Predicting the Fate of the NFL's Young QBs in Prove-It Years Entering 2021

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistJuly 2, 2021

Predicting the Fate of the NFL's Young QBs in Prove-It Years Entering 2021

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Several quarterbacks will go into a pivotal year with a lot to prove at an early stage in their NFL careers. Some may call that a make-or-break season.

    Regardless of the term or phrase used, a group of young signal-callers must show improvement to solidify a spot atop the depth chart or earn an extension. A few of them have to make a good first impression at a new destination.

    Let's take a look at eight quarterbacks younger than 30 years old in need of a strong campaign following past performance inconsistencies. We'll predict the short-term fate of each player, projecting whether they will retain starting jobs, test free agency next offseason or sign new deals with their current teams.

    This list doesn't include quarterbacks with fewer than 16 starts, since they will likely have more time to work through growing pains before front offices make firm decisions on their futures.

Buffalo Bills, Josh Allen (25)

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    Despite his breakout 2020 season, throwing for 4,544 yards, 37 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, Josh Allen needs to do a little more to turn stubborn doubters into believers.

    If Allen reverts to the quarterback who completed 56.3 percent of his passes between 2018 and 2019, the Buffalo Bills may have buyer's remorse if they extend him on a long-term deal this offseason.

    According to Joe Buscaglia of The Athletic, the Bills would prefer to extend Allen's contract sooner rather than later.

    "I think the Bills would strongly prefer to get Allen, their franchise quarterback, squared away first for a few reasons," Buscaglia wrote. "The first is obvious: They believe they found the quarterback the franchise has been searching for since Jim Kelly retired in 1997."

    Buscaglia also highlighted the rise in salary cap in 2022 as a reason to prioritize Allen's extension.

    New deal or not, Allen should solidify his future in Buffalo with another strong showing in 2021.

    He's in the same offensive system for the fourth consecutive campaign under Brian Daboll. Wideout Stefon Diggs proved he's a go-to receiver, leading the league in catches (127) and receiving yards (1,535) last season. Lastly, the Bills have an offensive line that will return five players who made at least seven starts in 2020. 

    Allen doesn't have a league MVP and multiple years of high-end performance like Lamar Jackson to give him the benefit of the doubt. However, he'll prove himself worthy of a lucrative extension.

    Projection: Allen signs a long-term extension before the 2022 offseason.

Carolina Panthers, Sam Darnold (24)

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    As the No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 draft, Sam Darnold fell well short of expectations with the New York Jets. He has yet to throw for 20 touchdowns or eclipse 3,100 yards in a single season.

    The Jets traded Darnold to the Carolina Panthers, who have a questionable offensive line.

    The Panthers have three holdovers among the starting front line in center Matt Paradis, guard John Miller and tackle Taylor Moton. Paradis (three) and Miller (three) allowed a combined six sacks in 2020, per Pro Football Focus.

    On a positive note, Darnold will have a group of offensive weapons at his disposal that's far better than his supporting casts with the Jets, who didn't have a 1,000-yard rusher or receiver between the 2018 and 2020 terms.

    In 2020, Panthers wideouts Robby Anderson and DJ Moore both eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards. Darnold played two seasons (2018-19) with the former in New York. Most importantly, the 24-year-old signal-caller has Christian McCaffrey, a dynamic running back who racked up 1,000 yards as a ball-carrier and receiver in 2019.

    The Panthers exercised Darnold's fifth-year option and passed on Justin Fields with the No. 8 overall pick in the draft. The USC product has the playmakers to post career numbers and make the front office look smart for making those decisions.

    Darnold may not throw for 4,000 yards and 30-plus touchdowns if McCaffrey bounces back from an injury-riddled 2020 campaign as a workhorse ball-carrier, but he'll trend in the right direction and extend his time with the Panthers.

    Projection: Darnold signs a short-term extension in 2022.

Detroit Lions, Jared Goff (26)

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    Jared Goff went to two Pro Bowls and started in a Super Bowl, but he's in a new situation with the Detroit Lions, who acquired him from the Los Angeles Rams in a blockbuster deal that also involved Matthew Stafford.

    Goff will have a fair chance to reinvent himself in Detroit.

    Lions general manager Brad Holmes served as the Rams director of college scouting when the team selected Goff with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft. The front-office executive doesn't see the signal-caller as a "bridge option."

