fields (Bears) and Mac Jones (Patriots) — saw significant time as rookies. Trey Lance (49ers) had only a couple of spot starts, but third-round pick Davis Mills eventually won a starting job with the Texans. In all, just over 12% of the pass attempts we saw in regular-season games last season were thrown by rookies.
Those quarterbacks weren’t very good. Out of 31 qualifying passers, four of the five first-round rookies ranked 26th or worse in Total QBR. Jones was the only one who wasn’t in the bottom six; he finished 16th in the league. Lance didn’t play frequently enough to qualify, but it’s clear this group of would-be standouts expects to take a step forward in 2022.
The good news for fans of these young passers is the Year 2 breakout practically has turned into an obligation. Over the past five seasons, we’ve seen two second-year passers win MVP awards, while a third was denied only by an injury. Another made the single largest leap we’ve ever seen from a second-year quarterback, while a fifth came within one drive of winning Super Bowl LVI.
With six sophomore quarterbacks expected to serve as their team’s starter heading into 2022, which one(s) will break out? To try to answer that question, I looked at notable Year 2 breakouts from years past to get a sense of what those quarterbacks looked like after their first seasons.
Comparing quarterbacks across eras isn’t foolproof, and with passing stats at all-time highs, we need to measure players against their competitors as opposed to simply using raw stats. With that in mind, to contextualize passing performance, I’m using an indexed metric from Pro Football Reference called adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A+).
A better version of passer rating, ANY/A uses more accurate weights for touchdowns and interceptions while also incorporating yards lost on sacks. Then, the indexing places the stat on an easy-to-understand scale, making it so that a 100 ANY/A+ is a league-average performance in any given season. That means 115 would be a good season, and 130 would be an incredible campaign; likewise, an 85 ANY/A+ would be disappointing, while a 70 ANY/A+ would be a disaster.
I’ll hit eight second-year breakouts, going back nearly 40 years in the process. To start, let’s begin with one of the most dramatic second-year campaigns in league history:
The story: Raw prospect takes a year to develop on the bench under an offensive genius before breaking out.
It seems bizarre to consider now, but there was a time when Mahomes wasn’t regarded as a preternatural quarterback prospect, let alone as one of the best players on the planet. Opinions were mixed on him heading into the 2017 draft. The Bears famously chose Mitch Trubisky ahead of the future Hall of Famer, and in Bob McGinn’s poll of NFL scouts and executives before the draft, Mahomes was ranked third among quarterbacks, behind Trubisky and Deshaun Watson.
The Chiefs traded up for Mahomes and took him with the No. 10 overall pick, but with Alex Smith entrenched as their starter, coach Andy Reid & Co. didn’t rush the Texas Tech star into the lineup. Smith led the league in passer rating (104.7) and ranked second in yards per attempt (8.0), and the Chiefs left Mahomes on the bench for nearly all of his rookie season. The only game action he saw was in Week 17, when he played in what amounted to a JV game against the Broncos, throwing for 284 yards with an interception.
After clearing out a starting spot by trading Smith to Washington, the Chiefs installed Mahomes as their starter in 2018. Mahomes had the league’s best group of playmakers, but no one could have quite imagined what happened next.
Mahomes was a superstar by the end of September, as he threw for 896 yards and 13 touchdowns without an interception over his first three games. He finished the season with 5,097 passing yards and 50 touchdown throws, joining Peyton Manning as the second quarterback in league history to join the 5,000 and 50 club. Mahomes’ 136 ANY/A+ ranks as the 20th-best single-season mark in league history.
Could it happen in 2022? Not only could it happen in 2022, but Lance is an obvious candidate who would qualify. While he played more during his rookie season for the 49ers than Mahomes did in 2017, the QB from North Dakota State started only two games. The 49ers briefly used him on a part-time basis during games early in the season, but with Lance affected by a broken finger and coach Kyle Shanahan finding that changing quarterbacks impacted his playcalling, they mostly sat Lance when Jimmy Garoppolo was healthy.
Now, the job is Lance’s, even though Garoppolo has been retained after a pay cut. There are questions about the 49ers’ offensive line, but after the team re-signed wideout Deebo Samuel, Lance is blessed with an excellent playcaller and some of the best playmakers in the league.
