NFL Rookies

Evaluating the rookie quarterbacks with three weeks to go:

We have now played 14 weeks and it is time to reflect a little. At this point I want to take a look at the five rookie signal-callers, who were drafted in the first round and all played between four and twelve games. To make this clear, I didn’t want to rank the quarterbacks against each other because I think it’s still too early for that, but we can see what they have shown so far and talk about them. So I listed them purely based on where they were drafted at. While all of them have shown promise and won some big games, the guy at the very top has truly stood out.


Baker Mayfield

 

Baker Mayfield

While I thought the Browns reached for some players in the draft, I had no problem with the selection of Baker Mayfield at the top. I had Darnold as my number one quarterback, but Mayfield was in that group of three that I thought were all worth top five or six picks. He was kept on the sidelines for the first two-and-a-half weeks of the 2018 season, but when Tyrod Taylor had to go into the locker room in that Thursday night game versus the Jets, Baker came onto the field and hasn’t given up his job ever since. Not only has he given the Dawg Pound a ton of energy, he has also clearly been the top rookie quarterback and with all those outstanding rookies at all the other positions, he is right up there with the very best of that class. The numbers bear it out.

Mayfield has by far the highest completion percentage (64.4%) and yards per attempt (7.7) among all rookie signal-callers. I liked his arm and I thought he was a much better athlete than people gave him credit for, but he exceeded even my expectations. Baker throws a much tighter spiral and has a way stronger arm than you’d expect from a six-foot Big XII quarterback. He gets the ball out with anticipation, zip and pin-point accuracy. When you watch Baker’s first live-action versus the Jets and you compare it with what Tyrod Taylor did in the first half of that contest, you see the differences between a guy like him and a solid starter in Taylor. The Jets blitzed over and over again and forced Taylor to defeat tight man-coverage with his arm and getting the ball out hot, but instead he tried to run around and make things happen off script, which didn’t only end in him taking big hits but ultimately knocked him out of the game as well. When Baker entered everything changed. He destroyed Gang Green’s blitzes by getting rid of the ball quickly and showing pocket awareness to maneuver around before dropping absolute dimes to his playmakers, who he showed trust in to win their matchups.

The first overall pick has showcased clean footwork, outstanding mobility inside the pocket and tremendous command of the entire offense, making checks in no-huddle situations and deciphering opposing defenses. However, he doesn’t just have the mental aspects and fundamentals down before letting the ball go, he has made some throws that force even his biggest critics to raise their eyebrows. He has defeated tight man-coverage with Drew Brees-ish pin-point accuracy and he has delivered has some absolute ropes into tight windows. Probably his best game came versus the Panthers last Sunday. He launches several unbelievable downfield passes with a defender in almost perfect position, but with the placement of the ball those throws were basically indefensible. Mayfield has clearly displayed the ability to diagnose a multitude of defensive looks and counter them with the understanding of where the ball needs to go, but at the same time you can not just get into the face of his pass-catchers and force him to throw those guys open – because he will do just that.

Mayfield had by far his two worst games versus the Chargers and Texans – two teams that clearly were better from top to bottom on those days and overall as well. If you take those two performances out of the equation, he has thrown 17 touchdowns compared to just five interceptions. Obviously you have to take everything into consideration, but versus the Chargers those picks came on two great plays by Desmond King undercutting routes and all three at Houston happened because he tried to fit in some passes. So it’s not like he just misdiagnoses coverages or gets rattled by the opposition. Mayfield is just a gunslinger, who has trust in his arm and his receivers. I have no problem with that, because he will still learn which chances he should and should not take. For every throw he attempts that simply isn’t there, there will be five others were you would think the same but somehow they get completed. Most importantly he takes care of the ball when he has his offense in scoring range, displayed by his QB rating of 115.1 in the opponents’ red-zone.

Since Hue Jackson and Todd Haley were fired following a week eight loss to the Steelers, Baker has completed 73.2 percent of his passes for 11 touchdowns and four picks (with three of them occurring in that Texans game), plus the Browns have won three of their five games – which are as many wins as they had under Hue in 40(!) games. New offensive coordinator Freddy Kitchens has really helped out his rookie signal-caller by implementing elements of his college offense and doing an outstanding job protecting him, making him the least-pressured quarterback in the league these last few weeks. If you made the Browns choose all over again who they would select with that number one overall pick, John Dorsey would run up to the commissioner with that card himself. Baker Mayfield brings an energy and sense of confidence this franchise hasn’t had since they were re-established almost 20 years ago. He is a perfect fit for the city of Cleveland and this fanbase deserved to finally get a guy like that.


