This upcoming week kicks off the 2020 NFL season, thus beginning the third season in the series that follows the careers of the five quarterbacks taken in the first-round of the 2018 NFL draft.
Embarking on year three of their pro careers, four of the five quarterbacks taken in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft have set sails for successful careers. The fifth could very well be at an early-career crossroads, but collectively, this group could rival the 1984 and 2004 quarterback draft class at the best ever.
First, the 2018 class needs to win a playoff game.
Baker Mayfield (1st), Sam Darnold (3rd), Josh Allen (7th), and Lamar Jackson (32nd) have all unlocked varying degrees of promise and achievement in their brief careers. It is the 10th pick of that draft, Josh Rosen, who is looking for stability. Released by the Miami Dolphins, Rosen, according to sources, joined his third team in as many seasons when he was signed to the practice squad of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Third-year progress is expected from all five, even as opportunities to perform may not even be given to Rosen in 2020. This goes for Jackson as well, who is coming off an MVP season. The Baltimore Ravens were a runaway train in the 2019 regular season, dominating opponents from week 1 and finishing 14-2. Jackson was a huge reason for this and has plenty of weapons returning to help him succeed.
The same can be said for both Allen and Mayfield. Allen and the Buffalo Bills were young in 2019 and now have a season of growth under their belts. The Bills return John Brown and Cole Beasley and have (hopefully) gained a star in Stefon Diggs. Add a couple of young running backs in Devin Singletary and Zack Moss, Allen and the Bills should be even more productive on the offensive side of the ball.
Mayfield, too, has an arsenal of returning playmakers to work with on the Cleveland Browns. However, the Browns will be playing under their fourth head coach since Mayfield's arrival. Perhaps it will be under new coach Kevin Stefanski that Mayfield becomes a complete quarterback.
The New York Jets return their top receiver in Jamison Crowder. Darnold, however, has a new set of receivers behind Crowder so it will be interesting to see how he gels with them early.
It's not outside the realm of possibility that all four quarterbacks reach the playoffs. (Or all five, if Rosen sticks on with Tampa Bay and sneaks onto the roster sometime during the season). The Ravens and Bills have the best shot, with the Browns not too far behind. The Jets would need to get on a run, but in this new NFL where seven teams from each conference now make the playoffs, it wouldn't surprise me.
The season opens on September 10 when the Houston Texans battle the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.
Career record as NFL starter: 19-3
MVP. Madden cover. Leading a top-rated offense. Jackson has done this and more in his first two seasons in the league, including leading the Ravens to the playoffs in both seasons.
Now it's time to pick up that first playoff win.
Jackson and the Ravens are primed to make a run again in 2020, even as they contend in a tough AFC North. Pittsburgh is looking to build off a solid end to 2019 and the Browns hope to meet the expectations lauded upon them a year ago, while the Cincinnati Bengals have a young team that likely won't factor into the playoff race.
In last season's 28-12 divisional playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans, the Ravens fell behind early and Jackson was forced to pass the ball 59 times. He threw for 365 yards but had a couple of picks, something he'd limited throughout the season by only throwing six. Jackson kept things spicy on the ground, running for 143 yards, but the Ravens offense was out-of-sync all day.
Baltimore's defense allowed Titan running back Derrick Henry to run through them to the tune of 195 yards.
The ground game of Jackson will be a factor again in 2020. He may not run for 1206 yards like he did in 2019, placing him sixth in the league, but Jackson could very well top the 1,000-yard mark. If he does that, and continues to be an accurate passer who doesn't try to do too much, Baltimore should easily find themselves in the playoffs once again.
First 4 weeks: vs CLE (9/13), @TEX (9/20), vs KC (9/28), @WAS (10/4)
Career record as NFL starter: 15-12
Allen, too, reached the playoffs in 2019, leading the Buffalo Bills to a 10-6 record. The Bills fell to the Houston Texans 22-19 in overtime in the wildcard round.
Allen improved his numbers across the board in 2019, regressing only slightly in the playoff game. He was 24-46 for 264 yards while also carrying the ball nine times for 92 yards.
One knock against Allen has been his accuracy, which improved to 58.8 percent last season. If that number continues to rise and can jump to at least 62 percent, the Bills will be primed to win the AFC East. The Patriots will be there as always, even with the departure of Tom Brady. The Jets could make some noise, while the Miami Dolphins will most likely be relegated to the role of spoiler.
With three solid receivers, a young running game, and an up-and-coming tight end, this offense could provide fireworks in 2020. Buffalo's playoff chances depend on Allen and his success in the air. We've seen him use his legs to make magic happen. Now is the time to let his arm do the talking as well.
First 4 weeks: vs NYJ (9/13), @MIA (9/20), vs LAR (9/27), @LV (10/4)
Career record as an NFL starter: 12-17
Mayfield's 2019 was one he and the Cleveland Browns would like to mostly forget. Both quarterback and team were streaky, picking up a win over Baltimore and putting together a nice 4-1 stretch, but also having separate four and three game losing streaks.
Part of Mayfield's growth will depend on limiting turnovers, especially in the red zone. Mayfield has already thrown for 7.552 yards and 49 touchdowns in this young career. Interceptions have plagued him though, throwing 35.
The red zone was a big problem, where efficiency was not there for Mayfield. He threw three interceptions and completed only 40.5 percent of his passes.
Completion percentage was a problem overall for Mayfield, falling below 60 percent at 59.4.
Cleveland has the talent on offense to compete with Baltimore and Pittsburgh for the AFC North title. It's easy to picture the Browns getting on a fantastic roll. Now, it's a matter to putting those expectations to work.
First four: @BAL (9/13), vs CIN (9/17), vs WAS (9/27), @DAL (10/4)
Career record as NFL starter: 11-15
Darnold's main focus in his third season will be cutting down on turnovers and bumping up his completion percentage.
And staying healthy, of course.
Despite missing three games due to mono in 2019, Darnold posted a 7-6 record in his starts. Encouraging signs as the Jets look to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
Darnold had a respectable 13 interceptions last season, but also had 11 fumbles (losing 8). His completion percentage of 61.9 was 2nd only to Jackson among these five quarterbacks but Darnold was limited to 19 touchdown passes.
Given that he's dealing with a mostly new crop of receivers, Darnold might display some early season struggles. How quickly the group becomes acclimated could dictate the entire season. Darnold has shown flashes of brilliance in seasons one and two, meaning season three could be the breakout seasons Jets fans have been waiting for.
First four: @BUF (9/13), vs SF (9/20), @IND (9/27), vs DEN (10/1)
Career record as NFL starter: 3-13
Dating to 2015, back when he was in college, Rosen has had 7 offensive coordinators. And while talent can take a player so far, so, too can having a steady hand to guide a player's career.
Consistency means a lot when it comes to a quarterback's progress. Just look what Coach Eric Taylor did with Matt Saracen and Vince Howard in expanding their production.
Friday Night Lights references aside, Rosen has had no stability among coordinators, or teams for that matter, in his young NFL career. He had three starts in 2019 and threw for only 567 yards in those starts and sporadic mop-up duty throughout the season.
Rosen could very well still make a name for himself in this league. He has the arm strength, something always coveted by coaches. The journey back could be a long one -- practice squad is not where many imagined he would be -- yet Rosen finds himself with a fantastic opportunity to learn in Tampa Bay. Brady is one of the best of all time and if Rosen soaks it all in, the chances will once again arise.
First four games: @NO (9/13), vs CAR (9/20), @DEN (9/27), vs LAC (10/4)
Be sure to follow their progress here throughout the 2020 season, with updates after weeks 4, 9, 13, and 17.
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