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Rookie Impact

Note: This series contains excerpts and sample profiles from my 2006 Rookie Scouting Portfolio, an publication available for purchase here.

The message of this year’s QB impact article differs little from last year: When it comes to fantasy football, the words rookie and quarterback rarely equal success. The top 10 single season performances for a rookie quarterback doesn’t provide a lot of excitement for fantasy owners:

Rookie QBs At Their Best
Last First FF Pts Rookie Year Round # Season Ranking
Manning Peyton 297.15 1998 1 1 6th
Kelly Jim 287.55  1986* 1 14 5th
Moon Warren 242.00  1984* U U 12th
Mirer Rick 241.95 1993 1 2 9th
Weinke Chris 239.35 2001 4 11 19th
Zorn Jim 225.15  1976* U U 6th
Leftwich Byron 219.75 2003 1 7 18th
Roethlisberger Ben 219.45 2004 1 11 21st
Collins Kerry 217.25 1995 1 5 22nd
Couch Tim 216.15 1999 1 1 17th
  Average 240.58       14th

* - Denotes player’s first year in NFL, not necessarily first year in pro football. Jim Kelly was drafted in 1983 but played in the USFL until ’86. Warren Moon originally signed with he CFL.

U - The player was not drafted by an NFL team.

Of the five rookies to crack the top 12 fantasy QBs in their rookie season—Moon and Kelly already had a at least a few years of professional football experience. Jim Zorn played in a different era of offensive football. Overall, the highest performing rookies generally posted numbers worthy of a fantasy back up. That’s worth a late-round bargain in some re-draft leagues, but no experienced fantasy owner is going to build a re-draft team around a rookie.

For dynasty leagues it’s a completely different story. Top quarterback prospects are always in high demand. The reason is high-production over a relatively long period for a position player. A great fantasy quarterback can have a career that spans twice as long as most running backs or receivers.

So there you have it. While three of the best rookie performances in recent memory have come in the past five years, it’s still not likely anyone in 2006 is going to make the list. Yet, this quarterback draft class has talent. The top of the class features three players with distinct styles. One is a great leader with athletic skills that overshadow the fact he’s a better passer than given credit (Vince Young). Another is a gunslinger with an arm that overshadows his underrated athletic skills (Jay Cutler). And the remaining one is a classic drop back passer expected to be ready before the first two, but needs to prove he has the arm strength to match the rest of his game (Matt Leinart).

While the headliners offer NFL teams three distinct, first-round options, there is a lot more depth to this class than in recent years. In fact, I believe five years from now there will be no less than seven starting quarterbacks from this class. At least four of these starters will come from the mid-round of this draft. An additional four players have enough raw talent to at least receive significant playing time as an injury fill-in, or back up with moderate success on the field. The chart below is from the 2006 Rookie Scouting Portfolio, and it summarizes the top quarterbacks in position-specific categories graded on film prior to the NFL draft.

Best By Checklist Category

The Best Quarterbacks By Category
Category Player Comment
Arm Strength Jay Cutler This trio of SEC quarterbacks has terrific arm strength. They can throw the deep ball with little arc and high velocity, and once they learn the necessary timing, they'll be able to deliver the last-second throws the NFL requires on many routes.
D.J. Shockley
Brodie Croyle
Accuracy Bruce Gradkowski Omar Jacobs may have an unusual delivery but he can zip the ball into tight spaces on intermediate throws with the best of them. Gradkowski's two seasons with a 70% completion percentage speaks for itself.
Omar Jacobs
Delivery Jay Cutler Both of these top prospects are mechanically sound with their set up and delivery, but they can also throw and accurate ball from different release points when under pressure.
Matt Leinart
Decisions Bruce Gradkowski Both quarterbacks will take what the defense gives them, but also show the ability to make good decisions under pressure or go for the jugular when the defense is over-aggressive.
Matt Leinart
Ball Handling Bruce Gradkowski These two QBs are the best at selling fakes in the play action game and demonstrate good ball security as runners when breaking the pocket. They demonstrate a level of sophistication to their game the others lack.
Charlie Whitehurst
Pocket Presence Matt Leinart Although both QBs need to learn to get rid of the ball, they have a decent gauge of the pass rush and move effectively in the pocket while scanning the field.
Bruce Gradkowski
Scrambling Vince Young Cutler and Young have the quickness and peripheral vision to elude pressure at the last moment and the strength to break tackles, but most importantly they keep their eyes down field and bodies set to throw.
Jay Cutler

