Who is This Year's Leap Quarterback?

by SumerSports|June 14, 2023

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Each season, fans are treated to NFL players that unexpectedly burst onto the scene. Whether it is late-round rookie corner Tariq Woolen for the Seahawks or Andrew Thomas for the Giants, these players surprise many while solidifying their status in the league. Given the outsized influence quarterbacks have on the game, nothing changes the league landscape more than a quarterback having a leap season.

In Philadelphia, Jalen Hurts jumped from 16th in Expected Points Added (EPA) per play in 2021 all the way up to 4th in 2022. This changed the complexion of the Eagles and largely morphed the NFC. While Hurts is the most recent leap example, we can track breakout quarterbacks in recent memory:

Jared Goff’s 2017 season, with Sean McVay calling plays, set the wheels in motion for a Rams team that would make the playoffs for four straight years. This included a Super Bowl appearance in 2018 and a team that changed the offensive (and consequently defensive) tenor of football. Patrick Mahomes sat out every game except one in his rookie season before breaking the walls down and winning MVP in 2018. Lamar Jackson was up-and-down as a rookie before winning an MVP of his own in 2019. Josh Allen showed some inconsistencies passing his first two years in the NFL and then made his own leap in his third year in the league. While Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence made leaps of their own, it was seen as less surprising given their respective #1 overall draft slots and promise shown in their rookie years. Jalen Hurts is the quarterback to focus on given he was selected in the 2nd round, started playing at an MVP level his third season, and is our most recent Leap Quarterback. 

There are some commonalities amongst this group that could help us find who that quarterback could be in 2023. For starters, their leap seasons all were their 2nd or 3rd year in the league. Everyone except Lamar Jackson and Jalen Hurts was selected in the top 12. It warrants mention that while that a quarterback being highly drafted is not a guarantee of success, for every Josh Allen there are numerous quarterbacks that teams view as talented only to be disappointed.  

Though quarterbacks receive so much credit, they (generally) do not find success alone. Adding a 1st receiving option or solidifying the overall receiver room in the offseason before the leap was key for those mentioned above: 

  • Jared Goff, 2017: The Rams signed Robert Woods and drafted Cooper Kupp in the offseason before the 2017 season giving him essentially two primary receiving options he did not have before. 
  • Patrick Mahomes, 2018: The Chiefs had Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce in place as top receiving options for when Mahomes took over as starter. 
  • Lamar Jackson, 2019: The Ravens drafted Marquise Brown in the 1st round of the 2019 draft to complement Mark Andrews. 
  • Josh Allen, 2020: The Bills traded for Stefon Diggs in the 2020 offseason giving Allen a star receiver. 
  • Joe Burrow, 2021: The Bengals drafted Ja’Marr Chase at #5 overall reuniting him with his leading receiver from college and added another pass catching option opposite of Tee Higgins. 
  • Trevor Lawrence, 2022: The Jaguars signed Christian Kirk (and Evan Engram) giving Lawrence a primary receiving option he did not have his rookie year. Doug Pederson was also a welcome addition to Duval County.
  • Jalen Hurts, 2022: The Eagles traded for A.J. Brown giving Hurts an elite receiver to pair with the already emerging DeVonta Smith. 

It should be noted that there is survivorship bias at play here as we are only looking at the quarterbacks that made the leap. There are examples of WR1’s getting added to teams and the quarterback not improving (consider the Jets and Offensive Rookie of the Year Garrett Wilson). However, this is a common theme that can help us find the quarterback that could make the leap this season. 

The parameters of finding a Leap Quarterback are a quarterback in their 2nd, 3rd, or 4th year that is the projected starter for their team this season. While a rookie quarterback could very well play at a high level, we have usually seen the leap come from a quarterback that has had at least a year of experience in the NFL. A quarterback like Tua Tagovailoa will not be included given we could argue his leap was last year. This leaves us with the below candidates:  

Trey Lance* 

Trey Lance comes with the largest caveat as it is not clear yet whether he will be the starter for the 49ers. Despite the murky situation, he is a potential starter and thus listed as a candidate to become a Leap Quarterback. After being selected at #3 overall, we have seen limited play from Lance starting twice his rookie year and only having one full start in a monsoon last year. Lance is still only 23 years old and will be playing in a Kyle Shanahan offense with weapons like Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, George Kittle, and Christian McCaffrey that contributed to both Jimmy Garoppolo and Brock Purdy ranking in the top 8 in EPA/play last season. Since Lance’s range of outcomes is still so wide, being a Leap Quarterback is in the realm of possibilities and could happen given his high-end rushing ability and arm strength. 