Lance is a different sort of quarterback than Mahomes, but despite what we saw from the 22-year-old as a rookie, his upside in Year 2 is similarly devastating.
The story: Behind a great offensive line, a quarterback produces a career season by running hot in key situations.
Wentz’s rookie season was more middling than spectacular. After a hot start, he lost star right tackle Lane Johnson to a lengthy suspension. His efficiency subsequently cratered. Wentz posted a 63.6 QBR with Johnson on the field, but his QBR fell to 41.8 without Johnson. The latter mark would have ranked 28th in the league over the full season.
Before 2017, Wentz got help in the form of a new set of starting wideouts, with Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith both signing with the Eagles in free agency. They lost left tackle Jason Peters for most of the second half of the regular season and the playoffs, but Johnson stayed healthy for the entire campaign. Johnson, right guard Brandon Brooks and center Jason Kelce were all on the field for the vast majority of the season, and they each made it to the Pro Bowl.
Blessed with spectacular protection, Wentz thrived in the most consequential moments of games. As I wrote about at the time, he was historically incredible on third downs and in the red zone during his MVP-caliber sophomore campaign. He posted a 91.7 QBR on third down and a staggering 97.2 mark inside the red zone. To put that in context, there are more than 450 qualifying quarterback seasons in those situations going back through 2007. Here’s where Wentz ranks among those 450, year-by-year, in each of those two metrics:
As you can see, Wentz was spectacular in those moments during his second season. He also hasn’t been able to attain that sort of genius at any other point during his career, which reinforces research suggesting red zone performance tends to be inconsistent from year-to-year. There was no evidence pointing toward him dominating in those situations before 2017, and there hasn’t been much evidence of him putting together another historically great season in either category since.
Given that we’ve seen Wentz struggle to correct his bad habits and now fall out of favor with two different organizations over the past two seasons, his MVP-caliber season in 2017 is a reminder of how player career arcs aren’t all the same. Some players have long, steady peaks, like what we’ve seen from Tom Brady over his unimaginable career. Others peak spectacularly early in their own journeys. Wentz’s 2017 might have looked like the start of something incredible. Instead, it was his career highlight.
Could it happen in 2022? Counting on anybody to produce a generationally impressive performance in multiple key situations is difficult. The second-year quarterback who could drive the most significant improvement by his performance in those areas, though, is Wilson. He didn’t do much right for the Jets last season, but he was particularly dreadful in those spots in which Wentz excelled in 2017. Wilson’s 17.7 QBR in the red zone ranked 29th out of 31 qualifying passers, while his 13.8 QBR on third downs ranked last.
Wilson spent virtually all of 2021 without one of his expected starting tackles in Mekhi Becton, and the 2020 first-rounder already is out for the 2022 season. But the Jets should have a solid starting tackle duo in Duane Brown and George Fant. With draft picks Garrett Wilson and Breece Hall along with free agent additions C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin added to holdovers Elijah Moore, Corey Davis and Braxton Berrios, Wilson also has plenty of skill-position talent around him.
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Wentz cost himself a likely MVP award by tearing the ACL in his left knee while scrambling late in the season against the Rams in 2017. Wilson also suffered a knee injury scrambling, but his right leg injury came during the preseason. Luckily it wasn’t quite as serious, as he is expected to return from arthroscopic surgery in September. Thriving in those incredibly important moments would make Wilson look like a superstar.
The story: After looking utterly lost as a rookie, a quarterback adds playmakers and one of the best coaches in football before thriving.
In terms of adjusted net yards per attempt after accounting for era (ANY/A+), nobody in league history with at least 200 pass attempts has made a bigger leap from Year 1 to Year 2 than Goff. He was a mess in his debut season under Jeff Fisher, completing just 54.6% of his passes while averaging 5.3 yards per attempt. He took sacks on more than 11% of his dropbacks. His 52 ANY/A+ was comfortably the worst mark for any rookie quarterback in modern league history.
A year later, Goff posted a 121 ANY/A+, which was the 15th-best mark for any second-year quarterback since the merger. Improving by 69 points of ANY/A+ is the biggest single season leap we’ve ever seen, and it’s by a considerable margin. Goff looked like an entirely different person under center, hitting chunk play after chunk play off play-action in an offense that really ran through star back Todd Gurley.
