Instant gratification is one of the pillars of the digital age.
Coincidentally, it’s also become one of the pillars of the current NFL landscape. Instead of exercising patience, rookies and head coaches are expected to excel right out of the gate. Instead of letting players develop, they’re tossed aside if they don’t immediately perform at a high level.
Former first-round pick Josh Rosen is a prime example. The Arizona Cardinals’ 10th overall pick in 2018 threw for 2,278 yards, 11 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in 13 starts as a rookie, and was traded the following offseason to the Miami Dolphins and replaced with first-overall pick Kyler Murray. Rosen struggled in Miami and was cut before the 2020 season.
But success does not depend solely on the young signal-caller. The right fit, both in scheme and talent, can make all the difference. The 2020 season was a banner year for first-year QBs, but was offensive rookie of the year Justin Herbert clearly the best?
Let’s take a closer look at the data to break down our Big 3 among the rookie quarterbacks:
JOE BURROW, BENGALS
After setting the college football world on fire in 2019, Burrow came into the NFL with some pretty lofty expectations as the first overall pick. Doubts, of course, grew from his potential status as a “one-year wonder” and how he may have benefitted from the elite talent around him at LSU.
But given his supporting cast in Cincinnati, it’s safe to say he met those expectations.
Burrow threw for 2,688 yards, 13 touchdowns and just five interceptions, all while averaging the seventh-most passing yards per game among qualified QBs. His season came to an abrupt end in Week 11 after tearing his ACL on an awkward sack attempt from Jonathan Allen.
Burrow compiled a well-thrown percentage (WT%) of 80.6, best among rookie QBs, and an open target percentage (OT%) of 73.0. He threw a pickable pass on 4.08% of his throws, an above-average rate, and averaged 8.76 air yards per attempt (AYPA).
Given Cincinnati’s roster – especially its defense – and running back Joe Mixon’s injuries and ineffectiveness, Burrow was forced to throw a lot to keep the team in games. The Bengals trailed in all but one of Burrow’s 10 games, resulting in a lot of counting stats that boosted the rookie’s profile.
The O-line in Cincinnati is…a work in progress. Burrow was sacked 32 times and fumbled the ball nine times, losing four. Overall, the Bengals tied for the fifth-most sacks allowed in the NFL.
Left tackle Jonah Williams was the lone bright spot, allowing a pressure rate (PR-A%) of 9.5 and an adjusted sack rate (ASR-A%) of 2.4. But, like Burrow, his season ended abruptly when he suffered a knee injury in Week 14, his second season-ending injury in two years. Outside of Williams, center Trey Hopkins was the lone member of the offensive line that had an above-average PR-A%.
Protecting Burrow will likely be a priority in the offseason. The Bengals own the fifth pick in the upcoming draft, and many pundits have already mocked top OT prospect Penei Sewell to Cincinnati. According to Over The Cap, the Bengals project to have roughly $32 million in cap space, which could be spent on fortifying the offensive line even more
What Burrow lacked in pass protection, the Bengals made up for in skill players. Though former All-Pro WR A.J. Green’s production has tailed off as he’s aged and battled injuries, Cincinnati is home to two of the league’s best young receivers: Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins.
Boyd has been a reliable option out of the slot for five seasons now, averaging 11.7 yards per reception to go with 19 touchdowns. Boyd recorded a burn percentage (burn%) of 64.5 and got open on 80.0% of his routes.
Higgins, a 2020 second-round pick, fell in the draft due to a talented WR class and concerns over his speed, but the Clemson product shined in his rookie season with 908 receiving yards and six touchdowns on 67 receptions. Higgins produced a burn% of 68.5, which was best among Bengals receivers. He was open on just 68.5% of routes run, but converted a big play on 33.5% of routes, perhaps quieting the skeptics of his speed.
Running backs Mixon and Giovani Bernard offered little help, averaging just 3.6 and 3.4 yards per carry, respectively. Tight end Drew Sample was unremarkable as well, catching 40 passes for 349 yards and one touchdown.
