When will Trey Lance, Justin Fields, and Mac Jones become starters?

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As the 2021 NFL season approaches, three franchises face an obvious, unavoidable question that promises to linger until their head coaches resolve it: How long will it take them to start their first-round rookie quarterback?

The Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets already have their answer. Barring injury or something unforeseen, Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson are both expected to begin their Sept. 12 openers under center, even if Jacksonville's being a bit cagey about outright acknowledging Lawrence's status. The Jags and Jets won a combined three games last season, and they used the draft's first two picks on Lawrence and Wilson to help level set their respective rebuilds. That's it. That's the summary for those two teams.

After that? It gets complicated. The San Francisco 49ers traded up to land Trey Lance third overall, and the Chicago Bears did the same to score Justin Fields at No. 11. The New England Patriots, still scuffling along the unknown path of their post-Tom Brady reality, stayed put. But the Pats nabbed Mac Jones at No. 15 anyway.

The Niners, Bears, and Patriots all possess experienced veteran quarterbacks, and all three have better rosters than the Jags and Jets. To varying degrees, each team has enough structure in place to allow its rookie to get a little more used to the water before forcing him to swim.

But the time to leap into the deep end of the pool will come soon enough. Head coaches Kyle Shanahan, Matt Nagy, and Bill Belichick will all calibrate their decision to turn to the New Guy based on any number of internal factors. And even though each team's respective fan base will no doubt calmly and rationally call for change the instant Jimmy Garoppolo, Andy Dalton, or Cam Newton flings an incomplete pass, the question of when that switch might happen has no right or wrong answer.

Between 1999 and 2020, 28 teams collectively drafted 65 quarterbacks in the first round, according to Stathead. Only the Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints, Seattle Seahawks, and the Patriots didn't join the list. (Congratulations to the Cleveland Browns, I guess, for selecting a league-high five first-round passers during that span.) Although teams aren't great at choosing quarterbacks, those picks were made in the hope of securing each club's future at the sport's most important position.

So, according to Pro Football Reference, what can be gleaned from when these passers were handed the keys?

  • Just 19 of those 65 quarterbacks (29%) started Week 1 of their rookie seasons
  • A total of 40 first-round passers (62%) started by their team's sixth game
  • By Game 10, 49 of the 65 (75%) had made at least one start
  • 55 of the 65 (85%) started at some point during their rookie seasons
  • The average game number for a first-round quarterback's initial start was 7.8, and the average number of starts those rookies made was 8.9
  • Four passers - Daunte Culpepper, Carson Palmer, J.P. Losman, and Jake Locker - didn't start until Week 1 of their second seasons, though Losman had broken his leg during training camp as a rookie
  • Philip Rivers didn't debut as a starter until Week 1 of his third campaign, while it took until Game 5 of Chad Pennington's third season to get his chance. Aaron Rodgers didn't get the nod until Game 1 of his fourth season after waiting out Brett Favre

There are a few caveats; rookies Cade McNown (remember him?), Ben Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich, and Justin Herbert were thrust into starting roles ahead of schedule due to injuries. A handful of other quarterbacks also had their rookie seasons cut short by injuries.

Though each team made its decision on its own terms, a demarcation of sorts can be drawn in 2011. That was the year the league's collective bargaining agreement first included a slotted pay scale for all draft picks, a provision that stripped draftees of nearly all bargaining power while also providing clubs with four-to-five years of cost certainty. This seems to have ramped up the urgency for teams to roll with their rookies.

Using Pro Football Reference, let's expand and refine some data shared a few months back by John Paulsen at 4For4 Football. From 1999 to 2010, 33 quarterbacks were selected in the first round. The following table includes data on expected points added per play (EPA/play), per Ben Baldwin's website, to show how each player performed across his career. It took, on average, until Game 11 for each passer to debut as a starter. Only seven of the 33 debuted in Week 1. The average number of rookie starts for the entire group was only seven.

(Scroll to the right to view the tables below in full.)

