Predicting the Fate of the NFL's Young QBs in Prove-It Years Entering 2022

Ian Wharton@@NFLFilmStudyFeatured Columnist IVJune 30, 2022

Predicting the Fate of the NFL's Young QBs in Prove-It Years Entering 2022

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    There's a reason why the NFL is called the "not for long" league. Things change quickly as a new head-coaching candidate or shiny quarterback prospect emerges and owners and fans demand immediate results.

    There's not a larger personnel move than at quarterback. Finding a new starter often costs several valuable draft picks, tens of millions in salary allocation or comes after a season that led to firings. Only a few lucky teams have found their long-term starter after the first round.

    Young quarterbacks tend to start slow but find their footing by Year 4. If you're still asking whether your quarterback is a franchise guy after Year 3, he's unlikely to be a difference-maker. Everyone dreads having a game manager or mediocre quarterback, but sometimes it's easier to pay someone like Jimmy Garoppolo or Kirk Cousins than to trade several first-round picks for an unproven rookie.

    We've identified the seven quarterbacks currently on their rookie deals who are entering make-or-break years. If these passers don't perform up to expectations, they're at risk of being replaced or receiving significantly less money on new contracts. Even a middling season could cause their franchises to add competition to the quarterback room.

    Let's dive in and predict how each of the murky situations surrounding these make-or-break candidates will play out.

Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins

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    The Miami Dolphins are still unsure of what 2020 fifth overall pick Tua Tagovailoa could be. There have been a myriad of contributing factors to this, including reasons outside of Tagovailoa's control. It's not his fault Miami has had an abhorrent offensive line and has replaced his offensive coordinator each year.

    Tagovailoa completed 67.8 percent of his passes in 2021, but he averaged just 6.8 yards per attempt, a bottom-10 mark among starters. He has a weaker arm than most of his peers, but his trainer, Nick Hicks, recently had some encouraging news, telling Patrick Dowd of Touchdown Alabama that Tua is now as strong as he was at Alabama, if not more so, after continuing to rehab the hip he dislocated in November 2019.

    New head coach Mike McDaniel's offense should also open more opportunities downfield through better blocking and play designs. Additionally, the Dolphins rebuilt their offensive line, bringing in left tackle Terron Armstead and guard Connor Williams, and they added Tyreek Hill and Cedrick Wilson Jr. in the passing game.

    In theory, they should have legitimate playmakers to help elevate Tagovailoa in his third season. If he fails, Miami has the draft assets needed to make a big splash. Or, while it may seem like a long shot to some, the team could try to bring in Tom Brady after being linked to him this offseason.

    Ultimately, Tagovailoa should make a jump in consistency and creating chunk plays. He may not have the physical ability to be a transcendent passer, but he'll lead an efficient offense that grinds defenses down and take Miami to the playoffs this season.

    Prediction: Earns starting role for 2023

Daniel Jones, New York Giants

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    Daniel Jones may not be a lost cause going into his fourth season with the New York Giants, but it's not encouraging that new general manager Joe Schoen and head coach Brian Daboll decided against exercising his fifth-year option.

    That indicates they feel Jones is more on the level of Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold. Both the Cleveland Browns and Carolina Panthers would surely take a do-over in regard to exercising those options, with both players having little trade value at their current salaries.

    Jones has not shown reason to believe he can ever be more than average. Over three seasons, he has broken 3,000 passing yards once, with a 62.8 percent career completion rate along with 45 touchdowns.

    Even if he finally benefits from a healthy surrounding cast in 2022 and Daboll's scheme maximizes his skill set, the Giants should have ample cap space and possibly a high draft pick to replace him. The new regime would likely rather take its own quarterback than spend to keep Jones.

    Another issue with Jones is his durability. He's missed eight games over the last two years, and he has not taken care of the football like he needs to, with 29 interceptions and 20 lost fumbles. Schoen and Daboll won't want to stake their future on that type of uncertainty.

    Prediction: Replaced in 2023

Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals

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    There's no question that Kyler Murray is a long-term starter with superstar potential. He will ultimately get a massive payday, but whether it's in Arizona or elsewhere is a key question.

    In February, Murray made it clear that he was angling for a new deal when he scrubbed his social media of any mentions of the Cardinals and his agent, Erik Burkhardt, issued a strong statement about his future.

    Arizona general manager Steve Keim told the Pat McAfee Show last month that Murray's extension is all about timing but getting it done this summer is a priority. If the Cardinals wait, they could cost themselves millions of dollars, like the Dallas Cowboys did with Dak Prescott.

    Turning just 25 this summer, Murray is one of the most explosive talents in the NFL. In 2021, his completion rate (67.2 to 69.2 percent), touchdown rate (4.7 to 5.0 percent) and average yards per attempt (7.1 to 7.9) rose for the third consecutive year.

    Murray is also a dangerously elusive rusher with 1,786 yards and 20 touchdowns in three seasons.

    He has his flaws, including struggling to see passing windows over the middle of the field at 5'10", and he can be streaky with the placement on short throws.

    But unless the Cardinals want to embrace a rebuild with a treasure chest worth of picks that would come back in a Murray trade, they will do the right thing and extend him long-term.

    Prediction: Extended by Arizona for six years, $260 million

Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles

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    The young quarterback with the most pressure to win in 2022 is Jalen Hurts. The Philadelphia Eagles have a strong roster filled with a blend of quality veterans and blossoming playmakers. And yet, the Eagles aren't even favored to win the NFC East at DraftKings.

