If the 2022 NFL season has taught us anything, it's to forget what you thought you knew about quarterbacks.
- Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa have ascended to superstars in make-or-break seasons and might be the best QBs from the 2020 class.
- Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields have taken the year two leap and Mac Jones has regressed.
- The Lions might not have gotten the short end of the stick in the Jared Goff-Matthew Stafford trade.
- Geno Smith is better than Russell Wilson.
- Wilson and Kyler Murray are busts after signing two of the three largest deals in NFL history.
- Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are having their worst seasons and are no longer at the top of the QB hierarchy.
Entering the year, all those narratives would have sounded crazy. Now they aren't so farfetched. Yes, it's been a wild year for the league's quarterback landscape.
Statistically, it's one the biggest shakeups ever. I looked at the movement on the NFL passing leaderboards of every qualified QB season since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger and found the following to be true:
- The average QB has seen their NFL passer rating rank change by 10 spots compared with last season. It's the second-most volatile season since 1970 behind 2015 (10.2 average change).
- The biggest outliers: Hurts moved up from 22nd to first; Lawrence from 30th to 11th; Tagovailoa from 19th to 2nd; Wilson from fifth to 27th; Rodgers from first to 13th. You catch my drift.
Since NFL passer rating isn't everyone's favorite flavor, I also looked at Pro Football Reference's era-adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A+). It's a better version of NFL passer rating, adjusted for era and normalizes everything on a scale where 100 is average. Even by those standards, this is the fourth-most volatile QB season since 1970 (9.4 average change) behind 1971, 2014 and 2015.
So what happened to what we thought we knew? And what's next for the biggest risers and fallers? I dive in below:
- Stat to know: He is the first QB all-time with 12 wins, 30 total touchdowns and five or fewer turnovers through 13 games of a season.
- What changed? The above combination is a perfect recipe of winning and production for an MVP season. It's been powered by his dramatic improvement as a pocket passer. Nobody has seen a bigger rise in their passer rating inside the pocket from last season. A.J. Brown deserves some credit. He's caught six of Hurts' NFL-best 10 touchdown passes traveling 25-plus yards downfield.
- What's next? A massive payday this offseason that will make him one of the highest-paid QBs in the NFL.
- Stat to know: His ANY/A+ has gone from 95 in 2021 to 136 in 2022 (100 is average). It's the sixth-largest year-over-year increase by any qualified QB since 1970.
- What changed? A new head coach (Mike McDaniel) and WR1 (Tyreek Hill). So much for major question marks about his ability to stretch the field. The Dolphins offense has been hitting lightning quick strikes over the middle part of the field, as Tua is second in the NFL in completion rate 15-plus yards downfield.
- What's next? A big payday like Hurts, barring an extended slump as Miami tries to make the postseason during a tough final stretch.
- Stat to know: His passer rating has increased 23.5 points from last season, the largest year-over-year jump by a No. 1 overall pick from year one to two since Terry Bradshaw in 1971 (among qualified QBs in both seasons).
- What changed? He made the jump a lot of No. 1 picks have historically made (Burrow, Goff, Manning, etc) after Doug Pederson cleaned up the mess he inherited from Urban Meyer. Lawrence has also benefitted from better weapons (Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, return of Travis Etienne), and he's begun to showcase the arm talent that made him one of the best QB prospects ever. He has 10 touchdown passes and zero interceptions in his past five games. All but one of those touchdown passes have come outside the pocket. He has a near perfect passer rating (158.1) on throws 10-20 yards downfield and outside the numbers over that span. Here's a prime example: On fourth-and-5 on the game-winning drive against the Ravens, he released the ball before the receiver was out of his break. Perfect anticipation, arm strength and accuracy that illustrate his growth.
- What's next? Consistency. Can he avoid letdowns like Week 13 in Detroit? A better supporting cast is on the way in the name of Calvin Ridley, too, but the offensive line could also use an upgrade. (30th in ESPN's pass block win rate).
- Stat to know: His 711 rush yards in his past seven games are the most by a quarterback in a seven-game span all-time.
- What changed? I knew he was fast. But who expected him to turn into Lamar Jackson overnight? It's not just his rushing, either. He's put up league-average passing numbers since Week 7, when Chicago made changes on offense to play to his strengths. Since then, he is among the NFL leaders in percent of plays outside of the pocket, as well as play action usage.
- What's next? A WR1. That was instrumental in the recent leaps of Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts. Chase Claypool doesn't have the reputation of a Ja'Marr Chase, Tyreek Hill or A.J. Brown. Fields also needs to be more decisive in the pocket as he consistently holds onto the ball too long and invites pressure.
- Stat to know: Smith is on track to become the first QB to finish top five in passer rating after not being a primary starter in the previous five seasons since Erik Kramer for the 1995 Bears. Point being: it's super rare to see a QB revive his career quite like Smith. I've heard the Rich Gannon comparison made, and I hope he one day wins an MVP and makes the Super Bowl like Gannon did late in his career.
