Nothing brings more hope to an NFL franchise than a shiny first-round rookie quarterback. This year we have five of them, all selected within the top 15 picks. From San Francisco to Chicago, from New York to Jacksonville, hope was in the air. Even a famous grump like New England’s Bill Belichick felt optimistic enough to jettison last year’s starter, Cam Newton, to reportedly make 15th overall pick Mac Jones more comfortable.
But optimism can quickly turn to despair if a rookie QB delivers an overdose of underwhelm, and the team dynamics that allowed a franchise to draft at the top of the first round in the first place come back into focus. Even good rookie quarterbacks rarely transform their teams into playoff contenders, and perhaps unsurprisingly, they also tend to struggle when they are thrust into postseason action. But in all likelihood, this year’s crop of first-round rookies won’t have to shoulder the burden of a postseason appearance. The four who have started at least one game — Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields and Jones1 — have not been good through three weeks of action. In fact, they’ve been historically awful.
|2011||Cam Newton • Blaine Gabbert||-3.4|
|2009||Matthew Stafford • Mark Sanchez||-11.3|
|2003||Byron Leftwich • Kyle Boller||-17.1|
|2012||Andrew Luck • Robert Griffin • Ryan Tannehill • Brandon Weeden||-17.2|
|2008||Matt Ryan • Joe Flacco||-19.3|
|1993||Drew Bledsoe • Rick Mirer||-21.9|
|2015||Jameis Winston • Marcus Mariota||-26.4|
|2014||Blake Bortles • Teddy Bridgewater||-30.5|
|1998||Peyton Manning • Ryan Leaf||-32.4|
|2020||Joe Burrow • Justin Herbert||-33.5|
|2002||David Carr • Joey Harrington||-37.2|
|2019||Kyler Murray • Daniel Jones||-41.8|
|2018||Baker Mayfield • Sam Darnold • Josh Allen • Josh Rosen||-51.1|
|1979||Jack Thompson • Steve Fuller||-54.9|
|1971||Archie Manning • Jim Plunkett||-55.9|
|2021||Trevor Lawrence • Zach Wilson • Justin Fields • Mac Jones||-92.5|
The triumvirate of first overall pick Lawrence, No. 2 Wilson and No. 15 Jones account for more than 23 percent of the interceptions thrown in the league so far this season. Fields — the 11th overall pick — and Wilson alone account for nearly 12 percent of the sacks. In Fields’s only start, he passed for a grand total of one (1) net yard. Combined, the four rookies have a completion percentage of 57.4, 9.6 points below league average, and 5.75 yards per pass attempt, 1.73 yards below league average. Their Total QBR is an abysmal 26.4.
So do all of these highly drafted players just stink, or is there reason to think that they’re not as bad as they’ve looked?
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First of all, it’s still early — both in the season and in these players’ careers. No one should be writing off a high draft pick on the basis of (at most) three bad games. It’s possible (though unlikely) that four good players could just be experiencing a streak of extremely poor play all at the same time.
Second, NFL teams are putting their young QBs into starting roles more and more frequently. This hasn’t been the case historically. Our sample for large QB draft classes isn’t large, but 2021 still stands out. Five QBs have been selected in the first round in three drafts: 1999, 2018 and 2021. In 1999, only Browns QB Tim Couch made a start in the first three weeks.2 In 2018, just two of the five first-rounders (Sam Darnold and Josh Allen) were called on to start early.3
Six QBs were chosen in the first round just once since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, in 1983, and the draft included three future Hall of Famers. Broncos legend John Elway took the field immediately, but Miami’s Dan Marino didn’t start until Week 6. Jim Kelly would have started but was lured away to the USFL for two years just as he was about to sign his contract with Buffalo, and out of the other three QBs, only New England’s Tony Eason managed even a single start in his rookie season. Todd Blackledge and University of California, Davis, legend Ken O’Brien were backups their entire rookie seasons, for the Chiefs and Jets, respectively.
The move to play quarterbacks early is probably a rational one, and it’s partly driven by the way the league is structured. With a salary cap that impedes long-term team building in the name of parity, it has become common for teams to attempt to exploit all five years4 of a first-round QB’s (relatively) cheap contract by having them take the field and start as early in their careers as possible.
And that’s what we are seeing play out this year in Jacksonville, New York, New England and Chicago. Four QBs who perhaps just aren’t quite ready to lead their teams on the field are performing a high-wire act and learning as they go. There’s still reason for hope, but if history is any indication, we should also be open to the notion that one or more of these guys is actually pretty bad. And for those franchises, unfortunately, that means that it’s back to the drawing board.
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