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The Return of the NFL’s Redshirt Quarterback

Why the 2017 draft class might end the NFL’s recent trend of rookie passers starting right away — and why that might be a blessing for teams and players alike

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

For nearly a decade, NFL general managers have told the same fib: that their first-round quarterbacks will sit and learn for a year before taking over. In August 2014, Blake Bortles was supposedly getting ready for his "redshirt season"; four weeks later the Jags named him the starter. Last July, the Eagles started training camp claiming that Carson Wentz would be the third-string QB on the depth chart; right before the season, Philly traded Sam Bradford to Minnesota and moved Wentz ahead of Chase Daniel into the starting role.

Those are just two examples of what’s become routine: Despite the lip service that organizations still pay to the idea of initially placing rookie passers on the bench, first-round signal-callers playing right away is now more rule than exception. Of the 24 quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 2008, 19 have started at least half of their rookie season. That marked a dramatic shift: From 2000 through 2007, 21 quarterbacks were drafted in the first round, but only eight started at least half of their rookie season. Only one of those eight, David Carr, started more than 13 games as a rookie; 12 of the QBs from 2008 on hit that mark.

Saying either that every rookie quarterback is ready to play or that everyone should sit until his second or third year is painting with too broad a brush. For every Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, or Carson Palmer, who sat and later thrived, there’s a Brady Quinn who sat but never panned out. For every Andrew Luck and Cam Newton who started as rookies and excelled, there’s a Brandon Weeden or Blaine Gabbert who got the gig right away and never amounted to a reliable QB1.

Generally, though, the trend of rushing quarterbacks increasingly makes little sense. This is largely because it’s getting harder for quarterback draft picks to acclimate to the pros due to a mixture of the proliferation of the spread offense at the college level and a lack of sufficient practice time at the NFL level. And that’s why the 2017 draft class is even more interesting than the trade-centric talk reveals: Some of these first-rounders really won’t play during their rookie season.

New Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes II, the Texas Tech product and 10th overall pick, will be the rare top-10 selection who sits an entire season. Alex Smith, despite his limitations, will be the starter in Kansas City in 2017, and coach Andy Reid said that Smith’s focus shouldn’t be on holding off Mahomes, but rather on "getting himself ready to go win a Super Bowl." Throw in the fact that second overall pick Mitchell Trubisky will almost certainly back up Mike Glennon, whom the Bears signed earlier this offseason to a deal that guarantees him $18.5 million, and you’ve got two players who will get more time than almost any first-round QB in recent memory to get acclimated in the pros. Texans coach Bill O’Brien said that Tom Savage is still the starting quarterback ahead of 12th overall pick Deshaun Watson, but having seen Savage play makes that hard to believe.

While both Mahomes and Trubisky surely want to start, they’re in unusually fortunate positions for modern quarterbacks: They were drafted by teams who planned ahead and thus will not need to force them into action prematurely. The Chiefs are a Super Bowl contender. The Bears are set at starter (yes, it’s Glennon, but Chicago invested a lot in him). That means that unlike typical rookies, these passers won’t be placed into the starting role prematurely because their team is desperate for a live arm.

If this pans out as expected, this quarterback class will teach us a lot about whether sitting and learning is beneficial in the modern game. But while the insights could be new, the questions aren’t: For more than two years, offensive coordinators and general managers have griped to me and many other reporters about the brutal transition from college quarterbacking to the pros. Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson said at his team’s predraft press conference that there are barely any "pro-style" quarterback prospects anymore. As the spread offense proliferates, fewer college quarterbacks take snaps from center or call plays; they look to the sideline or read a card. "Guys don’t really read defense much," Jackson said when explaining the challenges of searching for a quarterback. "I’m being very honest with you. So it is tough."

These changes at the college level have been exacerbated by NFL teams’ rigid thinking and the restrictions brought by the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. In addition to widely insisting on converting these spread-bred passers into pro-style QBs, teams barely have any time to complete that transformation. Under the current CBA, offseason training in the spring can’t last more than four days a week or occur on weekends. For the first two weeks of offseason workouts, no coaches other than strength and conditioning personnel are allowed to be on the field with players. Quarterbacks can throw to wideouts, but defensive backs can’t guard those receivers; more broadly, offense vs. defense drills are not allowed for the first five weeks of training in the spring.

And that’s where these quarterbacks come in. Reid told reporters that Mahomes needs to learn the pro system, which Reid compares to learning a "new language." It tracks that having multiple offseasons to learn that language would be valuable, especially given the widening gap between the college and pro skill sets.

"Right now, Patrick’s not absolutely ready to play," Reid said. "He’s got some work to do. But he’s coming into a great room, he gets an opportunity to learn from Alex Smith, which will be a phenomenal experience for him, and learn the offense. And so we have to be patient with him. He’s definitely not a finished product right now, but he has tremendous upside."

By recent standards, taking an unpolished product and sitting him for a year while he learns would be downright revolutionary. If it works, planning ahead by taking a touted quarterback despite having a starter in place and then letting that rookie learn the pro game slowly could become the NFL’s next draft trend. If Mahomes had been drafted by another team, he might be starting in September and forced to learn that new language at a dangerously accelerated pace — like when you get lost on vacation and have to just start pointing and miming to find food (see: Gabbert, Blaine).

A similar wait-and-learn approach to Mahomes’s will likely unfold in Chicago, where even Trubisky has said that Glennon will remain the starter. The Chicago Tribune said that in order to succeed in the NFL, Trubisky will have to prove that he can recognize coverages and blitzes (a common problem for modern young quarterbacks). Thus, a year riding the pine would likely do wonders for his development.

Multiple general managers have told me in recent years that the typical college-player-to-pro-starter time frame for certain positions — particularly quarterback — needs to slow so that players have more time to develop once they’re in the league. The first GM I remember making the point to me was Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert two years ago. Incidentally, he took one of the more intriguing stash options in this draft in fourth-rounder Josh Dobbs, the strong-armed if inconsistent Tennessee product. Dobbs, who’ll begin his pro career behind Ben Roethlisberger and (for now) Landry Jones, was among the smartest players in the draft, having literally studied to be a rocket scientist. On the bench in Pittsburgh, he’ll get a football education to go along with his tools.

"We’ve said this all along, we’d like to get a young guy in the mix," Colbert told media after the draft. "Ideally, you get a young guy in the mix and they learn at a comfortable pace."

Sitting-and-watching may be the new playing-and-failing. In three or four years, when this entire class has established its worth (or lack thereof) in the pros, we’ll have a more accurate read on whether watching football is as valuable as playing it. Because in an era when most quarterbacks are rushed, a few teams could benefit from slowing down.