    Going into the 2021 season, Goff has $40.5 million in dead cap left on his contract. That number drops to $10 million after the 2022 campaign. At that point, we could see the team go in another direction if the brain trust isn't satisfied with the passing production over a two-year span.

    The Lions' starting wide receiver group has some question marks, which may limit the team's passing attack and put Goff on the hot seat.

    Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman have struggled to stay healthy. The former missed the entire 2020 campaign with a torn labrum, and the latter has only suited up for 16 games once in his five-year career—as a rookie. Perhaps rookie fourth-rounder Amon-Ra St. Brown will step into a big role, though he's not an explosive playmaker, having averaged 12.8 yards per reception as a collegian at USC.

    With tackles Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell on the perimeter and Frank Ragnow at the pivot, the Lions are built to play a physical, run-heavy style that features D'Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams. Goff will be a game manager until the Lions upgrade the wide receiver unit.

    Projection: Goff holds his starting job but goes on the hot seat in 2022.

New York Giants, Daniel Jones (24)

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    Daniel Jones is in a situation comparable to Josh Allen's circumstances last year.

    He's a top-10 draft pick who had two inconsistent years and goes into a critical third season with a new go-to wide receiver and chance to break out in a division that's up for grabs.

    Jones can make plays with his arm and legs. He showed flashes during his rookie term with 24 touchdown passes and only 12 interceptions. The 24-year-old has 702 rushing yards and three scores on the ground through 27 outings.

    On the flip side, ESPN's Dan Orlovsky talked to The Athletic's Dan Duggan about mistakes that have plagued Jones up to this point.

    "He has 10 to 12 plays a season—and I remember talking about this coming out of Duke—where it's panic time," Orlovsky said. "As a quarterback, you either panic with the football or you value the football. … For a guy that's athletic and smart, he has way too many turnovers."

    Through two seasons, Jones has lost 17 of his 29 fumbles.

    The Giants signed wideout Kenny Golladay, a 6'4", 213-pound target whose catch radius can compensate for some errant passes, and selected versatile wideout Kardarius Toney in the first round of the draft. The rookie is Percy Harvin-like with his ability to catch, take handoffs and rack up yards after receptions.

    If Jones falters with a pass-catching group that features, Golladay, Toney, Darius Slayton, Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram, the Giants may look for a signal-caller who can optimize that collective talent.

    With a top-10 scoring defense, Jones doesn't have to press unnecessarily, so he can curb his turnover rate. A healthy Saquon Barkley in the backfield gives him more support.

    Jones has quality playmakers around him and the tools to make a significant third-year jump, which would garner some trust from the Giants front office.

    Projection: Giants exercise Jones' fifth-year option but hold off on an extension.

Denver Broncos, Drew Lock (24)

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    The Denver Broncos will have an open quarterback competition between Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater, though the former is under the spotlight as the incumbent starter. The team acquired the latter in a deal with the Carolina Panthers this offseason.

    As the Broncos' acting general manager, John Elway selected Lock in the second round of the 2019 draft. In 18 starts, he's thrown for 23 touchdowns and 18 interceptions with a 59.1 percent completion rate.

    Last year, Lock tied Carson Wentz for the most interceptions (15), but he didn't have his top wideout in Courtland Sutton, who sat out the final 15 games with a torn ACL. Secondly, the young signal-caller had to learn a new offense after the Broncos replaced former offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello with Pat Shurmur.

    Lock may feel more comfortable in his second year under Shurmur, but he's struggled with accuracy dating back to his collegiate years at Missouri, completing just 56.9 percent of his passes through four terms.

    Sure, Josh Allen dramatically improved his ball placement with wideout Stefon Diggs in the fold, but he broke out in his third year within the same system. Allen also has the big arm and mobility to make special plays.

    Lock doesn't have top-notch physical attributes, which lowers his ceiling. On top of that, he's a turnover-prone passer, a fault that may lead him to the bench and open the door for Bridgewater at some point in the upcoming season.

    If Lock struggles, new general manager George Paton will likely look for a new answer at quarterback next offseason.

    Projection: Lock loses his starting job to Bridgewater and tests free agency in 2022.

Cleveland Browns, Baker Mayfield (26)

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    Baker Mayfield's stock has gone up and down through three campaigns.

    After a solid rookie term under former Cleveland Browns lead skipper Hue Jackson, throwing for 27 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in 14 games, Mayfield took a step back under head coach Freddie Kitchens and his staff, turning the ball over 21 times through the air. He played for his third play-calling head coach in Kevin Stefanski and once again showed promise.

