Editor's Note: This is Part 1 of a five-part series that dives deep into NFL quarterbacks making sudden, massive improvement, which we've dubbed 'QB Leap Week.' To see what's coming each day this week, scroll down to the end of this story.
"One small step for man. One giant leap for mankind." The iconic quote from Neil Armstrong during the 1969 moon landing could also be true for Jalen Hurts, the Houston native who took a quantum leap in 2022.
His step forward last season certainly had giant ramifications. He went from entering 2022 trying to prove he deserved to be a QB1, to leading the Eagles to the Super Bowl and resetting the QB market with a five-year deal worth $255 million.
Hurts' season is one of the greatest QB leaps in recent memory and also illustrates how fascinating and impactful the QB leap can be. Every year a few quarterbacks improve their play to a degree that can change the fortunes of a franchise (and their personal fortunes).
As an NFL history buff and someone who loves to nerd out, I decided to find every QB leap since the turn of the century (2000) in search of the most common factors that linked the leaps together as we look ahead to another season of QB leaps in 2023.
QB leap criteria:
- There needs to be a statistical baseline. I started my search with QBs who jumped at least a quarter of the league's qualified passers from one season to the next in terms of expected points added (EPA) per play. EPA takes into account value added on all plays, from passes, sacks, scrambles and designed runs. It captures a QBs entire impact better than a traditional stat like passer rating.
- I used the eye test to refine the list, adding and subtracting QBs from there. Numbers were a great place to start but not the end all, be all. For example, there are QBs who qualified for the passer leaderboard, but clearly didn't have enough playing time for anyone to believe they made "the leap."
- Traditionally, you might connect a QB leap to players in their first few seasons in the league. I looked at QB leaps of all flavors. I included Aaron Rodgers in 2020. He clearly took a step forward after the Jordan Love pick, winning back-to-back MVPs, following a few average seasons.
History of the QB leap
Now that I've established the ground rules, let's get to the good stuff. There has been at least one QB leap every season since 2000, including at least three leaps in 21 of the past 23 seasons. There have been 91 total QB leaps since 2000, averaging up to nearly four per year.
Feast your eyes on the list. You'll probably remember some of these seasons, like Ryan Tannehill leading the Titans to an AFC Championship game after a period of obscurity with the Dolphins. Do you recall Case Keenum and his season leading up to the 'Minneapolis Miracle'? You definitely remember the sophomore jumps made by Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Joe Burrow. My personal favorites include Andy Dalton in 2015, when the Red Rifle made a run at MVP before getting hurt, and Drew Brees in 2006, when he broke out with the Saints.
QB leaps since 2000
Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes, Andrew Luck
Nick Foles, Philip Rivers
Cam Newton, Alex Smith, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford
Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Chad Pennington, Matt Ryan, Kurt Warner, Matt Cassel
Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Derek Anderson, David Garrard
Tony Romo, Philip Rivers, Drew Brees
Carson Palmer, Eli Manning, Mark Brunell
Drew Brees, Donovan McNabb, Ben Roethlisberger
Jake Plummer, Jon Kitna, Daunte Culpepper
Trent Green, Matt Hasselbeck, Chad Pennington, Michael Vick, Brad Johnson, Drew Bledsoe
Steve McNair, Kordell Stewart, Brett Favre
Daunte Culpepper, Donovan McNabb, Jeff Garcia, Kerry Collins
QB leaps (and falls) were a theme throughout last season. Teams are only getting more and more impatient with quarterbacks and coaches, leading to plenty of change. It was one of the most volatile QB seasons on record as the average qualified QB shifted nine spots on the league EPA per play leaderboard from 2021 to 2022, the second-largest shift of the league's QB landscape since 2000.
There were seven leaps, tying 2015 for the most in a season over that span.
