NFL decision-makers rarely, if ever, prioritize age. It's always about the younger, newer players coming in to help phase out the older ones. No doubt that's the case at quarterback, where in the past two drafts alone we saw nine get taken in the first round and 13 total by the end of Day 2.
As such, Fantasy managers have been treated to an evolution of what is expected from quarterbacks. The past few years have brought out stat-monsters like Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Justin Herbert, among others, gracefully helping our lineups win while smashing defenses week after week. These three were exceptional breakouts who have reset their own expectations moving forward -- and they're just the tip of the iceberg of young passers entering their primes.
Rehashing the guys who already have broken out won't help you win your league this year, but evaluating the league's influx of young quarterbacks in search of the next breakout superstar will. With that idea in mind, we did a study of every prior breakout quarterback from 2015 through last season to see what commonalities we could unearth between them. Three areas really stood out:
- Improved pass protection
- Improved accuracy, notable on short and intermediate throws
- Improved wide receiver play, either via free agency or a breakout
Seems pretty straight-forward, right? If a quarterback has better help from his big O-linemen and has new targets to throw to, then his accuracy on passes of 19 yards or closer should improve. It all paints a picture of how a quarterback can improve his stats and become a Fantasy asset.
One other obvious factor was in play for several, but not all, breakout quarterbacks from the past half-decade: improved pass attempts per game. Just like with touches for running backs and targets for pass-catchers, anytime a quarterback has more chances to throw, then his upside for more stats grows.
Armed with this foretelling knowledge, let's take a look at the most likely breakout candidates among the younger quarterbacks in the league. We'll focus on those passers drafted in 2018 through 2020, with one obvious, long-haired exception.
Justin Herbert, Chargers
2020 STATS TO KNOW: 15 games, 25.5 Fantasy PPG, 66.6% completion rate, 76.2% adjusted completion rate on throws 19 yards and closer, 28.7% pressure rate, one WR in top-30 PPR per game (Keenan Allen), 39.7 pass attempts per game.
IMPROVED PASS PRO? Rookie first-round left tackle Rashawn Slater and center Corey Linsley should make an immediate impact. Guards Matt Feiler and Oday Aboushi were needed interior replacements. The Chargers were wise to spend a chunk of capital in both free agency and the draft to bulk up the offensive line in front of Herbert.
NEW/IMPROVED WRs? Not particularly. Josh Palmer was their best addition in the draft, and only tight end Jared Cook represents a veteran addition after Hunter Henry left. Palmer, Cook and Mike Williams must pitch in to help Herbert put up points.
IMPROVED ACCURACY? There's definitely room for it. Austin Ekeler's presence would go a long way -- his average depth of target has regularly been below 1.5 yards, and he will see a lot of usage through the air. And you know Keenan Allen will be heavily involved, as will the aforementioned receivers and tight end.
WHAT COULD GO WRONG? It's the Chargers, so injuries are the gravest concern. And it does feel like the Bolts could use a little more speed in the passing game -- only Jalen Guyton ranked in the top 50 in yards after catch per attempt in 2020.
CHANCE OF A BIG 2021 SEASON: High. The offensive line moves combined with a QB-centric coaching staff and a whole lot of inaction on improving the run game suggests this squad will revolve around Herbert. Even if there's a decline in his pass attempts, he should be more effective given more time to throw.
DRAFT HIM: After 70th overall in one-QB; before 24th overall in two-QB/Superflex.
2020 STATS TO KNOW: 10 games, 19.2 Fantasy PPG, 65.3% completion rate, 79.4% adjusted completion rate on throws 19 yards and closer, 24.1% pressure rate, zero WR in top-30 PPR per game, 40.4 pass attempts per game.
IMPROVED PASS PRO? The Bengals addressed the O-line, but not as aggressively as one might have hoped. Riley Reiff journeys from Minnesota, and three rookies -- Jackson Carman, D'Ante Smith and Trey Hill -- were drafted. A lot of pressure will fall on former first-round pick Jonah Williams to improve at left tackle.
NEW/IMPROVED WRs? Oh yes. The Bengals reunited Ja'Marr Chase with his quarterback from LSU, instantly forming a terrific duo that defenses must prepare for. It also means that Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd are pushed into roles where their coverage won't be so tough. It's a big upgrade for Burrow.
IMPROVED ACCURACY? Adding Chase and forcing defensive coverage to shift to more zone looks should equate to at least a tiny raise in short and intermediate accuracy. Burrow was already pretty good to begin with here.
WHAT COULD GO WRONG? Burrow should return from his torn ACL and MCL, but did the Bengals do enough to keep something similar from happening again? His season may very well come down to the offensive line, one that graded out sixth-worst in pass blocking by Pro Football Focus. With one, maybe two new starters, it's hard to see Burrow getting a ton of clean pockets.
