Elite quarterback prospects face a strange paradox. The talent that skyrocketed their names to the top of the draft board also brought them to the teams picking first, all of which are there for a reason. Whether the team performed poorly the previous year due to a lack of valuable players or traded significant value to move up, the elite players in the draft generally enter training camp with below average supporting casts.
Historically, the only offensive skill position players who received noteworthy playing time in their rookie seasons have been running backs. Clearly times are changing with five rookie quarterback starters in week one, the most in NFL history. As first year quarterbacks become legitimate fantasy options and dynasty owners consider drafting and starting them immediately, how should this environment impact how rookie quarterbacks are valued in dynasty leagues?
More important than talented receivers for quarterbacks is talent along the offensive line, and a good third-down back for blindside protection isn’t far behind. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III joined teams that allowed the tenth and second most quarterback hits, respectively. For the Colts, Donald Brown is an atrocious run-blocker (Mewelde Moore anyone?) and the Redskins started the season with a late-round rookie back. Both teams have some weapons at receiver, but not without question marks over health, experience and consistency. Regardless, the athleticism and raw talent of Luck and Griffin, combined with below-average defenses forcing them to throw a lot, will make both players legitimate fantasy options in their first year.
Seeing how their value may be impacted by the rebuilding teams around them, let’s take a quick look at how some quarterbacks drafted in top ten (the so-called “elite”) the last three years have fared. Jake Locker was excluded as he primarily held a clipboard his rookie season and a talented Jets team traded up to get Mark Sanchez.
Cam Newton (2011, 1st to Carolina)
Rookie season: The consensus top quarterback talent, he was well-protected with Carolina allowing the sixth-fewest quarterback hits in the NFL. His mobility certainly helped, as I expect will be the case with Luck and RGIII this year as well. He had a 60% completion rate, 4,784 total yards and 35 total touchdowns.
Blaine Gabbert (2011, 10th to Jacksonville)
Rookie season: In hindsight, he probably should have returned to Missouri for his senior season as Jacksonville allowed the seventh-most sacks in the NFL. He had a 50.8% completion rate, 2,312 total yards and 12 total touchdowns.
Sam Bradford (2010, 1st to St. Louis)
Rookie season: Armed with tangibles and intangibles, he had a very promising first year while St. Louis was in the middle of the pack in protecting their quarterback with the 11th most quarterback hits and 18th most sacks allowed. He had a 60% completion rate, 3,575 total yards and 19 total touchdowns.
2nd season: St. Louis regressed dramatically, allowing the most sacks (55) in the NFL and tied with Seattle for the most quarterback hits, causing his statistics (and body) to suffer; he had a 53.5% completion rate, 2,190 total yards, six total touchdowns and six games missed due to injury.
Matthew Stafford (2009, 1st to Detroit)
Rookie season: Allowing the sixth-most quarterback hits and ninth most sacks is a rough greeting for a rookie quarterback and he played only ten games to show for it. He had a 53.5% completion rate, 2,375 total yards and 15 total touchdowns.
2nd season: Detroit allowed the 6th-fewest sacks and 9th fewest quarterback hits, but this didn’t benefit him much as an early season injury limited him to playing in parts of only three games. he had a 59.4% completion rate, 546 total yards and seven total touchdowns.
3rd season: He enjoyed his breakout season amidst average protection as Detroit was 16th in sacks allowed. He had a 63.5% completion rate, 5,116 total yards and 41 total touchdowns.
In the short-term, even the top quarterback prospects face an uphill battle as they join rebuilding teams. Obviously there are many variables involved with team performance after drafting top quarterback prospects and some rebuilding projects take longer than others. For example, Cleveland is seemingly about halfway through their 50-year plan. While there are varying levels of talent among the names listed above (as Newton would probably have still put up better numbers than Gabbert did if he was drafted by Jacksonville), the players cannot show off their elite skills and develop to their potential unless they are able to see down the field and stay upright.
Strong offensive lines, blocking running backs and tight ends supplement the quarterback’s own skills to succeed in this area. Reviewing trends in sacks and quarterback hits, as well as offensive line personnel changes, could help forecast the player’s chances of staying healthy and avoiding pressure for dynasty owners looking to invest in top quarterback prospects picked by poor teams in next year’s rookie draft. This is not to say to avoid elite talents, but to temper expectations initially as supporting casts may stunt player growth.
In the case of this year’s examples, both quarterbacks play for teams with over-the-top owners who appear dedicated to improving the talent around them (for their sakes, let’s hope that is not the hot air Jim Irsay and Dan Snyder are well known for). With franchise quarterbacks squarely in place, Indianapolis and Washington can and should focus their draft and free agent efforts to shoring up the offensive line and skill players. Detroit is finally improving the protection for their quarterback by locking up LT Jeff Backus and first-round RT Riley Reiff to long-term deals – stability that should help Matt Stafford have more seasons like 2011 and fewer like his first two.
As you begin scouting next year’s talents such as Tyler Wilson, Matt Barkley and Tyler Bray, consider how they may fare in situations such as Buffalo, Kansas City, and Arizona (some quick prognostications). Perceived talent level won’t make an impact if rookie signal callers are looking at pass rushers rather than looking off defensive backs.
Just ask Kevin Kolb.