The arrival of so many young quarterbacks reflects the way franchises have evolved in building around passers. Of those 17 starters with less than four years of experience, only four are definitively stopgaps with little likelihood of becoming a franchise quarterback. Not all of them will work out, but a good chunk of the NFL has identified its desired quarterback of the future. The teams that succeed will be the ones that most wisely build around them.
Sunday’s marquee game will provide a model for that task. The meeting between Patrick Mahomes’s Kansas City Chiefs and Lamar Jackson’s Baltimore Ravens will showcase not only two of the NFL’s incandescent young quarterbacks but also two franchises who understand the importance of catering their operations to them. They have both shown it’s not enough to develop a talented quarterback. The point is to also develop the right system and personnel around the talented quarterback.
“They’ve done what other teams do with their quarterbacks to show their talent,” Ravens backup quarterback Robert Griffin III said. “The Patriots, right? They do what they have to do to get [Tom] Brady guys that do things that Brady does well. Whether you’re a pocket-passing quarterback or a dual-threat quarterback, it doesn’t matter. The team just has to build it around what we do best. That’s what the Ravens have done here."
The NFL’s salary structure incentivizes teams to play quarterbacks when they are young. The Seattle Seahawks first showed the power of building around a young — and therefore inexpensive — quarterback when they constructed a dominant roster and innovative system around Russell Wilson earlier this decade.
Meanwhile, the proliferation of youthful play-callers ascending to head coaching positions has led to the NFL’s embrace of offensive concepts that had been the domain of high school and college football, and the shift has hastened the transition of many young quarterbacks. In some cases, particularly the pairing of No. 1 draft pick Kyler Murray with former Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury on the Arizona Cardinals, it has allowed quarterbacks to expand on a base of knowledge rather than learning a new one.
“I think it’s more maybe a comfort factor,” Oklahoma Coach Lincoln Riley said this offseason. “It’s no different than an NFL quarterback, a Drew Brees or Tom Brady, that ends up in a similar system for a lot of years. These guys started in this similar system when they were 12 years old, if not younger. They just kind of got a lot of stock built up in it. They understand it. They understand the concepts. They’ve had rep after rep after rep over a long period of time.”
For years, NFL coaches bemoaned the rise of the spread offense, which they believed made it difficult to evaluate and train quarterback prospects, while resisting concepts that had taken over the college game. Those coaches have largely been left behind, passed by coaches eager to take advantage of what those quarterbacks have been trained to do well.
“It’s great what the colleges are doing — they’re throwing the ball around,” Chiefs Coach Andy Reid said. “When we get them, they know how to do that. And then you can evaluate them. You’re getting all these kids that come and are playing; you have this whole influx in the National Football League right now. I think it’s great for the game.”
Like all NFL trends, franchises easing their quarterbacks’ transition also traces to job security. The problem with fitting a quarterback into an existing system is that while he may eventually learn it and thrive, the lumps taken during that process probably mean success will come after the coach has been fired.
“In this league, you have to win immediately,” Kingsbury said. “Everybody knows that. If you’re not doing things to help your first-round pick, or whoever is going to be your guy, I think you may be missing the boat. Otherwise, you’re just prepping him for the next coach to come in."
Nobody has been more aggressive than the Ravens and Chiefs, and their approach gives something for the New York Giants to study as they usher in No. 6 draft pick Daniel Jones as their starter in place of Manning. The same is true of the Washington Redskins, whenever they turn to first-round pick Dwayne Haskins.
“These guys got to be able to come in and play with confidence and play at a high level,” Kingsbury added. “You got to be able to give them concepts and things they’re comfortable with and can execute quickly. I think you’re seeing more and more teams do that.”
“People don’t even recognize the things he’s not good at,” Reid said, “because the coaches don’t put him in that position. That’s the trick.”
Reid has done the same for Mahomes, drafted in 2017. The Chiefs built a fleet of blazing wide receivers who can exploit Mahomes’s extraterrestrial arm strength. Reid has been ahead of the curve in stealing from college playbooks, employing things such as jet sweeps, ghost motions and RPOs.
“They put speed around him,” Harbaugh said. “They throw shots. They throw screens. They check it down. They run the ball. They’re not complicated. You can see what they’re doing, but they do it really well.”
Other teams, too, have strategized to tailor their franchises to a quarterback. Baker Mayfield’s college teammates notice the Cleveland Browns employing concepts borrowed from the Oklahoma system he ran under Riley. The Redskins provided Haskins comfort when they drafted one of his top wide receivers at Ohio State, Terry McLaurin, in the third round. In New York, Jones will have a mentor in Manning who shared a college coach with him in David Cutcliffe.
Young quarterbacks have yet to completely overtake the NFL. The Patriots, you may have noticed, are humming along just fine with Brady, their 42-year-old metronome, behind center. But guys such as Jackson and Mahomes, last season’s league MVP, are capable of winning right now, and teams are growing smarter in how they take advantage of their talents.
“Traditionally, teams bring a quarterback in and they teach him how to run an NFL offense,” Griffin said. “Some of those offenses don’t match what kids did in high school and college. You bring a guy like Kingsbury in, and he’s running a system kids are used to running from high school and college to make them more comfortable."
Griffin speaks from experience. In 2012, he won the rookie of the year award playing in a Redskins offense that coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan adapted to incorporate plays and concepts from Griffin’s Baylor days.
“I think you’ll see more of an influx of that," Griffin added. "Some of the younger coaches — the [Sean] McVays, the [Matt] LaFleurs, [Kyle] Shanahan — they’re willing to open up their mind with all their NFL background to run these concepts that were prevalent in college. It’s not as rigid as it used to be with: ‘This is how an NFL offense is run. We run bang eights and they only run Cover 3.’ That’s not what the NFL is anymore. It’s cool to see.”