Sam Darnold

Sam Darnold

For the second quarterback drafted in April it has been much more of an up-and-down season. Right now he leads the league with 15 interceptions despite missing three games and he has thrown just 12 touchdowns compared to that. He has also completed 60 percent or more of his passes in just four of his ten starts and he has three games in the 30s in terms of quarterback rating. However, he also gave the entire Jets fan base hope with an incredible performance in the season-opening destruction of Detroit, led them to big wins ovr AFC playoff contenders in the Broncos and Colts while putting up 34 and 42 points respectively and he just rallied them to a win over the Bills, in a game they probably should have lost.

Even his first play in a regular season game was very shaky, as he started off his career with a pick-six throwing across the field. This already showed you that he will take chances and he has tried to fit throws into tight windows on plenty of occasions. Yet, he has also displayed that he is mentally strong enough to shake those things off and go after it the very next snap. After three straight losses in which he threw two TDs compared to four picks, the Jets put together their only consecutive wins. They followed that up with another trio of losses, in which Darnold really looked bad at times. Overall he has two games with two INTs, one with three and another one with four. I watched almost all his tapes and there were some dark moments, but you also see what I liked about him coming out of USC and he is as tough as a five-dollar steak.

Darnold was really careless in particular in his meetings with the Dolphins, turning the ball over six total times. He got fooled by a defender in underneath coverage drifting one way and then coming back for the pick and once stared down his receiver on an out-breaking route, allowing the linebacker to drop all the way underneath it. However, in week two he almost led his team back to a victory and his second interception was more on the receiver running a weak route in the end-zone and allowing the DB to beat him to the spot plus his receiving crew dropped four passes, while in week nine he had to deal with horrendous snaps for about half the game and threw his final two interceptions on fourth-and-very long, although another two were flat-out dropped by defenders. Still, even in those games you saw clutch throws on third down and good accuracy on the move. That has been the theme for large stretches of his rookie campaign – turnovers and risky throws happening due to a lack of help from his pass-catchers. Even versus the Vikings, when he threw three interceptions, one of those throws was a wobbler because his left tackle getting pushed into him during the release and one came off the hands of his receivers on a perfectly placed slant route.

During Darnold’s three-game absence you could see how bad this roster still is. They lost all three games with Josh McCown at the helm, including a 41-10 embarrassment against the Bills, who were without their starting rookie QB as well. Darnold played far from a perfect game last Sunday at Buffalo, but he willed that team to victory. He got banged up early, went two of seven on third downs through about the first 40 minutes and made a really stupid decision on his interception, just tossing it up there scrambling all the way to the sideline and expecting a receiver to come up with it after turning his out-route upfield. But he also delivered some absolutely perfect balls right in stride on corner, deep out and fade routes that kept his team alive and made the play of the game on third-and-goal when he was flushed right and reversed all the way across the field before finding Robby Anderson in the end-zone. He completed another big one on a go-route to Anderson, where he freezed the middle safety for a second and then dropped it right into the bucket of his receivers versus the Bills’ top corner Tre’Davious White, which set up the game-winning touchdown.

The third overall pick has definitely had his struggles as a rookie, but a lot of that had to do with the team around him. Darnold has no true, dependable playmakers around him outside of Anderson and to a lesser degree Quincy Enunwa and his offensive line has been suspect at times. I loved what I saw from him in the preseason, diagnosing defenses pre-snap and then not panicking when they tried to confuse him, but rather moving on to his next read and delivering strikes. I am also encouraged by just four fumbles on the year, because I thought his biggest concern in college was the lack of ball-security while moving around. Say what you want, but I still believe in this kid being the Jets’ savior, because I think he has the perseverance to recover from bad plays as well as one bad season, and let’s not forget he only turned 21 a week after he was drafted. He can make those standard plays that keep offenses on schedule, but he can also create when nothing is there and deliver accurately outside the pocket. They need to load up with pieces around him to help their future out.


Josh Allen

Josh Allen

I had Allen as my number five quarterback and it was not as much due to the inconsistent accuracy that draft experts worried about, but rather because of poor pocket presence. I can make a quarterback throw every route and read every concept a million times at practice, but having a feel for when and how to move inside the pocket while maintaining a throwing posture and keeping your eyes downfield is much harder to teach, because it is somewhat of an innate ability. Far too often I saw Allen scramble and make bad decisions instead of maximizing the space he had in the pocket to make throws down the field or worst case go down and live for another play. The advantage he had over all those other guys I had ranked ahead of him was the fact that he had experience in a pro-style offense and his rare physical traits were off the charts. So far I think those are what really have stood out, while his mental game is starting to come along.

