Just a short 13 years ago, the NFL had one of its best QB drafts ever. Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger were all drafted in the first round of the 2004 draft. Despite the lofty expectations that come with any first-round pick, all three delivered incredible careers to their teams and are in the Hall of Fame conversation. The 2005 draft didn’t do so bad itself, with Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith going in the first round as well. For the past decade or so, these five (and others) have changed how we value the position. We’ve been spoiled by their unbelievable talent and still watch them bolster their Canton-worthy careers today.
However, somewhere between now and then we started to notice that the younger QBs in the league weren’t quite living up to the expectations that Rodgers, Rivers, and company had prepared us for. For every Andrew Luck and Cam Newton drafted, there was a Blaine Gabbert or Jake Locker also drafted as the savior of their teams’ respective droughts. The most disturbing part of our new QBs wasn’t the boom-or-bust factor, however, it was everyone in between. In the past eight years or so we’ve seen quite a lot of Ryan Tannehills, Blake Bortles, and Sam Bradfords earn starting roles….and that’s about it. Nobody believes they’ll deliver a Super Bowl or be named to an All-Pro team. They’re good enough to start because nobody was better, but we aren’t inspired by them. They are fine. And that’s ok, while we still have Big Ben, Rodgers, and Brady slinging it around. But despite their seemingly age-proof talent, retirement is coming for them and these “fine” QBs didn’t give us much of a reason to be excited for what’s next.
This year, however, we’ve seen QB play that finally gives the next generation of NFL fans a reason to watch. Rookie Deshaun Watson recently delivered one of the most thrilling games of the entire season when he fearlessly chucked bombs against the Seattle defense. In that game, he threw his 19th TD pass of the season, the most of any QB in their first seven games. He currently has 103 passer rating, higher than QBs like Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan, and Matthew Stafford. Stats aside, he was one of the most exciting new players to watch because of a word I used earlier: fearless. He refused to conform to the new NFL mold of efficient dink-and-dunk passing and instead loves to chuck the ball up to Will Fuller V or DeAndre Hopkins and let them go up and get it. Watson has 28 passes of over 20 yards this season, 6th most in the NFL. More impressively, he leads the NFL in both average completed air yards (CAY) with 8.3 and average intended air yards (IAY) at 11.3 . Despite his season-ending ACL tear during practice last week, Watson gives all of us something to look forward to in the future.
Carson Wentz, drafted in 2016, shares a lot of Watson’s qualities with one important factor: he’s better. Wentz has a year on Watson, of course, but he’s elevated his play in 2017 to a level that nobody saw coming. Halfway through the season, Wentz has the Eagles at 8-1 and is my personal front-runner for MVP. Wentz loves to chuck the ball like Watson (IAY-10.4, 5th in NFL) and he’s great on his feet as well (211 rush yards). Above all else, my favorite part about Wentz is his size (hell yes, you read that right) at 6’5″ and 237 lbs. For comparison, Newton is 6’6″ and 260 and he’s has access to NFL weight rooms for five more years! Wentz running at you full speed at you is a lot different than, say, Robert Griffin III doing the same thing. One tries to avoid contact and the other invites contact. I’ll let you guess which is which.
Perhaps my favorite young QB story above any other is the turnaround of Jared Goff. I bet you don’t need a reminder of how low people were on this guy last season, but in case you do, take a look at these headlines:
Yikes. It didn’t take me that long to find these, either. Goff got it as bad from the media as anybody, although not without reason. Goff struggled mightily in his first year with the Rams and he fit the description of many other first-rounders that we had come to know: a successful college QB hit with the ole’ NFL reality check, who’s best-case scenario was a below-average NFL starter. This year, however, Goff has turned things around in an incredible way. He’s not quite playing like Watson or Wentz, but he has the Rams positioned as the feel-good story of the NFL. They’re 6-2 and on top of a division that the Seahawks looked to have on lock before the season began. A lot of that has to do with the great play of Todd Gurley, but we have to recognize Goff’s contributions to elevating this team from ok to pretty damn good. Goff, too, is one of the top six QBs with passes over 20 yards and leads the league in completed yards per pass (8.3). He’s kept the ball away from defenses (4 INTs) and is asked to do a lot through the air (10th in pass yards per game). Will last year’s Goff make an appearance? There’s still a lot of season left, but I’m betting on growth and progression over luck this time around.
Finally, there’s two QBs worth talking about that haven’t been mentioned yet: Derek Carr and Dak Prescott. But there’s a reason these two have been left out until now: they weren’t first-round draft picks. Carr was a 2nd-rounder in 2014 and Dak a 4th in 2016. Carr and Prescott officially hit our radars last year when they led their teams to 12-4 and 13-3 records, respectively. Prescott’s success was essentially immediate, throwing for 23 TDs and just four (four!) picks after taking over (forever) for Tony Romo. Carr took a little more time, but his passer rating steadily rose throughout his first three years as a pro (76.6, 91.1, 96.7), as did his team’s overall record (3 wins, 7 wins, 12 wins). After delivering rapid success to their respective franchises, it’s safe to say that these young QBs won’t have to compete for the starting role for a long time.
Just a few years ago, we were facing a scary reality as NFL fans. Manning, Brady, Rivers, Brees, Rodgers, etc. will all retire at some point in the next 5-7 years, leaving us with….who? Sure, we’d have Luck and Newton, but the league looked to be skewing more to the talent-level of Geno Smith than the direction of those two. Today, we need not worry as Watson, Wentz, Dak, and others usher in the next generation of outstanding QB play, right on time.