If trend holds, rookie QBs from 2021 NFL draft class won't have much time to prove themselves

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Dan Wetzel
·Columnist
·4-min read
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Aaron Rodgers attempted 16 passes as a rookie. Patrick Mahomes threw 35, all in a meaningless Week 17 game. Tom Brady threw just three times in his debut year in New England.

Rodgers is the NFL’s reigning MVP (his third). Mahomes is considered the game’s best player (and a former MVP). Brady is himself a three-time MVP who won the most recent Super Bowl (his seventh).

“I learned a ton,” Mahomes said of his 2017 season when he sat behind starter Alex Smith.

“I wasn’t prepared to play my first year,” Brady said of his 2000 season watching Drew Bledsoe. “I would’ve gone out, [gotten] beat and lost a ton of confidence. I was able to sit there, watch, learn, grow into my body [and] improve my mechanics.”

“There's a lot of growth that can happen sitting on the bench,” Rodgers said of being Brett Favre’s backup. "You can really gain in confidence every single day of practice. You can come along at your own speed. You're obviously not dealing with the pressure every week of having to perform, which is a real thing.”

All of that is nice. It also isn’t an opportunity the Class of 2021 is expected to enjoy.

Next week’s NFL draft is a quarterback bonanza, with five passers expected to go in the first round — Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, BYU’s Zach Wilson, Alabama’s Mac Jones, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance. Stanford’s Davis Mills might join them.

In whatever order they shake out, that group, and perhaps some potential second-rounders such as Florida’s Kyle Trask or Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond, will enter a league that appears increasingly impatient with young quarterbacks.

The sit and develop mentality is out of favor in most places.

Four of the five quarterbacks picked in the top two rounds of last year’s draft (Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert and Jalen Hurts) started at least four games as rookies. Only Jordan Love, picked by Rodgers' Green Bay Packers, failed to see the field (and isn’t expected to do much more in 2021).

Love and the Packers are outliers. Rodgers attempted just 59 passes and started zero games across his first three seasons.

The play-now trend was the same in 2019 — Kyler Murray, Daniel Jones, Dwayne Haskins and Drew Lock all started at least five games. In 2018, Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson each started at least seven.

You have to go back to 2017 — when Mahomes was the 10th overall pick — to find a “carry the clipboard” plan.

There is, of course, no single way to develop a quarterback. If there was, everyone would do it. Sitting and studying may have helped Mahomes, but he also might have figured it out as an instant starter. There’s no telling.

For every trial-by-fire failure of late like Rosen and Haskins, there’s a budding star — Burrow, Murray, Herbert and, of course, Jackson, the 2019 league MVP.

And while Rodgers warns it’s dangerous to start a rookie on a bad team — “it can really mess with your confidence” — Peyton Manning threw a rookie record 28 interceptions on a three-win Indianapolis team and turned into an all-time great.

So who knows?

Patrick Mahomes got time to watch and learn from Alex Smith in his rookie year in Kansas City. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
Patrick Mahomes got time to watch and learn from Alex Smith in his rookie year in Kansas City. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

The trend, however, puts additional pressure on the first-year player to be ready to deliver on Day 1. Or close to it.

The reasons are myriad. There’s a win-now mentality reflected in the quick firings of coaches and front offices. There are the salary cap benefits of having a starting quarterback on a cheap rookie deal. Then there is the additional development of incoming players who honed their skills through pass-happy college offenses and even 7-on-7 ball in high school.

Mostly though, teams want to know instantly what they have so they can move on if needed. Trigger fingers are quick these days.

Haskins (Washington) and Rosen (Arizona) have already been bounced. The New York Jets traded Darnold despite solid play so they could try again with Wilson, the expected second-overall. And Denver could be ready to replace Lock, a 2019 second-round pick, on draft night.

Last year Miami was playing pretty well behind veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick when they benched him after six games to bring in Tagovailoa, who was coming off a brutal hip injury. The results were mixed and no one is even sure Tagovailoa is the Dolphins' QB of the future.

That’s the deal these days.

A quarterback is expected to be taken with the first three picks: Lawrence, then Wilson, and then either Jones or Fields. That hasn’t happened since 1999, when Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith topped the draft.

Only McNabb turned out to be worth such a lofty selection.

History says some of these 2021 hyped QB prospects will fail to be as good as hoped. That’s football.

It’s just in the modern NFL, we may render that judgement quicker than ever.

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