NFL Player Development – Should A Quarterback Redshirt?

Daniel Essien explores whether it is smart to redshirt a rookie quarterback in the NFL…

There’s a seemingly never-ending debate amongst football fans about how to properly develop a quarterback. Some say every young quarterback should be allowed to sit and grow as much as they need before throwing them into a starting role. Others say there’s no better teacher than game experience. Do young QB’s benefit from a “redshirt” year or more, where they can sit and learn? Can it be the difference between ruining a career and allowing a player to blossom? 

Let’s take a look at a shortlist of notable quarterbacks drafted from 2010-2016. We’ll sort them into the following categories: quarterbacks that successfully and unsuccessfully developed on the job, and quarterbacks that  successfully and unsuccessfully developed on the bench. Then we’ll look at common factors between success and failure of both methods. We’ll exclude the 2017 class since it’s still early for them (do note, however, that for 2017, 2/3 first round QB’s started multiple games in year one).

Learn on the Job

Successful

  1. Dak Prescott (DAL)
  2. Jared Goff (LAR)
  3. Carson Wentz (PHI)
  4. Jameis Winston (TB)
  5. Marcus Mariota (TEN)
  6. Derek Carr (OAK)
  7. Andrew Luck (IND)
  8. Russell Wilson (SEA)
  9. Cam Newton (CAR)

The list of quarterbacks who have successfully learned on the job after year one starting roles is essentially a shortlist of the quarterbacks most people wouldn’t mind watching on TV but their stories and rates of progression do vary somewhat.

Winston, Mariota, Luck, and Newton are the cream of the crop. There were big expectations for each of them coming out of college and little doubt they could start from day one. Their skill sets come in pairs. Winston and Luck were more prototypical with the NFL arm talent and desirable college offense. Mariota and Newton were considered athletic and physical phenomenons. They both needed to sharpen their throwing ability but they also brought an incredibly rare type of athleticism to the QB position that teams could not pass up. All of them also had prolific college career stats to back up their physical prowess.

Goff, Wentz, and Carr were college stars and early selections that many thought could need some time to develop. However, they ended up starting multiple games in year one.  Goff and Wentz didn’t have particularly good seasons as rookies, but in year two they looked vastly improved. For Goff, specifically, a big factor in his year two jump was a change with the Rams’ coaching staff as they brought in Sean McVay for his second season. Coming out of Fresno State, Derek Carr outplayed tempered expectations in year one and by year two he was a Pro Bowler. His stats are currently the source of growing debate but there’s no doubt he’s a competent NFL starter.

The biggest outliers here are Russell Wilson and Dak Prescott. Unlike the others they didn’t have too much fanfare coming out of college. Wilson didn’t have the desired physical traits. But he turned out to be a rare talent in his own right. After the Seahawks drafted Wilson in the third round in 2012, many thought it was Matt Flynn’s job to lose while Wilson progressed on the bench. However, Pete Carroll was guarded about the competition and eventually named Wilson the starter, after he impressed everyone throughout camp and the preseason. Prescott took over as the starter in his rookie season after Tony Romo was injured and never relinquished the job despite much speculation. He went on to win rookie of the year.

Unsuccessful

*- All QBs drafted in the 1st or 2nd round (most likely to start right away)

  1. Blake Bortles (JAX)
  2. Johnny Manziel (FA)
  3. Geno Smith (LAC)
  4. E.J Manuel (OAK)
  5. Ryan Tannehill (MIA)
  6. Blaine Gabbert (JAX)
  7. Christian Ponder (FA)
  8. Jake Locker (Retired)

Those that were unsuccessful after immediately stepping into a starting role bear some interesting similarities. Bortles, Smith, Manuel, and Gabbert had very similar scouting reports coming out of college: prototypical size, and a good arm. With the exception of Gabbert, they also had good statistical college careers. They all had completion percentages over 63% in their final seasons, they all had over 8 yards per attempt. Unfortunately, when it came to the transition into the NFL, they all seemed in over their heads. Bortles, Manuel, and Gabbert were planned year one starters, while Smith ended up being thrown into the job due to an injury to Mark Sanchez. Either way the results looked the same. They struggled to adapt to the NFL game and have had a hard time finding regular season playing time since.

Christian Ponder and Jake Locker had first round grades mostly as a result of strange campaigns that elevated their stock well above what it probably should have been (sound familiar?). Locker went 8th overall and Ponder went 12th overall in 2011. Neither QB ever threw over 3000 yards in their college careers or had particularly impressive game tape. The majority of the hype around them were intangible, physical traits, and the all too familiar “potential in the NFL, given time to develop.” Due to their draft position and the QB situations on their respective teams, they both had to start right away. Neither lasted long in the NFL. For perspective, they were both drafted in the same year and the same round as Cam Newton.

