The Trials And Tribulations Of Young Quarterbacks

Photo: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

There is one thing most people need to understand about rookie quarterbacks: basically none of them are "good", at least, not in the way we would typically think of the word. Inconsistency is going to mar almost every first-year passer, and while there will be flashes, sometimes for a whole four quarters or more, you can be sure that hiccups won't be far behind.

There's a reason why quarterback is the most coveted position in pro football, it's easily the most difficult to play at a high level. So why in the world would we expect any rookie to look consistently "good" at it in their first year in the league? It's illogical to expect an output comparable to the other top 10-15 quarterbacks in the NFL on a week-to-week basis.

Now, that doesn't mean that we can't eventually hold young quarterbacks to the standard of the top 10-15 quarterbacks in the NFL in order to determine if they've met our pre-draft expectations. For myself, if Josh Rosen and Baker Mayfield aren't in that group by year three, there's a strong chance I'll be ready to take an 'L' on them. For others, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson will fit that bill.

We can be hard on young quarterbacks, but if we aren't doing it with the context of a number of different factors, especially their level of experience, we're doing it wrong.

But it isn't just experience and individual growth that we have to look at. I asked noted quarterback guru Mark Schofield about his thoughts on developing young passers, and he noted how critical the system around the quarterback is, from teammates to coaches to scheme.

"While identifying traits in college quarterbacks is important, their scheme fit and environment is going to tell the story between boom or bust probably 75% of the time. There are some quarterbacks who, regardless of where they end up, are gonna be good. But those guys are rare."

In my opinion, these five factors should be prioritized in this order when evaluating the landing spot for a young quarterback. If the team he ends up on isn't strong in at least a couple of these five areas, the odds of him succeeding are slim to none.

1. Offensive coaching/scheme

2. Offensive line/pass protection

3. Head coach/culture

4. Receivers/weapons

5. Defense

You can argue somewhat about the order here, and a significant strength in one area can certainly offset weaknesses in other spots. But if we look in-depth at the young quarterback spots around the NFL, I think you'll find these five factors are useful in evaluating the player.

To check myself, I not only asked Schofield for his thoughts on how those factors stack up for a quarterback, but also The Athletic's Ted Nguyen and Dane Brugler. Schofield said he might flip defense to the no. 4 spot and receivers to no. 5, while Nguyen said he would take out defense as a factor altogether.

Brugler's perspective was particularly thought-inducing, and while I think the order after the first two spots is largely inconsequential, he would prefer receivers in the no. 3 spot, with head coach/culture sliding to no. 4. I think it's a valid point.

"With quarterbacks, and any position, scouting is just one half of the equation. The other half, which isn’t as sexy but arguably more important, is the development side. I think every situation is different, but it is tough to disagree with your order as a general rule of thumb. No. 1 is a no-brainer. The quarterback coach and play-caller are as instrumental to a young quarterback’s success as anything. They need to understand his strengths and what he is comfortable doing. They also need to understand his weaknesses and figure out how to help him improve. The development starts in the quarterback room then to the practice field and finally game day – only the quarterback coach and play-caller are right there with him for every step.

Offensive line would be second for me as well. And Baker Mayfield’s situation in Cleveland is a perfect example. He’s surrounded by questionable coaching decisions and inconsistent pass-catching options, but the leaky offensive line is the main issue, specifically the spotty offensive tackle play. And if a young quarterback can’t trust his protection, his internal clock starts to go haywire and instead of focusing on coverages and route timing.

If I would change one thing about the list it would be to put Receivers/Weapons over Head Coach/culture. In terms of winning football games, quarterback and head coach are the two most important positions for a franchise. And while the head coach is important for a young quarterback, I’m not sure it’s more important for his development than the skill players around him. Using Mayfield again as an example.

Hue Jackson has an abysmal record as head coach of the Browns (3-35-1) and there is a likely chance this is his final season as a NFL head coach. Yet, I think improved play from the Browns skill players would be more beneficial to him than a change at head coach. It might not equal as many wins as a change at head coach would, but I think a quarterback can overcome mediocre-to-inept head coaching easier compared to mediocre-to-inept receivers, tight ends and backs."

