In Week 5, starting rookie quarterbacks went 4-0—something the NFL has never before seen. The headline is better than the text, though. Those four winning rookie QBs averaged a modest 198 yards passing, and the previous week the rookie starters went winless—a subtle reminder that quarterback development is a long-term process.
But that doesn’t stop us from diving deep into what the short-term has shown so far. Here’s an overview of the rookie QBs, ranked 1–5 in terms of how their rookie seasons project to look at the end of 2018.
1. Baker Mayfield
The Good: Since he’s taken over, the Browns’ offense has hummed in ways previously unseen in the Hue Jackson era. Jackson trusts his new quarterback more than Cleveland’s previous signal callers, and we’re finally seeing some of the creative offensive designs that earned him this job.
Mayfield is very decisive and works through progressions with purpose. When those progressions call for a seam ball, his decisiveness becomes lethal, as he throws with a great blend of touch and velocity. Mayfield has also shown some second reaction ability when plays don’t work.
The Bad: Like almost any rookie, Mayfield’s sense of timing is sometimes unnoticed, and he can be late to recognize when he must work his backside reads. His accuracy is good, but—as he alluded to after Browns receivers had several drops at Oakland—it could be more precise.
Mayfield’s timing and accuracy is correctable, but his 6' 1" height, which factored into a few negative plays last Sunday against the Ravens, is not correctable. As the Saints have shows with Drew Brees, teams can work around a smaller stature with erudite pocket movement. Given Mayfield’s encouraging grasp on fundamentals, there’s reason for optimism, but deft pocket movement isn’t developed overnight. In the meantime, it would help if Browns offensive tackles Chris Hubbard and talented but undrafted rookie Desmond Harrison stiffen in pass protection so that bull rushers don’t keep compressing Mayfield’s pockets.
The Forecast: An up-and-down rookie season where defenses bait Mayfield into a few blunders, but more often than not, the decisive QB will punish defenses for trying to do so. By season’s end, we’ll be crediting Mayfield for initiating a change of culture in Cleveland.
2. Josh Rosen
The Good: Despite his poor showing last Sunday at San Francisco, Rosen has the look and the confidence of a high-quality precision passer. He has willingly targeted tight windows both early and late in the down, and he’s unleashed several Wow! throws outside the numbers (not all have been caught). His pocket movement is already up to professional standards, and he maximizes this by consistently keeping his eyes downfield. At UCLA, Rosen was an on-schedule, timing-and-rhythm quarterback, and that style tends to transfer well to the NFL.
The Bad: His two starts couldn’t have been more different. In the first (at home against Seattle), Rosen flourished, albeit in defeat; in the second (on the road at San Francisco), he floundered, albeit in victory. This brings up questions about Rosen’s surroundings. With Christian Kirk’s emergence, Arizona’s receiving corps has a chance to be better than we thought, but Arizona’s ground game, even with a versatile playmaker in David Johnson, still shows no signs of life.
The Forecast: A rookie season that looks better on film than on paper.
3. Sam Darnold
The Good: Let’s start simply: Darnold throws the ball well. He can place it with touch at intermediate and deep levels, sling it outside with velocity and do everything in between, both from a dropback position and while on the move—and that ability to throw on the move is where he’ll separate himself from other QBs. The Jets have done a decent job of capitalizing on Darnold’s natural out-of-pocket vision and athleticism, but the divergence of New York’s week-to-week gameplans suggests Todd Bowles and offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates are still very much getting a feel for their young quarterback
The Bad: Darnold appears to learn from his mistakes, but there have still been too many. He’s thrown into coverage several times, resulting in interceptions or lucky incompletions. Underneath zone defenders have been the most problematic. Experience will iron this out, but so many near-disaster plays encourage offensive schemers to hide their QB, which Bates has done in recent weeks.
The Forecast: Improvements are coming down the stretch… if New York’s offensive line and running backs build on the progress they’ve recently shown. The tricky part is those improvements have involved man-blocking and inside zone runs, and Darnold is better suited for a play-action game that derives from outside zone runs. If Bates can’t find a happy medium, Darnold will toil in his current state of ups and downs.
