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To Start or Not To Start?

Five teams bought shiny new toys at this year’s NFL draft. They’d be crazy not to take them out and play with them, right?

Mac Jones by MGoBlog is licensed under CC BY SA-2.0

To Start or Not To Start?

Estimated Reading Time: 7 Minutes

Trey Lance or Jimmy Garoppolo? Justin Fields or Andy Dalton/Nick Foles? Mac Jones or (gulp) Cam Newton?

It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that top two picks Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson will be the opening day quarterbacks for the Jaguars and Jets, respectively. But what does the future hold for the three other quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft?

In New England, the reporting runs the gamut between Mac Jones being ready to play at an NFL level right now and Jones taking a “redshirt year” where he doesn’t even dress on game days, leaving the Patriots essentially in the same spot as last year, with Cam Newton being backed up by Jarret Stidham.

Last Ten Years of First Round QB’s w/ Rookie Year Stats

2020Pick #TeamStarted Week 1?Started Year 1?GPGSCOMP-ATTCMP%YDSTDINTW-L
Joe Burrow1BengalsYesYes1010264-40465.326881352-7-1
Tua Tagovailoa5DolphinsNoYes109186-29064.118141156-3
Justin Herbert6ChargersNoYes1515396-59566.6433631106-9
Jordan Love26PackersNoNo00

2019Pick #TeamStarted Week 1?Started Year 1?GPGSCOMP-ATTCMP%YDSTDINTW-L
Kyler Murray1CardinalsYesYes1616349-54264.4372220125-10-1
Daniel Jones6GiantsNoYes1312284-45961.9302724123-9
Dwayne Haskins15WashingtonNoYes97119-20358.61365772-5

2018Pick #TeamStarted Week 1?Started Year 1?GPGSCOMP-ATTCMP%YDSTDINTW-L
Baker Mayfield1BrownsNoYes1413310-48663.8372527146-7
Sam Darnold3JetsYesYes1313239-41457.7286517154-9
Josh Allen7BillsNoYes1211169-32052.8207410125-6
Josh Rosen10CardinalsNoYes1413217-39355.2227811143-10
Lamar Jackson32RavensNoYes16799-17058.21201636-1

2017Pick #TeamStarted Week 1?Started Year 1?GPGSCOMP-ATTCMP%YDSTDINTW-L
Mitchell Trubisky2BearsNoYes1212196-33059.42193774-8
Patrick Mahomes10ChiefsNoBarely1122-3562.9284011-0
Deshaun Watson12TexansNoYes76126-20461.816991983-3

2016Pick #TeamStarted Week 1?Started Year 1?GPGSCOMP-ATTCMP%YDSTDINTW-L
Jared Goff1RamsNoYes77112-20554.61089570-7
Carson Wentz2EaglesYesYes1616379-60762.4378216147-9
Paxton Lynch26BroncosNoBarely3249-8359497211-1

2015Pick #TeamStarted Week 1?Started Year 1?GPGSCOMP-ATTCMP%YDSTDINTW-L
Jameis Winston1BucsYesYes1616312-53558.3404222156-10
Marcus Mariota2TitansYesYes1212230-37062.2281819103-9

2014Pick #TeamStarted Week 1?Started Year 1?GPGSCOMP-ATTCMP%YDSTDINTW-L
Blake Bortles3JaguarsNoYes1413280-47558.9290811173-10
Johnny Manziel22BrownsNoBarely5218-3551.4175020-2
Teddy Bridgewater32VikingsNoYes1312259-40264.4291914126-6

2013Pick #TeamStarted Week 1?Started Year 1?GPGSCOMP-ATTCMP%YDSTDINTW-L
EJ Manuel16BillsYesYes1010180-30658.819721194-6

2012Pick #TeamStarted Week 1?Started Year 1?GPGSCOMP-ATTCMP%YDSTDINTW-L
Andrew Luck1ColtsYesYes1616339-62754.14374231811-5
Robert Griffin III2WashingtonYesYes1515258-39365.632002059-6
Ryan Tannehill8DolphinsYesYes1616282-48458.3329412137-9
Brandon Weeden22BrownsYesYes1515297-51757.4338514175-10

2011Pick #TeamStarted Week 1?Started Year 1?GPGSCOMP-ATTCMP%YDSTDINTW-L
Cam Newton1PanthersYesYes1616310-51760405121176-10
Jake Locker8TitansNoNo5034-6651.554240NA
Blaine Gabbert10JaguarsNoYes1514210-41350.8221412114-10
Christian Ponder12VikingsNoYes1110158-29154.3185313132-8

2010Pick #TeamStarted Week 1?Started Year 1?GPGSCOMP-ATTCMP%YDSTDINTW-L
Sam Bradford1RamsYesYes1616354-59060351218157-9
Tim Tebow25BroncosNoYes9341-8250654531-2

No Love for This First Rounder

From 2010-2020, thirty-four quarterbacks have been selected in the first round. Of that group, only one first round quarterback has not touched the field in their rookie year. That was Jordan Love, who was inactive for every game of 2020. Tim Boyle backed up Aaron Rodgers, who probably whined his way into Love getting 0 reps.

