Does Starting Earlier Disrupt a Quarterback's Development?

Many people point to the career arc of Aaron Rodgers as proof that a quarterback should sit and learn. Does this affect their careers?

There are days I wonder if I'm just not cut out to work as a teacher.

I know that I associate well with kids, I know I have the experience and knowledge to mold their psychological development, and I know how to structure a lesson plan well; I'm not afraid of any of that. It's actually the idea of getting up at five in the morning so that I can be to school by six that sounds frankly terrifying to me.

You have no idea how much coffee I would be chugging on days like that.

Just as much as I'm afraid of having to find out what dawn looks like on my way to my future school, many coaching staffs and front offices in the National Football League wrestle with a similar question themselves. When is it too early to anoint a young quarterback as your starter? More and more we are seeing teams thrust rookie passers into prominent roles on the offense, and some have worried that this is destroying the quality of the quarterbacks in the league.

We've proven that there is no difference between rookie passers now compared to the past 15 years, but a question does remain: do “sit-and-learn” quarterbacks have better careers than rookie starters?

Common Roots

It's no secret that the National Football League is a young player's league. Especially for a quarterback, teams are hoping more and more to find franchise players at that position, and are forcing their young talent to start earlier. Even 20 years ago, it was unthinkable that a rookie passer would be starting a game unless the veteran was injured; nowadays it's so common that the four top-40 selected quarterbacks last year all started at least one game in their rookie year.

The table below depicts just how much the rookie passer impact has increased in the league over time. The table shows how many average starts a quarterback drafted in the top-40 of the NFL Draft makes in their rookie year.

Decade Avg. Rookie Starts
1970-79 4.92
1980-89 4.36
1990-99 4.96
2000-09 6.08
2010-15 8.25

From this data, we can see very clearly that rookie quarterbacks in the league have progressively become more heavily leaned on, to the point where the average starts of a highly-drafted rookie passer in this decade is starting nearly double the amount of games that a quarterback in the 1970's was. The era of sitting premium rookies at the quarterback position is essentially over, but should it be?

The slowly-developed quarterback is a dying breed, but should we revere them as much as we do, or is the best thing for a young face of the franchise to receive a trial by fire?

Morning Glory

Those of us who yearn for “the old days” of the NFL can list the great quarterbacks who were protégés before they broke out. In the last 15 years alone, we've had Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers; the list goes on and on. Yet, there are still plenty of great quarterbacks who did start early on: Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton, Carson Palmer, Matt Ryan, and so on.

What's better for a young signal-caller? We can assess player production in the NFL through numberFire's signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP), in order to find out.

NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

When dealing with quarterbacks, we're looking at two kinds of NEP, specifically: Passing NEP (the expected points added or subtracted on pass plays) and Total NEP (combined Passing and Rushing NEP).

The table below shows the averages of all quarterbacks drafted between 2000 and 2012 (they've had at least three years to play). We then split them into the categories of “early starters” -- those who started at least four games in their rookie season -- and “late bloomers” -- those who did not start four or more games in their rookie year.

We average these two groups' Total NEP below, plotted over the course of an average career. What do we find?

Career Year Early TNEP Late TNEP
Y1 -19.16 -8.02
Y2 12.66 -4.80
Y3 14.50 -2.27
Y4 8.18 2.00
Y5 8.70 2.08
Y6 5.98 6.58
Y7 6.60 7.30
Y8 5.43 9.05
Y9 5.74 7.44
Y10 1.00 6.96
Y11 6.00 5.01
Y12 N/A 4.64
Y13 N/A 3.84
Y14 N/A 2.12
Y15 N/A 1.42
Avg. Season 9.71 8.12
Avg. Career Length 5.73 5.43
Avg. R-Level % 68.3% 81.0%
Avg. Elite % 6.0% 6.5%

There is a clear difference between the two groups, and it makes a lot of sense based on what we know about their development histories. If we look first at the career arcs of each, we see that the early starters have a much lower rookie year Total NEP score, but this is due to being thrown into the fire with little experience and receiving more early reps than their late bloomer peers. The late group likely has a much worse per-play Total NEP in Year 1, but the volume decreases the early group's total value.

In Year 2 and Year 3, the early group has reached their peak performance, and this peak is much higher than the late group will ever reach. The late group is still steadily progressing upward during these years but won't reach positive Total NEP numbers until Year 4. By Year 6 there is some parity between the two groups, and by Year 7, the late group has fully superseded the early group in value.

What's most interesting after this is that the average career for an early starter is longer than a late bloomer, but the late group has a much higher replacement level percentage (Total NEP that ranks among the top-64 quarterbacks in a year) and elite level percentage (a top-five Total NEP in a year). By getting out there earlier, quarterbacks that start earlier accrue more career production. However, the players who sit have less volatility and theoretically are able to hone their craft more, based on this sample.

Blue Ox

The data shows us that there is no necessarily “right” way to develop a quarterback in terms of Total NEP production. Early starters tend to accrue just slightly more Total NEP over the course of their careers, but this is likely a function of simply having more playing time during their career at the position. Average career length and average yearly Total NEP production is nearly identical between these two groups.

It seems that developmental speed is mainly a preference of the team these players find themselves on, and -- of course -- the needs of a player for their own developmental arc. The real crime is when teams force players into starting roles when they're clearly not ready for the burden and the kind of physical and intellectual maturation coming into the NFL takes.

I might be concerned about teaching, but I know I have a much better chance at succeeding in a classroom than Craig Krenzel or Blaine Gabbert ever had at becoming prolific, sustainable NFL quarterbacks.

So, as with many mysteries of the NFL, there is no ultimate truth, no aphorism that can suit all cases. There's only determining what's right for the players you have on your team. Figuring that out will turn a great coach into a great teacher.