Early-season NFL QB awards: Best start, most improved, most nimble and more


The quarterback star of the 2020 NFL season thus far is hardly a new name. Here’s the best thing I can say about Russell Wilson after the Seattle Seahawks‘ first two games: He has thrown almost as many touchdown passes (nine, a league high) as he has incompletions (11).

Against all odds, the campaign to “Let Russ Cook” has worked! In a dramatic departure from coach Pete Carroll’s typical philosophy, the Seahawks have called the eighth-fewest designed running plays in the NFL (44). Wilson’s 610 passing yards is a career high for the first two games of a season, and the Seahawks are 2-0 amid what is likely to be a fierce NFC West race.

The Seahawks’ shift behind Wilson provides an ideal starting point for the first edition of our periodic handing out of quarterback awards, using unique data culled from ESPN Stats & Information and NFL Next Gen Stats unless otherwise noted. Let’s get started.

According to Elias Sports Bureau data, Wilson has the highest completion percentage (82%) in NFL history after the first two weeks of a season with a minimum of 50 attempts. And he has achieved exceptional accuracy despite making throws that in some cases are quite difficult. Wilson’s off-target percentage is 6.7%, by far the lowest in the league, and he has been able to connect on passes that NFL Next Gen Stats regards as among the least likely to have been completed.

His 38-yard touchdown pass to receiver David Moore in Week 2, for example, carried a 6.3% completion probability — by far the lowest for any quarterback throw this season. The ball traveled 55 yards in air distance and hit Moore, who was 0.4 yards away from the sideline and tightly covered (within 0.8 yards) by New England Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty.

Overall, Wilson leads the NFL with a 13.9% completion percentage over the expected rate (CPOE). We shall see if Carroll continues to allow Russ to cook. Based on what we’ve seen so far this season, it would be head-scratching not to.

While Wilson leads the NFL in CPOE, Brees ranks near the bottom. He is completing 8.4% below his expected rate this season, No. 33 in the NFL.

Part of the reason is that he isn’t attempting many difficult throws. Through two games, he ranks No. 32 in the NFL in completion percentage outside of the numbers (48%) after leading the NFL in such throws (74%) last season. He has also thrown only two passes that traveled 20 or more yards past the line of scrimmage.

Overall, he is averaging 4.8 yards per attempt, the lowest of any quarterback through his team’s first two games since Brett Favre averaged 4.0 in 2009. In that season, his first with the Minnesota Vikings, Favre was returning from offseason surgery to repair a partially torn biceps tendon. The Vikings purposely started him off slowly, but Favre eventually had one of the best passing seasons of his career in leading the team to the NFC Championship Game.

You could connect Brees’ struggles on outside and deep throws and wonder if his arm strength has waned. But similar questions were being asked about Favre in 2009. We’ll find out the answer soon enough.

Yes, I mean that literally. Jackson, who won the 2019 MVP in part because of the electrifying runs he made en route to 1,206-yard rushing season, has the NFL’s best Total QBR on passes thrown from the pocket in 2020.

To be fair, Jackson has left the pocket before throwing on nearly half of his attempts. But when he has remained inside the pocket, Jackson has completed 30 of 36 passes for 369 yards, four touchdowns and a QBR of 97.

This is not to make any dramatic conclusions about Jackson’s stylistic trajectory. He still has the second-most rushing attempts by a quarterback (23) and the third-most QB rushing yards (99) in the league. And we should also note that his pocket QBR last season (78.9) ranked No. 2. But if you needed any reminder of Jackson’s well-rounded game, we’ve gotten it in the first two weeks of the 2020 season.

In his second year, Murray ranks No. 5 overall in QBR (83.8) in large part because of his open-field running ability. He has scrambled 11 times on dropbacks, gaining 120 yards and scoring twice. That’s the most scramble yards through Week 2 since ESPN began tracking it in 2006.

Murray’s QBR is lower on passing plays — he ranks No. 21 in the NFL at 72.7 — but the Cardinals’ quick-throw offense seems well suited for a young quarterback growing into the role. Murray has thrown 35.9% of his passes to targets at or behind the line of scrimmage, the highest rate in the league. And he is releasing his average throw 2.58 seconds after the snap, the NFL’s eighth-lowest rate.

The second-year QB hasn’t had much success yet on deeper passes, having completed four of 12 attempts on throws that traveled at least 15 yards past the line of scrimmage. But the Cardinals are 2-0 and their average of 27 offensive points per game ranks No. 11 in the league. That’ll do.

Before Week 1, Allen had never thrown for more than 266 yards in a game. But he lit up the New York Jets in Week 1 for 312 yards, and then dropped 417 on the Miami Dolphins in Week 2.

That production is due in large part to some impressive downfield gains. Boosted by the acquisition of receiver Stefon Diggs, Allen has completed an NFL-high 14 passes that traveled at least 15 yards in the air (in 17 attempts), including two for touchdowns. He has a perfect 100 QBR on those throws.

It’s fair to point out that Allen has still struggled with his accuracy at times. His off-target rate is 16.3%, putting him at No. 16 in the league. And when the season is over, we might look back and realize that he lit up two of the NFL’s worst teams in Weeks 1 and 2. But he is still making plays in the running game, rushing for 75 yards and one touchdown. And at this moment, at least, he is the most improved quarterback in the league and one of its best overall.

It would be tough to wrap up a quarterback awards column without noting who leads the NFL in both QBR and NFL Next Gen Stats’ expected points added. That’s Rodgers, who is 36 years old and already the target of a clear succession plan following the team’s decision to make quarterback Jordan Love its top draft pick in April.

Like Wilson, Rodgers has completed some of the most difficult passes of the young season. His throws of 40 and 24 yards to receiver Davante Adams in a Week 1 dissection of the Vikings rank as No. 3 and No. 4 on NFL’s Next Gen Stats’ list of lowest completion probability receptions. On the first, Adams had only 0.7 yards of separation from the nearest defender. On the second, Rodgers scrambled 19.7 yards toward the right sideline before firing to Adams in the corner of the end zone.

To be sure, Rodgers has gotten plenty of help from his teammates. He has been pressured on just 12 of his 77 dropbacks, fewest in the first two weeks of a season in his career. But Rodgers’ start to the season has effectively quashed the offseason narrative.

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