Quarterbacks are getting drafted higher and higher each year and also seem to be playing earlier and earlier.
This has led to them learning on the job in a business that's very high-pressured and magnifies every mistake they make. Fortunately, most of the time, these mistakes are swept under the rug and placed in the category of "rookie mistakes."
Most of the rookie mistakes are simply due to inexperience in the league. The constant movement of defenses often causes confusion, while other blunders occur because of the lack of proper coaching or preparation in college for the pros.
The latter has particularly become an issue due to the rise of the spread offense, a scheme that sees the quarterback take short drop-backs and throw short passes, such as bubble screens, that aren't used as much in the NFL as they are in the NCAA.
Interestingly enough, this has led to quarterbacks entering the NFL with poor footwork, which some consider improper for the pros, but fitting for the college level.
This issue is one of five that I've identified as problems that rookies have in their first season in the NFL. The others include overconfidence, decision making, going too fast through progressions and holding the ball too long.
Overconfidence is a problem that some rookies have coming into the NFL, especially if they are high draft choices and have strong arms.
Strong-armed quarterbacks are more reckless as passers because they are overconfident in their arm strength and aren't concerned with the tight windows NFL defenses have to offer. In college, the rookie likely threw in an offense that utilized space very well with formations that take advantage of the entire width of the field, thus creating larger windows to throw through.
Conversely, when the rookie comes to the NFL, he makes note of very tight windows resulting from the increased speed of the pro game and still tries to squeeze the ball through, despite it being a throw with a very high degree of difficulty.
Poor decision making may stem from a rookie quarterback's overconfidence, but it also derives from a lack of understanding coverages.
NFL defenses do a very good job of masking their intentions before the snap and then rotating defenders after the snap to their desired zones. Typically, this means the quarterback has to read coverage and locate his receivers, all while dropping back.
Trying to adjust to the new reads and faster pace of the game, the rookie quarterback usually makes the mistake of throwing into double-coverage, which leads to turnovers.
As noted earlier, spread offenses have basically consumed the college landscape and are producing quarterbacks that need a lot of work mechanically.
One area that college offenses have hurt significantly is footwork. Quarterbacks are throwing a lot of short passes, as previously mentioned, out of quick drop-backs, such as one- and three-step. These are relatively easy throws that can be made with pure arm strength, as opposed to generating power and velocity through the legs and hips.
Consequently, the quarterbacks have had issues rotating their hips and stepping through their throws consistently. Most recently, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton had this issue, which led to misplaced passes and turnovers.
These next two, advancing fast through progressions and holding the ball too long, may appear to contradict each other, but quarterbacks either have one issue or the other. It's simply impossible to suffer from both on a consistent basis.
Before I explain the issue, it's important to point out what progressions are. They are the reads that a quarterback makes while dropping back. The quarterback surveys the field from one receiver to the next with each step as he drops back, as the read and drop-back are intertwined.
Quarterbacks are sometimes too quick to shift from one target to another while dropping back, thus compromising timing with their receivers and ultimately throwing it to the outlet or "checkdown" receiver far too quickly.
An instance of a quarterback who did this often is Chad Henne, who was with the Miami Dolphins early in his career.
Holding the Ball Too Long
In contrast to going too fast through progressions, some rookie quarterbacks take too much time in the pocket.
They are either too slow going through their reads or lack the instincts in the pocket that tell them to get rid of the ball in a timely manner. Usually, this results in forcing a throw under duress into coverage or missing open receivers.
Second-year San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick had this problem coming out of college and continued to show it last week in the team's first preseason game. On one of his first pass attempts, Kaepernick took a five-step drop and failed to get rid of the ball when his receiver was breaking off his route, instead waiting until after he made his cut. This led to the pass being nearly intercepted by Minnesota Vikings defenders.
Rookie passers are expected to struggle with early opportunities in the NFL because, well, they are rookies. They lack experience and are still learning their trade.
Due to their inexperience, there are several skills inherent to the quarterback position upon which they must improve if they want to excel in this league. What separates the good from the average is their continued development in these specific aspects of their game as they gain more experience.