Position Progression: Quarterbacks
Everybody expects their star rookie to step into the NFL and dominate the way they did throughout their college career without so much as a hiccup, but it doesn’t always work that way, in fact it rarely does.
We have looked at every draft pick of the PFF era and analyzed their expected progression based on both snaps and grade and the bottom line is you are doing well if your rookie plays at an above average level in his first season in the league. There isn’t a single position that projects first year players to perform better than the league average and some positions project them to play far below it. Though the NFL has become all about immediate results, despite notable exceptions the draft still remains about acquiring talent for the future, not necessarily the present.
Quarterback is a position that often divides opinion on what is best for a player, with some believing it’s better for them to sit behind a veteran and learn at first, and others feeling that they need to see as many snaps as possible. However, with the importance of the position, and the expectations involved when they are drafted in the first round, the vast majority wind up seeing plenty of playing time straight away.
First round quarterbacks generally tend to struggle in their rookie seasons, with just seven of the 18 players taken in the first round since 2007 finishing their first year with a positive grade. The best year for rookie quarterbacks since we began grading was 2012, with Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Ryan Tannehill all playing well but, even with that banner year, first round rookies have averaged a -6.2 grade in their opening seasons in the league. By the end of their second year we have seen an improvement by the first-round signal-callers, averaging a grade of +1.1. That improvement is largely down to the performances of the few, though, with just eight of the 20 quarterbacks drafted in the first round from 2006 onward who we’ve seen a second season from, finishing that year with a positive grade.
When looking at the average grade of quarterbacks in their third seasons (-1.1) it’s important to note that we lose three of the highest performers early in their careers from the sample group in Luck, Griffin and Tannehill. However, that -1.1 average is largely down to JaMarcus Russell (-21.9), Mark Sanchez (-24.2), Blaine Gabbert (-10.7) and Christian Ponder (-9.0) dragging the average down with poor seasons.
When looking at players drafted after the first round, only Russell Wilson, who has a cumulative overall grade of +67.2 in just two seasons, has truly stood out, though Nick Foles (+7.4) did have a solid second year in 2013.
Best Case Scenario
Though he seems to take a lot of heat for Atlanta’s lack of postseason success in recent years, you can look no further than Matt Ryan when searching out the best success you can expect from a quarterback drafted in the first round in recent years. Ryan started right from the beginning in Atlanta, has yet to finish a season with a negative grade, and has landed among our five highest-graded quarterbacks in four of his six seasons in the league, grading at +147.0 over the course of his career.
That’s consistency to go along with a high level of play and, while some have criticized his play in the postseason, it’s worth noting that he has amassed a +8.9 grade from five playoff games.
Worst Case Scenario
There were certainly a few options to look at here, with JaMarcus Russell narrowly missing out on the “award”. In the end we opted for Blaine Gabbert, who stumbled his way to a -60.5 grade from just 1,613 career snaps with the Jacksonville Jaguars before moving on to the San Francisco 49ers this offseason with his time as a starter over. It started badly for Gabbert in his rookie year, with six games where he finished with a grade of -4.5 or worse. He was by far our lowest-graded quarterback that year, though John Skelton (-24.6), may have given him competition had he been able to match his snap count.
Gabbert looked to take a step forward in his second year in 2012, finishing the year with just a small negative grade and only grading below -2.5 once all year. Yet any optimism would be short-lived, with the Jaguars opting to go with Chad Henne as the starter in 2013 and Gabbert struggling (-10.7) in just three starts. His career in Jacksonville spanned 28 games, and with a grade of -4.5 or worse in a quarter of those games, it’s easy to see why he’s no longer with the team.
The Path Most Trodden
So you’re drafting a quarterback in the first round and you’re hoping for Ryan and trying to avoid Gabbert, what’s the most likely outcome? Well, how about the first overall pick from the 2009 draft, Matthew Stafford? His career started poorly, struggling his way to a -30.8 grade as a rookie despite playing just 690 snaps and his 2010 was a year essentially missed due to injury as he played just 179 snaps.
His 2011 campaign saw him take a big step forward, though, finishing as our 12th-highest-graded QB. That saw Stafford reach a level that he has maintained since: generally playing well, but hindering himself with roughly three poor games per year in the last three seasons.
That rookie season was poor, as many rookie quarterbacks can be, but generally by the end of their third season quarterbacks have settled into the player they are likely to become, and not many quarterback-needy teams would be upset if the quarterback they drafted this year took a similar career path to that of Stafford.
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