The NFL game revolves around the quarterback position. It’s reasonable to debate how much more important the position is relative to other positions on the field, but it’s insanity to suggest any other position has a claim as the most important spot on the field.
Over the past decade, a shift in coaching philosophy has made this statement even more accurate, because coaches are shifting their schemes to adapt to the quarterback, rather than the other way around. Coaches realize that if they take the Jeff Fisher route and sabotage a first overall pick like Jared Goff (in that case, by forcing him to learn the unnecessarily complicated language of a rigid system far different from what he ran at Cal), it’s more likely that the coach will be shown the door than the quarterback.
This season features more quarterback competitions between dissimilar players than ever before, and it’s no coincidence that Bill Belichick, Sean Payton, and Kyle Shannahan are overseeing three of the competitions between signal-callers with wildly different skill sets. It takes great coaching to adapt the system and get the rest of the offense on the same page, but the Patriots, Saints, and 49ers are doing just that. This article will explore how the winner of the quarterback competitions will affect the offense as a whole and the production of the skill players around the quarterback. The prop bets numbers listed are courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook.
A Brief Explanation of the Quarterback Run Game
The quarterback run game has become a prominent part of the NFL game largely because of the rule changes related to protecting the quarterback, as well as the overall push to avoid headshots and concussions. There was a time when defenders were taught to hit a quarterback who carried out a fake in the option run game, regardless of whether or not he kept the ball. Those hits were hard enough to endure at the high school and college levels, but against some of the athletic marvels playing defense in the NFL, they were downright devastating.
In today’s game, terms such as “zone-read”, “option”, and “QB run threat” have become common terminology. Terms such as zone-read and option can refer to certain subsets of concepts, but for this article, we will focus on the general idea of these concepts, which is that the run scheme will leave a defender unblocked, and the quarterback will make a decision of whether to give or pitch the ball to a different runner based on what the unblocked defender does.
As an example, the most generic “zone-read” is when the offense runs a zone-blocking scheme and leaves the backside defensive end unblocked. If the end crashes down toward the run scheme, the quarterback will keep the ball and run to open grass. If the end holds the backside to wait for the quarterback, the quarterback will give the ball to the back, and the end will be limited in his ability to crash down on the run.
The NFL has caught up with these tactics to the point where we no longer see defensive debacles such as when 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick shredded the Dom Capers-coordinated Green Bay Packers defense, but while defensive coordinators have adopted tactics long-used by college coaches to counter these attacks, there is still an inherent advantage in utilizing the quarterback as a run threat. It forces the defense to account for an extra player and creates hesitation in the defense. Football is a numbers game, whether in the run or pass game, and life is easier as a running back when the defense is worried the quarterback might keep it.
It’s crucial to understand this advantage as we discuss these competitions, and we could spend weeks discussing all the variations on this general principle, but for this article, simply keep in mind that the quarterback run threat makes life easier for the run game as a whole.
New England Patriots: Cam Newton vs. Mac Jones
Cam Newton did not have a great deal of success throwing the ball last season. Newton is one of the great athletes the NFL has seen at quarterback but has been a notoriously streaky passer throughout his career, and last year was arguably his worst season in that regard.
There was a reason that New England invested so much in upgrading their skill players last season, but that won’t help if Newton continues to throw balls that hit the ground ten feet in front of them. While these gaffes by Newton limited New England’s passing offense, his gifts as a runner allowed offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to scheme up one of the league’s most creative rushing attacks. Newton ran for 592 yards and 12 touchdowns, and their best back, Damien Harris, averaged a robust 5.0 yards per carry. Their second back, Sony Michel, averaged 5.7 yards per carry after posting 3.7 with Tom Brady at quarterback in 2019.
The New England offensive line was also outstanding, but it was Newton’s presence that opened things up. None of that will apply if Mac Jones, New England’s first-round pick out of Alabama, beats out Newton at some point this season. Jones is known for his processing ability and pinpoint accuracy, but was a polarizing prospect due to his lack of athleticism. The Patriots won’t ask him to be a run threat if he takes over at signal-caller.
Jones at quarterback would be a catch-22 for his running backs because while their yards per carry numbers would likely drop, they would also get more of the rushing touchdown share without Newton dominating the red-zone carries. Some rushing touchdowns would also presumably shift to passing touchdowns, but Damien Harris would be far more likely to get in the endzone when the Patriots do run the ball in.