    That skepticism is likely tied to Hurts. The 23-year-old quarterback showed progression in his second year, raising his completion rate (52.0 to 61.3 percent) and passer rating (77.6 to 87.2) while lowering his interception rate (2.7 to 2.1). Philadelphia will need to see yet another leap in efficiency after trading for star receiver A.J. Brown.

    Part of Hurts' growth is linked to second-year head coach Nick Sirianni. Sirianni struggled to figure out the identity of his offense in the first half of the 2021 season, often relying too much on Hurts to carry the unit. In Week 10, he began sticking with the running game more, and the offense flourished.

    Hurts will benefit from a full season of that approach. But that won't stop the Eagles from exploring an upgrade in 2023. Howie Roseman is one of the league's most aggressive general managers, and he has two first-round picks in 2023 and an extra second-round pick in 2024 to use in any trade.

    We don't yet know which veteran quarterback will be the latest to want a new team, but if a star becomes available, Philadelphia has the assets to make a move. It could also package Hurts and picks to move up for a star prospect if Hurts isn't a clear perennial Pro Bowl talent.

    Hurts should play better in 2022 but still show clear limitations with his accuracy. The Eagles will add at least a veteran capable of pushing him in 2023.

    Prediction: Competition added in 2023

Davis Mills, Houston Texans

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    Stats never tell the whole story in the NFL. The eye test can often contradict them but still not be fully predictive.

    Expectations were low for Houston Texans rookie Davis Mills in 2021. A third-rounder who had little in terms of his surrounding cast, Mills made the best of his situation. It was impressive he completed 66.8 percent of passes with an 88.8 quarterback rating given the lack of talent around him and the fact that he only played in 14 games at Stanford.

    Mills ripped off a relatively solid set of five games to end the season, and that performance will likely lead to him being the unquestioned starter for 2022. Houston, which is still rebuilding, will lose nothing if Mills falls flat as a sophomore since it'd be in a position to land a top quarterback in a stronger 2023 class.

    Mills' numbers aren't flattering if we're comparing his Pro Football Focus grade, quarterback rating and QBR to rookie passers within the last decade. He posted a 58.5 grade (replaceable) at PFF, an 88.8 passer rating and a 35.5 QBR.

    His two closest comparisons are Jalen Hurts (56.2, 77.6, 48.5) and Drew Lock (58.1, 89.7, 50.2), and both are also entering make-or-break seasons with their respective teams.

    The best-case rookie comparison is Andy Dalton from 2011. But Dalton had a higher PFF grade (63.7) and QBR (49.5), so it's a stretch to include him.

    It's likely that Mills will suffer a sophomore slump after defenses key more into his game this year. He has the physical talent to be no worse than a solid backup, but he'd need to significantly improve for Houston to pass up either Ohio State's C.J. Stroud or Alabama's Bryce Young in the 2023 draft if given the chance.

    Prediction: Replaced in 2023

Drew Lock, Seattle Seahawks

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    There has been continued speculation that the Seattle Seahawks could be a landing spot for Baker Mayfield, but no deal has come to fruition. Until or unless it does, it appears as though Drew Lock is in the driver's seat to win the starting job after being traded to the Seahawks in the Russell Wilson deal.

    Lock was not just a "throw-in," according to Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated. General manager John Schneider was a big fan of the second-rounder in the 2019 draft class.

    If Seattle is still that high on Lock as he enters a battle with Geno Smith for the starting role, then it's unlikely it would pursue another veteran to join the mix this offseason.

    Lock has not been impressive to this point in his career despite his excellent arm strength and athleticism. He's completed just 59.3 percent of his passes with 25 touchdowns and 20 interceptions in 24 games (21 starts).

    It's possible Seattle's surrounding cast will allow more success than what Denver's could, but it's not as if the Broncos were short on playmakers over Lock's tenure. His lack of accuracy and feel for the game often resulted in missed opportunities and costly turnovers. The same issues he showed in college at Missouri have persisted at the next level.

    Seattle does not want to rebuild with an aging Pete Carroll (71 in September) as head coach. Lock should earn the starting job for the upcoming season but will be benched for Smith by the Week 11 bye after his inconsistency frustrates the coaching staff.

    Prediction: Benched midseason

Sam Darnold, Carolina Panthers

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    Some might say that the book is already written for Sam Darnold after his disastrous flameout in 2021. The Carolina Panthers were supposed to be a playoff contender with a reinvigorated Darnold playing with a competent surrounding cast. Instead, the third overall pick in 2018 only furthered concerns about his accuracy and inability to take care of the ball.

    With Darnold having just one season with at least a 60 percent completion rate through four years and two straight campaigns with more interceptions than touchdowns, Carolina can't afford to start him in 2022.

    The Panthers have been mentioned as potential suitors for Baker Mayfield even after they selected Matt Corral in the third round of this year's draft . A move for Jimmy Garoppolo would also make sense if the team could make the money work.

    We're predicting the Panthers to make a move for Mayfield since the Browns are still eager to shed his $18.9 million salary, and Mayfield is more affordable than Garoppolo ($24.2 million).

    Head coach Matt Rhule may not be able to afford another losing season. While Mayfield and Garoppolo have their own limitations as passers, they've shown more ability and consistency than Darnold. Moving a Day 2 draft pick for one of the quarterbacks could be enough for Rhule to keep his job for another year.

    That's a worthy investment compared to enduring another brutal year with Darnold starting.

    Prediction: Replaced by Baker Mayfield

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