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What Are Fair Expectations for Zach Wilson’s Rookie Year?

2021 NFL Draft Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Figuring out how to fairly judge a rookie quarterback is a bit of a challenge. Fans all dream of big things. Zach Wilson entered the NFL as a highly touted prospect with exceptional arm talent. He has all the potential in the world.

Just having potential doesn’t mean you will make good on it, however. Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith, and Sam Darnold all had potential.

Some have said that Joe Namath’s franchise record of 4,007 passing yards in a season is likely to fall in 2021. Others have already hit the panic button after a rough Saturday night practice at MetLife Stadium.

How can we figure out fair expectations for Wilson? In a situation like this I like to see how rookie quarterbacks typically perform.

Utilizing the tools from Stathead I ran a search on every rookie quarterback from the last ten years who started at least 9 games (more than half their rookie season). That gave me a list of 31 quarterbacks. I didn’t want to go back any further. The more distance we get from 2021, the greater the difference in eras and expectations.

Stats aren’t the end all, especially at quarterback. They have to be put into context. Some quarterbacks enter good situations. Others enter bad ones. Some are pro ready. Others need development. Some start all sixteen games. Others deal with injuries and/or begin the season on the bench. Hopefully by throwing everybody together you cancel all of these impacts out and come up with reasonable expectations.

This isn’t mean to do anything other than set broad statistical benchmarks for Wilson to aim for. Keep that in mind.

It seemed to me that the simplest way to examine this was to take at the statistics of the quarterback who ranked 16th in each major category (the very middle of the pack).

Our median rookie started 14 games. He had a completion percentage of 59.3% and an average per attempt of 6.65 yards. He threw for 3,046 passing yards with 17 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

These numbers sound pedestrian, but I think sometimes we forget how difficult the transition is to quarterback in the NFL for a rookie. Just keeping your head above water typically puts you ahead of the game.

Now you might be saying, “John, Wilson isn’t just any rookie. He was the second overall pick. Your list includes prospects who weren’t expected to be as good as him.” Fair enough. Let’s look at rookie quarterbacks from the last decade who went either first or second overall.

The medians here are 15 games started, a completion percentage of 62.3%, a 7.27 average per attempt, 3,723 yards, 20 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions.

Those numbers are clearly better than the general group, but they still don’t approach the elite of the elite in a typical season. Most notably, the median passer in both groups falls short of Namath’s 4,007 yard total. Four of the initial group of 31 surpassed Namath’s total while two from the ten who were selected high in the Draft did.

There is one obvious caveat here. The seventeen game season going into effect this year gives Wilson a better chance. It’s difficult to figure out how to adjust the numbers for the extra game, but the counting stats might need to be revised. That one game could put the typical quarterback right around the Namath mark.

In any event, these are just some generic guideposts to look at in 2021 to determine whether Wilson is hitting the statistical benchmarks you might expect from a rookie quarterback.