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How have highly-drafted QBs done during their rookie season?

A peek into the past to gain perspective on Justin Herbert rookie expectations

Los Angeles Chargers v Cleveland Browns

The Los Angeles Chargers made the bold but expected move of drafting Justin Herbert with the sixth overall pick, building around a new quarterback for the first time since 2006. I say 2006 because Philip Rivers did not play much during his first two seasons but any expectations of first round quarterbacks sitting for a year or more to “learn” have nearly gone extinct.

Interesting to think then that three quarterbacks who played much less than their recent peers as rookies are Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, and Lamar Jackson. Tyrod Taylor is currently situated as the starter and the idea of a “camp battle” at the position may not really happen once practices begin.

Of course, that has been the case for many other quarterbacks in the last ten years who weren’t supposed to start at all in year one and then that idea goes out the window 2-6 games into the season. From 2010-2019, 24 quarterbacks were drafted in the top half of the first round (1-16) and this is a quick summary of how they fared as rookies.

If you’re picked first, you’re starting

Of the 24 QBs, seven started all 16 games during their rookie season. Of those seven players, five were first overall picks: Sam Bradford, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Jameis Winston, and Kyler Murray.

The other two were Carson Wentz, who was picked second, and Ryan Tannehill, who went eighth. Robert Griffin III, also picked second, started all 15 games. He missed Week 15 due to injury and then tore his ACL in the playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Griffin has seen his start totals dip from 15 to 13 to 7 to 5 to 0 to 0 to 1 over his career thus far.

The only quarterbacks to be picked first and not start all 16 were Jared Goff, who sat for nine games behind Case Keenum, and Baker Mayfield. People may forget that the Rams started 3-1 that season but Keenum threw eight interceptions over the next four games (all losses) and he was benched following a 9-6 win over the Jets. Goff was more terrible than Keenum when he did get his opportunity but LA had nothing left to play for other than his development.

In Cleveland, the Browns were coming off of an 0-16 season and a 1-31 record under Hue Jackson overall so there was no rush to put Mayfield into a position to fail should the team look that awful again. Others argued that Mayfield had nothing to gain from sitting and was perhaps one of the best players already, so why not start him? Following a 1-1-1 start in which Cleveland could have easily been 3-0, Hue benched the starter following, you guessed it, a win over the Jets.

The quarterback benched in favor of Baker Mayfield: Tyrod Taylor.

Taylor had been okay in a 21-18 loss to the Saints but was 4-of-14 for 19 yards in that win over New York. Mayfield started the final 13 games and threw 27 touchdowns but he also threw three picks in a loss to the Texans and three more in a two-point loss to the Ravens in Week 17. The overall package was exciting but the issue with turnovers only got worse in year two as Mayfield threw 21 interceptions.

Usually enough to lead the NFL if not for Winston.

How successful were these QBs who started all 16 games?

The only quarterback to post a winning record was Luck in 2012 with the Colts, though the AFC South did not present much of a challenge that year or most others in that era. The other teams to start a rookie all went either 6-10 or 7-9, with the 2019 Cardinals going 5-10-1 under Murray. We should remember though that if a team is picking that high, they have nowhere to go but up usually (unless you’re with Hue) and it’s common for a team to go from 3-13 to 6-10.

All seven quarterbacks to start all 16 games posted a passer rating between 76.1 and 84.2. Bradford and Luck posted identical ratings of 76.5. Winston’s was the highest. The worst statistical season by a pretty clear margin is Tannehill, who had 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, but Wentz wasn’t that much better.

Go down to 15 starts however and you see RGIII: 102.4 rating, Rookie of the Year, rushing yards, and playoffs. So a season as positive as that one is not impossible or even hard to imagine.

Quarterbacks who barely played have been mostly fine

Only five QBs on the list started fewer than 10 games as rookies.

Mahomes sat for the entire year as the Chiefs were winning and went to the playoffs in the final year of Alex Smith. Mahomes started the meaningless (for playoffs) finale and had one of his worst games as a pro to date, a phrase we won’t be saying often. It also wasn’t that bad of a start.

Jake Locker was the only QB to get no starts. He sat for a year behind Matt Hasselbeck and it did nothing to help him. Locker came in for spot duty, going 34-of-66 for 542 yards, four touchdowns, no picks. He started 11 games the next year and was at least as bad as you could have expected if he was a rookie: 56.4% completions, 10 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, passer rating of 74, 6.9 yards per attempt. Locker retired a few years later and is the only “bust” story ... so far.

Deshaun Watson was supposedly in a competition to start as a rookie and yet Bill O’Brien, still employed by Houston, named Tom Savage as his starter. Facing the Jaguars in Week 1, a team few expected to have the NFL’s best defense that year, Savage was sacked by Calais Campbell on his first dropback. He was sacked five more times in the first half alone. Two of his sacks led to lost fumbles. With one minute left in the half, Savage was sacked by Yannick Ngakoue, fumbled, which was recovered by Dante Fowler and returned 53 yards for a touchdown.

