Buying or Selling Every Top Rookie QB as a Week 1 Starter
There have been 12 Week 1 rookie starting quarterbacks in the NFL since 2009, but it’s unclear whether that trend will continue in 2014.
Going into the beginning of training camps, no team has said it plans to start a first-year player under center. Many teams—including the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns, who made the first two quarterback selections in this year’s draft—have stated that they do not expect their rookie to be in the lineup right away.
Nonetheless, it’s likely that we’ll see at least one rookie quarterback take the field for his team’s season opener. Blake Bortles of the Jaguars, Johnny Manziel of the Browns, Teddy Bridgewater of the Minnesota Vikings and Derek Carr of the Oakland Raiders should all have a chance to win a starting job outright if they can perform as well or better than their veteran competition in training camp and the preseason.
Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars
Precedent would suggest that Blake Bortles, the No. 3 overall pick in this year’s draft, should be on the field for the Jacksonville Jaguars’ season opener. Since 2008, all seven quarterbacks who were top-five selections have been opening-weekend starters for their teams.
To this point, the company line has been that Bortles will back up veteran Chad Henne for the 2014 season. Jaguars coach Gus Bradley told NFL Network in May that the team wanted to give Bortles “a year to develop,” according to NFL Media’s Dan Hanzus, and that stance hasn’t yet changed publicly.
That certainly could change this summer. Bradley told USA Today's Jim Corbett in June that Bortles will get a share of the first-team practice repetitions in camp. While that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s competing for the starting job, those opportunities will give him a chance to prove himself as the best passer on the team.
Henne should not be tough to unseat. He has never had a quarterback rating above 80 or thrown more touchdowns than interceptions in any of his first six NFL seasons. The 29-year-old is unlikely to improve significantly at this stage of his career.
Given Henne’s mediocrity, the starting quarterback competition should be decided based upon Bortles’ progress.
Although Bortles is far more likely to achieve greatness in 2014 than Henne, it makes sense to keep him on the bench for a year if possible.
While the 6’5”, 232-pound gunslinger has the most promising physical tools among this year’s rookie QBs, he must deploy more precise footwork and accuracy against NFL defenses to avoid fulfilling bust expectations.
Unless Henne plays at an unforeseen level in 2014, Bortles should get a shot to lead the Jaguars offense by the end of the year. But it probably won’t come in Week 1.
Johnny Manziel, Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns sold out of tickets for their first two days of training camp practices. It’s safe to say that Johnny Manziel, and his impending battle with veteran Brian Hoyer for the team’s starting quarterback job, has kindled the interest of football fans in Northeast Ohio.
Throughout the spring workout season, the story out of Berea was that the team views Hoyer, at least for now, as its best quarterback. Browns coach Mike Pettine told reporters in June that Hoyer was “securely ahead” of Manziel, according to USA Today's Lindsay H. Jones.
However, Pettine also said that Hoyer’s lead is not insurmountable and that both quarterbacks will take first-team repetitions in training camp. Like in Jacksonville, the state of the depth chart could quickly change if Manziel, selected 22nd overall in the draft, stands out this summer.
Hoyer performed well upon taking the reins of the Browns offense last season, but he suffered a season-ending torn ACL in his third start. On the other hand, Manziel needs more polish as a pocket passer but displayed uncanny playmaking ability and intriguing physical tools during his two-year career at Texas A&M.
Of all the rookie-vs.-veteran-quarterback competitions to take place this summer, this one’s the least predictable. As it remains uncertain what Hoyer would be capable of as a full-season starter, both players have to prove themselves this preseason.
The Browns brain trust has been vocal in supporting Hoyer as the starter, but it remains to be seen whether that’s a firm plan or a motivational tactic. Cleveland wouldn’t have drafted Manziel in the first round if it didn’t see him as a starting quarterback sooner rather than later.
It’ll be a surprise if Manziel doesn’t see the field at some point in 2014, but the job appears to be Hoyer’s to lose. That doesn't mean he'll keep it; Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal projects Hoyer to start at the beginning of the year, but would "expect the rookie to surface at some point during the season."
It’s likely that Hoyer will get the nod for Week 1, but if he falls into a slump at any point this season, the Browns should give Manziel a shot.
Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota Vikings
Unlike the Jaguars and Browns, the Minnesota Vikings have left the door wide open—at least publicly—for Teddy Bridgewater, the No. 32 overall pick, to seize the team’s starting quarterback job this summer.
"I want to give everybody an opportunity and make sure that it's a legitimate opportunity for all of them," Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer said of the Vikings quarterback competition during mandatory minicamp in June, according to USA Today's Tom Pelissero.
Still, for Bridgewater, as it will be for Bortles and Manziel, he will have to beat out a favored veteran incumbent to climb the depth chart. Matt Cassel, who started six games for the Vikings in 2013, took “the lion's share of first-string reps in the portions of offseason practices open to reporters,” according to Pelissero.
