This season began with only one of the four rookie quarterbacks who were chosen in the top 10 of April’s NFL draft was on the field as a starter. Sam Darnold immediately was entrusted with the fortunes of the New York Jets, while Baker Mayfield in Cleveland, Josh Allen in Buffalo and Josh Rosen in Arizona were left to wait for their turns behind more experienced starters.
Those waits weren’t very long at all.
Three weeks into the season, Allen, Mayfield and Rosen have joined Darnold as starters.
That’s not to say that the transition to the NFL has been seamless for this celebrated class of rookie quarterbacks. Mayfield had a dazzling debut Thursday night in relief of Tyrod Taylor to beat the Jets, sending Browns fans into the streets to celebrate the team’s first victory since Christmas Eve 2016. Allen helped the Bills to a stunning upset Sunday of the Minnesota Vikings.
But Darnold is experiencing the typical rookie ups and downs, with two straight disappointing outings after a promising first start. And Rosen failed to rescue the Cardinals from a 0-3 start Sunday, throwing a late interception after being inserted for a struggling Sam Bradford with a few minutes remaining in a 16-14 defeat to the Chicago Bears.
“After they told me, I just wanted to go down and get a field goal and try to win the game,” Rosen told reporters after the game. “It didn’t happen, unfortunately. But we’ve got a long season and hopefully I’ll find my groove.”
Such is life as a high-profile rookie quarterback in the NFL, with so much money and so much hope invested in you.
Mayfield is the NFL’s new star of the moment after he entered Thursday’s game in Cleveland and turned a 14-0 deficit for the Browns into a 21-17 triumph. The Browns’ plan had been to use Taylor, obtained in an offseason trade with the Bills, as the starter all season while Mayfield, taken with the top overall selection in April, sat and learned. The plan changed when the Browns managed only a tie and then a loss in their first two games, stretching their winless streak to 19 games, and then Taylor struggled before suffering a concussion during the Jets game.
Now Mayfield becomes the franchise’s 30th different starter at quarterback since 1999. Coach Hue Jackson made that official Monday after demurring last week. In truth, it was clear by late Thursday night there was no turning back from Mayfield. Such optimism usually is in short supply for a franchise that went 635 days between wins.
Teammates were said to have been impressed that Mayfield, the former Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma, took his first-game success basically in stride. His first NFL start is set for this coming Sunday at Oakland against the winless Raiders.
“I didn’t do this by myself, and I’m not going to handle it that way,” Mayfield told the NFL Network after his 17-for-23 passing performance Thursday. “I had a lot of guys play well around me. . . . We put the pieces together. . . . Now we’ve just got to build on it.”
Allen, too, is riding high after the Bills beat the Vikings, 27-6, on Sunday in Minneapolis. The Bills entered the game winless and were coming off a defeat in which cornerback Vontae Davis retired at halftime. The Vikings are regarded as a Super Bowl favorite in the NFC. Yet the Bills led, 27-0, at halftime and never looked back. Allen completed 15 of 22 passes for 196 yards and a touchdown. He also hurdled a Vikings defender on a run, probably not something that Bills Coach Sean McDermott wanted to see.
“He loves the effort,” Allen said at his postgame news conference. “Just trying to find a way to be safe and try to limit hits. But, you know, it paid off once. And we’ll keep it at that.”
Allen was considered an enormously talented but unpolished prospect entering the draft, a player who might benefit from a season of not being forced to play. But the Bills traded Taylor in the offseason. They signed AJ McCarron and then traded him before the season. They began the season with second-year pro Nathan Peterman as the starter but benched him during the opener.
Now it’s Allen’s team, and he knew enough not to get carried away with Sunday’s exploits.
“I’m still mad,” he said. “There was a few plays out there that I wish I had back that I should have made. I’m focused on long-term results, not short-term results. So we’re still getting better, still understanding what we can and can’t do as an offense. But we’ve got a very talented group, a group that I trust, and I love these guys. So I’m excited to keep moving forward with them.”
Darnold was the first member of the group to become a starter, and the first to experience the highs and lows of being an NFL rookie starting at the sport’s most important position.
He joined a group of quarterbacks that includes Brett Favre and Jameis Winston when he had his first NFL pass intercepted and returned for a touchdown. But Darnold steadied himself and played very well as the Jets won in lopsided fashion at Detroit on the season’s first Monday night. Since then, the Jets have gone 0-2, with Darnold throwing four interceptions. Overall, he has five interceptions to go with three touchdown passes and modest passer rating of 72.0 through three games.
Welcome to the NFL, rookie. Speculation about the job security of Jets Coach Todd Bowles has already resurfaced three games into the season. Darnold’s calm demeanor will serve him well going forward.
“Every time I get in there, I look to get better,” Darnold said during training camp. “That’s just who I am as a player. . . . Every single time I get in there, I just look to compete and play my best.”
Rosen said he was sitting on the bench Sunday when he saw Steve Wilks, the first-year head coach of the Cardinals, say something to Bradford. Then quarterbacks coach Byron Leftwich came over and told Rosen to get ready to play.
Rosen replaced Bradford with a little over four minutes remaining. Bradford had thrown two interceptions to go with two touchdown passes. He’d also lost a fumble as the Cardinals had squandered a 14-0 lead. Rosen played for two drives, throwing a fourth-down interception on the first and taking a sack as time expired on the Cardinals’ third loss of the season. He had an interception returned for a touchdown on the final drive, negated by an offside penalty.
“I mean, I threw a pick and almost a second pick-six,” Rosen said afterward. “So we’ve got a lot to work on.”
Rosen was asked whether he thought that had been a tough situation for a rookie to make his debut.
“Yeah,” Rosen said, “but, I mean, the NFL is a very tough league and full of tough situations with tough players. So it’s kind of just the name of the game.”
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