In Hollywood, if something worked yesterday, the industry will beat it to death today. As soon as a Marvel movie makes $500 bazillion worldwide, there’s a studio executive greenlighting a three-picture deal for the guy serving shawarma in The Avengers.
And things are pretty much the same in the NFL. If a rookie quarterback can avenge the performances of EJ Manuel and Geno Smith from last season, perhaps we’ll go right back to first-year quarterbacks taking the reins.
Of course, the league didn’t used to operate this way. It wasn’t long ago that the idea of a rookie starting all 16 games was thought to be something only a phenom like Dan Marino could do. Now it would seem that you’re already a bust if you are picked in the first 80 selections and don’t beat out a veteran for Week 1 duties.
The turning point was 2008.
That was the year that Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco both started all 16 games and led their teams to 11-5 records. Both were solid, showed a lot of poise and (most importantly) upgraded their respective offenses from “terrible” to “adequate.” Do you even know who started at QB for the Falcons and Ravens in 2007? Me neither; I’ve got to look it up. Hold on. Holy shit, Joey Harrington and Kyle Boller?!?
After Ryan and Flacco, three more rookie quarterbacks made at least nine starts in 2009. In 2010, not only did Sam Bradford make 16 starts as the top pick in the draft, but the Panthers started a second-round rookie for 10 games (Jimmy Clausen) and the Browns started a third-round pick (Colt McCoy) for half of the season. Four more rookies made at least 10 starts in 2011: Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton. Newton and Dalton were rather amazing, Gabbert and Ponder were rather amazing too, but in a completely opposite way.
Then 2012 happened. Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson were all starters in Week 1 and would soon become three of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. All three led their teams to the playoffs. All three made the Pro Bowl. All three overshadowed the fact that two other rookies, Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden, also were starting for their teams to open the season.
This also may have unfortunately given the Bills, Jets and Bucs the false bravado necessary to start players that looked rather terrible last season. Manuel played through a number of injuries to make 10 starts for Buffalo, but the Bills struggled to win even when he was under center, partly due to his nine interceptions and six fumbles. Smith managed to throw 21 interceptions for New York, the most by a rookie since Peyton Manning in 1998; the difference being that Manning had 26 touchdowns that year, while Smith had 12.
Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano may have been on the money with his dissatisfaction of quarterback Josh Freeman (which was about the only thing he got right during his tumultuous tenure with the team,) but third-round pick Mike Glennon wasn’t replaced by new coach Lovie Smith out of spite. Glennon showed flashes, but struggled down the stretch, posting a passer rating of 69.7 over his final five games.
Now the torch is handed to a quartet of new rookie quarterbacks that don’t have to live up to Luck, RGIII and Wilson, but merely surpass the meh of Manuel, Smith and Glennon. Which of these 2014 rookies will soar, and which will suck?
The Best: Teddy Bridgewater, Vikings
The thing to like most about Bridgewater isn’t necessarily his play, but the play of those around him. He gets the benefit of playing with the best running back in football, one of the fastest receivers and a left tackle that went to the Pro Bowl in 2012.
He also only has to beat out Matt Cassel, a quarterback who was literally benched for Brady Quinn two years ago.
Bridgewater was once thought to be special enough to be the number one overall pick before a bad Pro Day sent his stock tumbling. He was the last selection of the first round, but looked good in the preseason and should be starting in Minnesota within the first month of the season. The Vikings get the Patriots, Saints and Packers among their first five contests, and head coach Mike Zimmer may lose his patience with Cassel.
That should get Bridgewater under center soon, but playing with Adrian Peterson, Cordarrelle Patterson, Matt Kalil, Kyle Rudolph and Greg Jennings should help him look pretty good too.
Next Best: Blake Bortles, Jaguars
He’d be first on this list if the organization didn’t seem so intent on benching him for as long as they can. Chad Henne is decent and the Jaguars don’t believe Bortles would put them over the hump from “OK” to “Super Bowl champions” just yet, but it won’t be long before they realize that he’s still just a lot more exciting to watch than Henne.
The second issue is that lack of receiving threats, but perhaps that could change if rookies Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson can make fans forget about Justin Blackmon as quickly as Blackmon forgot that another substance abuse violation could end his career.
The Jags face a relatively soft schedule in the AFC South, with out-of-division games against the NFC East, the Chargers and the Browns, so when Bortles does get in the game, he could be well on his way to above-average numbers.
First Dibs: Derek Carr, Raiders
Carr, the younger brother of David Carr – who was sacked a staggering 76 times in his first year with the Texans in 2002 – is the only rookie to be starting Week 1. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that it’s for the Raiders.
Oakland could possibly turn themselves around, but they’re the slowest to do so in the AFC West. The defenses in Denver and Kansas City are looking even better this season, while their out-of-conference games against the defenses in the NFC West could make things even uglier (did you see the Seahawks on Thursday night?!?) Oakland’s receiving corps has plenty of potential – Rod Streater and Denarius Moore, plus the addition of James Jones from Green Bay – but just like his bro, Carr will be spending most of the time on his back if the offensive line can’t recover from the loss of tackle Jared Veldheer to free agency.
Carr might be the first in, but he could just as easily be the first out.
Cashed Out: Johnny Manziel, Browns
Even if he might be the most discussed rookie since Tim Tebow, Jonathan Football is suiting up for the Browns, who may very well be the worst team in the league.
The Browns didn’t really do anything to prepare for the impending loss of Josh Gordon, meaning that their top three receivers – Miles Austin, Andrew Hawkins and Travis Benjamin – combined to have 58 catches and 700 yards last year. That’s less than half as many yards as what Gordon produced, and he had Jason Campbell, Brandon Weeden and Brian Hoyer throwing the ball his way.
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Hoyer won the starting job (uh, congratulations?) in the preseason, and Manziel will try to learn as much from offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan as RGIII once did in Washington, but this team does not have the firepower that the Redskins did. They also have to play the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals twice, plus matchups against top 10 defenses like the Panthers, Saints, Bills and improving Bucs.