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Answering big NFL quarterback questions: Breakouts, concerning starts

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Stephen A.: Mahomes put questions about Chiefs' offense to bed (1:55)

Stephen A. Smith explains how Patrick Mahomes proved that no one should be worried about the Chiefs' offense anymore. (1:55)

We're through four weeks of the 2022 NFL season, and we've seen a little bit of everything when it comes to quarterback play. Massive breakouts from some young rising stars. Confusing struggles from big-money veterans. Surprising stellar performances from former backups getting a shot to start. Plenty of signal-callers trying to earn a new contract. And now, after the Steelers brought Kenny Pickett into action Sunday, a rookie getting a chance to start.

It's a lot to break down. So we called on Matt Bowen and Jason Reid to answer some big questions around the game's most important position, including which breakouts are for real and which early struggles spell trouble. Then we looked to our NFL Nation reporters for insight into 11 different QB situations around the league. Should we be worried about Russell Wilson's slow start in Denver? What's the secret to Trevor Lawrence's early-season success? And are the Texans already looking ahead to the 2023 NFL draft's quarterback class?

Let's answer some big QB questions, starting with a ranking of the top five performers under center in the game right now from Bowen and Reid.

Jump to team-specific questions:
NFL Nation answers

Who are the NFL's top five QBs right now?

Matt Bowen, NFL analyst:

1. Josh Allen, Bills
2. Lamar Jackson, Ravens
3. Jalen Hurts, Eagles
4. Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
5. Justin Herbert, Chargers

We know about Hurts' dual-threat traits, the physical element he brings to the position and his ability to play outside of structure. But it's his development as a pocket thrower that pushes him near the top of my list. Hurts is reading it out with speed, isolating his targets and delivering the ball with accuracy. His fast start has been really impressive.

Jason Reid, Andscape senior NFL writer:

1. Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
2. Josh Allen, Bills
3. Lamar Jackson, Ravens
4. Justin Herbert, Chargers
5. Jalen Hurts, Eagles

Mahomes has reinvented himself -- with a big assist from Chiefs coach Andy Reid -- over the past two seasons. Because of the umbrella coverage opponents began employing to limit big passing plays, he had to make major adjustments. It wasn't pretty initially, but he showed he could adapt. And with the Chiefs' offseason decision to trade explosive wide receiver Tyreek Hill, the adjustments kept coming. He is tied for the NFL lead in touchdown throws with 11 through four games.


Who are the most disappointing quarterbacks so far?

Bowen:

1. Justin Fields, Bears
2. Matt Ryan, Colts
3. Baker Mayfield, Panthers

I expected a second-year jump from Fields given his physical traits and playmaking talent. But through four weeks, the Bears lack a true passing-game element, though some of that falls on a talent-deficient offense. Fields isn't seeing things cleanly from the pocket and has missed opportunities to cut it loose. His 26.2 QBR is 31st in the NFL.

Reid:

1. Carson Wentz, Commanders
2. Baker Mayfield, Panthers
3. Matt Ryan, Colts

Through only four games, the Wentz trade has been an unmitigated disaster for the Commanders. Perhaps no one should have expected much after two franchises moved on from him in as many offseasons, but Wentz has been awful. Washington's offensive line isn't among the best in the NFL -- Wentz has been sacked a league-high 17 times -- but the veteran QB holds the ball too long and has made many questionable decisions.


Which quarterback breakout are you most sure is for real?

Bowen: Trevor Lawrence, Jaguars. Don't let that Week 4 game in poor weather against a really good Philly defense change your opinion on Lawrence. Under new Jacksonville coach Doug Pederson, Lawrence's throwing mechanics have vastly improved, and the Jaguars' scheme is putting him in positive throwing positions. Coaching matters. Lawrence has completed 65.7% of his throws and holds an 8-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Reid: Jalen Hurts, Eagles. This has been in the makings for a while now, and with multiple playmakers around him on offense (and a top-tier defense), don't be surprised by his continued rise. He has 1,120 passing yards and has scored eight total touchdowns (four passing, four rushing).


Which quarterback's start to the season is most concerning?

Bowen: Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers. I expected more from Garoppolo. Playing in an offense with one of the NFL's most heavily schemed route trees, he has registered a total QBR of 33.2, which ranks 27th in the NFL. Forced into action after Trey Lance was injured, Garoppolo hasn't thrown for multiple touchdowns in any of his three games, and his 61.0% completion percentage is well below his numbers from the past few seasons.

