Quarterbacks Sophomore Seasons Seem to be on the Rise

I had this thought while I was fixing to fall asleep the other night: Who is going to be the favorite to win the NFL’s MVP trophy this season? The last five awards have seen four players that no one really expected to see win the award at the beginning of the season. In 2015, it was Cam Newton as he led the Carolina Panthers to an improbable Super Bowl appearance. The next year, it was Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.

Over the last two years, the MVP has been awarded to second-year, or sophomore, quarterbacks. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes exploded in 2018, putting up incredible numbers en-route to an MVP season with his super arm talent and playmaking abilities. This last season, the emergence of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson with his electric athleticism and playmaking abilities awarded him the league’s highest honor.

As I thought about this I realized that second-year NFL quarterbacks have been played well as a whole over the last several seasons. Sophomore quarterbacks are on the rise across the NFL. Let’s take a brief study on these quarterbacks and how they have faired over the last few seasons.

2015: Blake Bortles and Derek Carr

2015 seems to be the real start of this era of quarterbacks having excellent sophomore seasons. Up to that point, it appears that most quarterbacks were given several years to get everything together, as there was an air of patience with young quarterbacks.

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles absolutely killed it. His rookie season hadn’t been all too successful, forced onto the field before he was ready and learning on the fly. 2015 rolled around, and Bortles looked like a promising franchise quarterback. Despite being sacked 51 times, he threw for over 4400 yards and 35 touchdowns and led 4 game-winning drives. The key to his success? The Jaguars had an excellent receiving duo in Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, a good weapon out of the backfield in TJ Yeldon, and reliable tight ends (Julius Thomas and Marcedes Lewis).

Derek Carr has been a starter since he was drafted. Handed the keys to the franchise in the preseason of the 2014 season, Carr’s rookie season was promising, but he wasn’t quite there yet. In 2015, he threw for almost 4000 yards, 32 touchdowns, and compiled a passer rating of 91.1. The key to Carr’s success was that Latavius Murray was the perfect running back for the downhill attack that head coach Jack Del Rio wanted, and with Michael Crabtree and rookie Amari Cooper playing receiver, they could stretch the field accordingly as well.

Let’s move onto the following season.

2016: Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston with the first overall pick to be the face of the franchise. For his first two seasons, he appeared to be the unquestioned pillar stone of the franchise.

Dec 27, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (3) throws the ball against the Chicago Bears during the first half at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Winston passed for over 4000 yards in both of his first two seasons, but elevated his touchdown totals, from 22 in 2015, to 28 in 2016. His passer rating rose as well. I think that it’s important to note Winston’s rise that season because it showed progression. His completion percentage rose, his touchdown percentage rose, and the team went from 6-10 to 9-7 because of it. Winston came out of the 2016 as one of the hottest young stars in the league.

The hype was mostly centered around the fact that the Buccaneers didn’t really have a running game. Instead, they had to rely on massive production from Mike Evans, and get what they could out of Adam Humphries and tight end Cameron Brate. Vincent Jackson and Cecil Shorts were supposed to be big impact players but succumbed to injuries.

The same can be said about Marcus Mariota. The Tennessee Titans selected Mariota with the second pick and appeared to have gotten a real leader. The jump that Mariota made from year one, that was already good, to year two showed potential superstar power. He threw for just shy of 3500 yards, 26 touchdowns, and was a threat with his legs as well. The Titans featured a downhill running attack behind DeMarco Murray and rookie Derrick Henry that allowed the offense to go into a heavy base play-action. Between tight end Delanie Walker and wide receiver Rishard Matthews, the Titans had the ability to stretch the field with a lot of one-on-one shots down the field.

2017: Jared Goff and Carson Wentz

Jared Goff’s seven games as a rookie were abysmal. It was clear that he wasn’t ready to play at the NFL level. The head coach, Jeff Fisher, was fired 13 games into the season, and the Rams stumbled through the last four games on their way to a 4-12 record. Goff himself posted a 63.6 passer rating.

However, in 2017, Goff looked like a completely different quarterback under new head coach Sean McVay. He threw for 3800 yards, 28 touchdowns, and just 7 interceptions while posting a 100.5 passer rating. McVay’s offense infused a lot of college schemes, such as stretch run plays between both running back Todd Gurley and wide receiver Tavon Austin. That allowed the Rams to get the counter play-action moving, and Goff had to find his man down the field between Cooper Kupp, Sammy Watkins, or Robert Woods. Todd Gurley was often available as a check-down too, and he managed 2093 scrimmage yards and 19 touchdowns.