Regardless of the order, there are very few quarterbacks around the league that can truly thrive if the five factors listed above are less than ideal, especially the first two. The ones who can are all-time greats (Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees at times), and it is really unfair to hold the vast majority of signal callers to that standard, especially first and second-year quarterbacks.

So who are the quarterbacks we're still trying to figure out around the NFL, and how do these five factors stack up on each team? I gave each factor a 5-point value (5 = excellent, 4 = good, 3 = average, 2 = below average, 1 = poor) to rank the various young quarterback situations across the league.

Mitch Trubisky, Chicago Bears

Offensive coaching/scheme - 4

I fully believe Matt Nagy is on his way to being one of the best new coaches in the NFL, and his offensive scheme, especially in his opening game scripts, has been outstanding. This was fully on display against Tampa Bay, when he consistently created big plays with his route combinations, taking full advantage of issues he saw with the Bucs zone responsibilities on tape.

Trubisky is in excellent hands with Nagy, as is the rest of the Bears offense.

Offensive line/pass protection - 5

Few quarterbacks in the NFL have been kept as clean as Trubisky this season. Nagy's scheme has helped as well, but the Bears have consistently given Trubisky clean pockets to throw from and sustained their blocks when the young signal caller holds the ball too long, which is often the case.

Head coach/culture - 4

I only gave it a four because I believe it takes time to build a completely stable organization in a place with a recent culture of losing, but I do think Nagy is the guy to do that. The consistency and focus of a franchise doesn't impact any player on the roster like it does the quarterback. They're typically in the building more than any other player on the team, and ideally function as almost an extension of the coaching staff and front office as their career progresses.

It will take time for Chicago to get there, but I do believe Nagy and Ryan Pace have done a ton this offseason to build that culture of stability around Trubisky.

Receivers/weapons - 4

Not only do the Bears have an impressively deep stable of options in the passing game, but the pieces also complement each other incredibly well and are well-rounded in what they bring to the table. Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller have performed well this season, despite the up-and-down play of Trubisky, while Tarik Cohen is one of the better receiving backs in the NFL and Trey Burton has been everything Chicago hoped he would be as a free agent signee.

Defense - 4

The Bears defense isn't elite yet, but it's a very good group with playmakers at all three levels. They're second in the NFL in takeaways this season, consistently setting Trubisky and the offense up for success.

Summary (21/25)

By next season, we will know exactly who Mitch Trubisky is as a quarterback. He is currently in one of the most ideal situations in the NFL for young passer, yet still playing at a pretty average level in his second season.

Because Trubisky only had one year as a collegiate starter, and last year under John Fox was a train wreck, he deserves the opportunity to continue to grow as a quarterback for at least two seasons under Nagy. His performance this year hasn't done much to ward off the doubters, and understandably so, but a big leap in year three is not out of the question. The physical and athletic talent is definitely there, but he's been more raw than expected two years into his career.

Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans

Offensive coaching/scheme - 4

I think Bill O'Brien has actually done a great job tailoring the offense to fit not only the talents of Watson, but also his receiving group. There is the occasional wild play call or bizarre deviation from a successful strategy, but as a schematic mind, I'm a fan of what O'Brien has done.

Offensive line/pass protection - 1

No quarterback in the league is as constantly under duress as Watson, despite the fact that his escapability is often a major strength in these situations. His offensive line is a disaster.

Head coach/culture - 3

The Texans have been remarkably stagnant over the past several years, posting three consecutive 9-7 seasons before a 4-12 injury-riddled campaign last year. O'Brien has been on the hot seat many times, but has continued to retain his position against the odds. If the team doesn't make the playoffs this season, he's probably gone.

Receivers/weapons - 4

The Texans have one of the worst rushing attacks in the NFL and no receiving threat out of the backfield, but their receiving corps is led by one of the best in the league in DeAndre Hopkins. Will Fuller has been a solid complementary piece and Keke Coutee looks like a chess piece that O'Brien can maximize schematically.

