Ranking QB Expectations for NFL's Rookie Class

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJune 21, 2018

Ranking QB Expectations for NFL's Rookie Class

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    The 2018 quarterback class will be the most scrutinized in NFL history. 

    Five quarterbacks were drafted in the opening frame for the first time this century. Each possesses obvious ability, but as always, their games were picked apart throughout the predraft process, and those negatives won't be soon forgotten. 

    The Cleveland Browns chose Baker Mayfield with the first overall pick despite his lack of prototypical physical traits. New York Jets fans will point toward Sam Darnold's collegiate turnover rate the second he makes his first mistake. Josh Allen is considered a project. Josh Rosen will have to prove he loves the game. Have the Baltimore Ravens converted Lamar Jackson to wide receiver yet?  

    Each rookie has a veteran buffer in place to stem the obvious allure of starting the youngster before he's prepared to take over an offense. 

    None of them need to immediately start unless they earn that designation. If they don't, they shouldn't be viewed as busts (as some will inevitably claim). 

    Instead, expectations for each should be a sliding scale based on individual skill sets and settings. 

        

6. Mason Rudolph, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Mason Rudolph will be Ben Roethlisberger's backup until he isn't.

    Either Rudolph will eventually replace Big Ben as the team's starting quarterback or Roethlisberger will continue to play into his late 30s (he's currently 36) and the Oklahoma State product will need to find a new franchise to garner an opportunity. 

    The potential to thrive as Roethlisberger's eventual successor is present for this year's third-round pick, especially with his security blanket, college teammate wide receiver James Washington, on the roster as well. 

    "I just love their attitude and how they work," Antonio Brown told Steelers Wire's Simon A. Chester. "Those guys are professional. I love those guys, both James and Mason, you can just see the seriousness on their face and their attention to detail, the wanting to be great, you know what I mean, just the hunger from young guys."

    While Washington can immediately contribute alongside Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, Rudolph must wait. Roethlisberger is under contract for two more years. Even if the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback is injured at some point—which has a tendency to happen—Rudolph isn't guaranteed the No. 2 spot with Landry Jones on the roster. 

    The reigning Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award winner is a talented passer with extraordinary touch on his deep passes, but he needs time to develop his intermediate accuracy and learn Pittsburgh's system. Of the top six quarterback prospects, Rudolph is the most likely to not take a single regular-season snap this year. 

    Projection: 0 starts

5. Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    Jackson is the future of the Ravens' quarterback position, while Joe Flacco is a throwback to older days, when quarterbacks were supposed to be statues behind the line of scrimmage and just deliver the football. 

    But Flacco hasn't been an efficient pocket passer for some time. The 10-year veteran hasn't finished among the top 15 in quarterback rating since the 2012 campaign. 

    No one should expect Jackson to step into the lineup and be a better option from the pocket to start his career. Too much is still invested in Flacco. The rookie's athleticism and dynamic arm talent, though, are enough to get him on the field this fall in certain sub-packages. 

    According to ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley, the Ravens coaching staff lined up the first-year quarterback at multiple positions during minicamp. 

    "Gosh, I sure like him out there helping us," head coach John Harbaugh said. "If you put two quarterbacks on the field at once, what options does it create for our offense? That's what we're trying to figure out."

    Jackson is a ready-made offensive boost much like a great NBA sixth man. He can come off the bench and provide fireworks to an offense that lacks playmakers. His blazing speed and flick-of-the-wrist release make him the ultimate change-of-pace in a league constantly looking to create mismatches. Quarterback is often forgotten in that equation. No more. 

    The 2016 Heisman Trophy winner is something different and truly dynamic. Yes, Jackson needs work and development to become a more consistent passer, but the Ravens know his time is coming and they plan to use his skill set in small doses until he's ready for more responsibility.

    Projection: 1 start (with playing time in each contest)

4. Sam Darnold, New York Jets

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    Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

    The Jets are positioned well with multiple quality quarterback options. As a result, this year's third overall pick, Darnold, will have an opportunity to develop at his own rate. 

    "We're throwing everything at him," offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates said, per the New York Post's Zach Braziller. "If he can handle it, if he can prove that he's the starter, then that will take place when the time comes.

    "We're here to play the best football players that give us a chance to win on Sunday."

    While the approach is good in theory, two factors must be taken into account. 

    First, the Jets already have two veteran options in Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater ahead of Darnold. Bridgewater may be nearly three years removed from his last NFL start, but he's impressed during organized team activities and minicamps, according to the New York Daily News' Manish Mehta

    Second, Darnold turned 21 earlier this month. The USC product is viewed as a natural because he throws with anticipation, regularly creates something out of nothing and doesn't fold during crunch time. But he redshirted a year before taking over the Trojans offense and should have the same opportunity with the Jets. 

