The best second-year seasons by NFL QBs
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The best second-year seasons by NFL QBs

Patrick Mahomes shredded the first defenses he saw as a full-time starting quarterback, and then had one of the greatest sophomore seasons in NFL history. Many passers have used their second seasons to display signs of greatness. Here are the best of the Super Bowl era.

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30. Eli Manning, 2005

Eli Manning, 2005
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The 2004 Giants sat 5-4 behind free agent signing Kurt Warner. They lost their next six games after giving Manning the reins. But the 2004 draft-weekend trade prize proved GM Ernie Accorsi right a year later. The Giants won the NFC East at 11-5 and saw their young quarterback take major steps forward. Manning threw 24 touchdown passes and finished with 3,762 passing yards (both top-five marks that year). The Giants made the next three NFC playoff brackets, the 2007 season ending with one of the best runs a quarterback has ever submitted. 

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29. John Elway, 1984

John Elway, 1984
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After a rough rookie season, Elway showed glimpses of his future in 1984. The Broncos turned to their future superstar full-time in '84 and won Elway's first 10 starts that year. They finished 12-2 in Elway's first-string outings and won the AFC West. The future Hall of Famer hadn't put it all together yet, but he fired 18 touchdown passes to lift the Broncos to their first home playoff game in six years. Denver lost to Pittsburgh in the divisional round, with Elway throwing two INTs, but put its long-term Elway blueprint in place that season. 

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28. Kerry Collins, 1996

Kerry Collins, 1996
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The second of Collins' 17 seasons produced the first of his two Pro Bowls and a stunning finish for the Panthers. Behind the first draft pick in franchise history, the Panthers rocketed to an NFC West title and the conference championship game in their second year of existence. Collins threw 14 touchdown passes in 12 games, and the Panthers went 9-3 in his starts. He posted a season-high 327 yards and three TD passes in Carolina's December win in San Francisco, dethroning the 49ers in the division. Collins also threw two TDs in a divisional-round win over the defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys.

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27. Josh Freeman, 2010

Josh Freeman, 2010
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A wild outlier season wasn't enough to snap a Buccaneers playoff drought that had grown to 12 years by 2019, but Freeman showed ultimately fleeting potential in 2010. The 2009 first-round pick threw 25 touchdown passes and just six interceptions, guiding Tampa Bay to a 10-6 record in his first year as a full-time starter. Freeman's 95.6 passer rating ranked sixth that season. The Kansas State product orchestrated five fourth-quarter comebacks and secured the Bucs a winning season with a five-TD-pass, no-INT Week 16 win over the Seahawks. 

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26. Tony Eason, 1984

Tony Eason, 1984
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Although he did not end up having the kind of career 1983 first-round QB classmates John Elway, Dan Marino or Jim Kelly did, Eason was ready when called upon in 1984. The Patriots benched Steve Grogan in the second quarter after the Seahawks mounted a 23-point lead. Eason helped the Pats score 38 points in a 38-23 win and started the season's final 13 games. He finished as the NFL's third-rated passer, with a 23-8 TD-INT ratio, doing so despite taking a league-high 59 sacks. Eason was the starter during the Patriots' 1985 playoff run -- which ended in Super Bowl XX -- as well.

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25. Derek Anderson, 2007

Derek Anderson, 2007
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Given what else has transpired in Cleveland since the franchise respawned, Anderson's sophomore effort sticks out. The only Browns Pro Bowl passer since Bernie Kosar in 1987, Anderson led the moribund franchise to the precipice of the playoffs. He replaced Charlie Frye in Week 1 and started the rest of Cleveland's games, throwing 29 touchdown passes (second-most in Browns history) and winning 10 of his 15 starts. The Browns finished 10-6 and missed a wild card spot on a tiebreaker. This is their only winning season in the past 17 years. 

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24. Jake Plummer, 1998

Jake Plummer, 1998
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Plummer's best work came in Denver, but he delivered one historic season in the desert. The Cardinals hadn't won a playoff game since 1947, when they were the Chicago Cardinals (two moves ago). They ended that drought under Plummer. The Arizona State product didn't shine statistically (17 TDs, 20 INTs, 20th in 1998 passer rating) but led seven game-winning drives -- including in a do-or-die Week 17 walk-off win over the Chargers -- and outdueled Troy Aikman by throwing two TD passes in a 20-7 wild card win. This 9-7 season did not spark a Cards run, however. They didn't make the playoffs again until 2008. 