Reid: Tom Brady, Buccaneers. Look, I know it's downright blasphemous to ever question the GOAT, but Brady just hasn't been that good, especially by his own high standards. Remember: The seven-time Super Bowl winner is 45 years old. And let's not be fooled by his 385-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Chiefs on Sunday night; Tampa Bay rushed for a total of 3 yards in a double-digit defeat.


Who's the most likely non-frontrunner quarterback to win MVP this season?

Bowen: Justin Herbert, Chargers. If L.A. can wade through its injuries and stay in the playoff discussion, then Herbert will be in the mix. The Chargers quarterback has completed over 66% of his passes and thrown nine touchdowns through the first four weeks of the season. And he is more than capable of producing breakout games given his arm talent and movement traits.

Reid: Jalen Hurts, Eagles. If the Eagles remain relatively healthy, Hurts has the talent to lead them to a great regular-season record. Clearly, he's already in the early discussion.


Which one-time backup off to a hot start has the best chance to stick as an NFL starter?

Bowen: Geno Smith, Seahawks. Smith's 77.3% completion percentage not only leads the NFL this season. It's also the highest for any quarterback with at least 125 passing attempts through four games of a season in league history. He's throwing the ball with efficiency and making smart decisions. And as we saw in Week 4, he can push the ball down the field. His 17 completions on throws at least 15 yards downfield are tied for most in the league. With Smith under center, the Seahawks can compete in the NFC West.

Reid: Cooper Rush, Cowboys. How could you not be all-in on Rush? He has been more than just a game manager, delivering big plays when the Cowboys have needed him most and posting the NFL's fourth-best QBR (73.9). Factor in that the offensive line is missing injured Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith, too. Rush is saving the Cowboys' season, and that's no hyperbole.

FROM NFL NATION

Ravens: Is Lamar Jackson playing better than his 2019 MVP season?

In many ways, yes. Just like his MVP season, Jackson leads the NFL in touchdown passes (11) and ranks in the top 10 overall in rushing (316 yards). It's even more impressive this season because he has played behind three different starting left tackles and has received no help from his run game.

The biggest knock on Jackson has been finishing games. He has thrown no touchdown passes and three interceptions in the fourth quarter for a Ravens team that would be 4-0 if it could hold on to big leads. -- Jamison Hensley


Cowboys: Dak Prescott wants to play in Week 5, but what are the chances Dallas sticks with Cooper Rush?

It won't come down to the hot hand. Instead, it will be whether Prescott is physically able to play. Not only does he have to demonstrate the ability to grip the ball to make precise throws, but he also has to show he can withstand the shock of a snap from center on his surgically repaired right thumb. Rush's play has allowed the Cowboys to be more conservative with Prescott's return, but when Dak is ready, the job is his to immediately take back.

You might liken it to 2016, when Prescott took over for Tony Romo (back) and kept the role even after the latter was ready to play, but the Cowboys were on an eight-game win streak when Romo returned. This offense under Rush is not that offense under Prescott. -- Todd Archer


Broncos: How concerned is the team about Russell Wilson's slow start?

The team isn't too concerned at the moment despite a lackluster 44.9 QBR through four games. Sure, the Broncos want better from him and the entire offense, but alarms aren't sounding. The team's faithful, though? Worry might be growing there, given some folks had the Super Bowl hype train rolling the moment the Broncos traded for Wilson.

This playbook takes some time to learn, though. It's about timing, and with the Broncos' injuries at wide receiver and consistency issues at tight end, the learning curve has been steep. Toss in more than a few drops, a pile of penalties and questionable clock management, and it's no surprise Wilson hasn't been at his normal level. Denver just needs some solid performances to build on. -- Jeff Legwold


Texans: Houston is the favorite to land the No. 1 pick for 2023. Would it target a QB there?

Absolutely. Having the No. 1 pick in a class loaded with talented quarterback prospects would put the Texans in the driver's seat to find a long-term answer at the position. Ohio State's C.J. Stroud, Alabama's Bryce Young and Kentucky's Will Levis are all names currently high on draft boards.

And through four weeks, current starter Davis Mills has struggled to a QBR of 28.4, fourth worst in the NFL. ESPN's Football Power Index gives Houston a 33% chance to end up with the draft's top selection. -- DJ Bien-Aime


Colts: Is this team really in a better spot with Matt Ryan than it was with Carson Wentz?