Defense - 3

The Texans have played well defensively so far this year, but a lot of their feature pieces are older and the best offenses they've faced have still given them a rough ride. Their schedule is remarkably easy the rest of the way this season, so the tough tests will be few and far between.

Summary (15/25)

Watson's situation could definitely be worse, but his protection is the worst in the NFL, which has significantly impacted his ability to be consistent snap-to-snap and drive-to-drive. If the Texans fix his protection concerns, he could lock in as one of the better quarterbacks in the league.

As it stands currently, the fact that he has been clearly better than Trubisky despite a worse situation across the board and a far worse situation in the second most important category for young quarterbacks is incredibly telling.

Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs

Offensive coaching/scheme - 5

This one isn't surprising anyone. Not only is Andy Reid one of the best offensive minds in the NFL, he's also an exceptional play caller with a terrific understanding of how to utilize his personnel.

Offensive line/pass protection - 4

Mahomes protection has been very good most of the season, but we've seen a few more hiccups in recent weeks as teams have blitzed the Chiefs more. Still, it's hard to consider the offensive line a weakness given how well they've played this season.

Head coach/culture - 5

Winning organization, strong front office, very little instability and consistent aggression in the draft and free agency to get players to help them win. An offensive-minded head coach with a large say in the big picture plans will eventually extend to Mahomes, making him even more comfortable in Kansas City.

Receivers/weapons - 5

Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Kareem Hunt and Sammy Watkins will rival any group in the NFL right now. Mahomes stirs the drink, but it's a powerful beverage regardless.

Defense - 2

The Chiefs defense has hung in there, improving steadily over the past month. I don't think this group is one they can count on in playoff-caliber matchups however, which could be an issue in the postseason.

Summary (21/25)

Mahomes' situation scores 19-out-of-20 in the four most important categories for a quarterback. Simply put, there is no better situation for a quarterback in the NFL right now than Kansas City. The Chiefs have provided the perfect lens to be able to evaluate who Patrick Mahomes is as a quarterback, and he's maximizing every square inch of talent around him.

This is how you evaluate a quarterback succeeding in a great spot. Don't lazily dismiss the signal caller as a result of the product around him. Evaluate who he is within the context of that situation. Football is a team sport. It's cliche, but it's true. Mahomes is making everything work at a ridiculously high level right now. That's exactly what an elite franchise quarterback does. If he can sustain it, he'll be among the top five quarterbacks in the NFL soon.

Josh Rosen, Arizona Cardinals

Offensive coaching/scheme - 1

Is zero an option? It's almost unfathomable for an offensive coaching situation to be worse for a rookie quarterback. Not only was Mike McCoy clearly unfit for the title of offensive coordinator based on his history at the position, but he also lasted just five games into Rosen's career.

With Byron Leftwich assuming the offensive reins, we'll see if things change from the current train wreck Rosen is firmly embedded in.

Offensive line/pass protection - 1

That should tell you everything you need to know about how bad Arizona's offensive line situation is.

Head coach/culture - 1

The GM got arrested for a DUI this offseason. The offensive coordinator has been fired before the midway point of the season. The new head coach has made more clueless decisions in half a season than some coaches do in their entire tenure with a team. All of a sudden the Arizona Cardinals are the picture of instability.

Receivers/weapons - 3

I figured no. 1 and no. 3 on this list would be bad, and knew no. 2 would be horrible, but I did not expect Arizona's receivers to struggle the way they have this season. Six dropped passes in Rosen's first start, receivers running wrong routes, pass-catchers failing to finish in contested catch spots despite well-placed balls. It's been frustrating to watch this group operate this season. There is promise with Christian Kirk and Rosen's budding chemistry, however.

Defense - 2

You could probably give the Cardinals a 1 in every category if you wanted to, but I'm giving the defense a slight benefit of the doubt because of how pitiful the offense is. They've been put in some bad spots, but it's also the league's worst run defense and isn't much better against the pass. Steve Wilks has not made a positive impact in any way yet.

Summary (8/25)

The Cardinals are the worst situation for a rookie quarterback in the NFL, and it isn't particularly close. They scored a 3-out-of-15 for the three most important aspects of a rookie quarterback's situation, and aren't above average in any area.

