Editor's Note: This is Part 2 of a five-part series that dives deep into NFL quarterbacks making sudden, massive improvement, which we've dubbed 'QB Leap Week.' To see what's coming each day this week, scroll down to the end of this story.
A few things I enjoy about every NFL season is seeing teams go worst to first, from pretenders to contenders and, of course, breakout performances like the QB leap.
I recently logged every QB leap since 2000 to find the most common factors linking them together as we look ahead to project breakout stars in 2023. You can find everything you need to know on my criteria and the history of the QB leap in Tuesday's article.
The primary factors leading to QB leaps can be placed into four buckets: QB development, coaching, supporting cast and a change of scenery. Development was the most common thread since 2000, showing up as the primary factor in 28 of the 91 leaps. This included rookie QBs who made an immediate splash and exceeded expectations, thanks to improvements made between college and their first season. For example, not many could have predicted Dak Prescott's performance in 2016. It'll be interesting to see which rookie can perform like a top 10 QB in 2023.
The Year 2 leap has also become a popular phrase for good reason. They accounted for 20 percent of all leaps, by far the most of any season number. There's been a Year 2 leap in five of the past six seasons, including eight total in that span. Carson Wentz, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Joe Burrow either won MVP, or were MVP contenders in their second seasons. The primary reason for the Year 2 leap isn't always development, as we saw the coaching impact with Trevor Lawrence in 2022, but it's certainly a part of it.
Year 2 leaps since 2017
- 2022 -- Trevor Lawrence: 25 Pass TD and 8 INT (12 Pass TD and 17 INT as rookie)
- 2022 -- Justin Fields: Fourth 1,000-yard rushing season by QB in NFL history
- 2021 -- Joe Burrow: First No. 1 overall pick QB to reach Super Bowl within first two seasons
- 2019 -- Lamar Jackson: Led NFL in Pass TD (35) and set QB single-season rushing record in unanimous MVP season
- 2018 -- Mitchell Trubisky: 24 Pass TD and 12 INT (7 Pass TD and 7 INT as rookie)
- 2018 -- Patrick Mahomes: Won MVP and became third player all time with 50 Pass TD in a season
- 2017 -- Carson Wentz: Eagles' record 33 Pass TD and MVP favorite before tearing ACL in Week 14
- 2017 -- Jared Goff: 28 Pass TD and 7 INT (0-7 record with 5 Pass TD and 7 INT as rookie)
The sophomore MVP seasons by Dan Marino (1984) and Kurt Warner (1999) stand out among the best Year 2 leaps ever. Marino shattered the record for touchdown passes in a season (48) and Warner was the last QB to win MVP and Super Bowl MVP in the same season until Patrick Mahomes followed him in 2022. Kenny Pickett and Desmond Ridder likely won't be breaking any records in 2023, but they are among the Year 2 breakout candidates this year.
The last 10 Year 2 leaps were all by former first-round picks. That group also averaged nearly 10 starts as rookies, so Pickett's pedigree (2022 20th overall pick) and experience (12 starts in 2022) matter. He was the only QB drafted in the first round last year, and the only one with much reps in 2022, with the exception of Brock Purdy, and it's hard to imagine Purdy playing any better than he did a year ago (especially coming off his elbow injury).
The trends are nice, but the main reason I expect a leap from Pickett is he has already proven he could play at the level of a top 15 quarterback for an extended period of time. He ranked 31st in EPA per play among qualified QBs in the first nine weeks of last season, but ranked eighth in the final nine weeks of the season as the Steelers made a playoff push.
Pickett didn't put up gaudy numbers and was definitely protected by a run-heavy offense and dominant defense, but there were positive signs of growth, too. He only turned it over once in his final eight games after turning it over nine times in his first five games.
He completed 43 percent of his passes thrown 15-plus yards downfield in the final eight games compared with 27 percent prior to that. He also led thrilling victories against the Raiders and Ravens, becoming the first rookie in NFL history to throw game-winning touchdown passes in the final minute in back-to-back games.
The Steelers also have a great environment for a developing quarterback. Pickett has the same coaching staff as last year, and a nice core of young talent around him. He will have an entire offseason to gel with Najee Harris (2021 first-round pick), Diontae Johnson (2019 third-round pick), George Pickens (2022 second-round pick) and Pat Freiermuth (2021 second-round pick). The Steelers also drafted offensive tackle Broderick Jones 14th overall in 2023 to help fortify a below-average offensive line.
