The Rough Road of the Rookie Quarterback (and It’s Only Week 10)

The Rough Road of the Rookie Quarterback (and It’s Only Week 10)


It is hard to pinpoint when the “Welcome to the N.F.L.” moment officially occurred for Sam Darnold. But the evidence of its arrival was clear on Wednesday as Darnold, the Jets’ rookie quarterback, trudged through the team’s locker room wearing a thick black boot on his right foot.

The injury — a foot strain — has been deemed minor and will most likely cost him only one start. But the limp, added to the indignity of a four-interception meltdown in his last game, has Darnold, the No. 3 overall draft pick out of Southern California, showing the familiar signs of the N.F.L. rookie blues.

He is not alone. In April, for the first time in N.F.L. draft history, four quarterbacks were selected among the top 10 picks. It was considered by many draft analysts to be the most impressive class of rookie quarterbacks entering the league since 1983, when Dan Marino, John Elway and Jim Kelly arrived.

But despite each showing brief flashes of success, the early returns have not been pretty. By the end of September, all four — Darnold of the Jets, Baker Mayfield of the Cleveland Browns, Josh Rosen of the Arizona Cardinals and Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills — were starting. Six weeks later, each has a losing record and a quarterback rating among the bottom six in the league. Two have been injured, and two have seen their offensive coordinators fired.

In other words, a lot of hype has been replaced with a lot of yuck.

“I was a big fan of this class,” Daniel Jeremiah, a former scout and now an NFL Network analyst, said. “For me, Darnold, Rosen and Mayfield, I thought all three of those guys would come in and be ready to roll. I am surprised.”

Such results should not come as a total shock. Rookie quarterbacks have historically struggled, and that includes some of the best (Elway, Peyton Manning, Troy Aikman). The leap from college football to the N.F.L. is, in the words of the former Dallas Cowboys vice president for player personnel Gil Brandt, akin to being a freshman in high school and then taking graduate studies at M.I.T.

“What they see in college is just a skeleton of all the different things they see in the N.F.L.,” said Brandt, now an analyst for NFL.com and SiriusXM.

There are several examples of current starting quarterbacks who struggled in their rookie season only to rebound and find consistency the next year: Chicago’s Mitch Trubisky, the Los Angeles Rams’ Jared Goff and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Carson Wentz. There is also the case of Patrick Mahomes, who sat the bench as a rookie last season for the Kansas City Chiefs, only to emerge as a most valuable player candidate as a starter this year.

But none of those players, despite being high draft choices, arrived with the immediate pressure that surrounded this group of quarterbacks. Including Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson (selected 32nd over all), it was the first time in the modern era that five quarterbacks had played in the first three weeks of their rookie season.

Now some are questioning the wisdom in those decisions.

Phil Savage, a former N.F.L. general manager and executive director of the Senior Bowl, said there was so much attention placed on the quarterbacks in college, many months before the draft, that it likely swayed opinions about their readiness and abilities.

“I always say you scout with your eyes not your ears,” said Savage, now an analyst for SiriusXM. He added, “I thought as a group it was a foursome that was a bit overhyped, a bit oversold. I thought each guy had a hole or a flaw and all of them needed some incubation time.”

The most easily identifiable common thread between all these quarterbacks? They are on bad teams. For that reason, most analysts are willing to give them a pass on their poor play out of the gate. But they are still waiting for the results to align consistently with the hype.

“There’s moments with all these guys where you see it,” Jeremiah said. “I do think you’re going to see these guys take off next season.”

Here is a closer look at what the top four rookie quarterbacks have done:

The No. 1 overall pick in the draft, Mayfield galvanized the Browns against the Jets in a Thursday night meeting on Sept. 20, replacing Tyrod Taylor in the first half and completing 17 of 23 passes to lead Cleveland to its first victory in 20 games.

Mayfield, who rose from being a walk-on at Oklahoma to being the winner of the Heisman Trophy, has been embraced as the city’s next icon, after LeBron James’s departure to Los Angeles. And Mayfield has embraced the city right back with the same swagger and confidence that persuaded the Browns to choose him over Darnold with the top pick despite concerns about his size.

But after that debut, the Browns have lost five of six and fired their head coach and offensive coordinator. Mayfield has been playing with an injured ankle, endured a brutal hit to the helmet and has withstood a consistent pounding, with 22 sacks in seven games.

Despite this, Mayfield has managed to keep his touchdown passes (10) above the number of interceptions he has thrown (7). While the Browns are sixth in the league in dropped passes, Mayfield’s completion percentage is the best of the four rookies (60.0), and so is his adjusted yards per attempt (6.33), which still ranks 33rd among quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts.

