Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes, Cardinals' Kyler Murray poised to improve with new supporting cast in 2024

I love it when a few quarterbacks make “the leap” every year. Quarterback is the most important position in sports and breakout performances are one fascinating and impactful facet of that. 

I recently logged every quarterback leap since 2000 to find the most common factors linking them together as we look ahead to project breakout (or improved) performances in 2024.

The primary factors leading to quarterback leaps can be placed into four buckets: development, coaching, supporting cast and a change of scenery.

Today’s focus is the supporting cast. I’m talking about instances like Donovan McNabb in 2004 and Tom Brady in 2007. McNabb went from 16 touchdown passes in 2003, to 31 in 2004 after the Eagles traded for Terrell Owens. Brady had never even had a 30-touchdown season prior to the Patriots trading for Randy Moss. He proceeded to throw for an NFL-record 50 in his first season with Moss in the Patriots’ 16-0 regular-season run in 2007.

Now trading for veteran pass catchers is the hot trend in the NFL’s copycat league. Getting top-flight wide receivers worked wonders for Josh Allen (Stefon Diggs), Joe Burrow (Ja’Marr Chase), Jalen Hurts (A.J. Brown) and Tua Tagovailoa (Tyreek Hill) in the last few years. Justin Fields was an exception to the recent trend, as he stayed in neutral last season after the Bears traded for D.J. Moore. On the other hand, Matthew Stafford was a surprise leap, thanks in part to the historic rookie year from Puka Nacua.

Editor’s note: This is Part 4 of a five-part series that dives deep into NFL quarterbacks making sudden, massive improvement, which we’ve dubbed ‘Quarterback Leap Week.’ Here’s what’s been published so far:

QB leaps since 2000 due to improved supporting cast 

There were a lot of fascinating offseason moves that could be the primary factor for a quarterback leap. Here are four candidates, not including Jalen Hurts (after the Saquon Barkley signing), who was discussed in Wednesday’s article on quarterback leaps due to coaching changes. 

I like this move for the Ravens offense and their Super Bowl chances, especially after Baltimore running backs combined for six carries and 23 yards in the AFC Championship game loss to the Chiefs. However, there’s not much room for a leap after Jackson won MVP last season.

A year ago I thought Daniel Jones could take the next step in his game after the Giants added two downfield targets in Darren Waller and Jalin Hyatt. I’m not making the same mistake twice! Giants first-round pick Malik Nabers is obviously better than both those players, but it’s hard to endorse Jones after he took a big step back last year. If Jones does take a step forward again it’ll be because Nabers helps him stretch the field. Jones had just 10 completions traveling 20-plus air yards in 2022, tied for 30th in the NFL. Nabers had 19 catches on those deep balls last year at LSU, second in the nation behind Rome Odunze (23). He should also help a Giants team that was 26th in yards after catch per reception last year.

C.J. Stroud after Stefon Diggs trade (leap unlikely)

It’ll be hard for Stroud to make a big leap after his historic rookie year. He led the NFL in both touchdown-to-interception ratio and passing yards per game last year. Forget rookies, Joe Montana (1989) and Tom Brady (2007) are the only quarterbacks to lead the NFL outright in both categories in the last 50 years (min. 10 starts). The Stefon Diggs trade should be a case of the rich getting richer as Stroud was third in EPA per play targeting wideouts in 2023. 

The upside is still there for Kyler Murray. He was 12th in EPA per play last year and one of four players with 200 passing yards and 30 rushing yards per game, along with Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts. He developed instant chemistry with Trey McBride, completing 53 of 66 passes for 538 yards in eight games with the young tight end. That’s a 100-catch and 1,000-yard pace if they play a full season together. Problem is, Murray had no wide receiver to throw the ball to. He was 9 of 24 for 134 yards targeting Marquise Brown, who was supposed to be his No. 1 target. Murray finished with the second-worst EPA per play targeting wide receivers last season, and also the second-worst mark throwing 15-plus air yards. Mac Jones was the only quarterback worse in either category. Arizona drafted Marvin Harrison Jr. fourth overall, and he could immediately boost Murray’s production in both areas and help him play at a top-10 level. 

Patrick Mahomes is an easy call to make a leap in 2024 after he ranked 15th in EPA per play last season while posting career lows in yards per attempt, touchdown-to-interception ratio and passing yards per game. His deep ball has all but disappeared since the Chiefs traded Tyreek Hill, but that might change this year, thanks to the prodding of Andy Reid, as Jared Dubin noted earlier this month. It’s hard to believe Mahomes has two touchdown passes traveling 20-plus air yards in the last two seasons. That’s the same number of Super Bowl MVPs he has in that span. He had 41 deep ball touchdowns in his previous four years. He also had the worst touchdown-to-interception ratio targeting wide receivers 10-plus air yards last year (1-6). 

Those are shocking numbers that highlight both the need for wide receiver help and the magnificent evolution of Mahomes. Help is definitely on the way, though, and maybe the Chiefs can return to their ‘Legion of Zoom’ days with the addition of Xavier Worthy and Marquise Brown. Let’s not forget Chiefs wideouts also led the NFL in drops (28) and drop rate (12 percent) last season. It would be a big surprise if that happened again. 

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