Heir Apparents

Jay Cutler, Broncos: Based on his play last season, I think Jay Cutler is the best quarterback prospect in this rookie class. While Vince Young has what Leinart lacks, and vice versa, Cutler possesses the entire package of skills. The only thing Cutler doesn’t possess that the other two have is the experience of playing on a winning college team with superstar talent.

Honestly, I’m not sure I’m thoroughly convinced of the argument I’m about to make, but I think it’s good enough to posit: In a way, the fact Cutler had to play on an overmatched team in arguably the best defensive conference in college football might make him more NFL-ready than Matt Leinart. Cutler had to regularly throw against defenses with their ears pinned back on down and distance situations where most would have to respect the threat of the run—especially if they were facing a rushing attack the caliber or USC or Texas. The former Vanderbilt quarterback had to become accustom to making quicker decisions under pressure.

He also had to learn how to make high velocity throws in tight spaces at the last moment with his feet set or on the run. His arm, athleticism, and the quality of the Vanderbilt team are what have scouts comparing Cutler’s game (good and bad) to Brett Favre. As an analyst of game film, I agree with the assessment. Cutler has the physical skills and mental toughness to be an elite, quarterback in the NFL. He also has some bad habits to overcome such as staring down receivers and trying too hard to make the play himself rather than practice situational football.

There are quite a few detractors of Cutler’s game. These are mostly analysts that feel Cutler rode the wave of impressive postseason practices to a higher draft value. Still, the game film doesn’t lie as long as you don’t lie to yourself about what you see. Mike Shanahan and Jeff Fisher have been around some excellent quarterbacks: John Elway, Steve McNair, Warren Moon, Chris Chandler, Joe Montana, and Steve Young. The coaches are good friends and the two had a phone conversation about Cutler prior to the event. Here’s an excerpt from coach Shanahan’s press conference after the first day of the draft as reported by

I had a chance to talk to (Titans Head Coach) Jeff Fisher a number of times, and Jeff was working out all three quarterbacks and spending a lot of time with all three, and Jeff thought the world of him (Cutler). Obviously, I liked what I saw on film. He can make all the throws, and I liked the way he handled himself and I liked the way he played. Jeff had a chance to spend a lot with him right there obviously in the same city and didn’t feel like he had any flaws. Jeff and I have been close through the years, and I didn’t have to give something away, so that’s always nice.”

There were reports prior to the draft the Tennessee Titans organization was split on all three quarterbacks. The front office liked Young, the coaching staff (former USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow) liked Leinart, and the scouts liked Cutler. While I am just speculating here from what Shanahan said, I believe part of the Cutler contingent might have been Jeff Fisher despite his USC ties.

I’m sure Fisher is happy enough with Young as a talent, regardless of his preference. The coach has the experience of developing a quarterback of Young’s talents, so it’s just a matter of whether the Titans organization will give him the same level of patience with Young as they did with McNair. Media speculation says it won’t happen, but I believe we’ll know more by the preseason. If the Titans acquire a veteran quarterback and make Volek their number two, it’s a good sign that Fisher will continue his tenure in Tennessee. If not, it might precipitate the coach’s exit.

In contrast, Jay Cutler has the luxury of developing on a slower time line. Jake Plummer may not have satisfied the Broncos organization’s expectations as of yet, but he has performed better with each passing season. The Broncos were good enough to host the AFC Championship Game, and still have enough tools to contend for the playoffs. If Cutler is forced into action, I believe he will actually perform better than Leinart as a rookie.