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23. Brett Favre, 1992

Brett Favre, 1992
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The essential figure in putting a downtrodden Packers franchise back on the map, Favre showed what was ahead in his first Green Bay season. Acquired from the Falcons for a first-round pick in 1992, the '91 second-rounder thrived in Mike Holmgren's head-coaching debut. Favre's Packer tenure began due to a Don Majkowski injury in Week 3 and led the team to an 8-5 mark henceforth. Favre threw 18 touchdown passes en route to the first of his 11 Pro Bowls. The Packers just missed the 1992 NFC bracket but made the playoffs in 10 of the next 11 seasons. 

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22. Steve Grogan, 1976

Steve Grogan, 1976
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The Patriots embarked on a nice three-season run in the late 1970s. A 1975 fifth-round pick who played 17 Patriots seasons, Grogan led New England to an 11-3 record in '76 (after a 3-11 '75) by accounting for 30 touchdowns. Twelve of those came on the ground, setting a then-QB record that still sits No. 2 all time (Cam Newton rushed for 14 TDs in 2011). Grogan completed just 48% of his passes (in a tough era for aerial proficiency) but led the Pats to a blowout win over the Raiders. They had Oakland on the cusp of elimination in a playoff rematch before a shaky roughing-the-passer call helped save the eventual champion.

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21. Drew Bledsoe, 1994

Drew Bledsoe, 1994
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Eighteen years after Grogan's surprise playoff charge, Bledsoe began a resurrection of what had become one of the NFL's worst franchises. The Patriots went 19-61 from 1989-93, but Bledsoe steered them to a 10-6 record and their first playoff berth in eight years. The 1993 No. 1 overall pick led the NFL in passing (4,555 yards) in his second season. He needed a staggering 691 attempts to get there (25 TDs, 27 INTs), but this marked the first of four Bledsoe-guided playoff journeys over the next five seasons. 

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20. Jared Goff, 2017

Jared Goff, 2017
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Sean McVay transformed the Rams from one of this century's worst offenses (last by more than 40 yards in 2016) into the top 2017 scoring attack. Goff did not receive as much credit, but he was at the controls of this innovative attack. A maligned No. 1 overall pick after a rocky rookie year, Goff threw 28 TD passes -- compared to just seven INTs -- and jumped his yards-per-attempt figure from 5.3 to 8.0 (second-best in 2017) in a Pro Bowl season. Goff built on this in a superior 2018 slate, piloting the Rams to Super Bowl LIII.

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19. Andrew Luck, 2013

Andrew Luck, 2013
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The only full Luck season that did not include 4,000 passing yards, 2013 still saw the prized prospect lead a flawed Colts roster to the playoffs. Saddled with Trent Richardson as his primary running back and a 20th-ranked defense, Luck threw 23 TD passes and a career-low nine INTs. While Peyton Manning out-produced him during his record-setting 2013, Luck was efficient in a Colts shootout win over the Broncos. Luck is primarily here, however, for the Colts' 28-point comeback over the Chiefs in the wild-card round. His 443-yard, five-TD showing remains an all-time postseason performance.

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18. Boomer Esiason, 1985

Boomer Esiason, 1985
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Esiason emerged to throw the league's second-most touchdown passes (27) and post the second-best passer rating (93.2) in 1985. The '84 second-round pick compiled six three-TD-pass games and led the Bengals to 95 points in back-to-back wins over the Cowboys and Oilers. Cincinnati turned to Esiason two games in (Ken Anderson's final two starts) and beat three playoff teams en route to a 7-7 record behind its new signal-caller. Esiason made three Pro Bowls with the Bengals and was the NFL MVP in their 1988 AFC title season.

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17. Donovan McNabb, 2000

Donovan McNabb, 2000
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Andy Reid's original Patrick Mahomes broke out in a Pro Bowl 2000 slate, beginning a successful partnership. Booed after being chosen No. 2 overall in 1999, the Syracuse option quarterback led the Eagles back to the playoffs in his first year as a regular starter. McNabb threw for 3,365 yards (and 21 TDs) and ran for a career-high 629 (and four scores). He accounted for each of the Eagles' three TDs in a 21-3 wild card win over the Buccaneers. This season did not include an NFC title game appearance, but the six-time Pro Bowler led the Eagles to five such seasons in his 10-year run as Philly's starter.

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16. Nick Foles, 2013

Nick Foles, 2013
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Perhaps the weirdest entry on this list, Foles had Chip Kelly getting the kind of buzz Sean McVay later received. Michael Vick's midseason replacement started just 10 games but threw 27 touchdown passes (and just two interceptions). During a season that saw Peyton Manning shatter NFL records, Foles led the league with a 119.2 passer rating. Two months after Manning's record-tying seven-TD-pass performance, Foles equaled it while piloting Philadelphia to an NFC East crown. This didn't last, with the future Super Bowl MVP traded in 2015 and Kelly fired later that year, but it was an interesting NFL stretch.

