If a team picks an offensive lineman or defensive end in the first round of the NFL draft, that player is expected to be in the starting lineup for Week 1. Barring injury, it would almost be worrisome if they weren’t good enough to instantly rise to the top of the depth chart. These players might struggle out of the gate, but that’s fine—they’ll learn with every snap. Of the top 15 picks in the 2021 draft, 12 started in Week 1. Two of the three who didn’t were quarterbacks.
If a team picks a quarterback in the first round of the NFL draft, there’s no telling when that player will make his debut. In the past five drafts, 20 QBs have been taken in the first round; only six were named Week 1 starters. The fact that three 2021 first-round quarterbacks (Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, and Mac Jones) started in Week 1 is an outlier in recent history.
The decision-making process surrounding when a team should start a rookie QB is immensely complicated. It has short-term ramifications: Will a team be better with its talented but undeveloped rookie or its reliable but unspectacular veteran? While it’s relatively easy to provide snaps to a wide receiver or defensive back, it’s difficult at quarterback. There’s only one QB on the field, and playing the wrong one can tank a game—or season.
The choice also has long-term ramifications. Teams generally don’t draft quarterbacks to win right away, and there’s no consensus on how to best develop young QBs. Some think throwing quarterbacks in before they’re ready can ruin their psyches; others think the best way for QBs to learn is to make mistakes and grow from them.
This debate has become particularly fierce with regard to the 49ers and Bears. San Francisco is starting Jimmy Garoppolo over rookie Trey Lance, but using Lance in select red-zone opportunities. Lance threw a touchdown pass on his only attempt against the Lions, and ran for a score with his only carry against the Packers. Why are the Niners willing to give the rookie such critical snaps but not more responsibility?
The situation with the Bears is significantly more fraught. Head coach Matt Nagy has been insistent that veteran Andy Dalton is the team’s starter, and initially only played rookie Justin Fields in a role similar to Lance’s. But then Dalton got hurt in Week 2 and Fields started in Week 3; it resulted in one of the least successful offensive performances in recent league history. The Ringer’s Ben Solak detailed how Nagy set Fields up for failure by implementing a game plan ill-suited to Fields’s needs.
There are two questions here: Which quarterback is best to help the Bears win in 2021? And which developmental strategy is best for Fields over the long term? Before Week 1, ESPN’s Adam Schefter argued that the best thing in both cases is for the rookie to ride the bench for a while. He cited the success of some past QBs who opened their careers serving stints as backups. “Let’s go through all the drafts the last 10, 20, 30 years, and let’s look at all the first-round draft picks that were put into the lineup, especially in this day and age where people want results instantaneously, and see the quarterback broken before he has a chance to develop,” Schefter said. “What about the guys who had a chance to sit on the bench? Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady.”
“The plan is to guard the big picture and to not break this quarterback before they believe he's ready. ... What about the guys that had the chance to sit on the bench? Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady.”@AdamSchefter with some perspective on the Bears' QB situation. pic.twitter.com/kbTbb207ya— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) September 13, 2021
It’s a flimsy argument. For starters, Brady wasn’t a first-round pick, and his career has no parallel in NFL history. Rodgers wasn’t benched as a rookie because it was ideal for his development; he was benched because that year’s Packers team had Brett Favre. And do we really think Mahomes is redefining the limits of the position because he spent 2017 sitting behind Alex Smith? Mahomes has one of the greatest arms in football history, and was slinging outrageous bombs in his first preseason.
You can make all sorts of arguments about the best approach with rookie QBs. Peyton Manning got to start immediately in Indianapolis after being picked first overall in 1998. Those Colts went 3-13 as Manning threw 28 interceptions, which remains the record for most interceptions by a rookie. Eventually, though, he figured things out and became one of the game’s all-time greats. In 2014, Manning told Peter King that the game slowed down for him during his rookie season, and that he feels playing as a rookie is “the best way to learn” for young quarterbacks.
The player picked directly after Manning in 1998 also got to start right away. Yet Ryan Leaf played in just 25 career games and threw more than twice as many interceptions (36) as touchdowns (14). In a 2017 article for The Players’ Tribune, Leaf pinpointed his poor response to his third NFL game (in which he had more interceptions than completions) as “the beginning of the end” of his football career.
To help bring clarity to this conversation, I examined the careers of all 60 quarterbacks taken in the first round between 2000 and 2020. I sorted the QBs into five categories:
- Week 1 starters: the QBs who topped the depth chart immediately.
- Briefly benched: quarterbacks who didn’t start in Week 1 as rookies, but took over the starting role before the midway point of that season.
- Long-term clipboard holders: quarterbacks who didn’t make a start until the second half of their rookie season.