When I started watching Allen’s tape at Wyoming I saw a young Roethlisberger body-wise, but through his first nine games he has looked more like Cam Newton as a runner. He is now up to 490 yards and five TDs on the ground, with 401 of those coming off scrambles. I remember a week three game versus the Vikings where the Bills pulled off the upset in a beatdown at Minnesota behind a ferocious defense and a Josh Allen killing the Vikes taking off multiple times. Anthony Barr seemed to be Allen’s personal target, because he outran, trucked and even hurdled the 6’5” linebacker on separate plays. Then in week 13 it was the Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonso, who he once spun around like a ballerina and then beat to the edge on another scramble after he made a D-tackle completely whiff on like a dead-leg back juke. I knew he was a tremendous athlete, but this guy is on another level. There’s only so many guys with the speed to run past linebackers one play and then have the size to run over them the very next.

In one of the crazier statistics I’ve ever seen, Allen just broke Michael Vick’s record of rushing yards in a three-game span with 335. When you run like that fumbles occur, but only two times he has put the ball on the turf and saw the defense recover. Through nine starts Allen is 26th among all players in the league with 29 runs resulting in first downs despite just 66 carries. Only Mitch Trubisky has turned a higher percentage of his runs into first downs among player with over 50 attempts, as 43.9 percent of Allen’s rushes have resulted in fresh sets of downs. He has produced 19 runs of 10+ yards and has made it past the marker ten of his 17 rush attempts on third down (58.8 percent). All of that while missing four games with a banged up shoulder. The Bills are a top ten rushing offense, but without their QB’s production only three teams would rank below them in total yards and they would be dead-last in yards per carry. You would like to see him take a few less shots, but he is one of the very few who has the frame to sustain that, plus he is starting to slide more.

In addition to what he does on the ground, he has a howitzer of an arm and he is starting to make some big plays with it. Allen’s overall numbers are definitely not where you’d like them to be, as he is completing just 52.4 percent of his passes with five touchdowns compared to nine interceptions and a QB rating of 62.8, but a lot of that has to do with the situations he is put in. I already mentioned their poor rushing numbers if their QB doesn’t run it himself, as all other ball-carrier average 3.63 yards per carry – less than half of what he does – but the Bills also simply don’t have the playmakers to make things happen with the ball in their hands. They are second-to-last ahead of only the Cardinals in yards after catch with a little over 1000 and even though I didn’t track the numbers, I can tell you that there are very few if any teams that have faced 3rd & 10+ more often than Buffalo.

When watching the Bills rookie QB on tape the one thing that jumps out to you is his arm strength. I think Patrick Mahomes and Allen are about in the same ball park – and I’m not sure if anybody else parks there. He can be late on some throws and still get them to his targets before the defender has a chance to make a play on it because he just puts lasers out there, while also threatening any defense to go over the top. His accuracy might not be ideal all the time, especially on easy dumpoffs and other underneath completions, but he is clearly precise enough to shred defenses. Even though he has put up crazy numbers on the ground since returning from injury, I have been very intrigued with some of the throws he has made during that stretch. Versus the Dolphins in week 13 he launched two stupendous rockets to Zay Jones – one running to his right and hitting hum at the end-line for a touchdown and then another one out of his own end-zone scrambling left and hitting Jones at the sideline on 3rd & 12 for an extra ten off the wrong foot. Last week against the Jets he was backed up inside his own ten and didn’t let the safety bait him into a risky throw on a go-route against a muddy coverage look, but instead stayed patient and drilled a shallow post that the receiver sat down over the middle, plus later he connected on a beautiful back-shoulder pass with a slot receiver running an inside fade route versus cover-one.

While he made a stupid decision scrambling to his right and just throwing up a prayer while getting hit out of bounds – which was intercepted – I came away really impressed by the rookie. On their go-ahead drive he almost put them ahead by a touchdown on a perfect pass to his receiver running a corner route towards the pylon on a designed rollout, before settling for three, which didn’t prove to be enough. I don’t think anybody in this class nearly has the upside Allen presents. He can kill defenses as a scrambler against man-coverages and when he gets confused by coverage looks, he can throw off either leg and fading away better than a lot of guys can from a clean pocket and he is starting to make big-time throws from the pocket. Obviously I’d like him to maintain a normal throwing posture more instead of moving East and West, but I take it for now. The Bills O-line has been sub-par, allowing Allen to be sacked on 10.3 percent of his dropbacks. The only player on that offense to make anything happen with the ball in his hands recently has been Isaiah McKenzie and he only just started the first game of his career. Not only are the Bills 3-6 with Allen as their starter, as crazy as it sounds when you look at his passing numbers, adding his rushing, Allen actually owns the highest QBR among all rookie quarterbacks so far.