Gurley was one of the few holdovers from the 2016 team, as the Rams overturned their infrastructure in one offseason. Sean McVay took over as coach on a staff which also included future head coaches Matt LaFleur and Zac Taylor on the offensive side of the ball. The prior year had seen Goff mentored by the likes of Rob Boras, Mike Groh and Chris Weinke. With all due respect, it’s clear Goff was in better hands after the coaching changes.
The Rams also built an entirely new set of receivers. Goff’s top four targets in 2016 were Kenny Britt, Tavon Austin, Lance Kendricks and Brian Quick. Austin was the only one on the roster in 2017, in a much-reduced role. During the offseason, McVay and the L.A. front office signed Robert Woods in free agency, drafted Cooper Kupp and Gerald Everett and traded for Sammy Watkins. They also upgraded a long-standing hole on the left side of the line by replacing disappointing No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson with veteran Andrew Whitworth, who was stellar for the ensuing five seasons.
It’s hard to remember given how successful they’ve been since McVay got there, but the Rams were mired in mediocrity for more than a decade. They had gone 13 seasons without posting a winning record. During Goff’s rookie season, they went 4-12. They came into the 2017 season with a Vegas over/under of six wins. They went 11-5 and haven’t looked back.
Could it happen in 2022? Well, no rookie was quite as bad in 2021 as Goff was during the 2016 campaign. And no team totally overhauled its roster on offense this past offseason to quite the same extent the Rams did before the 2017 campaign. Asking someone to challenge the single biggest second-year leap made by any quarterback in modern league history is a massive request.
With that being said, the closest comparable is fellow No. 1 overall pick Lawrence. If anything, the Clemson QB had worse coaching during his rookie campaign, although the assistants on Urban Meyer’s staff had a meaningful track record of pro success before joining up with the ill-fated 2021 Jags. New coach Doug Pederson isn’t an unknown quantity in the way McVay was before joining the Rams, but the former Eagles coach has a track record of getting the most out of both Wentz and Nick Foles during his time in Philadelphia.
In addition to getting back 2021 first-rounder Travis Etienne from an injury that ended his rookie season before it began, the Jaguars imported Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, Evan Engram and Brandon Scherff this offseason, so Lawrence should have more help around him. Given how successful he was during a spectacular college career, it would not be a surprise if Lawrence broke out in 2022.
The story: After impressing over a small sample as a rookie, a quarterback produces one of the most spectacular seasons ever.
Marino is probably the quintessential Year 2 breakout. After being drafted as the sixth and final first-round pick of the famous quarterback class of 1983, he was impressive during his debut season. He took the job away from David Woodley, the Dolphins’ starter in the Super Bowl the prior season, and started nine games before suffering a knee injury in Week 14.
The former Pittsburgh Panthers QB made it back for the postseason loss to the Seahawks, and he did enough in a little over a half-season’s worth of starts to finish third in league MVP voting. That would typically make a quarterback a shoo-in to win Offensive Rookie of the Year, but Marino was denied there by Eric Dickerson, who ran for 1,808 yards and scored 20 touchdowns for the Rams.
A year later, Marino didn’t take a backseat to anybody. With eighth-round pick Mark Clayton emerging as a star wideout, Marino produced one of the greatest seasons in league history. The 23-year-old threw for 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns, both of which blew away the records at the time. His 150 ANY/A+ also was a league record at the time and stands as the second-best passing season (adjusted for era) in NFL history, surpassed only by Peyton Manning‘s 2004 season with the Colts.
As good as Marino would be in the years to come, he never came close to topping that season; his only top-100 season by ANY/A+ over the ensuing 15 seasons came in 1986, when he posted a 128 ANY/A+. His second-best season by that measure was actually his rookie campaign.
Could it happen in 2022? None of the rookie passers were good enough in 2021 to hint at this sort of ceiling in 2022. Even if one does have a spectacular campaign, it won’t be because he was an MVP candidate during his rookie season, as Marino was in Miami.
The story: A borderline starter puts together one of the hottest half-seasons in NFL history.
