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How Rookie Year Playing Time Impacts a QB’s Future Chances of Success

Green Bay Packers v Carolina Panthers
Two opposite ends of the rookie year starts spectrum in Newton (16) and Rodgers (0)
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

One of the most common debates when discussing rookie quarterbacks is whether or not they should start day one. Some contend that holding him back is delaying the inevitable, and that the best move is to throw them right into the fire. Others argue it is best to let him sit back and learn behind a savvy veteran, such as Josh McCown.

I decided to look back at history to see which approach has yielded more success. I looked at quarterbacks drafted in the first round from 1996-2015, and compared their total rookie year starts to their average wins accrued per year as a professional starter.

Here are the results:

As demonstrated by the blue trend line, more starts trended heavily towards more NFL success. Quarterbacks who started all 16 games as a rookie had an average wins per year rate of 7.0. Quarterbacks who started less than 16 games averaged a wins per year rate of 3.8.

As shown in the chart above, Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers were the major outliers. The rest of the quarterbacks in the study to start four games or less as a rookie have gone on to average 2.2 wins per year in the NFL.

Of the top five quarterbacks in the study by wins per year average, four of them started all 16 games as a rookie (Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Cam Newton), the other started 13 (Ben Roethlisberger).

This trend has been even stronger in recent history. If we cut the group down to quarterbacks drafted from 2008-2015, the impact is all the more apparent:

There are still some high start count rookies that have busted in the past decade (Sanchez, Gabbert, Griffin, Weeden), but the difference between this chart and the previous one is the lack of quarterbacks with low start counts balancing the chart. There has been no Rodgers, Rivers, Donovan McNabb or Eli Manning over the past decade. The most successful first round quarterback with less than 12 rookie year starts over the eight-year span studied above was Josh Freeman (though it looks like Jared Goff is on the way to breaking that mold).

Think even beyond the first round. Guys like Russell Wilson, Derek Carr, and Dak Prescott all seized 16-game starting roles in their rookie years and are franchise centerpieces to this day. The league is trending towards throwing young signal callers right into the fire - and for the most part, the numbers are highly in favor of that philosophy.

How does this relate to the Jets? Well, I think as much as the study in this article pushes me even more towards favoring starting Sam Darnold Week 1, it also showed me how different each quarterback scenario is. A team must evaluate their scenario individually. A quarterback can be groomed to success in a variety of ways - even if starting them immediately tends to be the best way. After all, Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers are on their way to Canton after not starting a single game as rookies. However, think about who they were sitting behind - Brett Favre and Drew Brees, respectively. In situations like that, you can allow a rookie to sit. Look back to 2017. Patrick Mahomes sat the year out, but only because the Chiefs had a reliable starter in Alex Smith who was playing at a high level and winning a lot of games.

The quarterbacks who sat out most or much of their rookie year and ended up struggling tended to be behind mediocre starters. Johnny Manziel was behind Josh McCown. JaMarcus Russell? Josh McCown. Jake Locker was behind Matt Hasselbeck, one of the very worst quarterbacks in the league over the previous half-decade before joining Tennessee. Tim Tebow was behind Kyle Orton. Josh Freeman was behind Byron Leftwich.

This is not to say these quarterbacks would have been successful had they started right away, nor is it a negative indictment on guys like McCown, who is a revered leader. It’s not a cause-and-effect. After all, it’s very likely these players were sat simply because they weren’t even good enough to beat out that bad competition. It is only to demonstrate that sitting first round quarterbacks simply for the sake of sitting them when the alternative is not a playoff-worthy quarterback has proved to be a very poor move. Rodgers and Rivers were behind future Hall-of-Famers who were leading Super Bowl contenders. In the Jets’ current case, with that same Josh McCown in front of Sam Darnold, I am fully in support of Darnold starting in Detroit as long as he carries his hot training camp play into the preseason.

A quarterback can start 16 games as a rookie and bust. He can start 15, 14, 13, or 12 and bust. That’s clearly demonstrated in the charts above - throwing a guy out for 16 games as a new professional is by no means a way to guarantee his future success. However, history strongly suggests that more burn for a rookie can only increase their long-term chances - while sitting him is a fast track to disappointment if you are without an established star in the driver’s seat.


Who will start for the Jets in Detroit this September?

This poll is closed

  • 25%
    Josh McCown
    (155 votes)
  • 11%
    Teddy Bridgewater
    (73 votes)
  • 62%
    Sam Darnold
    (386 votes)
614 votes total Vote Now