NFLTR Review: Super Sophomores

In this week’s NFLTR Review, we’ve got a deep dive into a fascinating class of sophomore quarterbacks with big questions to answer in 2021. 

  • Can Justin Herbert, the reigning rookie of the year, stave off regression? 
  • Make-or-break years for Tua Tagovailoa & Jalen Hurts already? 
  • Is Week 1 too ambitious a return goal for Joe Burrow? 

The Big Picture: Sophomore Quarterbacks

These days, young quarterbacks don’t really have the benefit of time to establish themselves. It’s sink or swim. If quarterbacks don’t hit the ground running, they aren’t given much time to figure things out if a better option presents itself to a team. 

That’s where some of the rookies from the 2020 quarterback class find themselves. There’s a range of course — Chargers QB Justin Herbert was the offensive rookie of the year while Packers QB Jordan Love wasn’t even active for a game. All five are entering pivotal seasons, though, with major questions to answer in 2021 that will go a long way toward determining their future and that of their team. 

Can Justin Herbert avoid regression? 

Herbert was sensational in 2020 as a rookie, in fact he had one of the best rookie seasons ever for a quarterback. He was especially great on third downs and against pressure. Pro Football Focus graded him as the best in the NFL against pressure and he led the entire league in EPA (expected points added) when pressured. 

On third down, Herbert tied for the league lead with 14 touchdown passes. He also led the NFL with seven completions of 50+ yards. All that is commendable and part of why there’s so much excitement surrounding Herbert’s prospects as a franchise quarterback. It’s also why he’s a prime regression candidate entering his second season. 

Regression is a dirty word when talking about promising young players, even though development is rarely linear like many assume. Herbert isn’t immune to that but there’s a different kind of regression he’s susceptible to in 2021: statistical regression. 

We know that various high-leverage statistics in the NFL, things like touchdowns, third downs and performance under pressure, tend not to be “sticky” — meaning they’re more random and don’t necessarily carry over year to year. 

Carson Wentz is a tremendous example. In 2017, Wentz was an MVP candidate before tearing his ACL in December. He had 33 touchdown passes in just 13 games and looked like an ascending star, the type of young franchise quarterback every team dreams of landing. However, much of his production that season was driven by production on third down, the type that tends to be unsustainable year over year. 

"<strong(via Sports Info Solutions, USA Today)

It’s worth at least mentioning as well that a popular comparison for Herbert as he was coming out of Oregon was Wentz, as both are big, daring, strong-armed quarterbacks with an element of speed to their game. Obviously careers are like snowflakes, no two are alike. Injuries have played a role in how Wentz’s has unfolded and Herbert has stayed healthy so far. 

So I’m not saying Herbert is headed for a cliff in his game like what we saw out of Wentz this past year. He didn’t have nearly as dramatic a split as Wentz did in 2017 in terms of EPA per play on early downs vs third downs despite his 14 touchdown passes. Wentz had a staggering 10.9 completion percentage over expectation in 2017 as well, the highest figure in the league in the past four seasons. Herbert’s CPOE in 2020 was -0.5, so he’s due for some positive regression in that area. 

PFF notes however that Herbert was in their 22nd percentile in grades from a clean pocket, substantially worse than his league-leading figure in that area when under pressure. That’s a better baseline to calibrate his development in his second season rather than his work under pressure and in the clutch, sensational as it was. 

Does Tua Tagovailoa have another level to his game? 

I think it’s illuminating to think of what the narrative has been around Tagovailoa the past year or two. He seemed destined for greatness nearly his entire career, from winning the national title in college after coming in at halftime to becoming the centerpiece of the “Tank For Tua” slogan and presumptive No. 1 overall pick in 2020. 

A brutal dislocated hip derailed what was a rapidly rising star, though. It didn’t end up being career-ending like many feared and Tagovailoa still worked his way to becoming a top-five draft pick and starting nine games for the Dolphins last year. But looking at the narrative now, it’s clear Tagovailoa’s star has lost some of its shine. 