Justin Fields 

Fields is someone who shares a lot of the commonalties we have seen from the other Leap Quarterbacks. Fields was taken #11 overall in the 2022 draft fitting the bill of the Leap Quarterback usually being select in the top 12 (sans Lamar Jackson and Jalen Hurts). The Bears also had D.J. Moore included in a package with the Panthers giving Fields a WR1 that he has not had before. Fields led the league in EPA generated from scrambles, and the rushing ability is there to make life difficult for run defenses across the league. With an improved offensive line and receiving core, the leap in efficiency could be there as well.

Mac Jones 

After being selected #15 overall, Mac Jones led all rookies from his class in EPA/play and ranked 10th overall in the league. Last season, with questions at play caller, Jones dropped all the way to 27th in the league as the offense failed to build on the success of Jones’ rookie year. While Jones may not have the tools of some of the other Leap Quarterbacks, he has shown he can be accurate and on time in a well-designed offense. The path for Jones reaching an elite level is narrower than other quarterbacks, but improvement is expected in 2023. 

Kenny Pickett 

After being selected #20 overall by the Steelers, Pickett did not start until week 5 of last season and ended up finishing 23rd in EPA/play; this is what you would expect from a rookie drafted in the back half of the first round. The supporting cast is there with the Steelers spending the offseason building up the offensive line, and Pickett already showed he has a good connection with George Pickens and Diontae Johnson. While it might not mean much from an analytical standpoint, Pickett showed flashes on game winning drives, having four of them in his rookie season. 

Jordan Love 

Jordan Love is perhaps the biggest wild card out of any quarterback in the NFL this season. It is rare that we see a quarterback taken in the 1st round get as little playing time entering their 4th year as Love has gotten. The Packers have a primary receiving option for him in Christian Watson plus a play caller in Matt LaFleur who contributed to back-to-back MVP seasons for Aaron Rodgers. Love has had a limited sample in the league making his range of outcomes very wide, including the possibility of becoming a Leap Quarterback in his first year as a full-time starter. 

Desmond Ridder

Leaving the quarterbacks that were drafted in the 1st round makes it less likely that we will find a Leap Quarterback, but Jalen Hurts showed last year there can be exceptions. Ridder has some of the helpful ingredients we have seen such as high-end receiving options in Drake London and Kyle Pitts plus an offensive line that played well for most of last season. Out of 46 qualifying quarterbacks, Ridder ranked 33rd in EPA/play in a low sample last season. Arthur Smith will have one of the most diverse skill position groups in the NFL this year and will look to make Ridder the Leap Quarterback of 2023. 

Sam Howell 

In the 2020 college football season, Sam Howell finished 5th in yards per attempt (YPA). This was close to the quarterbacks who would get drafted in the first round that year like Mac Jones (1st), Zach Wilson (2nd) and Trevor Lawrence (9th). However, after a disappointing 2021 campaign, Howell ended up drafted in the fifth round by the Commanders. While his range of outcomes is shifted to the left compared to the other first round selections, he still has talent and showed flashed in his one game as a starter last season.

While none of the potential Leap Quarterbacks are top 10 in MVP odds, the aura around the Leap Quarterback is that it is often unexpected. 

While it is hard to predict exactly which quarterback will take the leap from average player to playing at an elite or close to elite level, history does tell us that we generally see one quarterback make the leap per season. The combined probability of the potential Leap Quarterbacks winning the MVP is 14%, and if you classify elite play as top 5 in EPA/play, that chance becomes even higher.  

Justin Fields is seen as the highest probability of doing so by both the betting markets and by what we looked at as the ingredients for taking the leap (2nd year in system, new primary receiving option). Jordan Love and Kenny Pickett have shown flashes and have the supporting cast that could make it happen as well. Trey Lance will also have a shot if given the opportunity to start. Mac Jones, Sam Howell, and Desmond Ridder are seen as having lesser chances, but they should not be fully ignored.  

What we can be sure of is whichever quarterback takes the leap will change the outlook of their team and likely the rest of the league. 

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