Editor’s Note: This is part 5 of a five-part series that dives deep into NFL quarterbacks making sudden, massive improvements that we’ve dubbed “QB Leap Week.” Here is what has been published so far:
Trading veteran QBs was the obvious play for NFL team in 2022, after the Buccaneers and Rams won Super Bowls in their first seasons with Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford, respectively.
So of course it completely backfired last year for the teams that acquired Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan, Carson Wentz, Baker Mayfield and Deshaun Watson. All five QBs ranked 28th or worse in the EPA as of play among 38 QBs with 200+ play action last season.
There are a handful of QBs hoping to reverse that trend in 2023 and follow in the footsteps of some of the biggest leaps made by veteran QBs in their first season with a new team.
Drew Bledsoe shook off his infamous injury with the Patriots in 2001 to produce with the Bills in 2002. Drew Brees burst onto the scene with New Orleans in 2006. Brett Favre almost Super Bowl with Minnesota in 2009. Ryan Fitzpatrick nearly led the Jets to the playoffs in 2015. “Fitzmagic” remains the only player in Jets history with 30 touchdown passes in a season. Case Keenum led the Vikings to a 13-3 record in 2017 out of seemingly nowhere. Ryan Tannehill led NFL in passer rating and took the Titans to an AFC Championship Game in 2019.
Aaron Rodgers is the obvious choice to make the jump among veteran QBs at new spots this year, but the list below shows there could also be a surprise or two. Here’s a look at which veteran QBs have made the jump in the past, followed by a breakdown of who is most likely to do so this season (with our predictions in parentheses).
QBs to make a jump in first year with new team since 2000
- 2021 Matthew Stafford (Rams): Won Super Bowl (4,886 Pass yards & 41 Pass TD in regular season)
- 2020 Tom Brady (Buccaneers): Won Super Bowl (40 Pass TD after 24 last season with Patriots)
- 2019 Ryan Tannehill (Titans): Reached the AFC title game and led the NFL in yards per game. test and passing assessment
- 2017 Case Keenum (Vikings): 11-3 record, 22 Pass TD and 7 Int with Vikings
- 2015 Tyrod Taylor (Bills): 20 Pass TD, 6 Int and 568 Rush yards in 13 starts
- 2015 Ryan Fitzpatrick (Jets): 10-6 record and franchise record 31 Pass TD
- 2009 Brett Favre (Vikings): Reached NFC Championship and received MVP vote at age 40 (33 Pass TD and 7 Int)
- 2008 Chad Pennington (Dolphins): Led NFL in Comp pct and won AFC East title
- 2006 Drew Brees (Saints): Led the NFL in passing yards and won the playoffs
- 2003 Jake Plummer (Broncos): 9-2 record, 15 Pass TD and 7 Int
- 2002 Drew Bledsoe (Bills): Franchise record 4,359 Pass yards (at the time)
Aaron Rodgers (Yes)
What happens when you have a checked off four-time MVP QB with a better supporting cast, including a top-5 defense? You have the recipe for another potential MVP and Super Bowl year, even though Rodgers is approaching 40.
Rodgers is coming off arguably the worst season of his career, so there is plenty of room for improvement. There is certainly reason to believe that he will. He was better last year when Christian Watson emerged, and now he has a supporting role with the Jets that includes promising young stars in Garrett Wilson and Breece Hall. He also reunites with former OC Nathaniel Hackett.
The Jets defense should help Rodgers win many more games, and while the offensive line may keep them from Super Bowl contention, it shouldn’t prevent him from at least significantly improving his numbers from last year.
Sam Darnold (Yes, if he gets a shot)
Sam Darnold and the 49ers look like a perfect match on paper. Still only 26, the former No. 3 overall pick is now paired with the QB whisperer, Kyle Shanahan, plus one of the best rosters in football.
Darnold was actually top 10 in the league in EPA per game in his six starts from Weeks 12-18 last year. He was third in above-projected completion percentage for the entire season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. This could actually be a QB who figures it out.
Based on the 49ers’ QB injury problems last year, and question marks surrounding Brock Purdy and Trey Lance, I’d say Darnold is pretty likely to get a shot at some point this year. If it comes early, he will absolutely make a jump with San Francisco.
The Saints are banking on Derek Carr getting them to the playoffs this year. He’s still looking for his first career playoff win, and there’s a good chance it will happen. He is in a more familiar system with former Raiders head coach Dennis Allen after a down year in his first season under Josh McDaniels. He goes from a tough division to the easiest in the league. He goes from one of the worst defenses to a potential top-10 unit. He has weapons around him in Chris Olave and Alvin Kamara.
The stars seemed to be aligned for a playoff run, but I think that will be a product of a light division and improved defense, not a leap from Carr. He has been an average quarterback during his nine-year career. His average season ranking in the EPA as of games over that span are 17. It’s not quite Matthew Stafford going from the Lions to the Rams. That’s the case with a better QB going to a better team. Carr didn’t make a jump last year with Josh Jacobs winning a rushing title and the addition of Davante Adams, so I’m not convinced he’ll play as a top 5 or 10 QB in 2023.
Jacoby Brissett is a sleeper jump candidate if he wins the starting QB job over Sam Howell with the Commanders, but right now it looks like Howell’s job is up for grabs.
Here’s what I like about Brissett. He consistently takes good care of the ball and does damage with his legs, two reasons why he was sixth in EPA per game in 2022 behind Patrick Mahomes, Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts, Josh Allen and Jared Goff. He has the same interception rate (1.5 percent) as Tom Brady and Drew Brees since entering the league in 2016. He also has the chance to work with Eric Bieniemy.
Baker Mayfield (unlikely)
Baker Mayfield signed a one-year deal worth up to $8.5 million to compete with Kyle Trask for the Buccaneers starting QB job. Even if he wins the job, he faces an uphill battle as he has been one of the league’s worst QBs for the past two years.
Tampa Bay has a below average offensive line and below average weapons at RB and TE. The Buccaneers’ strength is at WR with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, but both were in decline last year. Mayfield also has more interceptions than touchdowns in his career targeting WR, and was never able to develop much chemistry with Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry in Cleveland.
The NFC South is the worst division in the NFL, but Mayfield also struggled with Carolina last season.
I would be most surprised if Garoppolo took a leap with the Raiders. Compared to his time in San Francisco, he’s going to a tougher division, playing with worse talent, a worse head coach, with a much worse defense. There’s also the question of whether he’ll be healthy in 2023 after his broken foot from the 2022 regular season required another surgery in March.
Garoppolo was effective with a very good supporting cast on the 49ers, but was overly injury and turnover prone without the ability to stretch the field.
It’s a wrap on ‘QB Leap Week’. The rich tradition of QB jumping should continue in 2023, offering plenty of candidates with opportunities to develop or improve with new coaches, teammates or even area codes.
If you read ‘QB Leap Week’ all week, I’m picking eight QBs to take a big leap forward in 2023 for a variety of reasons. Aaron Rodgers (new team), Justin Fields (new #1 WR), Trevor Lawrence (new #1 WR), Justin Herbert (new OC), Lamar Jackson (new OC), Anthony Richardson (young QB who can develop sig) , Kenny Pickett (young QB who can develop) and Jordan Love (young QB who can develop).