Should Rookie Quarterbacks Sit in Year One?

by Eric Eager|March 17, 2024

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Draft season is fully underway, and it is, once again, a quarterback draft.  

Caleb Williams, Drake Maye and Jayden Daniels, in some order, are all expected to go in the top three picks, with J.J. McCarthy making a play for a top-five slot as well. Bo Nix and Michael Penix have a realistic shot at being first rounders, and there are a few options later in the draft, like Spencer Rattler and Austin Reid, that are intriguing as developmental prospects. 

It might be because the Bears couldn’t find a serious trade partner for Justin Fields, or because the 2021 draft class has had its monumental flop as a quarterback class recognized in recent weeks with the trades of Fields, Trey Lance, and Mac Jones for peanuts an exclamation point, but people have been asking me on basically every radio show, TV hit, and even in Twitter DMs about the tactic of sitting quarterbacks early in their career.  

Once thought of as a relic of the past, a tactic born out of necessity due to the expensiveness of high-end picks, the notion has gained newfound support with the ascension of Packers quarterback Jordan Love, who followed in his predecessor’s footsteps in emerging as a franchise quarterback after sitting for three seasons. 

What Would a Jordan Love Contract Extension Look Like? | SumerSports 

Love provides basically all the context surrounding why it’s difficult to sit a player at the league’s most important position in the post-2011 CBA NFL. He’s often compared to Aaron Rodgers, but when Rodgers started out hot in his fourth season (first as a starter), the Packers were still in control of his rights on the tail end of his initial five-year, $7.7-million deal. There was no fifth-year option at the time, so the Packers held significant leverage, able to get Rodgers to agree to a modest six-year, $65-million deal, with just $20 million of it guaranteed.  

In Love’s case, the Packers had to decide on his fifth-year option, worth about $20.27 million, before he even took a snap as the green and gold’s full-time starter. Love had some leverage over the Packers since their eggs were in his basket as the starter, so there was at least some possibility they would pick up his option, effectively keeping him on the team as the starter for at least two years despite him not accomplishing anything at that point. 

He ended up taking a somewhat awkward, halfway guaranteed deal for the 2024 season, which demonstrated that even if there were positive signs that only the Packers themselves could see on the inside from sitting Love, they still needed to see him perform on Sundays to fully commit to him. He rewarded Green Bay for their (somewhat tepid) optimism with a great 2023 season, one in which he led them to the playoffs and threw for over 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns.  

In a world where teams have every incentive in the world to play their rookie-contract players as soon as possible to generate as much surplus value over the term of their initial deal, the Packers showed, at least for now, that if you find your franchise quarterback at any point in the process – a guy truly worth a top-of-the-market deal at the position – earning roughly zero surplus value during the first few years is water under the bridge.  

Thus, while it’s still probably good process to get rookie contract players on the field as quickly as you can, not doing so does not disqualify that player from eventually being a franchise cornerstone as Love and the current best player in the league, Patrick Mahomes, attest to. However, the real question of this article is if sitting a quarterback has a tangible benefit on that player’s performance. Most would argue intuitively that sitting on the bench is better for a quarterback, as doing so allows them to learn the game at the professional level in a low-stakes environment.  

While that case is compelling, most gravitate towards arguing from the other side: that playing a quarterback too early, before they are ready, is detrimental to their development. This proposed mechanism is plausible and is exacerbated by the fact that many highly drafted quarterbacks are traded up for, which dilutes the surrounding talent for their initial games and seasons. 

However, we at Sumer are data driven, so we’ll try to answer this question empirically. It is difficult to do this since post-2011 CBA (arguably the only era to look at when answering this question), doesn’t exactly have that many first-round quarterbacks drafted from which to study (n = 37). Confounders are present including (but not limited to) draft position and how good the team was that drafted the player.  

These two things are correlated, but not completely so; a team will often trade into different parts of the draft, so you can have a decent team picking relatively high (trading up) or a poor team picking relatively late (a trade back into the first round from the second round, or trading back from earlier parts of the draft to later).  

Here’s a plot of Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value (AV) earned in the first three starting seasons of a career, versus where the player was drafted: 

 

Notice that draft position does correlate with performance (r-squared = 0.12), but it is noisy and mostly abates when a player is traded up for. This suggests that team strength is a factor. Let’s look at that: 


It is of note that there doesn’t appear to be a relationship between the strength of the team a player is drafted on and how well he does, as the confounder of draft position likely overtakes any signal inherent in initial conditions of the drafting team.  

If one squints, there is a pretty strong, upward trend between team strength and performance, if not for a few outliers on both ends: Trey Lance and Paxton Lynch on the low end, and Cam Newton and Kyler Murray on the high end. Interestingly, Lance and Lynch both sat their first year (and in the case of Lynch, beyond) for good teams, while Newton and Murray emerged in offenses that were worst in the league the year before, both by over a quarter of a yard per play more than the next-worst team.  

If we look at the plot above but color by three classifications: played day one, sat year one, and was supposed to sit, but eventually played, we get the following:  

This is a result worth examining. This seems to say that, if you play a rookie quarterback early, the worse the team, the better the outcome. This is likely just the relationship between draft stock and playing ability in disguise. There is some daylight between the two, which could be exacerbating the relationship; not all highly drafted QBs go to bad teams, but in those situations the conditions of the trade up (e.g., less draft capital with which to build) often leave it more difficult to succeed. Setting this aside, it seems that among players thrown to the wolves, the ones that thrive are the highly drafted players on rebuilding teams that didn’t have to trade all their picks to obtain him.  

