Rookie QBs: The 2020 Class
By: Dean Jones
The 2020 NFL season was unlike any other. The threat of coronavirus constantly loomed, causing absences of key players and coaching staff and even forcing multiple games to be rescheduled. The playoff field was expanded from 12 to 14 teams, and teams like the Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills, and Washington Football Team rode inspiring performances to the postseason. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers ultimately became the first team to win the Super Bowl at their home stadium, with Tom Brady at the helm after his league-altering departure from the New England Patriots’ 6-championship dynasty.
Yet one of the consistently intriguing stories throughout the year was the progression of its rookie quarterbacks. Every year a few franchises draft a quarterback they hope will lead them to greater heights. Joe Burrow in Cincinnati, Justin Herbert in Los Angeles, and Tua Tagovailoa in Miami contended with massive expectations and experienced success to different degrees. Even as the future in Philadelphia remains in doubt, the timeline of Jalen Hurts started earlier than most expected. While no player in the NFL is guaranteed of his starting spot and no position in the NFL is subject to more scrutiny than quarterback, these players showed flashes of their potential and each arguably deserve a shot at an improved encore next season.
I was intrigued by the potential of these quarterbacks and what could be reasonably expected of them in the future. Their individual performances will be discussed first for a basic feel of each player’s rookie year. To understand how the 2020 class stacks up against its predecessors, the overall 21st-century trend of rookie quarterbacks in various statistical categories will be explored next.
I, like most readers probably, was most interested about how these quarterbacks might perform in the future. To actually generate predictions for their 2021 sophomore seasons, I again relied on the best data available: previous quarterbacks, limited to within the past 20 years to ensure the game was still similar enough for comparison. Analysis techniques were applied to find the most similar players to each of Burrow, Herbert, Tagovailoa, and Hurts. Ranges of success could then be defined for each quarterback in their sophomore years by considering how these earlier rookies had followed up their debuts.
Without further ado, let’s get to know our quarterbacks.
2020 Rookie Quarterback Performances
To allow comparison between rookie quarterbacks who had not started the same number of games, season totals like touchdowns, interceptions, and passing yards were standardized to a full 16 starts as follows:
First, per-start numbers are found by dividing the season total by the quarterback’s number of starts. For example, if a QB threw 10 touchdowns in 8 starts, this would give us 1.25 touchdowns per start. That rate is then multiplied by 16 starts to simulate a full season and produce a standardized season total. Continuing our example, we would expect around 1.25 * 16 = 20 touchdowns if this QB played a full season.
Jalen Hurts’ numbers were quadrupled as he only started 4 games, while Justin Herbert received the smallest boost with a factor of around 1.067 due to only missing one start all season. Although a small sample size is not the best to extrapolate from since the season performance will likely be exaggerated for better or worse, I felt it was too unfair to punish quarterbacks for injuries or coaching decisions outside their control. Thus the discussion continues in the interest of fairness, but this disclaimer should be kept in mind.
Joe Burrow (Cincinnati Bengals) - Selected at #1
Passing (Standardized): 65.3%, 4300 yds, 20 TD: 8 INT — 89.8 Passer Rating
Rushing (Standardized): 3.8 yds/att, 227 yds, 4 TD
While Joe Burrow’s rookie season unfortunately ended after suffering a torn ACL and MCL in his 10th start, the first overall pick and Heisman Trophy winner certainly showed he was worthy of his draft status despite acute offensive line struggles.
An early favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year, Burrow was on track to clear the 4000 yard mark and potentially shatter Andrew Luck’s rookie record of 4374 yards set in 2012. Burrow also showed good accuracy by completing 65.3% of his passes and was on pace for a very satisfactory 20 TD: 8 INT ratio. Burrow accomplished this even behind an atrocious O-line that allowed 32 sacks and 42 quarterback hits during his starts, ranking among the worst 5 rates in the league. Despite constantly facing pressure on passing attempts, Burrow established good chemistry with Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. Both receivers garnered respect around the league and approached 1000 yards receiving amid a disappointing year from the franchise tagged A.J. Green. Burrow’s resilience behind the line’s struggles was stirring for NFL fans.
