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2019 NFL midseason QB awards: Breakthroughs, regressions and surprises

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Clark, Hasselbeck tab Saints as top team in NFL right now (1:03)

Ryan Clark and Tim Hasselbeck pick the Saints as the top team in the NFL at this point, but Hasselbeck states the Patriots aren't far behind. (1:03)

Quarterback carnage. No two words better describe the first half of the 2019 NFL season.

A total of 46 passers have started at least one game, the most through Week 9 in five seasons. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the season in Week 2, the same week the Saints' Drew Brees suffered a thumb injury that cost him five starts. Jaguars starter Nick Foles broke his collarbone in Week 1, the Panthers' Cam Newton (foot) hasn't played since Week 2 and the Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes has now missed two straight games because of a knee injury.

Meanwhile, several franchises initiated the transition to new starters. The Giants benched Eli Manning in Week 3, and the Titans did the same to Marcus Mariota after Week 7. In Week 9, the Bengals moved on from Andy Dalton, and the Broncos sent Joe Flacco to the IR, ending his season.

Fortunately for those franchises and the league itself, losing a Week 1 starter hasn't destroyed the season. In fact, teams have won 24 games when starting a backup quarterback, according to research by the Elias Sports Bureau, the most through nine weeks since 1999.

All told, 14 teams have started more than one quarterback this season. In that context, let's use ESPN's weekly QB Awards to recognize the performances -- both good and bad -- of the season's first half, using unique data culled from ESPN Stats & Information and NFL Next Gen Stats.

Best QB of the first half: Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks

If it wasn't evident at the end of last season, it should be now: Wilson has ascended into the highest tier of NFL passers. The raw numbers are ridiculous on their own. Most notably, his 22 touchdown passes are the most through nine weeks of any player in history with one or fewer interceptions. And as those who have watched Wilson's games know, the level of difficulty on many of his throws can be breathtaking.

He owns two of the six most difficult completions this season, according to an NFL Next Gen Stats metric that factors pass rush, receiver separation and other variables into a success probability for each throw. His 54-yard strike to receiver DK Metcalf in Week 3 carried a 13.9% completion probability. And his 13-yard touchdown pass to receiver Tyler Lockett in Week 5, which he dropped into the corner of the end zone after eluding the rush, had a 6.3% chance to be completed.

Overall, the expected completion rate on Wilson's throws has been 60.9%, ranking among the five lowest of NFL starters. His true completion rate is 68.2%. The 7.3% differential, one measure of the extra value Wilson has added, ranks third in the NFL.


Biggest surprise: Gardner Minshew II, Jacksonville Jaguars

Raise your hand if you thought Chad Henne was still the Jaguars' backup quarterback upon hearing about Foles' Week 1 injury.

Instead, it was a little-known rookie sixth-round pick from Washington State. Did the Jaguars see something in him during training camp? Or did they simply decide against putting further resources into the position after Henne signed with the Chiefs?

Whether by chance or plan, Minshew showed enough during his half-season stint -- even with a downturn in production on Sunday -- to give the Jaguars a tough bye-week decision, now that Foles is ready to return. His free-wheeling personality quickly made him a fan favorite, and he led the Jaguars to a 4-4 record as a starter through a combination of off-schedule throws and moxie in and out of the pocket. He has thrown 13 touchdowns and only four interceptions, but his 11 fumbles -- seven of which the Jaguars lost -- have been an eye-opening byproduct of his tendency to break the pocket.

Note: The Jaguars announced that Foles would resume his starting role in Week 10.


Breakthrough Award: Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens

Jackson hasn't simply been the NFL's best running quarterback this season. He has more rushing yards after eight games (637) than any quarterback in league history. The only quarterbacks who had amassed as many as 500 rushing yards at this point in a season are Michael Vick (576 in 2006) and Bobby Douglass (556 in 1972).

What is truly remarkable is that 72 of his 99 carries have been designed runs, twice as many as any other quarterback. Although his unscripted scrambles have been more explosive (10.2 yards per clip), the designed runs have accounted for four of his five touchdowns -- including this one from Sunday night.

But Jackson has also been more than adequate as a passer, ranking No. 15 in the NFL in expected points added via the air. Put it all together and we can say that Jackson and the Ravens are rewriting the possibilities for an NFL quarterback in the spread era. They are fully utilizing his specific set of elite skills and casting aside fears about exposure to injury.

To that end, Jackson has experienced contact on a league-high 28.5% of his plays. For context, consider that 19 NFL quarterbacks have had a contact rate of less than 14% this season. But for this season, at least, Jackson is crushing through a barrier that most teams would never conceive of or approach.


