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Should a quarterback play right away?

With a first round draft pick invested in Josh Freeman, and a hold over currently manning the helm, a lot of people are clamoring for Freeman to come in and be the quarterback now.  They argue that if he's gonna take his lumps, he might as well do it now, particularly on a team not slated to win many games.  This way, he's going close to full speed next year and we won't have any transition issues.

Those opposed to Freeman (or any rookie QB) starting take the view point that a quarterback needs time to mature, learn the speed of the game, and develop as a player before they hit the field.  Why send him out there to get demolished when we know he still has some learning to do?

So who's right? Take a look inside at who these quarterbacks are and how they fared.

I pulled all the first round quarterbacks from 1995 to present day in order to determine how quarterbacks have done depending on when they start.  I did not use quarterbacks from the 2008 or 2009 draft as we have no substantial data on them yet.  I also excluded any quarterback who played for less than 3 years at the NFL level.  This was done in an attempt to weed out those who simply didn't belong.  The reason for only first rounders?  I would imagine they are the only ones that are possibly slated to start day 1 and that appears to be the argument with Freeman.


Let me lay down some parameters.  I included anyone who played or started more than 8 games in their rookie year as a first year starter.  More than half a year would qualify you as the guy in my opinion.  I looked at quarterback rating, as this encompasses yards, completion percentage, TD's and picks. 

First year starters

You'll recognize some of these names. Kerry Collins, Ryan Leaf, Peyton Manning, Tim Couch, Joey Harrington, David Carr, Kyle Boller, Byron Leftwich, Ben Roethlisberger, Alex Smith, Matt Leinart, Vince Young.  Those are all the guys that were drafted in the first round from 1995  through 2007 that started 8 or more games in their rookie season. 

Here's where it gets tough.  Trying to find a way to quantify different players from different years in different schemes.  I ended up looking at QB rating as it encompasses all general stats.  This was done to avoid comparing yardage (some teams throw more than others) and advanced stats aren't available far enough back. I used the first 5 years of data to see if there was any progress or baseline in terms of each quarterback.

In their respective rookie years, only one quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) put up a QB rating of over 74.  Every other QB fell below that mark.  Here's a look at their first five years of QB Ratings.


Player 1st QBR 2nd QBR 3rd QBR 4th QBR 5th QBR Notes
Vince Young 66.7 71.1 64.5 - - Non starter year 3
Matt Leinart 74 61.9 80.2 59 - Non starter in year 3
Alex Smith 40.8 74.8 57.2 - - Non starter in year 4
Ben R. 98.1 98.6 75.4 104.1 80.1 Still starting
Byron Leftwich 73 82.2 89.3 79 59.5 journeyman, starting now
Kyle Boller 62.4 70.9 71.8 104 75.2 non starter
David Carr 62.8 69.5 83.5 77.2 82.1 non starter
Joey Harrington 59.9 63.9 77.5 72 38.2 non starter
Tim Couch 73.2 77.3 76.1 76.8 77.6 non starter
Peyton Manning 71.2 90.7 94.7 84.1 88.8 No notes needed
Ryan Leaf 39 - 56.2 57.7 - out of football
Kerry Collins 61.9 79.4 55.7 70.8 54.5 hovered around high 70's

I did my best to include some notes on where each guy is now.  You can see that a lot of these guys are out of football or not starting anymore.  Outside of Manning and Roethlisberger, there aren't too many success stories here.  Most of the guys hovered around the low 70's for most their career (Young, Leinart, Smith, Boller, Carr, Harrington, Couch etc).  The spikes in their QB rating are the years they came in for mop up duty. 

There are a few guys here who made it.  Manning, Collins and Roethlisberger stick out.  How did the other group do?

Non First Year Starters

These guys are all those who started 7 games or less their rookie year.  When you look at the numbers, note that their rookie year is truly their 1st year in the league, not their first year as full time starter. I looked at their 2nd QBR vs the other groups 1s QBR as it was their first year starting.


Player 1st QBR 2nd QBR 3rd QBR 4th QBR 5th QBR Notes
Jamarcus Russell 55.9 77.1 46.6 - - Starting for Oakland
Brady Quinn 56.8 66.6 66.9 - - Starting for Cleveland
Aaron Rodgers 39.8 48.2 106 93.8 87 Starter
Jason Campbell 0 76.5 77.6 84.3 89 Starter
Phillip Rivers 110.59 50.4 92 82.4 105.5 Starter
J.P. Losman 39.2 64.9 84.9 76.9 62.3 Out of football
Carson Palmer 0 77.3 101.1 93.9 86.7 Starter
Rex Grossman 74.8 67.9 59.7 73.9 66.4 Back up
Patrick Ramsey 71.8 75.8 74.8 95.2 39.6 Out of football
Michael Vick 62.7 81.6 69 78.1 73.1 No comment
Chad Pennington 79.6 104.2 82.9 91 70.9 Starter, for now
Akili Smith 55.6 52.8 73.4 34.5 0 Out of football
Daunte Culpepper 98 83.3 75.3 96.4 110.9 Now a journeyman back up
Jay Cutler 88.5 88.1 86 71.5 - Starter
Eli Manning 55.4 75.9 77 73.9 86.4 Starter
Donovan McNabb 60.1 77.8 84.3 86 79.6 Starter
Steve McNair 81.7 90.6 70.4 80.1 78.6 Was a starter

It's still too early to tell on some of these guys like Russell and Quinn, but they have secured the starting jobs for now.  Whether or not they improve is up in the air.  There are several success stories here.  Rodgers, Campbell, Rivers, Palmer, Pennington, Manning, McNabb.  Their second year (first year starting) ratings aren't stellar, but are a bit higher than the other group.  They also see higher numbers in future years.  Their 3rd year QBR (2nd year starting) seems to be higher than the other groups 2nd QBR (2nd year starting).

What type of conclusion can we draw from this?  I'm not really sure.  I think the argument is there to sit a player early.  But for every Ryan Leaf, there's a Peyton Manning (the starter group) and for every Phillip Rivers, there's a Patrick Ramsey (non-starter group). 

I personally see a few more starters currently in the second group, but it should be noted that the first group had players that were older.  I realize that some guys aren't listed (guys like Aikman or Brady) but they are either out of the league due to age or weren't drafted in the first round.

Ultimately, I'm not sure you can draw any real conclusions.  The variables are too many to count.  The ones that are most notable are you can't quantify system, scheme run, surrounding personnel, franchise situation, coaching etc.  Guys taken towards the top of the first round typically go to teams that are awful.  I don't think there is any way to say that certain guys (Grossman, Manning, Leaf etc) would have been as bad/good had they gone to another team.  Would Roethlisberger have been that good had he gone to the Lions, to the 49ers, or some other putrid mess of a team at that point? 

Tough to quantify, but I think this data is at least interesting enough to post and discuss.  So drop your thoughts below.  Based on what you see above, does it warrant starting Freeman now, or waiting?