Christian Ponder is also in the mix, but the Vikings were far more successful when Cassel led the way last season. Cassel saw playing time in all five of Minnesota’s wins and had an 81.6 quarterback rating, while Ponder had a 2-6-1 record as a starter and a 77.9 quarterback rating.
Despite Cassel’s moderate success, Bridgewater should be considered a real factor in the competition to start. The Louisville product is the most polished pocket passer among this year’s rookie class and should have the shortest learning curve.
The Minnesota coaching staff has not yet promulgated the Vikings starting quarterback for Week 1, but Bridgewater has already been praised on numerous occasions. During an appearance on KFAN FM 100.3 earlier this month, Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner said Bridgewater has “been really, really impressive and a lot further along than I expected him to be,” according to Mike Wobschall of Vikings.com.
Bridgewater was mixed in with the starters at times during spring workouts, and those repetitions should only increase as he gains experience. If Bridgewater continues to shine in training camp and the preseason, there’s nothing that should stop the Vikings from playing him out of the gate.
Minnesota can only get so far with Cassel or Ponder under center. If Bridgewater starts from the get-go and hits his stride by midseason, a star-studded offense headlined by running back Adrian Peterson and wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson could become one of the most dynamic in the league.
Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders
The Oakland Raiders have been adamant that they believe in Matt Schaub as their starting quarterback for 2014, but anyone who watched Schaub play for the Houston Texans in 2013 shouldn’t project the same confidence.
Raiders coach Dennis Allen has said on multiple occasions that Schaub, who Oakland acquired for a sixth-round pick this offseason, was brought in to start.
At his best with Houston, Schaub performed at a level high enough to justify Allen's claim that the veteran signal-caller is a “top-10 quarterback” in the NFL. But if Schaub is going to secure and maintain his place atop Oakland’s depth chart, he’s going to have to play better than he did last year, when he threw 14 interceptions in just 10 appearances (eight starts) and was benched for half of the season in favor of Case Keenum.
Should the quarterback situation devolve into a legitimate competition, Derek Carr could win the job. The No. 36 overall pick is a physically gifted pocket passer who threw for 5,083 yards and 50 touchdowns as a senior at Fresno State.
Carr began spring workouts as Oakland’s third-team quarterback, but Allen said he expects Carr to be ahead of Matt McGloin in training camp, according to ESPN.com’s Paul Gutierrez.
As long as Schaub performs somewhat better than he did last year in Houston and stays healthy, expect him to start in Week 1. Poor play could ultimately lead to a change, but it seems unlikely the Raiders will make that switch before the regular season begins.
There’s far more reason for excitement with Carr than Schaub, who went from being an average starting quarterback to well below that last season, but throwing Carr into the fire would probably be a mistake. He struggled with passing against pressure during his collegiate career, which could lead to disastrous results in the NFL unless he improves his composure and mechanics.
Carr’s physical tools reportedly stood out in spring workouts, and they’ll likely continue to in training camp, but his lack of readiness to be an NFL quarterback should be exposed in the preseason by a good pass rush.
The Other Rookie Quarterbacks
Fourteen quarterbacks were selected in this year’s draft, but the final 10 will almost certainly not be Week 1 starters for their teams, barring injuries in front of them on the depth chart.
Among the other rookie quarterbacks, the most likely candidates to start at some point during the 2014 season are Tom Savage, a fourth-round pick of the Houston Texans, and Zach Mettenberger, whom the Tennessee Titans chose in Round 6.
The Texans have already named Ryan Fitzpatrick as their starter for the 2014 season, but he is a spot starter who is only a short-term solution to their problem at that position. Savage comes into the NFL nowhere near ready to take the field, but he has intriguing potential; should he progress at a rapid rate, it’s not ludicrous to think he might end up in the lineup at some point this year.
A signal-caller change could also be in the Titans’ near future, as Jake Locker is set to be an unrestricted free agent next offseason after the team opted not to pick up his fifth-year option. Mettenberger is a strong-armed thrower with franchise quarterback potential, but it’s highly unlikely Tennessee would give a sixth-round pick the Week 1 start over Locker.
Arizona Cardinals fourth-round pick Logan Thomas, Chicago Bears sixth-round pick David Fales and Baltimore Ravens sixth-round pick Keith Wenning could all make immediate pushes for the No. 2 spot on their respective depth charts, but none of them will see the field unless his team's starting quarterback gets hurt.
Second-round pick Jimmy Garoppolo of the New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs fifth-round pick Aaron Murray, fifth-round pick AJ McCarron of the Cincinnati Bengals and sixth-round picks Tajh Boyd (New York Jets) and Garrett Gilbert (St. Louis Rams) all should spend the 2014 season as No. 3 quarterbacks behind solid starters and experienced second-stringers.
All measurables courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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