Although no one will confuse him with Lamar Jackson or Kyler Murray, Burrow did pick up 3 rushing touchdowns as well. His ability to finish drives in the end zone will serve as a nice complement to the passing attack. More importantly in the short term, developing some mobility is pretty much a matter of survival behind the current offensive line.
Praised by many for his pocket awareness and technical soundness, the future is bright for the Ohio native. Returning from injury is always a challenge, but Burrow’s foundation is established. Now that Cincinnati has found their franchise quarterback, it’s time to build around him. Burrow endured a beating when he played, making his rookie season performance that much more impressive. A better offensive line is necessary, followed by a few more offensive weapons at wide receiver and running back.
Tua Tagovailoa (Miami Dolphins) - Selected at #5
Passing (Standardized): 64.1%, 3224 yds, 19 TD: 8 INT — 87.1 Passer Rating
Rushing (Standardized): 3.0 yds/att, 193 yds, 5 TD
Tua Tagovailoa could have gone 1st overall over Burrow if not for the hip injury ending his final college season. Sliding down to the Dolphins, Tagovailoa initially started the season on the bench, recovering his body and learning behind capable journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick. After the team’s bye in Week 7, Tagovailoa was named the starter in a surprise move given Fitpatrick’s solid 3-3 start.
Tagovailoa performed alright if a bit unevenly in 2020. Operating as mostly a game manager due to his inexperience, Miami’s poor offensive weapons, and a dominant defense capable of scoring and winning games on its own, Tagovailoa still showcased his potential with 64.1% accuracy on throws and would have been close to 20 TD: 8 INT if he started all season. While his pace for 3000 passing yards is relatively slow and many were quick to criticize his struggles in 3 sub-100 yard passing games, it is understandable for a rookie quarterback to endure his growing pains. Tagovailoa would benefit from better options at skills positions in the future. Devante Parker is a capable target and Matt Gesicki played well for a tight end, but the lack of a strong rushing attack or bonafide #1 receiver clearly hampered the offense.
An encouraging sign for the Fins has to be Tagavoila’s 3 rushing touchdowns and ability to pick up some yards on the run if needed. The quarterback should definitely protect his body after what he has suffered, but smartly deploying his mobility will help win games and garner respect from a coaching staff that has so far been noncommittal on Tagovailoa’s status.
Despite head coach Brian Flores contributing to the Miami quarterback controversy by repeatedly pulling Tagovailoa from games, the kid from Hawaii should start for the team next year. The team is already ahead of schedule on their rebuild – just one bad 56-26 loss to the Buffalo Bills eliminated them from the playoffs in a crowded AFC race. Tagovailoa should improve next year with experience under his belt rewarded with solid drafting and free agency acquisitions to address the holes on offense.
Justin Herbert (Los Angeles Chargers) - Selected at #6
Passing (Standardized): 66.6%, 4625 yds, 33 TD: 10 INT — 98.3 passer rating
Rushing (Standardized): 4.3 yds/att, 249 yds, 5 TD
Justin Herbert undeniably outplayed both quarterbacks selected before him, cementing himself as both the Offensive Rookie of the Year and the Chargers’ franchise quarterback. Of all the rookie quarterbacks who played significant minutes, Herbert also was the only to nearly play a full season, so assessments of him are much better supported.
How incredible was Herbert’s year? 31 touchdowns, shattering Baker Mayfield’s rookie record of 27 in 2018, with only 10 interceptions. 4336 passing yards to fall just short of Andrew Luck’s mark of 4374 in 2012. If Herbert had started week 1, he would almost certainly have broken that record too. His accuracy of 66.6% was stellar considering his overall productivity and willingness to stretch the field with deep throws. Although the individual stats for Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Hunter Henry diminished from 2019, this was mostly a function of Herbert’s ability to spread the ball among five or six receiving options during games and involve the whole offense.
By rushing for five touchdowns, Herbert also broke Cam Newton’s rookie record of 35 total touchdowns. His capability to create offense with the run proved especially crucial in tight games with effective quarterback sneaks into the endzone. Thankfully for Herbert, his offensive line was average in the league and only allowed 32 sacks on him all year.
Herbert’s rookie campaign could have been even better if not for the Chargers’ almost ludicrous tendency to blow close games after taking numerous comfortable 4th-quarter leads throughout the year. With a new head coach in Brandon Staley, the organization has already moved to shore up its issues, but Herbert is far from one of them. He should only lead the offense to further heights next year.
