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Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, and Teddy Bridgewater were selected in the first round of the 2014 Draft. The Jaguars seem intent on giving Bortles a redshirt year, but it seems likely that the Browns and Vikings will hand their rookie quarterbacks the reins at some point early this fall.

From the first common draft in 1967, until 2013, there were 96 quarterbacks selected in the first round of the draft.1 Today’s post looked at how long it took each quarterback to start his first game. For each quarterback, I assumed 16 game seasons for all seasons where the quarterback sat on the bench. Two quarterbacks, Jim Kelly and Aaron Rodgers, sat three full seasons before starting in week 1 of their 4th year; that means both players get an estimated first start of game 49.2 Twenty-eight quarterbacks (29% of our sample) started their team’s first game in the year they were drafted; as a result, those quarterbacks get an estimated first start of game 1. The graph below shows how long it took each quarterback to start his first game; the X-axis represents draft year, and the Y-axis estimated number of games.

QB starts

Here’s the same graph, but with identification labels.

QB starts with labels

What stands out to me is how random the graph appears. For all the talk about how impatient NFL teams are now, such a “win now” strategy is hardly a new phenomenon. Only 20 of the 96 quarterbacks drafted in the first round during this 47-year period failed to start a game during their rookie seasons. And seven of those 20 quarterbacks were drafted in the last ten years: Jake Locker, Brady Quinn, Rodgers, Jason Campbell, Philip Rivers, J.P. Losman, and Carson Palmer. And of the 22 quarterbacks drafted in the first round from 1967 to 1979, just three didn’t start a game as rookies: Don Horn, Jerry Tagge, and Steve Pisarkiewicz.

The table below shows the data for all 96 quarterbacks:

QuarterbackYearPkTmEst 1st Start
Steve Spurrier19673sfo11
Bob Griese19674mia2
Don Horn196725gnb39
Greg Landry196811det1
Greg Cook19695cin1
Marty Domres19699sdg9
Terry Bradshaw19701pit1
Mike Phipps19703cle9
Jim Plunkett19711nwe1
Archie Manning19712nor1
Dan Pastorini19713oti5
Jerry Tagge197211gnb25
John Reaves197214phi3
Bert Jones19732clt1
Steve Bartkowski19751atl1
Richard Todd19766nyj8
Steve Pisarkiewicz197719crd24
Tommy Kramer197727min13
Doug Williams197817tam1
Jack Thompson19793cin4
Phil Simms19797nyg6
Steve Fuller197923kan3
Marc Wilson198015rai23
Mark Malone198028pit31
Art Schlichter19824clt44
Jim McMahon19825chi3
John Elway19831clt1
Todd Blackledge19837kan17
Jim Kelly198314buf49
Tony Eason198315nwe13
Ken O'Brien198324nyj28
Dan Marino198327mia6
Jim Everett19863oti12
Chuck Long198612det15
Vinny Testaverde19871tam12
Kelly Stouffer19876crd21
Chris Miller198713atl14
Jim Harbaugh198726chi30
Troy Aikman19891dal1
Jeff George19901clt1
Andre Ware19907det9
Dan McGwire199116sea5
Todd Marinovich199124rai16
David Klingler19926cin12
Tommy Maddox199225den11
Drew Bledsoe19931nwe1
Rick Mirer19932sea1
Heath Shuler19943was5
Trent Dilfer19946tam7
Steve McNair19953oti15
Kerry Collins19955car4
Jim Druckenmiller199726sfo2
Peyton Manning19981clt1
Ryan Leaf19982sdg1
Tim Couch19991cle2
Donovan McNabb19992phi10
Akili Smith19993cin5
Daunte Culpepper199911min17
Cade McNown199912chi6
Chad Pennington200018nyj37
Michael Vick20011atl8
David Carr20021htx1
Joey Harrington20023det3
Patrick Ramsey200232was5
Carson Palmer20031cin17
Byron Leftwich20037jax4
Kyle Boller200319rav1
Rex Grossman200322chi14
Eli Manning20041sdg10
Philip Rivers20044nyg33
Ben Roethlisberger200411pit3
J.P. Losman200422buf17
Alex Smith20051sfo5
Aaron Rodgers200524gnb49
Jason Campbell200525was26
Vince Young20063oti4
Matt Leinart200610crd5
Jay Cutler200611den12
JaMarcus Russell20071rai16
Brady Quinn200722cle25
Matt Ryan20083atl1
Joe Flacco200818rav1
Matthew Stafford20091det1
Mark Sanchez20095nyj1
Josh Freeman200917tam8
Sam Bradford20101ram1
Tim Tebow201025den14
Cam Newton20111car1
Jake Locker20118oti17
Blaine Gabbert201110jax3
Christian Ponder201112min7
Andrew Luck20121clt1
Robert Griffin20122was1
Ryan Tannehill20128mia1
Brandon Weeden201222cle1
EJ Manuel201316buf1