Being benched twice didn’t help. Throwing three interceptions in the regular-season finale left a sour taste as well. We’re seeing teams become less and less patient with quarterbacks, even ones selected in the first handful of picks. And while the Dolphins have given little to no indication they’re seriously considering pulling the plug, there was too much smoke around a potential Deshaun Watson trade to ignore. 

For now, a Watson trade is off the table. Nothing beyond 2021 is guaranteed, however, and that makes this coming season a crucial one for Tagovailoa to show more than he did last season. 

Of course, it’s not like Tagovailoa was bad as a rookie. He completed 64.1 percent of his passes, tossed 11 touchdowns to five interceptions, ran for three more scores and was 6-3 as a starter. His touchdown percentage, yards per attempt, total QBR and adjusted net yards per attempt were all substandard but not abnormally so for a rookie.

table of rookie QBs sorted by ANY/AHis adjusted net yards per attempt, which factors in sacks, interceptions and passing touchdowns, ranked 21st out of 57 quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts in their rookie season since 2004

There are some obvious mitigating factors to consider as well. Tagovailoa returned less than a year after the hip injury that threatened his career. With a full offseason not spent rehabbing or preparing for the draft, it’s more than possible Tagovailoa reclaims some of the promise everyone saw in him coming out of Alabama. The Dolphins have also taken pains to tailor the personnel more to Tagovailoa, replacing the offensive coordinator, bringing in more help on the offensive line and retooling the receiving corps to emphasize speed more than size. 

The narrative around Tagovailoa might not be completely fair, but the onus is still on him in 2021 to prove Miami shouldn’t go after an upgrade. Another disappointing season and the smoke of a potential replacement will only grow thicker. 

What does Joe Burrow look like after his injury?

Burrow generated quite a bit of hype with his performance as a rookie. He wasn’t on as torrid of a pace as his counterpart in Los Angeles, but there was a rising tide of optimism in Cincinnati, a franchise that was in desperate need of a savior and saw promise in the command and leadership Burrow exhibited in 2020. Though the Bengals were just 2-7-1 under Burrow, they were competitive, with four of those losses coming in one-score games. 

Burrow’s knee injury was a devastating curveball. He lost six more games to play and learn, and the biggest focus of the offseason going into his second season has been on rehabbing rather than improving. The injury itself is daunting, as he tore both his ACL and MCL along with other damage in his knee. 

Modern medicine has done wonders for injury recovery and all reports regarding Burrow’s rehab have been positive. Burrow is targeting and is on pace for a return in Week 1, assuming everything goes well over the next 10 weeks. Still, it’s not something to just be shrugged off. 

Using Wentz as an example again, the former Eagles quarterback had his knee surgery in 2017 about 10 days in the calendar later than Burrow. He also tore multiple ligaments and had more damage that needed to be repaired. Ultimately, Wentz’s recovery lasted through the preseason and he wasn’t cleared until Week 3 to return to the starting lineup. 

Wentz wasn’t nearly as effective as he had been the year before upon his return from the injury, and it’s fair to expect Burrow to be limited for at least the first month of the season, especially as a runner. Mobility isn’t a massive part of Burrow’s game but he did average about four rush attempts a game as a rookie and scored three touchdowns on the ground. He’ll be much more constrained to the pocket in 2021. 

If the reports of Burrow’s arm actually being stronger because of his rehab work aren’t just OTA fluff, perhaps that will matter less. The Bengals leaned on Burrow a lot as a rookie, as he averaged 40 pass attempts a game. Injury or not, Cincinnati probably will put a lot on Burrow’s shoulders again this season. 

The big question will be if he’s ready/healthy enough to handle it. 

Can Jalen Hurts beat the odds? 

No matter what HC Nick Sirianni will or won’t say, there’s a 99 percent chance Hurts is the Eagles’ starting quarterback in 2021 if he’s healthy. 

Nothing beyond that is guaranteed, though. The privileges of high draft capital are real in the NFL, and higher draft picks are afforded more patience and second chances than later ones. They have to prove they can’t do the job, while players with less pedigree have to prove themselves over and over with little room for error. 

