There’s nothing in the NFL more valuable than a quarterback on his rookie deal. We know that in recent years offensive success has become clearly more sustainable than defensive success, and thus a more dependable driver of team success in the long-term. And we know that the quarterback is the main driver of offensive success.
But of course, you need to have a proper infrastructure around that quarterback in order to put him in position to succeed. Who is protecting him? Who does he throw to? Who does he have next to him in the backfield? Who’s scheming those players open? All the pieces matter. The degree to which they matter varies greatly, of course, but each plays a role in making an offense hum at peak efficiency.
All of that is especially true when your quarterback is on his rookie deal, both because that’s when he’s most in the need of help, but also because it’s when he’s most cost-effective. Specifically, the first three years of that rookie deal are what matter the most — the period of time before a team has to make a decision regarding whether or not to offer the player a contract extension.
With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at what the teams who have drafted their starting quarterbacks within the last three years did to help those players in last weekend’s NFL Draft.
Class of 2020: Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, Jalen Hurts
The Bengals did most of their work for Joe Burrow in free agency, signing Alex Cappa, Ted Karras, and La’el Collins to remake their offensive line. Considering the weakness of last year’s unit, it was a necessary investment. That said, it left Cincinnati without many holes to fill on offense in the draft, so the Bengals used almost all of their draft picks on the defensive side of the ball.
The Dolphins used a whole bunch of their draft capital to trade for Tyreek Hill, giving Tua Tagovailoa a true No. 1 receiver who can make plays at every level of the field. Combined with last year’s first-round pick, Jaylen Waddle, the Dolphins now have one of the fastest one-two receiver combinations in the NFL. Fourth-round pick Erik Ezukanma bears some similarities to free-agent signing Ced Wilson in that he operates best out of the slot and could provide a nice option over the middle on the RPO throws that Tagovailoa has lived on over the past couple seasons.
The Chargers started to remake their offensive around Justin Herbert last offseason, when they signed Corey Linsley in free agency, drafted Rashawn Slater in Round 1, and added Josh Palmer in Round 3. They still have an excellent corps of weapons around Herbert, but it was also obvious coming into the draft that they needed to upgrade the right side of their offensive line. They did that by nabbing Zion Johnson, who can play both guard and center, and Jamaree Salyer, who has played everywhere on the line. The selection of Isaiah Spiller in the third round should hopefully help them nail down the big-back part of their backfield timeshare, as none of Joshua Kelley, Larry Rountree III, or Justin Jackson has distinguished themselves alongside Austin Ekeler over the last couple seasons.
Like the Dolphins, the Eagles used draft capital to make an aggressive swing for a No. 1 wide receiver. In landing A.J. Brown, they found a power slot weapon to complement last year’s first-round pick, DeVonta Smith, who beats defenses with his speed. The duo should give Hurts plenty of help on the perimeter and over the middle of the field, especially with their ability to create yardage after the catch. Philadelphia also landed a possible eventual replacement to center Jason Kelce by selecting Cam Jurgens in the second round, and found another tight end in Grant Calcaterra. The Eagles love to run multiple-tight end sets, and after trading Zach Ertz last season, needed another player at that position to make those two-tight looks work long term.
Class of 2021: Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields, Mac Jones, Davis Mills
Like the Bengals, the Jaguars did the majority of their work in free agency. The big-money signings of Brandon Scherff and Christian Kirk, along with the extension of Cam Robinson, constituted the big moves here. It was not a particularly encouraging series of maneuvers.
The Jets have used major resources to give Wilson better options just about everywhere else. They sprung for Corey Davis, Laken Tomlinson, CJ Uzomah, and Tyler Conklin in free agency. They used early draft picks on Elijah Moore, Garrett Wilson, Breece Hall, and Jeremy Ruckert. They saw Braxton Berrios turn into an All-Pro return man and gave him a larger role in the offense as well.
It’s a much deeper, more versatile group, at every position. The Jets have actual quality depth on the offensive line, including several players who can play multiple positions. They have receivers who can fill multiple different roles and create yardage with the ball in their hands. They have two running backs who can both do work between the tackles and catch the ball on the perimeter. Rather than having nothing at tight end, they have two starter-quality options.
If nothing else, the upgrades they have made will allow the Jets a very clean evaluation of Wilson, who has this year and next to prove he is worthy before he becomes eligible for a contract extension. In the best-case scenario, the Jets don’t even have to make that decision, because it will be made for them due to his play on the field. In the worst case, they’ll know they did everything they could to put him in position to succeed, making it easier to determine whether his potential shortcomings are his own or due to the roster around him.
The biggest thing the 49ers did for Trey Lance was not trade Deebo Samuel. That should help immensely. They still don’t know whether or not they need to find a replacement for irreplaceable center Alex Mack, but hanging onto the team’s most explosive weapon will do for now. (San Francisco did add a wideout in Danny Gray and did take yet another running back in the third round but, again, Deebo is the important thing.)
The Bears… did not do much for Justin Fields. They didn’t have a first-round pick so we knew they wouldn’t necessarily be able to spring for major upgrades, but they also used their first two draft selections on defensive players, took a soon-to-be 25-year-old special-teamer who had 58 catches in five collegiate seasons before last year as their only pass-catcher of note, and spent a couple of Day 3 picks on tackles. Chicago didn’t do much in free agency to help Fields, either. The Bears are sending him out there for Year 2 with one of the league’s weakest offensive line and skill-position groups. It likely will not be pretty.
The Patriots did their typical Patriots thing, taking an offensive lineman they obviously like but who is not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea. They added desperately-needed speed at wide receiver with Tyquan Thornton (4.28 40-yard dash), but given the relative weakness of their pass-catcher corps it was surprising that they didn’t go for more of a complete player rather than a burner. Mac Jones’ strength is not throwing the ball down the field, but quickly identifying where it should go and getting it there accurately, so a short-area target with run-after-catch ability might have made a bit more sense for the Pats. Oh, and the Patriots added two more running backs on Day 3 because that’s just what they do.
The Texans didn’t lock themselves into the Davis Mills era, but they also added a few pieces that should help him get better in Year 2 and give them a cleaner evaluation on him than they had last year. Houston obviously wants to base its offense around the run and play-action pass, and bringing in Kenyon Green to play guard should help on that front. John Metchie III fits with the rest of the team’s receivers given his speed and downfield abilities. And Dameon Pierce could emerge as the lead ball-carrier in the backfield. The Texans still do not have an inspiring group around Mills, but it’s at least better than last year; and if Mills doesn’t prove himself a worthy long-term starter in 2022, at least the Texans should have a few pieces to lock in around whomever they decide to go after in the 2023 draft.
Class of 2022: Kenny Pickett
The only quarterback selected in the first round of the 2022 draft, Pickett saw the Steelers add two more wide receivers shortly after taking him. George Pickens is a prototypical X receiver who can line up on the outside and win one-on-one, while Calvin Austin III is more of a short-yardage, gadget-play type of player who can help give Pickett easy completions and create yards after the catch. Picking two wideouts might give us a clue into how the Steelers are viewing potential contract extensions for Diontae Johnson and/or Chase Claypool.