In 2022 there were 68 different NFL Quarterbacks who started at least one game including playoffs. Seven of the nine rookie Quarterbacks taken in the 2022 draft started at least one game last year and recall there was only one quarterback taken before the third round, the Steelers’ Kenny Pickett (1st round 20th pick). In 2023 eight of the fourteen rookie QBs drafted and one rookie free agent QB have started at least one game through nine weeks. That ties the NFL record set in 2019.
The three QBs taken in the first four picks of the first round were no-brainers. It was highly anticipated all three would work their way into the QB1 slot by mid-season. There was also a good chance that Will Levis, the 2nd rounder (33rd pick) taken by the Titans, would also see action. But the five others have ascended to the starting slot through a series of Quarterback injuries and/or performance issues. I’m going to rank these rookies based on performance to date. In fairness to a few in the bottom half it’s been a small sample size of games and they could add value with more starts under their belt.
1. CJ Stroud, Houston Texans
The Ohio State star has been the surprise of the season at the Quarterback position. Taken with the second pick in the first round by the Texans, CJ has combined his great physical tools with high level decision-making through Houston’s first eight games, leading the team to a respectable 4-4 record. The Texans were 3-13-1 in 2022 without Stroud. Why CJ’s success? One factor is Stroud has protected the football better than any other rookie and many of the other QB1s in the league. CJ has completed 62.0% of his passes with a remarkable 14 TD passes against only 1 interception. In fact, CJ set a new NFL record of 186 passes without an interception to start a career. The previous record of 177 was held by the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott. Additionally, he became the first Quarterback in NFL history to have at least 900 yards passing, four passing touchdowns, and zero interceptions in his first 3 career starts. Just when you think he’s hit his zenith he goes out this past Sunday and defeats Tampa Bay 39-37 by completing 30 of 42 for another rookie record of 470 yards and 5 TD passes. A monster day.
NFL’s Cognition Test May Need a Reboot
What’s interesting is that following the NFL Combine in early 2023 it was leaked by The Athletic that Stroud had performed poorly on the league’s intelligence test. In fact, it was leaked he scored dead last. For years the NFL used the Wonderlic test to measure basic IQ. But beginning with the 2023 testing the league switched to the S2 Cognition test, a nine part test that includes sections designed to measure a Quarterback’s ability to follow multiple objects, make complex decisions, and filter through if/then scenarios based on defensive adjustments. It was reported that Bryce Young scored a 98% and highest while CJ Stroud posted the lowest score of 18%.
After the leak the intrigue continued as Brandon Ally a co-founder of the S2 Cognition test said that some of the scores that were leaked were “not accurate” and that one player was required to take the test late at night after a long day with tryouts and media interviews. He would not name the player. What is very clear is that through eight NFL games CJ Stroud possesses remarkable decision making capabilities for a rookie Quarterback. It will be fun to track Stroud and confirm his performance to date is not an aberration. Stroud has been at his best staying in the pocket and running through his progressions. He’s demonstrated the “threat” of the run, but he’s earning high praise for distributing the ball around to his receivers. CJ is the toast of the NFL rookie class and front-runner for Rookie of the Year honors.
2. Will Levis, Tennessee Titans
Will would not be on this list just two weeks ago. In fact, many thought he was the forgotten QB at the 2023 draft. Rated as a potential first round pick coming out of Kentucky, Will was painfully overlooked in the first round of the draft as the TV cameras zoomed in on Levis after every first round pick that did not include his name. Will and his family had to sleep on it, but, the following day Tennessee traded up to acquire Levis with the second pick of the second round (overall 33rd). It’s fair to say Will Levis showed up at Titans training camp with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. While Ryan Tannehill has been ensconced as QB1 at Tennessee since 2019, and an NFL starter since 2012 (Miami) there has been some restlessness coming from the Titans’ faithful after last year’s fall to 7-10 (6-6 in games Tannehill started).
As expected, Ryan Tannehill started 2023 as QB1 while Will Levis battled with Malik Willis, a 3rd round pick out of Liberty in 2022, for the QB2 spot. Prior to last week, Titans’ coach Mike Vrabel was not stipulating who exactly was QB2 on the depth chart. But as the Titans (2-4) continued to sputter with Tannehill (2 TDs vs 6 pics) the question was answered when Tannehill went down with a high ankle sprain October 15 vs the Ravens. Ryan was ruled inactive for the game two weeks ago vs the Falcons and Vrabel named Will Levis the starter, but Vrabel said both backup QBs would play. Why do coaches do this? They’re like hedge-fund managers.
