The 2022 NFL season was supposed to be the one in which Daniel Jones would have his last but best chance to show whether he can be a franchise quarterback for the New York Giants. Finally, offensive coaches who would bring a modern, creative, pass-oriented philosophy to MetLife Stadium. Finally, a rebuilt offensive line that would provide adequate if not good pass protection. Finally, a room of skilled and healthy wide receivers to provide multiple open targets for explosive plays. Finally, a healthy Saquon Barkley to make opposing defenses respect the run and take pressure off the passing game.
The first and last of these have come to pass through four games. Mike Kafka is designing plays to put defenders into conflict and clear out areas of the field for easy completions. He is making extensive use of pre-snap motion to help identify defenses and confuse them at the snap. He is running different plays off the same looks he put on film in previous games. Barkley is looking like his 2018 self. He is on a pace that over 17 games would give him 2,422 total yards from scrimmage, third-highest in NFL history. He single-handedly made the 2-point conversion that won the Giants’ opening game in Tennessee. He has made multiple highlight-reel rushing plays for long gains, not least of which was his sidestep-the-tackle, reverse-field 15 yard gain with Jones as lead blocker against the Bears.
The offensive line and pass receivers? Not so much. After four weeks, the Giants’ composite pass blocking grade is 52.9, 30th in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, and their composite pass receiving grade of 63.5 is 31st.
Josh Sunderbruch of Windy City Gridiron, the SB Nation site of the Chicago Bears, had an interesting essay last week about whether you can have a franchise quarterback without a successful team around him. His definition of a successful quarterback acquisition (one who lasts with the team that drafted him beyond his rookie contract) is of direct relevance to the Giants and the fate of Daniel Jones after this season. His sobering statistic is that of 25 quarterbacks drafted in the first round between 2011 and 2018, only six were kept by their drafting team (or probably will be at the end of this season) beyond their rookie contracts: Patrick Mahomes, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill, Josh Allen, and Lamar Jackson. His conclusion:
“The teams that found successful franchise quarterbacks were largely either already successful teams who added new quarterbacks or teams that only added quarterbacks after other needs were addressed.”
What do recent statistics say about the best young quarterbacks today, and how if at all does this apply to Jones? Let’s consider who the NFL’s current “franchise quarterbacks” are. People may disagree in the details, but Chris Simms’ top 40 QB list prior to the start of the season is a good starting point:
You can quibble with a couple of QBs at the bottom of the top 10 if you wish, and it’s not clear how far outside the top 10 you can go before you get to QBs you can “win with” but not “win because of”. But overall the top of this list seems pretty reasonable considering where things stood as the 2022 season opened. (Notice that Simms ranks Jones higher than many media outlets do, just behind Jimmy Garoppolo, the quintessential “win with but not because of” QB who came within a couple of minutes of winning a Super Bowl for the 49ers and getting them to another one.)
The questions relevant to Jones then become: Do any of these QBs excel in the absence of a good offensive line and good wide receivers?
Can a quarterback win without a good offensive line?
Here are Pro Football Focus’ rankings of offensive lines for the 2021 season:
It certainly helps a quarterback - and his team - to have a good offensive line. Eight of the 14 playoff teams last season had a top 10 pass blocking offensive line, including the Super Bowl champion Rams at No. 1. A number of the NFL’s best QBs (Matthew Stafford, Dak Prescott, Tom Brady, Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers) were blessed with great pass blocking OLs, and even some “win with” QBs such as Jalen Hurts, Garoppolo, and Mac Jones had good OLs in front of them.
That having been said, a good pass blocking line is not a necessity for success. Joe Burrow is the poster child for that, having a great season (the Bengals had the No. 2 overall offense last season) and almost winning the Super Bowl with the No. 29 pass blocking OL. Ryan Tannehill led the Titans to the No. 1 AFC seed behind the No. 27 OL, and Derek Carr got the Raiders into the playoffs with the No. 22 OL.
Run blocking matters some too, but not as much, with only six of the top 10 run blocking teams having made the playoffs. The Cardinals (No. 31), Raiders (No. 29), and Steelers (No. 27) all made the playoffs - but all of them were knocked out in the first round. On the other hand, Buffalo, No. 26 in run blocking and No. 14 in pass blocking, was one overtime rule change away from the AFC Championship Game, so with a transcendent quarterback, almost anything is possible.
Can a quarterback win without good wide receivers?
Former Indianapolis Colts’ center Jeff Saturday doesn’t think so -- “He gotta have dudes to throw to”:
He’s not wrong. Here are the NFL teams ranked by 2021 PFF receiving grade:
Ten of the top 11 teams in pass receiving were playoff teams. Only the Minnesota Vikings, with a poor defense and Kirk Cousins racking up yards and TDs yet finding ways to lose, did not. The Steelers (No. 28) were the only team with subpar receivers to make the playoffs, and their visit was brief. The 49ers, supposedly a run-first team, had the best play by wide receivers in the NFL.
