Ranking NFL’s second-year QBs based on how likely it is they’ll take a leap in 2022


In the modern-day NFL, it’s often in Year 2 when an eventual star quarterback comes into his own, finds his groove, and parlays previous flashes into consistent albeit not flawless high-level play. 

There was Carson Wentz in 2017, Patrick Mahomes in 2018, and Lamar Jackson in 2019. Josh Allen took a mammoth third-year leap, although in his second season the rookie-year mishaps melted away into signs of the imminent MVP-vote-getting season ahead. 

And of course last year, Joe Burrow built on a strong rookie season cut short due to injury, and led the NFL in completion percentage and yards-per-attempt average en route to leading the Cincinnati Bengals to the AFC title. 

Of course, past results from other quarterbacks don’t guarantee the second (or third) year eruption will continue to happen. But let’s rank the passers from the 2020 draft class by likelihood of elevating their game to franchise-altering status. 

Unlikely, but not out of the question

6. Justin Fields, Bears

Fields is one of the most naturally talented young quarterbacks in football. He runs as fluidly as Deshaun Watson, has a bazooka for an arm, and has a strong control of where the football lands after releasing it. 

He’s last on this list almost strictly due to his situation in Chicago. Fields unfortunately landed in the classic scenario in which the GM and coach who drafted him were fired after his rookie season, and now the new regime is more intent on cleaning up a messy cap situation than fielding a legitimate contender in 2023. Which is justifiable. 

Fields is simply the collateral damage in the dead-cap ridden Bears in 2022. Fields’ supporting cast pales in comparison to what Wentz, Mahomes, Jackson, Allen, and Burrow had by Year 2 in their respective careers. Now, I can’t stress enough how inherently gifted Fields is. And that can stretch a long way in the NFL. Breaking out in his sophomore NFL season will just be a massive uphill climb for the former Ohio State stud. 

5. Mac Jones, Patriots

I watched every Jones drop back in 2022 and believe he had one of the most overrated rookie quarterback seasons in quite some time. It felt like the praise for Jones got out of control. Even when New England went on a seven-game win streak, the team was winning not because of Jones’ play but those around him and the defense. He operated an extraordinarily quarterback-friendly system decently well and once he faced strong defenses late in the season, his limitations hindered what the Patriots were capable of offensively. 

Now, in the offseason, Bill Belichick traded perennially steady guard Shaq Mason, replaced him with first-rounder Cole Strange and added a unique, nearly 6-foot-3 speedster to the receiver group following a trade for Devante Parker. OK, that’s all mostly helpful for Jones. But the club doesn’t have an offensive coordinator yet. Weird. 

Jones may take a minuscule step in New England, but his lacking physical tools will linger as the main reason he can’t hang with the other youthful quarterbacks in today’s NFL. 

Don’t be shocked

4. Davis Mills, Texans

In my season-long grading project of first and second year quarterbacks in 2021, Mills snuck past Jones for the No. 1 spot in Week 18 with a stellar performance in a losing effort against the Titans. 

For as many errantly tosses footballs released from the right hand of Mills early in his rookie campaign, there were just as many strikes in December and January. From December 12 to January 9, Mills completed 68.4% of his throws at a respectable 7.36 yards per attempt with nine touchdowns and two interceptions. Blessed with a strong, live arm and a sprinkle of athleticism, if you squint when watching Mills you can see what teams are looking for at the quarterback position in today’s NFL. 

As for team environment, the Texans have taken their lumps for a few seasons now, and as everyone’s laughed at them, they’ve gotten better. How much better? The answer to that question is a guide to how much better Mills will be in 2022. Here’s last year’s piece on this exact subject. 

3. Zach Wilson, Jets

The receiver trio of Elijah Moore, Garrett Wilson, and Corey Davis is a mostly unproven yet promising one for Wilson entering his second NFL season. Toss in slot specialist Braxton Berrios, 2020 second-rounder Denzel Mims and free-agent signee C.J. Uzomah at tight end and you quickly realize the Jets might be onto something fun offensively in 2022. Tyler Conklin and third-round pick Jeremy Ruckert should contribute in the pass game this season too. 

The signing of steady guard Laken Tomlinson should help to congeal the interior of the pass-protection unit. I’m still concerned about the tackle spots, especially given the uncertainty of Mekhi Becton’s health and conditioning. Remember, only Fields (11.8%) had a higher sack rate than Wilson (10.3%) in 2021. 

The throwing brilliance is there with Wilson. Though he’s slighter-framed than most quarterbacks today, he has arm-talent galore, and he was a sneaky-efficient scrambler as a rookie. The Jets have constructed a relatively cozy infrastructure around Wilson. It’s on him to utilize that infrastructure to its maximum potential. 

2. Trevor Lawrence, Jaguars

The most striking takeaway from Lawrence’s rookie season was the repeatedly missed “layups.” Those aren’t supposed to happen with a justifiably anointed quarterback phenom. They didn’t happen at Clemson when he was a freshman. But the easy, previously ho-hum throws from Lawrence continually fell incomplete as a rookie. 

Those concerning misses very gradually subsided as the season progressed, but despite their presence in what was a borderline catastrophic 2021 season for him and the Jaguars organization as a whole, they did not completely erase my memories of evaluating Lawrence as a prospect. He has got the goods. And by “goods” I mean special on-field characteristics. 

The receiver group is improving yet still far from awesome, but I’m confident Doug Pedersen is going to be significantly more of a steadying force on the sideline for Lawrence than the quarterback’s previous coaching. Lawrence will take a noticeable jump in Year 2.

The most likely

1. Trey Lance, 49ers

If Lance doesn’t take a massive leap in 2021 it’ll be due to one of two things, and they may be related. Either he simply doesn’t have “it” — quick processing speed, requisite accuracy, touch, etc. — and/or Kyle Shanahan simply can’t coach a quarterback who can and wants to play outside his very stringent system. 

All during his coaching career in the NFL, Shanahan has had smart, accurate, low-upside quarterbacks, almost all of which he’s gotten what’s presumed to be the most out of. Now Shanahan has a gazelle with a hose. How will the genius play designer accentuate Lance’s athletic gifts while staying true to the time-tested roots of his dad’s offense that, of course, Kyle has added his own flair to over the years? 

In terms of situation, it’s the finest of the young-quarterback bunch, particularly if Deebo Samuel stays in San Francisco. The offensive line is damn good. George Kittle is an elite tight end. Brandon Aiyuk has flashed as a YAC weapon. And every defense keys on the 49ers wide-zone run game, thereby making the quarterback’s life easier. On paper, Lance should ascend in 2022. 



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