QBRer Award: Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys

Prescott held the NFL lead in total quarterback rating for most of the season, dropping to No. 2 behind Wilson only on Monday night in Week 9. He has raised his game in some important areas under new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, and he is the only player in the NFL to rank in the top five in yards per attempt (No. 3) and completion rate (No. 5).

It's not as if Prescott is throwing easy, short passes either. His average throw has traveled 9.7 yards past the line of scrimmage, the third highest in the NFL. He has eight touchdown passes that traveled at least 15 yards in the air, second most in the league.

Finally, Prescott has been the NFL's most consistent quarterback against the blitz. His QBR (93.4) when opponents rush at least five men leads the league, and his 68.9% completion percentage sits at No. 3.


Regression Award: Most of the 2018 first-rounders

While Jackson is an MVP candidate and Josh Allen has at least somewhat helped the Buffalo Bills to a 6-2 start, the rest of the acclaimed 2018 quarterback draft class is stuck in the mud.

No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield of the Cleveland Browns ranks No. 32 in the NFL in completion percentage (58.7) and touchdown/interception ratio (0.58). Sam Darnold, chosen by the New York Jets at No. 3 overall, has thrown eight interceptions in his past three games. And Josh Rosen, the No. 10 overall pick, lasted only three starts in a fresh start with the Miami Dolphins and was benched after throwing one touchdown pass, five interceptions and completing only 53.2% of his passes.

It's not difficult to identify the common thread here. Jackson and Allen were drafted into relatively stable situations and have played for the same coaching staff the past two seasons. Mayfield and Darnold both were subjected to coaching changes, and it wouldn't be shocking to see them facing another after this season. Rosen, meanwhile, has already played for two teams and seems likely to be shipped to a third before signing a new deal.

There are plenty of other factors involved in the performances of these five quarterbacks. But when you write the recipe for development at that position, coaching continuity is one of the first ingredients.


Whiplash Award: Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings

Cousins was the NFL's least consequential quarterback in September and the league's offensive player of the month in October. He wasn't awful during his first game in November, throwing three touchdown passes in the Vikings' 26-23 loss to the Chiefs, but 34.8% of his passes were judged to be off-target by ESPN Stats & Information video analysis -- the highest for any qualified quarterback in Week 9.

All told, the Vikings have gotten the full Kirk Cousins Experience in nine games. He can produce video-game production against some teams, as he did in consecutive victories over the Eagles and Lions: a 73% completion rate for a combined 670 yards and eight touchdowns. He can make game-losing mistakes, as he did with a red zone interception in a Week 2 defeat to the Packers. And he can fail to protect a fourth-quarter lead, as he did Sunday in Kansas City.

Which Cousins will show up in the second half of the season? Here's a safe bet: all of them.


Patrick Mahomes Award: Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans

With Mahomes limited by ankle and knee injuries, Watson has emerged as the likeliest candidate for MVP from the 2017 quarterback class. He is fourth in QBR after nine games (74.8) and is every bit as effective outside of the pocket as Mahomes was during his 2018 MVP season.

In his past two games, Watson has thrown 11 and 12 passes outside of the pocket, respectively. He has completed 70% of them, including three for touchdowns.

An incredible 41.1% of his passes have converted a first down, the second-highest rate in the league. And Watson has accounted for 23 touchdowns -- 18 by air and five on the ground. Only Wilson (25) has more.


All the Feels Award: Teddy Bridgewater, New Orleans Saints

Bridgewater nailed a complicated decision in free agency, opting to return as the Saints' backup rather than join the tanking Dolphins as starter. He filled in efficiently for Brees, throwing nine touchdown passes, completing 69.7% of his passes and demonstrating that his once-ravaged knee is healthy enough to hold up to weekly pounding.

Bridgewater did remind us that he is a decidedly cautious passer -- his average pass traveled 5.7 yards past the line of scrimmage, second-lowest in the NFL during that time -- but he no doubt put himself in position to be a viable starting option in free agency. He turns 27 later this month and, to the delight of fans around the league who have been inspired by his story, appears to have a long career ahead of him.


Turnover Machine Award: Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Marcus Mariota's 2015 draft classmate has done his best to get benched, but Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians hasn't given up on him yet. Winston has committed an NFL-high 16 turnovers in eight games, throwing 12 interceptions and losing four fumbles. But the story is worse than that.

ESPN Stats & Information charters have credited defenders with dropping another six interceptions, most in the NFL, and Winston has fumbled a total of nine times. So in reality, Winston has given opponents 31 legitimate opportunities to create a turnover. They have just taken him up on it a little more than half the time.

Not surprisingly, the Buccaneers are 2-6 and headed into an offseason where they almost certainly will need to find a new starter.