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Dak Prescott Is Not Your Average Week 1 Starting Quarterback

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.

YEAR QUARTERBACK TEAM DRAFT PICK
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
Rookie starters in Week 1 since 1970

Source: Pro Football Reference

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.

Footnotes

  1. In addition, no undrafted quarterbacks since the NFL merger have started as rookies. Dieter Brock (1985) and Warren Moon (1984) both started their team’s season openers after going undrafted, but neither was a professional rookie, as both had extensive experience in the Canadian Football League before coming to the NFL. And while Jim Zorn (1976) started as a “rookie” for Seattle in 1976, that was only after being undrafted in 1975 and spending training camp with the Dallas Cowboys.

Chase Stuart writes about football statistics and history at FootballPerspective.com

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