4 TDs and Zero Pics!
The tale of two Tennessee Quarterbacks vs the Falcons became moot when Malik Willis fumbled his first possession. At that point Vrabel pulled Willis and went with Levis the entire rest of the game. Will Levis’ response? An incredible 19 of 29 (65.5%), 238 yards and 4 TDs with zero picks! Boom! Titans win 28-23. No hesitation by Vrabel to name Levis the starter for last Thursday Night’s game vs Pittsburgh. But alas, Tennessee and Will Levis would come back down to earth in the 20-16 loss. Will posted respectable numbers with 22 of 39 for 262 yds and 1 TD and 1 pic. If Tannehill is healthy this week Vrabel has another big decision to make regarding QB1.
3. Aidan O’Connell, Las Vegas Raiders
Aidan is another late bloomer who was not highly recruited out of Stevenson HS in Lincolnshire, Illinois. Part of it was packing a slight 170lbs on his 6’3” frame. His only scholarship offer came from D-ll Davenport University. After committing to Davenport he changed direction and accepted a preferred walk-on role with Purdue. At Purdue he would sit for his first two years until he saw his first action in 2019 playing in six games (three starts). He entered 2020 as QB1 but suffered a season ending injury in the third game. People, this game is NOT easy! Two thousand and twenty-one saw Aidan starting the season as QB2 behind starter Jack Plummer. He would eventually take over the starting role and pass for 3,712 yards and 28 TDs with 11 Ints. He started again his senior year but the Boilermakers and O’Connell would backslide a bit to a 7-5 record with Aidan tossing for 22 TDs and 13 pics.
By 2022 he had filled out that frame and was now weighing in about 210lbs and much more attractive to NFL scouts. The Las Vegas Raiders would select Aidan in the fourth round (135th pick). He joined a Quarterback room with veterans Jimmy Garoppolo and Brian Hoyer. The oft injured Garoppolo would go down with a concussion in week three so coach Josh McDaniels went with rookie O’Connell in the week four loss to the Chargers. In Aidan’s first NFL start he played well, completing 24 of 39 for 238 yards no TDs and 1 pic. Garoppolo would be back in the lineup until a back injury in week 6 vs the Patriots. This time McDaniels went with Hoyer to start week 7 but he struggled against the Bears. Ultimately the coach went back to Aidan O’Connell. Displaying veteran poise Aidan went 10 of 13 for 75 yards and 1 TD vs 1 pic in the 30-12 loss to the Raiders. Not bad for a walk-on.
Raiders Roll the Dice with Aidan
Then all hell breaks loose in Las Vegas. Garoppolo is brought back to start on Monday Night Football on October 31 vs the Lions, but Jimmy is not impressive nor are the Raiders as they get smacked 26-14. Following the game, Josh McDaniels is fired. Linebacker coach Antonio Pierce is named interim head coach, and he names Aidan O’Connell QB1. The new Raiders host the New York Giants in week 9 and blows the doors off Allegiant Stadium with a rousing 30-6 win. By all accounts Aidan O’Connell is in control; running the Raiders offense and going 16 of 25 for 209 yards with no TDs, but, more importantly, no turnovers. All of a sudden the Raiders are 4-5 (3-1 at Allegiant) and may have found themselves a new QB. O’Connell will find out that it doesn’t get any easier as the Jets are bringing their very tough defense to Vegas this Sunday. Will Aidan continue to grow? Let’s just hope he doesn’t come up craps.
4. Bryce Young, Carolina Panthers
I thought Bryce deserved to be the first QB taken in the 2023 draft for several reasons. First, he was incredibly accurate in his two seasons as a starter at Alabama. He posted 80 TD passes vs only 12 interceptions. Additionally, in college he always seemed calm, controlled and unfazed by the situation or the competition. His football IQ was highly rated. In fact, he scored the highest of any Quarterback at the combine on the Wonderlic or S2 cognition test. And finally, he was clearly a pass first DNA type QB with exceptional escapability and off-platform skills. But, he knows his job is to distribute the football. The big question has been his 5’10” frame. Could he “rise” above it like a Russell Wilson or even Kyler Murray?
That’s a Lot of Cheese
Well, I’m afraid the jury is still out. The Carolina Panthers traded their 1st round pick and second round pick in the 2023 draft plus a 1st and 2nd round pick in the 2024 draft plus their top receiver, DJ Moore, to the Chicago Bears for the rights to make Bryce Young the #1 pick in the draft. Bryce signed a four-year rookie contract worth $37.9 million fully guaranteed. In 2023 training camp the Panthers new head coach, Frank Reich, did not hesitate to name Young QB1 to start the season.