CHANCE OF A BIG 2021 SEASON: Pretty high. The Bengals already gave Burrow as many pass attempts he could handle last season and should do the same this season. Their defense doesn't figure to be dangerous, suggesting a lot of close and play-from-behind game scripts. Unlike last year, they have the well-rounded skill-position players to compete.
DRAFT HIM: Around 90th overall at the earliest in one-QB; before 30th overall in two-QB/Superflex.
2020 STATS TO KNOW: Effectively four games, 24.3 Fantasy PPG in those starts, 52% completion rate, 65.5% adjusted completion rate on throws 19 yards and closer, 22.2% pressure rate, zero WR in top-30 PPR per game, 33.3 pass attempts per game.
IMPROVED PASS PRO? The Eagles will have Brandon Brooks, Andre Dillard and Lane Johnson ready for the start of the season, plus veteran center Jason Kelce and rookie Landon Dickerson ready to go. It's a huge, welcome change from what Hurts worked behind toward the end of last season.
NEW/IMPROVED WRs? DeVonta Smith was the 2020 Heisman Trophy winner thanks to a show-stopping season at Alabama that included over 1,800 yards and 23 touchdowns. Jalen Reagor (14.5 yards per catch from Hurts) also figures to take a step in his second season.
IMPROVED ACCURACY? It's the big dilemma with Hurts as he's the least accurate passer who will get picked on Draft Day. Smith had a catch rate of 77.5% on passes inside of 19 yards, leading the NCAA in receptions (69) and yards (1182). No doubt he will help, and if his offensive line protects Hurts, then the quarterback is a cinch to complete more of his passes.
WHAT COULD GO WRONG? If the offensive line takes on injuries again, or if Smith doesn't come through as a sure-fire target, Hurts might still do plenty of running but it'll be to get away from defenders hacking the pocket. That would crunch his accuracy, which isn't guaranteed to go up even with all of Philly's fine additions.
CHANCE OF A BIG 2021 SEASON: Medium. The Eagles moves this offseason not only suggest they're riding with Hurts but surrounding him with as much good talent as they can acquire. There isn't a realistic replacement for Hurts if he struggles (Joe Flacco? C'mon), so he's probably going to play a lot. And if he runs a lot (11.5 carries per game in his final four), then there should be reliable Fantasy production from game to game.
DRAFT HIM: Around 80th overall at the earliest in one-QB; before 30th overall in two-QB/Superflex.
2020 STATS TO KNOW: 10 games, 69.2% completion rate, 68.2% completion rate on throws 19 yards and closer, 20.7% pressure rate on dropbacks, 33.4 pass attempts per game.
IMPROVED PASS PRO? The Jaguars allowed over 140 pressures last year and didn't do a whole lot to try improving their O-line this offseason. The biggest change was adding tackle Walker Little, who isn't promised to start and played exactly one game before getting hurt in 2019 then opting out in 2020. It's an issue.
NEW/IMPROVED WRs? At the very least, the Jaguars surrounded Lawrence with reliable NFL-caliber wideout Marvin Jones and a pair of younger pass-catchers in D.J. Chark and Laviska Shenault. Shenault especially could be tantalizing if the Jaguars use him mainly in the slot.
IMPROVED ACCURACY? Lawrence enters the NFL as one of the cleanest prospects ever, and much of it is due to his terrific throwing. Granted, a slew of his throws were on screens and short routes, but he still delivered quality throws. It'll be tough for him to improve upon as a rookie.
WHAT COULD GO WRONG? Lawrence might be a dynamo prospect, but he's still a rookie, and defensive coordinators are going to challenge him. His receiving corps and O-line have a ways to go to become special. If his hype seeps into his Average Draft Position, he may leave a lot of folks disappointed.
CHANCE OF A BIG 2021 SEASON: Medium. He's clearly talented, he's in an offense tailored for him and he'll have a shot at throwing plenty and rushing for touchdowns (17 in his past two seasons). He's very likely to post a bunch of pleasing statistics.
DRAFT HIM: After 100th overall at the earliest in one-QB; before 45th overall in two-QB/Superflex.
2020 STATS TO KNOW: 16 games, 17.7 Fantasy PPG, 62.8% completion rate, 76.7% adjusted completion rate on throws 19 yards and closer, 18.8% pressure rate, zero WR in top-30 PPR per game, 30.4 pass attempts per game.
IMPROVED PASS PRO? It's impossible to improve on the Browns' O-line last season, graded tops in pass protection by PFF. All five starters are back.
NEW/IMPROVED WRs? Nothing new here, other than Odell Beckham coming back from a torn ACL. He has either missed games or played through a sports hernia in each of his past four seasons.
IMPROVED ACCURACY? Mayfield's never been a pinpoint passer, but he's been mostly good enough to get the job done. A 63.8% adjusted rate on intermediate throws could be improved upon.
WHAT COULD GO WRONG? If Mayfield keeps playing like he has for each of his first three seasons, then he'll be good enough to help the Browns win but not good enough to help Fantasy managers win. The Browns love their controlled, conservative offense and they're extremely unlikely to veer from it.