Even though Hurts was a second-round pick, that’s not a significant investment when it comes to quarterbacks. Teams don’t take signal callers in Round 2 or later with the expectation they’ll be franchise quarterbacks, and they don’t have any problems cutting bait or pursuing upgrades. So while Hurts was drafted significantly earlier than the Jaguars took Gardner Minshew, he might not have much longer than Minshew did to show his stuff and prove he deserves a starting job. 

What does Hurts have to do to hang on to the starting job? Improving his completion percentage, lowering his interception percentage and raising his touchdown percentage would obviously be important but Minshew improved or held steady in those categories and still lost his job in 2020. The single best thing Hurts can do is win games and take his team out of the running to draft a replacement in 2022. 

That won’t be easy since the Eagles seem to be embracing a, shall we say, transition year. They also have three probable first-round picks to move around the draft board or pursue a big-name veteran that might come available like Watson. The cupboard isn’t completely bare for Hurts. Sirianni was brought on in part for his offensive acumen, the offensive line should be healthier and the Eagles took Heisman Trophy-winning WR DeVonta Smith in the first round. 

Still, if you think about what Hurts has to do to push the Eagles out of range of a quarterback or make it impractical to acquire one, the task ahead looks challenging. He has to keep their pick out of the top ten and probably at least in the late teens, which means threatening for or making the playoffs. Vegas has the win total for Philadelphia set at 6.5 wins right now, which is bottom-six in the league. Six wins would have fallen in the 10-12 range, so the total Hurts needs to help his case is probably eight or nine, at minimum. 

If the NFC East is as weak as it was last season, that will help. The Eagles are slated to play the AFC West and NFC South, which is a tough but not insurmountable draw. The 49ers, Jets and Lions round out their slate. Going 2-1 in those three games plus at least splitting their divisional series would put the Eagles at 9-8. If they’re closer to average than bad, it’s possible. 

That might be closer to the top of the Eagles’ range of outcomes as a team. So if Hurts is good enough at quarterback to take them there, it bodes well for his future. There’s not a lot of room for error, though, if Hurts wants to keep his starting job in 2022. 

What kind of player is Jordan Love? 

There are few bigger mysteries in the NFL right now than what the Packers have in Love. Few outside of the team have even seen him practice as last year’s preseason was wiped out and he spent the season on the inactive list. All we have to go off of is his college tape at Utah State and the fact GM Brian Gutekunst was so confident in his talent he was willing to start the clock on pushing out his Hall of Fame quarterback. 

The preseason is back after a hiatus and Green Bay would have had extra incentive to get him reps even if Aaron Rodgers wasn’t disgruntled. We should see him plenty in all three preseason contests. And should Rodgers follow through on his rumored desire to never play for the Packers again, Love would be pressed into starting duty. 

One way or another, we’re going to be able to answer some questions about Love this year. 