Jalen Hurts (Philadelphia Eagles) - Selected at #53
Passing (Standardized): 52.0%, 4244 yds, 24 TD: 16 INT — 77.6 passer rating
Rushing (Standardized): 5.6 yds/att, 1416 yds, 12 TD
The only quarterback taken in the second round, Jalen Hurts was eventually named the Eagles starter after the season-long struggles of the now departed Carson Wentz. Hurts showed enough flashes of potential to at least be a contender for the 2021 starting spot in Philly.
Hurts only played at an average level for a rookie quarterback, but due to the harrowing performances of Wentz, he looked much better in comparison. First the good: Hurts seemed to almost immediately make the Eagles fun to watch. His debut in a Green Bay game that briefly became semi-competitive was followed by victory in his first start against the New Orleans Saints with four touchdowns. His productivity as a passer, to reach 1000 yards in only a quarter of a season and set a pace to eclipse 4000 for the season, was encouraging — although the small sample size of 4 starts and the lack of film for opponents likely inflated these numbers. This leads to the undoubtable concerns: 52% accuracy, 4 interceptions to 6 touchdowns, and 3 straight losses reminded everyone of the team’s many issues. Hurts did his best with a terrible offensive line and poor receiving corps, showing he is not the solution alone but can be a viable option under center.
In addition, Hurts is the only true dual threat of the rookie class. He quickly reached 354 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns in four games, a better per-game rate than the Eagles’ capable running back Miles Sanders (although numbers are likely a bit inflated again). While running quarterbacks have not quite dominated the league to the degree predicted, his rushing talents add another dimension to his game and could be crucial until the team’s many needs are addressed.
Wentz was officially traded to the Indianapolis Colts in February, so Hurts will have a chance to earn the starting spot. Since the Eagles traded down from #6 to #12, it seems probable that they intend to address the numerous needs other than quarterback and give Hurts up to a year to prove himself.
21st Century Trends
To understand how rookie quarterback performance has changed over time, it was necessary to define who exactly a rookie quarterback is.
If a quarterback made at least 4 starts in one of his first 3 seasons in the league, I considered that season his rookie year. So Patrick Mahomes’ 2018 season where he started all 16 games was considered his rookie year, not 2017 when he only started the final game with the Chiefs’ playoff seeding secured. Some may argue that quarterbacks like Mahomes benefitted from sitting for a year or two, safely learning an offensive system during practices and film sessions before hurtling into significant NFL games. While this is a valid point, I still felt any advantage would be small when there is no substitute for game experience. Also, the issue of small sample sizes would be even worse if quarterback’s first seasons, with potentially less than 4 starts, were used. A potential option might be excluding quarterbacks like Mahomes from consideration, but that policy would eliminate many fascinating comparisons with the 2020 class. So I ultimately decided the pros outweighed the cons. A minimum of 4 starts is generous but necessary for comparing Hurts to other quarterbacks. Lastly, a quarterback finally making significant starts in his fourth season was just considered to have been in the NFL too long to be called a rookie. This led to the prominent and unfortunate exclusion of Aaron Rodgers, a requisite sacrifice for meaningful conclusions.
Initial web scraping of every draft from 2000 to 2020 produced 196 quarterback selections for consideration. Scraping of these draft picks’ individual pages revealed whether they had a rookie season under the chosen definition, resulting in 123 season performances for consideration.
As can be observed from the visualization of passer rating from 2001 to 2020, quarterbacks have seemingly played better over time. The average rating, denoted by the red line, fluctuates significantly from year to year but shows a steady rise after the 2000s through the 2010s, ranging from 55.97 in 2003 to 86.96 in 2020. Probably due to both rule changes favoring offense and teams more willing to wait for quarterbacks to develop as with Mahomes, rookie quarterback seasons have clearly been improving in this category.
The trend of earlier performances being worse is backed up by noting the 5 rookie seasons with the lowest rookie passer rating all occurred in the 2000s, with the exception of Lindley in 2012:
While Alex Smith would rebound from a tough rookie season to forge a remarkable career, the rest of the quarterbacks were backups forced into action by injuries to the starting quarterback and played as one would expect.
