Back in the spring, as the NFL draft neared, few knew exactly what to think of this year’s class of rookie quarterbacks.
It was clear that Cal’s Jared Goff and North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz had a good chance to be chosen first and second overall. But they lacked the public profile of the quarterbacks selected first and second a year earlier, Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota. And what of the other quarterbacks in line to be drafted this year? None was widely viewed as being ready to start immediately as a rookie and succeed.
Fast forward to now, two games into the season. Goff, drafted first overall, has been unable to crack the Los Angeles Rams lineup. But Wentz, chosen second, has wasted no time making his case for NFL stardom in Philadelphia, playing mistake-free football while winning his first two starts for the Eagles.
And there’s more. Much more. Fourth-round pick Dak Prescott has made two starts for Dallas and seems on his way to keeping the Cowboys’ season from unraveling in the absence of Tony Romo. And two third-rounders, New England’s Jacoby Brissett and Cleveland’s Cody Kessler, rapidly have ascended from third-string status.
It has become a year of rookie quarterbacks in the NFL, something that almost no one saw coming. So what did everyone miss back in the spring? Did talent evaluators misjudge this class? Or is this merely a story of the unforeseen circumstances that have contributed to these rookies becoming starters sooner than expected?
It’s a little bit of each, actually.
Wentz is starting only because the Eagles traded Sam Bradford to the Minnesota Vikings, who suddenly were in need of a quarterback after losing Teddy Bridgewater to a knee injury, eight days before the season. A broken bone in Romo’s back suffered during the preseason gave Prescott his chance after Kellen Moore’s broken ankle made him Romo’s primary backup.
Brissett started the Patriots in Thursday night’s victory against the Houston Texans because Tom Brady is suspended and Jimmy Garoppolo suffered a shoulder injury last Sunday. The Browns will be on their third starter in three games this season, with Robert Griffin III and Josh McCown both hurt.
Wentz and Prescott have seized their opportunities, proving to be far more NFL-ready than many draft analysts had projected. Wentz is making a big jump from small-college football to the NFL. Yet he has become the first rookie quarterback since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 to start and win his team’s first two games of a season without throwing an interception.
“You couldn’t say he was going to play this well in the first two games,” said Charley Casserly, the former general manager of the Texans and Washington Redskins. “If you say that you said that, you’re kidding yourself. Having said that, nothing that he’s doing is a surprise. I knew he could do it. I just didn’t know it’d happen this quickly.
“The people in Philly say he’s smarter than they thought, and they thought he was smart. I thought he was a better version of Joe Flacco. They’re making a lot of quick throws with him. He can throw the ball deeper down the field. You’d have to say you’re pleasantly surprised so far. I don’t think he’s a fraud. I think he can play.”
The same appears true of Prescott, who has the Cowboys off to a 1-1 beginning after calmly directing a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s triumph over the Redskins at FedEx Field.
“Prescott has played better than I thought he would,” Casserly said. “When he was in college [at Mississippi State], I saw a guy who didn’t show as much poise as you’d want under pressure. That’s been better. Dallas does a great job coaching quarterbacks. He’s played well, and he’s benefited from a great offensive line. He saved the season for them.
“They weren’t expecting him to be this good, this fast. He’s not on Russell Wilson’s level. But it’s a little like Russell Wilson in that the Seahawks drafted him in the third round as a backup, and he just took off. This is like that. Prescott has progressed faster than anyone could have known.”
Goff can only wait for his chance. The same applies to another first-rounder, Paxton Lynch of Memphis, with the Denver Broncos. It’s all about the opportunity, as Cowboys Coach Jason Garrett said just before the season.
“I think the nature of the league has changed over the course of the past 25, 30 or 40 years,” Garrett said. “There was a time when rookie quarterbacks never played in the NFL, regardless of when they were drafted. They always sat and watched. That’s changed. Younger players at all positions are playing earlier. There’s more incentive to keep younger players on your roster. That’s how the salary structure is set up.
“And younger quarterbacks have been playing a lot lately. . . . They’ve just played a lot of ball. There’s a lot of ball being played at the high school level now whether it’s seven-on-seven tournaments in the summer, spring practice – all of those kinds of things allow them to be that much more prepared for college, and then college into the NFL. So it’s just the nature of the world that we live in right now. It’s good that they’re confident. It’s good that they see themselves ready to take this next step.”
Next up are Brissett and Kessler. Brissett, from North Carolina State, finished the Patriots’ victory Sunday over the Miami Dolphins after Garoppolo suffered a sprained AC joint. Brissett had a short week to prepare but benefited from the coaching brilliance of Bill Belichick and his staff as the Patriots improved to 3-0 minus Brady.
“I thought he was kind of an erratic guy in college, kind of a flash guy,” Casserly said. “I thought his poise Sunday was terrific. Even with the way they coach, this will be hard. . . . If they beat Houston, the rest of the league can just go home for the season.”
The Patriots won 27-0.
The situation is not as conducive to success for Kessler, who becomes the Browns’ 26th different starter at quarterback since 1999. At least the expectations can’t be set terribly high for the Southern Cal product.
“Kessler will know what to do,” Casserly said. “He was pro-ready in college because of that system. He’ll have stretches where he’s efficient. You just worry about his arm strength. That could show up at times.”