New England’s additions at tight end and wide receiver would benefit if Jones takes over at quarterback. Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, and Nelson Agholor will have a difficult time living up to their contracts if Newton plays the way he did last season, but the Patriots will likely throw more passes and complete them at a higher rate with Jones at quarterback. Newton certainly has the potential to be more accurate this season, but even if he is, New England’s passing volume is likely to be lower with Newton as the signal-caller.
Pro-Newton Prop Bets: RB Damien Harris Over 845.5 Rushing Yards
Pro-Jones Prop Bets: TE Jonnu Smith Over 525.5 Receiving Yards, TE Hunter Henry Over 560.5 Receiving Yards
San Francisco 49ers: Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Trey Lance
Kyle Shannahan has been able to scheme up brilliant run games with pocket-passers such as Jimmy Garoppolo and Matt Ryan at quarterback, which makes the idea of Trey Lance taking over at quarterback a nauseating prospect for defensive coordinators around the league. Those coordinators don’t need to look any further than Robert Griffin III’s rookie season to recognize what a nightmare the 49ers could be with Lance.
The 49ers are a run-heavy team even with Garoppolo at quarterback but could drop below the 50% pass mark with Lance taking the snaps. Lance operated a variety of concepts at North Dakota State, where he was a run threat in the option game and on the backside of the wide-zone boot concepts that are a staple of the Shannahan system. The 49ers backs may see a slight decrease in volume if Lance is keeping some of the carries for himself, and could also lose touchdown share, but they should be even more efficient than they already are, which is a frightening proposition given the numbers that running backs such as Raheem Mostert were already putting up in this system.
The more interesting impact may be on the pass-catchers. Garoppolo is the more accurate of the two quarterbacks at this point, but Lance’s presence creates more explosive pass game opportunities and he has a bigger arm. All of the play fakes working off the QB-run threat game open windows downfield because linebackers and safeties are forced to keep their eyes in the backfield, which leads to them ending up out of position. It’s part of what makes it so difficult for a run-first quarterback to become a pocket-passer; the passing windows they once created with their legs suddenly disappear, and it’s far harder to find receivers down the field.
The rushing yards props available for Raheem Mostert and rookie Trey Sermon depend heavily on Mostert’s health, so the props most affected by the quarterback competition are the receiving yards for Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, and George Kittle. There may be a downtick in receiving volume, but that’s unlikely to be dramatic given that San Francisco was already run-heavy with Garoppolo at quarterback. On the opportunities they do get, Aiyuk, Samuel, and Kittle should have more room to run after the catch, and Aiyuk in particular is likely to benefit from the openings down the field that will be created because Lance occupies defenders’ eyes in the backfield. The trio could all put up huge yards-per-reception numbers and are more likely to go over their receiving yards props with Lance at quarterback, as counter-intuitive as that may seem given Garoppolo and Lance’s respective skill sets.
Pro-Lance Prop Bets: RB Raheem Mostert Over 700.5 Rushing Yards, WR Brandon Aiyuk Over 875.5 Receiving Yards
Pro-Garoppolo Prop Bets: TE George Kittle Over 82.5 Receptions
Chicago Bears: Andy Dalton vs. Justin Fields
Andy Dalton and Justin Fields are very different athletes, and the recent news that projected starting left tackle Tevin Jenkins will miss a significant portion of the season after back surgery makes it even more important that the Bears get Justin Fields into the starting lineup as soon as possible.
Fields is a dynamic runner at the quarterback position but also has the discipline and arm talent to operate from the pocket. The Bears offense features two key skill players in running back David Montgomery and wide receiver Allen Robinson, and while Montgomery’s yards per carry would likely increase with Fields at quarterback, the bigger impact for that pair would likely be in the touchdown department, as the Bears offense is likely to put up more scores as a whole with Fields at quarterback.
The two bigger beneficiaries could be receivers Darnell Mooney and Damiere Byrd, who both have big-time deep speed. Fields has outstanding arm strength to attack downfield and will create hesitation in the back end of defenses with his play fakes. He is also more likely to create second-reaction opportunities for deep shots than Dalton, who has never thrived in that area of the game.
Dalton posted big numbers several years ago on a Bengals offense that featured A.J. Green, Marvin Jones Jr., Mohamed Sanu Sr., and Tyler Eifert, as well as an offensive line that was so talented that they kicked Andrew Whitworth, an outstanding left tackle, in to play left guard. Dalton was extremely productive surrounded by that group, but that offense was arguably the most talented unit (minus the quarterback) that the NFL saw in the 2010s. This Chicago offense is a far cry from that Cincinnati group, and Fields is likely to be the tide that raises all boats in terms of skill position production if he wins the job.