4. Josh Allen
The Good: As expected, you see flashes of the raw talent. Allen’s arm is robust, particularly on deep balls, and he’s mobile enough that it’s fair to question why Bills coaches have not incorporated him more into their run designs, reminiscent of what Sean McDermott’s old team, the Panthers, do with Cam Newton. Allen is also willing to get hit, and while the hits have come far too often, at least he doesn’t flinch in the pocket. As Blaine Gabbert observers can attest, fear in the pocket will curtail a career, no matter how talented the passer.
The Bad: Allen doesn’t yet know what he’s doing out there. He’s only four games in, so it’d be foolish to make any definitive declarations. But in terms of processing defensive looks pre-and post-snap, understanding route concepts and getting off bad reads quickly (a crucial, overlooked quarterbacking skill), Allen has more room to grow than any first-round quarterback in recent memory.
The Forecast: Not encouraging. Allen has a ton to learn, and he must do so with an unathletic offensive line and subpar receiving corps. If McDermott’s Bills weren’t such overachievers, you’d say, realistically, the best outcome for this kid is to come away without any scars.
5. Lamar Jackson
The Good: Baltimore has given him a role—albeit, a somewhat gimmicky one, but one that defenses must spend time on nonetheless.
The Bad: It depends on what your expectations were. Some of us believed that Jackson, with his mobility and Baltimore’s renewed commitment to the run game, would supplant Joe Flacco sooner than later. Others thought Jackson would need time to develop from the bench. Baltimore’s course here has been made easier by Flacco playing well enough to maintain his job.
The Forecast: A redshirt season for an intriguing talent on a playoff caliber team.
I’ve been watching LeSean McCoy carry the ball like this for 10 years, and yet I’m still baffled when I see it. Shortly after he was dealt to Buffalo, I sat down and watched film with him. I asked him how many coaches have tried to have a serious conversation with him about how he holds the ball. “All of them,” he said. “But I don’t fumble the ball, really.” Indeed, McCoy in his career has averaged just over two fumbles a season, and many of those have come on runs where he’s cradled the ball correctly. I love McCoy’s game. He’s one of the best lateral movers of his generation. He’s 30 but hasn’t shown much (if any) signs of decline. He can carry the ball however he wants, I guess.
RONNIE STANLEY AND THE RAVENS’ O-LINE
All five lineman across Baltimore’s offensive line have improved. Stanley, the Ravens’ 2016 first-round pick, boasts great balance along with size and strength, and is playing like a premier left tackle. Left guard Alex Lewis looks more mobile, center Matt Skura looks more assertive, right guard Marshal Yanda continues to thrive and right tackle James Hurst plays much more athletically than he did early in his career, which is a sign of honed technique and awareness. They’re coached by veteran O-line instructor Joe D’Alessandris, who worked wonders with San Diego’s offensive line a few years ago.
THE ROOKIE YOU’LL BE HEARING MORE ABOUT
Chargers first-round safety Derwin James is even better than advertised. He has a long, thick, stalking frame and a burst to his movement. He’s already one of the NFL’s best blitzers, and you wonder if coordinator Gus Bradley will continue to expand his traditional Cover 3 zone scheme to feature that. I thought James would ultimately play free safety this season because the Chargers had a gaping hole there and underrated veteran safety Jahleel Addae is better in the box. But James is so destructive near the line of scrimmage, you have to play him down low, even if it means playing someone like, let’s say my podcast partner Gary Gramling, in centerfield. (And fortunately for the Chargers, Addae, though better near the box, has been much more reliable at free safety than Gary would be.)
NON-FOOTBALL ITEM ON MY MIND
The phrase “Yeah, no” has become a scourge on our society. Before refuting or rejecting an assertion, a person now tacks these two words on to the beginning of their sentence, sprinkling their disagreement with that unbearable Millennial sarcasm. Many times, “yeah, no” comprises the person’s entire refutation.
Also, saying “yeah, no” gives that person an illusionary moral high-ground. It decorates their refutation with a false sense of level-headedness, while at the same time demeaning the person who was thoughtful enough to actually make a point (not just refute one). As with most of today’s societal scourges, “yeah, no” is most abundant on Twitter.