Bryce Dumps CJ
Since week one vs the Atlanta Falcons it’s been a work in progress. In the opener Young threw his first NFL TD pass to Hayden Hurst but also threw two interceptions to Falcons safety Jessie Bates in the week one loss. Through the first seven weeks (Young missed game three with an ankle sprain) Young would go 0-6 as the starter. Ironically, in week eight Young would finally get in the win column and outplay CJ Stroud, the hottest rookie QB in the league. In the 15-13 win Bryce threw for 235 yards and a TD. But If Panthers fans were looking for a break-through I’m afraid that wasn’t it. Last Sunday the Panthers and Bryce Young went down to the Indianapolis Colts (Sans Anthony Richardson ) led by mustached Gardner Minshew 27-13. Young would toss for only 173 yards and a killer 3 pics.
Frank Reich, a fourteen year NFL QB in his own right, has not wavered his support for Bryce Young. And given the price paid for the former Heisman winner how could you? Barring injury this will be Young’s team for the foreseeable future (meaning 2023). He’s currently tracking at 1-6 with 8 TDs and 7 pics. He’s also taken 26 sacks which is a sign his reads on the defense need quicker recognition. But trust me, a losing team is a difficult environment to learn how to play “Sports’ toughest position.” Is Carolina not getting much milage out of Bryce Young, or is Young not getting much benefit out of the Panthers’ environment? Only time will tell.
5. Tyson Bagent, Chicago Bears
After NFL week 7 Tyson Bagent was THE story in the NFL. Why? Well how about the story of a Quarterback from Martinsburg, WV who goes on to play his football at D-ll Shepard University in West Virginia. He is a five-year starter, breaks all the records including the NCAA record for passing touchdowns (159) across all divisions. He is offered scholarships to larger schools but declines. He is 6’3” and 213 lbs. He is invited to the NFL Combine but goes un-drafted. On October 22, 2023 Tyson became the first division ll undrafted rookie to start an NFL game since 1950!
As a free agent Tyson Bagent (sounds like agent) made the Bears’ 53-man roster at the end of pre-season. Justin Fields was clearly QB1, but the QB2 position between Bagent and Nathan Peterman was kind of “murky.” In week 4 the Bears announced that Bagent was now QB2. On October 15 Bagent made his NFL debut when Fields went down with an injury against the Vikings. He completed 10 of 14 passes for 83 yards, added a rushing TD, a fumble and a pic in the 19-13 loss. The next week (7) Bagent was announced as the starter vs the Las Vegas Raiders. In his first start he went 21 of 29 for 162 yards and a TD in the 30-12 win. Boom! And then two weeks ago on Sunday Night Football Tyson went 25 of 37 for 232 yards with two pics and a rushing TD in the 30-13 loss to the Chargers.
Tough to be Consistent When 2-7
So now can you feel a little air coming out of the ballon? Overall I think Tyson has played above expectations. I mean what are expectations for a D-ll un-drafted rookie? But when he’s played well, he’s played well in spurts and hasn’t put two good halves together. On Sunday vs a really good Saints defense he had a great first half: 10 of 13, 149 yards, 2 touchdown passes and one pic for a QB rating of 121.5. He also ran for 60 yards on 6 carries. But in the second half it fell apart. Bagent would throw 2 interceptions in the fourth quarter and in the game’s final drive, down 7 points he would be sacked and stripped of the ball to give the Saints the win. His totals end up with four turnovers including three pics and the fumble, so there is still work to be done. Bears’ coach Matt Eberflus offered, “He’s had some good moments.” Will he get more?
I hope so. I like Tyson Bagent and not just because he’s a D-ll QB. He’s got grit and I think he will continue to improve. But how? The Bears are 2-7 and on a 2 game losing streak. They play Thursday night against the Carolina Panthers. It is doubtful Justin Fields will recover in the short week to get back in the lineup, so it looks like we will see the D-ll un-drafted free agent go head-to-head with Bryce Young, the number one pick in the draft. Now that is a game I’d like to see!
6. Anthony Richardson (Out for Season)
The Indianapolis Colts selected Florida’s Anthony Richardson as the fourth pick in the 2023 draft. Richardson had wowed the combine with scores that ranked him as the most athletic QB prospect in league combine history: 6’4” and 244 lbs with a 4.5 forty! But Anthony Richardson had only started 13 collegiate games at Florida. He had posted passing stats that included 24 TD passes and an eye-popping 15 pics. On the other hand, Anthony rushed for over 1,000 yards and 12 TDS for the Gators.
