Which Rookie QBs Will Start a Game During the 2016 NFL Campaign?
Young quarterbacks aren't given a lot of time to prove themselves. The NFL generally operates with a sink-or-swim mentality in regards to its most precious investments. Inevitably, a handful of rookie signal-callers will start games this fall—whether or not they're ready for the opportunity.
That's why it came as a surprise when Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said second pick Carson Wentz would likely begin the season on the team's inactive list.
"It's hard right now to look down the road, but if we had to play this week, Carson would be down," Pederson said Sunday, per Philly Voice's Jimmy Kempski. "He'd be the third quarterback. He’d be deactivated. That’s probably the direction we’re heading, I would think, is going that route."
Pederson clearly qualified his statement based on the Eagles' current depth chart. Most coaches wouldn't, though, because they also understand their status as a head coach and long-term success is tied to the young quarterback—which can be a blessing or a curse.
For some coaches, a talented young rookie means an extended reprieve from anxious owners as the organization attempts to build around the franchise's new face. For others, a rookie quarterback forced to start points toward failures within the roster and could signal a short shelf life.
In either case, having a rookie quarterback who shows promise is the fastest way to rebuild a franchise.
The following five first-year quarterbacks will likely start at some point this season. More could join the list, depending on injuries and/or unforeseen team performance.
Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams
Jared Goff is the most obvious choice on this list.
Being a No. 1 overall pick comes with certain expectations. It doesn't automatically make him an immediate starter, but history suggests it's likely he'll start for most of his rookie season.
JaMarcus Russell is the last rookie signal-caller selected at the top of the draft who didn't start at least 10 games. In fact, the last four quarterbacks chosen No. 1 overall—Jameis Winston, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton and Sam Bradford—started all 16 games.
Los Angeles Rams head coach Jeff Fisher won't hand Goff the starting job, though.
"We'll start him when he's ready," Fisher said, per the team's official site. "He could start anywhere from the opener to whenever. We haven't changed our philosophy on that. We’re gonna coach him to be successful and not going to put him in with a chance to fail."
Veteran Case Keenum will compete for the top spot. The Rams like Keenum. General manager Les Snead said as much on NFL Network in March, when he tabbed Keenum as the OTAs starter, via CBS Sports' Will Brinson. But how serious they are about opening the regular season with him under center is in question. Teams don't surrender a bushel of draft picks—as the Rams did—to obtain the top pick just to see the new face of the franchise sit on the bench.
Goff has all the necessary tools and mental makeup to be an immediate starter. He's more advanced as a passer than any previous quarterback coming out of a predominantly spread offense. According to Pro Football Focus, the Cal product handled pressure last season better than Carson Wentz. He was also the better deep-ball thrower.
With running back Todd Gurley expected to be the team's focal point—which will open up the play-action game—Goff's skills fit perfectly into the Rams offense. The Rams should expect him to start Sept. 12 on Monday Night Football against the San Francisco 49ers.
PREDICTION: Goff will be the Rams' opening-day starter.
Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles want to bring this year's second pick, Carson Wentz, along slowly. As noted earlier, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said Wentz would be on the inactive list if the regular season started today.
But it's unlikely Wentz will be on the inactive list for long.
Yes, Pederson saw firsthand two different approaches that might influence his current decision. He served as a bridge quarterback during the 1999 season after the Eagles invested the second pick in Donovan McNabb. The organization remained patient. The Eagles didn't start the rookie quarterback until Week 10, and McNabb enjoyed long-term success.
A year later, the quarterback-turned-coach found himself in Cleveland as Tim Couch's backup. Couch didn't have the luxury of sitting on the bench to start his career. His confidence and body took a pounding, and he never developed into a top-tier quarterback.
That said, Philadelphia fans will be calling for the rookie while incumbent starter Sam Bradford will almost certainly feel the pressure of being replaced every time he makes a mistake.
The Eagles aren't committed to Bradford beyond this season, either. He's operating on a two-year deal, and his cap hit is only $5.5 million next season if released—as opposed to a $22 million cap hit if he remains on the team (via Spotrac).
Chase Daniel also followed Pederson from the Kansas City Chiefs to Philadelphia, but he's clearly not the answer. He's a solid backup option. Even as a rookie, the North Dakota State product is advanced in his preparation and overall understanding of the game.
It's possible Wentz could open the season on the inactive list. But unless Bradford finally develops into the player that once warranted a No. 1 overall pick, Wentz will likely see the field at some point this fall.
