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Does it actually benefit a quarterback to sit as a rookie?

Jacksonville Jaguars v New York Jets Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

It is a never ending debate among NFL fans.

Is a quarterback better off sitting as he begins his career, or is getting immediate playing time and experience the best way to learn?

There is no definitive answer. There probably never will be. My guess is it depends on the specific prospect.

Still I wanted to take a look at how quarterbacks who start their career on the bench fare relative to those who play immediately.

With this in mind I decided to examine every quarterback drafted in the first round since 2000. I then divided the quarterbacks into two categories. I had first round quarterbacks who started 6 or more games their rookie season and first round quarterbacks who started 5 or less games their rookie season.

My metric for success was whether or not the quarterback got a second contract from the team that drafted him. Of course there is more that goes into quarterback success than that. There are also degrees of success. Playing at an Aaron Rodgers level is different from playing at an Alex Smith level. Still, a team wanting to keep its quarterback around after the first contract is likely a signal of satisfaction with the Draft pick. There are mistake contracts, but for every Mark Sanchez who got an ill-advised second contract, there is a Teddy Bridgewater who would have if not for a devastating injury. Things tend to even out.

The only exception I made was including Jay Cutler among the successes. Even though he did not get a contract from his original team, that was due to a dispute with his head coach Josh McDaniels which led to a trade request. Cutler was ultimately dealt for multiple first round picks. In this context, it would not have made sense to list him among the likes of busts who did not get a second contract for performance reasons.

I also did not include quarterbacks drafted in 2019 or later still playing on their first contract. The final decisions on them have not been made. I did, however, include quarterbacks picked in 2019 or later who have already received a second contract with their team.

I’m not saying this is a perfect system, but I do think it offers us a reasonable look at quality.

Now let’s get to the results.

It likely comes as no surprise that there are many more quarterbacks on the list who started at least 6 games their rookie year than there were quarterbacks who sat. In today’s NFL first round quarterbacks usually get on the field early.

The final tally was interesting. Of quarterbacks who played, 16 of 42 (38%) were successful. Meanwhile among the quarterbacks who sat, 7 of 17 (41.1%) were in the success category.

Of course this is only one measurement, and there are some sample size issues. Still the percentages are almost identical. At least by this standard, it doesn’t appear there is a big advantage to either side.

Many proponents of sitting a rookie quarterback point to Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes as development success stories. Still the likes of JaMarcus Russell, Paxton Lynch, and Johnny Manziel are on the list of quarterbacks who sat in year one.

I think it is fair to point out that the real test isn’t exactly Aaron Rodgers (sat) vs. Mark Sanchez (played). It’s real life Rodgers vs. how Rodgers would have turned out in the hypothetical scenario where he played immediately and real life Sanchez vs. how Sanchez would have turned out in the hypothetical scenario where he sat. This isn’t Madden, though. We can’t hit the reset button and replay somebody’s career.

I still think there is a strong case to be made that it depends on the individual. There are probably some quarterbacks with mechanical issues who would be served well by working through them on the practice field without the pressure of leading an NFL franchise.

That said, at the very least it doesn’t seem like a quarterback sitting right off the bat is some sort of formula that inordinately increases the chances of a successful career.