- Role players: quarterbacks who didn’t start in Week 1 as rookies, but were part of their offenses’ game plans from the jump. This group is limited to players who were clearly part of their teams’ strategies. It does not include quarterbacks like Eli Manning, who played in garbage time of Week 1 as a rookie.
- Stuck on the sideline: quarterbacks who started zero or one game in their rookie season.
Within each category, I determined how many QBs made Pro Bowls, how many were sustained starters without a Pro Bowl appearance, and how many were busts. For the sake of this exercise, I’m defining “busts” as quarterbacks who spent two or fewer seasons as a full-time starter after their rookie campaign.
The question of how to best develop quarterbacks is the key to success in the modern NFL. Looking at recent history, what can we learn about which strategies succeed most often?
Week 1 Starters
Pro Bowlers (9-of-20, 45 percent): Carson Palmer, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Jameis Winston, Carson Wentz, Kyler Murray
Sustained starters (6-of-20, 25 percent): David Carr, Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez, Sam Bradford, Marcus Mariota, Sam Darnold
Busts (3-of-20, 15 percent): Kyle Boller, EJ Manuel, Brandon Weeden
Too early to tell (1-of-20, 5 percent): Joe Burrow
This is the most common option for rookie quarterbacks since 2000, but it’s fallen out of style in recent years. Between 2017 and 2020, 17 QBs were picked in the first round of the draft. Only three (Darnold, Murray, and Burrow) started in Week 1 as rookies.
On a very basic level, you’d expect the list of Week 1 starters to have the best outcomes. These are the players who were deemed instantly good enough to start. They’re also the players who were drafted the highest. Nine of the 20 above names were no. 1 picks; 13 went in the top three. This group is full of immensely talented passers who became the face of their franchise from the moment they stepped into the facility.
And they generally fared well as rookies. Five of these players were named AP Offensive Rookie of the Year; only three of the 40 players from the other categories earned that distinction. To be fair, the odds are stacked in this group’s favor, as these players all got a full season’s worth of stats. But four of these quarterbacks also led their teams to the playoffs as rookies, as opposed to just three from all the other groups combined.
And yet this list is somewhat underwhelming. Only two of the above QBs became league MVPs (Newton and Ryan), and only one ever won a Super Bowl (Flacco). Several players fizzled out, most notably RG3, who suffered a career-altering injury during his Pro Bowl rookie season.
Starting a quarterback right away is the best way to get production from that player early. Looking at this list, however, it’s unclear whether it’s the best thing for a QB’s long-term development.
Pro Bowlers (5-of-19, 26.3 percent): Ben Roethlisberger, Alex Smith, Deshaun Watson, Mitch Trubisky, Josh Allen
Sustained starters (5-of-19, 21.1 percent): Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwich, Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater, Baker Mayfield
Busts (6-of-19, 31.6 percent): Patrick Ramsey, Matt Leinart, Christian Ponder, Blaine Gabbert, Paxton Lynch, Josh Rosen
Too early to tell (3-of-19, 15.7 percent): Daniel Jones, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert
This has become the most common strategy among NFL teams with rookie quarterbacks. Before this season, eight of the past 15 QBs picked in the first round briefly sat on the bench before starting.
The group is sort of a hodgepodge. Some of the QBs here are like Trubisky and Jones; their teams didn’t throw them into the fire right away, but they were always part of a planned transition, and after a handful of weeks it was time. Some—like Roethlisberger, Bridgewater, and Lynch—began their careers in traditional backup roles, and took over after injuries to starters. (In Herbert’s case, he was given his first NFL start when a Chargers team doctor stabbed Tyrod Taylor in the lung minutes before a game. I think this warrants more discussion.)
Sometimes, teams start veterans out of obligation. In 2017 the Texans started Tom Savage in Week 1, only to bench him at halftime of a game against the Jaguars; after taking over, Deshaun Watson posted one of the most effective rookie seasons in NFL history. The Bills did the same thing the subsequent season with Nathan Peterman, also ending the experiment after one half and letting Allen take over. It feels strange to say that either quarterback developed in their 30 minutes on the bench, but they land in this category nonetheless.
And yes ... Trubisky really did make a Pro Bowl.
Long-term Clipboard Holders
Pro Bowlers (3-of-8, 37.5 percent): Eli Manning, Jay Cutler, Jared Goff
Sustained starters (2-of-8, 25 percent): Jason Campbell, Josh Freeman
Busts (3-of-8, 37.5 percent): Rex Grossman, Johnny Manziel, Dwayne Haskins
Of the five categories, this is probably the least successful. The two best players in this group are Eli Manning and Cutler, neither of whom ever led the league in any major passing category besides interceptions. The third Pro Bowler is Goff, whom the Rams just gave up two first-round picks to trade away. If a team is willing to play a rookie, but doesn’t think that rookie is ready until deep into a season, it’s probably a bad sign.