Five quarterbacks were drafted in the first two rounds of 2012 and 2013; all five started in week 1 for their teams, the first time five straight first round quarterbacks were immediate starters. But in general, there is no crazy trend towards pushing young quarterbacks on to the field before they’re ready. To the extent that’s happening, well, it’s happened for at least five decades, if not longer.

  1. Ignoring Rich Campbell, the only quarterback in the study to never start a game, and all quarterbacks taken in supplemental drafts. []
  2. Of course, Kelly and Rodgers didn’t start for pretty different reasons: Kelly was in the USFL, while Rodgers was sitting behind Brett Favre. []
  • How dare you challenge convention, Chase!

  • Richie

    This is one of those things that might yield different conclusions if divided up different ways.

    I broke up the data into 10-year buckets. If you look at only whether a player started game 1 or not:

    67-76 7 out of 16 44%
    77-86 2 out of 18 11%
    87-96 4 out of 17 24%
    97-06 4 out of 27 15%
    07-13 (only 7 years) 11 out of 18 61%

    Leaf/Manning is the breaking point. 28 QB’s have started game 1 since 1967. 13 of them happened before the ’98 season (out of 52 QBs drafted). 13 happened after the ’98 season (out of 42 QBs). So it took 31 years to get the first 13 guys, but only 14 years to get the next 13.

    At a glance, the success rate of game 1 starters hasn’t changed much. Most of the guys who started game 1 went on to have productive careers.

  • Hey, hope you don’t mind me asking but since you have the data already could you run a correlation between years (could also be done as “games sat”) sat to passer rating and career games started. Unless the data you have isn’t in a convenient format than don’t worry.

  • James W

    But is there any correlation to how long a QB waits to get in the game to their long term success (career length) ? Are rookie game 1 starters less likely to have long term success?

    • That’s tied to my question as well, would like to see the data set compared to career success (games started, passer rating, etc).

      • Chase Stuart

        Sorry for not replying earlier. Frankly I don’t think there’s much to be discovered but I will put it on my to-do list. Alternatively, maybe someone will want to research and submit as a guest post 🙂

    • James

      It’s such a big cause and effect problem. Did the rookie not start immediately because he wasn’t ready and needed time to get better, or because he wasn’t ready and never got better, or because he had a good starter ahead of him?

      Did a player start right away because he was good from the start, because the team had no better option, or because that’s the best way to learn?

      Only half of those 6 scenarios are informative, but it’d be hard to separate to figure out which case is which, especially to differentiate between bad at start and got better/bad at start and never got better.

  • Ed Knizewski

    You are not accounting for the USFL. For instance, in the case of Jim Kelly, he did not sit at all. He played for the Houston Gamblers for 2 years after being drafted, then joined Buffalo when the USFL folded, and immediately became the starter.

    • Ed Knizewski

      I just noticed that you have a footnote about Kelly being in the USFL. However, it is still incorrect to state that the Bills ‘redshirted’ Kelly for 3 seasons. He wasn’t on their roster for any of those games. His situation is so unique that you should probably just exclude him from the data set.