How Soon Do Rookie Quarterbacks Usually Play?

Jun 17, 2021
How Soon Do Rookie Quarterbacks Usually Play?

There were five quarterbacks drafted inside the first 15 picks in the 2021 NFL Draft. Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson are expected to start Week 1, but the same cannot be said, at least not yet, for Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones.


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The 49ers, Bears and Patriots, have indicated that the rookies are not guaranteed, or even expected, to start Week 1. For now, Jimmy Garoppolo, Andy Dalton and Cam Newton are holding down their respective forts. But for how long?

As a forecaster and as a relatively honest human being, I want to believe coaches when they explain their intentions, but experience says to take this coachspeak with a spoonful of salt. In my early best ball drafts, I’ve noticed that Lance (QB15) and Fields (QB17) are going off the board ahead of surefire Week 1 starters like Matt Ryan, Tua Tagovailoa, Kirk Cousins and Baker Mayfield. Early drafters obviously expect Lance and Fields to start early in the season, if not as soon as Week 1.

So I thought I’d take a look at the recent history of rookie quarterbacks to see how much they’ve played and how soon we can expect them to take over the starting job.

Below is a table of the 42 quarterbacks drafted inside the first 15 picks since 2000. I’ve included their rookie season stats for reference, but I’m mainly interested in the number of games they started and how early in the season they got their first start. The data was collected from Stathead.com. The table is pretty wide so you may want to scroll to the right.

