Wednesday, November 30

NFL third-year QBs outlook for 2022: Will Tua Tagovailoa or Jalen Hurts take the next step?

The 2020 NFL Draft class of quarterbacks is a magnetizing group. There’s Joe Burrow, then the polarizing Tua Tagovailoa who happened to be picked one selection ahead of burgeoning superstar Justin Herbert. Can’t forget about Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia either.

Let’s look back on the 2021 seasons of all three of these quarterbacks and provide outlooks for their 2022 campaigns.

headshot-image

How he’s improved

Ok, ahhh, so, this is awkward. Burrow went scorched earth on the SEC in 2019 — to me, the finest quarterbacking season we’ve ever witnessed at the FBS level — then was cruising along in his rookie season before tearing his ACL. In Year 2, Burrow was, well, mostly LSU Burrow, connecting on long balls like they were check-downs and thriving in the face of danger. 

Counting Burrow’s run to the Super Bowl, he finished with football’s highest passer rating (92.7) while under pressure last season. He also threw the most touchdowns (14) on passes with 20 or more air yards. 

How has Burrow improved? He hasn’t. This is a former highly touted recruit who just needed the scrumptious taste of Louisiana gumbo to become a dude, and he’s been that pinpoint accurate passer brimming with confidence and drip ever since. 

Supporting cast 

Burrow has the best receiver trio in football, right? There’s a legitimate argument for it. Ja’Marr Chase was an instant superstar last season. Tee Higgins is probably the league’s best young No. 2 wideout — quietly went over 1,000 yards during the regular season last year — and all Tyler Boyd does is go for 75-plus catches and around 800 or 900 yards every season as an ultra-reliable slot. 

Gone is tight end CJ Uzomah, but, more importantly, the offensive line has been reconstructed. Alex Cappa, Ted Karras, and La’El Collins were all signed in free agency to reinforce an offensive front that was average at best and at times a clear-cut liability for most of the season.

Improving his weaknesses

When a quarterback is really good, the collective tends to fully fault his offensive line for any pressure or sack-related issues that hinder him and his offense. When a quarterback is bad, it’s believed to be mostly on the quarterback for not getting rid of the ball. In reality, quarterbacks — regardless of quality — are more to blame for sacks than conventional wisdom would suggest, and Burrow is still taking way too many of them. 

He was sacked on 8.9% of his dropbacks in 2021 — a concerning, high figure — and his 51 sacks were the most in the league. Digging deeper, 26.9% of the time Burrow was pressured last season, the play ended in a sack. That pressure-to-sack rate was the second-highest in football behind only Baker Mayfield. 

For perspective, Josh Allen had a league-low 10.6% pressure-to-sack rate, Patrick Mahomes’ was 13.4% and Justin Herbert’s was 15.6%. Burrow’s unlikely to see pressure as regularly, but the sacks have to come down this season. And much of that will be on him. 

Strengthening his strengths

Burrow’s downfield accuracy is downright stupid. Unfair. And his propensity to let it rip downfield makes him one of the most dangerous, flip-the-field-in-an-instant quarterbacks in the NFL. The go ball is a key component of the Bengals’ passing attack now. No turning back. 

But the long-ball mastery and under-pressure brilliance weren’t part of Burrow’s debut professional campaign — just in 2021. However, he started strongly at the intermediate level as a rookie and was elite in that area in Year 2. 

In short, the quick game is ubiquitous in today’s NFL. The Bengals will sprinkle in some RPOs and screens. But they need to embrace the style of their quarterback and allow Burrow to be one of the game’s most aggressive throwers. That’s when he thrives. 

Season outlook 

Burrow is Burrow. After 30 games, it feels like we know what the Bengals will be getting with him for the next decade plus. Is his a freaky athlete? No. He’s probably going to always take more sacks and Allen, Mahomes, and Herbert. Burrow’s blessed with just enough athleticism to get by as an improviser, and his throw-on-the-run ability is fantastic. 

Do I think he’ll lead the league in under-pressure passer rating again or average a league-high 8.6 yards per attempt? Probably not. Regression to the mean is powerful. 

But he’s an assassin on the field, reads coverages outstandingly well and can place the football wherever he wants down the field. With an improved offensive line and still a high-caliber group of skill-position talent around him along with a quality defense, Burrow is going to be a stud, again, in Year 2. The Bengals have their guy. An assertive, self-assured quarterback who can back up his swagger with unbelievable play in the most critical situations. 

Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa

headshot-image

How he’s improved

How about this for a stat — Tagovailoa led qualifying quarterbacks with a 55.2% adjusted completion percentage on throws made 20-plus yards in 2021. Not joking. 

Now, he only attempted that long of a pass on 7.5% of his throws, the second-lowest rate in the league, but an encouraging stat nonetheless for the polarizing young quarterback. 

Supporting cast

If you ask me, no team did more to help their quarterback and improve his support-cast environment this offseason than the Dolphins. Tyreek Hill, Terron Armstead, Connor Williams, Cedrick Wilson, Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert in the backfield, and Mike McDaniel, a Kyle Shanahan protege, as the new head coach. 

Tagovailoa has been squarely placed in a no-excuse scenario, and the Dolphins are suddenly explosive and decently deep offensively, plus the offensive line will be better. 

Improving his weaknesses

From a clean pocket last season, Tagovailoa’s yards-per-attempt average of 6.9% ranked 28th among qualifiers. His big-time throw rate in those scenarios was a minuscule 1.3%, the fifth-lowest in football, only ahead of Jacoby Brissett, Tyler Huntley, Mike Glennon, and Andy Dalton. Woof. 

More so than anything else, the former Crimson Tide star needs to be drastically more productive from a clean pocket. That’s where the elite quarterbacks separate themselves from the good and great ones. 

Strengthening his strengths

Not known for his arm talent, even as a prospect, Tagovailoa’s deep-ball accuracy can’t be ignored. In college, he dropped many gorgeous throws in the bucket to the likes of Jerry Jeudy and Co. and proved a season ago the ball-placement he showcased in college hasn’t vanished. 

With Hill and Waddle at his disposal, the Dolphins need to not only stretch defenses horizontally but vertically, much more frequently than they have in Tagovailoa’s first two seasons in the NFL. 

Season outlook 

Tagovailoa is such a complicated case study. He was surgical at Alabama but hardly got touched in the pocket and threw to four future first-round picks at receiver and handed the ball to a pair of future first-round running backs. Was it him or the environment that got him drafted No. 5 overall? 

Since joining the Dolphins, he’s had mostly the opposite environment and has been a disappointment, no question about it. Plus, he’s not remotely close to being the physical specimen of most of the other budding young star quarterbacks in the league. 

His situation has been vastly improved, and that will undoubtedly boost his productivity. But in today’s NFL, a coach — even a supposedly brilliant one like McDaniel — can only scheme receivers open so much. Tagovailoa remaining the starter or losing the gig after this season will hinge upon his ability to make challenging throws. I haven’t seen him do that with much regularity to date, and his limited arm and mobility indicate to me he’s never going to be that type of quarterback in the NFL. 

Chargers QB Justin Herbert

headshot-image

How he’s improved

Frankly, Herbert’s rookie and second years in the NFL were almost identical. Big-time throws galore. Completion percentage above 65%, stellar play with pressure in his face…the works. If anything, his clean-pocket play took a noticeable step forward in 2021. 

When the Chargers offensive line actually blocked for him last season, Herbert averaged 8.0 yards per attempt with 31 touchdowns to 13 interceptions compared to 7.1 yards per with 18 touchdowns to eight interceptions in Year 1. 

Supporting cast 

The Chargers have enough offensive artillery to compete with any team in football. Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Austin Ekeler. Josh Palmer flashed downfield as a rookie. Rookie Isaiah Spiller is the ideal, between-the-tackles complement to Ekeler. And for the second-straight year, a high-floor blocker has fallen into their laps in the first round of the draft. 

First it was Rashawn Slater. This past April, Zion Johnson. The right side of the Los Angeles line won’t be as matador-like as it was in 2021. Is it an elite group? Probably not. But with Slater, center Corey Linsley and Johnson, it shouldn’t be a hindrance to the Chargers offensive ceiling like it was a season ago. 

Improving his weaknesses

Randomly, Herbert’s adjusted completion percentage at the intermediate level was just 60.4%, the 20th-best among 34 qualifiers last year. It doesn’t feel like that area is a clear-cut weakness for him, but with around 20% of his throws being made at that level, it’s an area of his game that needs to be sharpened in Year 3.  

Strengthening his strengths 

Herbert’s combination of arm talent and athleticism is in the same category — though not quite as phenomenal — as Allen and Mahomes. He’s capable of truly making any throw on the field and has played completely differently aggression-wise than his contained, question-raising senior season at Oregon. 

