For most of this century, the same handful of NFL quarterbacks ruled the league. Tom Brady was the biggest star of all, followed by Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees, while Ben Roethlisberger and (more recently) Russell Wilson rounded out top-five lists of the game’s best passers. Now that dynamic is changing, albeit slowly. Talented young QBs have been the defining story of the NFL in recent years—and more are coming.
Brady (last year’s Super Bowl winner) and Rodgers (last year’s MVP) are still mega-elite, and anyone who expects them to fade immediately will likely be disappointed. Even so, the last two MVPs before Rodgers were burgeoning superstars, Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, who burst onto the scene and asserted themselves as the best in the world. With a new batch of draft picks entering the league and several young QBs finding their footing, this season seems ripe for a reshuffling of the pecking order.
Here are six of those QBs, including rookies and other young passers, ranked (subjectively) by their chances at mounting a breakout season in 2021. Anyone who has already made a Pro Bowl isn’t eligible for “breakout” consideration, because they’ve already broken out. (Sorry, Josh Allen and Kyler Murray.) So, who’s next? These are the QBs we’re watching this season.
1. Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns
The first pick in the 2018 draft, Mayfield had his best season yet in 2020. He raised his QBR (an all-inclusive quarterback efficiency stat on a 100-point scale) from 54 to 72. He cut way down on interceptions, throwing them on just 1.6 percent of his passes after hovering around three to four percent his first two years. He also set a career high (7.7) in adjusted yards per attempt, a metric that provides extra weight to touchdowns and interceptions.
Mayfield should also get a lot of help from the guys around him. The Browns offensive line came in No. 1 in a preseason ranking by the game-graders of Pro Football Focus, and Mayfield’s weapons at the skill positions give him an embarrassment of riches: running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, receivers Odell Bekcham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, and a couple of potentially good tight ends, too.
2. Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals
Burrow, the first pick in the 2020 draft, did some nice work in his rookie season, but the Bengals were so bad that it rarely materialized in the standings or on the stat sheet. Burrow had a 2-7-1 record when an ACL tear ended his season, and his 6.7 adjusted yards per attempt will not impress anybody. Yet even as a rookie he took good care of the ball: He had a 1.2 percent interception rate (five interceptions on 404 throws) that placed him behind only Mahomes and Rodgers. He did have nine fumbles, but those are largely attributable to the Bengals’ lousy offensive line. It’s not clear how much better that line will be in 2021, but Burrow will be a year more experienced, and he’ll get to reunite with his star wideout from LSU, No. 5 overall pick Ja’Marr Chase.
3. Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers
Herbert’s 7.6 adjusted yards per attempt as a rookie are significantly higher than the marks so far for Mayfield, Burrow, and Murray. His 98.3 passer rating also puts him well ahead of anyone else here who has NFL experience. He pulled that off with a subpar offensive line, too. There are lots of reasons to think Herbert will be great, especially given that the Chargers spent a first-round pick on a left tackle, Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater, who can help protect Herbert’s blind side.
Why’s he so low on this list, then? For starters, the two QBs ahead of him were both No. 1 overall picks for a reason. It also won’t help that Herbert’s second favorite target in 2020, tight end Hunter Henry, plays for the New England Patriots now.
4. Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars
The 2021 No. 1 pick out of Clemson is the most polished QB to enter the league since Andrew Luck in 2012, and maybe even longer than that. As long as he stays healthy, Lawrence is so good that even the lackluster Jaguars will struggle to ruin his career. He’ll make a handful of “wow” throws each week, giving everyone a regular reminder of why he was such a no-brainer first pick.
But the Jaguars are exceptionally bad. The offensive line will likely be below average. The wide receiving group has some talent (especially second-year man Laviska Shenault) but no clear frontrunner. And the defense will give up so many points that Lawrence will often find himself playing from behind, when he’ll have no choice but to take the kinds of risks that lead to interceptions. Lawrence’s day is coming, but it will take an incredible effort for him to make it happen this year.
5. Justin Fields, Chicago Bears
Fields is a real talent, and he could have easily been the No. 2 pick after Lawrence in the 2021 draft. Instead, he went to the Bears at No. 11, which was great for Chicago. It might also be great for Fields, who’s sliding into a better situation than No. 2 pick Zach Wilson with the Jets or No. 3 pick Trey Lance with the 49ers.
Fields will have a chance to lead a team that made the playoffs in 2020 and still has one of the league’s best defenses. The Bears won’t give up a ton of points, which should result in coach Matt Nagy not demanding too much of Fields right out of the gate. If the Bears can make him comfortable despite an iffy offensive line, Fields’ rocket arm and lightning legs can take over. (He has to win the starting job over veteran Andy Dalton first, but that’s just a matter of time.)
6. Mac Jones, New England Patriots
Jones is the least-proven player on this list, but he posted cartoonish stats while leading Alabama to an unbeaten national championship season last year. At Bama, he had the benefit of arguably the most talented group of receivers in college football history (including two first-round picks in this year’s draft), an elite running back, and the best offensive line in the country.
How will he do without that talent cushion, in a league that has much more parity than the college level? The Patriots took Jones 15th in the draft, and that could work out either wonderfully or terribly. But it’d be silly to leave off a player who will get first-year coaching from Bill Belichick. The Patriots have also added two great tight ends (the Chargers’ Hunter Henry and the Titans’ Jonnu Smith), who should help a great deal.
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