TUA TAGOVAILOA, DOLPHINS
Did Tagovailoa dazzle in his rookie year? No.
Did Tagovailoa play horribly? No.
So, should we consider him a bust after nine starts? Also no.
After watching Burrow and Justin Herbert thrive, it was easy for many to label the most efficient passer in college football history an NFL failure. Tagovailoa does not have Herbert’s athleticism or arm strength, and comparing the two can make Tua’s play look paltry at best.
But Tua was nothing more or less than your average rookie quarterback. He flashed his potential against the Arizona Cardinals while also showing plenty of room to grow in the first half against the Buffalo Bills in Week 17. Tagovailoa’s passer rating (87.1) was better than Josh Allen (67.9), Sam Darnold (77.6) and Tom Brady (86.5) in their first season.
Tagovailoa tallied a WT% of 76.2 and a pickable pass rate (PKP) of 4.27, each just above league average. His OT% was below league-average at 71.5, a step down from his rookie counterparts.
Tua went 6-3 as a starter, though that includes a Week 16 win over the Las Vegas Raiders in which he was benched for Ryan Fitzpatrick. Tagovailoa was aided by a fourth-place schedule and Miami defense and special teams units that took the pressure off of him with early turnovers and scores.
Other than the Arizona win, head coach Brian Flores and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey never let Tua loose nor relied on him to win the game. Rather, Tagovailoa was asked to manage games, and he did so, throwing for 11 touchdowns and five interceptions, with three picks coming in Week 17.
He didn’t look like the quarterback we watched at Alabama, but he was coming off major hip surgery with an abbreviated offseason and no preseason games. He’s not as physically gifted as Burrow or Herbert, but that doesn’t mean the Dolphins should give up on him.
With three rookies playing significant time, Miami’s offensive line struggled immensely, especially in pass protection. The Dolphins’ rookie tackles, first-round pick Austin Jackson and second-round pick Robert Hunt, generated PR-A% of 15.8 and 12.3, respectively, both below league average.
There was better production inside, albeit relative. Due to various injuries, the offensive line shifted around multiple times throughout the season, with Jesse Davis (9.0 PR-A%, 0.5 ASR-A%) playing multiple positions. Ereck Flowers, one of Miami’s most notable offseason acquisitions, played well enough, allowing pressure 6.1% of the time and totaling an adjusted sack rate against of only 1.2. Solomon Kindley, another rookie, was inserted into the lineup midway through the season and performed admirably with a PR-A% of 6.8 and an ASR-A% of 1.1.
Center Ted Karras played the entire season, compiling a PR-A% of just 4.2 and an ASR-A% of 0.5.
Miami has a bevy of draft picks and a wealth of cap space, and it’s likely they’ll use one of those to fortify an offensive line that has to protect Tagovailoa, given his injury history. Whether it be Sewell with the third pick or a free agency signing remains to be seen.
Miami’s pass-catchers pale in comparison to those of Bengals, Chargers and, quite frankly, most of the NFL.
Despite a career year in 2019, DeVante Parker has never blossomed into the No. 1 wide receiver the Dolphins hoped he’d become. The former first-round pick has dealt with injuries his entire career, having played 16 games just once in six seasons. In 2020, Parker generated a burn% of 65.0 on 406 routes, but only got open 49.5% of the time. Since Week 8 (Tagovailoa’s first start), he totaled a burn% of 58.7 and got open on just 34.9% of routes.
Tight end Mike Gesicki put together his best season, tallying 703 receiving yards and six touchdowns. But the analytics don’t love the former Penn Stater, as he recorded a 56.0 burn% and 57.1 open%. With Tua at the helm, he was actually slightly better (59.3 burn%, 64.8 open%), but he still needs to improve to become a more reliable option in 2021.