If anything, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi needs to almost fully scrap the designed rollout portion of his offensive. Herbert does not need to waste drop backs faking a handoff to a back, rolling to his right to dump it down to a tight end in the flat. The massively gifted quarterback led the league with 50 attempted on designed rollouts to the right last season. Unnecessary. Let Herbert be a big-time throw king.  

Season outlook 

After watching all of Herbert’s drop backs last season — along with the rest of the league’s first and second-year passers — you’d be hard-pressed to find someone higher on the Chargers young quarterback than me. He’s capable of it all, although he’s not a ridiculous scrambler. 

The arm is an absolute cannon, he’s accurate, rarely fooled by complex coverages, and the team has been properly built around him. Herbert will be in the MVP conversation in Year 3. 

Eagles QB Jalen Hurts

headshot-image

How he’s improved

Hurts has yet to “arrive,” but he’s already come a very long way, even from the breakout one-year stint at Oklahoma that pushed him into the second round of the 2020 draft. At Alabama, Hurts won a lot of games but his coverage-reading skills weren’t proficient, his arm was lackluster, and his accuracy was woeful in most scenarios. He was proficient due to his legitimate running back-esque skills carrying the football. 

In those 10 games as a rookie, Hurts played like the noticeably raw passer with high-end scrambling and quality designed run game abilities he was in college. Yes, at Oklahoma, he showed marked improvement from inside the pocket and that improvement continued from Year 1 into Year 2, as his completion rate jumped from 52% to right around 60%. His big-time throw rate also experienced a raise, from 2.9% to 5.0%. Incredibly encouraging.

Supporting cast 

Devonta Smith and Jalen Reagor, by today’s standards of playmakers at receiver in the NFL, are not exactly a super-threatening top duo in Philadelphia. Throw in A.J. Brown? Now the Eagles are cooking. 

Quez Watkins has 4.3 speed to take the lid off secondaries and Miles Sanders and Kenneth Gainwell are a consummate one-two punch in the backfield with varying styles. The offensive line did not endure a Jason Kelce retirement as some expected would happen this offseason, and left tackle Jordan Mailata is no longer a fun project. He’s a road-grading blocker with serious pass-blocking prowess. Dallas Goedert is on the verge of entering the elite tight end tier with Travis Kelce, George Kittle, Mark Andrews, and Darren Waller. 

Hurts’ supporting cast is one of the best in the NFC. Hands down. 

Improving his weaknesses

Hurts has to tighten his ball security. His 3.9% turnover-worthy play rate was the eighth-highest in the NFL, tied with the likes of Mayfield and Zach Wilson. Yikes. Whether it be trying to squeeze the ball through tight windows his arm strength simply won’t allow or fumbling on a scramble, Hurts ruins too many drives with reckless play. 

While Hurts’ athleticism is a strength, not a weakness, to up his overall efficiency as a quarterback he has to simply throw the ball more. Passing is almost always going to be a more efficient way to move the football down the field. Hurts had 51 scrambles on 556 drop-backs last season. That’s way too many. For perspective, Allen had 55 scrambles but those came on 793 drop-backs. Mahomes led the league in scrambles (61) yet it took 880 drop backs to reach that number. 

Strengthening his strengths 

The above subhead is not to suggest Hurts must conform to a traditional in-the-pocket passing style. His mobility is a blessing, and it fits part of the modern-day franchise quarterback profile. He’s averaged 5.6 yards per rush in each of his first two seasons, but he was only given eight designed runs during the regular season. That’s not enough! 

If you switch Hurts’ position to RB on Mockdraftable, Todd Gurley is his fourth-highest comparable (!) I mean, this is a 6-1, 222-pound athlete with 4.59 speed and a 35-inch vertical. He can give the Eagles the always-critical numbers’ advantage in the run game. 

Season outlook 

Nothing indicates Hurts’ development is going to suddenly halt. He’s developed in every stage of his football-playing career to date. For as much as head coach Nick Sirianni did an amazing job scheming open throws for Hurts, and as the season progressed, Hurts settled into his game-manager role quite nicely. 

He does still feel pretty dependent on his environment, and — what do you know! — the Eagles bolstered the talent around Hurts this offseason. Do I think he’ll enter the elite tier this season? No. I don’t believe he has the arm talent or ball-placement skills to do so. But given his consistent improvement, and the strong Eagles roster, Hurts will go from a likely-to-be-replaced quarterback to a likely-to-be-extended quarterback after the season. 





Source link