The Rookie Quarterbacks Are Struggling and That's Okay
It’s hard to play quarterback in the NFL. With rookies struggling in the middle of a passing boom, we need to remind ourselves this.
Together, the five 2018 first-round pick quarterbacks (Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson) have thrown 792 passes for just 5,155 yards, 27 touchdowns and 27 interceptions in 2018. Their collective Adjusted Yards per Attempt (AY/A) of 5.7 is a worse mark than any NFL offense run by a veteran quarterback this season.
Bad? Absolutely. A cause for concern? No. If you look at the history of rookie first-round picks, you should have expected nothing more than bad stats in Year 1.
There have been 102 first-round quarterbacks selected since the 1970 merger. Of those 102 passers, only 58 saw significant playing time as rookies, which for the purposes of this conversation we’ll set at 150 pass attempts. To put 150 pass attempts into perspective, Allen already has 139 passes this year and he both didn't start the season as the Buffalo Bills' QB1 nor has he played in weeks.
Of the 58 rookie quarterbacks, their stats in Year 1 drastically skew on the negative end of the spectrum. One of the simplest ways to calculate value is Defense-Adjusted AY/A Value, essentially yards versus expectation relative to individual defenses faced.
Defense-Adjusted AY/A Value:player attempts * (player AY/A - defense AY/A)
For example, if a defense averaged an AY/A of 5.0 over the season and a quarterback threw an AY/A of 6.0 over 20 pass attempts in their matchup, his Defense-Adjusted AY/A Value in that game would be +20 yards. This not only gives us what amounts to an era adjustment but also contextualizes the schedule faced, an important factor when there’s a maximum of 16 data points per player in a single regular season.
Here is how the 58 qualified quarterbacks ranked:
Remember, 0.0 is the NFL average. This means that only 11 of 58 quarterbacks in this pool of qualified passers (19 percent) even hit the mark of average. At least statistically, only five quarterbacks (Ben Roethlisberger, Robert Griffin, Dan Marino, Deshaun Watson and Matt Ryan) were significantly above average for the season. Ryan’s rookie season of +324 yards of value, a top-five season for a rookie first-round pick, would have ranked just 14th in the NFL overall in 2017, for reference.
Meanwhile, the median quarterback in this pool would have been a borderline bottom-five quarterback across the board. While we build up these passers up to be franchise saviors, the reality of the situation is that only about five percent of rookie first-round quarterbacks have been difference-makers, at least statistically, since the merger.
If we mapped out the path that these quarterbacks have taken, we can be more realistic with our goals for quarterbacks. 43 percent of first-round quarterbacks don't even throw 150 balls. 46 percent of first-round quarterbacks grade out negatively. Six percent of first-round quarterbacks grade out slightly above average. Five percent of first-round quarterbacks are difference-makers immediately. That's the realistic forecast for these passers. When teams package several first-round picks to move up in the 2019 draft, just remember that they are (or at least should be) doing so for 2020 and beyond, not an immediate return on their investment.
Quarterbacks like Matthew Stafford, Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman, John Elway, Donovan McNabb and Peyton Manning all overcame awful rookie seasons. Don't be surprised when rookie quarterbacks struggle in 2018 or moving forward. It's not the end of the world. It's hard to play quarterback in the NFL.
We'll never know what Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers or Patrick Mahomes would have played like as full-time starters as rookies. It's possible that they could have done just as poorly as the 2018 rookies, giving Browns, Jets, Bills and Cardinals fans more peace of mind, but we do know that the first-round quarterbacks who do play overwhelmingly struggle. Keep the panic button locked up for at least a year.