Matt Leinart, Cardinals: Surrounded with all-star talent at RB and WR, Matt Leinart is in a great situation and the most likely rookie QB to experience early success. Now I just said I thought Cutler would outperform Leinart as a rookie if both get a chance to play. What gives? I believe Cutler isn’t as likely to see the field as a rookie as Leinart. Denver has a better offensive line, and a more durable quarterback than Arizona.

I have been one of those people critical of Leinart’s arm strength, but I have always tempered it with the fact he was recovering from elbow surgery. If he can regain enough strength, and possibly build on it, Leinart would have graded out higher than any quarterback in this class. While Drew Brees and Ken Dorsey gained arm strength through weight training, neither developed top-quality velocity on their throws. Now take Leinart and his throwing arm that has already undergone two surgeries. I’m skeptical he’ll evolve into a player with even Peyton Manning’s arm—which is considered strong enough, but not top drawer.

The other problem that isn’t discussed nearly as often is his accuracy. Many people praise Leinart’s accuracy, but I thought he was more inconsistent than people say. In comparison to Young, Cutler, and a few others, Leinart had difficulty making the high velocity throws in tight spaces.

One of the most over hyped plays in college football history will likely be Leinart’s 4th down pass on the last drive of the game versus Notre Dame. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great play, but more so due to Leinart’s gutsy audible at this point of the game and not the execution. The play was successful because the defensive back just missed the deflection of a poorly thrown ball while in a trail technique on the receiver. If Leinart threw the ball with good accuracy, the receiver would have been able to take advantage of his separation by continuing to run at full speed while catching the ball over his shoulder. The result would have likely been a score. Nine times out of ten, an NFL defensive back in the same type of technique as the Notre Dame player on this throw would have deflected the pass, or made the adjustment to intercept. This is just one of quite a few examples I saw in multiple games during Leinart’s career.

Despite this criticism, Leinart is a surprisingly mobile quarterback in the pocket with good ball skills, and unusual savvy for this stage of his career. He makes good enough decisions to play within his strengths. The concern will be whether Leinart can get the job done when forced to play outside of his strengths—something NFL defenses dictate at several key points in a game.

I believe Leinart will eventually make the adjustment. Before that time comes, the former Heisman Trophy winner will experience some ups and downs. Fortunately for Leinart, he landed in the best situation for his strengths/weaknesses. Fitzgerald is one of the best receivers in the league at fighting for the ball in the air. Leinart will not have to be super-accurate on deep routes or stick throws to have a chance at completing a big play to the Cardinals third-year stud. Boldin is a player that can take a short pass and turn it into a big play, which will help Leinart’s short game pay dividends.

Speaking of short games, Edgerrin James is a great receiver out of the backfield. James’ short yardage running and grind it out style places him among the top runners in football. Add 6-7 Leonard Pope to the mix at tight end, and Leinart will have a higher room for error during his adjustment than most rookie quarterbacks.

Leinart is a first round dynasty choice, but in re-drafts he’ll often get picked despite the fact it doesn’t make a lot of sense with a healthy Kurt Warner who was a fantasy monster down the stretch. If he remains healthy, Leinart won’t see anything but mop up time—if Arizona is that fortunate to experience it for the first time at the end of a game in decades. Although Warner didn’t look great as a Giant, he did a nice enough job as a game manager with Tiki Barber controlling the football. Now in a town with a comparable runner in quality and clear upgrades at receiver, Warner should have more room to operate and maintain his health. Still, the offensive line still needs improvement. If Leinart gets thrust into action, I think you’ll see a more frustrating experience than many will lead you to believe. This is a quarterback that needs better than average protection to be successful. If you can get Leinart off the waiver wire, if needed, you’re probably making the best decision on him for a re-draft league.