- What changed? He finally got a chance, and it doesn't look like a fluke at all. He ranks top five in the league in several areas you would consider "tough" throws: 15-plus yards downfield, under pressure, outside the numbers. He's also benefitted from playing under Pete Carroll and having two WR1s at his disposal in DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett.
- What's next? He's a free agent after the season. A three- or four-year deal worth $30 million per year would make him a top 15-paid QB in terms of average annual salary. QB demand is always high, though, so the price could go up even more. Seattle can also use the franchise tag, which would be north of $30 million.
- Stat to know: Goff ranks fourth in EPA per dropback this year, the highest ranking of his career. He leads the NFL since Week 9, a stretch where the Lions have a 5-1 record.
- What changed? The Lions are channeling the Rams version of Goff by leaning into his bread-and-butter: play action. Goff is using play action at the fifth-highest rate in the league since Week 9 (18th-highest prior). He leads the NFL in play-action touchdown passes this year and is fourth in EPA per dropback on those plays, the same exact rankings he had in 2018 when he made the Super Bowl.
- What's next? TBD. Depends if he leads Detroit to the postseason this year, but it is still expected to draft a QB in the top five with the Rams pick from the Matthew Stafford trade. If anything, it means Detroit doesn't have to rush a rookie QB on the field next season as Goff projects as a solid starter.
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- Stat to know: The Broncos are last in the NFL in scoring. That might be the most shocking stat of the season.
- What changed? A new head coach (Nathaniel Hackett) and worse supporting cast hasn't helped. Remember WR Tim Patrick and RB Javonte Williams suffered season-ending injuries. I also wonder if Wilson is losing a bit of athleticism. He's running less in the past two seasons, and we haven't had the highlight-reel, backyard plays and perfect high-arching deep ball we've been accustomed to. He ranks 24th in passer rating with one touchdown when pressured this season. He was third in that category with nine touchdowns last year.
- What's next? Somebody has to fall on the sword in Denver, and it'll likely be Nathaniel Hackett. Wilson would cost $107 million to cut this offseason, so that's not happening. If he struggles again in 2023, the Broncos can cut him the following offseason and spread his $85 million dead money charge over two years with a post-June 1 designation.
- Stat to know: He ranks dead last in yards per attempt this season after ranking fourth last season.
- What changed? The Hollywood Brown trade wasn't enough to offset the loss of Christian Kirk in free agency and DeAndre Hopkins to suspension. He has the third-worst completion rate on deep balls (20-plus yards downfield) this season (24%) after he was third-best (47%) in 2021.
- What's next? Similar to the Broncos situation, Kliff Kingsbury might have to take the fall for a disastrous season. Murray is 25 and playing on a contract with massive guarantees. Arizona needs to see if he can rebound after he recovers from a torn ACL.
- Stat to know: The Buccaneers are scoring 12.8 fewer points per game this season compared with 2021. It's the largest decline by any team in nearly 50 years (1973-74 Falcons).
- What changed? A lot. Bruce Arians left. Gronk retired. Ali Marpet retired. Ryan Jensen got hurt. Chris Godwin returned from a torn ACL. I think Brady can still sling it at 45. I'm shocked he ranks last in the NFL in completion rate with at least 2.5 seconds to throw and a clean pocket. So with plenty of time and good protection, he's not carving up defenses. I think it comes down to a diminished supporting cast, between a subpar interior offensive line and worse players to throw to. Their highest-ranked pass catcher in ESPN's receiver ratings is Mike Evans at 50th. They had three in the top 50 last year. I like this metric because it uses NFL Next Gen Stats technology to rate each player's ability to get open, catch the ball and get YAC. This tells me Mike Evans hasn't been as good, Godwin has been worse since returning from injury, and that the Gronk retirement was a killer.
- What's next? That is a complete mystery (to me at least). I just don't think it'll be with Tampa Bay. This isn't the 2020 team he joined that was oozing with talent, from plenty of playmakers on offense to a very underrated defense. This article by Jason La Canfora sheds light on Brady's potential landing spots.
- Stat to know: Rodgers' nine interceptions this year match his number from his past two MVP seasons combined.
- What changed? The Davante Adams loss was crushing, and Rodgers' thumb injury hasn't helped. Like Brady, I think Rodgers can still sling it and has been hurt by a diminished supporting cast. Green Bay's top pass catcher ranks 65th in the league (Randall Cobb) using the aforementioned receiver ratings by ESPN Analytics powered by NFL Next Gen Stats. Christian Watson's recent emergence has been too late to salvage Green Bay's season.
- What's next?: Rodgers' 2023 home isn't quite the beautiful mystery it was in previous offseasons. But, as our own Cody Benjamin wrote last month, the possibility of a split could rise again this offseason, although returning to Green Bay or retiring is more likely. A trade would be the only way to unload Rodgers' contract, with teams like the Jets and 49ers potentially being the most logical destinations.