New Wave of NFL QBs Is Taking AFC Playoffs by Storm in 2021

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJanuary 15, 2021

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) talks with Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) following a 24-17 Ravens win in an NFL football game in Orchard Park, N.Y., Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/John Munson)
John Munson/Associated Press

This weekend's NFL Divisional Playoffs will feature four NFC quarterbacks who are, on average, 37 years old. Three (43-year-old Tom Brady of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 42-year-old Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints and 26-year-old Jared Goff of the Los Angeles Rams) are traditional pocket passers, while the fourth (37-year-old Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers) is generally a pocket quarterback with some scrambling ability.

While Brady, Brees and Rodgers attempt to simply pile more accolades onto Hall of Fame resumes, the AFC's four remaining starting quarterbacks will represent the current trajectory and future of the sport's most important position.

Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs (25), Baker Mayfield of the Cleveland Browns (25), Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills (24) and Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens (24) were all first-round draft picks in the last four years.

According to Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith, it's the first time that all four starting quarterbacks in one conference's Divisional Playoff games are 25 or younger.

Another thing they all have in common: They have the ability to absolutely dazzle out of structure.

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Mahomes and Jackson could face each other again next weekend.
Mahomes and Jackson could face each other again next weekend.Ed Zurga/Associated Press

Mahomes has become famous partly for his sandlot style and improvisational skills, Jackson might already be the best rushing quarterback in league history, Allen frequently freelances with both his arm and his legs, and while Mayfield has been reeled in to an extent by new head coach Kevin Stefanski, the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner made his name out of structure at Oklahoma.

That's almost become a prerequisite for the current wave of quarterbacks. It wasn't long ago when you'd hear grouchy old dinosaur pundits rant that if a quarterback wasn't 6'6" with a crew cut and the on-the-job discipline of an astronaut, he'd stand no chance of experiencing sustained success in this league. Mobile quarterbacks were heavily criticized for bailing on their progressions too quickly, exposing themselves to injury and generally taking too much into their own hands.

That has changed. Now, you rarely hear those critiques. Within reason, breaking from structure has become a vital asset, and a pocket allergy is no longer a pro football death sentence.

The evidence is impossible to ignore. Jackson and Mahomes are the league's last two MVPs, Allen might be this year's MVP runner-up, and Mahomes led the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl win in half a century last year.

These four are proxies for 2019 Offensive Rookie of the Year Kyler Murray, who rushed for an NFC-QB-high 819 yards as a sophomore with the Arizona Cardinals in 2020, and Houston Texans three-time Pro Bowler Deshaun Watson, who has rushed for 400-plus yards in three consecutive seasons.

They were preceded by 2015 MVP Cam Newton, who since entering the league in 2011 has rushed for more touchdowns than any running back in football, and Russell Wilson, who was the undisputed king of improvisation before Mahomes came along. 

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

And now, it's becoming a tidal wave. Each of the four highest-touted quarterbacks in the 2021 draft class—Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State's Justin Fields, North Dakota State's Trey Lance and BYU's Zach Wilson—is exceptionally skilled at extending plays through the air and/or on the ground.

In their final college seasons (Lance played just one game due to COVID-19 cancellations in 2020 so we're using his 2019 numbers), those four scored a combined 37 rushing touchdowns.

The jury's still out on that group, of course, and we still need to see some more from Mayfield, Murray, Joe Burrow of the Cincinnati Bengals and Justin Herbert of the Los Angeles Chargers, and a lot more from other young structure-defying quarterbacks like Daniel Jones of the New York Giants or Tua Tagovailoa of the Miami Dolphins. But at this point, it's becoming hard to find new success stories who don't exit the pocket frequently.

Justin Berl/Associated Press

Just take Washington Football Team 2019 first-round pick Dwayne Haskins Jr., who is well on his way to bust territory, or 2018 Arizona first-rounder Josh Rosen, who has already become a journeyman.

It used to be that guys like Jackson and Murray dropped in the draft as a result of the very attributes that now make them special, while the characteristics that teams used to admire about statues like Brady and Brees are often no longer enough. A decade ago, there's no way the consensus would have Lance and Wilson ranked ahead of Florida pocket passer Kyle Trask, who threw 43 touchdown passes to eight picks in the SEC in 2020.

But the times have changed, and this weekend's AFC playoff games will provide stark support for that reality. Mahomes, Mayfield, Allen and Jackson rushed for a combined 1,899 yards and 18 touchdowns this season, and it's a shame we can't quantify the magic they committed as passers and rushers beyond those numbers.

The quarterback future has arrived.


Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.