I’ve written earlier about drafting potential over performance at the QB position. For the Colts the going has been slow with Anthony Richardson. After being named QB1 to start the season Anthony threw both his first TD pass and first pic in the opening game loss to Jacksonville. In game two Richardson went out with a concussion. Back in the lineup in week 4 vs the Rams, Richardson performed admirably, bringing the Colts back from a 23 pt deficit only to lose in OT 29-23. His rushing TD marked the first time a rookie QB has scored a rushing touchdown in each of his first three games.
But unfortunately in week 5 vs the Titans, on a running play, Anthony Richardson went down with an injury to his AC joint in his right shoulder. The Colts announced he will need surgery and miss the rest of 2023. It was reported on October 25 that Richardson’s surgery was successful and he is in rehab preparing for the 2024 season. Richardson’s final rookie season stats: 4 starts completing 59% of his passes for 3 TDs and I pic while rushing 25 times for 136 yards and 4 TDs. We wish Anthony and the Colts well in his recovery.
7. Dorian Thompson-Robinson, Cleveland Browns
All of these Quarterbacks have put up crazy numbers in their collegiate careers. DTR is no exception. I’m just going to give you a small sample. While at UCLA he became QB1 his sophomore season (2019). That year he led the Bruins to a 67-63 comeback victory over Washington Sate. Against the Cougars Dorian threw for 507 yards and five touchdowns. He also ran for 57 yards and two more TDs. His 564 total yards was a UCLA record. Later the same year he would light up the USC Trojans for 431 yards which was the second-most ever by a Bruin the in rivalry. The guy is a baller!
His career would continue to bloom with the Bruins and he became a two-time second-team All-Conference Pac-12 QB. He was selected by the Cleveland Browns in the 5th round of the 2023 draft. Upon arriving in Cleveland the QB room was a bit lite. After the Browns traded Joshua Dobbs to Arizona it was Just DTR and a guy named Deshaun Watson, although eventually the Browns would sign PJ Walker. In an earlier blog (Sept 10’s The Most Vulnerable QB rooms on Opening Day) I identified the Browns QB Room as vulnerable, in part due to the still pending lawsuits filed by women who claim Watson sexually harassed them. Until the lawsuits are cleared up there is always a chance the NFL could suspend Watson again under the personal conduct clause of his contract.
In making his comeback in 2023 Deshaun Watson has been dogged by injury. Most recently he suffered a rotator cuff contusion that knocked him out of the lineup in week 4 vs the Ravens. With PJ Walker less than a month into the Browns’ playbook, head coach Kevin Stefanski went with Dorian Thompson-Robinson in the week 4 game vs the Ravens. The Ravens defense lead the league in yards allowed and sacks. Not a great set up for your NFL debut? Correct. DTR would struggle in this game going 19 of 36 with zero TDs and 3 big pics. The Browns would lose 28-3. The next week PJ Walker took over as QB2. Deshaun Watson will start this Sunday. For now it appears Thompson-Robinson will need to wait out his next opportunity to get back on the growth curve.
8. Jaren Hall
The report on Jaren will be brief, because his first start as an NFL rookie was very short. Drafted in the 5th round out of Brigham Young University by the Minnesota Vikings, Jaren walked into a QB room with top tier QB Kirk Cousins sitting firmly in the QB1 seat. But in NFL Week 8 the 35 yr old Cousins went down for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. Head coach Kevin O’Connell named Hall the starting QB against the Atlanta Falcons. In last Sunday’s game Jaren started well. You immediately got the impression O’Connell was bringing Hall along slowly with short, low risk passes, and he responded by completing 5 of his first 6 for 78 yds. But in the second quarter with the Vikings moving the ball, Hall scrambled 8 yards down to the one yard line where he was met by the Falcons’ Kaden Ellis and Josh Okudah. As he was tackled the back of Hall’s Helmut bounced off the turf. He was out with a concussion after only 6 passes.
At this point let’s digress off the rookies and talk about what QB Josh Dobbs did after entering this game. Dobbs? You might ask? Wasn’t he in Arizona? Didn’t Pittsburgh draft him in 2017? Didn’t he go to Cleveland earlier this year? The answer to all the above is… yes. Prior to 2023 Dobbs had signed with 5 NFL teams and played in 6 games with no starts. He had only thrown a total of 17 NFL passes. Then 2023 got interesting. Cleveland signed Dobbs in March. In training camp on August 24 Dobbs was traded to the Arizona Cardinals for a fifth round pick. Josh Dobbs would take over QB1 as the Cards awaited the return of Kyler Murray from injured reserve and start 8 games as the Cardinals went 1-7. There was talk in the media about the possibility Arizona might be tanking to qualify for the #1 pick of the 2024 draft; seems a bit far-fetched.
