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'Drinking through a firehose': Could a rookie quarterback handle being Denver's starter in 2018?

Posted Mar 4, 2018

Each of the four top quarterbacks weighed in on whether they thought they could succeed in the NFL as a rookie starting quarterback.

INDIANAPOLIS — If, in two months’ time, the Broncos spend the fifth-overall pick on a quarterback, the questions will begin almost immediately.

Can he play right away? Will he be ready to start Week 1?

Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen and Sam Darnold each addressed some variation of that question Friday in Indianapolis as they took turns at center stage of the 2018 NFL Combine.

Rosen said he would “absolutely” be ready to take over the reins for his team, but he noted he would simply try to be the best at whatever his coach asked — whether that meant being a starter or a backup.

“I think I make very quick decisions, very-quick and decisive decisions,” said Rosen when asked about his most pro-ready attribute. “I always say that I think if you can get three or four reads into your progression, you give yourself more opportunities down the field. If you’re a one-two-and-run guy and you throw the ball 40 times a game — in the NFL, 30 times a game — then you’re giving yourself 70, 80 opportunities to get the ball down the field. If you can get into 1, 2, 3 and 4 [reads], you’re giving yourself 150, 160 — twice as many opportunities to get the ball down the field. That’s what I think my best attribute is. I can sit in the pocket and really pick defenses apart.”

Mayfield echoed Rosen’s sentiment that he could be ready to start for a team Week 1.

“[I’m] very prepared,” Mayfield said. “I think my journey and my career has showed that. I’m going to put all the work I can into it before and be ready for my chance. Whatever opportunity I get, I’m going to take advantage of it. As soon as I get drafted, I’m [going] to dive into that playbook and start moving forward.”

He also said he wouldn’t be content to simply accept a backup position.

“First things first: Whatever team I go to, I’m not going to settle for a backup job,” Mayfield said. “I’ve never been like that, and I never will. I’m going to push that person in front of me. When it comes down to it, the best man’s going to win. And I know that. But everybody has a role on the team, and if you’re not improving and pushing those guys around you to be better, then you’re not doing it right.”

Darnold took a more reserved approach when asked if he’d be comfortable as a backup, saying it would be his organization’s choice “of what to do with me when I get there.” Regardless of his position on the depth chart, he said he’d be ready to make the most of the opportunity.

“I think I’m ready [to play as a rookie],” Darnold said. “Obviously there’s still some work to do. There’s a long way till the season. But I think I’m ready as I can be. Moving forward I’m going to continue to prepare and refine some of the skills that I have. There’s obviously work to do still.”

Allen, perhaps more so than the other three quarterbacks, vocalized the advantage to sitting back and learning for a year before taking the field as the No. 1 guy.

“Obviously the competitor in me wants to play right away,” Allen said. “I want to go out there and prove myself. But I understand that guys who sit for a year and have the opportunity to learn and kind of soak in NFL daily life and understand how to be a professional football player, when they start the next year or the year after that, they step in and they know what they’re doing. They’re not rookies when they’re stepping on the field. They’ve seen game reps, whether it’s in the preseason or throughout practices and stuff like that.”

In 2017, the six rookie quarterbacks who earned regular-season playing time found varying degrees of success. And they also proved that the decision whether to start or sit a rookie is neither an easy nor scientific decision.

Cleveland’s DeShone Kizer started 15 games but struggled to a 53.6 completion percentage, 11 touchdowns and a league-leading 22 interceptions as the Browns finished winless. Chicago’s Mitchell Trubisky fared better, as he led the Bears to victories in two of his first three starts, but he finished the season with just three touchdown passes in his last six games.

Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes II showed flashes in his lone start of the season, a 22-of-35 performance for 284 yards and an interception in the season finale vs. the Broncos. And C.J. Beathard, the 49ers’ third-round selection, played decent football at times during his five starts.

Then there were the extremes.

Houston’s Deshaun Watson took over as the Texans’ starter in Week 2, and while he won just half of his starts, he proved he could be one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks moving forward. The 12th-overall pick threw at least four touchdowns in three separate games, including a five-touchdown, zero-interception performance against Kansas City in Week 5. Were it not for a torn ACL Watson suffered in practice following a back-and-forth duel with Russell Wilson and Seattle, Watson may have found himself not just in the Offensive Rookie of the Year conversation, but also as an MVP candidate.

Nathan Peterman, meanwhile, showed what can happen if a prospect isn’t ready for the NFL game. The fifth-round draft pick replaced Tyrod Taylor as the Bills’ starter in Week 10 and proceeded to throw five first-half interceptions against the Los Angeles Chargers as Buffalo battled for a playoff spot. Peterman would perform better in his second start, a 13-7 win over Indianapolis in swirling snow.

So perhaps it makes sense that President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway said Wednesday a rookie needs to be “the right kind of guy” to step in and start as a rookie.

Whether any of those players exist in this year’s class remains to be seen.

“That is hard to say,” said Elway when asked whether any of this year’s prospects could start in Year 1. “Whether they can, or do you want to put them in that position? Those are two different questions. Until we really get to know them and get around them a little bit more, it’s hard to say.

“With what I went through, if you go young, throw them out there and get them going.”

Elway has previously compared his experience as a rookie starter to “drinking through a firehose.” He started 10 games that season as he finished with a 47.5 completion percentage, 1,663 yards, 7 touchdowns and 14 interceptions — and a playoff berth.

The following year, Elway improved his touchdown-to-interception ratio to 18-to-15 as he guided the Broncos to a 12-2 record in his 14 starts. Elway, who helped Denver earn the No. 2 seed in the playoffs following the 1984 season, would make the playoffs 10 times over the course of his career and guide the Broncos to five Super Bowls and two world championships.

It’s safe to say the Broncos would take that sort of production again.