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As Many as Five Rookie QBs Could Start On Football's Opening Weekend, and Colin Kaepernick Might Post the Best Statistics

With the news of Kerry Collins’ retirement (plus the anticipated release of Vince Young), Jake Locker becomes the likely starter for the Tennessee Titans unless they sign someone like Matt Hasselbeck in free agency. Locker’s not alone. Cam Newton should start in Carolina. Christian Ponder has a decent chance to start in Minnesota. If Carson Palmer carries through on his retirement threat, or is traded, Andy Dalton will start in Cincinnati. Jim Harbaugh just came out and said that Colin Kaepernick has a decent chance to be the starter in San Francisco.

Those are just the situations where a rookie starting a majority of the games appears likely based on circumstances now. Blaine Gabbert could move into the lineup if he impresses and beats out David Garrard in Jacksonville, or the team gets off to a slow start. Injuries or ineffectiveness of a starter somewhere else could open the door for a later round pick (Ed. TJ Yates in Houston?).

The record for most rookies to start at least half the season’s games was back in 1971, when Jim Plunkett, Archie Manning, Dan Pastorini and Scott Hunter all played extensively, and in 2006, when Leinart and Young both started, and Andrew Walter and Bruce Gradkowski both got chances because of injury. Depending on how the camps and roster moves evolve, that could be broken this year.

So, I thought I would take a look at how rookie quarterbacks affect a passing offense. We know that they tend to struggle, but teams that go to rookie quarterbacks were generally not good anyway, so part of those struggles are related to the lack of talent on offense. Later, I will discuss specific seasons and rank the “best” rookie years in terms of how much the offense improved compared to how the team did the previous year. Today, I’ll discuss the overall effect.

I looked at all rookie seasons since 1970 that involved guys straight out of college (so I’m excluding “rookie” years where a player had no prior experience but had either been out of college on a practice squad or played in a different league, like the CFL or Arena League). There were 60 different seasons where a rookie started at least half the games. Four of them involved expansion teams (Carr with Houston, Couch with Cleveland, Collins with Carolina and Zorn with Seattle). I compared the ANYA+ (league-normalized Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt) for the rookie versus the same score for the previous year’s leading starter, and then looked at the differences.

Rookie Previous Starter Difference
1st round 89.0 90.1 -1.1
2nd & 3rd round 85.5 91.1 -5.6
4th round or lower 88.2 95.5 -7.3

Did the rookies struggle as a group? Sure. An ANYA+ score of 100 is league average, and we see that these rookies were below average. However, for first round rookies, they weren’t appreciably different from their predecessors in year one. Individual results varied greatly, but as a group, the passing games involving first round rookie starters weren’t much worse than the year before.

As draft position increases, we see that the drop off becomes more severe, and these are more likely to be situations where a rookie was pressed into action due to injury. One of my criticism of Malcolm Gladwell’s position on quarterbacks is that he assumes late round quarterbacks are just as successful as early picks, because he only looks at those late round picks chosen to play. The bad ones are weeded out more frequently without ever taking a snap, when scouting agrees with what the teams see in practice and preseason.

Here, we see that while later round picks (those drafted in round four or later) who start as rookies put up similar numbers to first rounders (88.2 vs. 89.0 ANYA+), they also tended to play for teams that had been better offensively the year before, and thus had a bigger dropoff when they were inserted.

What does this mean for 2011? Well, the five teams most likely to have a rookie starter were below average in passing in 2010. The lockout has set the rookies back, but it has also probably prevented teams from pursuing other options. They are likely to struggle as a group, but that’s partially because they are playing on bad offensive teams. I expect Cam Newton to improve Carolina, while still putting up a below average yards per attempt–that team was just so bad offensively with Clausen that there is nowhere to go but up. I expect Locker to struggle early and for the Titan numbers to decline from what Young/Collins provided, especially if Britt can’t stay off the PacMan career path. I’m not sold on Dalton, and there are so many new parts at receiver, so I could see the Bengals going either way. Ponder will improve the Vikings, but I say that because they were 30th in ANYA. Favre was dreadful last year (can’t believe a team would consider him at one more year older) and the backups were just as bad. I could see Ponder struggling, but the passing numbers still improving from 2010.

The one I think has the biggest potential in 2011 to post above league average numbers is Kaepernick at San Francisco. Alex Smith was inconsistent, but his overall numbers weren’t horrible in 2010, and I think that is partially a reflection of some of the unrefined talent on offense. If Kaepernick wins the job or gets it early in the season, the offensive weapons are there with Vernon Davis and Gore and yes, Michael Crabtree to go with his own mobility and ability to get to the edge, that I could see big play potential in the passing game.

[photo via Getty]

 

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