It’s also illustrative that, among the teams with a win total of eight or higher that drafted a quarterback in round 1, only one such player started day 1 (Mac Jones). For quarterbacks that were supposed to sit in year one (whether they were able to or not is another matter) how well that quarterback played had a positive relationship with how good the team was.  

This could be confounded with how the quarterback eventually got on the field in year one. Did they play because the situation was so bad that it made no sense to sit him (e.g., Bortles in Jacksonville) or did he play because a starter who was otherwise playing well, for a good team, got injured (e.g., Lamar Jackson in Baltimore)? In either event, it looks like NFL teams are playing the quarterbacks they feel are impervious to circumstances, while at least trying to sit the guys who are going to be more dependent on them.  

Given the size of the data set, it’s important to take any conclusions from this plot – none of which is statistically significant – with a grain of salt. Now, let’s look at some other measures of draft pick success and how they relate to whether the quarterback played or sat in year one: 

Category  N  Draft Pos.  RSW  AV  AV OE  Fifth-Year  Contract 
Played  15  5.2  6.13  30.3  0.88  73.3%  46.7% 
Sat then Start  16  10.4  6.59  27.8  -1.10  43.8%  43.8% 
Sat  6  15.7  8.42  16.3  -4.25  16.7%  33.3% 

The first thing one notices is that only one quarterback who sat his whole rookie year, of which there are only six, earned the fifth-year option (Patrick Mahomes). Only two, Jordan Love (assumed in the future) and Mahomes earned market-level deals after their rookie contract. The Approximate Value (AV) from Pro Football Reference is about half as big on average for those who sat year one versus those who played year 1, and even after adjusting for pick position, those who sat performed, on average, four Approximate Value points lower than those that played right away. This is even though quarterbacks who played right away played for bad (regular season win, RSW, total of around six wins) teams. Players that sat initially and then played significant snaps as rookies fared better than guys who sat in year one, but slightly worse than guys who played right away, even after adjusting for pick position.  

Lastly, it’s important to note that teams that were able to pull off sitting their first-round quarterback the entirety of year one were much better teams (season win totals around eight and a half wins) and were choosing from worse quarterbacks (average draft position of 15.7).  

What conclusions, if any, can we draw from this?  

First, a critique of this analysis will invariably be that the sample is too small (yes!) and that we should have looked further back into NFL history obtain a bigger sample size. I don’t think the second charge is appropriate. To elaborate, in the mid-2000s, the upper echelon of the NFL’s passing statistics included players like Tom Brady, Mark Brunell, Marc Bulger, Jake Delhomme, Trent Green, Matt Hasselbeck, Jon Kitna, Tony Romo, and Kurt Warner, among others; these were players who were drafted later in the draft, or not at all, who emerged from an era where teams carried three quarterbacks and were more open to investing in developmental players because the high-end quarterbacks in the draft were so expensive. 

In 2023, the top-rated passers in the league are predominantly first-round picks, with infrequent exceptions like Dak Prescott, Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr, Jalen Hurts, or Brock Purdy. In previous CBAs, the incentives were even more opaque than they are now, leading to more confounders. Even then, diving into the pre-2011 world sees a lot of success stories for day-one starters (Stafford, Ryan, Flacco, Peyton Manning, Bledsoe, Aikman, Elway) and some pretty big failures for year-one sitters (Russell, Quinn, Tebow, Losman, Grossman, Ramsey, Drunkenmiller, McGwire, Ware). Going back to Bledsoe, Aikman and Elway is appropriate, since a rookie starting on day one was incredibly rare before them; you can safely count on one hand the number of first-round quarterbacks who started day one in the 1980s, for example.  

Some may also say that non-first round picks should be considered, but no one drafts their franchise quarterback on purpose after the first round in today’s NFL.  

With the small sample caveats understood, here’s some conclusions from this data: 

  • Teams that attempt to sit their quarterbacks in year one are better than the teams that don’t, and the teams that can actually sit him the whole season are the best of all. 
  • Draft position correlates with initial team strength, whether or not a player plays in year one, and how well he performs at the NFL level, which makes statistical significance difficult to achieve. 
  • Among players that are thrown into the fire in year one, the highly drafted players playing on poor teams perform the best. 
  • Among players that were not supposed to start in year one but eventually have to play, team strength positively influences the quarterback’s future performance.  
  • There is no statistical evidence that sitting a quarterback in year one, or trying to sit a quarterback in year one, positively impacts his career, even after adjusting for initial conditions, in today’s roster-building environment of the 2011/2020 CBA.  

That there is no statistical evidence to support sitting a first-round quarterback for their benefit doesn’t mean it won’t be the optimal path in general moving forward. It also doesn’t mean that for certain players sitting isn’t in their best interests. However, what the data indicates is that NFL teams are actually pretty good at determining whether to start quarterbacks in their first year, given the multitude of variables that they must consider.  

Thus, while my first reaction to writing this is daydreaming about what the 2017 Chiefs would have been able to do in the playoffs with Patrick Mahomes, I will refrain.  

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