The more passes a quarterback throws in college, the better his chance of success in the NFL.
That was always my belief during the 20 years I researched NFL drafts.
Spending four years on campus and throwing 1,000 passes allowed a quarterback to see everything college defenses had to offer. Peyton Manning and his brother Eli threw more than 1,300 college passes apiece. Both were drafted first overall by the NFL and both won a pair of Super Bowls.
Drew Brees threw 1,600 career passes at Purdue. He is now the NFL’s all-time leading passer. Ben Roethlisberger threw 1,300 college passes at Miami of Ohio. He owns two Super Bowl rings with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Patrick Mahomes also threw 1,300 college passes at Texas Tech. In his three NFL seasons as a starter, he has been both an NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP. Russell Wilson threw almost 1,500 college passes. He also wears a Super Bowl ring.
Matt Ryan threw 1,300 college passes at Boston College. He’s taken the Atlanta Falcons to a Super Bowl. Philip Rivers threw in excess of 1,600 career passes in college and Carson Palmer threw 1,500 times. Both became Pro Bowl quarterbacks. Current NFL starters Derek Carr, Kirk Cousins, Andy Dalton, Jared Goff, Justin Herbert, Daniel Jones, Drew Lock, Baker Mayfield, Dak Prescott and DeShaun Watson also graduated from the college game in the 1,000-pass club.
When quarterbacks arrive in the NFL, they find defenses that are bigger, stronger, faster, more talented and more complex than they saw in college. Most aren’t ready for the dramatic and immediate step up in competition. But the NFL continues to draft them in the first round and expect them to walk in as franchise saviors. Which is why so many first-round quarterbacks bomb out.
The Cleveland Browns ruined Tim Couch by playing him as a rookie. So did the Houston Texans by playing David Carr. Both went to first-year expansion teams and took a physical and psychological beating. Couch was the first overall pick of the 1999 NFL draft and started 14 games as a rookie. He was sacked 56 times and lost 12 of his starts. He was out of the league after five years. Carr was the first overall pick of the 2005 draft and started all 16 games as a rookie. He was sacked 76 times and also lost 12 of his starts. His days as a starter also were over after five years.
Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Mitch Trubisky, Blake Bortles, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, JaMarcus Russell, Matt Leinart, Joey Harrington, Akili Smith, Ryan Leaf…there’s been a parade of disappointments among Top 10 draft picks.
Let’s flash forward now to the 2021 draft. There could be five quarterbacks selected in the Top 10: Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Mac Jones, Justin Fields and Trey Lance. Only Lawrence threw 1,000 passes in college. Wilson threw 837 passes, Fields 618, Jones 556 and Lance 318. They will be viewed as franchise saviors by the bad teams that draft them and be expected to resurrect those teams as rookies.
They aren’t ready for what awaits them.
Here’s my advice for the teams that draft them – let 'em sit. Avoid the urge to put them on the field immediately. There will be pressure on the head coach both from his ownership and fan base to play the rookie quarterback. Don’t give in to that temptation. Let them spend a year watching and learning. Allow them to develop a confidence level in the lockerroom, on the practice field and in the film room before putting them out there on Sundays.
It’s a strategy that pays dividends.
Take Brees, for example. He left Purdue as the Big Ten’s all-time leading passer. He was as prepared to play in the NFL as any quarterback ever to come out of college. The San Diego Chargers took him with the 32nd overall pick of the 2001 draft and then had him sit as a rookie and watch Doug Flutie play the position. Brees threw only 27 passes that season and didn’t make his first start until the 17th game of his career, the opening game of his second season. That was 80,358 yards and 571 touchdown passes ago.
Brett Favre sat his rookie year, throwing only four passes with the Atlanta Falcons. He was traded to Green Bay that offseason and made his first start in his 20th NFL game during his second season. That was three NFL MVP awards ago. Tom Brady also sat his rookie year, throwing only three passes. His first start came in his 19th career game. That was seven Super Bowl rings ago. Mahomes sat his rookie year with coach Andy Reid giving him one throwaway start in the season finale. He has since taken the Kansas City Chiefs to two Super Bowls.
Rivers spent two seasons in San Diego watching Brees play quarterback. His first start came in his 33rd career game in his third season. He retired this offseason as the NFL’s fifth all-time leading passer. Aaron Rodgers spent his first three NFL seasons watching Favre play quarterback at Green Bay. His first start came in his 49th career game in his fourth season. That was three MVPs and a Super Bowl ring ago.
Joe Montana also sat his rookie season, throwing only 23 passes for the San Francisco 49ers. He became the starter in the sixth game of his second season and wound up delivering the 49ers four Lombardi Trophies. Sitting for two seasons didn’t slow down Roger Staubach’s career any. He joined Brady, Favre and Montana on the NFL’s 100th anniversary team.
If a team drafts a quarterback in the Top 10, give him a chance to succeed. Let him sit.