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Bust, JAG, or franchise QB: A deep dive into the numbers on rookie QBs who struggled like Josh Rosen

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Since 2000, relatively few rookie QBs have struggled as badly Josh Rosen did in his rookie year. Can we learn anything from these past examples about Rosen’s future development?

Arizona Cardinals v Seattle Seahawks
Josh Rosen struggled mightily in his rookie season. What will it take for him to turn it around in 2019?
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

**Note: This article has been updated to lower the rookie passing attempt minimum from 200 to 150, which adds the following QBs to the analysis: Eli Manning, Alex Smith, and Lamar Jackson.**

A couple weeks ago, we wrote that the Cardinals needed to bring in an young, innovative offensive mind to jump-start Josh Rosen’s development. Well, last week, the Cardinals made perhaps the splashiest coaching hire of the offseason when they hired 39-year-old former Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury. I mean, this thing was a cannonball from the high dive—but at least it should wash away any lingering stench from the one-year Steve Wilks era. Success or failure, Michael Bidwill and Steve Keim deserve kudos for being unafraid to make a bold move.

The reason we needed to make a bold hire like Kingsbury (who fits the above description like a sweet scorpion jacket) is simple: Rosen just wasn’t very good last season. In fact, of all the rookie QBs drafted in the 1st round since 2000, Rosen’s rookie-season QB rating ranks 29th out of 39 (minimum 150 passing attempts). As we’ll find out below, the track record for rookie QBs who struggled as badly as Rosen did last season is… not great. It’ll be up to Kliff Kingsbury to mold Rosen into, hopefully, a franchise QB.

But what, exactly, does Kingsbury have to work with in Rosen? What can we learn from rookie QBs who struggled similarly to Rosen in past seasons? Is there any hope for Rosen to turn it around—and turn it around quickly? Let’s find out with a deep dive into the numbers (all courtesy of profootballreference.com).

The Magic Number Is 75

Let’s take a look at that list of 39 1st-round rookie QBs I mentioned above. Now, let’s set a simple cutoff of a QB rating of 75 or above. QB rating is a pretty flawed stat, but it can be a useful, if somewhat blunt, measuring stick, and a QB rating of 75 is a good baseline for average-ness. Here’s what that list looks like only including rookie seasons with a minimum of 150 pass attempts and a QB rating of 75 or above (20 total):

1st-Round Rookie QBs with a QB Rating > 75 (since 2000)

Player Year Drafted Att Yds Cmp% Y/A TD Int Rating Rank
Player Year Drafted Att Yds Cmp% Y/A TD Int Rating Rank
Deshaun Watson 2017 204 1,699 61.8 8.3 19 8 103.0 1
Robert Griffin 2012 393 3,200 65.7 8.1 20 5 102.4 2
Ben Roethlisberger 2004 295 2,621 66.4 8.9 17 11 98.1 3
Baker Mayfield 2018 486 3,725 63.8 7.7 27 14 93.7 4
Marcus Mariota 2015 370 2,818 62.2 7.6 19 10 91.5 5
Matt Ryan 2008 434 3,440 61.1 7.9 16 11 87.7 6
Teddy Bridgewater 2014 402 2,919 64.4 7.3 14 12 85.2 7
Lamar Jackson 2017 170 1,201 58.2 7.3 6 3 84.5 8
Cam Newton 2011 517 4,051 60.0 7.8 21 17 84.5 9
Jameis Winston 2015 535 4,042 58.3 7.6 22 15 84.2 10
Joe Flacco 2008 428 2,971 60.1 6.9 14 12 80.3 11
Carson Wentz 2016 607 3,782 62.4 6.2 16 14 79.3 12
EJ Manuel 2013 306 1,972 58.8 6.4 11 9 77.7 13
Sam Darnold 2018 414 2,865 57.7 6.9 17 15 77.6 14
Mitchell Trubisky 2017 330 2,193 59.4 6.7 7 7 77.5 15
Carson Palmer 2004 432 2,897 60.9 6.7 18 18 77.3 16
Sam Bradford 2010 590 3,512 60.0 6.0 18 15 76.5 17
Jason Campbell 2006 207 1,297 53.1 6.3 10 6 76.5 18
Andrew Luck 2012 627 4,374 54.1 7.0 23 18 76.5 19
Ryan Tannehill 2012 484 3,294 58.3 6.8 12 13 76.1 20

