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NFL Draft

Who Is NFL’s Best QB Of The Future After Patrick Mahomes?

  • The Draft Network
  • May 16, 2020
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Ask anyone in football which quarterback they'd choose to start a franchise with right now and the resounding consensus would be the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes. 

The 24-year-old superstar has, in two seasons as a starter, passed for 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in one year and led Kansas City to a Super Bowl victory in the other. With over 9,400 passing yards in 31 career games, Mahomes is breaking the system and will be a major threat to passing records everywhere if he's able to sustain his stunning pace over the entire duration of his career.

So yes, the answer to "which quarterback would you start a franchise with tomorrow?" is going to rightfully be "Patrick Mahomes."

But who comes in second? Which NFL quarterback offers the greatest opportunity for long-term success in today's pass-happy climate? If you picked second in a fantasy style draft with every player in the league eligible for selection, who would you pick?

No longer eligible are the likes of legendary passers like Drew Brees and Tom Brady; however, both are the most accomplished quarterbacks in NFL history but as players in the twilight of their careers, neither would be a sensible selection here. Longevity moving forward needs to be a critical piece of the puzzle. Thanks to a fresh infusion of gifted passers over the course of the past four or five years, there are some strong candidates.

First and foremost would be the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player, Lamar Jackson. Jackson, a dynamic two-way threat for the Ravens, improved by leaps and bounds as a passer while retaining his lethal skills as a rusher in 2019. But Jackson is not alone. 

Few quarterbacks do more with less than Texans QB Deshaun Watson, a magician in the pocket with the ability to strike from any area of the field like lightning. Whether he's pinned down on his own 25-yard line with 0:50 remaining and no timeouts while needing a touchdown or getting kicked in the eye, Watson has thrived despite sub-par conditions around him in Houston. And any discussion of quarterbacks of the future should include Seahawks’ Russell Wilson. Mr. Reliable has started every game for Seattle in his first eight seasons and is blazing his way up the all-time passing charts. If Wilson’s healthy he should swiftly move up the all-time passing charts in 2020. Oh, right, and he aspires to play until he's 45, which means he's about one-third of the way through his pro career.

There are other worthy quarterbacks for this discussion, but for me, these would be my finalists. Perhaps youngsters like Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield can play their way into consideration; but in order to pick the second-best franchise quarterback, you'll need more confidence than college tape and promising potential.

Here is the tale of the tape on the three best potential franchise quarterbacks of the future not named Mahomes, and who I would ultimately choose.

Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens

Age: 23

Starts: 22 (24 including postseason)

Awards: 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player (unanimous), 2019 Pro Bowl, 2019 First-Team All-Pro

2019 production: 4,333 total yards, 43 total touchdowns, 10 turnovers (four fumbles, six interceptions)

Key stats: Three career game-winning drives (fourth-quarter scoring drives resulting in final lead change), 323 career rushing attempts (10.4 per game), 2.92 average seconds to throw (tied third-highest in 2019)

Jackson has the advantage of youth on his side, but that also comes with the disadvantage of sample size. Jackson has thrown 571 career passes, less than half of the attempts of Watson (1,204) and just 15% of the sample size we have from Wilson. But, my goodness, was Jackson a thrilling experience to watch in 2019. He embodies the new style of play, where spacing concepts are more prevalent than ever and progressive coaches are able to weaponize the new-age athletes at the position more so than the old-school pocket-passing approach.

If you're looking to poke holes in Jackson's resume, you'd start with limited sample size and the fact Jackson played with a smothering defense all season; the Ravens' defense allowed over 500 yards of offense in two of their first four games on the season and then never again allowed more than 347 yards again. Baltimore allowed under 250 yards of offense in half of its final 12 games and allowed only 300 yards of offense (and 83 passing yards) in its home postseason loss to Tennessee.

So, can Jackson be the clutch player in crunch time when his team needs him to put them on his back? We need more close contests to say for certain. His three career game-winning drives all resulted in field goals by kicker Justin Tucker, and they all came in underwhelming performances passing the football.

  • 2019 Week 13: 49-yard field goal with 0:03 left vs. San Francisco (Jackson passed for 105 yards on the day)
  • 2019 Week 5: 46-yard field goal in overtime vs. Pittsburgh (Jackson was sacked five times and threw three interceptions)
  • 2018 Week 11: 24-yard field goal with 8:12 left versus Cincinnati (Jackson's first career start)

But, to Jackson's credit, his growth as a player really took off over the final eight games in 2019, where he posted seven games with a passer rating over 100 (the lone exception was that Week 13 contest vs. San Francisco) and passed for 25 touchdowns to just one interception.

If we see that version of Jackson week in and week out, how could you not choose him?

Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans

Age: 24

Starts: 37 (40 including postseason)

Awards: Two-time Pro Bowl player (2018, 2019)

2019 production: 4,265 total yards, 34 total touchdowns, 13 turnovers (one fumble, 12 interceptions)

Key stats: 10 career game-winning drives (11 including playoffs), 9.4% sack rate (106 sacks taken in 2018 and 2019 combined), does this in the pocket seemingly every week

Admittedly that last point isn't a stat, but Watson literally has a magic moment within the pocket seemingly every week by twisting, spinning and parlaying his way away from negative plays. Despite the narrative that Watson needs to get the ball out quicker, his 2.82 average seconds to release in 2019 measured in the middle of the road among qualified passers, according to NFL's Next Gen Stats. Does Watson take hits he might not have to? Absolutely, but that is the double-edged sword that each of these three quarterbacks charges you with weighing.