Meanwhile, the trend of recent performances being better is supported by observing the 5 rookie seasons with the highest passer ratings all occurring in the 2010s, with the exception of Pennington in 2002:
While Mahomes and Pennington did not become full-time starters until their second and third seasons, respectively, Prescott, Watson, and RGIII had outstanding seasons their first year in the league. Each undoubtedly deserves praise for a historically prolific rookie season.
Even though the 2020 class had the best average rating, the most elite class in terms of top-end talent for this category is 2012. The trio of Robert Griffin III (102.4), Russell Wilson (100.0) and Colin Kaepernick (98.3) outperformed Herbert (98.3), Burrow (89.8), and Tagovailoa (87.1). Still, this year’s class deserves respect for being consistently solid across the board unlike almost every other year.
Like passer rating, passing yards per attempt has undergone some fluctuations. Ranging from an average of 5.23 in 2003 to 7.04 in 2014, rookies have evidently become more efficient in the 2010s. Clearly the growing emphasis towards offense across the league has included rookie quarterbacks.
The quarterbacks with the lowest passing yards per attempt played in the 2000s besides Lindley. All were backups rushed into action after the starter suffered injury:
The quarterbacks with the highest passing yards per attempt were more evenly split between the decades:
Bulger surprised many by filling in for an injured Kurt Warner to win all 6 games he started and finished, and his inclusion on this list is still remarkable. Roethlisburger was even more impressive, taking the Steelers on a 14-game win streak all the way to the AFC Championship after injuries to both the starter and backup. Cousins had less success winning after taking over for RGIII but still achieved high numbers establishing himself as a gunslinger. The rookie seasons of Watson and Mahomes, of course, are still fresh in mind for most NFL fans and set the bar high for the 2020 class, which performed well but not at a historic level in this metric.
2020 ranked 5th in average passing yards per attempt as 2014, 2018, 2012, and 2015 ranked 1-4 with the benefit of at least one extremely efficient passer averaging 8+ yards per throw, while Herbert was only at 7.3. Once again though, this year’s class is consistently good unlike most.
Ranging from a low of 92.86 in 2016 to 527.43 in 2017, rushing yards have fluctuated widely but are also higher in the 2010s than the 2000s. Unlike passer rating and passing yards per attempt, these numbers needed to be standardized to a 16-start season, which helps explain data points like Lamar Jackson and Jalen Hurts. Although the dual threat revolution has not yet taken place, elite runners have become more common at the position.
Here were the quarterbacks with the lowest rushing yards:
Beyond sharing historically poor mobility, these quarterbacks were not very similar. Bulger had the best season of all in individual passing stats, while Grossman was an effective game manager during the Chicago Bears’ Super Bowl run. Barkley, Savage, and Ramsey ultimately showed too much inconsistency as backups to earn the starting job.
Here were the quarterbacks with the highest rushing yards:
As expected, a few of the best rushing quarterbacks appear on this list. Jackson was a bonafide dual threat in 7 starts, claiming the starting job from Joe Flacco. Hurts set an incredible pace with his 4 starts as mentioned earlier. The NFL stints of Tebow and Kaepernick were brief, but each left their mark on fans during their magical playoff runs (literally). Finally, Allen has progressed well as a passer since relying mainly on his rushing as a rookie.
The 2020 class is clearly not a groundbreaking group of runners without the intriguing potential of Hurts, showing that more traditional drop back passers can still enter the league and dominate.
To understand how to set future expectations for each of the 2020 rookie quarterbacks, I sought the most similar performances from 2001 to 2019. If the finer details do not spark your curiosity, you can take for granted that I classified every rookie season as Burrow, Tagovailoa, Herbert, or Hurts through various statistical techniques and skip ahead to the 3D plot depicting these 4 clusters.
Otherwise, continue reading for a (hopefully) approachable explanation. To accomplish my goal of clustering, principal component analysis (PCA) was first applied on the numbers for every rookie quarterback season. PCA is a technique to reduce a high-dimensional space (the many different passing and rushing statistical categories) into a low-dimensional space of a few principal components (vectors essentially combining information from multiple variables). Essentially, the aim is to only use 2 or 3 numbers to quantify quarterback performance for understandable plotting and useful comparisons. 3 principal components are simple enough for us to actually graph and surprisingly tend to work pretty well for many situations.