It should be noted that five of the top 10 rushing teams were also playoff teams (Buffalo, Green Bay, New England, Philadelphia, and Dallas). But in the cases of Buffalo and Philadelphia, a good part of that had to be due to the QB himself excelling in running the ball.
The Jeff Saturday comments reflect the closest thing we have in the NFL to a controlled experiment:
- Josh Allen had a 58.0 PFF passing grade in 2018 and 61.9 in 2019. Then with Stefon Diggs, the grade rose to 89.8 in 2020 and 77.5 in 2021, and is 74.9 thus far in 2022. It was widely reported that Allen worked with outside coaching to improve his accuracy between the 2019 and 2020 seasons, but Diggs must have had something to do with his improvement.
- Tua Tagovailoa, ranked No. 29 by Simms before the season, graded 63.9 as a rookie in 2020 and 67.3 in 2021 with Jaylen Waddle to throw to. With Tyreek Hill added in 2022, his grade through four games is 78.8.
- Jalen Hurts, ranked No. 25 by Simms before the season, has been wildly successful so far in 2022. His PFF passing grade in 2020, when he took over mid-season for Carson Wentz, was 57.5. In 2021, with Devonta Smith to throw to, it was 73.4. In 2022, with A.J. Brown added to the receiving corps, it is 85.7 to date.
Of course, one can expect young QBs to improve over time as they gain experience. But is it a complete coincidence that all three young QBs’ performances improved dramatically once they had at least one if not two elite receivers to throw to? Here’s the flip side that Jeff Saturday didn’t mention: Tannehill’s passing grades were 85.2 in 2020 and 81.0 in 2021. In 2022, without A.J. Brown to throw to, his grade is 67.9.
In general, if you look at Simms’ top 10, all of them have had great receivers to throw to during at least parts of their careers with the possible exception of Lamar Jackson. And speaking of top 10, here are the 10 highest rated passers for the 2022 season thus far:
Are Hurts, Geno Smith, Andy Dalton, and Tua Tagovailoa the four best quarterbacks in the NFL? We’ve already discussed Hurts and Tagovailoa. Smith has D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett to throw to. Dalton finds himself staring at Michael Thomas, Jarvis Landry, and Chris Olave when he looks downfield. No. 9 Jacoby Brissett has Amari Cooper to throw to (plus a great offensive line). Meanwhile, Rodgers, who graded 94.7 in 2020 and 87.0 in 2021, is at 76.2 so far in 2022 without Davante Adams to throw to. Good receivers make a big difference.
The path forward for Daniel Jones
Most people would say that Daniel Jones is neither Burrow nor Allen, so without a good offensive line, it is likely that Tannehill or Carr - QBs good enough to get their teams into the playoffs but not good enough to win it all - are a good estimate of what Jones’ ceiling is. Or maybe Tagovaolia, 2022 edition and still without a good OL, is what Jones could become if he just had elite receivers.
The Giants’ OL now has one rock-solid piece, Andrew Thomas, who is leading all offensive tackles in performance this year by PFF standards. There is hope that Evan Neal can become something similar, given time, even though he has struggled out of the gate. The interior of the Giants’ line is a year or two away from being high quality. Will Joe Schoen and Brian Daboll be willing to wait that long?
The wide receiver situation is more dire. Kafka is pretty clearly scheming to avoid making Jones throw to his wide receivers as much as possible. Partly that is due to the growing pains on the offensive line, and there is some reason to hope that may improve as the OL gains more experience. But between injuries, poor separation, incorrect routes run and dropped passes, there is no one out there that Jones and his coaches can be confident throwing to except perhaps Richie James. Maybe Kadarius Toney will get healthy, play the rest of the season (he did play a full season for Florida his senior year), and become the weapon he has shown flashes of being. Maybe Wan’Dale Robinson will return soon and be the playmaker that Schoen envisioned. Maybe Darius Slayton and Kenny Golladay will re-discover their 2019 selves.
Or maybe Daniel Jones will go a fourth season without ever having an environment in which he can fulfill whatever his potential is. Every single QB in Simms’ top 10, plus the others who are ascending this year, has been given good receivers, and often a good OL as well, to work with, except maybe for Lamar Jackson. (And even Jackson has had Marquise Brown and Rashod Batemen, two pretty good receivers.) Jackson is a unique QB, an other-worldly rushing threat who has really refined his passing game over time to make himself a threat with his arm as well as his legs. Jones is no Jackson running the ball, but he is quite a running threat in his own way, as he demonstrated against the Bears. Yet he stands little chance of succeeding as a passer with the Giants as the roster is currently constituted.
That puts Schoen in a bind. Don’t be surprised if we see Jones back as the Giants’ starting QB in 2023, this time with a couple more quality offensive lineman and receivers to help him. And this time Schoen will have the cap space to make it happen. Following Sunderbruch’s thinking, Jones may turn out to be the guy for the Giants — at least until the rest of the team becomes good enough to provide the support needed for a young QB to succeed. Whether that young QB is Jones himself (he’s still only 25) or a 2023 or 2024 draft pick remains to be seen. If Schoen begins to stockpile first round picks a la Howie Roseman, we may have our answer.