Vince Young, Titans: If health isn’t a factor to get Leinart on the field, then Young should see the field first among the rookies. The Titans and Steve McNair have parted company and anyone starting ahead of Young is simply a stopgap until the rookie is ready to see the field. As ESPN’s John Clayton has reported, the most interesting development this season will involved the front office’s desire to see Young on the field this year versus Jeff Fisher’s desire to gradually develop the third overall pick in the draft as he did with McNair—coincidentally the Titans last 3rd overall pick in the draft.

There’s no doubt Young is a great athlete, but there are a lot of questions as to whether the former Longhorn can be a great NFL quarterback. Many fantasy owners are comparing Young to Michael Vick. But this comparison neither does justice to Vick’s rare skills as a runner, nor Young’s developing talents as a pocket passer.

Young is more likely the next Steve McNair or Donovan McNabb than the next Michael Vick. His game film as senior at Texas shows he can make small adjustments in the pocket and keep his eyes downfield while under pressure. Michael Vick is a good quarterback, but he hasn’t demonstrated the presence in the pocket to consistently make the subtle adjustments to stay alive and deliver the ball effectively. Vick more often than not forces his own hand to run when under pressure: he brings the ball down from a throwing position; makes dramatic evasive moves; and ultimately, loses sight of his receivers downfield. Young is a powerful runner with great balance and downfield moves, but he looks to pass first, run second.

McNair and McNabb have been more dangerous in the pocket because they will gain significant yards if flushed from the pocket, but have developed the ability to step away from pressure and find an open receiver for a big play. Vince Young displayed this skill as a collegiate player. Michael Vick never displayed this skill, and rarely does in the NFL.

Perhaps one of the greatest criticisms of Young’s game is his delivery. ESPN’s Ron Jaworski did a great job demonstrating how Young’s throwing motion makes him release the ball from a level that’s equivalent of a quarterback under six-feet tall. The analysts predict Young will have many more balls batted down at the line of scrimmage and this will make him a less effective pocket passer.

I counter with this point: shorter quarterbacks have more difficulties with seeing the passing lanes than they do with batted balls. While Young will be throwing with a trajectory that might compare with a quarterback under 6 feet tall, unless he’s going to begin throwing from a catcher’s crouch, he’ll still be seeing the field with his 6-5 height! The Browns Bernie Kosar was a successful side arm QB at the same height. Physically speaking, Young has a huge athletic advantage over Kosar.

If you are a re-draft owner, Young may be the most likely to play but don’t expect consistent success—if any success at all. Jeff Fisher will likely insert Young into situations where the rookie has a good chance for success. He did this early in McNair’s career. Unless you are extremely desperate and hope he gets some rushing touchdowns in the game(s), Young won’t be worth a waiver wire selection. Of course, it’s a completely different story in dynasty leagues. There should be little argument that Young is one of the top three rookie quarterbacks in terms of talent and situation.

The Titan has great poise and demonstrated the ability to learn from his mistakes earlier in the game to beat you at the end. A great example of this talent occurred in the Ohio State match up in Columbus against several first day draft picks on the defensive side of the ball. Young will progress faster than given credit. He won’t be the best of the class early on, but he has a great shot at becoming a fine NFL QB, and sought-after fantasy starter.

The reason Young could fail will more likely originate with the Titans organization. Jeff Fisher might be on his way out of Tennessee. If this is the case, there’s a strong possibility the entire coaching staff goes with him and Young will be forced to learn a new system as he’s still acclimating to the rigors of the NFL. This will likely slow Young’s development considerably. When a young quarterback has to face these kinds of changes early, it can be detrimental to his career. I think Young has the skills to be a great quarterback and leader, but will the organization give him the chance to develop at a pace that will help him fulfill that potential. The rumors of these possible changes within the organization, and not skill level, are what drop Young below Leinart on my list.

Just A Matter of Time

Brodie Croyle, Chiefs: If Croyle were 6-3 and at least 220 lbs, he’d likely be in the class of the three quarterbacks ahead of him. At 6-2, 205 lbs, Croyle has been injury-prone and considered a bit frail for a future, NFL starter. As a passer, Croyle reminds me a lot of Marc Bulger but with a stronger arm. In fact, the former Alabama signal caller as one of the strongest arms in this draft. He throws a beautifully accurate deep ball and is a heady competitor on the field.