That's just one man's opinion of the team of course, but I doubt you'll find anyone of credibility to disagree. It's a disaster. Leftwich is the best present hope for getting Rosen some help.

Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills

Offensive coaching/scheme - 4

I've watched a lot of the Bills passing game, and been pretty impressed with Brian Daboll's offense so far. He's scheming guys open and giving Allen easy reads, while also utilizing plenty of play action concepts, the quarterback's biggest schematic strength in college. Bills' analysts I trust have concerns with the run game, but I think Daboll has been good for Allen in his initial half-season in Buffalo.

Offensive line/pass protection - 3

I expected Josh Allen's protection to be worse than it has been, but I think the group has been average-to-below average depending on the week. Allen has been hit a lot, but he's also holding the ball longer than almost any quarterback in the league, and often failing to account for an extra blitzer that is his responsibility pre-snap. Still, Dion Dawkins is probably the only desirable starter on the o-line.

Head coach/culture - 4

The Bills snapped their insane playoff drought last season, and players reportedly love playing for Sean McDermott. The Bills second-year head coach has been huge on instilling a strong culture within the organization, and it appears that Brandon Beane and McDermott are here for the long haul. They've got a lot to improve on, but stability doesn't appear to be an issue in Buffalo.

Receivers/weapons - 1

The worst receiving group in the NFL and it isn't even remotely close. Zay Jones is the only guy on the team who looks like he should have a job in the NFL, and he's average at best.

Defense - 4

The Bills have one of the better defenses in the NFL, both due to scheme and a bunch of underrated players. Having said that, there are still holes here, which have been exacerbated by a totally inept offense this season.

Summary (16/25)

Josh Allen was playing at a pretty low level this season before his injury, some of which can be attributed to his supporting cast. Although he's making matters worse, his protection hasn't been great and his receiving group has been worse, although Daboll's scheme is helping alleviate some of those concerns by scheming guys open and making things simple for Allen.

The Bills have some things in place that will help make this a stable spot for Allen, now they just need to enhance the level of talent around him on the field and hope he can look more pro-ready by year three.

Sam Darnold, New York Jets

Offensive coaching/scheme - 4

After an extremely conservative start in New York, I'm starting to warm up to Jeremy Bates as he opens up the offense for Darnold. With the handcuffs off, Darnold has been a more dynamic passer and has improved his accuracy and decision-making down the field.

Offensive line/pass protection - 3

Darnold's protection has been surprisingly competent most of the season, despite a few bumps in the road that probably stand out in fans' minds. They can stand to upgrade a few spots, but across the board the much-maligned group has performed better than expected this year.

Head coach/culture - 2

The Jets have been mired in losing for awhile now, and while Todd Bowles isn't the worst head coach in the NFL, he's squarely on the hot seat if he has a third straight losing season. The front office is also in a rocky spot, although they may be given a longer leash if Darnold continues to show promise.

Receivers/weapons - 3

This group could be a '4' if healthy, but with Quincy Enunwa hurt again and Terrell Pryor released, the Jets are down to newly-signed Rishard Matthews, speedster Robby Anderson and veteran Jermaine Kearse as targets for Darnold. Not a horrible group, but Enunwa is the best of the bunch, and there is no real threat at tight end or out of the backfield.

Defense - 3

Like the rest of the team, the Jets defense isn't great, but there are certainly a number of worse units across the NFL. They produce turnovers at one of the highest rates in the league, but the pass rush isn't anything to write home about, and they are still short on talent at several key positions.

Summary (15/25)

Of all the average teams in the NFL, the Jets may be the most average. I'm not sure they have one transcendent talent on the entire team outside of maybe Jamal Adams, but they also aren't truly poor in many areas either. The hope is certainly that Darnold's situation could be improved this offseason, but the Jets are competent enough across the board to offer him hope of relative success for a rookie season.

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns

Offensive coaching/scheme - 3

You could probably make an argument for giving the Browns a '2' in this category, but I think there have been enough bright moments to say the scheme has been average. Todd Haley's offense has definitely looked a bit different than his days in Pittsburgh, and if Hue Jackson takes more control, you can bet this thing will head to the cellar fast.

