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The modernization of the NFL QB: The present and the future

How has playing the quarterback position changed, and how do these traits reflect in the 2021 NFL Draft class?

Jacksonville Jaguars v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

Over the past 10 years, the NFL has undergone an offensive revolution of sorts.

Offenses are leaning further into the passing game and the results are yielding extremely fascinating numbers. In the 2020 regular season, 14 teams scored more than 400 cumulative points, outranking each year before it, according to ESPN Stats. Most of the damage has been done through the air, with 15 teams passing for more than 4,000 yards this season.

That’s more than double the previous season, as well as the 2010 season.

Not only have passing offenses been explosive, they’ve been efficient. According to RBSDM, 18 teams this season have an EPA (Expected Points Added) over 0.1 throughout the regular season, significantly greater than any year in the previous decade. In addition, 11 teams this year are seeing a success rate over 50% on their drop backs, a number that only the 2018 regular season can compare to in the past decade.

So, what has led to this outburst in quarterback explosiveness and efficiency? According to The Draft Network’s Jordan Reid, the inclusion of college-like concepts and catering their scheme to their personnel has increased:

“About a decade ago, concepts such as the Air Coryell and West Coast offenses were prevalent. But now, coaches are really revolving their personnel and their scheme around what they’re trying to do.”

When it comes to the type of quarterback that’s entering the NFL, Reid notes the ability to be mobile and decision making as a requirement in the modern NFL offense.

“Ten years ago there was a status quo of having the big, pocket passer types that they were looking for, but that’s changed. We see guys like Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson, and they’ve all been successful and their mobility has come into play.”

“With quarterback, how well you can process the avalanche of information that’s coming at you while also being able to adjust to the speed of the game is extremely important. There are so many things that the quarterback has to worry about, from a coverage standpoint to making sure that your team is in the right position is a big thing that you look for in a QB.”

Emory Hunt, founder and analyst at Football Gameplan, also notes the ability to be mobile and extend plays as a large change in the modern quarterback:

“The NFL is now allowing quarterback to be true dual threat players. For a while, there wasn’t an opportunity for a Cam Newton, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, or even a Justin Fields. But now, they’re allowed to be themselves, which has opened up the entire offensive attack for everyone involved.”

Hunt cites former Washington quarterback Dwayne Haskins as an example of a modern NFL quarterback who didn’t fit the modern NFL offense because he couldn’t escape pressure:

“[Haskins] had the arm strength, the passing, but what he hasn’t done well so far in his career is the ability to extend the play with his legs and be a plus one in the run game.”

Juxtaposing Haskins to Allen, Hunt says that coming into his rookie year, people knew he wasn’t the most polished passer, but he did have the athleticism to allow NFL coaches and general managers to take more time with him, expecting the passing to come along.

In addition, Hunt cites the ability to play in pressure situations as an important trait when looking at modern NFL quarterbacks, both from the defense and situational pressure:

“If you are able to excel at situational football, as well as versus pressure, that’s the type of quarterback I want. I could win with a guy like Tim Tebow. It won’t look pretty, but I know he’s not scared.”

The Jacksonville Jaguars are currently looking for their Josh Allen, or Patrick Mahomes, or Lamar Jackson, and will turn to the 2021 NFL Draft to do so. Fans are not-so-long gone from the days of Blaine Gabbert, Chad Henne, and Blake Bortles under center, and this upcoming draft gives them the opportunity to draft what owner Shad Khan calls “a franchise quarterback.”

The 2021 NFL Draft is littered with talent, but the cream of the crop belongs to a quartet of four QBs — North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, BYU’s Zach Wilson, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence.

Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence

Reid, like many others around the NFL, believe Lawrence will be the next Jaguars quarterback:

“[Lawrence] has everything you want in a franchise quarterback. I think he’s the type of guy that can immediately turn around a franchise.”

Lawrence finished his junior season at Clemson with 24 touchdowns to just five interceptions as well as rushing for eight touchdowns, all while missing two games due to COVID-19 protocols.

And Hunt admires his ability to handle pressure in any situation:

“When we look at Trevor Lawrence, you see a guy who’s battle tested. To come in as a freshman, taking over for Kelly Bryant, and leading the team to a title win against Alabama, he’s been in pressure situations before.”

Ohio State QB Justin Fields

As for the other top quarterbacks in this upcoming draft class, both Hunt and Reid agree on the characteristics of each player.

“[Fields] has this Steve McNair-ish type of ability of being both mentally and physically tough. Knowing that people were going to question every throw you made and going and performing like he did against Clemson, that’s the trait that stands out about him.”

In the Sugar Bowl against Clemson this past week, Fields had a blistering 78.6 completion percentage and threw for six touchdowns in a 49-28 win.

“Fields has a great all around skill set. The mobility he possesses, the arm strength, they’re both there,” Reid said. “He’s also been able to adjust, from being a Wildcat quarterback at Georgia to doing what he’s done at Ohio State really speaks to his character and not just his football IQ.”

BYU QB Zach Wilson

Wilson has been affectionately nicknamed “Mormon Manziel” and to Hunt, you can see the similarities in their game on the field:

“With Wilson, you know going into the game that you’re going to have the ability to throw the football, and not be shy about it. Wilson can beat you deep down the field with his arm as well as with his legs.”

Reid cites Wilson’s urgency as one of his calling cards when he sees him play:

“He has that lightning fast release that you love to see at the position, almost like a shortstop. The aggressiveness in how the throws the ball stands out.”

Wilson threw 33 touchdowns and only three interceptions in a season that came with a bevy of highlight-reel passes, leading BYU to a Boca Bowl victory over UCF.

North Dakota State QB Trey Lance

Both Hunt and Reid note the maturity in Lance, who came in as a redshirt freshman and led NDSU to an undefeated record and FCS title.

“One of the things that jumps out about Lance is his running ability,” Hunt said. “He’s a lot like Josh Allen, in terms of he may need tutelage and grooming, but he has all the tools to succeed at the next level.”

In that championship season, Lance threw for 2,786 yards and 28 touchdowns to zero interceptions.

Reid said that Lance has a mature skill set, and also notes his ability to run the ball. “North Dakota State used him a lot as a runner, and he was a big part of the running game. The ball jumps out of his arm when he throws too.”

Whoever the Jaguars decide to draft in April, they’ll have a complement of young, talented players to distribute the ball.

“Playcaller, protection, and playmakers...”

Reid cites the three P’s when discussing the adjustment to the NFL game for a young quarterback: “Playcaller, protection, and playmakers.”

When asked about the Jaguars fit within the philosophy, Reid said that they might already have them in place:

“DJ Chark is going to be better with a more stable quarterback situation than they’ve had before, and is a solid No. 2 receiver. You have LaViska Shenault, who I was a fan of coming out of the NFL Draft, and he can be the ultimate chess piece depending on how you use him. Collin Johnson showed some good things and could be a No. 3 or No. 4 guy in that rotation, so they have plenty of playmakers on the perimeter.”

Reid also notes that the Jaguars have an important decision to make regarding upcoming free agent left tackle Cam Robinson, who is a part of that protection that Reid mentioned. This year was one of the best years for Robinson, who was a major cog in an improved offensive line unit.

Hunt also agrees on the amount of talent the Jaguars have at the skill position, and offered what could be seen as optimism for Jaguars fans next season.

“They’re talented enough to where the ability at quarterback could help the team be really good fast.”

Let’s hope he’s right.