Thirty-two of those quarterbacks were given at least one start in their rookie season. Only Jake Locker, who was picked 8th overall by the Titans in 2011, did not start a game as a rookie. Locker played in just five games in 2011, never started a full season for the Titans, and, after going 9-14 over 23 games started, was out of the league at age 26, claiming he lost his passion for the sport.

That’s not to say that Locker would have turned out differently had he started a game as a rookie. But the fact is, first round quarterbacks are a big investment for a franchise, and it doesn’t pay to wait too long to see what you have.

Besides Locker and Love, only four quarterbacks started less than six games in their rookie year. One of them was Patrick Mahomes, who basically redshirted behind Alex Smith until the final game of the season, when he got his first start in Week 16 with the Chiefs’ playoff seeding already locked up. Evidently, Mahomes showed enough in that game for the Chiefs to trade Smith before the next season and open the door for the second-year quarterback to take over under center full-time.

What did he do with the opportunity? Only set records on his way to winning MVP.

Even just one start for Mahomes in his rookie year was enough to have massive implications for the future of the Kansas City franchise. It’s possible that if he hadn’t gotten that one start as a rookie, the Chiefs wouldn’t feel comfortable enough to hand him the reigns at the start of his sophomore year.

The other three players to start only a handful of games as a rookie were Tim Tebow (25th pick by Denver in 2010), Johnny Manziel (22nd pick by Cleveland in 2014) and Paxton Lynch (26th pick by Denver in 2016). Those poor Broncos.

Mahomes is the exception to the group. Tebow, Manziel, Lynch, Locker – they all didn’t get many opportunities as rookies, and none of them lasted in the league very long. There’s something to be said for starting your first round draft picks and getting them up to NFL speed before they fall too far behind. Sometimes they never catch up.

“You Don’t Want to Ruin Him”

The concern with starting quarterbacks in their rookie year is that if they are not ready for primetime and play poorly, you will break their confidence and ruin them before their career can even get underway.

However, does that apply to a QB a team selected in the first round? If you are using a top-32 pick on a quarterback, it’s likely that you don’t have a franchise guy at the position, or at least not one with many years left in him. Drafting a quarterback that high and then not letting them get their feet wet in favor of a mediocre veteran option is a disservice to the rookie, the franchise and the fan base.

The truth is, nearly all of the rookie quarterbacks drafted in the first round had losing records in their first season. Only Tua Tagovailoa (6-3), Mahomes (1-0), Lamar Jackson (6-1) and Andrew Luck (11-5) were above .500.

Jared Goff went 0-7 as a rookie. Marcus Mariota went 3-9. Kyler Murray went 5-10-1. Joe Burrow went 2-7-1. Justin Herbert won the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, but still had a 6-9 record.

Sure, Josh Rosen went 3-10 and never really recovered, but maybe some guys just don’t have what it takes to play in the league. By playing their quarterback in their first year, teams can get a head start on assessing what they have, and the players can get a potentially shaky rookie season out of the way and start to turn it around in the next year, if they indeed have that ability

So Where Does Mac Stand in 2021?

Lance was taken third overall by the 49ers, who traded up to get him. Fields went 11th to the Bears, who also traded up. Both of those moves indicate that the teams are looking to find an opportunity to get those guys ready as quickly as possible and have them starting games by the end of the season.

Mac Jones is the biggest wildcard of the group, and not just because he was picked last among first round quarterbacks. He was still in the upper half of the first round, and all those examples of guys who didn’t play much in their rookie years (Tebow, Manziel, Lynch, Love) were all taken in the 20’s.

In the case of Jordan Love and Patrick Mahomes, they were also joining teams with successful veteran quarterbacks in Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith.

Cam Newton is not Aaron Rodgers. He is not even Alex Smith, who was a very capable pocket passer and a confident field general.

The Patriots are currently carrying four quarterbacks on their roster. The night of the draft, Belichick committed to Cam Newton as their starter. A few days later they resigned Brian Hoyer. Jarret Stidham is still deep in the Patriots system and some see him as a still in-progress project. Where does that leave Mac Jones?

The fact is this – He has to play this year, and he has to be starting at some point this season. Anything else would not just be a disservice to the franchise. It would fly in the face of the logic and history, and defy the opportunities that previous first round picks have been afforded to succeed in the league.

Craig has spent the last ten years as a sports information professional, working for several schools across New England at the Division 3 level. A native of Peabody, Mass., Craig is a life-long Boston sports fan. He is also an avid player of fantasy football and baseball, and commissioner of the AKA Family Fantasy Football League. Like most other Turf team members, Craig has a penchant for theater, spending his high school and college years as a set designer, sound designer and theater shop worker. He became a father shortly before the coronavirus pandemic, and as such, hasn't really left his home since last December.

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