8 Factors to Help Determine NFL Rookie QB’s Effectiveness

Every year in the NFL there are a few rookie quarterbacks who are pressed into action at the start of the football season, and a few more who must play early on. In my opinion, rookie QBs are best served by breaking in slowly, but no one ever asks me. If you have been a fan of the NFL for any time at all, then you know that a rookie often doesn’t light the world on fire early in his career. In fact, their first starts can be awful. Their entire short careers can be awful. Sometimes, though, a rookie can really figure things out quickly and can be surprisingly strong from their first start. Being able to get a sense of what can reasonably be expected from a rookie starting quarterback is a valuable skill for NFL handicappers. Below are eight factors for pro football handicappers to consider when trying to determine how effective a starting rookie quarterback might be:

  1. How “Pro” did he look in college? – There are really a couple of factors at play here – the system and the swagger – and each one is important in its own way. First, did the quarterback play in a system that was reasonably similar to a pro style system in college? There will always be a huge step up in complexity and skill from college to the NFL, but the more experience a QB had with a pro-style offense, the easier the transition because he has less to learn. For example, a guy operating under an offense based on west coast principles will probably find the transition easier than one who was playing in the spread. Similarly, a guy who took most snaps from under center will be way ahead of a guy who was in the shotgun. Of course, it is possible for a QB to make a major transition effectively – the likelihood of a smooth transition is much better if the changes are minimal and skills learned at the college level are transferable to the pro level. Also, does the rookie QB have a feel of a guy who is going to be a successful pro?
  2. Is the rookie QB starting as part of a plan or out of desperation? – If a guy was drafted with the intention of being the starter right away and prepared all offseason with that in mind, then maybe it’s not that that difficult to make the transition. The further things stray from that situation, though, the scarier things can get. A rookie NFL quarterback needs an enormous amount of work with the coaches and the first team to stand any chance of success. If he doesn’t get that experience until the last minute, then he has too much work to do to get ready to start. That rarely goes well in the short term. A team that has a clear plan that they are working towards at the QB position is also going to be calmer and generally more relaxed about the key position, which will be reflected in the play and general attitude of the coaches and players.
  3. What tools do they have around them? – The more a rookie has to work with, the easier it is likely going to be for him to succeed. If he is stepping in behind a veteran line and has veterans in the skill positions, then he can comfortably grow into his role. However, if he must learn along with everyone else around him, there will inevitably be more growing pains. There is an important point here – the NFL veterans around him not only need to be experienced, but also must be open to growing with a young QB and working with him to build a cohesive team.
  4. How important is the QB position to the team? – Some football teams and some systems live and die by the ability of their QB to make precisely the right play at precisely the right time. Others only require that a QB doesn’t lose games for them – with Trent Dilfer’s Super Bowl ring clear proof of that. The more a system requires perfect timing and the strong command of a complex playbook, the harder it will be for a rookie at the beginning. Adaptability is also important, some NFL offensive schemes can be simplified and modified far more easily than others.
  5. Are the coaches up to the challenge? – Some NFL coaches are born to teach, while others expect players to know their fundamentals from the start. Some coaches are patient, while others don’t know the meaning of the word. Some guys can connect to young players, while others are far from approachable. Different coaching styles often work for different situations, but some coaches are clearly better suited to working with rookie quarterbacks than others. You need to look beyond just the head coach to the offensive coordinator, the quarterback coach, and the others who will have direct contact with the rookie.
  6. What did their offseason look like? – The more time a rookie has to work with teammates and coaches and get prepared, the better the chances are he will be prepared. A guy who signs a contract soon after the draft and participates in all the offseason activities will be far better positioned than a guy who holds out well into training camp. There is not a position that is hurt more by any length of a holdout than a rookie quarterback.
  7. What are the public expectations? – From a handicapping perspective, this may be the most important factor when it comes to NFL betting. If the public has high expectations – which they often will from a big-name player from a successful college program – then there could be real value if you suspect the player isn’t as ready for prime time as he is considered to be. Similarly, you can find great early season value if you think that a lower profile quarterback is going to be surprisingly strong from the start. The bigger the gap between public perceptions and your perception the better!  
  8. What are the other team’s expectations? – Opposing coaches and players may remember what the rookie QB did in college. But this should have very little bearing on the playbook and gameplan that have been prepared by the NFL team. I call this “having the book” on the quarterback. Opposing coaches and assistants have not seen the rookie QB play under this new scheme. Hence, they do not yet know how to counter his plays. NFL defenses are very good at making adjustments. Yet, sometimes, this may take half a season to figure out. There is money to be made on a rookie QB who is ready to play and who has been handed a playbook the opponents are not adequately prepared to defend.
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