Watson, for all the hits he takes, is the most exciting passer in the league. He's as poised, collected and capable under pressure as you could possibly expect from a 24-year old quarterback, and his ability to come through in the clutch is well established through 37 career starts. Watson has engineered fourth-quarter comebacks in eight of his 24 career wins to date — nine of 25 if you include postseason play — and has two more wins that have come with his team tied in the fourth quarter, not losing.

But consider the ones that got away from him by no fault of his own too.

  • 2017 Week 8: In Watson's final game before a knee injury ended his rookie season, Watson dueled Wilson and produced two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, both resulting in a lead change and the final coming in the final five minutes of the game on a 72-yard touchdown to DeAndre Hopkins. Wilson threw an 18-yard touchdown with 0:21 remaining to claim a 41-38 win in Seattle.
  • 2018 Week 2: Watson engineered a scoring drive while trailing 14-10 in the fourth quarter to take a 17-14 lead over Tennessee. The Titans would break a tie game with a 31-yard field goal with 1:00 left to win.
  • 2018 Week 16: Watson was magic once again as the Texans trailed 29-16 with five minutes remaining against the Eagles on the road. Watson would engineer two touchdowns in 2:37 to take a 30-29 lead with two minutes left, but Philadelphia kicked a 35-yard field goal as time expired to claim a 32-30 win.
  • 2019 Week 1: The Texans trailed the Saints on Monday Night Football by six with 0:50 remaining and no timeouts, taking possession of the football at their own 25-yard line. Two plays later, Watson had the Texans in the end zone to take a 28-27 lead, including a brilliant fade within the pocket to buy time for Kenny Stills to uncover deep. The problem? Houston scored too fast. New Orleans burned the remaining 0:43 on the clock before kicking a game-winning 58-yard field goal with two seconds remaining.

Watson has been as clutch as any quarterback in the league and has engineered drives that would qualify as fourth-quarter comebacks in one of every three starts — 13 of 40 including the postseason — he's made to this point in his career. That is the divider between him and Jackson; Jackson isn't bad in this area, but he is unproven.

Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks

Age: 31

Starts: 128 (143 including postseason)

Awards: 2012 NFL Rookie Of The Year, seven-time Pro Bowl player (2012-2015, 2017-2019), Super Bowl 48 champion

2019 production: 4,452 total yards, 34 total touchdowns, eight turnovers (three fumbles, five interceptions)

Key stats: One of five quarterbacks in league history to throw over 200 passing touchdowns in his first eight seasons, 8.4% sack rate (3,777 career pass attempts), 1.80% interception rate is best in history among passers with 3,000-or-more pass attempts in their first eight seasons

Wilson is putting together one of the most statistically impressive careers in history. He’s an eight-year veteran and has tossed for 227 touchdowns and thrown just 68 career interceptions while not missing a single game in his professional career. His 86 career wins are tied for most all-time in a player's first eight seasons as well; Brady also had 86 wins but started 18 fewer games from 2000-07. All while logging more than 40 sacks taken in every season since 2013, and 347 total sacks taken.

Like Watson, Wilson's big-play mentality and willingness to invite chaos to manipulate defenders and create voids in the secondary yields some unnecessary hits; but part of the brilliance of both players is that they are maestros in the crosshairs of pass rushers. And Wilson, much like Watson, has engineered brilliance in the face of adversity throughout the course of his career. He's logged 28 4th-quarter comebacks to date.

As a 31-year old quarterback, Wilson does have the noted disadvantage of age as it relates to deciding which would be best to commit to in the long-term if one were hypothetically starting a franchise tomorrow. But if Wilson is to be believed when discussing his career ambitions, he might only be scratching the surface of what he'll accomplish.

"I feel really young, I feel more vibrant than ever," Wilson said on his 31st birthday. "I always wanted to play until I was 40. Really I wanted to play until I was 43 — in my head — I wanted to play 20 years. … I got a long ways to go, I'm only eight years in."

If that goal is taken seriously, which it should be, Wilson hasn't even hit the halfway point of his career. If he plays until 45, he's got 14 years left. That's plenty of time to avoid the pitfalls and worries of an aged quarterback being taken over a younger passer. 

Wilson has done almost everything there is to do in this sport — minus garner a single Most Valuable Player vote, which is an offense we can address on another day. He's tasted championship glory, he's led fourth-quarter comebacks, he's led the NFL in passing touchdowns (2017) and passed for as many as 4,219 yards in a season (2016). The career sacks he's taken is worrisome, but at the same time, Wilson has never missed a start despite the constant wear and tear of 40-plus sacks each season; he's only taken seven fewer sacks than Watson's 106 over the last two seasons.

Final Verdict

Jackson's 2019 NFL season was sublime. His second half of the year as a passer is a promising omen for what is to come for the former first-round pick. But for the sake of this argument, I'll graciously pass on choosing him due to having the smallest sample size and the fewest opportunities to prove himself in clutch situations.

Between Watson and Wilson, the question becomes what is more valuable? The assured safety of a guaranteed, year in and year out staple in Wilson? Or the sweet temptation of youth? Wilson is seven years Watson's elder, and while both play the game with the same level of ambition and flare, that is a variable that is hard to overlook. Wilson is the more accomplished passer and has reached the pinnacle of the sport, also a difficult variable to ignore.

We're splitting hairs here, really. You'd be impossible to go wrong with any of the three. But fortune favors the bold, and I'd rather bet on the youth and brilliance of Watson than the wear and tear of Wilson's career carrying him for another 12-14 seasons to get the absolute most out of my choice.

Wilson aspires to play into his 40s, like Brady, but Brady has been sacked just 500 times in 285 career games versus Wilson's 347 sacks taken in 128. All those extra hits will add up, and forecasting how well Wilson will endure them six to seven years from now is an impossible task, especially if the hits don't start coming less frequently.

Watson? He'll be Wilson's age in seven years, and that's the ultimate selling point for me.

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