PREDICTION: Bradford will get eight games to prove himself before Pederson names Wentz his starter.
Paxton Lynch, Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos quarterback situation might be determined by a rousing game of eeny, meeny, miny, moe.
It's difficult to get excited about Mark Sanchez as a starter even in an offense that could highlight his strengths and mask his weaknesses.
A seventh-round pick last year, Trevor Siemian continues to intrigue the Broncos coaching staff, per Troy E. Renck of the Denver Post. According to Andrew Mason of the team's official site, the coaches "aren't dismissing" the second-year signal-caller as an option.
These clearly aren't the most inspiring choices. As such, general manager John Elway orchestrated a trade in the first round to acquire Memphis' Paxton Lynch. The 6'7" signal-caller is as talented as Jared Goff and Carson Wentz despite being selected in the latter half of the opening frame.
"It’s really hard in this business to coach guys to keep their eyes down the field when they’re moving, and this guy does a great job of that—[a] big, strong kid, makes all the throws, moves around very, very well," head coach Gary Kubiak said after the draft, per the team's official site.
Any concern regarding Lynch involves his readiness. The physical tools are apparent, but he wasn't asked to regularly make NFL-caliber throws or run a pro-style offense during his time with the Tigers. As such, he's much further behind on the learning curve than Goff and Wentz.
Expectations in this particular case should be tempered. After a late bye in Week 11, Kubiak could unleash Lynch if neither of the other two quarterbacks perform well.
PREDICTION: Lynch will take over as a starter after the team's bye week.
Cody Kessler, Cleveland Browns
Cleveland is home of the never-ending quarterback carousel, and the ride likely won't come to an end any time soon.
To the surprise of many, the Browns didn't spend their first-round pick on a potential franchise quarterback, even with North Dakota State's Carson Wentz available. Instead, the organization traded down multiple times and eventually landed USC's Cody Kessler in the third round.
The California native excelled in college due to his decision-making, overall accuracy and ball placement—although, he struggled with deep passes.
"The thing I like about him the most is he's a very accurate passer," head coach Hue Jackson said after draft, per the team's official site. "He throws the ball very straight to the people who need to catch it. He understands the team game, that you have to take care of the football in order to win games."
A lot has to happen before Kessler can take the reins, though.
The Browns signed former NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Robert Griffin III during free agency. He's the most likely candidate to open the season as the starter. But Griffin is also a reclamation project with an injury history, and he is working on a two-year contract that would be easy to void after this season. The 37-year-old Josh McCown isn't guaranteed a regular-season roster spot. And Austin Davis is merely a placeholder.
Cleveland cycled through at least three starting quarterbacks in each of the last three seasons and five of the last eight. In fact, the Browns started at least two quarterbacks in all but one campaign since the organization's return in 1999. It's easy to envision the same happening this fall with Kessler getting a chance to prove himself.
"But I see, and saw, and will continue to see a guy who’s going to ascend into the National Football League and play when the time’s right," Jackson said.
PREDICTION: Kessler will be inserted into the lineup to help a sputtering Browns offense after the Week 13 bye.
Jeff Driskel, San Francisco 49ers
From purely a system fit, Jeff Driskel became one of this year's best draft selections when the San Francisco 49ers chose him with the 207th pick.
Usually, sixth-round draftees aren't expected to start during their rookie campaigns. However, Driskel's potential and the 49ers' uncertain quarterback situation makes the Louisiana Tech product one of this year's more interesting prospects.
Recruiting services considered Driskel an elite talent before he committed to the Florida Gators. To put it nicely, the quarterback struggled during his time in Gainesville. His natural talent didn't disappear, though.
Driskel started to regain his confidence with the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. The quarterback finished his senior campaign with 4,033 passing yards and 27 touchdowns in Skip Holtz's spread scheme.
The transfer then impressed scouts with an outstanding combine workout in Indianapolis. At 6'4" and 234 pounds, the quarterback posted a 4.56-second 40-yard dash. For comparison, Colin Kaepernick ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash.
Talent, athleticism and experience in a quick-decision spread offense make Driskel an ideal match for head coach Chip Kelly's preferred offensive scheme.
Before anyone can get too excited about the rookie's potential, he has plenty to overcome with Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert atop the depth chart. However, Gabbert has never started a full 16-game slate. Meanwhile, Kaepernick is coming off multiple surgeries and wasn't exactly happy with the organization during the offseason.
This should open the door for Driskel to start at some point this season.
PREDICTION: Driskel will get a look as a starter in the season finale against the Seattle Seahawks.