Projecting quarterbacks is a notoriously tricky science; just when you think you've started to get things figured out, a Michael Vick in 2010 will surpass all reasonable expectations, or a Josh Freeman in 2011 will break your spreadsheets -- along with your heart. There's really no statistical model that could forecast how amazing Daunte Culpepper was going to be in 2000, or how terrible he was going to be in 2005. Overall, though, quarterback play does tend to follow some predictable patterns.
For one thing, most quarterbacks improve from their first season of regular play to their second. In fact, Year 2 is probably the most common for QBs to break out. Looking at QBs drafted since 2008, Joe Flacco, Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez and Freeman all improved significantly from their rookie seasons to their sophomore campaigns.
Further, quarterbacks' third seasons correlate much more strongly with both their first and their second seasons than their first and second years do with each other. That's because QBs who improve in Year 2 tend to regress the following season -- the four listed above saw their QBRs fall by an average of 25 percent -- while QBs who decline in their second seasons, like Matt Ryan, tend to bounce back.
Finally, there doesn't seem to be room for much improvement beyond Year 3. If you look at the greatest QBs in history, as a group, they improved their stats from their first seasons as starters to their second, and then again from their second to their third (instead of regressing), but not from their third to their fourth. If you look at the 2008 draftees, Ryan and Flacco both had their ups and downs for three years, but Ryan's QBR in 2011 (67.5) was nearly identical to his mark in 2010 (68.6), and so was Flacco's (57.9 vs. 58.1). Every now and then, good teammates, good health and good luck come together and fuel a season like Aaron Rodgers had this year, or Peyton Manning had in 2004. But once a QB has three years and 10,000 or so passing yards in the books, what you see is pretty much what you're going to get.
In applying these lessons to the unusually large crop of very young quarterbacks now leading NFL teams, let's add a few factors that shouldn't be too controversial, but are worth spelling out. A QB's breakout chances should get a boost if he:
• Has favorable indicators from college
• Plays for a smart organization
• Can take advantage of the chances in today's NFL to throw deep
• Has exceptional WR or TE targets
• Will benefit from other talent improving around him.
So, given those factors, which QBs are most likely to break out in 2012?