Croyle landed in a nice situation with the Chiefs. Kansas City is a veteran ball club with a great running game. Trent Green has at least 2-3 years of high quality production in him but if Croyle develops at a quick enough rate, Green could be sent packing at the end of 2007. The Chiefs could still have this level of talent two years from now, and Croyle would benefit. If Croyle can gain some muscle to his frame and stay healthy, he has a good chance to be an excellent fantasy quarterback throughout his career.

Kellen Clemens, Jets: I didn’t study Clemens this year, yet from all accounts, he’s a guy to watch down the line. ESPN analyst and former Eagles quarterback, Ron Jaworski had Clemens as the highest rated quarterback from his film study, according to a NY Post article. "All the intangibles are there," Jaworski said. "I talked to a number of coaches that worked him out and put him to the chalkboard and they were blown away by him. Seven or eight NFL head coaches said, from the neck up, this guy is best guy in the draft."

The concerns are Clemens leg and height. A spiral fracture is a pretty nasty break and he suffered one down the stretch of 2005. He’s healing well, but this obviously hurt his draft status. Clemens is a big guy, but not a tall player. As we have come to learn, the NFL puts a lot of stock in the height of a quarterback.

There are a lot of questions surrounding Chad Pennington’s future both as a Jet and an NFL quarterback. Patrick Ramsey has been a disappointment, but has enough raw talent to develop somewhere—maybe even as a starter. So Clemens has a pretty good chance to be groomed for the starting job. I believe he’s a good dynasty prospect to hang onto.


Bruce Gradkowski, Buccaneers: I became a huge fan of the Toledo signal caller after studying him. Apparently, so did Jon Gruden, one of the pre-eminent quarterback gurus in the NFL. In fact, he brought in former NFL MVP, reclamation project, Rich Gannon to give tips to Gruden’s quarterback stable in the spring mini-camp. Why is this significant? Gruden likens Gradkowski to Gannon. Here’s more of what Gruden had to say about his rookie QB:

(From the St. Petersburg Times) After drafting Bruce Gradkowski from Toledo in the sixth round Sunday, Gruden had to nearly restrain himself at the thought of coaching the NCAA record-setter and what his addition might do to spice up the team's collection of quarterbacks.

"I'm trying not to get too excited up here talking about it," Gruden said. "I really like Bruce. ... He was kind of overshadowed by a lot of the other quarterbacks" in the draft.
(From“He fits our scheme and a guy who we think has some upside,” said Gruden, who was impressed by Gradkowski’s postseason workouts. “[He is] very similar to a couple of guys I’ve worked with in the past. His mobility is an asset. We clocked him as one of the faster pure quarterbacks in this draft. And his production…he’s the all-time completion percentage leader in NCAA history. He knows how to run a huddle. Competition doesn’t bother him. I believe he’s going to come in here and make this thing very interesting. He’s going to be a quick study.”

I actually think in a couple of years, Gradkowski will be nipping at Chris Simms heels for the starting position. Here’s the checklist and game film profile of the Bucs’ rookie from the 2006 Rookie Scouting Portfolio.

Omar Jacobs, Steelers: Here was a MAC quarterback many draft analysts had rated in the elite class of signal callers at the beginning of the 2005 season. When you have a season with 4000-yard, 41-td, 4-int as a sophomore the expectations don’t get much higher. Of course, anything less will be a letdown. While Jacobs had a decent junior year, it wasn’t close to the previous season. Not only did Jacobs draft stock level off, but it also dropped significantly when he decided to leave early for the NFL.