That’s a pretty solid list. There’s only one unequivocal bust (Manuel), with a couple injury cases (Griffin and Bridgewater), several multi-year starters (Winston, Bradford, Campbell, and Tannehill), and three guys from this year’s rookie class (Mayfield, Jackson, and Darnold). The rest of the QBs on this list are guys who have led their teams to the playoffs, Pro Bowlers, league MVPs, and Super Bowl champions. Not a bad list to be on at all.

Unfortunately for Cardinals fans, Josh Rosen is not on that list. Or anywhere close to making it. Below is the other half of that list, the rookie QBs with a rating below 75 (19 total):

1st-Round Rookie QBs with a QB Rating < 75 (since 2000)

Player Year Drafted Att Yds Cmp% Y/A TD Int Rating Rank
Player Year Drafted Att Yds Cmp% Y/A TD Int Rating Rank
Matt Leinart 2006 377 2,547 56.8 6.8 11 12 74.0 21
Byron Leftwich 2003 418 2,819 57.2 6.7 14 16 73.0 22
Brandon Weeden 2012 517 3,385 57.5 6.6 14 17 72.6 23
Patrick Ramsey 2002 227 1,539 51.5 6.8 9 8 71.8 24
Christian Ponder 2011 291 1,853 54.3 6.4 13 13 70.1 25
Blake Bortles 2014 475 2,908 59.0 6.1 11 17 69.5 26
Josh Allen 2018 320 2,074 52.8 6.5 10 12 67.9 27
Josh Rosen 2018 393 2,278 55.2 5.8 11 14 66.7 28
Vince Young 2006 357 2,199 51.5 6.2 12 13 66.7 29
Blaine Gabbert 2011 413 2,214 50.9 5.4 12 11 65.4 30
Jared Goff 2016 205 1,089 54.6 5.3 5 7 63.6 31
Mark Sanchez 2009 364 2,444 53.9 6.7 12 20 63.0 32
David Carr 2002 444 2,592 52.5 5.8 9 15 62.8 33
Kyle Boller 2003 224 1,260 51.8 5.6 7 9 62.4 34
Matthew Stafford 2009 377 2,267 53.3 6.0 13 20 61.0 35
Joey Harrington 2002 429 2,294 50.1 5.4 12 16 59.9 36
Josh Freeman 2009 290 1,855 54.5 6.4 10 18 59.8 37
Eli Manning 2004 197 1,043 48.2 5.3 6 9 55.4 38
Alex Smith 2005 165 875 50.1 5.3 1 11 40.8 39

This… this is not a good list to be on. With four notable exceptions (more on them below), this list is full of busts and forgettable starters—which is not surprising, given how little these guys showed in their rookie years.

Below, we’ll break these guys into three categories (excluding Rosen and fellow 2018 rookie Josh Allen) and see what we can learn about Rosen’s potential development under Kingsbury moving forward.

Category #1: The Busts

We’ll define this category as QBs who failed to start at least 75% of their team’s games in the first three seasons of their career, meaning 36 starts within their first 48 games. (Although there is one exception whom I slotted into the category below.) We’d better hope that Rosen doesn’t end up on this list in a couple seasons.

