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Rookie Impact - Quarterbacks
Young Guns III

Back in 2007, spurned by the success of rookies Vince Young, Matt Leinart, and Jay Cutler—as well as first year starters Philip Rivers and Tony Romo—I re-examined the “conventional wisdom” in the fantasy football community which held that rookie and other first-year starting quarterbacks struggled mightily in year one .

Most fantasy owners at the time wouldn’t have dreamed about taking a young quarterback in their redraft leagues. Furthermore, those owners would have also downgraded the receivers from a young quarterback’s team when preparing their preseason rankings. Fantasy experts and message board posters would have even gone so far as to warn against drafting a running back from teams expected to start a rookie quarterback, since opposing defenses would stack the box and dare the rookie to beat them.

The 2007 article and last offseason’s follow-up showed that the conventional wisdom surrounding rookie quarterbacks may be heading the way of the cassette tape and the typewriter. Said wisdom is starting to look obsolete.

The NFL now expects highly drafted rookie quarterbacks to learn on the fly and resurrect their franchises, especially after Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, and Mark Sanchez did just that during their very first season, taking their respective teams to the big dance. While fantasy owners shouldn’t expect rookie QBs to lead their fantasy teams to the Promised Land, they do need to realize that the landscape is changing.

Sam Bradford

Sam Bradford's rookie season ranks 12th-best all time.

Last season, Sam Bradford crashed the NFL’s exclusive quarterback club by having a rookie season for the ages—from an NFL (if not necessarily a fantasy) standpoint at least. In more limited action, both Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow proved their doubters wrong by showing immediate results during their rookie seasons. While it’s an extremely small sample size that came against poor pass defenses in meaningless games, Tebow’s fantasy points through the last three weeks of the season while starting for the Broncos actually surpassed Dan Marino’s formerly top-ranked rookie season by a significant margin. The times they are a changing, indeed.

Below is a chart that will look familiar to those who have read the previous two articles linked above. The seasons of young field generals of recent vintage are compared to some of the best rookie seasons of all time, as well as to the rookie campaigns of quarterbacks who went on to become some of the best of the modern era. This list is based on a scoring format where all TDs are worth six points and interceptions count as negative two points. Note that the list is sorted by fantasy points per game (FPts/G) in order to compare the players who did not play full seasons to those who did. Once again, please understand that I am not implying that these young guns will someday measure up to the all-time greats or that they are destined to become Hall of Famers. I’m simply trying to show how successful first-year quarterbacks have been in recent seasons compared to how others had fared previously. As you can see, with the lone exception of Marino, five of the top six slots are dominated by quarterbacks who started their careers after 2006, while the bottom five slots are filled by players whose busts are sitting in Canton, Ohio.

 The Rookie Years
Rk Player Year G Yds TDs INT R-YDs R-TDs FPts FPts/G
1 Tim Tebow 2010 3 651 4 3 201 3 88.14 29.38
2 Dan Marino 1983 11 2210 20 6 45 2 224.90 20.45
3 Tony Romo 2006 12 2903 19 13 102 0 240.32 20.03
4 Jay Cutler 2006 5 1001 9 5 18 0 95.84 19.17
5 Matthew Stafford 2009 10 2267 13 20 108 2 191.48 19.15
6 Vince Young 2006 14 2199 12 13 552 7 257.16 18.37
7 Carson Palmer 2004 13 2897 18 18 47 1 234.58 18.04
8 Fran Tarkenton 1961 14 1997 18 17 308 5 248.68 17.76
9 Brett Favre 1992 15 3227 18 13 198 1 262.88 17.53
10 Steve Young 1985 5 953 3 8 233 1 85.42 17.08
11 Philip Rivers 2006 16 3388 22 9 49 0 272.42 17.03
12 Sam Bradford 2010 16 3512 18 15 63 1 260.78 16.30
13 Ben Roethislberger 2004 14 2621 17 11 144 1 227.24 16.23
14 Bob Griese 1967 12 2005 15 18 157 1 191.90 15.99
15 Peyton Manning 1998 16 3739 26 28 62 0 255.76 15.99
16 Jim Plunkett 1971 14 2158 19 16 210 0 221.32 15.81
17 Matt Ryan 2008 16 3440 16 11 104 1 250.00 15.63
18 Matt Leinart 2006 12 2547 11 12 49 2 184.78 15.40
19 Drew Bledsoe 1993 13 2494 15 15 82 0 197.96 15.23
20 Josh Freeman 2009 10 1855 10 18 161 0 150.30 15.03
21 Matt Moore 2009 6 1053 8 2 -3 0 89.82 14.97
22 Colt McCoy 2010 8 1576 6 9 136 1 118.64 14.83
23 Joe Flacco 2008 16 2971 14 12 180 2 232.84 14.55
24 Troy Aikman 1989 11 1749 9 18 302 0 154.16 14.01
25 Mark Sanchez 2009 15 2444 12 20 106 3 198.36 13.22
26 Joe Montana 1980 15 1795 15 9 77 2 181.50 12.10
27 John Elway 1983 11 1663 7 14 146 1 129.12 11.74
28 John Unitas 1956 12 1498 9 10 155 1 135.42 11.29
29 Terry Bradshaw 1970 13 1410 6 24 233 1 121.70 9.36
30 Dan Fouts 1973 10 1126 6 13 32 0 84.24 8.42

Passing over ground that was already explored in the past two articles, what we can take from this chart is that the college game may be changing in a way that better prepares young quarterbacks to succeed at the NFL level more quickly than they had in the past.