As a third-round pick in 2012, Foles was ordinary filling in for an injured Michael Vick during what turned out to be coach Andy Reid’s final season with the Eagles. When Chip Kelly took over the following offseason, the former Oregon coach ran a competition between Vick and Foles in training camp, which was won by Vick.
Vick was completing just under 55% of his passes before suffering a hamstring injury in October, at which point Foles took over and delivered one of the most ridiculous stretches in league history. Over the second half of the 2013 season, he completed nearly 67% of his passes, averaged 10 yards per attempt and threw 21 touchdown passes against two picks. He finished with a 27:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Foles’s 143 ANY/A+ is the fourth-best single-season mark in NFL history.
Foles wasn’t that guy for the vast majority of his career, though he got similarly hot for two games during Philadelphia’s run to Super Bowl LII. He benefited from an offense that was ahead of the curve; it relied on tempo and RPOs, giving him easier reads and safer opportunities for completions. Once the league caught up with Kelly, Foles revealed himself to be a streaky passer who was stretched as a regular starter.
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Could it happen in 2022? It’s difficult to see a team going off on the sort of schematic branch we saw from Kelly’s Eagles during his first NFL season. These quarterbacks will all have RPO opportunities, as an example. It would be a surprise if one of the rookies had something as dramatically different from convention as we saw from Kelly’s offense at the time.
In terms of building an offense to a quarterback’s strengths, though, the Bears and Fields might qualify. Former coach Matt Nagy’s offense rarely played to Fields’ strengths during his rookie season. As our Seth Walder noted on Twitter, Chicago employed designed rollouts on only 4.1% of Fields’ dropbacks last season, which ranked 27th in the NFL.
New offensive coordinator Luke Getsy can’t make an NFL-caliber offensive line and a No. 1 receiver appear out of thin air, but the Bears can use Fields’ physical tools, quickness and ability on the move to get him out of the pocket and give defenses a moving target. He’s not likely to produce an otherworldly touchdown-to-interception ratio, but Fields could look a lot better with an offense actually constructed to his specifications.
The story: An organization entirely reshapes its offense in the image of its first-round pick and reaps stunning results.
During Jackson’s rookie season, the Ravens were seemingly looking for every reason not to insert him into the lineup. He took a few snaps each week, but despite the fact the team was 4-5, coach John Harbaugh seemed set with Joe Flacco at quarterback. It wasn’t until Flacco suffered a hip injury in November that Baltimore turned things over to Jackson, who proceeded to lead the team to six wins in the final seven games.
When the Ravens struggled on offense during a postseason loss to the Chargers, plenty of skeptics suggested Jackson and Baltimore’s run-heavy scheme had been “figured out.” Instead of listening, the organization doubled down. After promoting run-game wizard Greg Roman to offensive coordinator, then-general manager Ozzie Newsome & Co. re-signed blocking tight end Nick Boyle, added power back Mark Ingram in free agency and used a first-round pick on field-stretching wideout Marquise Brown.
Jackson actually carried the ball less often than he had as a rookie, but the threat of him and one of the league’s best offensive lines opened up massive holes in the running game. He held up his end of the bargain as a passer, throwing five touchdown passes in the season-opening 49-point win over the Dolphins and never looked back. Jackson threw 36 touchdown passes, ran for seven more scores and won league MVP.
Could it happen in 2022? The six rookies from last year were either full-year starters or didn’t do well in their small samples, so it’s tough to see make a comparison. The Bears didn’t do much last year to build any sort of offense around Fields in terms of personnel, so while they might boot him out and use him as a runner more often, it’s not as if they added much to give him help.
Lance might be the closest stylistic option to Jackson. The 49ers have surrounded him with playmakers in the receiving game, but it’s difficult to make comparisons between what the Ravens were doing up front and where the 49ers stand one week out of the regular season. The 49ers are rebuilding on the interior, where Laken Tomlinson left in free agency and Alex Mack retired. San Francisco’s run-game coach last season, Mike McDaniel, also departed the organization to take over as coach of the Dolphins.
None of this might matter in terms of Lance’s capabilities, but he’s not as well-positioned to be the focal point of a dominant rushing attack in the way that Jackson was in 2019.
The story: A sixth-round pick with three pass attempts as a rookie comes off the bench and launches the greatest career in NFL history.