For the readers who have not taken a linear algebra class, here’s a visual representation of 1 principal component for data in 2 dimensions. The component basically traces the most important pattern from the data, combining the information for 2 closely correlated characteristics into just 1 measurement. Similar things happen for higher dimensions and more components, just with extra levels of complexity.
Pro Football Reference had almost 35 numerical variables, but many were advanced variations of passing yards per attempt or were otherwise redundant. I eliminated the statistics to the following 19 categories:
After standardizing season totals to 16 starts and applying z-normalization (scaling everything to the mean and standard deviation), the PCA procedure was run and yielded the following results:
Explained variance per principal component:
Variance in this table is basically a fancy term for how much of the original data’s meaning is captured by each component. PCA works by repeatedly adding components with the maximum variance of any options left, which is why the variance decreases for the next component.
3 principal components, with a combined variance of about 68.27%, were chosen as all other components only contributed less than 10% variance each. So each quarterback’s rookie season could be reasonably described by only 3 numbers. Next, every quarterback from 2001 to 2019 was classified based on their Euclidean distance to the 2020 class; whoever of Burrow, Tagovailoa, Herbert, or Hurts was closest became that quarterback’s label and joined their cluster. Here is a 3D grid showing the 2020 quarterbacks and their respective clusters, color-coded.
As expected, the Hurts cluster is in its own region due to his unique rushing skills. The Herbert cluster is also noticeably distinct from the other clusters and sparse, reflecting that few rookie seasons are comparable to his rookie debut. The Tagovailoa cluster is the most represented, indicating that he had the most average rookie season of the 2020 quarterbacks. The Burrow cluster is an interesting spot, seeming to pick up many quarterbacks moderately similar to Tagovailoa but closer to Burrow.
Clustering quarterbacks produced 20 for Burrow, 77 for Tagovailoa, 10 for Herbert, and 5 for Hurts. Here’s where some prominent ones landed:
To better understand what distinguished these clusters of quarterbacks from each other, I compared their 7 averages across the 19 stats. I made the following observations that led to obvious labels:
With this understanding of the different groups’ strengths and weaknesses, I then analyzed each in turn to predict where each 2020 rookie could next take their game. Identifying the worst, best, and most comparable quarterback from the most similar past rookie seasons defined pessimistic, optimistic, and reasonable expectations respectively.
The 10 most similar rookie seasons to Burrow were the following:
Rookie Passing (6 starts): 57.8%, 1500 yards, 7 TD: 5 INT - 79.4 passer rating
Sophomore Passing: N/A
Johnny Manziel undoubtedly had the worst sophomore season and probably the worst NFL career of these quarterbacks too. Despite posting an alright stat line in 2015 after Josh McCown’s injuries, Manziel’s ongoing personal issues during the season led Cleveland to cut him in March 2016. Burrow has stronger character by all accounts, but it remains sobering to recall the tale of Manziel.
Rookie Passing (6 starts): 59.8%, 1412 yards, 8 TD: 7 INT - 83.4 passer rating
Sophomore Passing (4 starts): 60.8%, 935 yards, 4 TD: 7 INT - 66.7 passer rating
Among the quarterbacks who actually played significant time in Year 2, Zach Mettenberger suffered the worst regression. Mettenberger’s 2014 season was individually decent, despite losing all of his starts and helping convince the Titans to draft Marcus Mariota #2 overall. He might have played well in his backup role as a sophomore to perhaps get an opportunity elsewhere. Instead, Mettenberger backslid during 4 starts and was eventually released after the season. Of course, Burrow is positioned for greater success, and the Bengals are confident in his capability to become their franchise quarterback for good reason.
Rookie Passing (6 starts): 60.8%, 1699 yards, 6 TD: 5 INT - 79.1 passer rating
Sophomore Passing (10 starts): 64.0%, 2891 yards, 27 TD: 2 INT - 119.2 passer rating
Nick Foles enjoyed the most impressive follow up to his 2012 rookie year, when he had filled in for Michael Vick until his own injury. In 2013 Foles was incredible under new head coach Chip Kelly, winning 8 games after once again taking over for Vick. His excellence, punctuated with an exclamation-mark performance in Oakland tying the single-game record of 7 passing touchdowns, led the Eagles to the NFC East title. Such a team turnaround would be challenging for the Bengals sharing a division with the Browns, Steelers, and Ravens all playoff contenders, but Burrow should see Foles’ sophomore season as an ambitious goal to aspire toward.