I’m not advocating going out and drafting a first-time starter as QB1 for your fantasy team, but you may want to think twice about totally avoiding the skill players on any team that will be led by a young quarterback simply because of that young quarterback. Furthermore, keeping your eye on the progress made by a young signal caller could land you a prized waiver wire acquisition who could help your team come playoff time if you had been winning despite shaky QB play. On the flip side, so far we have ignored busts like JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, Jimmy Clausen, and Brodie Croyle, among others—so it’s not all wine and roses. However, it is undeniable that things have changed. NFL teams can win right away with a first-year starter under center, and those young players can produce meaningful statistics right away.

It should also be duly noted that this may be a banner year for rookie quarterbacks (based on sheer volume), with six of them having been taken in the first two rounds of the NFL draft and a good number of those expected to be handed the starting reigns right away.

I’d rank their chances for success in 2011 in the following order:

1. Cam Newton – A quick glance at the chart above shows that a QB’s ability to gain fantasy points with his legs gives him an advantage over other rookie QBs. The running aspect of the player’s game is obviously more instinctive than the mental hurdles that come with leading a passing attack. Cam Newton is the best runner in this draft class and arguably the best rookie runner at quarterback since Mike Vick. Newton isn’t all about the run though. He possesses a rocket arm as well, albeit one that is not always the most accurate. What sets Newton apart from the other running quarterbacks at the college level is that he does not take off at the first sign of trouble—most of his runs at Auburn were designed runs, not scrambles—and he can be just as dangerous using his arm. He will at least be able to get the ball deep to the big, strong, and fast second-year duo of Brandon LaFell and David Gettis, allowing them to make plays for the ball. How quickly Newton is able to learn a more complex NFL offense and read pro defenses will go a long way toward his 2011 success, but no rookie this season (even among the non-QBs) possesses as high a ceiling as the Heisman Trophy winner.

2011 Projection: 14 GS, 2,605 passing yards 14 TDs, 17 Ints. / 475 rushing yards 5 TDs

2. Jake Locker – Locker is also an adept runner, but his weakness in the passing game is inconsistent accuracy. Locker reminds me of Donovan McNabb in that he has a powerful arm, great leadership skills, better-than-average mobility, but below-average accuracy. In Locker’s defense, he will be surrounded by far greater talent in Tennessee than in college at Washington. The athletic, ball hawking Kenny Britt should be able to track down Locker’s deep throws, and Chris Johnson can gain significant yardage off of swing and dump-off passes. Locker may sit for a game or two behind an aging veteran (perhaps Kerry Collins), but after investing a high pick and seeing what Locker can do, expect the Titans’ front office to give him the majority of the starts in 2011.

2011 Projection: 13 GS, 2,485 passing yards 12 TDs, 14 Ints. / 315 rushing yards 3 TDs

3. Andy Dalton – Many compare Dalton to Chad Pennington, as if that should have a negative connotation. Those people may want to delve a little deeper into just how impressive Pennington’s career was. In every full season Pennington played, his team never failed to make the playoffs and he accumulated more-than-adequate passing statistics. Dalton does remind me of Pennington, too, but I use that as a compliment. While he does not possess a strong arm, he is extremely smart and accurate with his throws. He’s also used to performing on the big stage, leading TCU to an undefeated season and a Rose Bowl Victory over Wisconsin. He should be a very good fit for Jay Gruden’s West Coast offense and will be able to learn and grow with Cincinnati’s young receiver group, which features Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell, Jermaine Greshem, Jordan Shipley, and No. 4 overall pick A.J. Green.

2011 Projection: 16 GS, 3,105 passing yards 17 TDs, 10 Ints. / 65 rushing yards

4. Christian Ponder – Perhaps the Vikings “reached” when they chose the former Seminole at No. 12 overall, but only time will tell if they got their franchise quarterback. Ponder is a smart, tough, athletic competitor with a quick release and a good arm, but he tended to fold under late-game pressure at times during his college career. He also proved to be much less of an iron man than the player he’ll be replacing in Brett Favre. To his advantage, Ponder will be surrounded by far more talent than any of the other rookie quarterbacks, provided the Vikings re-sign Sidney Rice. There is, however, a very real possibility that the team will sign or trade for a veteran signal caller to start the season in order to compete in 2011. If that is not the case, Ponder should be a decent, late-round fantasy option with upside for those who draft studs like Manning, Brady, or Rodgers

2011 Projection: 12 GS, 2,450 passing yards 10 TDs, 6 Ints. / 85 rushing yards 1 TD

5. Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick – Putting these two this far down on the list isn’t necessarily an indictment of their abilities. Rather, it’s an observation that they don’t hold much, if any, value in redraft leagues since the respective incumbents in Jacksonville and San Francisco (David Garrard and Alex Smith) are expected to hold onto their starting positions for at least as long as their teams stay in playoff contention. Gabbert has the size, arm strength, and athleticism of a prototypical NFL quarterback, but he lacked any eye-popping results at the college level. The Jacksonville receiving corps isn’t exactly over-flowing with playmakers, so don’t expect much even if Gabbert wrestles the job away from Garrard later in the year. Kaepernick is a fiery leader and a great athlete but is raw as a passer and will need time under Harbaugh before the results are there. Alex Smith has been a disappointment thus far, but could gain some new life under Harbaugh and keep the ’Niners in the playoff hunt through December. For those in redraft leagues, neither QB should be in your draft-day plans, but keeping an eye on their situations couldn’t hurt.