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When is the right time to start rookie QBs Stafford, Sanchez and Freeman?

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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We all heard how Josh Freeman looked impressive at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' organized team activities last month and that the team might be reevaluating its quarterback position. We also heard how about the Detroit Lions' Matthew Stafford and the New York Jets' Mark Sanchez continued to play well in practices.

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All three quarterbacks want to get on the field and play as rookies, which is natural -- and exactly what you want to hear from first-round draft picks. But the question is, when should they be starters? It's a sensitive situation because once a rookie quarterback goes on the field as a starter and takes control of the huddle, there's no turning back.

At least 14 quarterbacks who didn't start a game during their rookie season will be starters in the NFL in 2009. Another three started only one game as rookies, and another four started less than 10 games during their first NFL season. That's 21 of 32 starters who didn't open their careers as a starter. Heck, Dallas' Tony Romo, San Diego's Philip Rivers, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Miami's Chad Pennington, Kansas City's Matt Cassel and San Francisco's Shaun Hill didn't even start a game in their second season in the league.

So, what's a good compromise between hoping Stafford, Sanchez and Freeman don't ride the pine and putting them on the field too early?

There's never a perfect time to start a quarterback's NFL career, but it's worth exploring the time frames for these three signal-callers. There seems to be a good entry point for Stafford, Sanchez and Freeman that might make more sense than the first game. Once the teams announce that the three quarterbacks will not be the opening-day starters, all of the pressure to get ready is lifted and they can really learn the offense, play in the preseason and experience what it takes to get ready for regular-season games.

Matthew Stafford, Lions

The Lions' schedule sets up nicely for Stafford to take over as their starter after a Week 7 bye. Detroit will have played six games, including one against each of its three NFC North opponents, and hopefully posted some victories after enduring the league's first 0-16 season in 2008.

Keep in mind that the Lions are installing a new offense, and waiting until after the bye gives the team's other 10 starters a chance to get comfortable with it before the young quarterback takes the field. Stafford then would have two weeks to prepare for his debut at home against the St. Louis Rams, who went 1-7 on the road in 2008. Stafford wouldn't have to face a division opponent twice in his rookie season and would have four games under his belt before the Thanksgiving Day game against the Green Bay Packers. Six of the 10 teams that Stafford would face had a losing record in 2008, which could help ease his transition.

Mark Sanchez, Jets

The Jets' season is split right in half, with eight games before the bye and eight games after it. This sets up well for the new face of the franchise. The Jets will have played all three of their AFC East foes at least once during the first half of the season, leaving no opposing defensive coordinator in the division with two shots at Sanchez. The rookie then would make his debut at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who went 3-5 on the road last season.

Josh Freeman, Buccaneers

The Buccaneers have to play the NFC East, and all four of those games come before their bye. Last season, the NFC East led all divisions with 173 sacks, or one every 11.8 passing attempts. Albert Haynesworth, a big free-agent addition by the Washington Redskins, is now part of the division, and Osi Umenyiora returns to the New York Giants after missing last season because of an injury, meaning the pressure on Freeman would be intense. The Philadelphia Eagles (No. 3), Dallas Cowboys (No. 5), Redskins (No. 7) and Giants (No. 8) all were ranked in the top 10 in pass defense last season, and asking Freeman to face those four teams in the first five games of his career would be tough. After all, he threw 34 interceptions in 32 starts at Kansas State.

The Buccaneers' bye comes in Week 8, following a game against the New England Patriots in London. That would leave Freeman nine games to learn his trade. The only drawback is that he would face the NFC South rival Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints twice, but that's a lot better than challenging the treacherous NFC East.

The front offices and coaching staffs for the Lions, Jets and Buccaneers know what's best for their teams, and it's likely that they have discussed when they would like to see their young quarterbacks enter the starting lineup. Teams usually like to take a long, hard look at their rookie quarterbacks during the summer, but even the Pittsburgh Steelers didn't intend to put Ben Roethlisberger on the field as soon as they did, nor did the Baltimore Ravens believe Joe Flacco was their opening-day starter. It just goes to show that even the best-laid plans don't always follow form. Even if the Lions, Jets and Buccaneers have detailed plans about their franchise quarterbacks' futures, things could change in a hurry.

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