Watson started the second half, a drive that ended in a touchdown pass to DeAndre Hopkins, and he was now the starter. Watson would only start seven games however due to injuries, but he did throw an incredible 19 touchdowns as a rookie. Unlike Mayfield, his high rate of interceptions as a rookie has gone down, not up.

Finally, Dwayne Haskins was planned to sit as a rookie by Jay Gruden so that he could sit behind ... Case Keenum. (Are there only two quarterbacks in the NFL? Tyrod Taylor and Case Keenum? Is that it?)

Keenum threw seven touchdowns in the first three games, but they were all losses. In his next four starts, Keenum was ineffective on a level you could only marvel at as the team only scored 29 points — 17 of those in a win over the even-worse Dolphins — and he threw for a total of 410 yards. A total. Haskins started the next seven games, completing 59% of his attempts for seven touchdowns, three interceptions, 6.7 Y/A, and a rating of 85.5. He did fumble six times and take 25 sacks, an issue Washington is hoping to fix without Trent Williams.

All told, the “sitters” were fine to sit. As it applies to Herbert though, we should not expect a rookie to sit for long. It has happened fewer times in the last decade than a rookie QB starting all 16 games.

The best, the worst, and the median

It doesn’t really matter who you were or where you are drafted, it is unlikely that any rookie quarterback will have a statistically dominant season. Relative to veterans, a rookie is much more likely to post below-average numbers, all the way down to way below average. Very few highly-drafted QBs — also the QBs most likely to start though you never know when Russell Wilson or Gardner Minshew arrive — have had success as rookies. Not even as teams have amped up, to a large degree, the amount they play them as rookies.

The two best: Watson (on 204 attempts) and Griffin (on 393 attempts). The fact that RGIII was playing in the zone read option at the time, the work with the Shanahan’s to limit his passes, also led to his raised passer rating that season. Not that he wasn’t talented but what would RGIII have done if he had thrown 600 passes like Luck or Wentz?

Mayfield posted a rating of 93.7, the third-best on this list (of those who started a game), and that was slightly above league average. Marcus Mariota was the only other QB to post an above average passer rating as a rookie, whereas Cam Newton was right at the league average when he was at 84.5 during his first season.

Right in the middle of this list you’ll see Sam Darnold and Mitchell Trubisky:

Darnold: 239-of-414, 57.7%, 2,865 yards, 17 TD, 15 INT, 6.92 Y/A

Trubisky: 196-of-330, 59.4%, 2,193 yards, 7 TD, 7 INT, 6.65 Y/A

The efficiency in either respect is about the same, but the separation comes at Trubisky doing better in ball protection but significantly worse in scoring production. I’m not too concerned with what happened after any of these seasons by the way, the only focus on here is rookie expectations.

We can’t have second-year expectations really until we see the first year. Or at least, we know that the first year will provide so much more information than what we have right now.

The really awful table consists of Goff, who has actually posted the lowest passer rating of any QB on this list (63.6) but in less than half of a season. The five QBs between him and Haskins in passer rating: Blaine Gabbert, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen, Blake Bortles, and Christian Ponder.

All five started between 10 to 14 games. All five threw between 10 and 13 touchdowns. All five threw between 11 and 17 interceptions. All five were between 52.8 and 58.9 in completion percentage.

Expectations for Justin Herbert

There are such a large amount of variables to consider to set out “expectations” and I’m ignoring almost all of them (stuff that considers the Chargers’ personnel, coaching, matchups, coronavirus, schedule, etc., etc., etc., etc.) because the only focus I have in this piece is looking at this list of 24 quarterbacks.

The only one of those 24 who looked legitimately dominant immediately was Watson, but that was in a shorter period of time and he still threw eight interceptions in seven games.

There were positive takeaways and reasons for optimism in cases like Cam Newton, Carson Wentz, but also in Baker Mayfield, Marcus Mariota, and Jameis Winston. And now, Kyler Murray. Murray had one of the best rookie seasons of all-time (really) but even then couldn’t quite hit league average. The fact that he was about league average as a rookie is what is so compelling.

If Herbert has a passer rating of 80 or above (I know passer rating is flawed beyond recognition but let’s consider it more of an “indication” of something rather than the end-all) then he’s most likely beat out expectations. Anything in the “not awful” category would work. If he were to start 12 games, maybe something along the lines of 15 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 7.5 yards per attempts is plenty acceptable.

Overall, I think Herbert is at least not in line to start 16 games. Barring an injury to Taylor, that is unlikely to happen. However, there’s also little reason to believe that if available, Herbert won’t start a large chunk, if not the majority of 2020. Taylor has been through this before. Has something in his experience helped him this time around? Maybe, but he knows the only thing that can help him stay the starter is winning.

But maybe not winning against the Jets. (Week 6)