CHANCE OF A BIG 2021 SEASON: Low. By now Fantasy managers take it for granted that Mayfield will have a few outstanding games each year but a lot of not-quite-good-enough ones. It's wild that he played better in 2020 without Beckham (60.6% rate, 182.5 yards per game) than with (63.9% rate, 246.8 yards per game).
DRAFT HIM: Very late, if at all, in one-QB; around 75th overall in two-QB/Superflex.
2020 STATS TO KNOW: Nine games, 16.4 Fantasy PPG, 64.1% completion rate, 76.2% adjusted completion rate on throws 19 yards and closer, 14.7% pressure rate, zero WR in top-30 PPR per game (Will Fuller was eighth with 16.8 per game with Houston), 32.0 pass attempts per game.
IMPROVED PASS PRO? The Dolphins got deeper along the O-line, but not necessarily better. Two veteran interior linemen are gone, and left tackle Austin Jackson must stay on the field and play well.
NEW/IMPROVED WRs? The Dolphins went big here, signing Will Fuller to a one-year deal and swiping Jaylen Waddle with the sixth overall pick. Both are superb speedsters who can catch the deep ball as well as snare short passes and pick up yards after catch. They'll be asked to do plenty of the latter.
IMPROVED ACCURACY? Tagovailoa's adjusted completion rate looks great, but he threw nearly three times as many short passes as intermediate ones. He also completed 84.1% of his short ones but only 54.4% of his intermediates. Tagovailoa must get better at throws of 10-to-19 yards -- fortunately for him, the Dolphins loaded him up with pass-catchers perfect for the task.
WHAT COULD GO WRONG? Everything is in place for Tagovailoa to do better, but that just might mean a more efficient season, not a massively productive one. Worse yet, Tagovailoa could struggle to even be marginally better and bring down a potent offense with him.
CHANCE OF A BIG 2021 SEASON: Low-ish. Fantasy managers should be encouraged by the Dolphins' generosity toward receivers and a lack thereof toward running backs. If Tagovailoa showed out a little more in 2020 (and wasn't twice benched for Ryan Fitzpatrick) then there would be more optimism.
DRAFT HIM: Very late, if at all, in one-QB; around 80th overall in two-QB/Superflex.
2020 STATS TO KNOW: 12 games, 11.8 Fantasy PPG, 59.6% completion rate, 72.7% adjusted completion rate on throws 19 yards and closer, 27.3% pressure rate, one WR in top-30 PPR per game (Jamison Crowder), 30.3 pass attempts per game.
IMPROVED PASS PRO? Carolina's offensive line gave up a pressure rate of 19.8% when Teddy Bridgewater was under center. That alone is a nice improvement for Darnold. Rookie tackle Brady Christensen could jump into a starting spot.
IMPROVED ACCURACY? The Panthers offense is predicated on shorter throws, and they have better receivers, so there is some hope Darnold can raise his completion rate. Then again, Darnold's last season with a completion rate north of 64% was in his first year starting at USC.
WHAT COULD GO WRONG? Darnold plays like he has for the first three years and the Panthers offense takes a turn for the worse.
CHANCE OF A BIG 2021 SEASON: Low. Even though he's surrounded by so many great pass-catchers, including Christian McCaffrey, Darnold is hard to trust for massive stats. A 1.15-to-1 TD-INT ratio doesn't exactly make Fantasy managers dance in the streets.
DRAFT HIM: Very late, if at all, in one-QB; around 85th overall in two-QB/Superflex.
2020 STATS TO KNOW: 13 games, 15.5 Fantasy PPG, 57.3% completion rate, 74% adjusted completion rate on throws 19 yards and closer, 24.4% pressure rate, zero WR in top-30 PPR per game, 34.1 pass attempts per game.
IMPROVED PASS PRO? An offensive line that looked pretty good on paper took a hit when Ja'Wuan James tore his Achilles in early May. How the Broncos replace him is crucial -- the squad was graded 11th-worst in pass protection by PFF without James playing in 2020.
IMPROVED ACCURACY? That's hard to count on. Sure, his 57.3% overall rate would have been much higher if his receivers didn't drop a ton of passes (looking at you, Jeudy), but Lock has proven to have an erratic nature to his throws. The Broncos have and may continue to take steps to safeguard themselves against that.
WHAT COULD GO WRONG? Well, he could get benched. The Broncos acquired Teddy Bridgewater this offseason to compete with Lock for the starting job. Bridgewater isn't an electric passer, but at least he'll take care of the football better than Lock.
CHANCE OF A BIG 2021 SEASON: Real low. Lock has been way more bust than boom since entering the league, and even with an impressive group of receivers, he's difficult to trust from game to game.
DRAFT HIM: Not at all in one-QB; around 110th overall in two-QB/Superflex.