NFL teams content with ditching initial plans to start rookie QBs
When five quarterbacks were taken in the first round of this year’s draft, the teams that selected them were comfortable with letting the prospects sit and learn on the job. The Cleveland Browns, for instance, had traded for veteran Tyrod Taylor to start ahead of Baker Mayfield, the No.1 overall pick.
But not even a month into the regular season, those plans have mostly changed.
Mayfield, the Jets’ Sam Darnold, Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Arizona’s Josh Rosen will start Sunday for their respective teams making Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson the only first-round rookie quarterback to ride the bench in this year’s class.
And while all four are talented, these changes go beyond skill. The idea of the “stop-gap” quarterback has increasingly backfired and teams are ready to quickly pull the trigger if they don’t see a better option to win games.
“If you have no alternative and the team is going nowhere, the players are sitting there saying, ‘Hey that guy’s better, put him in there,’” said former Redskins general manager Charley Casserly, who is now an analyst for the NFL Network. “Not that the players run the team, but sometimes it becomes so obvious that you have to do it.”
Casserly said every situation is different, but across the NFL, teams have largely shifted their approach on when to play rookie quarterbacks over the years.
Since 2000, 53 quarterbacks have been taken in the first round. Of that list, only seven went the entire year without starting at least one game. And over the last 10 years, Jake Locker, drafted by the Tennesee Titans in 2011, remains the only prospect to have done so, sitting behind Ryan Fitzpatrick.
In the NFL, winning is everything. And teams are invested in finding out quickly if they’ve drafted the right player under center.
Of those 53 first-rounders, 33 percent (18) started in Week 1 15 of which have come since 2008.
Darnold was the only rookie quarterback this year to immediately start the season, but the Jets initially planned for Teddy Bridgewater or Josh McCown to start while Darnold found his game.
The Jets, however, pivoted in camp. They gave Darnold equal first-team reps and New York realized the USC product was right for the job. They could develop him by playing as much as possible.
Still, there is a conventional belief that not playing can help a player’s development. In Kansas City, starter Patrick Mahomes, taken with the 10th pick in last year’s draft, spent all but one game of 2017 behind veteran Alex Smith, who is now with the Redskins.
As the Chiefs have raced out to a 3-0 start with Mahomes setting a record for the most touchdowns to start a season coach Andy Reid has credited Smith for helping Mahomes grow.
NFL teams are also cautious in putting a player into the wrong situation. Surrounding a player with a bad offensive line and poor receiver talent can stunt development as Smith found out his first year in the league.
During Smith’s rookie season in 2005, the quarterback was pummeled in seven starts for the San Francisco 49ers. He was sacked 29 times and threw 11 interceptions to just one touchdown.
It’s no wonder he had confidence problems early on.
“I don’t know if there were many pros for me playing early,” Smith said with a laugh. “I feel like I dug myself a pretty deep hole that rookie year.”
Smith, though, added his second year was “invaluable” because he played all 16 games and took every snap. CBS Sports analyst and former coach Bruce Arians told the New York Post there was no substitute for reps.
“You’ve got to play them,” he told the newspaper. “There are going to be some downs, but there’s going to be a lot of ups because they bring the excitement, especially once they win that locker room over.”
Circumstances in the NFL have also changed. Because of the league’s reworked collective bargaining agreement from 2011, the rookie wage scale has made young quarterbacks cheaper than they used to be making it easier for teams to build around them.
Now, instead of waiting to see if a quarterback is worth investing in, teams like the Philadelphia Eagles and the Los Angeles Rams have stockpiled talent on both sides of the ball to get the most out of their younger signal-caller.
It’s a luxury that will go away once Carson Wentz, for example, is eligible for an extension. But in the meantime, the Eagles are maximizing their Super Bowl window which already paid dividends when they won their first-ever championship last season.
This season, middling performances from journeymen quarterbacks have made it easier for teams to shift their plans.
While Taylor lost his job after suffering a concussion last week against the Jets, the Browns offense often stalled with the veteran healthy. Mayfield, on the other hand, led the Browns to a dramatic comeback and their first win in 635 days.
In Arizona, Sam Bradford had just 400 yards in three games for three touchdowns and three interceptions before being benched for Rosen in last week’s loss to the Chicago Bears.
Casserly said teams can still benefit from having a “stop-gap” quarterback. The Ravens, for example, seem content with Joe Flacco as starter while Jackson grows.
Casserly added these aren’t ideal situations, pointing to the fact teams that draft a quarterback high often needs one. Still, he’s sold on the talent from this year’s class.
“This group is for real,” Casserly said. “Allen I need to see more, but the first three, I think there’s no question, they’re for real.”