    Even though Mayfield made strides last season, he's not going to receive a lot of credit for the Browns' 11-5 record because of the team's third-ranked ground attack that features arguably the league's best running back duo in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. The Browns ranked 24th in passing yards with the fifth-fewest attempts.

    However, Mayfield had an efficient run between Week 12 and a divisional-round matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs. He threw for 15 touchdowns and just two interceptions in that stretch.

    Mayfield will eventually have Odell Beckham Jr. back in the fold. The star wideout missed nine games with a torn ACL in 2020.

    Even though Mayfield and Beckham have struggled with their on-field chemistry (the wideout has a 55.1 percent catch rate with the Browns), they may click in a third season together.

    Mayfield will play in the same offensive system in consecutive years for the first time in his career. With some confidence from the previous campaign, look for the 26-year-old signal-caller to give the Browns more reason to extend his contract if negotiations pick up during the regular season.

    Projection: Mayfield signs a long-term extension during the 2021 season.

Indianapolis Colts, Carson Wentz (28)

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    In the NFL, outside perception can change within a year. Going into the 2020 campaign, analysts might have listed Carson Wentz as a top-10 quarterback and a franchise player for the Philadelphia Eagles.

    After an abysmal season, Wentz has to prove himself with the Indianapolis Colts.

    According to Jay Glazer of Fox Sports, Wentz may have struggled with the Eagles' decision to select Jalen Hurts in the second round of the 2020 draft. As a high pick in a backup role, the Oklahoma product's presence might have weighed on Wentz's mind.

    The Eagles traded Wentz to the Colts, and they'll likely move forward with Hurts.

    Without a clear threat to his job in Indianapolis, Wentz doesn't have to look over his shoulder. Jacob Eason, rookie sixth-rounder Sam Ehlinger and Jalen Morton, a second-year undrafted product out of Prairie View A&M, don't have the draft pedigree or experience to compete for the starting job. None of the Colts' backup quarterbacks have taken a snap during the regular season.

    Wentz will play under head coach Frank Reich, who served as his offensive coordinator between the 2016 and 2017 terms, so he doesn't have to worry about learning an unfamiliar system. The Colts are already excited about the signal-caller's connection with wideout T.Y. Hilton. Second-year wideout Michael Pittman Jr. could take a leap as the big-bodied (6'4", 223 lbs) "X" receiver.

    When you consider a solid Colts offensive line that returns four starters is part of Wentz's quality supporting cast, he should bounce back in 2021.

    Projection: Wentz throws for 30-plus touchdowns and 4,000-plus yards while solidifying his future with the Colts.

New Orleans Saints, Jameis Winston (27)

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    Jameis Winston has been in the league longer than all the other quarterbacks on this list, but he's going into his age-27 term with a chance at a career rebirth.

    Winston came into the league as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft. He racked up big numbers and threw a lot of interceptions in his first five seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In 2019, he led the league in passing yards (5,109) and interceptions (30).

    Last offseason, the Buccaneers chose efficiency and a winning pedigree in Tom Brady over Winston, who ultimately signed a one-year deal with the New Orleans Saints.

    Winston sat behind Drew Brees for a year, and he hopes to become the now-retired quarterback's successor. First, the seventh-year veteran must beat Taysom Hill for the starting job.

    As a prototypical pocket-passing quarterback with 70 starts on his resume, Winston should have an advantage over Hill, who's not an accomplished passer with just four regular-season starts under center.

    Winston should benefit from playing under head coach Sean Payton. Since 2019, the Saints' head coach and offensive play-caller has gone 8-1 with Teddy Bridgewater and Hill as fill-ins for Brees.

    Winston will have a dynamic pass-catching running back in Alvin Kamara, who has at least 81 receptions in all four of his seasons. He can also target Michael Thomas, who's a sure-handed wideout with a 77.6 percent catch rate.

    New Orleans can open up the playbook with Winston's strong arm. We saw a glimpse of that on a trick play that resulted in a 56-yard touchdown reception for wideout Tre'Quan Smith in the team's playoff matchup against the Buccaneers.

    Winston's experience will help him claim the starting job, and his arm talent should keep the Saints offense viable in 2021. If that's the case, he'll earn another contract in New Orleans.

    Projection: Winston signs a short-term extension in 2022.


    Player contract details courtesy of Over The Cap.