Josh Rosen

Josh Rosen

By far the most frustration for any offense and their rookie quarterback has taken place in Arizona. The Cardinals brought in career journeymen Sam Bradford and Mike Glennon in March before even having any idea about what could happen in the draft. Sitting at number 10 overall with the Browns, Giants, Jets, Broncos and Bills all ahead of them and little draft capital to move up, there was a good chance that this team could have ended up with none of the four favorite quarterbacks. However, with the Giants deciding to stick with Eli Manning for another year and the Broncos going with edge rusher over signal-caller after having signed Case Keenum to a deal, Arizona didn’t have to do anything but sit there and have UCLA star-quarterback Josh Rosen fall right into their lap. However, they decided to start the season off with Bradford and that lasted less than three full games before they trotted their rookie out there.

In a very peculiar spot, down 16-14 with about four minutes left against the league’s number one defense in the Bears, Rosen saw his first regular season action and was immediately asked to lead them to a victory from behind. Rosen actually delivered some bullets to move the offense just outside field goal range, but was intercepted on a good fourth down attempt. The week after that he was named the starter and he hasn’t left the lineup ever since. In his first start ever against the Seahawks I saw some impressive stuff from the rook, delivering supremely accurate passes on all three levels, just threading the needle on a multitude of them, even though a bunch of them were dropped, knocked away late or ruled incomplete due to one foot not coming down in bounds. He came up big for them on crucial situations and the only thing that held the Cardinals back from winning that game was their own coaching staff not allowing their young signal-caller to get it done late with his arm, but instead deciding to run the ball three straight times around the opposing 30-yard line and ultimately missing the go-ahead field goal, even though it was the rookie that led them down there.

The week after that Rosen got his first career win versus the 49ers and even though the numbers might not have been that good, he took good care of the ball and hooked up with rookie teammate Christian Kirk for a huge 75-yard touchdown for the game’s first score. Over the next two games, the team took a huge bump, as they lost by ten at the Vikings and were blown out 45-10 at home by the Broncos. Rosen threw just one touchdown and four picks during that stretch, but I thought the numbers didn’t really tell the truth. Especially against the Broncos I thought he played much better than those horrendous stats indicated. On his first pick-six the ball was batted up in the air at the line and on the second one the wideout inexplicably just stopped running on a slant route. Outside of that third one in the fourth quarter, when he just tried to force a big play to Kirk at last, Rosen was on time and target on curls, hooks, comebacks and other timing-based routes. Following that demolition the Cardinals finally decided to fire their Offensive Coordinator Mike McCoy.

It was not just Sam Bradford early on that willingly checked the ball down to his backs over and over again without even trying to look downfield, but also McCoy’s conservative play-calling that hindered his rookie quarterback. The run design lacked creativity in a big way, being limited to simple dive and ISO plays for the most part, there were no vertical stretches of the defense and he just could not find ways to put the ball into the hands of the few of playmakers they had in space. Moreover, the supporting cast for the Cards might have been even worse than the Bills’. They are dead-last in yards after the catch, barely cracking the 1000-yard mark. In comparison to that – the 49ers have almost double that amount despite playing with a backup QB and limitations at the skill spots as well. However what really stands out about McCoy’s stint in Arizona is the way he could not put his best player David Johnson in position to succeed. Before DJ missed almost all of last season, there might have been two guys I would have taken above him if you made me choose a running back. Yet, in seven games under their ex-OC he was limited to 72 yards from scrimmage per game on an average of just 18 touches, giving him less than four yards per touch. This has also led to the lowest number in time of possession at 26:17 a game, as they have gained an average of just 4.6 first downs on the ground.

While the offense has improved to some degree under Byron Leftwich, I think it is almost unfair to evaluate Rosen like the other guys, because not only the players around him on offense but also the play-calling for large stretches has been so incredibly bad. He is ranked among the bottom five in percentage of third downs converted via the pass, but he has faced a large amount of third-and-long situations. When it was third-and-eight or more he has completed 28.9 percent of his passes. I still love Rosen’s touch and internal confidence. He is extremely smart and not afraid to let it rip. If you look beyond the numbers and win totals, even though they won at Lambeau field two weeks ago, you see some franchise quarterback traits. The organization just needs to surround Rosen with more playmakers and make things easier with coordinator help.