I considered Desmond Ridder as well. He's in a desirable spot in some ways. He should be insulated by a nice run game, plus Atlanta has a solid offensive line and they've drafted a skill player in the top 10 in each of the last three years between Kyle Pitts, Drake London and Bijan Robinson. However, he was underwhelming in just four starts last year.
Among rookies, I think Anthony Richardson has the best chance to exceed expectations in his first year. Colts head coach Shane Steichen is an ideal fit for Richardson after working with Jalen Hurts. Hurts led all quarterbacks in run-pass option (RPO) plays in each of the last two seasons according to Sportradar (via ProFootballReference.com). These concepts coupled with Richardson's rushing ability should give him a higher floor than Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud as a rookie. Richardson won't have an elite receiver to flash his arm strength too, but Michael Pittman Jr. and Alec Pierce can stretch the field enough in Steichen's vertical passing attack.
Playing time shouldn't be a concern. Richardson split first-team reps at OTAs and Steichen admitted to witnessing "some next-level stuff" in practice. I wouldn't be surprised to see Richardson start in Week 1 and I fully expect he'll start at least two-thirds of the season if healthy. Of the 21 QBs drafted in the top five in the previous 15 drafts, 18 started at least 10 games as a rookie.
The Colts also play 10 of their 17 games against the AFC South and NFC South, the two weakest divisions in the NFL.
Indianapolis' offensive line really struggled in 2022 but a great O-line is not a prerequisite for a standout rookie year. Four of the last five rookie QBs to make an immediate leap (Justin Herbert, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton) played behind lines with below-average pass blocking grades from PFF.
The other most likely QB to make a developmental leap this year is Jordan Love. He's the biggest mystery of the entire 2023 season as he's made one start and thrown 83 passes in three seasons. However, the Packers had enough confidence in him to move on from Aaron Rodgers and sign him through 2024. He's a former first-round pick who has had the last three years to develop behind a four-time MVP in Matt LaFleur's system.
Green Bay has a plus offensive line, two good running backs, a potential star WR in Christian Watson, plus they drafted four wide receivers and tight ends in the first five rounds of the 2023 draft. In a weak conference and winnable division, there are some pieces in place for Love to breakout in 2023.
Despite similar doubts about their amount of experience, it's harder to endorse Trey Lance at this point since Brock Purdy is in the driver's seat for QB1 despite coming off elbow surgery. Purdy earned it with his play at the end of last season, but Lance's health and development have been discouraging up to this point. I don't think anyone really knows what Lance will become, especially based on four career starts, including one in a rain storm in Chicago last year. The safe bet assumes he won't see enough action in 2023 to make a leap though.
Here's a look at the rest of the 'QB Leap Week' schedule:
Thursday: Which coaching change will spur a leap?
Coaching changes were the second-biggest reason for a leap. A new coach was the primary factor with roughly one quarter of all leaps, including four of the seven leaps in 2022 (Goff, Lawrence, Fields, Jones). 2023 leap candidates include Russell Wilson, Mac Jones, Lamar Jackson and Justin Herbert.
Friday: Which offseason move will lead to a leap?
They say the NFL is a copycat league and the new trend is trading for veteran pass catchers, especially those who can speed up the development of new quarterbacks. Getting top-flight wide receivers worked wonders for Josh Allen (Stefon Diggs), Joe Burrow (Ja'Marr Chase), Jalen Hurts (A.J. Brown) and Tua Tagovailoa (A.J. Brown). It's definitely a new fad, as a QB made a leap due primarily to an improved supporting cast in seven of the past nine seasons. 2023 leap candidates include Trevor Lawrence (Calvin Ridley), Daniel Jones (Darren Waller), Justin Herbert (Quentin Johnston), Lamar Jackson (Zay Flowers and Odell Beckham Jr.) and Justin Fields (D.J. Moore).
Saturday: Which old face in a new place will improve the most?
The hot trend that failed miserably in 2022 was acquiring veteran QBs. Russell Wilson, Carson Wentz, Baker Mayfield and Matt Ryan all flopped. Prior to that, we saw Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford make leaps all the way to Super Bowl titles in 2020 and 2021. 2023 leap candidates include Aaron Rodgers (Jets), Jimmy Garoppolo (Raiders), Jacoby Brissett (Commanders), Baker Mayfield (Buccaneers) and Derek Carr (Saints).