Joe Burrow

In 2017, Carson Wentz went bananas in his second year and was the front-runner for the MVP award before an injury derailed his season. The next year, it was Patrick Mahomes who leaped forward in his second NFL campaign, threw 50 touchdowns and won MVP. The following season it was Lamar Jackson who made the Year 2 ascension. 

In 2020, the NFL didn't have a second-year quarterback suddenly appear on MVP watch lists, but Bills quarterback Josh Allen got MVP votes in his third season. 

That got me thinking. What young quarterback can make a Mahomes, Jackson, or Allen-type rise to superstardom in 2021? Instead of just listing one, I've listed the youthful passers set to start in order of likelihood to make that type of franchise-changing ascension, going from least likely to most likely. 


5. Drew Lock, Broncos

The last sentence I wrote in my season outlook piece for Lock reads "he'll sniff the top 20 in some quarterback rankings at the end of the year."

That's my prediction. Also, in that piece, I suggested there's a legitimate chance Lock doesn't even win the starting job because he's in a quarterback competition with Teddy Bridgewater. And Bridgewater's ultra-conservative, turnover-averse style will likely play well with coaching during training camp and the preseason. That hurdle alone almost solely landed Lock in the "unlikely" category. 

And being a top-20 quarterback shouldn't ever be labeled as a "breakout" season. In Lock's case, such improvement would simply be advancement out of dreaded bust territory. 

Lock was actually right around league average in most categories from a clean pocket last season, and thanks to a 2018 Pro Football Focus study, we know clean-pocket play is more stable than production while under pressure. Yet Lock has light years to go when the heat is on inside the pocket. Only 47.7% of his throws under pressure were on target last season. The NFL average was 63.3%. Gross. 

If he wins the starting job -- big if there -- Lock will get star wideout Courtland Sutton back, and the Broncos offensive line has become respectable in pass protection. I'm still immensely concerned about what Lock will do in terms of decision-making and accuracy the 30% (or so) of the time he's pressured in 2021.  

4. Tua Tagovailoa, Dolphins 

Tagovailoa was bad as a rookie. No way around it. Examining his film or first-year profile from an analytic perspective and an antsy, mostly overwhelmed quarterback is the only objective takeaway. 

When protected well or not, Tagovailoa struggled. 

Now, the Dolphins have one of the AFC's better rosters, and they drafted supremely explosive and twitchy wideout Jaylen Waddle at No. 6 overall in the 2021 draft. But the offensive line only added one new notable piece -- Liam Eichenberg, Round 2 -- to a group that was solid but far from spectacular a season ago. 

Last year, Tagovailoa had old-school spread enthusiast Chan Gailey at offensive coordinator -- an experiment that worked in that Tagovailoa got the ball out quickly but didn't in that the offense lacked downfield aggression and creativity. This year, the Dolphins decided on a co-coordinator dynamic. Eric Studesville has never called plays before in the NFL, and George Godsey had a short stint with play-calling duties with the Texans before Bill O'Brien of all people revoked them in 2016. Doesn't sound promising. 

I like the skill-position group -- Waddle, DeVante Parker, Will Fuller, Jakeem Grant, Mike Gesicki -- and the Dolphins defensive pieces. As a team they're going to be good. I didn't see any noteworthy long stretch of play from Tagovailoa in Year 1 to believe he has what it takes to make a sizable step forward in his second NFL season. His limited athleticism and arm strength hinders what he can do outside of structure, although with that collection of pass catchers, he should see more open receivers in 2021 than he did a year ago. 

Don't be shocked

3. Daniel Jones, Giants

This is the second straight year for Jones in the "not out of the question" category. The jump didn't occur last season. On film, I thought he was better as an NFL sophomore than during his rookie season. The statistics were about the same. 

But Giants GM Dave Gettleman was a man on a mission this offseason, a mission to prove to doubters Jones was indeed worthy of the No. 6 overall pick in the 2019 draft. Kenny Golladay and Kyle Rudolph were signed. Explosive gadget weapon Kadarius Toney was grabbed in Round 1. The defense was bolstered via the draft and by way of Adoree' Jackson being added to the secondary. 

Jones dropped a dime on 51% of his throws made 20-plus yards down the field in 2020, nearly 10 percentage points higher than league average. And Golladay is one of the league's premier contested-catch targets. Despite 4.50 speed, he begins his career with the Giants with a large 16.9 career yards-per-grab average. 

Darius Slayton enters Year 3 having established a fine rapport with Jones, particularly down the field. Sterling Shepard is a reliable possession out of the slot. And Saquon Barkley is back. 

2. Kyler Murray, Cardinals

I see your logical argument Murray shouldn't be included in this piece because he's already "broken out," and I raise you that his passer rating of 94.1 was lower than league average (95.2) among qualifying starters in 2020.

Going a step further -- Bruce Nolan of Buffalo Rumblings, devised a quarterback evaluation formula called QB STEW, which takes seven different quarterback evaluation metrics from varying websites and publications and averages a passer's finish in each rankings to get down to one number. For example, if a quarterback was the best in every metric, his QB STEW would be 1.0. Murray's QB STEW of 15.14 ranked 13th in 2020. 

He just has not played like a No. 1 overall selection operating the identical offense he ran in college through two years in the NFL. Has he fallen way short of the expectations that should come with those two facts? No. But he hasn't exceeded them. 

In short -- Murray is still a "breakout waiting to happen" candidate. And the rationale for him being this high on the list is simple -- he's in Year 3 in Kliff Kingsbury's offense. He's in Year 2 with DeAndre Hopkins and the stupidly twitched up Rondale Moore was picked in the second round. This is the year for Murray. If it's not, he might hover right around middle of the pack of the quarterback pecking order for a while. 

The most likely

1. Joe Burrow, Bengals

Burrow got his guy -- Ja'Marr Chase -- in Cincinnati. How amazing of a reunion. He also has the burgeoning Tee Higgins -- who quietly had over 900 yards at nearly 14 yards per grab as a rookie -- along with Tyler Boyd, who has established himself as one of the league's steadiest slot options over the middle and at the intermediate level. 

The offensive line -- which, in terms of pressure rate was actually right around league average last season -- will be better in 2021 thanks to the additions of veteran Riley Reiff and second-round draft selection Jackson Carman. Plus, Cincinnati will get Jonah Williams in his second year on the field.  

Burrow doesn't have freaky athleticism or arm talent, yet he maximizes his physical capabilities as an improviser, and it's a reliable aspect of his game. Burrow needs to improve his downfield accuracy, and that will come in his second season running the show thanks in large part to Chase's presence and a bigger, stronger Higgins on the outside. 

Will Burrow's game be elevated to MVP-caliber status? Not quite. But the decisive, accurate passer will be viewed by some as a top-10 quarterback at season's end.