Cover-Two: What's in store for a star-studded rookie quarterback class
The fifth quarterback selected in the 2014 NFL draft, Jimmy Garoppolo, put on an impressive show Thursday in his New England Patriots preseason debut. Over the next two nights, the four quarterbacks taken ahead of him will get their shots. Jacksonville's Blake Bortles, Minnesota's Teddy Bridgewater and Oakland's Derek Carr all will be in action Friday, with the Saturday night spotlight belonging to Cleveland's Johnny Manziel.
What does the future hold for the rookie quarterback class beyond this weekend as the 2014 season approaches? Our latest Cover-Two breaks it down.
Which rookie quarterbacks will start at any point in 2014?
Chris Burke: Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel ... and eventually Blake Bortles and Derek Carr. Bridgewater and Manziel could (and should) be in the starting lineup when the regular season opens. Both have veteran competition, but if their teams truly plan to build around them for the future, the gains they will get by playing their rookies early will offset any hiccups.
I'd place the over/under on Bortles' first start at around Week 6 -- far enough away for the Jaguars to wait until he's ready, close enough that he could make something of his rookie season. The window may take a little longer to open in Oakland, where an embattled coaching staff and GM need victories and there have been promising early reports on Matt Schaub. Carr also may need the most time of this rookie quartet to adjust to the NFL after playing in a very quarterback-friendly spread attack at Fresno State. Eventually, his arm talent will be too much to keep buried on the sideline. I think we see all four guys starting by the end of the year.
Doug Farrar: To me, the three sure things are Bridgewater, Manziel (though he may have to wait until head coach Mike Pettine manages his own seeming preference for more conservative quarterbacks) and Carr in Oakland. No matter how much the Raiders' staff wants us all to believe that the Matt Schaub of a few years ago is the one they signed, I'm still struggling with the Schaub who set an NFL record for consecutive games with a pick-six in 2013. Perhaps Oakland offensive coordinator Greg Olson will give Schaub more route diversity in the playbook than Gary Kubiak did in Houston last season, but the Raiders also selected Carr high in the second round for a reason. He's a mobile guy with an NFL-caliber arm that may be better than Schaub's at this point, and since Oakland ran shotgun 67.9 percent of the time last season, Carr's relative inexperience under center won't be the liability it would be in other offenses. You could see Blake Bortles in Jacksonville later in the year, though the franchise would really rather keep Bortles on the bench in 2014.
Who will be the first rookie to get a starting job?
Burke: Bridgewater. The Browns seem to be holding firm on the "Brian Hoyer is our starter" shtick, whether because they actually believe that or because they're trying to motivate Johnny Manziel through the preseason. The Vikings, on the other hand, have left the door open for Bridgewater to beat out Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder. Given what we know about those two mediocre quarterbacks, Bridgewater should be able to pull it off.
The reports out of Minnesota so far, both from the media and the coaching staff itself, have emphasized how advanced Bridgewater is as a rookie passer -- his ability to run the pre-snap show from the line was the latest showcase. That praise comes as no surprise to most who watched Bridgewater in college or studied him before the draft. All through the process, his prescience reading defenses was apparent, which is one of the main reasons his draft slide was so surprising.
Cassel can hold down the fort; Ponder may be OK in a pinch; Bridgewater has the highest ceiling, by far.
Farrar: Bridgewater. The Minnesota coaches clearly have confidence in him, he's gaining the respect of the players, and he's doing his best to understand offensive coordinator Norv Turner's passing system. At Louisville, Bridgewater had to deal with far more than the usual "check-with-me" offense -- he had detailed audibles, he called protections and he was asked to read the field completely. Thus, he's going to be more ready for the NFL's complexities than most modern collegiate quarterbacks -- he's already had an advanced system in place.
"I noticed that he’s trying to do more even today in the walkthroughs getting the ball, trying to get the ball out," Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said Wednesday. "I was talking to Rich Gannon yesterday about young quarterbacks. It’s trying to get the game to slow down so they anticipate kind of the things that are going on and then once the ball is snapped their anticipation, what they see confirms what they’re anticipating to happen. It takes time with young guys, but he has so much talent and so much ability, such a good kid, works so hard that it’ll come. We’ve been giving him a lot of looks on defense and honestly, that’s by design. When he’s in there, I try to give him a lot of different things because I know that’s kind of what he’s going to see. He’s handled it well. There are times, obviously, he’s gone the wrong place or thrown the ball wrong or got the protection the wrong way, obviously, but that’s why we practice."
Bridgewater will get his first shot at an opposing NFL defense Friday night against the Raiders, and while he may experience some growing pains early on, the combination of his readiness to take the starting spot and the options the Vikings have behind him (Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel) should put Bridgewater in the driver's seat sooner than later.
