News & Analysis

Ranking the supporting casts of recent first-round quarterbacks

A quarterback’s supporting cast, or ecosystem, is crucial for success, especially when it comes to extracting top-notch production out of non-elite quarterbacks. Perhaps more than ever, passing production is dependent on playmakers, blockers and play callers as the NFL has made passing easier than ever. The league is filled with mid-tier quarterbacks who may only be separated by their supporting casts. 

Over the last two seasons, eight quarterbacks have been drafted in the first round. Some of their teams have done a fine job of building their respective offenses, while others are still well behind. The 2018 draft class featured Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen all entering the NFL in perhaps the three worst offensive situations in the league, and the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and Arizona Cardinals have all taken very different paths in their rebuilding process. Isolating the eight first-round quarterbacks from the last two years, here’s a look at the best supporting casts as each group heads into the 2020 draft. 

1. Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills

The Bills have done a great job of building their offense over the last two years, adding numerous pieces along the offensive line and at the skill positions. Last season, the additions of wide receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley worked wonders for Allen’s production on throws up to 20 yards, as they combined for 1,838 yards while Brown’s speed had to be respected as a downfield threat. The addition of WR Stefon Diggs gives the Bills a trio with fantastic route running at all levels of the field and perhaps the best top three wide receivers in the league.

Diggs is a rare combination of outstanding route-running and contested-catch ability, making him a clear No. 1 option with Brown and Beasley able to play to their strengths. Tight end Dawson Knox also showed well last season as a rookie, averaging 13.9 yards/reception. On the offensive line, Buffalo took a high-volume approach which paid off by improving the unit by a few notches in the 2019 final ranking, and they may be ever better this season. Since the 2017 season, only left tackle Dion Dawkins remains on the overhauled starting five. The additions of LG Quinton Spain, C Mitch Morse, and RTs Cody Ford and Ty Nsekhe are all perfect plays for the mantra “creep back toward average” along the offensive line. 

2. Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens

The supporting cast for Jackson starts at the top, where head coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman have done a wonderful job of building an offensive system around Jackson’s unique skillset. The Ravens have a mauling offensive line that ranked second in our 2019 final ranking, and it paired with Jackson to fuel one of the most dominant rushing attacks in NFL history. While the skill position players lack big-name recognition, they all fit important roles within the Baltimore system. TE Mark Andrews is a pass-game mismatch who has averaged 14.0 yards per reception in his two years in the league, while WR Marquise Brown was a crucial field-stretching weapon for the Ravens’ play-action heavy attack. And therein likes the other piece of the puzzle that circles back to Roman, as Jackson used play action on a league-high 34.8% of his dropbacks last season. The Ravens have done an excellent job at using every edge in order to put Jackson and the entire team in position to succeed. 

3. Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns

Like the others at the top of the list, Mayfield has seen numerous improvements to his supporting cast since entering the league. The Browns traded for Odell Beckham, Jr. prior to the 2019 season, though that connection was not a productive one a year ago. Still, Beckham has plenty of talent to pair with possession receiver Jarvis Landry as a solid 1-2 punch. Cleveland just signed TE Austin Hooper to a huge deal, and while Hooper is not the mismatch monster you’d like to see out of a high-priced tight end, he’s a solid complementary piece, especially given new head coach Kevin Stefanski’s penchant for two-tight end sets. Running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt were used on the field at the same time for a chunk of the 2019 season, and they’re both extremely difficult to tackle in space. The big question is the offensive line — the tackles were poor a year ago, though the Browns still have a solid interior, anchored by center J.C. Tretter and left guard Joel Bitonio. The addition of right tackle Jack Conklin should help, and the No. 10 overall pick could be a prime spot to pick up one of the top tackles in the draft. If the Browns go that route, the offense will be looking strong across the board heading into 2020.

4. Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals

Two years ago, Josh Rosen may have had the worst situation of any quarterback in the NFL when he started for the Cardinals, and they’ve made great strides since that point. It started with head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offensive system, which put Murray in position to succeed as a rookie and making the offense one of the league’s most improved units. Of course, the Cardinals may have made the biggest splash of the offseason by trading for elite WR Deandre Hopkins, instantly becoming Murray’s top target and a huge addition to a unit that was a top priority this offseason. Hopkins has posted a PFF receiving grade of at least 88.0 in four of the last five seasons, and he’s produced regardless of the quarterback throwing the ball his way. Arizona still has WR Larry Fitzgerald as a solid possession receiver and WR Christian Kirk as more of a speed threat. If WR Andy Isabella can live up to his second-round hype, it’s already a well-rounded unit that could use one more legitimate threat. The offensive line is still a work in progress, though it took a step forward last year in the new system. The Hopkins trade may have freed the Cardinals up to take the best tackle available at No. 8 overall, and that could vault Arizona to mid-tier status up front. Murray has a solid overall supporting cast that needs another playmaker to emerge and another step forward from the offensive line.

5. Daniel Jones, New York Giants

Last season was a revolving door among the skill position players for Jones, and that unit has some playmakers if they’re all on the field at the same time. WR Golden Tate is still one of the league’s best after the catch, while WR Darius Slayton emerged as a deep threat, averaging 15.4 yards/reception last season. WR Sterling Shepard can play the possession game and TE Evan Engram is a move tight end with mismatch-creating potential. One more consistent option could work wonders for this group, plus RB Saquon Barkley is always a threat out of the backfield. The offensive line wasn’t nearly as bad as Jones’ 40 sacks and multiple fumbles would indicate, as it ranked 19th in PFF pass-blocking grade as a group. There’s still room to improve, particularly at tackle where Nate Solder and Mike Remmers combined to give up 97 pressures, and they still need a replacement for Remmers heading into 2020. Overall, this group could use another playmaker, perhaps a big-bodied receiver for Jones’ aggressive nature, and stability at tackle. 

6. Dwayne Haskins, Washington Redskins

There’s been plenty of turnover in Washington over the last few years, and the offense still has plenty of questions to answer. Last season, WR Terry McLaurin was outstanding as a third-round rookie, dominating every level with his route-running and explosiveness on his way to an 85.7 overall grade, fifth-best in the NFL. However, there’s not much behind McLaurin other than a few flashes from wide receivers Kelvin Harmon and Trey Quinn. Both players could be useful possession types, but there’s still a big need for another all-around threat to pair with McLaurin. The tight end position needs an upgrade a well, as Jeremy Sprinkle is the top option despite profiling best as a backup. Up front, LT Trent Williams left a massive hole last year and he’s expected to be gone in 2020, leaving a reasonable trio of C Chase Roullier, RG Brandon Scherff, and RT Morgan Moses to go with reclamation left guard Wes Schweitzer. The Redskins are another team looking for their left tackle of the future, and that could be a target if they trade down from No. 2 or early in the second round. Haskins’ supporting cast sports a few more holes than some of the other second and third-year quarterbacks. 

7. Sam Darnold, New York Jets

While the other teams have added plenty of offensive talent over the last two years, the Jets still have plenty of question marks at both the skill positions and up front. They’ve been hamstrung in part by the trade that netted Darnold, as they’ve only made 12 draft picks over the last two years — only five of which were spent on offensive players, including Darnold. The Jets patched together an offensive line a year ago, but most of their starters hit free agency this offseason. They deserve credit for attacking the problem with volume, but there’s only one PFF season grade of 70.0-plus among the projected starters, so the issue is far from resolved. As for the skill positions, the only major investment has been RB Le’Veon Bell, and that’s a position that should be the icing on the cake rather than the cake itself. Darnold’s top playmaker has been WR Robby Anderson, who just left via free agency, and the current depth chart features Josh Doctson, Quincy Enunwa and Jamison Crowder, a trio whose best season receiving grade is Crowder’s 73.3 effort last year. 

8. Josh Rosen, Miami Dolphins

Rosen may have had the worst situation of any quarterback behind the 2018 Cardinals’ offensive line with no one to throw to, and he now sits on the bench behind Ryan Fitzpatrick as part of the Miami Dolphins’ rebuild.

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