Jalen Hurts Philadelphia Eagles QB
|Hurts' 2022 season is the poster child for the QB leap. He entered the season in a make-or-break year and left it as an MVP runner-up, breaking the Eagles record for total touchdowns in a season. He had the perfect environment to make a leap, but credit his development as a passer, too, going from 18th to sixth in the NFL in EPA per play from inside the pocket. The addition of A.J. Brown was probably the biggest catalyst. Hurts led the NFL with 10 touchdown passes thrown 25-plus yards downfield (six to Brown), after throwing just one in 2021. The best offensive line in football and a scheme that had Hurts sneaking on third and fourth downs didn't hurt either. But the foundation was Hurts' tremendous talent and development.|
Tua Tagovailoa Miami Dolphins QB
|Like Hurts, Tagovailoa's 2022 season proved he was a franchise QB in his third year in the NFL. Tua's strengths (accuracy and quick-passing) were unlocked by the Tyreek Hill trade and rookie head coach Mike McDaniel. Tagovailoa led the league in completion rate on throws 10-plus yards downfield (62%) and had the quickest average time to throw (2.59 seconds) on those plays. It all added up to becoming the first Dolphins QB to lead the NFL in passer rating since Dan Marino in 1984. The season could have been so much better too if he hadn't suffered multiple head injuries.|
Trevor Lawrence Jacksonville Jaguars QB
|Lawrence proved that his rookie season with Urban Meyer was an outlier as he made the year two leap under the tutelage of Doug Pederson. He started showing the strong arm and confidence that made him one of the most hyped prospects in years as the Jaguars went 7-2 in their final nine games. He ranked third in the league in EPA per play on throws 10-20 yards downfield and outside the numbers over that span. He dominated those tough throws, one reason he had the biggest year two jump (in terms of passer rating improvement) by a QB drafted first overall since Terry Bradshaw in 1971. The Jaguars also became the first team in NFL history to win a playoff game a year after having the worst record in the league. Lawrence could find himself in the MVP conversation in 2023 with another leap thanks to the addition of Calvin Ridley.|
Justin Fields Chicago Bears QB
|Like Lawrence, Fields made the year two leap after a slow start to 2022. He joined Michael Vick and Lamar Jackson as the only QBs in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards. He was also an improved player overall once rookie head coach Matt Eberflus started to get Fields moving with designed runs, rollouts and play action as the season wore on. It was still more of a step than a leap as he ranked 22nd in EPA per play in 2022 and held onto the ball too long, resulting in far too many sacks. He also ranked last in the league in fourth-quarter passer rating as Chicago lost a number of close games. 2023 is setting up for a big leap from Fields though with the addition of wide receiver D.J. Moore and rookie offensive tackle Darnell Wright.|
Geno Smith Seattle Seahawks QB
|Smith made a massive leap after seven seasons as a backup with the Jets, Giants, Chargers and Seahawks. He won NFL comeback player of the year, made his playoff debut and set franchise single-season records for completions, attempts, passing yards and completion rate. It was one of the best stories of the season culminating in a three-year deal worth over $100 million this offseason. He also provided us with one of the season's best quotes: "They wrote me off, I ain't write back though." He looks poised to continue his success in 2023, too. He was making throws all season that would suggest his improvement was no fluke. He ranked top two in the league in completion rate in the following situations: Throws under pressure, outside the numbers or 15-plus yards downfield. Seattle also drafted Jaxon Smith-Njigba in the first round, giving Smith a big three wide receiver trio of D.K. Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and Smith-Njigba.|
Jared Goff Detroit Lions QB
|Goff entered 2022 looking like a bridge quarterback, but finished the season with QB1 credentials, throwing 324 straight passes without an interception, the longest streak in Lions history. Detroit's Week 18 win at Lambeau Field to knock the Packers out of playoff contention will not be soon forgotten. First-year offensive coordinator (and play caller) Ben Johnson got Goff rolling in 2022 with his bread-and-butter: Play action. Goff led the league in EPA per dropback off play-action fakes, much like how he first broke out with the Rams in 2017. Goff and the Lions were so good to end 2022 that they are getting major hype this season. They are division favorites and have their highest preseason win total (9.5) in at least the last 35 seasons|
