Rookie Quarterbacks: When Can We Expect Them To Start?

Justin Fields Chicago Bears

If you believe in their talent and ability to produce in 2021, then draft Trey Lance and Justin Fields! And you can draft Mac Jones if you feel like it. Then, snag the 49ers, Bears, and Patriots skill players as if you’re expecting those rookie quarterbacks to start the majority of games this season.

Teams have their individual coaching staffs and front offices, but league-wide trends indicate that first-round quarterbacks usually play early and often. Over the past 20 seasons, only 7-of-8 first-round quarterbacks (12.7%) didn’t start a single game in their rookie season. You can bump that number to 9-of-58 (15.5%) if you add Patrick Mahomes and JaMarcus Russell. They only started in Week 17. If you cut that sample to the past 10 seasons, which all came after the current CBA, only three of 31 QBs (9.7%) didn’t get a start before Week 17. Teams don’t draft QBs in the first round to sit on the bench.

When Do They Take Over?

So when will Trey Lance and Justin Fields take over? There’s a prevailing thought that says that teams like to wait until their bye week to make QB changes. However, that’s happened with only three first-round rookies in the past 20 seasons. Those three were Tua Tagovailoa, Lamar Jackson (who took over due to an injury), and Josh Freeman. The bye week is just a week off, not some midseason reset.

Could they start in Week 1? It’s definitely possible. Nineteen first-round QBs (32.8%) have started in Week 1 over the past 20 seasons. Also, 12-of-31 (38.7%) started in week one over the past ten seasons. Jimmy Garoppolo and Andy Dalton are the expected starters as of now, but an impressive preseason could make these QB changes come before the Niners and Bears play a real game.

Even if Fields and Lance don’t start in Week 1, recent history indicates that they are likely to start sooner rather than later. Of rookie quarterbacks who didn’t start week one, 22-of-39 (56.4%) took over before the halfway point of their season. Once again, cutting that to the last 10 seasons sees a slight uptick as 12 of 19 (63.2%) started before the halfway point. Of rookie QB starters who didn’t start week one, the average takeover occurred after only 7.07 games.

The Trey Lance Case

A few trends that work in Trey Lance’s favor are that the data for how soon a QB takes over correlates with a higher draft pick and showed no correlation for the number of college starts. Basically, the earlier a QB gets drafted, the earlier they typically play. Over the past 20 seasons, only 4-of-24 QBs taken Top-3 started their first game after the halfway point in the season. If you cut that to the last 10 seasons, only Jared Goff (first start: week 11) meets that criteria, out of 13 quarterbacks.

People point to Lance’s limited number of college starts against lesser competition, but nothing has shown that fewer starts equate to more time on the bench to start a career. Also, Carson Wentz and Joe Flacco both started in Week 1 despite coming from small schools like Trey Lance. In fact, Carson Wentz came from the exact same college.

The Justin Fields Case

Justin Fields seems like he could step into the starting role soon, but what about the Bears shelling out money for Andy Dalton? It doesn’t matter. Recent examples of teams bringing in a veteran for a significant amount of money include the Bears with Mike Glennon, the Football Team with Case Keenum, and the Cardinals AND Eagles with (I guess the great motivator?) Sam Bradford. We’re dealing with small sample sizes like all of this stuff, but teams in recent history haven’t kept a rookie QB on the bench behind a veteran QB who’s new to the team. The only example in the past 20 years that says otherwise was the Raiders trading for Josh McCown to mentor JaMarcus Russell, who shows up once again and probably isn’t the best example to use for predicting other QBs. This job will belong to Justin Fields very soon.

If you are skeptical of their production, then none of this data matters. But Lance, Fields, and Jones could all be starting by the halfway point of the season while going as QB2s or later. The upside these guys provide could easily pay off if you’re willing to wait at QB because they’ll get their shots to produce.

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