There are seven rookie quarterbacks starting in the NFL with just five weeks left in the season: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden, Nick Foles Russell Wilson and Ryan Lindley. Four were drafted in the first round, with high expectations for the first season.
Each player is performing at a different level, but what does the film say about each? While Luck and Griffin look like Pro Bowlers, Weeden and Tannehill have played well, but also struggled at times.
It's time to check the film on the four rookie first-rounders and see where they're succeeding and where they aren't.
Andrew Luck: Dominance
Rookie quarterbacks aren't supposed to look this good.
Too many people will look at stats to make a case for Luck being overrated, but truly evaluating a quarterback takes more than a glance at the box score each week.
What makes Luck so great? One of the biggest keys to success in the NFL at the quarterback position is being able to accurately read a defense and decide where to go with the ball. Luck is doing this like a 10-year pro.
Against the Buffalo Bills defense, we see a classic two-high safety look. Luck will identify the safeties and middle linebacker pre-snap. He's also looking out at the cornerbacks to see what type of alignment they are in—up close to the wide receiver generally shows man coverage, while a cushion shows zone. Here we see the free and strong safeties off the ball and a nine-yard cushion given by the cornerbacks. This is a clear giveaway for zone coverage.
After the snap we see the safeties and cornerbacks shift into a Cover 3 look—where three defenders each take one-third of the field and are assigned to keep every offensive player in front of them. Luck's read is Reggie Wayne (No. 87) lined up in the slot on the right side.
Wayne has no one locked up on him in man coverage due to the zone coverage call, which means he has plenty of room to run. To maximize the potential of this play, Luck has to be patient enough to let Wayne run free and let the play develop.
Luck perfectly anticipates when to make to the throw—hitting Wayne with room to run, which resulted in a big gain. There's no one around Wayne, and Luck doesn't tip off his throw at all with his eyes, something few NFL rookies are able to do.
This one play is but an example of how good Luck has been at the little things of the position. Reading the defense, knowing when to make the throw and knowing to not tip off the safety are all veteran-level actions from Luck.
It's rookie Robert Griffin III.
When breaking down the film on Washington's rookie passer, the one thing that continually stood out was how well Griffin did in extending the play to make a throw. He came into the NFL as a lauded runner, but he's not using that ability as much when pressured. Instead, he's moving in and out of the pocket to throw. That's a veteran skill.
Griffin has been incredibly poised under pressure, completing 81.9 percent of his passes (adjusted for drops) when pressured.
What makes Griffin so good under pressure is his ability to stand in the face of a defender and keep his eyes located downfield. We saw this at Baylor too, and it was a high mark on his rookie scouting report. Griffin continues to keep his eyes downfield when on the move, allowing the opportunity for big plays.
This was on display against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 12—facing one of the NFL’s best pass-rushers in DeMarcus Ware. Dallas shows a high-pressure, 3-4 look pre-snap—Ware and Anthony Spencer on the outside with two middle linebackers poised in the A gaps.
After the snap, Griffin executes a zone-read play-action to the back and then begins his progressions in the passing game. Left tackle Trent Williams is holding off Ware on the edge, but he’s caught with his weight transferred top-heavy—not good.
What Griffin sees from behind the offensive line is a breaking down of the protection, but he keeps his presence about him and finds wide receiver Aldrick Robinson streaking on a post pattern down the field. Notice that Ware has now beaten Williams with an outside move designed to use the off-balanced tackle’s weight against him. Ware now has a clean shot at the quarterback.
Seen in real time, you see how Griffin throws a perfect bomb to Robinson behind the coverage one second before taking a hit. This throw—under that pressure—is why Griffin is performing so well in his first season.
Ryan Tannehill: Excelling Under Pressure
There have been good and bad moments for Ryan Tannehill's first season, but one thing stands out, and that's his ability to play under pressure. Through 12 weeks, Tannehill has the NFL’s third-highest completion percentage under pressure when adjusted for drops (subscription required)—behind only Robert Griffin III and Ben Roethlisberger.
In Week 12 against the Seattle Seahawks—one of the top defenses in the NFL—Tannehill showed just how much potential he has during the team’s fourth-quarter comeback.
With 11 minutes left in the game, and Miami down by seven points, the Seahawks show an eight-in-the-box defense on 2nd-and-4. Tannehill makes them pay, but he does so under the pressure of an athletic defensive line.
After the snap, Tannehill sees that the Seahawks have brought five rushers and dropped three into coverage. That eight-man box is now a five-man rush. As the defensive line gets penetration, Tannehill must make a quick decision on a pivotal down. He can throw it away, move up in the pocket or risk a sack by trying to make something happen on his own.
The pocket collapses even more, but an opening shows itself for Tannehill to step into. The passing window will allow him to either throw or run—and he can do both well.
Tannehill is nearly crushed by three defenders right before he releases the ball, but under pressure he’s been great this season, and the ball is delivered on target to Davone Bess on the right hash mark. The gain is for 39 yards and sets the Dolphins up at the Seattle 18-yard line.
Tannehill’s ability to keep his calm and to find the downfield man under not only the Seattle pass rush but the pressure of a late-game situation shows just how far he’s come as a rookie quarterback.
Brandon Weeden: Room to Grow
When the Cleveland Browns drafted Brandon Weeden in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft, I said that he would have to provide quality starts immediately to justify the drafting of a 28-year-old rookie in the first round. While Weeden has been better than I expected, there is still too much negative in his game. There is room to grow, but right now there are more head-scratching plays than anyone would like to see.
Taking a look at Weeden’s start in Week 12 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, one play kept coming back to me. On the team’s first drive, Weeden threw a mind-boggling interception.
Here is what Weeden sees pre-snap. The Steelers have crowded the box with seven players and dropped a free safety 21 yards deep in coverage. A high school quarterback could tell you that a hot route to the middle would hold up here if protected. That’s what Weeden sees too. The Steelers are showing a classic zone coverage.
Post-snap, not much changes. The Steelers cornerbacks drop into their zones and middle linebacker Lawrence Timmons hones in on Joshua Cribbs crossing over the middle.
Here is what Weeden sees right before throwing the football. The crossing wide receiver is steps away from coming clean in his route—and this is the correct read, as the wide receiver does end up wide open. The pocket is clean, this should be an easy pitch-and-catch.
What Weeden doesn’t account for is the defensive line. Brett Keisel is able to get enough of a jump to get his hand on the ball and affect the trajectory, which leads to an interception.
Some will want to put the blame on the offensive line here, but Weeden has to be aware of the pressure and deliver the ball at the right height. Keisel isn’t J.J. Watt, but this ball was thrown too low to begin with. The major issue? Weeden telegraphed the pass the entire way, letting the defense know where the ball was going. This allowed Keisel to get up and deflect the ball to Lawrence Timmons.
If this was an isolated mistake, Weeden would likely be forgiven, but in a year in which other rookies are playing like veterans, Weeden’s small struggles are being magnified.