The must-play model for rookie quarterbacks isn't good for them or their teams

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·Yahoo Sports Columnist
·5 min read
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There have certainly been rookie quarterbacks who were handed the reins from Day 1 and had success — success as a player, and with their team.

In 2016, Dak Prescott was elevated to starter after an injury to Tony Romo and had one of the best seasons any rookie QB has enjoyed, leading the Dallas Cowboys to a 13-3 record with 23 touchdown passes and four interceptions. A few seasons earlier, Russell Wilson wowed the Seattle Seahawks in his first training camp to win the starting job, then he and the Seahawks posted an 11-5 regular season and a playoff win.

Prescott and Wilson weren't first-round draft picks. But in the years since, teams that select a quarterback in the first round have installed them as the starter right away, sometimes because the coaching staff is trying to save its job, or because there's strong pressure from outside the training facility, or because the team believes the clock's already started ticking on the quarterback's supposedly precious rookie contract.

That doesn't make it the right approach. In fact, the current must-play model for rookie quarterbacks isn't good — for them or their teams.

If a player is selected No. 1 overall in the draft, of course the fans want to see him take over as soon as possible, but not all rookie QBs are built the same. Not all circumstances are the same. Not every roster is built to help a young player along until he finds his footing. Not every coaching staff excels at building up a rookie and putting him in the best position to succeed.

We've seen it thus far this season, and you have to wonder if teams in the near future will pump the brakes a bit and not try to charge ahead full-speed with rookie quarterbacks, giving them time to adjust and learn before having them start.

As we turn the page to Week 4, all five of the quarterbacks taken in the first round this year have played, though San Francisco's Trey Lance has taken only seven snaps in three games. The other four — Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields and Mac Jones — have seen significantly more time, with Lawrence, Wilson and Jones starting each game for their respective teams. 

The results are underwhelming. They've gone 1-9, with the lone win coming in a rookie-vs.-rookie matchup in Week 2.

Rookie quarterbacks like Chicago's Justin Fields are coming into the league with grand expectations and not much time to deliver on them. (AP Photo/David Richard)
Rookie quarterbacks like Chicago's Justin Fields are coming into the league with grand expectations and not much time to deliver on them. (AP Photo/David Richard)

Jones was drafted into the best spot by far: ownership is stable and solid; Bill Belichick has been the coach in New England for over 20 years, and he'll almost certainly remain there until he wants to leave; and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has been with the team for a long time as well. 

At the moment, however, Jones has thrown two touchdowns and three picks, and been sacked six times behind a shaky offensive line. The Patriots were in catch-up mode last week against the Saints, which meant Jones had to drop back 50 times. It's not a good formula for most quarterbacks, let alone ones who have been a starter in the NFL for mere weeks.

Lawrence and Wilson were drafted into far worse situations. Urban Meyer is Jacksonville's fifth coach over the past decade, and so far the Jaguars are no less a mess with him in charge. In fact, many of the team's negative headlines have been of Meyer's own making, like hiring a strength coach with a history of racist comments and thinking no one would notice, putting players in pads during OTAs in violation of the collective bargaining agreement, and waiting until just a couple of days before the season opener to drop the pretense and name Lawrence the starting QB.

Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell hasn't done Lawrence or his unit many favors, though Lawrence also has hurt himself. All nine of the Jaguars' turnovers are his, on seven interceptions and two lost fumbles. He has been sacked five times.

And the Jets, well, their offensive line isn't protecting Wilson by any measure. He has been sacked 15 times in three games. Wilson's completion percentage is 55.2 and he has two touchdowns against seven picks. 

Fields has played in all three of Chicago's games but his first start — last week against Cleveland — couldn't have gone much worse: sacked nine times, hit 15, and asked to run plays that didn't take advantage of his skills. 

Sitting for even a half-season has its benefits. Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady all sat and learned for at least a season before becoming a starter, and it's hard to argue their results. NFL playbooks are voluminous, NFL defenses are far savvier and skilled than in college. And confidently leading teammates who may be a decade older than you — and getting them to follow — doesn't happen overnight.

None of this is to say the current crop of rookies are busts. It takes until Year 3 before we know that for sure. But clearly all of them could have used time to adapt to the enormity of the responsibility, learn and observe. At this rate, not only are they suffering, their teams are too.

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