Rookie QBs Drafted In the First 15 Picks
Player Year Age Pick Tm G GS First Start (Week) Played Behind/Notes Cmp Att Cmp% PYds PTD Int TD% Int% Sk Sk% YPA PY/G W L T Rush Ryds RTD RY/G FP
Cam Newton 2011 22 1 CAR 16 16 1 - 310 517 60.0 4051 21 17 4.1 3.3 35 6.3% 7.84 253.2 6 10 0 126 706 14 44.1 366.6
Andrew Luck 2012 23 1 IND 16 16 1 - 339 627 54.1 4374 23 18 3.7 2.9 41 6.1% 6.98 273.4 11 5 0 62 255 5 15.9 286.5
Kyler Murray 2019 22 1 ARI 16 16 1 - 349 542 64.4 3722 20 12 3.7 2.2 48 8.1% 6.87 232.6 5 10 1 93 544 4 34.0 283.3
Jameis Winston 2015 21 1 TAM 16 16 1 - 312 535 58.3 4042 22 15 4.1 2.8 27 4.8% 7.56 252.6 6 10 0 54 213 6 13.3 277.0
Carson Wentz 2016 24 2 PHI 16 16 1 - 379 607 62.4 3782 16 14 2.6 2.3 33 5.2% 6.23 236.4 7 9 0 46 150 2 9.4 214.3
Matt Ryan 2008 23 3 ATL 16 16 1 - 265 434 61.1 3440 16 11 3.7 2.5 17 3.8% 7.93 215.0 11 5 0 55 104 1 6.5 196.0
Sam Bradford 2010 23 1 STL 16 16 1 - 354 590 60.0 3512 18 15 3.1 2.5 34 5.4% 5.95 219.5 7 9 0 27 63 1 3.9 194.8
Ryan Tannehill 2012 24 8 MIA 16 16 1 - 282 484 58.3 3294 12 13 2.5 2.7 35 6.7% 6.81 205.9 7 9 0 49 211 2 13.2 186.9
David Carr 2002 23 1 HOU 16 16 1 - 233 444 52.5 2592 9 15 2 3.4 76 14.6% 5.84 162.0 4 12 0 59 282 3 17.6 155.9
Justin Herbert 2020 22 6 LAC 15 15 2 Tyrod Taylor 396 595 66.6 4336 31 10 5.2 1.7 32 5.1% 7.29 289.1 6 9 0 55 234 5 15.6 330.8
Robert Griffin III 2012 22 2 WAS 15 15 1 Injuries 258 393 65.7 3200 20 5 5.1 1.3 30 7.1% 8.14 213.3 9 6 0 120 815 7 54.3 321.5
Mark Sanchez 2009 23 5 NYJ 15 15 1 Injuries 196 364 53.9 2444 12 20 3.3 5.5 26 6.7% 6.71 162.9 8 7 0 36 106 3 7.1 134.4
Blaine Gabbert 2011 22 10 JAX 15 14 3 Luke McCown 210 413 50.9 2214 12 11 2.9 2.7 40 8.8% 5.36 147.6 4 10 0 48 98 0 6.5 124.4
Baker Mayfield 2018 23 1 CLE 14 13 4 Tyrod Taylor 310 486 63.8 3725 27 14 5.6 2.9 25 4.9% 7.66 266.1 6 7 0 39 131 0 9.4 242.1
Vince Young 2006 23 3 TEN 15 13 4 Kerry Collins 184 357 51.5 2199 12 13 3.4 3.6 25 6.5% 6.16 146.6 8 5 0 83 552 7 36.8 207.2
Sam Darnold 2018 21 3 NYJ 13 13 1 Injuries 239 414 57.7 2865 17 15 4.1 3.6 30 6.8% 6.92 220.4 4 9 0 44 138 1 10.6 172.4
Ben Roethlisberger 2004 22 11 PIT 14 13 3 Tommy Maddox 196 295 66.4 2621 17 11 5.8 3.7 30 9.2% 8.88 187.2 13 0 0 56 144 1 10.3 171.2
Blake Bortles 2014 22 3 JAX 14 13 4 Chad Henne 280 475 59.0 2908 11 17 2.3 3.6 55 10.4% 6.12 207.7 3 10 0 56 419 0 29.9 168.2
Byron Leftwich 2003 23 7 JAX 15 13 4 Mark Brunell 239 418 57.2 2819 14 16 3.3 3.8 19 4.3% 6.74 187.9 5 8 0 25 108 2 7.2 159.6
Josh Rosen 2018 21 10 ARI 14 13 4 Sam Bradford 217 393 55.2 2278 11 14 2.8 3.6 45 10.3% 5.8 162.7 3 10 0 23 138 0 9.9 120.9
Daniel Jones 2019 22 6 NYG 13 12 3 Eli Manning 284 459 61.9 3027 24 12 5.2 2.6 38 7.6% 6.59 232.8 3 9 0 45 279 2 21.5 233.0
Marcus Mariota 2015 22 2 TEN 12 12 1 Injuries 230 370 62.2 2818 19 10 5.1 2.7 38 9.3% 7.62 234.8 3 9 0 34 252 2 21.0 205.9
Mitchell Trubisky 2017 23 2 CHI 12 12 5 Mike Glennon 196 330 59.4 2193 7 7 2.1 2.1 31 8.6% 6.65 182.8 4 8 0 41 248 2 20.7 138.5
Joey Harrington 2002 24 3 DET 14 12 3 Mike McMahon 215 429 50.1 2294 12 16 2.8 3.7 8 1.8% 5.35 163.9 3 9 0 7 4 0 0.3 108.2
Josh Allen 2018 22 7 BUF 12 11 2 Nathan Peterman, Injuries 169 320 52.8 2074 10 12 3.1 3.8 28 8.0% 6.48 172.8 5 6 0 89 631 8 52.6 210.1
Matt Leinart 2006 23 10 ARI 12 11 5 Kurt Warner 214 377 56.8 2547 11 12 2.9 3.2 21 5.3% 6.76 212.3 4 7 0 22 49 2 4.1 138.8
Joe Burrow 2020 24 1 CIN 10 10 1 IR W12 264 404 65.4 2688 13 5 3.2 1.2 32 7.3% 6.65 268.8 2 7 1 37 142 3 14.2 181.7
Matthew Stafford 2009 21 1 DET 10 10 1 Injuries, IR W16 201 377 53.3 2267 13 20 3.4 5.3 24 6.0% 6.01 226.7 2 8 0 20 108 2 10.8 125.5
Christian Ponder 2011 23 12 MIN 11 10 7 Donovan McNabb 158 291 54.3 1853 13 13 4.5 4.5 30 9.3% 6.37 168.5 2 8 0 28 219 0 19.9 122.0
Tua Tagovailoa 2020 22 5 MIA 10 9 8 Ryan Fitzpatrick 186 290 64.1 1814 11 5 3.8 1.7 20 6.5% 6.26 181.4 6 3 0 36 109 3 10.9 135.5
Dwayne Haskins 2019 22 15 WAS 9 7 9 Case Keenum 119 203 58.6 1365 7 7 3.4 3.5 29 12.5% 6.72 151.7 2 5 0 20 101 0 11.2 78.7
Jared Goff 2016 22 1 LAR 7 7 11 Case Keenum 112 205 54.6 1089 5 7 2.4 3.4 26 11.3% 5.31 155.6 0 7 0 8 16 1 2.3 57.2
Eli Manning 2004 23 1 NYG 9 7 11 Kurt Warner 95 197 48.2 1043 6 9 3 4.6 13 6.2% 5.29 115.9 1 6 0 6 35 0 3.9 51.2
Alex Smith 2005 21 1 SFO 9 7 5 Tim Rattay 84 165 50.9 875 1 11 0.6 6.7 29 14.9% 5.3 97.2 2 5 0 30 103 0 11.4 27.3
Deshaun Watson 2017 22 12 HOU 7 6 1 IR Week 9 126 204 61.8 1699 19 8 9.3 3.9 19 8.5% 8.33 242.7 3 3 0 36 269 2 38.4 166.9
Jay Cutler 2006 23 11 DEN 5 5 13 Jake Plummer 81 137 59.1 1001 9 5 6.6 3.7 13 8.7% 7.31 200.2 2 3 0 12 18 0 3.6 67.8
Michael Vick 2001 21 1 ATL 8 2 9 Chris Chandler 50 113 44.3 785 2 3 1.8 2.7 21 15.7% 6.95 98.1 1 1 0 31 289 1 36.1 68.3
JaMarcus Russell 2007 22 1 OAK 4 1 17 Daunte Culpepper/Josh McCown 36 66 54.6 373 2 4 3 6.1 6 8.3% 5.65 93.3 0 1 0 5 4 0 1.0 15.3
Patrick Mahomes 2017 22 10 KAN 1 1 17 Alex Smith 22 35 62.9 284 0 1 0 2.9 2 5.4% 8.11 284.0 1 0 0 7 10 0 10.0 10.4
Jake Locker 2011 23 8 TEN 5 0 - Matt Hasselbeck 34 66 51.5 542 4 0 6.1 0.0 5 7.0% 8.21 108.4 0 0 0 8 56 1 11.2 49.3
Philip Rivers 2004 23 4 SDG 2 0 - Drew Brees 5 8 62.5 33 1 0 12.5 0.0 0 0.0% 4.13 16.5 0 0 0 4 -5 0 -2.5 4.8
Carson Palmer 2004 25 1 CIN 0 0 - DNP as a rookie, Jon Kitna - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 0.0