Beyond those two, trustworthy receivers were few and far between. Preston Williams played well against Arizona, finishing with four catches for 60 yards and a touchdown before exiting the game with a season-ending foot injury. Mack Hollins (72.0 burn%, 84.0 open%) and Jakeem Grant (70.3 burn%, 83.8 open%) haven’t turned their speed into big-play production.
In the backfield, both Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed flashed potential, but Tagovailoa would likely benefit from a true, three-down running back. Given Miami’s other needs, that issue might be best solved in the draft.
But considering all the speculation around Deshaun Watson, GM Chris Grier and Flores need to fully commit to Tua first.
JUSTIN HERBERT, CHARGERS
The third quarterback selected in the 2020 draft burst onto the scene in the strangest of fashions – as a last-minute replacement after Tyrod Taylor’s lung was punctured by a team doctor.
Herbert, in short, was a revelation for a Los Angeles Chargers franchise looking for its next great quarterback. What seemed like a quasi-consolation prize turned into arguably the best selection of the draft.
The former Oregon Duck and Eugene, Oregon native torched opposing defenses, collecting a WT% of 79.6 and an OT% of 74.4. His PKP of 2.94 was the best among rookies with at least 100 passing attempts and ranked seventh among all quarterbacks.
Herbert set rookie records for passing touchdowns, passing completions and total touchdowns and had the most 300-yard games as well as two-touchdown games by a rookie. He also finished with the second-most passing yards in a rookie season (a record he likely would’ve beaten had he played all 16 games), the second-best completion percentage and the fourth-highest passing passer rating.
Herbert is the prototype for the new era of quarterback. He’s 6-foot-6, 236 pounds, extremely athletic and owns a Howitzer of an arm. He’s a general manager’s dream, and he dispelled the concerns over accuracy and decision-making in his first year.
It might not be a coincidence that LA’s offensive line was the best of the three teams with first-round rookie quarterbacks. The Chargers allowed 34 sacks, tied for 15th most in the NFL.
Los Angeles’ linemen encountered their fair share of injuries, but the mainstays separated themselves as the year progressed. Sam Tevi (9.9 PR-A%, 0.8 ASR-A%) was an anchor at left tackle, playing all but two games. Left guard Forrest Lamp (9.2 PR-A% and 0.6 ASR-A%) and center Dan Feeney (7.1 PR-A%, 1.1 ASR-A%) – both LA draft picks in 2017 – started all 16 games.
The Chargers are young at the position – the mean age is 26.4 – and it’s possible that they keep this group intact, with minimal changes.
It’s safe to say that Herbert benefitted from the best group of receivers and running backs of the rookie quarterbacks. From Keenan Allen to Hunter Henry to Austin Ekeler, the Chargers had offensive weapons all over the field.
Allen, the Chargers’ top receiving weapon for the past eight seasons, is as reliable as they come, generating a burn% of 62.1 and an open% of 72.4. He fell eight yards short of recording 1,000 receiving yards for the fourth-consecutive season, but he still tied a career high with eight touchdowns and had 100 receptions for the third time in his career.
Henry, one of the best young tight ends in the league, totaled a burn% of 58.7 and an open% of 65.2. He’s yet to play a full season and scored just four touchdowns on 60 receptions. He’s an impending free agent and has a bit of an injury history, but given how difficult it is to find an effective tight end, expect GM Tom Telesco to try to re-sign Henry.
When healthy this season, Ekeler led a promising Los Angeles backfield, joined by Kalen Ballage, Josh Kelley and Justin Jackson. He wasn’t as dynamic as he was in years past, but entering his age-26 season in 2021, Ekeler should still lead the team in carries.
Quarterback is the most important position in football, and maybe in all team sports. Herbert, Burrow and Tagovailoa have all flashed greatness, but the league got it right by awarding Herbert the rookie of the year. Though Burrow edges him by exactly one percentage point in well-thrown percentage, Herbert led the Big 3 in open target percentage and pickable pass rate while setting rookie passing records.
The Chargers, Bengals and Dolphins may have found their franchise quarterbacks, but in Year 1, Herbert was the best of the bunch.
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