Quarterbacks drafted in the first round, 1999-2010

Player Year Pick No. Drafting team Game of first start No. of rookie starts Career EPA/play Team's other starter(s) Notes
David Carr 2002 1 HOU 1 16 -0.048 -
Kyle Boller 2003 19 BAL 1 9 -0.085 - Injured 5 games
Matt Ryan 2008 3 ATL 1 16 0.177 -
Joe Flacco 2008 18 BAL 1 16 0.065 -
Matt Stafford 2009 1 DET 1 10 0.110 - Injured 6 games
Mark Sanchez 2009 5 NYJ 1 15 -0.024 -
Sam Bradford 2010 1 RAM 1 16 -0.005 -
Tim Couch 1999 1 CLE 2 14 -0.042 Ty Detmer
Joey Harrington 2002 3 DET 3 12 -0.080 Mike McMahon Injured 2 games
Ben Roethlisberger 2004 11 PIT 3 13 0.180 Tommy Maddox Maddox injured; rested in finale
Byron Leftwich 2003 7 JAX 4 13 0.065 Mark Brunell Brunell injured
Vince Young 2006 3 TEN 4 13 0.047 Kerry Collins
Akili Smith 1999 3 CIN 5 4 -0.224 Jeff Blake Injured 8 games
Patrick Ramsey 2002 32 WSH 5 5 -0.014 Shane Matthews Benched
Alex Smith 2005 1 SF 5 7 0.046 Tim Rattay Injured 5 games
Matt Leinart 2006 10 ARZ 5 11 -0.022 Kurt Warner
Cade McNown 1999 12 CHI 6 6 -0.104 Shane Matthews Matthews injured
Michael Vick 2001 1 ATL 8 2 0.070 Chris Chandler
Josh Freeman 2009 17 TB 8 9 0.024 Byron Leftwich; Josh Johnson
Donovan McNabb 1999 2 PHL 10 6 0.084 Doug Pederson
Eli Manning 2004 1 SD --> NYG 10 7 0.076 Kurt Warner
Jay Cutler 2006 11 DEN 12 5 0.065 Jake Plummer
Rex Grossman 2003 22 CHI 14 3 -0.030 Kordell Stewart; Chris Chandler
Tim Tebow 2010 25 DEN 14 3 0.001 Kyle Orton
JaMarcus Russell 2007 1 OAK 16 1 -0.197 Josh McCown; Daunte Culpepper
Daunte Culpepper 1999 11 MIN 17 0 0.067 Randall Cunningham; Jeff George
Carson Palmer 2003 1 CIN 17 0 0.126 Jon Kitna
J.P. Losman 2004 22 BUF 17 0 -0.082 Drew Bledsoe Injured in camp
Brady Quinn 2007 22 CLE 25 0 -0.151 Derek Anderson
Jason Campbell 2005 25 WSH 26 0 0.046 Patrick Ramsey; Mark Brunell
Philip Rivers 2004 4 NYG --> SD 33 0 0.192 Drew Brees
Chad Pennington 2000 18 NYJ 37 0 0.127 Vinny Testaverde
Aaron Rodgers 2005 24 GB 49 0 0.232 Brett Favre
Average 11.0 7.0 0.021

From 2011 to 2020, though, it took an average of just 4.5 games for the 32 quarterbacks drafted in the first round to make their first start, with the number of rookie starts jumping to an average of 10.9. Twelve of the 32 passers started as rookies in Week 1:

Quarterbacks drafted in the first round, 2011-2020

Player Year Pick No. Drafting team Game of first start No. of rookie starts Career EPA/play Team's other starter(s) Notes
Cam Newton 2011 1 CLT 1 16 0.106 -
Andrew Luck 2012 1 IND 1 16 0.139 -
Robert Griffin III 2012 2 WSH 1 15 0.060 -
Ryan Tannehill 2012 8 MIA 1 16 0.085 -
Brandon Weeden 2012 22 CLE 1 15 -0.005 -
EJ Manuel 2013 16 BUF 1 10 -0.041 - Injured 6 games
Jameis Winston 2015 1 TB 1 16 0.138 -
Marcus Mariota 2015 2 TEN 1 12 0.109 - Injured 4 games
Carson Wentz 2016 2 PHL 1 16 0.089 -
Sam Darnold 2018 3 NYJ 1 13 -0.030 - Injured 3 games
Kyler Murray 2019 1 ARZ 1 16 0.109 -
Joe Burrow 2020 1 CIN 1 10 0.136 - Injured 6 games
Deshaun Watson 2017 12 HOU 2 6 0.205 Tom Savage Injured 10 games
Josh Allen 2018 7 BUF 2 11 0.139 Nathan Peterman Injured 4 games
Justin Herbert 2020 6 LAC 2 15 0.177 Tyrod Taylor Taylor injured
Blaine Gabbert 2011 10 JAX 3 14 -0.125 Luke McCown
Daniel Jones 2019 6 NYG 3 12 0.011 Eli Manning Injured 2 games
Blake Bortles 2014 3 JAX 4 13 0.025 Chad Henne
Teddy Bridgewater 2014 32 MIN 4 12 0.073 Matt Cassel Injured 1 game
Baker Mayfield 2018 1 CLE 4 13 0.120 Tyrod Taylor
Josh Rosen 2018 10 ARZ 4 13 -0.255 Sam Bradford
Paxton Lynch 2016 26 DEN 5 2 -0.110 Trevor Siemian
Mitchell Trubisky 2017 2 CHI 5 12 0.060 Mike Glennon
Christian Ponder 2011 12 MIN 7 10 -0.008 Donovan McNabb
Tua Tagovailoa 2020 5 MIA 7 9 0.034 Ryan Fitzpatrick Injured 1 game
Dwayne Haskins 2019 15 WSH 9 7 -0.117 Case Keenum; Colt McCoy Injured 1 game
Jared Goff 2016 1 RAM 10 7 0.116 Case Keenum
Lamar Jackson 2018 32 BAL 10 7 0.222 Joe Flacco
Johnny Manziel 2014 22 CLE 14 2 -0.060 Brian Hoyer
Patrick Mahomes 2017 10 KC 16 1 0.331 Alex Smith
Jake Locker 2011 8 TEN 17 0 0.023 Matt Hasselbeck
Jordan Love 2020 25 GB - 0 - Aaron Rodgers
Average 4.5 10.9 0.057