You know what happened over the ensuing two decades, but Brady’s professional origin story still seems scarcely believable. Bill Belichick took over as the Patriots’ coach in 2000 and used a sixth-round compensatory pick on Brady, who threw three passes in garbage time as a rookie. The Patriots went 5-11 and signed Drew Bledsoe to the richest contract in NFL history during the subsequent offseason, suggesting the New England organization didn’t think Brady was going to turn into … Brady.
He did anyway! When Bledsoe was sidelined by a sheared blood vessel in his chest during Week 2, the Patriots were forced to turn to Brady. While his numbers weren’t spectacular, Brady was an above-average quarterback (with a 102 ANY/A+) in his first meaningful time as a pro passer. The Patriots were sixth in the league in scoring offense and defense, and while Bledsoe needed to return the favor for an injured Brady in the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots made history with their upset victory over the Rams in the Super Bowl.
Could it happen in 2022? Patriots fans obviously hope we see a similar Year 2 from Mac Jones, but as a first-round pick with significant experience during his rookie campaign, Jones isn’t on the same sort of path as Brady.
There was only one quarterback drafted across the final three rounds of the 2021 draft, so if we’re looking for a second-year passer to come out of nowhere and shock the league, the most plausible candidate has to be Indianapolis’ Sam Ehlinger. The 218th pick in last year’s draft also touched the ball exactly three times as a rookie, although his three came as a runner.
The Colts added Foles and Matt Ryan this offseason, so Ehlinger probably would need two quarterbacks to get injured before having a shot to prove he’s the best quarterback who has ever lived.
The story: There’s more than one way to protect a quarterback and unlock a superstar.
Let’s finish with the second-year breakout from last season. As a rookie, Burrow’s 93 ANY/A+ was below-average, but it was easy to assign some of the blame to a porous offensive line and a frustrating lack of rapport with top wideout A.J. Green. After Burrow suffered a serious left knee injury in the second half of the season, the Bengals tried to solve their O-line problems by getting back the injured Jonah Williams and importing former Lions tackle Riley Reiff.
The biggest move, of course, was adding Burrow’s college teammate Ja’Marr Chase. Chase wasn’t going to keep Burrow upright, but he gave 2020 No. 1 overall pick a second receiver Burrow could trust on 50/50 balls when the offensive line failed to hold up. Burrow was still sacked on nearly 9% of his dropbacks, but what he did when upright more than made up for the takedowns.
Burrow led the league in both completion percentage (70.9%) and yards per attempt (8.9), producing a rare combination of both accuracy and big-play ability. He also led the league in adjusted yards per attempt (9.0), which doesn’t include sacks. Adjusted net yards per attempt (7.51) does, which knocked the Bengals’ star all the way down from first to … second in the league, behind MVP Aaron Rodgers.
Should the Bengals have added more offensive line help to keep Burrow afloat? If you watched them in the second half of Super Bowl LVI, it would be tough to say no. Given the strides both Burrow and the Cincinnati offense made last season, though, it’s clear adding Chase to Tee Higgins, Joe Mixon and Tyler Boyd gave the team an incredible combination of playmakers. Doing so helped get Burrow to the next level and nearly won the Bengals a title.
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Could it happen in 2022? The Patriots still don’t have that No. 1 receiver they seem to need on paper, and reports about their offense in training camp have been almost uniformly concerning. I wonder if they unlock a new level out of Jones with their variety of options, though. The team didn’t have a downfield target last season after Nelson Agholor disappointed, but it can call on newly acquired wideout DeVante Parker, who can be the player the Patriots wanted when they used a first-round pick on N’Keal Harry. Rookie second-round pick Tyquan Thornton is out indefinitely after fracturing his collarbone, but when he returns, he should offer a much-needed burst of pure speed.
Behind them, the Patriots might be able to get more out of the pieces they had. Jonnu Smith had a disappointing 2021 season, in part because he wasn’t running many routes. The former Titans tight end ran only 148 routes, which was about a month of action for Mark Andrews. Getting Smith into the passing game more frequently could create opportunities for Jones, who the Patriots kept training wheels on in key situations last season.
If the Patriots can get better pass protection and Jones can be trusted out of empty (where he ranked 29th in QBR a year ago), it might help him hit new heights in Year 2.