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 have to play early on. 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. Often, in fact, they are pretty terrible. Sometimes, though, a rookie can really figure things out quickly and can be surprisingly strong from the 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. Here are seven factors for sports handicappers to consider when trying to determine how effective a quarterback might be at the start of their careers:
How ‘pro’ did they 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 on in college? There will always be a huge step up in complexity and skill from college to the NFL, but the more experience a guy has had with a pro style offense the easier the transition is going to be because he has less he has 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 form under center will be well ahead of a guy who was in the shotgun. Of course, it is possible for a QB to make a major transition effectively – the odds are just much better of a good transition if the changes are minimal and earlier skills are transferable. Second, did the QB have a feel of a guy who was going to be a successful pro? When you watched Peyton Manning play in college you had no doubt that he was going to be a star. More recently guys like Matt Ryan and Sam Bradford have had that ‘it’ factor. It’s far easier to expect decent things form them as a rookie than a guy who has been less distinguished or who doesn’t have quite the same commanding presence. NFL quarterbacks who are successful really have to fake it until they make it, and some guys are much better at this than others.
Are they playing 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 it’s often not that hard to have faith in him. The further things stray from that situation, though, the scarier things can get. A rookie NFL quarterback needs a ton of work with the coaches and the first team to stand any chance at all of success. If he doesn’t get that until the last minute then he has to cram months of work into days or weeks. That rarely goes well in the short term. A football team that has a clear plan that they are working towards at QB is also going to be calmer and generally more relaxed about the key position, and that will be reflected in the play and general attitude of the coaches and players.
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 he has vets to pass to and hand off to then he can grow into his role comfortably. If he has to learn along with everyone else around him, though, then there is inevitably going to be even more growing pains. There is an important note here, though – the NFL veterans around him not only need to be experienced but also open to growing with a young player and working with him to build something. Skilled and open minded rookies are better for a football team than selfish diva veterans.
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 the right time. Others only require that a QB doesn’t lose games for them – with Trent Dilfer’s Super Bowl ring as clear proof of that. The more that a system requires perfect timing and the strong command of a complex playbook the harder it is going to be for a rookie at the start. Adaptability is also important here – some offensive schemes can be simplified and modified far more easily than others.
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 here to the offensive coordinator, the QB coach, and the others who will have direct contact with the rookie.
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 that he will be ready. Needless to say, then, a guy who signs a contract soon after the draft and participates in all of 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 by any length of lockout than a quarterback.
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 perceived to be. Similarly, you could find great early season value if you think that a lower profile quarterback is going to be surprisingly strong form the start. The bigger the gap between public perceptions and your perception the better as you can cash in on your NFL football picks.