Another noticeable trend is that 12 of the 32 first-round rookie quarterbacks taken between 1999 and 2010 didn't start until after Game 10:

First-round QBs who started after Game 10, 1999-2010

Player Year Pick Drafting team Game of first start Rookie starts Career EPA/play Team's other starter(s)
Jay Cutler 2006 11 DEN 12 5 0.065 Jake Plummer
Rex Grossman 2003 22 CHI 14 3 -0.030 Kordell Stewart; Chris Chandler
Tim Tebow 2010 25 DEN 14 3 0.001 Kyle Orton
JaMarcus Russell 2007 1 OAK 16 1 -0.197 Josh McCown; Daunte Culpepper
Daunte Culpepper 1999 11 MIN 17 0 0.067 Randall Cunningham; Jeff George
Carson Palmer 2003 1 CIN 17 0 0.126 Jon Kitna
J.P. Losman 2004 22 BUF 17 0 -0.082 Drew Bledsoe
Brady Quinn 2007 22 CLE 25 0 -0.151 Derek Anderson
Jason Campbell 2005 25 WSH 26 0 0.046 Patrick Ramsey; Mark Brunell
Philip Rivers 2004 4 NYG --> SD 33 0 0.192 Drew Brees
Chad Pennington 2000 18 NYJ 37 0 0.127 Vinny Testaverde
Aaron Rodgers 2005 24 GB 49 0 0.232 Brett Favre

From 2011 to 2020, there were only four quarterbacks to debut as starters after Game 10:

First-round QBs who started after Game 10, 2011-2020

Player Year Pick Drafting team Game of first start Rookie starts Career EPA/play Team's other starter(s)
Johnny Manziel 2014 22 CLE 14 2 -0.060 Brian Hoyer
Patrick Mahomes 2017 10 KC 16 1 0.331 Alex Smith
Jake Locker 2011 8 TEN 17 0 0.023 Matt Hasselbeck
Jordan Love 2020 25 GB - 0 - Aaron Rodgers

The less said about Johnny Manziel and Locker, the better. But you'll notice that Patrick Mahomes and Jordan Love are the other two players on that list. Both were drafted specifically to be groomed behind well-established veteran incumbents. We know how that's turned out for Mahomes, while Love's opportunity might ultimately depend on Aaron Rodgers' mood next spring.

Multiple non-first-round quarterbacks had to wait a while to get their turns. Tony Romo, undrafted in 2003, didn't get a chance to start until the seventh game of his fourth season. Drew Brees spent the entirety of his rookie year sitting behind Doug Flutie after being drafted in the second round by the San Diego Chargers. And Tom Brady, the greatest of all time, famously backed up Drew Bledsoe for a full season and two games, or right when Mo Lewis fell on and injured Bledsoe.

There's no telling when that time will come for Trey Lance, Justin Fields, and Mac Jones, but recent history indicates it'll likely happen sometime this season. In the meantime, their teams will surely keep getting asked that obvious, unavoidable question.

Dom Cosentino is a senior features writer at theScore.

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