The Best Rookie QB? Wait and See

In this Year of the Quarterback, there have been an unprecedented number of rookie quarterbacks that have started for their new teams, with a variety of different outcomes.

Coming out of the draft, Cam Newton was believed to have the most upside, but it was said that he needed time to develop into an NFL quarterback.  Blaine Gabbert, on the other hand, was widely believed to be the most “NFL-ready” right out of college.

Newton exceeded all expectations, turning in the best performance ever by a rookie quarterback.  Newton completed 60 percent of his passes for 4,051 yards with 21 TDs, and 17 INTs.  His passing efficiency was a solid 84.5, but that’s not even the whole story.  He also ran for 706 yards and 14 TDs, giving him 35 total TDs on the season, more than 2 TDs per game.

Newton’s passer rating was 15th best in the league, and the best of all the rookie quarterbacks.  The only thing holding him back from an even higher rating was the number of interceptions, but that is not unusual for a rookie and something he can certainly improve upon next season and beyond.

Gabbert had a disappointing rookie campaign, as he completed barely over 50 percent of his passes for 2,214 yards with 12 TDs and 11 INTs.  He had the lowest passer rating in the league with 65.4, ranked 34th out of 34 qualifying quarterbacks.

The rest of the rookie quarterbacks fell somewhere between these two.  But can we make a decision based upon just one year?  How long does it take for a quarterback to really develop?

Dr. John Sullivan, clinical sport psychologist with over 10 years working with NFL athletes, said, “Quarterbacks, like all athletes, have different learning styles and rates of retention.  Helping to measure these traits can give us a better idea how to best develop an athlete and improve their football intelligence and preparedness.”

“Better evaluation tools can help us to better measure the ultimate potential of an athlete and what their rate of development will be.”

There are two schools of thought on developing quarterbacks.  The “sit and learn” approach, where a quarterback traditionally had the ability to hold a clipboard for a year (or two, or three) before being thrown into a starting role, as opposed to the “learn on the job” approach of playing rookies immediately.  With high draft picks, the pressure to play them early is even higher.  The concern is that quarterbacks who need a little more time to develop may be pushed onto the field early, and may be judged based upon their performance while still in the early part of their learning curve.

Using history as a guide, some quarterbacks are good right out of the gate – like Dan Marino and Peyton Manning, probably two of the best rookie starters ever.  Consider Manning’s rookie season, which was the best rookie season ever until Newton came along.  He passed for 3,739 yards and 26 TDs, but he only completed 56.7 percent of his passes and threw 28 interceptions.

Or look at Hall of Famer John Elway, who was another number one overall draft pick (like Cam Newton) and certainly worthy of the Mount Rushmore of NFL quarterbacks.  He is the only quarterback in NFL history to go to the Super Bowl 5 times.  In his rookie season, he played in 11 games and completed just 47.5 percent of his passes for 1,663 yards with 7 TDs and 14 INTs.  That’s worse than Gabbert, not to mention much worse than Tim Tebow’s passing numbers.

Is Gabbert going to turn into another Elway?  It’s certainly too early to make that type of determination, but it’s also too early to write him off as another Todd Blackledge.  Blackledge was the least successful of the Class of ’83 quarterbacks, who was selected #7 overall, ahead of Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, but started only 29 games in his career.

If we can do a better job of measuring learning styles and rates of development, teams would be better able to determine which quarterbacks will be ready right away and which could benefit from sitting for a year or two.  Neither Tom Brady nor Aaron Rodgers started their rookie season, but as soon as they did get the starting job, they were ready to perform.

“Better tools are coming along to evaluate the ability of NFL players to make decisions and to learn quickly, so we can better assess how long it will take a player to learn an NFL system, and which players need more time to develop,” Dr. Sullivan said.

“There is no one test that has all the answers; however, we now have the capability to layer different cognitive tests to help better assist athletes in developing and maximizing their potential.”

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