Pro Bowlers (3-of-4, 75 percent): Michael Vick, Vince Young, Lamar Jackson
Busts (1-of-4, 25 percent): Tim Tebow
What if the road to long-term success is paved with gimmicks? From time to time, a coach decides that his first-round rookie QB should get some chances to play early, even if he’s not ready to assume the starting role.
In all four of these cases, the rookies were gifted runners, while their teams’ starters were not: Vick vs. Chris Chandler, Young vs. Kerry Collins, Tebow vs. Kyle Orton, Jackson vs. Joe Flacco. With Vick and Young, the rookies alternated series with the starter; with Tebow and Jackson, the players were deployed in specific run-heavy packages for a single play at a time. (Jackson routinely lined up at wide receiver as a rookie. Flacco hardly threw to him—one pass explains why Jackson soon took Flacco’s job.)
Three of the four players above emerged as stars once they rose to the top of the depth chart. Tebow, however, was best suited for the change-of-pace role the Broncos designed for him as a rookie. He threw footballs like this:
tim tebow is trending so im required to post this: pic.twitter.com/euhN1JiooZ— Ryan Greene (@RyanCBS4) July 18, 2020
Maybe Denver should have moved him to tight end and saved everybody 11 years.
Stuck on the Sideline
Pro Bowlers (3-of-9, 33 percent): Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Patrick Mahomes
Sustained starters (1-of-9, 11 percent): Chad Pennington
Busts (4-of-9, 44 percent): J.P. Losman, Brady Quinn, JaMarcus Russell, Jake Locker
Too early to tell (1-of-9, 11 percent): Jordan Love
This is the strategy with the highest payoff and lowest failures. No first-round QB spends his entire rookie season on the bench and turns out normal. The nine players on this list have won more MVP awards (four) than the 20 who started in Week 1 as rookies. Rodgers and Mahomes are two of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game, and Rivers ranks fifth all time in passing yards.
But this list also has the biggest proportion of busts of any category. Those busts include Russell, perhaps the largest bust in NFL history.
It used to be relatively common for teams to use first-round picks on quarterbacks and then straight-up not play them: Seven of the 32 picked between 2000 and 2011 took a redshirt year, as opposed to just two of the 28 since. Rodgers and Mahomes didn’t play because they were drafted by franchises that had long-term strategies in place and prioritized having their rookie quarterbacks focus on development. Others, like Quinn and Russell, didn’t play because they were drafted by chaotic organizations with no clue what they were doing. They also didn’t play because they were bad.
So what can we learn from this exercise? After reviewing the data, I have three primary takeaways.
1. The most successful strategy, oddly, is using players in small roles before eventually naming them starters. Three of the four QBs in that category turned into Pro Bowlers, with Lamar Jackson winning MVP. In a way, this makes sense: These players were so talented that their coaches had to get them on the field, even if those coaches weren’t ready to hand over the starting job just yet.
This seems to be the case with Lance and Fields, spectacular dual-threat players who scored touchdowns in their very first games. Both 2021 rookies also seem much better at throwing than Tebow.
2. The relatively poor long-term performances of the players who were Week 1 starters is surprising—but not in the way you’d expect. Critics of playing rookie quarterbacks too early imply that those players can be broken by early failures. I mean, maybe Kyle Boller would have turned into a star if he hadn’t thrown three interceptions against the Chiefs in September of his rookie season, but many of the Week 1 starters actually played well in their first go-around.
The problem is that many players in this group who started out strong didn’t continue on that upward trajectory. Maybe this isn’t about the debate of when to play rookie quarterbacks; maybe it’s an indication that the most pro-ready QB prospects in a given draft class aren’t necessarily the prospects with the highest ceilings.
3. While it’s true that a handful of players who sat for their entire rookie seasons went on to become stars, the benching-a-rookie blueprint isn’t a reliable development strategy. Perhaps transcendent talents like Mahomes or Rodgers can benefit from having time to develop, but for most prospects, being kept on the sideline for a significant amount of time doesn’t lead to long-term success. You might need to actually play the average prospect for them to become better.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. There are stars and disappointments in each of these groups. Subjecting Patrick Mahomes and J.P. Losman to roughly the same rookie treatment did not result in two Patrick Mahomeses; it resulted in one Patrick Mahomes and one J.P. Losman. If this exercise taught us anything, it’s that quarterback development is a mysterious art. The greatest QB of all time is a former sixth-round pick with weird opinions about strawberries. That doesn’t mean franchises should bet their football futures on sixth-rounders and then yell at them about strawberries.
Whatever happens to the 2021 rookie class will reignite one of the fiercest debates in the NFL. But whatever happens to Justin Fields may have less to do with when he made his first start and more to do with his head coach being Matt Nagy.