In the NFL, it is safe to say that finding a true franchise quarterback is an absolute necessity for long-term success. In 2016, three teams have seemingly managed to do just that in the draft. The Los Angeles Rams took Jared Goff first overall, the Philadelphia Eagles selected Carson Wentz right after him, and the Dallas Cowboys more or less stumbled into one of the great draft steals in Dak Prescott, taking him with the 135th overall pick after missing out on Paxton Lynch and Connor Cook earlier in the draft. All three of those second-year QBs are now in the top 10 of more than one category statistically, and all three would be leading their teams into the playoffs if the season ended now.
There are still a lot of games to play for each of them, of course, but just being in contention at this point is significant. And having three franchise QBs come out of one draft is not something that happens often. You have to go back to 2004 to find the next most recent clear case of that, when Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger were the first three QBs taken in the draft.
But it isn’t just about finding talent coming out of college. The role that coaching plays in developing QBs and putting them in a position to succeed is extremely underrated. Prescott, Wentz, and Goff traveled three different paths to this point, but coaching clearly had a lot to do with where they are at this early stage of their careers.
Prescott was unquestionably the quickest out of the gate of the three. He started training camp that year as the QB3, but injuries to Kellen Moore and then starter Tony Romo thrust him into the number one spot. And once it became clear that the Cowboys had to rely on Prescott, at least for the first part of the season (at the time, it was assumed Romo would return to the starting job once he had recovered), the coaching staff put a tremendous amount of effort into bringing him along as well as constructing game plans that helped him. It didn’t hurt to have Ezekiel Elliott sharing the load behind the impressive offensive line in Dallas, but the coaches did an outstanding job with Prescott. It was well documented how head coach (and former QB) Jason Garrett spent extra time after each practice throwing the ball back and forth with Prescott. More importantly, he also was engaged in a running discussion of what Prescott needed to do, and not do. Scott Linehan played his part in constructing the game plan and calling the games. The results were obvious. A 13-3 regular season, an 11-game winning streak, and Offensive Rookie of the Year honors for Prescott - as well as pushing Romo into the broadcast booth.
Unlike Garrett, the head coaches for both the Eagles and the Rams call the offensive plays during games. Doug Pederson seemed to need a year working with Wentz to get things on track, but there is little doubt that the two are clicking this season. The Eagles have the best record in the NFL at 8-1, and there is a lot of talk (especially in the Philadelphia fan base) about Wentz being the MVP for the season. Like in Dallas, there is a lot more to things than just the play of the QB, and the Eagles have one of the best rosters in the league to support Wentz this year. If anything, Wentz may be benefiting more from how the team is using him and what they ask him to do than Prescott did in 2016. But that is all to the credit of the coaches. There have been plenty of cases of apparently talented quarterbacks who were misused in the NFL.
And there may be no more obvious case of that than the career to date of Jared Goff. He was able to do almost nothing in his seven starts his rookie year. The Rams didn’t win a game with him at the helm. The dismal performance of the team after they had invested a lot of draft capital to trade up for Goff led directly to the firing of head coach Jeff Fisher. Fisher took the brunt of the blame for how poorly the team fared.
Often, coaches are unfairly assigned too much responsibility when things go badly. But the performance of Goff and the Rams under new head coach Sean McVay makes a strong argument that, in Fisher’s case, he was absolutely the problem. Goff has led the team to a 6-2 record this year, and like Pederson, McVay handles the offensive play-calling. The results seem self-evident. Good coaching has been key in a quantum leap for Goff, arguably the biggest one-year turnaround of any QB ever. That is certainly how Vincent Verhei of Football Outsiders sees it, based on their proprietary DVOA statistic.
It should go without saying that we have never seen this kind of year-to-year improvement in a quarterback before. The difference between Goff's DVOA this year and last year is 98.8%. To say this is the biggest year-to-year jump on record would be a grotesque understatement. Consider this: before this season, the biggest jump in DVOA from one season to the next we had ever recorded belonged to Nick Foles, whose DVOA went from -20.4% in 2012 to 35.6% in 2013. That's a difference of 56.0% -- barely half of the improvement Goff has shown this year.
So we have three successful (so far) quarterbacks from the 2016 draft class. Prescott hit the ground running and really hasn’t slowed down at all in his second year. Wentz, though inconsistent over the year, flashed in his rookie season but has really hit his stride in 2017. And Goff got out of the pit of mediocrity that Jeff Fisher seems to dig wherever he goes to find success under a very good offensive-minded coach. All three are in position to make the playoffs. And all three show real promise of doing that consistently for many years to come.
Give them credit for their talent and football intelligence. But also give the coaches involved recognition for developing three young stars that lead the new wave of elite NFL quarterbacks. It is not easy to do, at all.