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15. Jeff Garcia, 2000

Jeff Garcia, 2000
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Steve Young's career-ending concussion threatened to sink the 49ers. Garcia helped the franchise with a quick efficiency display. In his first full season as a starter, the CFL import was a top-tier passer in 2000. Earning Pro Bowl acclaim, Garcia threw for 4,278 yards (still the most in 49ers history) and 31 touchdowns. He ran for 414 yards and four more scores. Garcia's 2000 season retroactively grades as the No. 2 QB defense-adjusted value over replacement mark. Garcia helped Terrell Owens amass a then-record 20 receptions in a Week 16 home win. This is the list's highest-ranked non-playoff season.

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14. Deshaun Watson, 2018

Deshaun Watson, 2018
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Watson suffered a torn ACL that ended a surefire Offensive Rookie of the Year season in 2017. He took 62 sacks -- the most an NFL QB has absorbed since 2006 -- behind a porous O-line in 2018. But the ex-Clemson phenom dragged Houston to the AFC South title and an 11-5 record, making the Texans the fifth team to go from 0-3 to the playoffs in a non-strike season since the merger. Watson's passing and rushing numbers (4,165, 551) remain career-high marks, and he accounted for 31 touchdowns in 2018. This season showed the Texans' 15-plus-year search for a true franchise quarterback was over.

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13. Colin Kaepernick, 2012

Colin Kaepernick, 2012
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Kaepernick received only seven regular-season starts but made his debut memorable in the playoffs. He turned the 49ers into an offensive machine that was one goal-line stand (or one bad no-call?) from a Super Bowl title. Jim Harbaugh unleashed the 2011 second-round pick midseason, despite Alex Smith's hot start, and saw him average 8.3 yards per attempt while rushing for 415 yards and five TDs. Kaepernick shredded the Packers for a QB-record 181 rushing yards (during a dominant 444-total-yard, four-TD night), led the 49ers past the No. 1-seeded Falcons and threw for 302 yards in the Super Bowl loss. 

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12. Tom Brady, 2001

Tom Brady, 2001
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Thrust into the spotlight because of a scary Drew Bledsoe injury, the 2000 sixth-round pick began his legendary run by leading the Patriots to their first Super Bowl championship. A dominant defense buoyed Brady in his first year as a starter, allowing him to serve as a game manager for the '01 Pats (12th in DVOA, 2,843 passing yards, 6.9 per attempt, 18 TDs). Given a mulligan via the Tuck Rule in Round 2, Brady made the Raiders pay during a 300-plus-yard night. He only posted 145 yards in Super Bowl XXXVI but highlighted an all-time NFL upset with a game-winning drive. This season ... not a fluke.

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11. Daunte Culpepper, 2000

Daunte Culpepper, 2000
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A 1999 first-rounder, Culpepper waited behind Jeff George as a rookie before taking the Minnesota reins in 2000 and guiding the Vikings to the NFC championship game. Culpepper threw 33 TD passes and rushed for 470 yards and seven more scores. His 8.3 yards per attempt led all non-Rams passers that year. The supersized QB threw three TDs, two to Randy Moss, to turn a divisional-round Saints matchup into a blowout. A knee injury ended Culpepper's Minnesota run five years later, but he delivered a memorable stretch to start his career.

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10. Bernie Kosar, 1986

Bernie Kosar, 1986
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Cleveland's championship window opened wide in 1986. Crafty maneuvering to land the top pick in the 1985 supplemental draft resulted in the Browns being within one memorable drive from Super Bowl XXI. A Youngstown, Ohio, native, Kosar threw for a career-high 3,854 yards, led six game-winning drives and inspired this commemorating the journey. The top-seeded Browns nearly lost their playoff opener, trailing the Jets 20-10 with 4:07 left. But Kosar engineered two scoring marches to force overtime, and the Miami national champion finished that 23-20 win with 489 yards. Kosar led Cleveland to two more AFC title games in the '80s.

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9. Peyton Manning, 1999

Peyton Manning, 1999
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Manning's case in the QB GOAT argument hinges partially on how long he was a top-tier quarterback. While Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger gradually emerged as such, Manning was ready by Year 2. After setting a rookie INT record (28), he helped the Colts morph from 3-13 to 13-3 and began his run of prodigious seasons. He threw for 4,135 yards (7.8 per attempt), 26 TDs and made the first of his 14 Pro Bowls. While many of Manning's future playoff shortcomings can be attributed to defensive deficiencies, he struggled in his first outing -- a loss to the Titans -- to keep him out of this top five.

