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With the 2nd pick in the 2nd round of the 2016 Draft, the Cowboys drafted Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith at 34th overall.  Smith tore his ACL and MCL in the Fiesta Bowl, but Dallas was willing to take the risk with by giving Smith a redshirt season.

With the 41st pick, Buffalo traded up for linebacker Reggie Ragland, who wound up missing his entire rookie season after tearing the ACL in his left knee in training camp. With the 50th pick, Houston drafted offensive lineman Nick Martin, who also was injured in training camp and wound up missing his entire rookie year.

Those three players, and Bengals first round pick William Jackson (who tore his pec in August), were four of the five players selected in the first two rounds of the 2016 Draft who failed to see the field. Jets second round pick, quarterback Christian Hackenberg, was the fifth.

That makes Hackenberg the 17th quarterback since the common draft (1967) to fail to make the field as a rookie despite being drafted in the first or second round. For the most part, that’s because those quarterbacks were behind entrenched starters.

Rookie QBYearPickTeamTeam Starting QBStarting QB GQB ANY/A+
Christian Hackenberg201651NYJRyan Fitzpatrick1181
Brian Brohm200856GNBAaron Rodgers16112
Drew Stanton200743DETJon Kitna1696
Jason Campbell200525WASMark Brunell15105
Carson Palmer20031CINJon Kitna16104
Matt Blundin199240KANDave Krieg16106
Kelly Stouffer19876STLNeil Lomax12111
Jim Kelly198314BUFJoe Ferguson1687
Ken O'Brien198324NYJRichard Todd1690
Oliver Luck198244HOUGifford Nielsen486
Gene Bradley198037BUFJoe Ferguson16103
Matt Cavanaugh197850NWESteve Grogan16112
Steve Pisarkiewicz197719STLJim Hart14112
Glenn Carano197754DALRoger Staubach14124
Jeb Blount197650OAKKen Stabler12138
Ron Jaworski197337RAMJohn Hadl14129
Ken Stabler196852OAKDaryle Lamonica13120

In 12 of the first 16 instances, the starting quarterback didn’t miss a single game.1 In only three of those 12 cases did the rookie sit behind a starter having a below-average season by ANY/A purposes: Kelly and O’Brien in ’83, and Stanton in ’07.

Kelly, of course, counts in name only: he went to play in the USFL, so wasn’t even on the Bills that year. O’Brien sat behind Todd, who was the team’s longtime starter, and the Jets were in the playoff race until deep into the season. However, like Hackenberg, he wasn’t even the backup: that was Pat Ryan, who played in relief duty in two losses. It was Ryan who was the team’s starter in 1984, too, although O’Brien finally made his first start late in the year.

Stanton was drafted in the second round by the Lions, but sat behind Kitna for a year. Despite below-average play, that was pretty good for the Lions, who were having a successful-by-Detroit seasons at 7-9. Stanton also suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason, and then hurt his thumb in the ’08 pre-season, leaving him behind Kitna, Dan Orlovsky and Daunte Culpepper. After the season, the Lions drafted Matt Stafford, which permanently closed the door on Stanton’s path to being Detroit’s QB of the future.

What about the quarterbacks who sat behind quarterbacks who did miss time?

  • Stabler sat behind a star in Lamonica, but he was still just the third string because Oakland also had George Blanda on the roster, who started the one game Lamonica missed. That’s probably not a good comparison to the 2016 Jets.
  • Blount sat behind an MVP Stabler in 1976, but didn’t do much to ingratiate himself in Oakland.  He was injured as a rookie, and waived after the season.
  • Luck sat behind Nielson and Archie Manning on a terrible Oilers team.   The strike probably didn’t help things, but Luck was planted on the bench behind the two veterans.  He sat behind those two in ’83 as well, before starting in game 11 that year.
  • In ’05, Campbell sat behind Brunell, who had a good year for Washington.  In addition, Washington still had Patrick Ramsey, a first round pick in ’02.  Campbell finally got the start midway through the ’06 season.

It’s probably not appropriate to compare Hackenberg to the 9 quarterbacks who sat behind above-average starters, most recently exemplified by Brohm and Palmer.  We can exclude Kelly because of the USFL, Stanton and Blount because of injury, and Stabler because he was behind a pair of HOF caliber quarterbacks.

That leaves only three real comparisons for Hackenberg — O’Brien, Luck, and Campbell, who were healthy and sat on the bench as rookies as third string guys.  O’Brien sat behind Todd and Ryan, Luck behind Nielson and Manning, and Campbell behind Brunell and Ramsey.

Those were not great names, although they’re probably more impressive than the trio of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Geno Smith, and Bryce Petty.  But O’Brien and Campbell turned into decent starters, with O’Brien turning into a legitimately solid starting quarterback.  If you’re a Jets fan, you can at least squint and make the case that Hackenberg can follow the O’Brien path: the fact that a quarterback is stuck to the bench as a rookie, even behind mediocre quarterbacks, doesn’t mean he has no future.

Of course, this ignores the fact that so few quarterbacks actually do sit on the bench as rookies: the counter to this would be, it’s a bad sign that Hackenberg joins Campbell as the only highly drafted rookie QBs in the last 30 years to fail to move past third string (or to sit behind a below-average starter). A lot of bad quarterbacks showed enough as rookies to get on the field, which you can argue that even Hackenberg didn’t do. But given the unique circumstances involved — he was the 4th quarterback for all of training camp, and never was seemingly given a chance to compete — I don’t know how much you can hold that against him. Time will tell, I suppose.

  1. This includes the 8 instances where the starter played in 16 games, 3 cases in the ’70s during the 14-game schedule, and in 1987, when the non-replacement players generally played just 12 games. []
  • sacramento gold miners

    The situation with Hackenberg and others illustrates the case for a developmental league, especially with the recent CBA restricting practice time. Maybe Hackenberg develops into something, maybe not, but I’m sure Jets fans would like to find out.

    • McGeorge

      I agree that a developmental league would be beneficial.
      I’ll go a step further in that I think a number of teams have bad head coaches that don’t employ coaches who are good at developing players. Some teams seem a lot better than others are developing young players.

      I look at the Jets under Rex Ryan. How many young players did they develop? Mohammed Wilkerson was a #1 pick, and clearly talented. What about lower drafted players? In 6 years I can think of only 2 who improved: Matt Slauson and Damon Harrison. Rex cyt Danny Woodhead, and Belichick snatched him and he became productive. Bilal Power has been good the last couple of years, and thats after Rex was gone. Maybe he improved own his own.

      A developmental league would give players an extra chance to improve. The problem is the injury risk. But it’s worth the risk if you are dealing with fringe players, who might otherwise wash out.