So far, the results might suggest the answer is no. The context is critical here, however. Ryan has been uncharacteristically sloppy with turnovers, but he also lacks the biggest advantage Wentz had going for him: a stellar running game. The Colts led the NFL in rushing yards per attempt last season behind Jonathan Taylor's league-high 1,811 rushing yards.

This season's disastrous offensive line performance has the Colts sitting at 27th in rushing yards per game (87.8) and per carry (3.5) while Ryan has been under assault from pass-rushers. And to Ryan's credit, he has also shown much more late-game composure than Wentz, recording a come-from-behind win and a tie that followed a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit. -- Stephen Holder


Jaguars: What has been the key to Trevor Lawrence's stellar start?

Lawrence has done a great job taking care of the ball and getting it out quickly. Until his five-turnover outing against Philadelphia in Week 4 (in wet conditions), he had just one turnover through three games. And it's notable the Jaguars have won both games in which he was turnover free.

Coach Doug Pederson's offensive scheme creates mismatches that have given Lawrence quick throws to open receivers. Anyone who has watched this team the past few years knows just how rare multiple open receivers on any given play has been, and the second-year signal-caller is taking advantage. -- Michael DiRocco


Chiefs: How has Patrick Mahomes' game changed without Tyreek Hill this season?

Mahomes is going to his tight ends and running backs more often. His 52 completions when targeting those positions trails only Justin Herbert, and only one wide receiver (JuJu Smith-Schuster) is among the Chiefs' top three in catches. And just two of Mahomes' 11 touchdown passes have gone to a wide receiver, including zero over his past two games.

Mahomes is leaning on Travis Kelce as many expected without Hill in the fold, but he's also getting Clyde Edwards-Helaire involved. -- Adam Teicher


Patriots: How can New England stay competitive with Bailey Zappe if Mac Jones and Brian Hoyer both miss more time?

In short, by following the same script the Patriots did Sunday in Green Bay: not putting Zappe in compromising positions, relying on defense and special teams to help score points and supporting him with the running game to set up the play-action passing game. Zappe went 4-of-5 for 60 yards and a TD off play-action, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, which was the most yards by a Patriots QB on those throws this season.

Consider that through the first three weeks of the season, the Patriots used play-action just 12% of the time, which was the second-lowest rate in the NFL (ahead of only the Saints). -- Mike Reiss


Giants: What percentage chance would you give New York of signing Daniel Jones to an extension?

Let's make it 28%. Jones has actually played pretty well so far this season (five total TDs versus three turnovers) while working with an insufficient group of receivers and seeing a lot of pressure. But he'd likely have to be better than pretty good for the Giants to invest in him long term. Tyrod Taylor is already signed for next season to a reasonable contract ($5.5 million) to be a bridge quarterback, and the 2023 draft class has plenty of options for New York. -- Jordan Raanan


Eagles: Make the call now ... will Philadelphia sign Jalen Hurts to a long-term deal this offseason?

Tough one, but I'll say no. There's no doubt Hurts is making a strong case that he is worth the long-term investment. He has vastly improved as a passer, continues to tear it up on the ground and is a leader on this team at age 24.

The Eagles usually like to pay up as soon as they can once a player has been identified as part of the roster core, but having a starting QB on a rookie contract -- Hurts is due to make $1.3 million next season -- provides a unique opportunity to load up elsewhere to make a strong run at a title. Philadelphia would probably extend the championship window through 2023 before giving Hurts a monster pay day. -- Tim McManus


Steelers: How does Kenny Pickett change the Pittsburgh offense?

The Steelers' offense will still be made in coordinator Matt Canada's image, so don't expect the jet sweeps and short passes to disappear. What Pickett gives them, though, is more mobility and an aggressive edge they lacked through the first three weeks. Pickett averaged 9.2 yards per attempt and 13.1 air yards per throw in one half Sunday. He isn't afraid to unleash the ball downfield and ask his receivers to win one-on-one matchups.

With risk comes the big-play reward but also the potential for a big-play bust, and Pickett had three interceptions Sunday. But the Steelers conceded those kinds of things will happen with a rookie quarterback, and it's their job to make him comfortable and help him continue to grow. -- Brooke Pryor