Lamar Jackson

Lamar Jackson

I truly believe Lamar Jackson is the closest thing we have had seen to Michael Vick since his days with the Falcons and Eagles. When the Ravens decided to move back up into the first round of April’s draft to select the former Heisman trophy winner with the 32nd pick, the organization made a structural and philosophical decision, but they also knew they still had Joe Flacco on their books for this season and only then they could make the call on what they will do going forward. Early on Jackson was used as a gadget player, coming in to run zone-reads, designed quarterback keeps, throw a couple of passes or just be a decoy for opposing defenses. When it was announced that Flacco would miss the first game after their by week, the rookie stepped into the starting lineup. Entering at a 4-5 record, Baltimore only now lost their first game with the rookie as the starter – and that came by three points to the top-seeded Chiefs following a 3-0 start to Lamar’s career. With Flacco back to fully participating and the Ravens deciding to go with Jackson against Tampa Bay this weekend, a new era has officially started in Charm City.

The biggest difference with Jackson in the starting lineup has been the improvement of the rushing attack. I crunched the numbers and the team’s difference between their attempts, yards and averages are astonishing. Through the first nine weeks with Flacco under center, the Ravens on average ran the ball 27 times a game for 103.8 yards, giving them an average of 3.85 yards per carry. These last four games with the rookie taking over however, they are running the ball 46 times for 228.5 yards and 4.97 yards per carry. That comparison is just absolutely ridiculous, giving Baltimore the league’s best marks in totals and attempts, while being right up there with the elite in average yards as well despite that run-pass ratio. Obviously a lot of that has to do with the rookie quarterback amassing 475 total yards on the ground himself on 5.0 yards a clip and surpassing 70 yards in every game as a starter, but this goes beyond his numbers alternating their overall production.

The threat of Jackson pulling the ball on zone-reads or simply booting the other way off handoffs is so frightening for defenses that it hurts their backside help on running plays on many occasions. Not only do they obviously have to keep the last man at the line of scrimmage leverage outside the quarterback to force him to hand the ball off, a lot of times that backside linebacker can not flow with the play whatsoever and this allows even easier cutback opportunities for the Ravens’ backs compared to if that guy just overran the play. Fellow rookie running back Gus Edwards only entered the scene once Jackson took over and while I don’t want to take any credit away from him, his 95.5 rushing yards a game and five yards per attempt and Kenneth Dixon’s six yards per rush these last two weeks have a lot to do with who is running the play-fakes. As far as straight-line speed goes I don’t think anybody is up to par with Jackson and he just seems to freeze defenders when he takes off. Obviously he will need to protect his body better going forward, but he will learn that.

People who think Jackson just wants to scramble haven’t watched the tape, because 418 of his 475 yards have come on designed runs. He is looking to throw the ball and sometimes you feel like he almost should take off with his athletic ability. The overall passing numbers are pedestrian at 25 attempts for 150 yards per game and four touchdowns compared to three interceptions. Outside of a big run-and-catch play to fellow rookie tight-end Mark Andrews, Jackson hasn’t really provided the element of the deep passing attack, but he has done enough through the air to keep his offense on schedule. The rookie out of Louisville might not have the fastball some of these other guys on the list have, but he has a whippy arm and he is comfortable throwing it on the run. Jackson has come up with big, timely completions from the pocket as well as off schedule at the end of halves and on third downs. What is very unique about him is how we can move defenders one way with how he moves and then comes back the other way to one of his pass-catchers.

Jackson still has to work a lot on his ability to pick defenses apart from the pocket, as he prefers to manipulate defenders with his movement to create clear looks for himself and as of right now he has the second-lowest adjusted completion percentage among all starting quarterbacks, but he just plays winning football. Through four games, the rookie QB is 21 of 44 converting with his arm and legs on third and fourth downs (47.7%) and when the yardage to gain is at five or under, he is 13 of 20. Obviously he went against a few below-average defenses in the Bengals, Raiders, Falcons and Chiefs, but he also came through in the clutch for his team and battled it out with MVP front-runner Patrick Mahomes at a hostile place in Arrowhead. With him in the lineup, Baltimore can be the team that they are built to be – which means controlling the clock with their ground game, as they average 35:52 minutes in terms of time of possession, and get after it with a rested defense.

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