Offensive line/pass protection - 3

Mayfield has held the ball a little long at times this season, but the further the 2018 campaign has progressed, the worse the protection concerns have been. Both tackles are struggling mightily the past few weeks, and even the interior o-line that should be a strength has been up-and-down. Given the money spent on this offensive line, a lot more should be expected the second half of the season.

Head coach/culture - 1

Worst culture and worst head coach in the NFL. Hopefully John Dorsey can help change that, but right now it's a train wreck.

Receivers/weapons - 2

Jarvis Landry is a high-end no. 2 being asked to do everything for Cleveland to be successful in the passing game. Antonio Callaway has been atrocious, while David Njoku hasn't made the big second-year leap yet. Duke Johnson could help, but we all know he won't get the ball more under Hue.

Defense - 3

The talent level on the Browns defense is good enough to be considered better than this, but the actual performance and the schematic disadvantage they are often put in thanks to Gregg Williams is debilitating. Leading the league in takeaways helps keep them at a '3'.

Summary (12/25)

The Browns have a few pieces on the field that will help an already pro-ready Mayfield make a smoother transition to the NFL, but the coaching situation is so bad that I don't believe much will change in Cleveland this season.

Final Thoughts

After grading all of the first/second-year starting quarterback situations around the NFL, here's how they stacked up.

Mahomes - 21/25

Trubisky - 21/25

Allen - 16/25

Watson - 15/25

Darnold - 15/25

Mayfield - 12/25

Rosen - 8/25

Here's what this ranking does: it allows us to look at each quarterback's situation and understand how difficult it is too currently evaluate how good we can expect them to be this season. For Mahomes, the bar was always going to be higher given the potential of the Chiefs offense if he played at a high level. He's met and even exceeded those expectations.

Despite having a situation fairly comparable to Mahomes', Trubisky hasn't been close to as good. In year two, that is far from a nail in the coffin, but it does raise legitimate concerns about the North Carolina product. At this point, Trubisky's success is pretty much on his shoulders. The situation around him is close to being as good as a young passer could hope for.

Watson has been very good in a situation that is pretty unideal in some key ways. An evaluation of the tape will give the clear edge to Mahomes this season, but it will be interesting to see how close Watson can get when his situation improves.

For all the rookies, take the results of this season with a grain of salt. None of them are in good situations, and all of them will need considerable upgrades in the coaching and/or talent around them to make this thing work.

Of course, we can still evaluate these quarterbacks through tape study, but the context of the full situation will need to be taken into consideration when docking their play at times. Make no mistake, quarterbacks can still be bad in bad situations, but understanding how the factors around them may be influencing their play can never hurt the evaluation.

If we needed a clearer example of how important the landing spot for these young quarterbacks is, just rewind three years ago. Dak Prescott looked like the best of the bunch, with every aspect of Dallas' team basically playing at an elite level. Run game was the best in the league, protection was absolutely perfect and receivers consistently made plays for him.

That isn't to say Prescott wasn't good, just that an evaluation of his tape could have showed you where the cast was buoying him and where he would probably struggle in the future. When the other aspects of the team faded, so did his play.

Meanwhile Carson Wentz and Jared Goff thrived in two of the best offensive situations in the NFL last season, and in year three Goff has taken his game and the Rams offense to new heights. Is he a product of McVay's system? If that means a guy that throws dimes and strikes to all levels of the field with remarkable accuracy and timing, sure. In my opinion, it takes a freaking good quarterback to operate a system that asks him to do those kinds of things.

In short (which this article has not been), young quarterbacks need to be evaluated first by the tape, not by the box score. In order to fully understand their statistical output or lack thereof, one must not only evaluate the quarterback but also his entire situation. If we expect passers to peak in the NFL, for the vast majority of quarterbacks throughout history, it won't happen alone.

Football is and forever will be a team sport. The quarterback is the most important position for getting that team to play at peak performance, but he'll never have a shot to do that if the factors around him are largely unstable.