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Why the next generation of star NFL quarterbacks is way more fun than the last

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So long, era of homogenous quarterbacks.

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Texans QB Deshaun Watson, Ravens QB Lamar Jackson, and Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes superimposed on a blue and white background
The NFL is in good hands with young quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, and Deshaun Watson.

The NFL of the 21st century had been getting pretty stale, especially at the quarterback position. In 15 of the last 16 Super Bowls, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or Ben Roethlisberger was one of the starters.

Those three quarterbacks, along with Drew Brees, Eli Manning, and Philip Rivers, were all drafted between 1998 and 2004. And all six of them are in the top eight on the all-time passing yards list. Five of those six are still in the NFL.

They represent a golden age of passing that will have a lasting impact on the record books — and one led by a rather homogenous group of quarterbacks. They mostly looked the same, talked the same, and largely played football the same way.

They’re all traditional pocket passers who — for the most part — played, or still play, the position by the book.

That era is ending now. Luckily for the football watching world, the next generation of stars is here and it’s something entirely different. The young group of quarterbacks drafted in the last four years is brimming with personality and rewriting the way we think about how the position can be played.

Lamar Jackson, the dual threat

The closest thing we’ve ever seen to Jackson was Michael Vick in the early 2000s. Vick never played as well as Jackson is playing for the Ravens in 2019, though.

Jackson’s an MVP frontrunner in only his second season. He has a passer rating in the triple digits and rushing stats that rival some of the best running backs in the league. He’s certainly the only quarterback in the NFL who could pull off the spin move that vaporized two Bengals defenders on a 47-yard rushing touchdown in Week 10.

There’s a long list of quarterbacks with enough athleticism to rush for a first down, if necessary. Jackson’s one of the few quarterbacks in the history of the NFL who’s just as terrifying throwing the ball as he is keeping it for himself.

And his uniquely electric play on the field is paired with a personality dripping with swag.

He’s not lacking in self-confidence at all, but Jackson’s also quick to heap praise on his teammates instead of reveling in it himself. Given how many doubters he’s already had to face in his young career, it’d make sense if Jackson wanted to rub his success in the noses of haters. But revenge isn’t his motivation, even if Jackson does like to take playful jabs at the critics.

Jackson’s a dynamo with a skillset unlike any other in the NFL right now, and fortunately he has a coach who encourages that individualism instead of working to rein it in. The result is the same kind of scoring machine who racked up touchdowns nonstop at Louisville.

The long-term viability of a quarterback running 15-20 times per game is a worthwhile debate. For now, though, Jackson is a weapon with a style all his own.

Patrick Mahomes, the cannon

The Chiefs quarterback has a 50-touchdown season and an MVP award under his belt and he just turned 24. He’s a no-look-pass-throwing, ketchup-loving quarterback with an outrageously strong arm that’s capable of making any throw.

It’s not only the deep bombs — although there have been plenty of those. Mahomes can also do things like throw a jump pass across the middle of the field that turns into a touchdown.

He’s athletic and fast, but it’s the cannon attached to his shoulder that makes him dangerous whether he’s rolling out or sitting in the pocket. Either way, a flick of his wrist can turn into a touchdown at any given moment.

That his absurd ability comes with a goofy voice and, occasionally, a pair of jorts is a bonus.

Mahomes missed a couple games in 2019 after dislocating his kneecap, and yet another MVP award still doesn’t look impossible. Mahomes is going to be burying teams with prolific passing assaults for many years to come.

Deshaun Watson, the warrior

There are a lot of different labels that would work as a descriptor of Watson. Ultimately, it’s his blend of skills and his “never quit” mentality that makes him special.

For his entire career, he’s had to deal with a porous Texans offensive line. His tendency to try to create big plays in the face of pressure is part of the reason the third-year starter has already been sacked over 100 times. But that same instinct to keep looking for a play downfield has evolved into a huge problem for opposing defenses.

Even kicking Watson in the face won’t stop him from finding a game-winning touchdown.

When pressured in 2019, Watson has six touchdowns, one interception, and a passer rating over 90. That elusiveness and relentlessness was on full display in Week 9 when the Jaguars only managed to sack him once, despite recording a pressure 12 times.

Watson has elevated his already stellar play in year three of his career. And it’s really easy to root for a player who donated his first NFL paycheck to cafeteria workers affected by Hurricane Harvey and has recently developed a reputation for elaborate breakdowns of defenses in press conferences.

A sizable extension is probably coming soon for Watson, and that’s a no-brainer for the Texans. They’ve found their franchise quarterback.

Dak Prescott, the gunslinger

Early in Prescott’s career, he was just a game manager for a team that was built around running the ball. Prescott’s job was to avoid turnovers and keep the chains moving.

Now, those days are long gone. The Cowboys’ fourth-year quarterback can put the offense on his back when Ezekiel Elliott gets shut down. Prescott has become a player more than willing to fire into tight windows.

Some of those throws become turnovers, but most are turning into big plays for the Cowboys. That’s why Prescott still has a passer rating above 100, even though he’s near the top of the league in interceptions. He also leads the league in Total QBR, an ESPN formula that measures just about every aspect of quarterback play.

While Prescott doesn’t draw much attention to himself, he’s a standup guy off the field who throws away his trash correctly and isn’t a bad “dancer” to boot.

Just a few months ago, “gunslinger” wouldn’t seem like the right way to describe Prescott’s spot on this list. But it’s a surprisingly fitting title for Prescott, who’s ranked in the top five in touchdowns, passing yards per game, and interceptions in 2019.

Carson Wentz, the escape artist

The Eagles haven’t given Wentz much help in 2019. Few teams have more dropped passes, and his receivers aren’t getting much separation. That’s the biggest reason why Wentz — a player who was on the doorstep of MVP honors in 2017 — is near the bottom of the NFL in completion percentage.

One of the only reasons Philadelphia is in the postseason hunt anyway is because Wentz is freakin’ Houdini.

Wentz is a shocking amount of slippery for a player who’s 6’5, 237 pounds. However, the key to his escapability is his ability to make tough throws, whether his feet are underneath him or not.

Off the field, Wentz supports charitable causes through his foundation and — like Prescott — doesn’t say much that garners attention. But his wheeling and dealing in the pocket makes the Eagles offense always worth watching.

There are other sensational young quarterbacks in the NFL who could soon earn a spot on this list.

Kyler Murray is quietly compiling impressive statistics for a rookie, Gardner Minshew may eventually retake his spot as the Jaguars’ starter, and it’s still too early to give up on the idea of Baker Mayfield and Jared Goff eventually returning to their 2018 selves.

Mayfield set a record for touchdown passes by a rookie last year, but his sophomore slump could easily be the fault of first-year head coach Freddie Kitchens. Goff is playing behind an offensive line that’s suddenly a disaster. They both can still have promising futures.

Even if they never get there, the NFL is in good hands. For the first time in a long time, there’s a variety of personalities and styles at the quarterback position. That’s a new phenomenon — and it’s a blast to watch.