Rookie QB “Busts” (since 2000)

Player Year Drafted Career Yds Career Cmp% Career Y/A Career TD Career Int Career Rating Career W/L
Player Year Drafted Career Yds Career Cmp% Career Y/A Career TD Career Int Career Rating Career W/L
Patrick Ramsey 2002 5,930 56.0 6.5 35 30 74.9 10-14
Kyle Boller 2003 8,931 56.7 5.9 48 54 69.5 20-27
Matt Leinart 2006 4,065 57.1 6.3 15 21 70.2 8-10
Blaine Gabbert 2011 9,063 56.2 6.1 48 47 71.7 13-35
Christian Ponder 2011 6,658 59.8 6.3 38 36 75.9 14-21-1
Brandon Weeden 2012 6,462 57.9 6.7 31 30 76.0 6-19

This list isn’t pretty. None of these guys ever started a playoff game or even sniffed a Pro Bowl. Their starting careers were largely over after just a few seasons, and none received a second contract from the team that drafted them. This list comprises 6 of the 17 non-2018 rookie QBs who failed to reach a 75 QB rating in their rookie season, meaning there is a 35% “bust” rate for rookie QBs like Rosen. That’s not encouraging. How about the next category?

Category #2: The JAGs (Just a Guy)

The guys on this list all met the 36-start threshold described above, and most started the majority of their team’s games for 4-5 seasons. However, none of these guys lasted longer than 5 seasons with the team that drafted them and they all generally failed to make much of an impact in the league.

Rookie QB “JAGs” (since 2000)

Player Year Drafted Career Yds Career Cmp% Career Y/A Career TD Career Int Career Rating Career W/L
Player Year Drafted Career Yds Career Cmp% Career Y/A Career TD Career Int Career Rating Career W/L
David Carr 2002 14,452 59.7 6.4 65 71 74.9 23-56
Joey Harrington 2002 14,693 56.1 5.8 78 85 69.4 26-50
Byron Leftwich 2003 10,532 57.9 6.6 58 42 78.8 24-26
Vince Young 2006 8,964 57.9 6.9 46 51 74.4 31-19
Mark Sanchez 2009 15,357 56.6 6.6 86 89 73.2 37-36
Josh Freeman 2009 13,873 57.6 6.8 81 68 77.6 25-36
Blake Bortles 2014 17,646 59.3 6.7 103 75 80.6 24-49

This list also isn’t particularly encouraging, and if you wanted to call most of these guys “busts,” too, I wouldn’t argue much. But there is some value in having a starting QB locked in for cheap, even if they’re mediocre. Leftwich, Young, Sanchez, and Bortles all started playoff games for the teams that drafted them, with the latter two reaching the conference championship game. And Vince Young (the exception mentioned above) somehow managed to make two Pro Bowls during his strange, abbreviated career (although both were as an alternate).

Still, the Cardinals didn’t trade up to draft Rosen and hire Kingsbury to have a JAG under center for 4-5 years. Although with 7 names on this list, that means there is a 41% “JAG” rate for rookie QBs statistically similar to Rosen (and a whopping 76% “bust + JAG” rate). Let’s hope instead that Rosen can end up like the guys in the final category.

Category #3: The Franchise QBs

There are just four QBs with rookie numbers similar to Josh Rosen who went on to have above-average NFL careers. But “above average” doesn’t have much of a ring to it, so we’ll use the admittedly nebulous term “franchise QB” to describe these guys. These guys are either statistical monsters or have multiple Pro Bowl and/or playoff appearances. Cardinals fans would be happy if Rosen had a career like any of these guys. Although with just four names on this list, that’s only a 24% “franchise” rate, the odds are much better that he winds up in one of the previous two categories. But here are the four “franchise” QBs.

Rookie “Franchise” QBs (since 2000)

Player Year Drafted Career Yds Career Cmp% Career Y/A Career TD Career Int Career Rating Career W/L
Player Year Drafted Career Yds Career Cmp% Career Y/A Career TD Career Int Career Rating Career W/L
Eli Manning 2004 55,981 60.3 7.0 360 239 84.1 116-114
Alex Smith 2005 34,068 62.4 6.9 193 101 87.3 94-66-1
Matthew Stafford 2009 38,526 62.4 7.1 237 129 88.4 66-75
Jared Goff 2016 9,581 62.1 7.7 65 26 94.7 24-14

What’s encouraging about these QBs is that they all had statistically worse rookie seasons than Rosen: lower completion %, worse TD:INT ratio, and lower QB rating. So how were these four able to overcome the perilously high “bust + JAG” rate to become franchise QBs after struggling so badly during their rookie seasons? Let’s take a quick look at each player’s situation, especially between their first and second seasons as starter—where each experienced a significant leap—to see if we can find any kind of model the Cardinals might be able to follow with Rosen.