This Week In Football

  • Training camp is later this month and that means real action on the Aaron Rodgers front is coming. There was some speculation this past week the Packers quarterback could take the NFL’s opt-out option which is in place for the 2021 season. That would save him millions he’d potentially risk with a holdout but the deadline is Friday and it would be irrevocable for this year. At this point, it would be a massive shock if Rodgers opted out of the season. A retirement in training camp could be on the table, however
  • Offensive line news rarely makes the waves it should but the Saints’ new deal for RT Ryan Ramczyk is absolutely huge — and I’m not just referencing the total. Ramczyk signed a five-year extension worth $96 million, making him the NFL’s highest-paid right tackle at $19.2 million a season. It was pretty widely expected the Saints would lock Ramczyk up and for a gaudy sum, but this does have some ramifications for how the team builds their roster the next couple of seasons. They have several more key free agents, including LT Terron Armstead, and some similar financial constraints in 2022 that they faced this year. It’ll be fascinating to see how Saints cap wizard Khai Harley stretches these deals out until the cavalry — the NFL’s rising cap — comes in 2023. 
  • Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore made some waves on Twitter by virtually side-eyeing a list of the NFL’s top-paid cornerbacks that didn’t include him, but the sense from both sides still seems to be that something will come together eventually. Gilmore doesn’t expect New England to trade him, as they haven’t made any moves to bolster their secondary and replace him. 
  • In other right tackle news, the Jets landed veteran Morgan Moses after courting him for a few weeks. Moses signed just a one-year deal despite rumors of a multi-year offer being on the table but it’s a coup for New York and gives them a suddenly solid offensive line. Moses and 2020 first-round LT Mekhi Becton are mammoth bookend tackles, and first-round G Alijah Vera-Tucker should help tremendously on the interior. It’s early still, but Zach Wilson already has a massively better supporting cast than Sam Darnold ever did.
  • With Moses off the market, our top free agent remaining is former Steelers CB Steven Nelson, whose market has been surprisingly quiet, probably because Nelson is looking for more money than what’s available. Veteran corners right now are going for about $4-$5 million max, including incentives, so that’s probably the best Nelson can hope for. The Eagles are confirmed to be one of the interested teams remaining, though perhaps not the highest bidder. 
  • It can be a little hard to predict what the Dolphins will do. They’ve extended some of their own players like LB Jerome Baker and K Jason Sanders while jettisoning others abruptly just a year into major free-agent deals, like LB Kyle Van Noy and G Ereck Flowers. Dolphins TE Mike Gesicki has steadily improved his first three seasons but as of right now, it doesn’t look like the Dolphins plan to extend Gesicki before the start of his contract year. There’s still plenty of time for that to change but the team did spend a third-round pick on TE Hunter Long, which is notable. 
  • The NFL concluded its investigation into a toxic workplace culture for the Washington Football Team, including rampant sexual harassment that was first surfaced by a bombshell Washington Post report last summer. As a result, it has imposed the most severe sanctions it ever has on any team or individual, fining Washington owner Dan Snyder $10 million — ten times more than any other fine levied against a club. Snyder will also cede control of football operations to his wife Tanya Snyder for an indeterminate amount of time, which is being interpreted by some as a de facto suspension, though the NFL disputed that characterization. And still, there’s an argument Snyder got off easy. As a fraction of his total wealth, $10 million is a pittance. Snyder also wasn’t forced by the NFL to sell the team despite, at minimum, failing to recognize or quell the issues that went on for years. The NFL hasn’t helped matters by its lack of transparency — claiming lead investigator Beth Wilkinson only provided oral reports and there’s no written report of what she found despite interviewing more than 150 former employees. 
  • We have much more to come on the franchise tag deadline next week ahead of July 15. One name we’ll be watching is Panthers RT Taylor Moton. Carolina placed the tag on him for a little more than $13 million but the price for right tackles just went up with Ramczyk’s deal. Moton is a key player for Carolina, especially considering their offensive line is a weak point they spent a lot of resources trying to address this offseason, so there’s plenty of incentive for the two sides to work something out

Check This Out

  • ESPN’s Nick Wagoner put together an awesome piece about one of the behind-the-scenes details of making it to the NFL — finding a place to live. Especially in a place like San Francisco… The tax table at the end of the piece is especially noteworthy, as it’s quite relatable to watch that big salary figure get slashed, even if you’re not making millions. 
  • Ryan Glasspiegel of Barrett Sports Media talks to several reporters who are deeply immersed in the NFL about why the 2021 season is set up to be so fascinating. One interesting scenario that emerged is the idea of potential expansion sometime in the future, as the NFL seeks ways to continue to expand and exert its dominance over the TV landscape. As someone who as a kid built an entirely new 32-team league in Madden out of cities I thought deserved an NFL team, I’m all for expansion scenarios. 
  • In the big national columns, the summer is a time for guest columns, and NFL senior director of football development Sam Rapaport had a moving essay in the Monday Morning Quarterback this past week. I truly would be doing it a disservice with words, you really should just read it for yourself. What I can say is that it’s a stirring call to be your full, authentic self, whatever that means to you.

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