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8. Michael Vick, 2002

Michael Vick, 2002
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The most electric athlete ever to play this position, Vick was a highlight machine in his first full season as the Falcons' starter. Completion percentage was never his thing; he made up for a 54.9 accuracy figure in 2002 with historic elusiveness. Vick rushed for 777 yards and eight TDs, none more memorable than an overtime game-winner to cap a 173-yard rushing outing against the Vikings. The Pro Bowler passed for nearly 3,000 yards and 16 touchdowns before leading the Falcons to the playoffs and handing the Packers their first postseason defeat at Lambeau Field. 

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7. Carson Wentz, 2017

Carson Wentz, 2017
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On his way to an MVP season prior to tearing multiple knee ligaments, Wentz delivered a historic breakthrough year. In 2016, he rose from Division I-FCS product to No. 2 overall pick. The North Dakota State alum rewarded the Eagles' trade-up decision by taking a massive leap from his first season. Wentz's 33 touchdown passes were second-most in the NFL, despite his three missed games. Wentz now plays in a stadium that has a statue of his backup, because of what happened after his injury, but the 2017 season established him as Philadelphia's franchise cornerstone. 

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6. Ben Roethlisberger, 2005

Ben Roethlisberger, 2005
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Despite submitting a poor Super Bowl-winning stat line, Roethlisberger played well in three Steelers upsets to help them become the first road wild card team to win a championship. He threw seven touchdown passes and just one interception in Pittsburgh's three AFC playoff conquests, the second two coming over 14- and 13-win teams, before helping the franchise to its fifth Lombardi trophy. Big Ben played just 12 games and threw 17 touchdown passes but led the NFL with a career-best 8.9 yards per attempt and went 9-3 as a starter. Better stats followed, but Roethlisberger delivered underrated efficiency in 2005.

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5. Russell Wilson, 2013

Russell Wilson, 2013
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Sporting a historically stout defensive nucleus that stayed healthy in 2013, the Seahawks would have seen their formula fall apart without Wilson. He is now one of the best draft picks in NFL history. The third-round choice led the Seahawks to a 13-3 record and made his first Pro Bowl after a 26-touchdown-pass, nine-INT campaign (with 539 rushing yards). He hobnobbed with the elites in efficiency numbers across the board and, teaming with Marshawn Lynch in a lethal read-option setup, did his part in trophy-securing wins over the 49ers and Broncos. 

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4. Lamar Jackson, 2019

Lamar Jackson, 2019
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A sizable statistical gap exists between the top four and the rest of the list. Jackson delivered an otherworldly 2019 that decided numerous fantasy leagues and led to the best record in Ravens history (14-2). The fifth of the five 2018 first-round QBs chosen, Jackson lapped his classmates with this stunning masterpiece -- which earned him unanimous MVP honors. The ex-Heisman winner smashed Vick's single-season QB rushing record by gliding for 1,206 yards and powering the Ravens to break a 41-year-old team single-season rushing record. He still led the NFL in TD passes (36), despite mediocre weaponry. 

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3. Patrick Mahomes, 2018

Patrick Mahomes, 2018
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Entering the 2020s as the NFL's top asset, Mahomes signaled this was on tap in 2018. The 2017 first-round pick took the Chiefs from reliably good to Super Bowl-ready in his first year as a starter, becoming the third quarterback to throw 50 touchdown passes in a season. The runaway MVP added 5,097 passing yards and guided a defensively deficient Chiefs team to the AFC's top seed. The Patriots subdued Mahomes in the first half of the AFC title game, but he scorched Bill Belichick's defense in the second period of a loss that showed a New England-to-Kansas City baton pass was coming. A year later, Mahomes finished that mission.

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2. Kurt Warner, 1999

Kurt Warner, 1999
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Warner going from Northern Iowa to Hy-Vee to the Arena League to preseason backup to Super Bowl XXXIV MVP represents one of the greatest rises in NFL history. Stepping into Trent Green's would-be role, Warner captivated the football world in 1999 by throwing 41 touchdown passes and leading the Greatest Show on Turf. He won the first of his two MVPs and showed the Rams -- 4-12 in 1998 -- were the class of the NFL in 1999. Warner threw five TDs in a Round 2 rout of the Vikings, and after edging the Bucs, the Rams saw their unlikely superstar bombard the Titans with a then-Super Bowl-record 414 yards. 

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1. Dan Marino, 1984

Dan Marino, 1984
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This remains the NFL passing zenith, despite the records having fallen. Marino's 48 touchdown passes broke a 21-year-old record by 12. Only three other teams scored  that many touchdowns in 1984. Marino added 5,084 passing yards, which stood as the record for 20 years, and captured MVP acclaim. The Dolphins went 14-2 without a strong running game. Marino rendered that irrelevant until the very end, adding seven TD passes in the Dolphins' two playoff wins. Don Shula's prized pupil didn't win it all like Warner, but he had to face an all-time Super Bowl opponent in the '84 49ers.

Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.

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