Eli Manning

When Tom Coughlin replaced an “aging” Kurt Warner with Manning midway through the 2004 season (Cardinals fans know how the Warner story story ends), he had Pro Bowl running back Tiki Barber to lean on, but his top weapons at WR were Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard, neither of whom cleared 800 receiving yards on the season. The next season, Manning’s surrounding cast was mostly the same, but with two key additions: a #1 WR in Plaxico Burress and solid RT in Kareem McKenzie. With Barber (and TE Jeremy Shockey) making the Pro Bowl and Burress going for over 1,200 yards, Manning passed for 3,700 yards and 24 TDs (with 17 INTs) as the G-Men went 11-5 and won the NFC East. Two years later, he was a Super Bowl MVP. (Although many will say that he stole the award from Justin Tuck.)

Is there anything the Cardinals can learn from Manning’s ascension in Year 2? Well, the coaching situations couldn’t be more different, and there is no Pro Bowl TE in sight (there hasn’t been one since the team has been in Arizona, in fact), but we do have the Pro Bowl RB in David Johnson. Can Keim bring in a big-time outside threat at WR and stabilize the OT positions this offseason? The arrow would be pointing up for Rosen if he can.

Alex Smith

Truth be told, Smith’s career is so atypical that I don’t think there’s much the Cardinals can learn from his example. Smith didn’t make the playoffs or put up anything resembling franchise QB numbers until his 7th season in the league. He didn’t throw for 20 TDs or make his first Pro Bowl until his 9th season in the league and on his second team (the Kansas City Chiefs). Granted, he made three Pro Bowls and four playoff appearances during his time with the Chiefs, but that didn’t help the 49ers at all (although I’m sure they appreciated the 2nd-round pick they got from Kansas City for him). Smith did eventually earn a huge contract from Washington, but the injury he suffered earlier this year has put his career in jeopardy. I just don’t think there’s much the Cardinals can take away from Smith’s career arc.

I suppose the lesson here is just to be patient? But that will be cold comfort for the Redbirds when Rosen is making the Pro Bowl for, I don’t know, the Dolphins in 2025. But looking at the 49ers in 2005 versus 2006—when Smith’s QB rating jumped nearly 35 points from truly abysmal to just mediocre—they did get 2000 scrimmage yards and 9 TDs from Frank Gore. So having an elite RB to help out your young QB is seeming like an important factor.

Matthew Stafford

In 2009, Stafford’s head coach was Jim Schwartz and his offensive coordinator was Scott Linehan. The Lions’ two leading rushers were Kevin Smith and Maurice Morris, and their leading receiver was Calvin Johnson. In his breakout 2011 season (Stafford missed most of 2010 with a shoulder injury), Stafford’s head coach was… Schwartz. His OC was… Linehan. The Lions’ second and third leading rushers were (such as they were)… Smith and Morris, and their leading receiver was… Johnson. (Their offensive line was also 3/5 the same, with their two new starting guards being promoted from within.)

So, coaching-wise and offensively, not much changed for Stafford between his dismal rookie season and 5000-yard(!) second full season as starter. They stayed the course with their defensive-minded head coach and largely kept the same offensive cast around him. They had no running game to speak of, but it certainly didn’t hurt that they had a generational talent at WR. That model is obviously not one the Redbirds can follow, unfortunately. Stafford’s turnaround seems to be more the result of him learning to harness his natural talent. Not much to learn from Stafford’s situation. One more name to go.