    Darnold will play when he's ready. There's no reason to rush the process.

    "I've been around some rookies that took a whole year to be able to get in a huddle and have confidence and call those plays," Bates said. "Ever since rookie minicamp, he hasn’t flinched. Everything we've thrown at him, he's been able to handle."

    Projection: 4 starts

3. Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Tyrod Taylor is the Browns' starting quarterback. Let that sink in, because the franchise is steadfast in the veteran opening the season behind center despite spending the first overall pick on Mayfield. 

    More importantly, Mayfield understands the value of having Taylor atop the depth chart. 

    "[That] tthey traded a third-round pick [for] Tyrod just doesn't make sense," Mayfield said on the said on the ThomaHawk Show (via Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith). "We got a lot more out of that than anybody else could. The guy that he is for this franchise, for all of our teammates is unbelievable. For me to watch him and learn him has been great. He sets the bar high, shows up, his work ethic, it's a great situation for me to come into to have someone like that. It's good for me."

    The reigning Heisman Trophy winner's history suggests the rookie will compete and eventually earn the job at some point during his initial campaign. He may well do so. What the Browns need now, though, is a steadying presence after churning through so many different quarterbacks since the team's 1999 rebirth. 

    If and when the Browns offense struggleswhich may be less than previous years due to an electric skill group now featuring Jarvis Landry, Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb to go along with Josh Gordon, David Njoku and Duke Johnson—Mayfield will get his chance. The 6'0" signal-caller might lack premium physical tools, but he's a highly efficient passer with deadly accuracy. 

    Once the postseason is out of reach, Cleveland's coaching staff can work Mayfield into the lineup, much like the Los Angeles Rams did with Jared Goff two seasons ago.

    Projection: 6 starts

2. Josh Rosen, Arizona Cardinals

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Rosen won't be pressed into action, either, because the Arizona Cardinals have other options they prefer. After all, the organization signed Sam Bradford to a one-year, $20 million deal this offseason and added Mike Glennon as well. 

    But neither of those experienced signal-callers enters their current situation with ringing endorsements which creates a greater opportunity for the rookie to start sooner rather than later. Bradford only played two games last season due to a chronic knee issue, while Glennon failed to move the Chicago Bears offense. 

    Their previous histories place a little more emphasis on Rosen's acquisition, since he was viewed as the most prepared to play at the next level coming out of college. 

    "This guy is extremely smart," head coach Steve Wilks said, per Darren Urban of the team's official site. "I mean, his ability to see certain things from the defense, and pick it up quickly, and execute. ... I don't want to say this, but he has the mindset of a vet [with] the way he sees the game."

    Wilks made sure to qualify his statement by adding Rosen is "not playing like a vet," but the rookie's approach and understanding of the game are advanced for a 21-year-old signal-caller after playing three years under former NFL coach Jim Mora. 

    As a result, Rosen could take over the offense at any moment. His mindset coupled with Bradford's injury history and Glennon's inefficiency could quickly create a new organizational direction. 

    "I talked about it from day onethe best 11 are going to play," Wilks said. "Sam is the starter, and when he's healthy, he's great. But everybody is competing to be out there on the field. Competition is a great thing. It makes us all better."

    Projection: 10 starts

1. Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    Allen is in the most difficult position among the incoming quarterbacks. 

    Buffalo's search for a franchise quarterback has been long and arduous. Jim Kelly retired 22 years ago. The fanbase barely survived the J.P. Losman and EJ Manuel eras. The team even traded away last year's starter, Taylor, who helped lead it to the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 campaign. 

    Furthermore, the Bills traded up from the 21st overall pick to the 12th and finally the seventh to acquire Allen's services. The organization's entire offseason plan was built around landing a franchise quarterback, and it chose the big gunslinger from Wyoming. 

    The need for Allen to be a franchise savior despite his underdeveloped accuracy could create an untenable situation.  However, Allen's new teammates see his potential. 

    "I'm not a big fan of rookies, but Josh Allen is pretty good," running back LeSean McCoy said, per the team's official site. "He's very intelligent and has a super strong arm. I think he's a special quarterback."

    Unlike the other incoming quarterbacks, Allen isn't blessed with experienced veterans in front of him or standout skill groups. A legitimate competition is ongoing between AJ McCarron and Nathan Peterman to open the season as the Bills' starter while the coaching staff tries to massage Allen's maturation. Those alternatives may not last long and the rookie could be forced to start sooner rather than later. 

    The physical tools are obvious. The 6'5", 237-pound Allen can step in tomorrow and easily make plays. Can he do so on a consistent basis? That's the hangup and why more pressure will be on him than others to perform once he's on the field. 

    Projection: 12 starts