Top two overall draft picks Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson are set to step right in and become starting NFL quarterbacks in Week 1 of their rookie season.
The timeline for the three other first-round quarterbacks in this year’s draft is a bit murkier. But if recent history is any guide, Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones don’t figure to wait too long to get their chance as starters.
The days of Aaron Rodgers spending three years on the bench as Brett Favre’s apprentice or Carson Palmer sitting out his entire rookie season behind Jon Kitna in Cincinnati are mostly in the past.
While some point to the success Patrick Mahomes has had in Kansas City since spending almost his entire rookie season on the bench behind Alex Smith, rookies are being thrown into the fire quicker than ever. The differences between the pro and college offenses have narrowed and teams try to take advantage of having a starting quarterback on a cheaper rookie contract.
Since the rookie wage scale was put in place before the 2011 season, 30 of the 32 quarterbacks drafted in the first round — all but Jake Locker and Jordan Love — started at least one game as a rookie. Twelve of those started the opener and nearly two-thirds (21 out of 32) got their chance in the first four games of the season.
There is no clear pattern of success when it comes to when to start a rookie quarterback. Andrew Luck stepped in right away to turn Indianapolis into a playoff team. Josh Allen and Justin Herbert off to good career trajectories after making their first start in Week 2. But other early starters such as EJ Manuel and Sam Darnold didn’t have the same sort of success.
While Mahomes and Lamar Jackson won MVPs in their second year after waiting until the second half of their rookie seasons to start, others like Johnny Manziel and Locker didn’t appear to benefit from the time on the sideline.
“Each situation has its own situation,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “I look at ours, I learn from everything through my own experience and just reading about football and watching it over the years. That’s why we all develop our opinions. But just like the perfect play call or the perfect throw, you don’t know until the end of it. Stuff is adjusting at all times and you’ve got to always be ready to adjust and do the best with opportunities you have.”
Shanahan went into training camp with Jimmy Garoppolo as his starter and Lance getting up to speed after San Francisco traded three first-round picks to take him at No. 3 overall in the April draft. Lance has shown some spectacular plays in the preseason like an 80-yard touchdown to Trent Sherfield, but also some growing pains as he struggles with accuracy after starting just one season at FCS-level North Dakota State — and only one game in 2020 because of the pandemic.
Garoppolo helped San Francisco reach the Super Bowl in the 2019 season before his fourth-quarter struggles contributed to that loss to Mahomes and the Chiefs. Garoppolo lacks the mobility and big-play skills of some of the top young quarterbacks in the league and has struggled to stay healthy, leading to the Niners’ decision to make a big play for Lance.
That’s why Shanahan isn’t in a rush to make a change and will likely opt to use Lance in a part-time role early in the season to get him experience.
“Jimmy’s a very good player,” Shanahan said. “And when Jimmy’s at the top of his game, I told him this back when we made the trade: ‘There’s no rookie that’s going to just come in here right away and take your job if you’re at the top of your game.’”
Garoppolo hasn’t been at the top of his game in the preseason but is still slated to start Week 1 against Detroit.
It’s a similar situation in Chicago, where the Bears traded up to draft Fields after already signing Andy Dalton earlier in the offseason.
Fields has shown flashes in the preseason of a quarterback who won the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in each of his two seasons at Ohio State, displaying the ability to make big plays.
“Big picture, we love where he’s at,” Nagy said of Fields. “He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do.”
But with a spotty offensive line the Bears seem ready to stick with Dalton, at least for Week 1 against Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and the Los Angeles Rams.
The situation in New England could be even more complicated. While Jones was the last of the first-round quarterbacks drafted at No. 15, he might be the most polished and could be ready to step in early after a stellar final season at Alabama. Jones has looked sharp in the preseason and got extra time with the starters last week when Cam Newton was forced to be away for five days because of COVID-19 protocols.
“I’m here to play any role that I can play and, help any way I can,” Jones said. “I’m going to be ready whenever my time comes up.”
When that time is remains a question with coach Bill Belichick saying only he has “a lot of decisions to make.”
If Jones starts Week 1 it would mark just the second time since the merger that more than two rookie quarterbacks started the opener, joining the five rookie starters in 2012. Those were Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden and Russell Wilson Only Wilson, in Seattle, is still with the team that drafted him.