After Kirk Cousins went down, the Vikings traded for Dobbs on October 31 giving up a 6th round pick. Dobbs arrived in Minneapolis last Tuesday prior to the Falcons game on Sunday. He did not know the offense, terminology, etc, and did not take a practice snap with the first team as Jaren Hall was preparing for his first start. Fast forward and all Josh Dobbs did was lead a come-from-behind victory for his new team. He passed for 158 yards and two TDs. He was the Vikings leading rusher with 60 yards including a critical 18 yard TD run. He would pass for the winning touchdown to Brandon Powell with :22 remaining. He had not thrown a pass to Powell during the week’s practice. Vikings win 31-28!
Aerospace Engineer to QB1
How did Dobbs, O’Connell and the Vikings do it? Well, early in the game Dobbs took his lumps. He was sacked for a safety and fumbled twice in the first half. But O’Connell was brilliantly teaching Dobbs the offense as the game progressed. When a play was sent in O’Connell was translating the calls and mapping out the plays to Dobbs over his headset. The plays began to jell in Dobbs’ mind. After the game Josh Dobbs, an aerospace engineering major from Tennessee would say, “Its like if you were taking AP Spanish all year, and you come in Wednesday and someone says you are having an AP French exam on Sunday.” Who could explain it any better? As Kevin O’Connell would say, “I hope people understand what Josh Dobbs was able to accomplish was something very special.” Indeed it was. And oh, guess who O’Connell named as his QB1 this week against the Saints? Yup.
9. Clayton Tune
So the Arizona Cardinals deal Josh Dobbs to the Minnesota Vikings last week after Dobbs had started 8 straight games for the Cards. The next man up in Arizona would be a rookie out of the University of Houston, Clayton Tune. At Houston the 6’3” Tune threw for 11,989 yards and 104 Touchdowns, and rushed for another 15 TDs. Selected in the 5th round, Clayton would be the 139th pick in the 2023 draft. But last week his audition for the QB1 seat did not go all that well. Clayton was 11 of 20 for only 58 yards in the 27-0 loss to the Cleveland Browns. In fairness to Tune, the Browns defense is a QB killer and they sacked Tune seven times last week, forcing a fumble and two pics out of the rookie.
It’s been hard to figure out the Arizona depth chart at QB. The team has a first year head coach, Jonathan Gannon, and a new GM, Monti Ossenfort. It’s not clear how highly they value Kyler Murray as QB1. In fairness, they have not seen him play as the former Heisman Trophy winner is just now being activated from the injured reserve list. Murray sustained a serious knee injury in December 2022 that required extensive surgery. As alluded to above, the press has speculated the Cardinals have their eye on Caleb Williams at Southern Cal. In order to bag Williams an NFL team is probably going to need the #1 pick in the 2024 draft. It now seems to be Murray’s turn to audition for his old job. In his first four NFL season Kyler Murray has thrown for over 13,000 yards and 84 TD passes. The 41 interceptions have been troubling, but Murray is a two-time Pro Bowler.
This past Sunday the Giants’ QB Daniel Jones went down with a knee and will be out for the season. The QB that replaced him was rookie Tommy DeVito. DeVito was in the game because the week before the Giants’ QB2, Tyron Taylor, went out with a rib injury. It’s not known if Taylor is well enough to be activated. If not, Coach Brian Daboll will need to decide between Devito and veteran Matt Barkley. If it is the undrafted free agent DeVito (Syracuse) he would be the 10th rookie to start an NFL game in 2023 and set the season record for most rookies to start a game in an NFL season.
There are three reasons why NFL teams prioritize rookie Quarterbacks:
1. Draft status: the team gets an opportunity to draft a “franchise” player, or draft a longer term developmental player that may fit into their plans
2. Performance: the veteran QB in the Room is underperforming and the team needs a spark
3. Financial: teams take risks on rookies because they are cheap (outside the first round). All rookie contracts for drafted players are for four years and bonuses are within a salary cap structure.
But as you can see from the performances above it is VERY difficult for an NFL rookie Quarterback to perform at a tier-one level and then maintain that performance over the course of a season. So far in 2023, CJ Stroud is that one unique player. Can he hold on to it? Will anyone else join him? Let’s check back in another 8 weeks.