Now the Browns will be looking for a new coach, and Jeremiah thinks their focus should be on finding someone who can groom their young quarterback. For a blueprint, he said to look at what the Rams did in replacing Jeff Fisher with Sean McVay, who has done wonders for Goff.


Darnold was tossed right into the deep end, making his N.F.L. debut on “Monday Night Football” on the road in Detroit. But he managed to turn a disastrous start (tossing a pick-6 on his first pass attempt) into a showcase of his maturity and resilience. Teammates praise his unflappability, and by Week 6 he appeared to have found his groove and was on a pace for 3,500 yards and 24 touchdowns.

In the past three weeks, his performance has cratered, and the more ominous projections from the time of the draft — that he would be inaccurate and prone to mistakes — began to re-emerge. The slump hit a nadir in Miami, where Darnold, while struggling to field several poor snaps, threw four interceptions and sustained the injury that has forced him to the bench on Sunday.

His interception count sits at a league-high 14, four more than any other quarterback in the N.F.L. Bear in mind, Peyton Manning threw a league-high 28 interceptions in 1998, his first year. But Darnold said after the game that he felt he had been forcing too many throws, and the Jets’ offensive coordinator, Jeremy Bates, echoed that the rookie still needed to learn to take what the defense gave him.

“It’s kind of like baseball,” Bates said. “When that pitch comes, you’ve got to hit it out of the park. But it’s not every pitch.”

Taking a couple weeks off (the Jets have a bye next week) to recharge might not be the worst thing for Darnold, the youngest quarterback to start Week 1 since 1970. The Jets still contend that the best thing Darnold has going for him might be his mental toughness, and they do not want to see his confidence continue to take hits.

“We’ve talked about it since training camp,” Bates said. “One of the things that Sam does really good is he wipes off the play and moves on to the next. He’s got to continue to grow in that.”


The Bills selected the strong-armed Allen out of Wyoming with the No. 7 pick thinking he could be comparable to the Eagles’ Wentz, another tall quarterback from a small town and a football program well off the beaten path (North Dakota State).

But midway through his rookie season, Allen remains a mystery. He has played in five games and looked shaky. His completion percentage (54.0) and yards per attempt (5.99) are the lowest in the league, and he was sacked 21 times on just 160 dropbacks. Certainly, part of that can be blamed on the Bills’ offensive line, but Allen is also taking (on average) 3.15 seconds to throw the ball, the slowest figure in the league.

Allen’s best performance came against the Minnesota Vikings, but he was most impressive with his feet. He scrambled for a 10-yard touchdown run on the opening drive, diving headfirst for the pylon to earn the score. He then hurdled over linebacker Anthony Barr on a third-down run to get a first down, showcasing his athleticism, and leapt over the pile at the goal line to score his second rushing touchdown. That victory gave Bills fans a great deal of hope.

Jeremiah said Allen needed the most seasoning of any of the rookies taken in the top 10. “I was at the Chargers game,” Jeremiah said, referring to Allen’s first start, in Week 2. “You see the big arm. You saw the athletic ability.”

But Allen was also sacked five times and threw two interceptions. “He just wasn’t quite ready yet,” Jeremiah said.


The timing of Rosen’s professional debut could hardly have been worse. Asked to sub in for the struggling Sam Bradford with a little more than four minutes left in the Cardinals’ Week 3 game against the Chicago Bears, he threw an interception on his sixth pass attempt to seal the Bears’ 16-14 victory.

Like Darnold and Mayfield, he joined a team that struggled to score. The Cardinals fired their offensive coordinator, Mike McCoy, on Oct. 19, after a 45-10 loss to the Denver Broncos. In that game, Rosen threw three interceptions while the Cardinals gained just 223 total yards. At the time, Arizona was ranked last in the N.F.L. in points per game, rushing yards per game, third-down percentage and first downs per game.

“When you talk about somebody being athletic and throwing the ball, you see him and say that guy’s going to be pretty good,” Brandt said. “And then all of a sudden they hit that wall and it takes them awhile.”

Known for his swagger and confidence — images from his freshman year showed him with a hot tub in his dorm room — he rarely sees a throw he does not feel he can make. He has the league’s fifth-highest aggressiveness percentage, or the percentage of passes thrown with a defender within a yard of the receiver.

But while Rosen’s accuracy figures remain a work in progress, there are signs of improvement and flashes of some intangible leadership qualities. In his last game, Rosen led a 73-yard drive capped by a 9-yard touchdown pass with 34 seconds left to beat the San Francisco 49ers. He completed 12 of 18 passes for 150 yards in the fourth quarter while becoming the youngest quarterback in the Super Bowl era to lead his team back from a double-digit deficit in the final period. And in the huddle on that final drive, he told his teammates, “We’re about to win this game.” There may have been an expletive tossed in there as well.


Victor Mather contributed research.



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