Dak Prescott was the 135th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Teams don’t use low selections on quarterbacks and expect an immediate contribution, but that is the situation the Dallas Cowboys now find themselves in. Star quarterback Tony Romo, with a broken bone in his back, will be out for at least six to 10 weeks, leaving Prescott as the team’s likely Week 1 starter.
It’s not easy for rookie quarterbacks to start in the NFL, and it’s pretty rare for them to start in Week 1 of the NFL season. For the most part, that honor belongs to those highly drafted players taken by a team that intends to build around a rookie signal caller. Last year, only the top two picks of the draft — Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota — were opening day starters. And in the last 10 years, Russell Wilson (a third-round pick) is the only rookie quarterback to start his team’s opening game despite not being drafted in the first two rounds. Kyle Orton, an early fourth-round pick in 2005, was the last rookie quarterback to start in Week 1 despite not being drafted in the first three rounds. But even that comparison doesn’t quite line up with Prescott, as Orton was the 106th pick in the draft; Prescott was a compensatory draft selection used by Dallas almost a full round of selections later.
This is rarely charted territory in modern history: In the last 30 years, only three rookie quarterbacks drafted outside of the top 100 picks started their team’s season opener: Orton, Chris Weinke in 2001 and Steve Beuerlein in 1988.1 You have to go all the way back to 1977 to find a quarterback not selected in the first 130 picks of the NFL draft who then went on start his team’s season opener as a rookie.
That player was Randy Hedberg, who started for the terrible Buccaneers franchise in 1977. Hedberg is one of the worst quarterbacks in NFL history — he finished his career with 0 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, completed 27.8 percent of his passes and averaged 2.7 yards per attempt. He was sacked 15 times in his career and completed 25 passes. He finished his career with a 0.0 passer rating. And, to date, he is the only quarterback since the merger in 1970 to be drafted outside of the top 130 picks and then start in his team’s season opener just a few months later.
The table below shows every quarterback to start as a rookie in his team’s opening game since 1970 along with the draft pick used on that player.
|2015||Marcus Mariota||Tennessee Titans||2|
|2015||Jameis Winston||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||1|
|2014||Derek Carr||Oakland Raiders||36|
|2013||Geno Smith||New York Jets||39|
|2013||EJ Manuel||Buffalo Bills||16|
|2012||Russell Wilson||Seattle Seahawks||75|
|2012||Brandon Weeden||Cleveland Browns||22|
|2012||Ryan Tannehill||Miami Dolphins||8|
|2012||Robert Griffin||Washington Redskins||2|
|2012||Andrew Luck||Indianapolis Colts||1|
|2011||Andy Dalton||Cincinnati Bengals||35|
|2011||Cam Newton||Carolina Panthers||1|
|2010||Sam Bradford||St. Louis Rams||1|
|2009||Mark Sanchez||New York Jets||5|
|2009||Matthew Stafford||Detroit Lions||1|
|2008||Joe Flacco||Baltimore Ravens||18|
|2008||Matt Ryan||Atlanta Falcons||3|
|2005||Kyle Orton||Chicago Bears||106|
|2003||Kyle Boller||Baltimore Ravens||19|
|2002||David Carr||Houston Texans||1|
|2001||Chris Weinke||Carolina Panthers||106|
|2001||Quincy Carter||Dallas Cowboys||53|
|1998||Ryan Leaf||San Diego Chargers||2|
|1998||Peyton Manning||Indianapolis Colts||1|
|1993||Rick Mirer||Seattle Seahawks||2|
|1993||Drew Bledsoe||New England Patriots||1|
|1990||Jeff George||Indianapolis Colts||1|
|1989||Troy Aikman||Dallas Cowboys||1|
|1983||John Elway||Denver Broncos||1|
|1982||Mike Pagel||Baltimore Colts||84|
|1978||Doug Williams||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||17|
|1977||Randy Hedberg||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||196|
|1975||Steve Bartkowski||Atlanta Falcons||1|
|1973||Joe Ferguson||Buffalo Bills||57|
|1973||Bert Jones||Baltimore Colts||2|
|1971||Archie Manning||New Orleans Saints||2|
|1971||Jim Plunkett||New England Patriots||1|
|1970||Terry Bradshaw||Pittsburgh Steelers||1|
The Cowboys aren’t the only team in an unusual situation: The Broncos have named Trevor Siemian as the team’s starting quarterback. Siemian was a seventh-round pick from Northwestern in 2015, and has never started a game. Teams almost never go into the season with a starting quarterback who’s both unproven and lowly drafted, but Siemian appears to have beaten out both Mark Sanchez and first-round pick Paxton Lynch.
In 1999, three teams opened the season with undrafted quarterbacks who had never started a game: the Rams, Bears and Eagles.
- St. Louis lost projected starter Trent Green to injury in the preseason that year, opening the door for undrafted Kurt Warner to make his first NFL start in Week 1 of the 1999 season.
- Chicago surprisingly cut starter Erik Kramer in July of 1999 and had invested a high first-round pick on Cade McNown. But until he was ready, it was Shane Matthews who won the starting job. Matthews went undrafted in 1993, and threw a total of 17 pass attempts prior to the 1999 season, started the first five games of the year before Chicago handed the job to the first-round pick; a similar situation could play out in Denver with Siemian and Lynch.
- Like the Bears, Philadelphia also spent a high first-round pick on a quarterback in 1999 — on Donovan McNabb. Head coach Andy Reid was in his first season in Philadelphia after spending the previous two years as the Packers’ quarterbacks coach. Reid brought along Green Bay backup Doug Pederson, an undrafted free agent in 1991. Pederson, now the new head coach of the Eagles, made his first career start in the Eagles season opener in 1999.
Warner, McNown and Pederson were all undrafted, and are the only such quarterbacks in the last 30 years to make their first NFL start in their team’s season opener.
These are strange times for quarterbacks in the NFL, and especially the Cowboys and Broncos. But the highly unusual nature of their predicaments means Prescott and Siemian don’t have to be Kurt Warner to be successful — most fans would settle for somewhere north of Randy Hedberg.