The NFL perpetually becomes a more quarterback-centric league, and every year brings a new handful of passers who look poised to be one of the sport’s best.
It doesn’t usually work out that smoothly, but teams know they can’t afford to stop trying to find a difference-maker at the game’s most critical position. No one will ever find another Patrick Mahomes, but it still pays quite a bit to find someone who produces like Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, or Joe Burrow.
And every season needs its breakouts.
Here are six young passers, all still on their rookie contracts, who showed varying degrees of promise in 2022. With help from our advanced play-level data, let’s zero in on the areas where they’re already strong and where they still need to grow in order to work their way up the league’s QB pecking order.
Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins
Tagovailoa’s 2022 season was both a breakout and a cautionary tale. He suffered at least two concussions, which limited him to 13 starts and kept him out of the Dolphins’ lone playoff game. Those concussions called Tagovailoa’s NFL future into sincere question and will remain a difficult subplot every time he straps on the pads.
But when Tagovailoa was playing last year, he was taking big strides forward: His numbers were nearly across-the-board improvements on his first two seasons when Tagovailoa was exclusively a run/pass option specialist without much ability to execute anything else.
He flirted with disaster a lot, though. Tagovailoa’s pickable pass percentage of 5.45 was essentially tied with Dak Prescott’s 5.54% as the worst mark in the league among regular starters. In actuality, Tagovailoa threw interceptions on just 2% of his passes, one of the better marks in the league. In other words, he was fortunate that he didn’t get into more trouble.
For Tagovailoa to have another year of progress, he’ll need to be a better steward of the ball. He’ll also need the right mix of good luck and good protection to stay healthy.
Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars
Lawrence, like Tagovailoa, improved significantly in 2022. After the Jaguars sacrificed his rookie year to the mess that was Urban Meyer’s brief coaching tenure, Lawrence got a bunch of new targets and a new head coach in Doug Peterson.
The growth was substantial, and Lawrence not only got the Jaguars to a playoff game but managed to win one in a historic comeback over the Chargers.
Ever since Lawrence was a five-star recruit who enrolled at Clemson in 2018, his superior throwing ability hasn’t been in question. He’s on a predictable trajectory toward being one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL for the next decade or so.
What might help Lawrence more than anything in 2023 is if his receivers do a better job hanging onto the ball. Jaguars pass catchers posted a 4.65% dropped-throw percentage on Lawrence’s throws, the sixth highest among starters.
Justin Fields, Chicago Bears
After a brutal rookie season in 2021, Fields got much better down the stretch in 2022. The Bears believed in him enough to trade the first overall pick in April’s draft and pass on the chance to take Bryce Young or C.J. Stroud.
They remain all in on Fields, and with good reason: He’s a talented thrower, and he emerged last season as one of a small number of true dual threats currently playing the position.
In at least one way, Fields was the best running quarterback in the NFL. His 83 scrambles were more than any other QB, and his 7.7-yard average on those scrambles beat every QB who scrambled more than three times. He was also effective on designed runs, taking 74 of those for a 5.9-yard average.
Where he lacked was simple: passing accuracy. Fields’ well-thrown percentage of 75.6 and catchable-ball percentage of 74.6 both lagged the league average considerably. If Fields retains his juice as a runner and calms his throws, he can be a Pro Bowl pick.
Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh Steelers
Pickett didn’t do anything wowing as a rookie, but he comported himself quite well and managed to give the Steelers average NFL QB play, more or less, after seizing the starting job.
Pickett was neither spectacular nor bad in any way. His 79.9% well-thrown percentage was a tick off the league average of 80.6%. His 81.3% catchable-ball rate was a few points better than average. So were his pickable pass percentage (4.07%) and, when he ran, scramble yards per carry (5.1).
Where Pickett could grow in 2023 is by taking more shots… and landing them. His 14.1% checkdown rate was the fifth highest in the league among QBs with 300 attempts, and his 3.52% deep-throw percentage was slightly less than average. Pickett’s average air yards per throw were 7.9 – almost exactly league average.
Can he air the ball out more and keep up his efficiency? At least he has George Pickens.
Desmond Ridder, Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons are going to give Ridder, a third-round pick in 2022, a serious chance to be their quarterback. Ridder will have to prove his chops, but he could use much more help from the Falcons’ coaching staff and receivers.
His 69.1 open-target percentage (when he targeted open receivers) in limited action last year was fifth-worst among QBs with at least 50 attempts. The Falcons have invested premium draft picks in skill-position players three years in a row: tight end Kyle Pitts in 2021, receiver Drake London in 2022, and running back Bijan Robinson in 2023. They need to be playmakers for Ridder to have a chance.
Ridder also needs to throw better passes. His 74.5% well-thrown percentage was well below the league average. His 62.5% expected completion percentage was the fourth worst among those QBs with 50 attempts. His improvement in 2023 will be a collaborative success or failure.
Brock Purdy, San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers threw their lot in with Purdy when they traded former No. 3 overall pick Trey Lance to the Cowboys last month. The seventh-round pick had a shocking rise as a rookie, though his immediate medical status is uncertain.
Once he’s under center, the simplest thing Purdy can do will be to follow Kyle Shanahan’s lead. The NFL’s best QB coach and play designer put Purdy in an absurdly good situation as a rookie: His 84.7% open-target percentage was by far the highest in the NFL.
That wasn’t because Purdy was settling for checkdowns – his checkdown rate of 9.0% was below average – but because Shanahan drew up good plays and Purdy’s targets (Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Christian McCaffrey and George Kittle) ran good routes. With all of their help, Purdy went 5-0 in the regular season and won two playoff games.
Shanahan clearly thinks the 49ers can keep getting the most out of Purdy, who was slightly worse than average in pickable pass percentage (4.95%), well-thrown percentage (78.4%) and catchable ball percentage (77.9%).
At some point, the QB will need to stand on his own. But the 49ers still have a play-designing savant and a great cast of weapons. If Purdy sticks with them, he might be fine anyway.
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