Carson Wentz was almost the NFL’s MVP that season, almost starting that roll of sophomore quarterbacks winning the award a season earlier. His sophomore season was phenomenal, and it was an extraordinary jump from the previous season. Wentz had thrown 33 touchdowns in 13 games, to just 7 interceptions. His passer rating finished at 101.9. The season ended early for Wentz, who fell victim to a torn ACL against the Rams. The team ended up going on to win the Super Bowl behind quarterback Nick Foles.

The team used a rotation of running backs in an RPO scheme that head coach Doug Pederson has explained pretty well over the last couple of seasons. Between them and the weapons that they could attack the rest of the field with, wide receivers Alshon Jeffrey, Torrey Smith, and Nelson Agholor, and tight end Zach Ertz, Wentz just had to make the correct read in the pre-snap assignments and was able to make the offense click.

2018: Patrick Mahomes, Mitchell Trubisky, and Deshaun Watson

Patrick Mahomes had the rare opportunity to sit for a full season behind a veteran quarterback (Alex Smith) and learn before taking the reigns. Mahomes has God-given super talents, incredible arm strength, and is very mobile which allows him to create plays unlike many people in this generation have seen a quarterback make. He threw for 5097 yards, 50 touchdowns, and posted a 113.8 passer rating on his way to his NFL MVP.

Mahomes had running back Kareem Hunt for the most of the season, as well as the best tight end in the game (Travis Kelce) and arguably the fastest receiver in the league (Tyreek Hill). With Sammy Watkins and capable running backs outside of Hunt who was able to impact the passing game, the Chiefs were able to play a very vertical stretch offense that just used the extraordinary talent that Mahomes had.

Mitchell Trubisky, the 2nd overall selection in the 2017 NFL Draft, even had a good second season. He threw for 3200 yards and 24 touchdowns while compiling a passer rating of 95.4. It was a vast improvement from the 12 games he had started as a rookie in 2017, when he posted a 77.5 passer rating and just 7 touchdown passes.

That being said, Trubisky played in a run-oriented offense. Between running backs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, the Bears were able to play an RPO heavy offense with a lot of power-influence incorporated into the scheme. Allen Robinson (oh, hello again), Taylor Gabriel, and tight end Trey Burton proved to be reliable pass catchers and could consistently get open with the one-on-one opportunities that they got.

Finally – Deshaun Watson. He was the 12th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, a two-time Heisman finalist and a National Champion at Clemson. His rookie season had been impressive, once he had been forced into service, but it ended with a torn ACL during practice. He bounced back in 2018 with 4165 passing yards and 26 touchdowns while he played in all 16 games. Despite taking a league-high 63 sacks, Watson posted a 103.1 passer rating, and commanded 5 game-winning drives.

Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) tries to evade Tennessee Titans defensive end Jurrell Casey (99) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

Between Lamar Miller, Watson, and Alfred Blue, the Texans had a strong running attack. With DeAndre Hopkins on the outside and a sturdy rotation of Will Fuller or Demaryius Thomas at the other receiver position, the Texans had a difficult passing game to contain, especially with Watson’s playmaking ability.

2019: Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen

The final season of our study: this last season.

Lamar Jackson entered the season as a good name to remember. His rookie season had been good, as he had taken over the Ravens offense from Joe Flacco and turned the ship around to lead the Ravens to a playoff birth, but fell short in the Wild Card game when his passing ability was exposed.

His sophomore season was the best season I have ever seen from a player. The Ravens were absolutely unstoppable. The RPO offense with Jackson’s athleticism and speed combined with running backs Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards, and Justice Hill was unstoppable. The team ran for 3296 yards, an NFL record. Jackson himself ran for 1200 yards, while he threw for 3127 yards and 36 touchdowns, posting a 113.3 passer rating.

When the team needed to throw the ball, they had a set of pass-catching tight ends in Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle, as well as speedster Marquise Brown at wide receiver. Miles Boykin and Willie Snead contributed to the cause as well. Overall, the Ravens were unstoppable because they could run the ball better than anyone could in NFL history, and it forced the defense to play with less men in the secondary.

Moving onto Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen. He was pressed into service too early as a rookie as well, throwing a 10-12 touchdown-to-interception ratio and compiling a 67.9 passer rating. His sophomore season saw mass improvement with the addition of a new offensive coordinator. Allen threw for 3000 yards and 20 touchdowns. He also tied the NFL lead with 4 fourth-quarter comebacks and 5 game-winning drives.

Allen’s success too was based on the play-action in the Buffalo offense. Between Frank Gore, rookie running back Devin Singletary, and Allen – the Bills rushing attack was lethal, running for 2054 yards and 13 scores. Allen had two solid receivers, John Brown as the deep threat and Cole Beasley as the slot, who could impact the game when they were needed as well.

The Common Formula

There is a definite pattern in all of the examples that we just took the time to go through. In ten of the eleven examples that we just combed through, the key to making the offense click with a sophomore quarterback was through a good running game.