There are significant flaws in Jacobs’ game. He throws with a three-quarter delivery, operates mainly out of a spread offense, and his footwork is sloppy. I really don’t consider the spread offense a flaw because I saw him do a nice job as a drop backer passer in a variety of situations this year. The footwork is also correctable. And at 6-4, the same argument I made in favor of Vince Young applies to Jacobs. Moreover, Jacobs is one of the more accurate quarterbacks in this draft, and has excellent anticipation as a passer. The former Bowling Green Falcon likes to stand in the pocket and attack down field and he has the arm to do it.

I think the Steelers got a bargain they can develop into a luxury. Ben Roethlisberger is the franchise quarterback and still hasn’t reached his ceiling. As long as Big Ben remains healthy, he’ll be the offensive leader. But Jacobs has the arm strength, accuracy, poise, and athleticism to be an NFL starter. In a few years, Jacobs may well be regarded in a similar light as Falcons backup, Matt Schaub—a player the Falcons turned down a pretty good offer from the Vikings to keep on their roster.

Upside But Likely A Career Clip-Board Carrier

Charlie Whitehurst, Chargers: Whitehurst looks the part, but hasn’t always played up to expectations. He had a superb start to his career, struggled in a new offense, and then rebounded as a senior with a more simplified approach. He’s a good athlete with a strong arm, and excellent ball handling skills. Whitehurst’s positives and negatives remind a bit of Rob Johnson, a player that gets coaches excited due to his physical skills but ultimately disappoints.

I won’t be at all surprised if Whitehurst gets an opportunity to start down the line for San Diego. Rivers is going to be prone to take a lot of shots due to his lack of athletic ability and if he doesn’t play to expectations, Whitehurst just might make the most of is chance. Honestly, I don’t see this situation playing out very well for either quarterback. I do believe if Whitehurst can be consistent, he has a chance to be a better than average starter. Right now he’s a late round flier in a dynasty league rookie draft, at best.

Tarvaris Jackson, Vikings: There has been a great deal of hype surrounding Jackson since his unexpected first day selection in the NFL Draft. The Alabama State quarterback has a great arm and the ability to gain yards outside the pocket. I think he needs a lot more work and this is not getting a lot of press. His footwork is bad and his delivery needs significant adjustment., Jackson will continue to be a streaky, inaccurate passer until he gets more polish with the fundamentals.

Once again I’m speculating, but this pick strikes me as a selection by a coach that wants to prove a point. Former Eagles offensive coordinator, Brad Childress helped run off Daunte Culpepper and spent an inordinate amount of time criticizing the former Vikings starter in the press. I think there is nothing wrong with drafting a player with Jackson’s potential, but to pick him in the 2nd round appears to be a pride-motivated move by a coach that feels he can create the next Donovan McNabb.

Maybe several other teams were planning to pick Jackson before round three, but on the surface it seems unusual for a team to trade two third-round picks on a player that was generally rated as a late first day pick, at best. Tony Banks has a good arm and nice athleticism, as did Akili Smith. I just think like these two players, Jackson is raw and needs a lot more work to become a polished player—especially in the west coast offense. I’m not impressed with the beginning of the Brad Childress era.

Brad Johnson is entrenched as the starter but if things go downhill fast in Minnesota, I won’t be surprised if Childress decides to play his pet project to generate excitement. I’m predicting unmitigated disaster if this happens within the next two seasons.


D.J. Shockley, Falcons: Here’s a project I believe has a chance to become a good player. Shockley lacks experience, but he has a terrific arm and displays good poise in the pocket. He is a smart football player that works hard and is a good character athlete. I think Shockley is an example of a player a team evaluated properly and picked at the right spot in the draft.

This is a direct contrast to Quincy Carter a quarterback with similar talent at UGA that Dallas drafted too early and rushed his development. I would qualify Tarvaris Jackson as a project, but his second round status takes that label away from him and places heavier expectations on a shortened time period. Look for Shockley to win the #3 job in Atlanta—more for his potential and athletic ability than his actual skills to lead an NFL team at the moment. Yet don’t be surprised if Shockley becomes a viable option within the next 2-3 years.