Lack of rookie starting QBs entering season goes against recent NFL trend


Johnny Manziel was given his chance to win the Browns’ starting job but failed to do it (Richard Lipski/Associated Press)

The three NFL rookie quarterbacks who were first-round draft choices in May are now penciled in to open the season as backups.

Blake Bortles sits behind Chad Henne in Jacksonville. Johnny Manziel failed to unseat Brian Hoyer as the season-opening starter in Cleveland. Teddy Bridgewater must wait his turn while watching Matt Cassel in Minnesota.

So for the first time in seven years, it appears that an NFL season will begin with no rookies as starting quarterbacks, barring a late switch or last-minute injury.

Former NFL quarterback Warren Moon, for one, isn’t surprised.

“These guys went in the first round this year,” the Pro Football Hall of Famer said Tuesday. “But that doesn’t mean they were really first-rounders.”

Few talent evaluators seemed particularly enthralled with this year’s class of quarterbacks entering the draft. But it’s a quarterback-driven league, and teams without an established starter at the sport’s most glamorous position tend to feel urgency to draft one in the opening round. So Bortles went third overall to the Jaguars in May. The Browns passed over Manziel once but traded back up to select him 22nd. Bridgewater went to the Vikings with the final pick of the first round.

“The teams that needed quarterbacks took them in the first round,” Moon said in a telephone interview. “But if these quarterbacks had been in the same draft with Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and that [2012] group, you wouldn’t have seen any of these guys go in the first round.”

The NFL last had a season open without a rookie starting at quarterback in 2007. In the six years in between, 14 rookie quarterbacks opened seasons as starters, as compiled by Yahoo Sports. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco did so in 2008. Detroit’s Matthew Stafford and the New York Jets’ Mark Sanchez followed in 2009. Then came Sam Bradford of St. Louis in 2010 and Carolina’s Cam Newton and Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton in 2011.

The celebrated quarterback class of 2012 yielded five season-opening starters: Luck in Indianapolis, Griffin in Washington, Ryan Tannehill in Miami, Wilson in Seattle and Brandon Weeden in Cleveland. Last season, there was the Jets’ Geno Smith and Buffalo’s EJ Manuel.

Of those 14 season-opening rookie starters over the previous six seasons, 11 were first-round draft selections. Dalton and Smith were second-rounders, and Wilson was a third-round choice.

Many had immediate success. Ryan, Flacco, Sanchez, Dalton, Luck, Griffin and Wilson took their teams to the playoffs as rookies.

That seemed to change the traditional NFL narrative that rookie quarterbacks needed time to adjust and undoubtedly would take their lumps while learning. Had the game changed so much, with its passing-friendly rules, that rookies could step right in and thrive? Do rookies now come into league better prepared to play immediately after operating in ever-more-sophisticated passing offenses in college and even in high school?

Perhaps. But as last season demonstrated, not all rookies are ready for immediate success. Smith suffered through a 12-touchdown, 21-interception season for the Jets. He remains the starter entering this season, but the Jets signed Michael Vick in the offseason to give them a veteran alternative if Smith continues to struggle. Manuel fared a bit better last season, with 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions for the Bills. But he completed only 58.8 percent of his passes and there have been questions raised this preseason about whether his development remains on course.

Those possibly have served as cautionary tales this summer to the Jaguars, Browns and Vikings. Bortles was impressive during the preseason. But the Jaguars were adamant all along that Henne would open the season as the starter while the prized rookie sits and waits.

Manziel was given a chance to compete with Hoyer for the Browns’ starting job. But Manziel failed to capitalize. He didn’t play well when the two split snaps with the starting offense in the second preseason game at FedEx Field, and his obscene night included directing a raised middle finger at the Redskins’ sideline.

Bridgewater played well for the Vikings. But Cassel also played well and Coach Mike Zimmer decided to go with the veteran, at least for now.

In all three cases, it remains likely that the rookie will be given a chance sooner rather than later.

“You’ll probably see them play at some point this year, whether it’s in the middle of the season or whenever,” Moon said. “But making these guys wait a little bit is not something I’m against because I didn’t feel like any of these guys was ready to be a starter. You don’t want to put a guy out there when he might do damage to his career. If any of these guys had been thrown out there, it probably would have been premature and it probably wouldn’t have been productive.”

 

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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Mark Maske · August 26