Rookie Passing (12 starts): 62.2%, 2818 yards, 19 TD: 10 INT - 91.5 passer rating
Sophomore Passing (15 starts): 61.2%, 3426 yards, 26 TD: 9 INT - 95.6 passer rating
The rookie season most parallel to Burrow though is Marcus Mariota’s 2015 campaign. The Titans struggled to a 3-9 record in their high draft pick’s starts even with his glowing numbers then. But in 2016, his improved performance led to a respectable 8-7 record and the cusp of a playoff berth. NFL fans shudder to recount Mariota’s unfortunate right fibula fracture on Christmas Eve, but hopefully Burrow will not suffer a similar fate again next year.
I expect Burrow to take the biggest step forward in increasing scoring and reducing turnovers, reaching somewhere around 28 TD: 10 INT. Accomplishing a completion percentage of 65% and passing for north of 4000 yards are reasonable sights for someone of his talent too. The cherry on top would be Cincy making it to at least 8-8, a very encouraging sign for both the fans and Burrow that the team’s rebuild is proceeding well. Unfortunately, a tough division will make that feat nearly miraculous. Around 6 wins despite an improved, healthy Burrow is more likely.
The 10 rookie seasons most similar to Tagovailoa:
Rookie Passing (15 starts): 57.4%, 3385 yards, 14 TD: 17 INT - 72.6 passer rating
Sophomore Passing (5 starts): 52.8%, 1731 yard, 9 TD: 9 INT - 70.3 passer rating
No quarterback suffered a major statistical regression, but the poorest performing was Brandon Weeden. The oldest player ever taken in the first round at 28 years young, his 2012 rookie year left something to be desired. Weeden did manage to lead the Browns to a (relatively okay for Cleveland) 5-10 record in his rookie starts, but he struggled to build off that in his sophomore season. His numbers remained similar, but losing all 5 of his starts eventually led to his benching and release. 2021 Miami will undoubtedly be a better environment for Tagovailoa than 2013 Cleveland. But the criticism of Tua from fans, reporters, and even coaches is not quiet. He will have to show demonstrated improvement, truly helping the Dolphins win games, to avoid trade or release like Weeden.
Rookie Passing (16 starts): 62.4%, 3782 yards, 16 TD: 14 INT - 79.3 passer rating
Sophomore Passing (13 starts): 60.2%, 3296 yards, 33 TD: 7 INT - 101.9 passer rating
Carson Wentz took a major leap forward after a pretty average 2016 rookie season where he went 7-9. Becoming a serious MVP contender and taking Philly to an 11-2 record in his starts, Wentz would unfortunately suffer a torn ACL sidelining him from the Eagles’ magical Super Bowl run. Still, the dominance of Wentz was undeniable at the time. Tua could potentially achieve such a feat, but the depth and over performing nature of the Eagles’ roster in 2017 amid injuries and low expectations stands out as the catalyst for that improbable championship. Could Miami, or any team, replicate that synergy? Likely not, even if Tua ups his game.
Rookie Passing (14 starts): 63.9%, 2843 yards, 18 TD: 12 INT - 86.5 passer rating
Sophomore Passing (16 starts): 62.1%, 3764 yards, 28 TD: 14 INT - 85.7 passer rating
Surprisingly, the numbers most reminiscent of Tua are Tom Brady’s 2001 season. Invoking the GOAT’s name in a quarterback comparison discussion may seem unwise, especially in the context of a division rival with the #5 pick missing the playoffs while those Patriots with a 6th round selection won it all. But like Tua, Brady was far from an elite passer at the time and, like the Dolphins, often the key to the team’s victories during his rookie year was strong defense. He became more productive in his second year even as the team struggled to a Super Bowl hangover 9-7 record.