The lone exception to that rule was Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston. I think that it’s very important to note that Winston’s improvement was very minuscule compared to the other quarterbacks discussed in this list.

Perhaps a table will help us better grasp this concept.

Prospect NameYr DraftedTM Rush RookieRookie Pass RateTM Rush Year 22nd Year Pass RateNet Rush YardsNet Pass Rate
Blake Bortles2014103.969.592.188.211.8+19.7
Derek Carr201477.576.691.191.1+13.6+14.5
Jameis Winston2015135.184.2101.086.134.1+1.9
Marcus Mariota201592.891.5136.795.6+43.9+4.1
Jared Goff^201678.363.6122.1100.5+43.8+36.9
Carson Wentz2016113.379.3132.2101.9+18.9+22.6
Mitchell Trubisky^2017111.877.5121.195.4+9.3+17.9
Patrick Mahomes2017*110*76.4115.9113.8+5.9+37.4
Deshaun Watson2017115.1103.0126.3103.1+11.2+0.1
Baker Mayfield^2018118.393.7118.878.8+0.514.9
Sam Darnold^2018101.477.678.684.322.8+6.7
Josh Allen2018124.067.9128.485.3+4.4+17.4
Lamar Jackson2018152.684.5206.0113.3+53.4+28.8
Study on how the running game effects quarterbacks from their rookie seasons to their sophomore seasons.
*Denotes single game statistics.
^Denotes head coach change from year one to year two.

As you can see, usually when the run game improves and is more effective, so does the quarterback from his rookie season to his sophomore year. The largest changes in passer rating (Jared Goff and Lamar Jackson) both came at massive improvements to the run game. Outside of Blake Bortles, teams that saw their running games regress saw very minimal improvement from their quarterbacks.

When things go wrong

Out of the 13 quarterbacks listed on the chart, 4 quarterbacks saw a change in their head coach between year one to year two. The first two were (obviously) excellent hires. Sean McVay transformed NFL offenses over the course of two years, and Matt Nagy in Chicago worked his philosophy well into the Bears and made them a formidable team.

The other two quarterbacks (Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold) did not see good hires at head coach. Mayfield’s man, Freddie Kitchens, was fired after his first season. Jets coach Adam Gase is on the hot seat as well, after mediocrity in Miami with the Dolphins and fights already between Gase and players in New York.

The formula to make a quarterback work in the NFL is challenging to accomplish. This is a tough, competitive league, and it’s why the NFL wins the ratings battles against other sports all of the time.

What can we expect from the sophomore quarterbacks this season?

Five second-year quarterbacks enter the 2020 season as presumed starters to their team. Let’s take a brief look at what we can expect from them, based on history, in the upcoming season.

Arizona Cardinals Kyler Murray has an improved receiver corps with the addition of DeAndre Hopkins from the Houston Texans. He has head coach stability, and the Cardinals feel as though they have their running game figured out between Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmunds. I think because of his natural talent, you can expect Kyler to make a huge leap this season, maybe even make a run for NFL MVP.

New York Giants Daniel Jones might struggle a little bit this season. He has a new head coach coming in who’s never coached a team before (Joe Judge) and while he comes from the Bill Belichick tree, we don’t know about this hire yet. They have one of the most explosive running backs in the league (Saquan Barkley), and the team signed Dion Lewis, but there is still a lot of uncertainty around the team.

Washington Redskins Dwayne Haskins also has a new head coach (Ron Rivera), but it appears to be a better hire than the Giants made. Haskins has some great traits that show on tape, and the Redskins have addressed their offense with the additions in the draft of wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden and running back Antonio Gibson. The Redskins have a very deep running back group, and with the weapons that they have in place, I think that Haskins will see that jump this season.

Denver Broncos Drew Lock is being hyped as one of the best young quarterbacks in the game. Lock has a great chance to make a jump this season. With head coach Vic Fangio returning, the Broncos focused on reloading the offense, and that’s just what they did. They added running back Melvin Gordon in free agency to pair with Phillip Lindsay, and drafted wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler to match with Courtland Sutton. Oh, and Lock’s college teammate, tight end Albert Okwuegbunam. I think Lock will be making that jump this season too.

Jacksonville Jaguars Gardner Minshew drove the “Minshew Mania” last season, as he stepped in for an injured Nick Foles and led the Jaguars with his playmaking and undeniable swagger. The thing about Minshew is that he lacks a lot of natural traits that the NFL likes to see in quarterbacks. He doesn’t have a great arm and he’s not particularly mobile. The Jaguars revamped their offense by adding former Redskins head coach Jay Gruden as the offensive coordinator and brought in running back Chris Thompson and drafted wide receiver Laviska Shenault. The Jaguars are going to try and mask Minshew’s shortcomings, but I wouldn’t expect a great season from him.