In Week 3, four proven quarterbacks — Ryan Fitzpatrick, Carson Palmer, Cam Newton, and Blake Bortles — threw a combined 16 interceptions on 167 pass attempts. Through three weeks, four rookie starting quarterbacks have thrown exactly zero picks in 262 attempts. That cherry-picked sample illustrates two things: 1) That the NFL makes even good players look horrendous from time to time, and 2) Despite that, the most mistake-prone people playing the most mistake-prone position in football have been uncommonly safe with the football.
More than that, they’ve been really good.
If the season ended today, Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks Carson Wentz might be the NFL MVP. No, seriously. He is leading arguably the best of just five undefeated teams left in the league — the Eagles’ plus-65 point differential easily leads all teams. By passer rating, he is the seventh-best starter in the NFL, and he is No. 1, according to Pro Football Focus’ grades. At the very least, we can stop saying that he’s been good for a rookie and admit that he’s been good, period.
If not for Wentz, Dak Prescott might be the biggest headline of the season. A fourth-round pick was thrust into playing in place of an excellent long-time starter — a disastrous situation in most circumstances — and thrived. Against the Chicago Bears on Sunday night, he completed just shy of 80 percent of his passes at more than 10 yards per attempt. His 123.6 passer rating was only worse than that of Wentz, some guy named Aaron Rodgers, and — good god, Trevor Siemian.*
Jacoby Brissett? Played well as the Patriots’ third stringer against a Texans defense that was supposed to be one of the best in the NFL. Cody Kessler? He was far from the Browns’ biggest problem in a comeback loss to the Dolphins after he overcame a rough start. The only rookie interception thus far came from Seahawks backup Trevone Boykin, who threw just nine passes in a spot spell for an injured Russell Wilson.
*Siemian is coming off a four-touchdown performance against a good Bengals defense, and is perhaps the most surprising quarterback of the season. It’d be fun to include him here, though his three interceptions on the year make the statistical wonkiness less wonky.
Overall, it has been a hell of a showing for a bunch of guys no older than 23, and considering that the player who was supposed to be the best passer in the class is sitting on the Rams’ bench. Jared Goff, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, is the No. 2 quarterback in Los Angeles behind Case Keenum, which has been as weird as it sounds but Jeff Fisher works in mysterious ways.
Of course, it’s way too early to make broad projections about how these rookies will fare over the next 13 games, much less their full careers, but given how good they’ve been it’d be a shame not to ogle a bit.
Statistically, they haven’t thrown that many passes
You should take their numbers with a grain of salt — but then again, you probably already knew that. The four rookie starters have been very good, but they have also barely gotten their feet wet. Even Wentz and Prescott, who have started three full games each, have thrown the 12th- and 16th-most pass attempts for rookie quarterbacks through the first three games of their careers.
|Quarterback||Attempts (rank)||Yards (rank)||Passer rating (rank)|
|Carson Wentz||102 (12)||769 (6)||103.8 (3)|
|Dak Prescott||99 (16)||767 (7)||93.3 (6)|
|Cody Kessler||33 (83)||244 (74)||85.9 (13)|
|Jacoby Brissett||28 (94)||195 (86)||81.7 (18)|
They’ve been relatively more productive and efficient, however
The rookies have made the most of the passes. Wentz may be 12th in attempts, but he is sixth in yardage. Prescott is 16th and seventh. Kesler is 83rd and 74th. Brissett is 94th and 86th. And by passer rating, they are all among the top 20 rookie passers ever (with at least 25 attempts).
And despite the narrow criteria, the list of the most efficient rookie passers ever through three games includes some good company. Jim Kelly (99.8) is No. 5, Fran Tarkenton (89.6) is No. 7, Russell Wilson (86.2) is No. 12, and Cam Newton (85.1) is No. 14.
cough Greg Cook (No. 1), Mark Sanchez (No. 8), EJ Manuel (No. 11), Chris Weinke (No. 17), Blaine Gabbert (No. 19) cough
Ugh, fine, but it’s still pretty impressive what this year’s rookies have done as a group. No other class of rookie quarterbacks even has four quarterbacks in the top 50 if you don’t include the replacement players who played during the 1987 NFLPA strike. Only the 2004 class of rookies has any kind of depth with four players almost in the top 50 in Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer (26th and 47th, respectively), and Chris Simms and Ken Dorsey (41st and 51st ... also, woof). The quality of 2016’s start for rookie quarterbacks is unprecedented ... even if it isn’t entirely meaningful.
And of course, a good running game and offensive line helps, and so does bad opposition
It’s probably not a coincidence that these rookies are also getting very good support. A good running game is a fine way to take pressure off a quarterback. So far this year, only Wentz’s Eagles aren’t rushing for at least 4 yards per carry, and they still rank 10th in rushing yards. Brissett’s Patriots are No. 1 with 452 yards at 4.2 yards per carry. The Browns are fifth at 434 yards at a league-leading 5.7 yards per carry. Dak Prescott’s Cowboys are sixth at 402 yards at 4.0 YPC on the dot.
Those four teams are all in the top half of the league in adjusted sack rate, according to Football Outsiders, with the Eagles and Cowboys ranking sixth and seventh, respectively. The Eagles jump up to fourth in Pro Football Focus’ pass-blocking efficiency, allowing Wentz to face pressure on just 25 percent of his dropbacks.
And of course, for Wentz, it’s useful that the defenses he has faced are ranked, in order, 20th, 27th, and 26th in defense by DVOA. Prescott has faced the 18th, 25th, and 27th ranked defenses. Kessler just the 19th-ranked defense. Brissett beat the eighth-ranked Texans defense, but was also called on to do the least to drive his offense.
On average, these rookie starters are facing defenses ranked a little worse than 21st by DVOA, which isn’t great. That number should go down significantly after, for example, the Eagles face the Vikings in Week 7 or the Seahawks in Week 11. Prescott and the Cowboys offense have a particularly difficult stretch coming up, going to San Francisco this weekend (ninth in defensive DVOA), then hosting the Bengals (17th), going to Green Bay (10th), and then taking their bye before host Wentz and the Eagles (second).
These are rookies after all, don’t expect them to remain perfect
But at the same time, don’t let a couple caveats cloud what’s in front of your face. NFL defense are incredibly sophisticated, and even the best quarterbacks are liable to implode in any given week. This year’s rookies — and let’s single out Wentz and Prescott in particular — have displayed veteran steeliness at a young age unlike all but some of the best quarterbacks to ever play.
Even for touted players, what they have done exceeds all expectations. Even getting on the field is praise worthy. Just ask Jared Goff.