Which rookie could benefit most from spending the season on the bench?
Burke: Bortles. Standing by my pre-draft scouting report on Bortles here, even amid his strong start at camp. Bortles' potential may be enough in the long run to justify his No. 3 overall selection by Jacksonville, but he was far from a finished product coming out of Central Florida. In fact, the most glaring deficiencies in his game -- footwork, responding to pressure, running through progressions -- are exactly the types of weaknesses that NFL defenses will exploit. That's not a critique limited to Bortles, as many college quarterbacks enter the NFL with similar issues. (The prominence of spread, quick-trigger passing attacks at the NCAA level definitely contributes to the steep learning curve.)
But with Chad Henne in place, the Jaguars appeared all along as if they wanted to ease Bortles into the mix. Unless the season unravels in a hurry out of the gate, shifting the focus wholly onto 2015, they should stick by that plan.
Farrar: Aaron Murray. I've spoken with team executives who believe that Bortles would do best in the long term with a rookie season riding the pine, and that does indeed appear to be the plan. Bortles is reportedly picking up on the NFL game well and quickly, but given the relative simplicity of the offense he ran at Central Florida, he'll need extra time to make that happen.
However, it's not Bortles who I think could make the biggest move from the bench to starting potential in a season. That honor would go to Murray, selected in the fifth round out of Georgia by the Chiefs. Murray is slow in the pocket at times, and he doesn't have an impressive arm, but he fits the Andy Reid prototype -- smart, understands his limitations, willing to learn, and able to take playbook concepts and run with them. With Alex Smith's contract situation still very much in the air -- he's set to be a free agent after the 2014 season, and he really isn't worth franchising -- let's say the Chiefs go into the 2015 draft in a position where they're not in love with any of the available quarterbacks. Giving Murray a year to get the terminology and structure of Reid's system could benefit the Chiefs greatly in the long run. Reid has a unique ability to get the most out of athletically limited quarterbacks, and Murray just needs time to figure it all out.
"It’s all about matching up your footwork with the routes, understanding what routes versus certain defenses," Murray said in late July of his development. "The more reps you get, the better you get. I’m not getting a ton of reps right now, but when I do, I have to take full advantage of them.
"I’m asking constantly. Asking Alex [Smith] and [backup quarterback] Chase [Daniel] questions because those guys have been in the league a long time. They’ve seen a lot, been against a lot of defenses, very knowledgeable. So just asking them all the time, ‘why did you throw it here, what are you looking at, what do you think that defense was, what should I have done?’ So just continue to ask questions and just pick their brains a little bit.”
Murray got just five plays in on Thursday during the team's 41-39 win over the Bengals. But we'll see what he's able to do with the opportunity once he gets it -- there may be more here than meets the eye.
Which quarterback will have the best rookie season?
Burke: Bridgewater. Manziel is going to claim the Browns gig eventually and will provide plenty of highlights once he does. Bridgewater, though, landed in a more ready-made situation.
It's not just that one of the top two or three backs in the league, Adrian Peterson, remains entrenched at running back. Bridgewater has emerging superstar Cordarrelle Patterson and veteran Greg Jennings at wide receiver, with steady tight end Kyle Rudolph and a solid offensive line rounding out the attack. Manziel's Browns can counter with tight end Jordan Cameron and an underrated O-line of their own, but the receiver position (likely sans Josh Gordon) is very much in flux and the run game could be a work in progress early.
Bridgewater also already has seen more time with the first-team offense than has Manziel, thus he has had more of a chance to develop a rapport with the talent around him. He's ready to be a Week 1 starter, and the Vikings are leaning toward giving him that chance.
Farrar: Bridgewater. With a dynamic running game, interesting young receivers, a good offensive line and a solid defense to support him, Bridgewater could have a Russell Wilson-style impact. My only concern regarding Bridgewater's immediate future has to do with how much Turner is able to deviate from his deep-drop/play-action preferences and get Bridgewater out in space and comfortable with motion throws requiring fewer moving parts and more open targets. If Bridgewater and Norv can get and stay on the same page, we could have something here.
"I just want to see him manage a game," Turner said this week about what Bridgewater needs to do early in preseason play. "He doesn’t have to be sensational, he needs to make good decisions, he needs to protect the ball, [and] get our group in and out of the huddle, get us into the right play, get us into the right protection, that’s the biggest thing about managing a game and then you know he is going to make plays. When he has had an opportunity out here he has made plays. He’s made big plays throwing the ball up the field, he has made big plays checking the ball down, so I think for a young guy his heart is going to be pounding, he’s going to have butterflies. I don’t know how many games this is for me, but I will too."
Bridgewater should be ready, and the Vikings will go from there.