Manziel was slightly different from the previously mentioned QB’s. His issues existed both on and off the field. Those issues could have easily been gleaned from very public quotes of those near to him. But, those concerns were ignored by Cleveland’s front office and he went in round one to the Browns in 2014. In his brief stint with Cleveland, on the field he was a reckless, and struggled with ball security and decision making. Off the field, he couldn’t stay away from bad press.

Redshirt – Learn on the bench

Successful

  1. Jimmy Garappolo (SF)
  2. Kirk Cousins (MIN)
  3. Tyrod Taylor (CLE)

The players that successfully developed as “NFL redshirt” quarterbacks since 2010 are a group of players that aren’t very similar at all. Jimmy Garappolo was drafted in 2014 to develop behind Tom Brady, who was (and somewhat still is) considered the best quarterback in the NFL. Much like Aaron Rodgers (the go-to example of the benefits of sitting out), Garappolo really had no path to the starting job aside from injury or suspension. Ironically, the least likely of those scenarios is what got Garappolo his first career start in his third season. In the two games he started, Garappolo showed enough to increase interest around the league. A year later and he was traded to the 49ers where he won his first five starts and was rewarded with a $137.5 million contract.

Kirk Cousins had a decent career at Michigan State and was drafted to sit behind Robert Griffin III as Washington completely rebuilt their QB depth chart in 2012. Like Garappolo, he was blocked from the starting job. But for Cousins, he was more of a contingency plan Griffin as opposed to a long term project for a specific time in the future. As fortune would have it, Griffin started to fade after their second season together, and Cousins won over the coaching staff.

Tyrod Taylor’s story is quite unique. He was an undersized sixth round pick that became into a competent starter. In college, Taylor was a well known and respected figure and a successful starter at Virginia Tech. But he could never draw the interest of NFL scouts. He was drafted in 2011 by the Baltimore Ravens. He didn’t get his first career start until he was on his second contract. After playing behind Joe Flacco for four years, in 2015, he was signed by the Buffalo Bills to be the starter at the request of, then head coach, Rex Ryan. Reportedly, Ryan tried to trade for him while with the New York Jets a few years earlier as well. He was put on Taylor’s trail by former Ravens’ offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who witnessed him improve first hand.

Unsuccessful

  1. Paxton Lynch (DEN)
  2. Garrett Grayson (NO)
  3. Christian Hackenberg (NYJ)
  4. Mike Glennon (TB)
  5. Brock Osweiler (DEN)
  6. Ryan Mallett (NE)

Every single quarterback here has the same fatal flaw. They were desirable because they had the “look” of an NFL quarterback but they did not have actual make up of an NFL starter. Lynch (Memphis) and Grayson (Colorado State) were both from smaller schools. They lit it up against lesser competition in college but struggled against more talented opposition. Graduating to the talent level of the NFL just magnified that shortcoming.

Hackenberg, Glennon, Osweiler, and Mallett played at power five conference schools but were all far from finished products upon leaving for the draft. Glennon, Osweiler and Mallett all had gaudy numbers in college but were raw and inconsistent. Hackenberg had a promising freshman season with Allen Robinson as his top wide receiver, but after that he struggled mightily in the following two years at Penn State without Robinson as a safety blanket.

Out of this group, Glennon, Osweiler, Lynch, and Mallett are the only quarterbacks that have had four or more starts at this point and they did not look good. Hackenberg is yet to start a regular season but has struggled in his limited sample size of preseason appearances. The time they had to develop hasn’t seemed to make a difference.


To Redshirt or Not to Redshirt

The fact of the matter is that a team’s situation (coaching staff, depth chart) is such a huge factor in determining what the best option is for a rookie QB. There are success stories of “redshirts” but it’s misleading to not consider the circumstance. We’ve heard the stories about how Belicheck was against trading Garoppolo and wanted to keep him long term. We discussed earlier in this article Cam Cameron’s view of Tyrod Taylor. Keep in mind, Cameron left Baltimore after Taylor’s second season in the NFL. Kirk Cousins also stepped in and succeeded immediately.

The common thread here is that these quarterbacks were likely ready to play well before they got their opportunity. Even the rise of redshirt poster-boy, Aaron Rodgers, falls in line with this theory. There are benefits to exercising patience with a quarterback but the reality is that talent is unmistakable. That’s why Kansas City could barely wait to transition to Pat Mahomes. That’s why we have Tony Romo in the broadcasting booth. If you’re sitting a quarterback talented enough to start in the NFL, he’s either  sitting behind a legend, a long time starter, a recent first round pick, or you just have a terrible coaching staff. If you’ve read this far you deserve some data. Here is a fact:

From 2010-2016, of the 27 quarterbacks selected in the first and second round, 10 remain starters. 9 of those 10 quarterbacks started in year one. The lone quarterback that didn’t? Jimmy Garoppolo.

Photo Credit: NFL.com