Few have noticed, but Blake Bortles is much better

Blake Bortles has made strides in his second year by extending plays, reducing sacks and taking better advantage of the Jaguars' scoring opportunities. Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Derek Carr is the darling of the football cognoscenti. Teddy Bridgewater has helped his team win five of its first seven games. Johnny Manziel, is well, Johnny Manziel. And we all inspected every one of Jimmy Garoppolo's summer throws on the presumption that he would open the season as a starter.

Yes, the quarterback class of 2014 has been all over the news in recent months -- and yet there has been no national discussion about the guy drafted ahead of them all. Blake Bortles, the No. 3 overall pick last year, has been toiling quietly for a Jacksonville Jaguars franchise that is 5-18 since his arrival. So as he approaches his 21st NFL start Sunday, a flashpoint where most NFL evaluators begin making long-term career projections, it's worth asking: Is Bortles going to make it?

The numbers suggest that his team's poor performance has overshadowed easily documented individual progress. No quarterback had more room for improvement -- Bortles' 21.9 Total Quarterback Rating in 2014 was one of the worst by a rookie quarterback since QBR records began -- but there is no denying it has occurred. Whether that leads to a successful career could depend on whether the Jaguars surround him with a better team, but for the moment, Bortles has done his part.

Put simply, Bortles has been more aggressive and dealt far more effectively with pressure than he did as a rookie. He is extending plays, reducing sacks and taking better advantage of the Jaguars' scoring opportunities.

Let's hit a few of those areas in detail. First up: the blitz.

Many rookies struggle against pressures of five or more men, but as the first chart shows, no qualified quarterback in the league last season performed worse against it than Bortles. And this season, opponents are blitzing him on 34.1 percent of his dropbacks -- the 10th-highest rate in the league.

But Bortles has responded in a way that might bring down those numbers eventually. Nearly half of his 15 touchdown passes have come against the blitz, and his QBR in those situations is five times higher than it was in 2014.

It's reasonable to wonder if that development has resulted from better pass protection rather than higher efficiency from Bortles, and it's true that he is getting sacked less. (He has been sacked on 6.4 percent of dropbacks this season, down from 10 percent in 2014.) But Bortles deserves more credit than anyone for reducing that number because, if anything, he is seeing more pressure this season.

Per ESPN Stats & Information video analysis, Bortles is being pressured on 34.8 percent of his dropbacks after facing it on 26.2 percent last season. So to sum it up: Pressure is up, sacks are down and efficiency against the blitz has spiked.

Some of that success can be attributed to Bortles' decision (and ability) to extend plays more frequently. As the second chart shows, he has thrown nearly as many passes -- and had far more success -- after holding the ball for at least four seconds. (The average NFL pass has been thrown in 2.46 seconds.) Many coaches will prioritize a quick release as the most effective antidote to pressure, but Bortles has Ben Roethlisberger-like mobility and has used it to his advantage. (See his game-winning 31-yard touchdown throw in Week 7, in which Bortles scrambled to his left before launching a perfect pass to receiver Allen Hurns.)

In part because he is less encumbered by pressure, Bortles has turned his attention downfield. His average pass is traveling nearly 70 percent farther past the line of scrimmage this season (10.0 air yards per throw) than it did last season (6.85). He also has cut nearly in half the number of throws that hit receivers at or behind the line of scrimmage (14.4 percent) from last season (27.4).

Finally, Bortles has lifted his completion percentage in the red zone from 34.2 to 50, and he has more than doubled his touchdown passes from five to 11 in those situations. His QBR in the red zone is 52.8, up from a near-unregistered 1.9 last season. That means Bortles is doing his part to help the Jaguars maximize the best chances they have to score.

To be clear, these eye-opening slices of a seven-game period still don't put Bortles close to the NFL's top quarterbacks. His overall QBR of 61.4 ranks No. 17 in the NFL, behind Carr and Bridgewater, among others. He is still committing costly turnovers, having had three returned for touchdowns already this season on top of four in 2014. And if you believe that no NFL quarterback should complete less than 60 percent of his passes, as many personnel evaluators do, you would be concerned by his current mark of 58.9.

But the news seems positive in the context of a larger view. Bortles was historically bad last season. As ESPN Insider Mike Sando wrote at the time, there is a very short list of quarterbacks in recent history who have gone on to successful careers after the type of rookie season he had. Bortles has done enough this season to suggest he has a chance to be the exception.

Jacob Nitzberg of ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.