Rookie Impact: Quarterbacks
It’s time to take a look at the game’s most important position, the quarterback. No position on the field can separate the contenders from the pretenders like the quarterback, and the quest to find a franchise cornerstone stretches far and wide for many teams around the league.
When a team places their hopes in a new quarterback, expectations are always high, and rewards are often unfairly expected immediately. The old adage was that a quarterback needed a “redshirt” year to sit and learn the ropes, but that theory has become less and less prevalent as first round quarterbacks are now expected to see the field as rookies with their learning coming from game action. Results have been mixed in this regard, but it’s likely more about a talent issue rather than simply being thrown into the fire too early.
The 2014 NFL Draft saw 14 quarterbacks drafted, though only Blake Bortles (Jaguars), Johnny Manziel (Browns), and Teddy Bridgewater (Vikings) heard their names called in the first round. The Jaguars have already claimed that this season will be a development one for Bortles and that he won’t be rushed, while Manziel and Bridgewater are headed for training camp battles to see if they’re started on opening day.
What should we expect from these first-year signal callers?
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Staking Your Claim
Finding the quarterbacks that see the field early is generally as easy as looking at draft status as the first-rounders are usually thrust into action from the get go. The top end of the chart with regard to snap counts is littered with former top picks, with a few exceptions like Russell Wilson, Andy Dalton, and Geno Smith mixed in there.
Wilson was a rare case as the former third round pick surprised many and earned the starting nod after a strong training camp and preseason performance. Dalton was clearly on the Bengals’ radar when he was taken near the top of the second round of 2011, so it was no surprise to see him as their opening day starter. Smith benefitted from a season-ending injury to incumbent starter Mark Sanchez a year ago, but by many accounts, he was destined for the starting job after the Jets invested their second-round pick on him.
No matter the case, with high investment comes high expectations, and most teams have erred the way of developing their investment on the field rather than learning the game behind the scenes.
The last four first-rounders to sniff true “redshirt” years were Jack Locker, Tim Tebow, Jamarcus Russell, and Brady Quinn. Tebow and Russell each started games at the end of their respective rookie seasons, while Locker managed 99 snaps and Quinn saw the field for only 10 plays back in 2007.
Making Your Mark
While the investment is high and expectations the same, most teams and fans understand the immense learning curve of the quarterback position and first-year players are expected to struggle initially. Sentiment was skewed slightly by the class of 2012 which featured impressive first-year performances from Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, and Wilson.
Griffin and Wilson ranked among the Top 10 quarterbacks in the league in overall PFF grade while Luck and Tannehill also had strong years. Matt Ryan’s 2008 was also quite impressive as he set the tone with a 62-yard touchdown on his very first pass and never looked back. His +20.8 overall grade ranked third among quarterbacks that season.
Early success is still an anomaly rather than the norm as most quarterbacks fall below the line in the negative range. There were some particularly disastrous performances such as Blaine Gabbert’s 2011 (-47.0), Matthew Stafford’s 2009 (-30.8), and Brandon Weeden’s 2012 (-27.4). Stafford has recovered to become one of the league’s better quarterbacks, but the same can’t be said for Gabbert and Weeden who appear destined for clipboard duty for the rest of their respective careers.
There were a few average performances mixed in there as well as Dalton (-4.6), Joe Flacco (-2.2), and Sam Bradford (-6.9) held their own as first-year starters, but their unspectacular play was perhaps a sign of things to come in each player’s career. Aside from his Super Bowl run in 2012, Flacco has been extremely inconsistent, Dalton has shown some of the most uneven quarterback play in the league, and Bradford has failed to make his mark with inconsistent play being surrounded by a number of injuries.
The Dream Scenario
The class of 2012 is the place to start as four quarterbacks were able to step right in with above average quarterback play with three of the four leading their respective teams to the playoffs. Seasons like this were once thought of as extremely rare, but the bar has been raised – rightfully or not – thanks to the class of 2012’s ability to smoothly transition to the NFL game. Ryan’s 2008 season deserves special mention as well as he also led his team to the playoffs after exceeding expectations with his play.
While the class of 2012’s early success may be rare, other teams have had to settle for at least seeing some kind of positive play from their quarterback rather than just a year-long struggle. It’s likely that Dalton, Flacco, and Bradford’s first-year moderate success elicited excitement within their respective organizations, but a relative failure to develop may put the teams in the tenuous position of trying to figure out when to move on versus continuing to invest long term.
So while any success from a rookie quarterback is generally viewed as a positive, riding the roller coaster of the average NFL quarterback is a dangerous ride, so perhaps the real dream scenario may just be seeing a QB’s true colors as soon as possible so a quick decision can be made to invest or move on.
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