Daniel Jones New York Giants QB
|This one will be subject to some debate but I have Jones' 2022 season as a leap. He was an above average QB (improved from 24th to 14th in EPA per play) with a below-average supporting cast in his first year with rookie head coach Brian Daboll. He wasn't asked to do a lot by Daboll (second-shortest average pass length in the NFL) but also shrugged off the turnover narrative, committing the fewest turnovers per game (0.5) among all qualified QBs last season. He also ran for a Giants QB record 708 yards, fifth in the league among all signal callers. Now there's plenty of pressure to improve again in 2023. He signed a four-year deal worth $160 million with $81 million guaranteed. The Giants also traded for TE Darren Waller, signed WR Parris Campbell and drafted WR Jalin Hyatt to help Jones take his game to another level, stretching the field.|
One interesting element of the QB leap is sustainability. Since 2000, 66 different QBs have taken a leap, but 32 did not make a Pro Bowl after their first leap. So roughly half of these leaps prove to be unsustainable. Quarterbacks like Andy Dalton, Carson Wentz, Case Keenum and Mitchell Trubisky made leaps that turned out to be more like one-hit wonders. It'll be interesting to see which 2022 leap turns out to be unsustainable. My leaders in the clubhouse would be Daniel Jones and Tua Tagovailoa, the latter because of his ability to stay healthy.
Biggest factors behind QB leaps
It's been said that in order to look forward, you have to look back. So for the rest of this week I'll be using the history of QB leaps to project who will make a jump in 2023.
As I selected all 91 QB leaps since 2000, I also picked out the biggest reason for each leap. The primary factors fell into four buckets that I'll be using to categorize likely 2023 leaps.
Here's a look at the 'QB Leap Week' schedule:
Wednesday: Which young QB is the next to make the leap?
The most common reason for a leap wasn't a new star teammate or big change on the coaching staff, it's simple QB development. You've probably heard of the year two leap before. Well, it's a thing. Year two leaps accounted for 20% of all QB leaps since 2000. There's been a year two leap in five of the past six seasons. Think Carson Wentz, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence. This year's candidates include Kenny Pickett, Desmond Ridder, Kyle Trask and Sam Howell. Of course, QB development isn't just limited to year two players. Other young QBs who can crush expectations include Jordan Love, along with rookies Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud and Anthony Richardson.
Thursday: Which coaching change will spur a leap?
Coaching changes were the second-biggest reason for a leap. A new coach was the primary factor with roughly one quarter of all leaps, including four of the seven leaps in 2022 (Goff, Lawrence, Fields, Jones). 2023 leap candidates include Russell Wilson, Mac Jones, Lamar Jackson and Justin Herbert.
Friday: Which offseason move will lead to a leap?
They say the NFL is a copycat league and the new trend is trading for veteran pass catchers, especially those who can speed up the development of new quarterbacks. Getting top-flight wide receivers worked wonders for Josh Allen (Stefon Diggs), Joe Burrow (Ja'Marr Chase), Jalen Hurts (A.J. Brown) and Tua Tagovailoa (A.J. Brown). It's definitely a new fad, as a QB made a leap due primarily to an improved supporting cast in seven of the past nine seasons. 2023 leap candidates include Trevor Lawrence (Calvin Ridley), Daniel Jones (Darren Waller), Justin Herbert (Quentin Johnston), Lamar Jackson (Zay Flowers and Odell Beckham Jr.) and Justin Fields (D.J. Moore).
Saturday: Which old face in a new place will improve the most?
The hot trend that failed miserably in 2022 was acquiring veteran QBs. Russell Wilson, Carson Wentz, Baker Mayfield and Matt Ryan all flopped. Prior to that, we saw Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford make leaps all the way to Super Bowl titles in 2020 and 2021. 2023 leap candidates include Aaron Rodgers (Jets), Jimmy Garoppolo (Raiders), Jacoby Brissett (Commanders), Baker Mayfield (Buccaneers) and Derek Carr (Saints).