Editor's Note: This is Part 4 of a five-part series that dives deep into NFL quarterbacks making sudden, massive improvement, which we've dubbed 'QB Leap Week.' Here's what's been published so far:
- History of the QB leap and 2022 leaps
- Young QBs most likely to make 2023 leap
- New coaches likely to be the catalyst for a 2023 leap
I love it when a few QBs make "the leap" every year. QB is the most important position in sports and breakout performances are one fascinating and impactful facet of that.
I recently logged every QB leap since 2000 to find the most common factors linking them together as we look ahead to project breakout (or improved) performances in 2023.
The primary factors leading to QB leaps can be placed into four buckets: QB development, coaching, supporting cast and a change of scenery.
Today's focus is the supporting cast. I'm talking about instances like Donovan McNabb in 2004 and Tom Brady in 2007. McNabb went from 16 touchdown passes in 2003, to 31 in 2004 after the Eagles traded for Terrell Owens. Brady had never even had a 30-touchdown season prior to the Patriots trading for Randy Moss. He proceeded to throw for an NFL-record 50 in his first season with Moss in the Patriots' 16-0 regular-season run in 2007.
Now trading for veteran pass catchers is the hot trend in the NFL's copycat league. 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) in the last few years. Landing an All-Pro offensive lineman or drafting a stud running back has led to QB leaps in the past too.
QB leaps since 2000 due to improved supporting cast
2022 Tua Tagovailoa (Dolphins)
Traded for Tyreek Hill
2022 Jalen Hurts (Eagles)
Traded for A.J. Brown
2021 Joe Burrow (Bengals)
Drafted Ja'Marr Chase
2020 Josh Allen (Bills)
Traded for Stefon Diggs
Traded for Laremy Tunsil
Drafted Kareem Hunt
Signed Alex Mack
Signed Mike Iupati
Drafted Odell Beckham Jr.
Le'Veon Bell emergence
2007 Tom Brady (Patriots)
Traded for Randy Moss
Drafted Joe Thomas
2005 Mark Brunell (Washington)
Traded for Santana Moss
2004 Drew Brees (Chargers)
Antonio Gates emergence
2004 Donovan McNabb (Eagles)
Traded for Terrell Owens
2002 Trent Green (Chiefs)
Traded for Willie Roaf
Teams are starting to figure out that rather than grow impatient and move on from a young QB, they can actually speed up their development by trading draft picks for proven veterans.
The Bears are an interesting case study. Rather than draft a better QB prospect in Bryce Young and trade Justin Fields, they opted to invest more around Fields while trading the top pick for assets like WR D.J. Moore.
There were a lot of fascinating offseason moves that could be the primary factor for a QB leap. Here's four candidates, not including Justin Herbert and Lamar Jackson, who were both discussed in Thursday's article on QB leaps due to coaching changes. I expect both to take leaps, primarily because of new offensive coordinators, but rookie WRs drafted in the first round should help too.
Dak Prescott after Brandin Cooks trade (unlikely)
Dak Prescott had a down year in 2022 by most measures, including ranking 15th in passer rating. He became the first player in NFL history to lead the league in interceptions despite missing five-plus games. That number should regress to the mean. He typically has one of the lowest interception rates in the league.
I expect a rebound from Prescott, but not a leap to MVP contention. The Brandin Cooks deal gives Dallas a nice No. 2 WR after CeeDee Lamb and helps make up for the Amari Cooper deal last offseason. Cooks still has speed to burn and Prescott was missing a deep threat last year. Still, as Cooks has gone team to team none of the previous QBs he's played with (Tom Brady, Jared Goff, Deshaun Watson) took a noticeable leap in their first season with him. Let's also not forget Dallas' unpopular decision to move on from offensive coordinator Kellen Moore.
Daniel Jones after Darren Waller trade (maybe)
Daniel Jones was an above-average QB in 2022 despite his top targets being Richie James, Darius Slayton, Isaiah Hodgins and Daniel Bellinger. He got it done with his legs, the lowest turnover rate among any qualified QB and one of the shortest average pass lengths in football.
If he's going to live up to his new contract (four years for $160 million) it'll be because he hits more shots down the field. The Giants have put him in position to do so, trading for Darren Waller and drafting Tennessee WR Jalin Hyatt in the third round. Waller led all tight ends in receptions 20-plus yards downfield in 2022 (seven) despite missing eight games. Hyatt caught a ridiculous 10 of 16 targets thrown 30-plus air yards for seven touchdowns last year.
I expect Jones to be solid again but not take a leap to top-five QB status. An injury to Saquon Barkley or Waller could easily derail a potential leap, and neither has proven the ability to stay healthy lately. Jones also hasn't proved he can thrive in Brian Daboll's offense by airing it out.
Trevor Lawrence with Calvin Ridley's suspension over (likely)
Trevor Lawrence already took the Year 2 leap, ranking as one of the league's best quarterbacks over the second half of the 2022 season. If he can maintain that level of performance for an entire season he'll take another leap and be in MVP contention. The return of WR Calvin Ridley from a gambling suspension could help elevate his game even more.
The Jaguars traded for Ridley last offseason, and I wouldn't be surprised to see this move have a similar impact to the A.J. Brown and Tyreek Hill trades. Ridley ranked sixth in the NFL in yards per route run in his last full season in 2020. Only Davante Adams, Justin Jefferson, Brown, Stefon Diggs and Travis Kelce were better. You could do a lot worse than that company. Ridley will give Lawrence another deep threat, in addition to Christian Kirk. Ridley led the NFL in catches 20-plus yards downfield (16) in 2020. I say "likely" at the top for Lawrence's leap because Ridley has only played five games in the last two seasons. Nothing is a guarantee although most signs point toward Lawrence being an MVP contender.
Justin Fields after D.J. Moore trade (likely)
Fields' breakout began in 2022 as he became the third QB to run for 1,000 yards in a season, joining Michael Vick and Lamar Jackson. There's still a lot of room for improvement, though. He set the fantasy world on fire last year, particularly in the second half of the season, but still ranked 26th in interception rate and last in sack rate from Week 7 on. He finished dead last in fourth quarter passer rating for the entire season.
Early reports from offseason workouts are extremely positive on Fields as offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said last month that he is "light years" ahead of where he was in 2022. Some are predicting a Jalen Hurts-type leap with the Bears getting WR D.J. Moore in a deal where Chicago sent Carolina the top pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. The Bears also drafted OT Darnell Wright in the first round.
Two things will need to happen for Fields to take that big leap. Moore needs to be as good as advertised. He has 1,000 receiving yards in three of the last four seasons and ranks 22nd among 100 qualified WRs in yards per route run since entering the league in 2018. He's done it while catching passes from Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Cam Newton, Kyle Allen and Teddy Bridgewater.
Fields also needs to stop taking so many sacks. He was sacked a league-high 55 times despite having just 318 pass attempts in 2022, the highest sack rate (15%) by any QB since Jake Plummer in 1997. It was somehow a higher sack rate than David Carr's in 2002, when he was sacked an NFL-record 76 times.
Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't the fault of Chicago's offensive line. The unit ranked second in ESPN's pass-block win rate, meaning it held its blocks for 2.5 seconds at the second-highest rate in the NFL. Problem is, nobody can hold their blocks forever and Fields had the longest average time to throw (3.5 seconds) by any QB in a season since 2017, as far back as Pro Football Focus data goes.
I like the chances of seeing a more polished Fields in 2023, who could take the biggest leap of any QB this season.