I could see Tua’s numbers ticking up to around 65%, 3500 yards, and 25 TD: 12 INT as he becomes more capable and confident taking the deep throws. He should benefit from more experience, better weapons, and greater trust from coaches. Leading the team to the playoffs would also help solidify him as the long-term solution and lies just within reach with a strengthened offense.
The 10 quarterbacks most similar to Herbert:
Rookie Passing (13 starts): 63.8%, 3725 yards, 27 TD: 14 INT - 93.7 passer rating
Sophomore Passing (16 starts): 59.4%, 3827 yards, 22 TD: 21 INT - 78.8 passer rating
Each of these quarterbacks played well their rookie seasons, with the best first impressions in Prescott, Watson and Mahomes. However, the most disappointing inclusion on the list is Baker Mayfield. Mayfield ended the Browns’ winless streak of 19 games and appeared destined to transform the team’s culture as a rookie, posting great numbers en route to a 6-7 record in his starts to claim Cleveland’s best record since 2007. In 2019 though, Mayfield regressed significantly and the Browns struggled to a 6-10 record even with a new head coach and prominent free agent acquisitions Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham, Jr. The higher expectations for Herbert in 2021 could similarly get to him after initially thriving as a dark horse like Mayfield. Adjusting to a new coach and offensive scheme is always challenging. The team’s bad luck could linger just like the Browns. And then Herbert has to face the best quarterback of the list and arguably the league in his division twice.
Rookie Passing (16 starts): 66.0%, 5097 yards, 50 TD: 12 INT - 113.8 passer rating
Sophomore Passing (14 starts): 65.9%, 4031 yards, 26 TD: 5 INT - 105.3 passer rating
Patrick Mahomes’ 2018 MVP season established him as an incredible talent capable of making seemingly impossible throws and using elite elusiveness to scramble and extend plays. While the Chiefs would fall to the Patriots in the playoffs that year, Mahomes remained elite in 2019 and led the way to the team’s first championship in 50 years. Few can compare. Herbert, as great as his rookie season was, still has a lot of catching up to do and much to prove in 2021. If he’s going to take the next step forward, notching a win over Mahomes would help silence any doubters who think Herbert only posts impressive individual stats.
Rookie Passing (6 starts): 61.8%, 1699 yards, 19 TD: 8 INT - 103.0 passer rating
Sophomore Passing (16 starts): 68.3%, 4165 yards, 26 TD: 9 INT - 103.1 passer rating
It is tough to choose a quarterback most comparable to Herbert given the historic nature of his rookie season, but Deshaun Watson was set to post similar numbers in 2017 before his unfortunate ACL injury. His 2017 rookie performance was stellar, yet the Texans also underperformed like the Chargers by only going 3-3 in those games. When Watson picked up where he left off in 2018, he was rewarded with better team play to post an 11-5 record.
It is hard to believe Herbert can outdo himself, but he could potentially progress to around 67%, 4800 yds, 32 TD: 8 INT in 2021. Even if his stats stagnate or actually diminish a bit, LA is in a good position to fare better in 2021. 10+ wins and the playoffs should be achieved with this kind of quarterback and the talented roster.
Only 5 quarterbacks comprised the cluster for Hurts:
Rookie Passing (11 starts): 68.3%, 4165 yards, 26 TD: 9 INT - 72.9 passer rating
Rookie Rushing: 5.4 yds/att, 660 yds, 6 TD
Sophomore Passing (2 starts): 75.0%, 39 yards, 0 TD: 0 INT - 84.9 passer rating
Sophomore Rushing: 3.8 yds/att, 227 yds, 4 TD
Tim Tebow suffered the poorest fate of these quarterbacks. Although he performed inconsistently throughout the 2011 regular season, he did rush very well and led the Broncos to a 7-4 record and playoff berth. “Tebow Time” was a fervent national phenomenon, and his performance in the playoffs’ first round (10 of 21 for 316 yards and 2 touchdowns) added to his legend. Unfortunately, the next week’s brutal 45-10 loss to the Patriots exposed Tebow’s shortcomings. With Peyton Manning signed in the offseason, Tebow was traded to the Jets and used only sparingly in 2012, never named the starting quarterback and mostly deployed only on trick plays. He would also not start a game as quarterback later, a shocking turn of events given all his potential and athleticism that had captivated the NFL world. Hurts could likely find himself in a similar position as the odd man out if the Eagles draft a quarterback, but he will at least have the chance to compete for the starting job in training camp.