Key Takeaways

  • The average number of games started in this sample is 10.6, but that includes a few situations–JaMarcus Russell, Patrick Mahomes, Jake Locker, Philip Rivers and Carson Palmer, now known as the “Jamarcus Group”–where it was pretty clear from the get-go that the rookie wasn’t going to start as long as the team’s QB1 remained healthy. If these players are removed, the average jumps to 12.0 games started.

  • 24 of the 42 (57%) rookies started at least 12 games, while at least another four–Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Matthew Stafford and Deshaun Watson–would have made it if not for injuries. If we include those four, the percentage jumps to 67%. If we exclude the Jamarcus Group, that percentage jumps further to 76%.

  • Excluding the Jamarcus Group, the average first start for the remainder of the sample was Week 3.6. So, on average, we can expect rookies in fuzzy situations to get their first start around Week 3 or Week 4.

  • 16 of the 42 (38%) rookies started Week 1. 27 of the 42 (64%) drew their first start by Week 4, 73% if we exclude the Jamarcus Group.

  • Six of the 42 (14%) rookies finished with more than 250 fantasy points, the ballpark threshold I use to get into season-long QB1 (Top 12) territory. More often than not, rookie quarterbacks are going to be weekly QB2/QB3-types, though there are exceptions. It should be noted that of the 12 rookies who started 15+ games, six (50%) finished with 250+ fantasy points and three (25%) went for 320 or more.

Conclusions

After working through these numbers, I’m going to bump up my expected starts for Trey Lance and Justin Fields to the 15-game range since both the 49ers and the Bears seem to want to move on from their current quarterback situations and history shows that highly drafted rookies tend to take over early more often than not.

The same could be said for the Patriots, though even at this stage of his career Cam Newton offers a unique skill set and could hold onto the starting job for a while, especially since the Patriots have a terrific defense, a solid offensive line, and a much improved supporting cast of receivers. As long as Newton isn’t turning the ball over, I doubt Bill Belichick makes a change at quarterback if the Patriots continue to win.

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