Pro-Fields Prop Bets: WR Darnell Mooney Over 705.5 Receiving Yards
Pro-Dalton Prop Bets: N/A
Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence vs. Gardner Minshew
This situation is different from the other rookie quarterback competitions because the bigger disparity comes in arm strength rather than running ability. While Trevor Lawrence showed he has notable build-up speed on his long touchdown run against Ohio State in the 2019 College Football Playoffs, he lacks the short-area quickness to be considered a dynamic runner.
The Jaguars may sprinkle in some zone-read, but I expect these carries to be few and far between, such as the way the Colts employed Andrew Luck on these concepts. With a tall, lanky frame, Lawrence would likely be targeted with hits to his midsection that could derail his season, and he lacks the twitchiness as a runner to protect himself the way quarterbacks such as Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, and Russell Wilson do when they run the ball.
Gardner Minshew also offers little as a runner, so the bigger difference for the players around them will likely be in the deep passing game. Lawrence has notable arm strength, while Minshew needs to operate in a well-timed short-to-intermediate passing game to be successful. Minshew can get the ball downfield when the ball is out on time, but he’s not the type of quarterback who can throw deep late and make up for the timing with juice.
The receiver most likely to be affected by this is D.J. Chark, a talented third-year player who can attack at all levels of the field, but is at his best attacking the deep areas on posts and verticals. Chark’s fellow receivers, Marvin Jones Jr. and Laviska Shenault, could also benefit in a similar fashion. Jones is more of an intermediate receiver at this point in his career, but Shenault’s role as an “offensive weapon” could involve a lot more deep opportunities with Lawrence at quarterback after he was primarily featured as a short-area target in 2020 with Minshew and others at quarterback.
Out of the five competitions listed here, the Jacksonville battle is the one that should be in air quotes. Lawrence is far more gifted and will win this job, and all of Jacksonville’s skill players should benefit from his presence at quarterback.
Pro-Lawrence Prop Bets: WR DJ Chark Jr. Over 905.5 Receiving Yards,
Pro-Minshew Prop Bets: N/A
New Orleans Saints: Taysom Hill vs. Jameis Winston
The final competition taking place in camp is between Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston in New Orleans. Hill, who has been featured as a jack-of-all-trades when Drew Brees was available at quarterback, beat out Winston for the temporary starting job last season, and the fact that the Saints were able to seamlessly adapt their offensive attack on the fly was a testament to the prowess of head coach Sean Payton and his offensive staff.
With Hill at quarterback, the Saints will have a run threat at quarterback, and will likely focus more on the short-area passing game. Hill didn’t throw the prettiest ball last season, but he did complete 72.7% of his passes for a respectable 7.7 yards per attempt, which is in part a reflection of the run after catch opportunities created by the play fakes in the backfield. Running backs Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray already run behind one of the league’s best offensive lines, and both will have a good chance to put up career highs in yards per carry with Hill at quarterback.
The equation would change significantly with Jameis Winston at quarterback. On the upside, Winston’s Tampa Bay teammates benefited from the fact that Winston’s offenses get a ridiculous number of possessions due to Winston’s proclivity to throw touchdowns to the other team. Winston also throws the ball at a high volume because he is constantly putting his teams behind in games. On top of the increase in pass attempts, Winston has a huge arm, so receivers such as Tre’Quan Smith, Marquez Callaway, and Deonte Harris could all see more downfield opportunities with Winston at quarterback.
In theory, Winston will only win this job if he’s cleaned up his ball security issues, but a quarterback fundamentally changing his instincts is easier said than done, and I’ll assume Winston will still be a turnover machine who produces plenty of big plays for both sides until the film shows something different.
Pro-Hill Prop Bets: RB Latavius Murray Over 550.5 Rushing Yards
Pro-Winston Prop Bets: WR Tre’Quan Smith, WR Marquez Calloway as Fantasy Draft Picks (No Props Available)
There was a time when quarterback competitions only affected offenses in terms of the quality of play the team would get at the position, but in today’s NFL, offenses fundamentally change based on the strengths of their signal-caller. NFL coaches are now putting their quarterbacks in the best position to succeed, and it’s critical to understand the differences between these respective players when making fantasy or prop bet decisions on the players around them.
Steven Clinton, better known as "The Professor", is a former D-1 Quality Control Assistant (Northwestern, Toledo) who holds a B.A. in Economics and M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University. He maintains an end-to-end NFL game projection model and is a film junkie who breaks down the tape of every NFL game.