Jared Goff

The 2016 Rams offense was a mess. Under head coach Jeff Fisher, Todd Gurley was mired in a massive sophomore slump behind an ineffective O-line, and when Goff took over for Case Keenum midway through the season, his leading receivers were Kenny Britt, Brian Quick, and Tavon Austin. However, the offseason brought massive changes—out were Fisher, Britt, and Quick, and in were whiz kid Sean McVay; new WRs Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, Sammy Watkins; and two new Pro Bowl–caliber starting O-lineman in John Sullivan and Andrew Whitworth. You know the rest—worst to first in points, two playoff appearances, and two Pro Bowls for Goff.

Can the Cardinals follow this model? Possibly. They already have a few important pieces in place for Rosen—the offensive whiz in Kingsbury, the former stud RB in DJ, and a couple useful WRs in Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk. But they have a lot of work to do this offseason if they want to approach a Rams-like offensive turnaround in 2019—especially at the WR and OL positions. Similar to what we discussed in the Manning section above, we need to add at least one game-changing weapon at WR and at least two (probably three) new starting O-lineman. That’s a tall order, to be sure. Can Keim pull it off?

Final Thoughts

To reiterate: Only 4/17 (24%) rookie QBs with a QB rating lower than 75 have gone on to become franchise QBs since 2000 (not counting 2018’s two Joshes). That’s a concerning statistic for the Cardinals and their fans.

Even more concerning? All four of those QBs were the #1 overall pick in their draft. Rosen wasn’t drafted until #10 overall. And what is the track record since 2000 for QBs drafted outside of the #1 overall pick who had a QB rating lower than 75 in their rookie season going on to become a franchise QB? It’s 0-12. No one has done it. Can Rosen be the first?

The paths out of bust/JAG purgatory seem to be either 1) be the #1 overall pick (which Rosen wasn’t), 2) have a QB with one of the strongest arms in NFL history (again, not Rosen), or, barring that, 3) surround your young QB with as much talent as humanly possible, ideally including an offensive innovator at HC, top-flight WR talent, a stud RB, and a solid O-line. (Gee, you think all that would help a developing QB?)

This is the approach the Cardinals seem to be taking. With DJ and Kingsbury already in place, Keim will need to be very aggressive going after WRs and O-linemen when the free agent and trading markets open in March for us to have any hope of Rosen making off a second-year leap. (It’s not gonna happen with rookies, no matter how high they’re picked.)

All that said, there are two more “magic” numbers I’d like to draw your attention to: 60 and 7. Those are completion % and yards per attempt, respectively. Of the 13 QBs in the bust/JAG categories, not one had a career completion % of above 60.0 or a career YPA of above 7.0. The four “franchise” guys? They all hit the completion % mark, and only Smith falls short of the YPA mark (and he’s at 6.9 for his career). If you’re curious, 13 of the 17 non-2018-rookie QBs in that first table above are above the 60/7 threshold—and that number jumps to 15/17 with some minute rounding.

Can Kingsbury get Rosen to improve on his rookie-year numbers of 55.2 completion % and 5.8 YPA to reach that 60/7 threshold? Well, in his 6 seasons at Texas Tech, his QBs hit those numbers every season but one—his second season of 2014, when his team completion % was… 59.4. If Kingsbury can translate the basic concepts of his aerial attack to the NFL, and if Keim can surround his young QB with stronger weapons and protection, and if Rosen’s natural talent blossoms in his second season, we could potentially have a franchise QB on our hands. He would be the first non-#1 overall pick with such a low rookie-year QB rating to become one.

That’s a lot of ifs, I know. And if any of those ifs don’t come to fruition, then at best we’ll have a JAG on our hands—and a bust at worst. The odds are firmly in the favor of one of those two undesirable outcomes. But, as the numbers above show, the Cardinals should still have hope for Rosen. I’m telling you there’s a chance, Cardinals fans. Now, let’s hope Rosen, Kingsbury, and Keim take advantage.