Under the Headset  

 

First-round quarterbacks should start from Day 1 in today's NFL

I don't want to bury the lead, so I'll put my conclusion right up top: If you take a quarterback in the first round of the NFL draft and you're not sure if you should start him from Day 1, then you probably took the wrong guy.

As is the case in most season-opening weeks, one of the most talked-about questions entering the 2014 campaign is whether the quarterbacks taken in Round 1 -- No. 3 overall pick Blake Bortles (Jacksonville Jaguars), No. 22 pick Johnny Manziel (Cleveland Browns) and No. 32 pick Teddy Bridgewater (Minnesota Vikings) -- are ready to start for their respective teams.

First-round QBs from 2007 to 2013
Player
Draft
Day 1 starter?
JaMarcus Russell, Raiders
2007
No*
2007
No
2008
Yes
2008
Yes
2009
Yes
2009
Yes
Josh Freeman, Buccaneers
2009
No*
2010
Yes
Tim Tebow, Broncos
2010
No*
2011
Yes
2011
No
2011
No*
2011
No*
2012
Yes
2012
Yes
2012
Yes
2012
Yes
2013
Yes
* Started at some point during rookie season.

It used to be a given that a rookie quarterback would ride the pine -- or, more accurately, hold the clipboard and wear the headset -- for a year or two to learn from a veteran before getting a chance to start. But a number of elements, including free agency and the impatient nature of the modern NFL, have created a new normal, in which the majority of first-round quarterbacks (11 of 18 from 2007 to 2013) wind up starting their rookie season opener. (And for the record, five of the remaining seven QBs in that parenthetical figure ended up starting at some point during their debut season.) The days of Aaron Rodgers waiting years to make his first start are clearly over.

Is this a good or bad trend for young quarterbacks? You can easily make a case either way, depending on which quarterback you want to use as an example.

You can point to Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft was a humble 9-of-13 for 161 yards and a touchdown in his Week 1 debut against Detroit. Not dazzling, but it did get a win. And it did kick off a year in which Ryan, excelling at on-the-job training, completed 61 percent of his passes with a 16:11 TD-to-INT ratio and led the Falcons to the playoffs with an 11-5 record.

The counter argument can spotlight Brandon Weeden, who was taken 22nd by the Cleveland Browns in 2012. He threw four interceptions in a season-opening loss to Philadelphia. As the Browns sputtered to a 5-11 campaign, Weeden quickly lost confidence and flamed out within two seasons. Some quarterbacks can't recover from being thrust into the job too quickly.

Somewhere between these two extremes: Kyle Boller starting nine games as a rookie for the Ravens, which happened under my watch back in 2003. We went 10-6 and won the AFC North that year, yet ultimately it didn't work out for Boller in Baltimore -- or for me, for that matter.

The message is that there are no absolutes.

Among the top quarterbacks who waited the longest in the past decade, there have been special circumstances; Rodgers, the most obvious example, was stuck behind a soon-to-be Hall of Famer in Brett Favre.

There is some clarity to be gained from the recent first-round forays into the QB pool.

Of the 11 first-round quarterbacks since 2007 who started from Day 1, nine of them are still with their original teams (only Weeden and Mark Sanchez are tapped out). Of the seven first-round quarterbacks who didn't start their rookie opener, five of them (JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, Josh Freeman, Tim Tebow and Blaine Gabbert) are already gone, and the other two (Jake Locker and Christian Ponder) are on thin ice.

Some say you should only start a rookie QB if you have the surrounding talent to help him grow within the system. Mark Sanchez completed just 54 percent of his passes -- with 12 TD strikes and 20 interceptions -- in his rookie year. But he was flanked by the No. 1 rushing attack and No. 1 total defense in the NFL, and wound up taking the Jets to the AFC Championship Game. Yet Sanchez never really improved his mechanics or accuracy. Andrew Luck, on the other hand, led his team to an 11-5 season in his rookie year, despite playing with the 22nd-ranked rushing attack and 26th-ranked defense. And Luck continued to grow on the job last season.

There have been non-first-rounders in recent years -- like Russell Wilson and Andy Dalton -- who have proven their starting chops from Day 1. One thing these types benefit from: less media scrutiny and less pressure as rookies than their first-round brethren. While everyone was enamored with the Manziel-infused QB derby in Cleveland this offseason, Derek Carr, a second-round pick in May, quietly earned the starting gig with the Oakland Raiders.

You probably can tell by the tone of the piece that I advocate starting rookie QBs from Day 1 if they're close to being ready. The Jaguars, Browns and Vikings have chosen to go with veterans initially, and they have their own internal reasoning for doing so. But based on who those veterans are -- Chad Henne, Brian Hoyer and Matt Cassel -- Bortles, Manziel and Bridgewater will get a chance soon enough. None of these situations are similar to Rodgers/Favre. (I'm pretty sure Henne, Hoyer and Cassel aren't in line for gold jackets.) Bottom line: Jacksonville, Cleveland and Minnesota used first-round selections on quarterbacks because they didn't think the guys already on their respective rosters were good enough. The reality of today's NFL is that fans will start calling for the rookie after the veteran's second straight three-and-out anyway.

There's more than one way to become a successful quarterback in the NFL. For every pure leader like Luck who is ready to take the reins from Day 1, there is a guy like Colin Kaepernick, a second-round pick who must grow into the role.

In this era, though, I think we might be reaching a point where a different criteria applies to the first-round quarterback: If he can't start from Day 1, he might not be a legit first-round draft choice in the first place.

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Raiders coach Dennis Allen is making a bold move in starting Carr. But it's fair to say that Matt Schaub and Matt McGloin would just be Band-Aids, while Carr could be the future of the franchise. What makes the move bold is that Allen is making it after back-to-back 4-12 seasons -- thus, the future might be for some other coach. Meanwhile, Carr will be given some slack, because he doesn't carry the expectations that people tend to have for first-rounders.

In the modern NFL, first-round quarterbacks will always be subjected to an unreasonable amount of scrutiny. So before team executives pull that trigger on draft day, they probably need to know that the young prospect of interest has what it takes to withstand that kind of pressure.

Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick.

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