Rookie Passing (7 starts): 58.2%, 1201 yards, 6 TD: 3 INT - 84.5 passer rating
Rookie Rushing: 4.7 yds/att, 695 yards, 5 TD
Sophomore Passing (15 starts): 66.1%, 3127 yards, 36 TD: 6 INT - 113.3 passer rating
Sophomore Rushing: 6.9 yds/att, 1206 yards, 7 TD
With Jackson capturing the MVP in his sophomore season, he gets the nod as the group’s best quarterback. Jackson in 2018 took over following Joe Flacco’s injury and went 6-1 in his rookie starts, with his rushing adding a potent dimension to the Ravens offensive attack. After Baltimore changed schemes to center around Jackson’s skills in the offseason, the quarterback became the second unanimous MVP in league history with excellent passing and rushing. Despite disappointing in the playoffs both years and struggling a bit in 2020, Jackson has undoubtedly set the bar for a dual threat quarterback’s second regular season, something that would probably be asking too much from Hurts given the instability in Philadelphia.
Rookie Passing (11 starts): 52.8%, 2074 yards, 10 TD: 12 INT - 67.9 passer rating
Rookie Rushing: 7.1 yds/att, 631 yards, 8 TD
Sophomore Passing (16 starts): 58.8%, 3089 yards, 20 TD: 9 INT - 85.3 passer rating
Sophomore Rushing: 4.7 yds/att, 510 yards, 9 TDs
Hurts’ debut seems most akin to Allen’s in 2018. Like Hurts, Allen struggled as a passer and often turned to his legs in games. Allen showed significant improvement as a passer in 2019. Hurts could chart a similar path with more NFL experience, although matching the quick pace of Allen in improvement would be challenging.
If Hurts starts the entire season, I foresee his passing numbers around 56%, 3000 yds, 18 TD: 10 INT and rushing at 750 yards and 8 TD. But telling the future in Philadelphia is an unforgiving business, and the small sample size of Hurts raises many questions that can only be answered with more playing time. Even in the much-maligned NFC East, the Eagles could struggle to reload quickly enough to ascend from the division cellar. If Hurts can return the team to respectable status with some help, he’ll build a strong case for himself.
The 2020 rookie quarterback class was an exciting addition for the league. While Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa carried massive hype and were drafted first, Justin Herbert unexpectedly stole the show and performed at a historic level. Near the end of the season, Jalen Hurts demonstrated his rushing talent even as his passing skills require further development.
In general, quarterbacks have been improving in the key categories of passer rating, passing yards per attempt, and rushing yards throughout the 21st century. The rise in offensive output is clear to any NFL fan who has watched the game long enough, with numerous rule changes favoring offense and better judgement about when QBs are ready to start their careers likely helping to create this trend.
Assessing these quarterbacks by finding the most similar rookies of the past offered a close look into their potential and how expectations should be set for 2021. By virtue of his offensive line’s season-long struggles, Burrow was classified along with other quarterbacks under extreme duress. Cincinnati's top priority must be investing in better protection, or even his promising rookie season and considerable talent will fade after too much physical punishment. Although Tagovailoa has many doubters, he actually was the most average of the quarterbacks and many illustrious careers also started at a slow pace. Miami can discover what they have in their QB by surrounding him with more offensive talent and giving him a chance to show improvement. Herbert was a rookie revelation on his way to claiming the OPOY award. Living up to his own standard and those set by other outstanding newcomers will be challenging but expected. Finally, Hurts was the lone representative of the foreseen next generation with elite rushing. Historically these quarterbacks have rarely succeeded despite sensational play, and he has his work cut out for him in a rebuild situation.
Although predicting the future in the NFL is a nigh impossible task, each quarterback can learn from the mistakes and accomplishments of their most similar predecessors. It is far too early to judge who is capable of winning a Super Bowl or will have the best career, but improvement in their second year is a reasonable goal and the most important immediate priority. Although the situations vary widely, I am confident in the potential of each quarterback to take their game to new levels.
And in the future, rookie quarterbacks might look to Burrow, Tagovailoa, Herbert, and Hurts for inspiration on their own journeys.