As the old guard of prestigious passers retires, the NFL is in good hands when it comes to entertaining young quarterbacks. Even beyond acclaimed 26-year-olds Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson — who would top this list if included — there are some younger signal callers who will be performing in big-time games for years. With 19 quarterbacks at age 25 or under to take a snap across the past two seasons, there is a large group of young guns to evaluate. But who among those 19 are the most likely to perform in big games, when the stakes are the highest?
What defines a big game? Although it might be a bit strict, the definition we will use includes two primary avenues. First, any playoff game counts as a big game. Second, games in November or after against playoff teams (or the team that finished second place in your division) will be included. This should give us enough games to draw some basic conclusions without being too inclusive.
We can already eliminate 8 passers of the players in our 19-man sample who have not played significant snaps in a big game yet in their young NFL careers. The six rookies from the 2021 draft obviously haven’t played enough professional ball yet, and neither have Jordan Love or Jacob Eason. This leaves 11 quarterbacks that we can compare. Although there’s still plenty of time for guys like Jalen Hurts or Tua Tagovailoa to build their resumes, here’s our top six.
#6: Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals (24 years old)
On a record-setting pace for the last undefeated team in the NFL, Murray could quickly climb these rankings if he can keep it up. In his six career big games, Murray has excelled at protecting the football with only 0.33 INTs per game while still posting over 30 rush yards per game (excluding garbage time). The 2021 MVP candidate hasn’t pushed the ball quite as far downfield as the others listed below, with only 3.05 air yards per attempt, but he will be likely be able to stake his case on Week 14’s Monday Night Football showdown with the Los Angeles Rams.
#5: Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals (25 years old)
Even after suffering a season-ending injury last year, Burrow showed enough in his three big games to stake his claim here. Burrow is the only young passer to have avoided INTs entirely in his set of games, and he also boasts the second-lowest sack rate of only 1.33 per game. With a fellow budding star and former college teammate aboard in WR Ja’Marr Chase, Burrow can get to work improving his biggest black mark: only 0.047 explosive passes per drop back (excluding garbage time). A loaded back-half of the schedule could see him add as many as five regular season big games to his resume this year, so keep an eye on the former No. 1 overall pick.
#4: Daniel Jones, New York Giants (24 years old)
Few would argue that Jones holds as much or more promise than Murray or Burrow, but he’s actually performed better in his six big game contests. Scoring four second-quarter points per game — statistically the most important quarter to score in — the former Duke passer also boasts nearly four air yards per attempt. Jones may have serious issues dealing with an elite pass rush, taking 4.17 sacks per game behind a mostly substandard offensive line, but he compensates with 0.667 runs of 10-plus yards per game. He’ll certainly be challenged this season to keep these results up against Kansas City and Tampa Bay, but a heavy offseason investment in the skill positions matched with development on the offensive line could catch some teams unaware.
#3: Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills (25 years old)
The revelation of the league in 2020, Allen actually had a similar big game profile to Daniel Jones through two years before breaking out. Now, we find a passer who ranks second of this group for completion percentage over expected per nflfastR, as well as a dynamic rushing threat who clears 40 non-garbage-time yards per game on the ground. A threat across the board, Allen produces explosive plays through the air and on the ground at two of the highest rates we’ve seen. To nitpick, he’ll still take a few too many sacks and he’s only managed a 34 percent conversion rate on third and fourth down, but there should a few playoff games upcoming this year for Allen to bolster his numbers.
#2: Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens (24 years old)
For somebody who gets a lot of heat for failing to win the big one, Jackson’s numbers are superb despite appearing in more big games (14) than any other young quarterback. With his transcendent rushing ability, the former Heisman Trophy winner keeps the offense on schedule, en route to a group-high 46 percent conversion rate. Even still, he manages to attack downfield with 4.02 air YPA and only 0.57 INTs per game. Although his second quarter scoring might need some work, there’s no no quarterback sniffing 2.6 explosive rushes per game. Don’t blame the former MVP for any playoff woes.
#1: Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers (23 years)
After a swift and unlikely rise to starter status, Herbert has been nothing short of phenomenal in big games. Despite playing in only four such games as a rookie, the future superstar is the only young passer to actually beat his expected completion percentage in big games, nearly two full percentage points above second place. He’s been deadly downfield with 4.55 air YPA and 76 air yards on explosive passes per game while still punching it through in tight quarters with a 46 percent conversion rate and a full six second quarter points per game. With room to develop past his interception per game numbers, it is scary how good Herbert has been so quickly. If the rest of the team can keep up their bargain, Herbert could rewrite a few playoff records by the time it’s all said and done.