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Cardinals name Josh Rosen starting QB, as we’re starting to see a trend here

September 25, 2018

The days of putting your rookie quarterback on ice are all but over. Burn those redshirts, go on.

Hours after the Cleveland Browns named Baker Mayfield their starter, the Arizona Cardinals followed suit. They’ll be turning to Josh Rosen going forward after he replaced Sam Bradford late in their 16-14 loss to the Chicago Bears in Week 3.

That means that all four quarterbacks drafted in the top nine picks overall in April will be starting on the same day in Week 4.

The last time prior to 2018 that there had been five quarterbacks drafted in Round 1, back in 1999, those five QBs combined to start a total of 30 games as rookies. Top pick Tim Couch was all but forced to play right away in replacing an ineffective Ty Detmer. Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith, the second and third overall picks that year, combined for 10 of those starts. One — Daunte Culpepper, the 11th overall pick — didn’t attempt a single pass until Year 2.

That was considered a little rushed by 1999 standards. The new norm in 2018: get ‘em out there. Time’s a-wastin’.

We’re likely to blow past that 30 starts number by midseason with this year’s crop. Four of the five first-rounders now will have started a game by Week 4, and the fifth, Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, has seen action in all three games so far.

We had 41 rookie starts combined by six different quarterbacks last season, including then-Browns second-rounder DeShone Kizer (15), 49ers third-rounder C.J. Beathard (five) and Bills fifth-rounder Nathan Peterman (two). Teams are less hesitant than ever to push rookies into the starting lineup, even with the crazy demands of the position.

You could argue that Patrick Mahomes, who’s setting the league on fire now, was well-served by sitting and waiting behind Alex Smith last season, given a foot-wetting Week 17 start as a perfect baptism to set up his Year 2 starting gig. Even Mahomes has admitted as much. But not every team has that type of luxury. Not every team has the foresight or the means to have a perfect shepherd at the position to facilitate such a smooth transition.

The Browns and Cardinals tried in vain to set that up. Cleveland traded a third-round pick for Tyrod Taylor, and the Cardinals signed Bradford as insurance. Even the New York Jets doubled down on that insulation, bringing back Josh McCown for big money ($10 million) and also adding Teddy Bridgewater. Once Bridgewater was traded to the Saints, the writing was on the wall that it was Sam Darnold’s time right out of the chute.

Now that doesn’t mean that all rookie quarterbacks are built to thrive immediately. Darnold has come back to earth after a solid opener. Mitch Trubisky, who was given 12 rookie starts in 2017 with the old regime, is clearly resetting at the position in an entirely different Bears system this year. Kizer was all but ruined in Cleveland last year, traded to the Packers to be Aaron Rodgers’ understudy.

But in one half of football, Mayfield has lit a fire under the Browns. Josh Allen rallied the Buffalo Bills to a historic upset and road win — anyone out there believe Peterman could have pulled that off? Rosen clearly looked a bit frazzled at the end of the game, but he also made a few confident throws, giving an appetizer of his talent, and that clearly was enough for Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks to pull the trigger.

The slippery slope for Wilks is that his team might be pretty bad, and inserting Rosen late in that game didn’t exactly appear to be doing the kid any favors. Hey, kid, did you see what Baker did Thursday? Go do that — please and thanks!

Wilks could be staring at a long first season out there, much like what Vance Joseph endured out in Denver last year after it appeared he inherited a pretty decent roster. Things change so quickly in this league, as a wild Week 3 that was ripe with shocking scores reminded us.

The sooner teams know what they have in a young quarterback in whom they’ve invested heavily, the better. Sometimes it can yield fool’s gold, as the Dallas Cowboys might be finding out with regressing starter Dak Prescott. But more often that not it gives teams a clear picture of what they have — and how much work is needed — in their young prospect.

The old adage of ruining a young quarterback’s confidence can’t be completely dismissed. The idea isn’t 100 percent foolhardy. But it’s the coaches’ jobs to help young quarterbacks thrive as best they can once they’ve been thrust into the position. As we’ve seen with Mahomes, the Chiefs have shown some real vision by incorporating elements of Mahomes’ college offense into their own schemes.

Why teams have been so reticent to do this in the past, bent on shoving a “pro style offense” — whatever that means — down their throats out of obstinance, should be done and buried. Tailoring a scheme and play calling to a quarterback’s strengths is not only smart, it’s essential.

If they’re even close to ready, young quarterbacks need those reps. The offseason programs are shorter. There is no NFL Europe or any kind of minor-league feeder system with any direct ties to the teams. Preseason starts against lower-level talent is merely not enough.

The Texans all but admitted Deshaun Watson should have been their Week 1 starter last season when he came in to replace Tom Savage. Tom Savage?! The same things played out in Buffalo with Allen. A few stubborn coaches issued challenges for their rookie quarterbacks to light it up in a third preseason game as a method of winning the job. Short of that, they were going to open their respective teams’ seasons on the bench.

How short-sighted is that?

In a way, you can’t blame the Cardinals and Browns for wanting to ensure they had a veteran option in case their rookie QBs’ heads were swimming early — we get that. And with Arizona, which originally held the 15th overall pick, there was no guarantee they were going to be in range of selecting someone as gifted as Rosen.

But for as aggressive their move up to take him 10th was, the Cardinals were equally as passive in promoting Rosen to the starting job. The presence of Bradford and his now-unwieldy contract, you’d have to assume, was the biggest reason. Money still matters, it seems, even if logic should prevail.

As for what the thought process was in Cleveland to not give Mayfield a single snaps with the first-team offense, well, that’s a question that should be lobbed at the artful dodger, Hue Jackson, from now until perpetuity — or until the Browns move on from him, whichever comes first.

In the short term, Rosen could struggle. Mayfield could start uncharacteristically throwing picks. Allen could forget he just beat a great defense on the road. Darnold might keep on backsliding. But guess what? That’s not always a bad thing.

Every young quarterback develops differently; it’s clearly not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Some do need more time before they reach their ceiling. Possible case in point for later: Maybe Jackson is the 2019 version of Mahomes if the Ravens move on from Flacco in the offseason. If so, they deserve credit for developing Jackson gradually without setting him up to fail. The Ravens are 2-1, after all, and Flacco has been more good than bad to this point — and certainly better than he’s been during a three-year regression entering this year.

But the way pass-happy college teams are producing QB talent these days, they’re more often better served to get in games earlier and learn on the field. And teams benefit when they don’t try to wedge a square peg into a round hole with their oldfangled schemes designed to fit quarterbacks who are on the verge of being replaced.

The sooner a team knows what a young quarterback’s strengths and weaknesses are, the better a big-picture plan for building a roster around them can come into focus. Yes, there’s always the risk of getting them killed out there — both mentally and physically — but you’re not drafting them that high in the first place to wear headsets and carry clipboards.

The real education needs to happen on the field. Maybe teams are finally starting to learn this.

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