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Opinion: Ultimate measure of rookie QBs will hinge on surviving brutal NFL initiation

·6 min read
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Forget the hype that came with the NFL draft in April, when quarterbacks were nabbed with the first three picks for the first time since 1999.

Reality is in the wind: This won’t be remembered as the "Year of the Rookie Quarterback."

Maybe Trevor Lawrence will someday live up to the promise of being another Peyton Manning or John Elway. Right now, the Jaguars quarterback is tied for the league lead with seven interceptions.

Perhaps Zach Wilson, No. 2 overall, will ultimately develop into the marquee thrower the Jets have dreamed of for decades. At the moment, with seven picks, too, he’s the NFL’s lowest-rated passer.

Mac Jones won the Patriots' starting job, prompting Bill Belichick to kick Cam Newton to the curb. But as Tom Brady comes to town, Jones is coming off the first three-interception game of his pro career.

Justin Fields? Oh, for the multi-tasking talent that has inspired the Bears' fan base. Now will somebody please help this man, with his first NFL start marked by the punishment of absorbing nine sacks?

Hey, it’s early. Taking lumps is part of the deal. The NFL initiation process can be so brutal. Remember, Manning threw 28 picks as a rookie in 1998 ... and never again. Troy Aikman had an inglorious 1989 campaign, when the Cowboys went 1-15 and the only win was quarterbacked by Steve Walsh.

Yet Aikman and Manning represent some hope. They both won multiple Super Bowls on the way to getting those gold jackets as Hall of Famers.

Maybe one or more of the five quarterbacks drafted in the first round this year, including Trey Lance, breaking in with spot duty behind Jimmy Garoppolo, will wind up with busts in Canton. And it’s just as likely that one or more will just wind up as busts.

“The expectations are so unrealistic,” two-time Broncos Super Bowl winning coach Mike Shanahan told USA TODAY Sports, mindful of the challenges, scrutiny and hit-or-miss history. “All of these guys, they’re going to go through some growing pains. Hopefully, you have a system and a philosophy that gives you a chance.”

As the No. 1 overall picks from the past two drafts – Lawrence and Joe Burrow of the Bengals -- take center stage for a Thursday night matchup in Cincinnati, the struggles of the rookie quarterbacks have emerged as one of the early storylines of the first quarter of the NFL season.

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Jones is the only one who has led his team to a victory, which came against Wilson and the Jets in Week 2. The three who have started every week (Lawrence, Wilson and Jones) have combined for nine TD passes and 17 interceptions.

And in the midst of rebuilding jobs, it might get a lot worse before it gets better.

The ultimate measure for these quarterbacks, which comes later, will hinge on whether they survive their NFL initiation.

“Yeah, you can fight your way through it,” Brian Billick, who coached the 2000 Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl crown, told USA TODAY Sports. “But if you can’t, then maybe you shouldn’t have been a first-round pick, anyway. Maybe you aren’t good enough. Fair is fair. But sometimes a team is so bad, you’ve got no chance. The good ones are going to overcome.”

Billick is a strong proponent of playing rookie quarterbacks, realizing that the inherit setbacks represent a necessary evil for gaining experience. Sure, there are varying circumstances, such as the 49ers having a veteran quarterback in tow (much like Green Bay has in grooming Jordan Love, a first-rounder in 2020, behind NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers) while bringing along Lance, picked third overall.

And there’s also the risk. Billick remembers the plight of David Carr, who was sacked an NFL-record 76 times as a rookie in 2002, who never lived up to the expectations of a No. 1 pick overall.

“Did David Carr fail because he was with an overwhelmingly bad team?” Billick pondered. “Or was he just not good enough to overcome that?”

It’s fair to wonder whether part of the risk is that a prospect may never regain confidence after early setbacks. Jones seems mindful of all that. On Wednesday, someone asked the Patriots rookie to identify the most important lesson he’s learned so far in the NFL.

“Handling adversity,” he said.

It helps that Jones, picked 15th overall from Alabama, is coached by Belichick. As Belichick did for many years with Brady, the coach conducts weekly one-on-one meetings with his new quarterback. A solid Patriots defense is another layer of support, but there’s still a need to relieve pressure by improving a 24th-ranked defense.

“My gut feeling is that you’re going to see some separation from Mac vs. the other (rookie starters) because of the supporting casts of their teams. He’ll grow more because of where he’s at,” Billick said.

Conversely, Fields subbed at Cleveland last week (and could start on Sunday against Detroit) while trying to run an offense designed for injured starter Andy Dalton, and while trying to stay in the pocket behind a woeful offensive line.

Without the support on multiple levels, Fields, drafted 11th overall, could be set up to fail.

The disaster at Cleveland escalated the criticism on Bears coach Matt Nagy, who is firmly positioned on the hot seat. Can’t he implement some creative schemes that would take advantage of Fields’ ability to play outside the pocket and threaten defenses with his 4.4 speed?

Instead, using Fields in a system built around Dalton’s drop-back passing seems like a misfit.

Billick can relate to Nagy’s predicament, yet maintains it isn’t as simple as designing separate systems tailored to the specific quarterbacks because the practice reps dating back to training camp are limited.

“If you’re going to dilute those snaps to prepare for two different types of quarterbacks, then you’re cheating both quarterbacks,” Billick said. “It’s either-or.”

Then again, winning is the bottom line. Unlike other situations, where Wilson is connected with a new coach in Robert Saleh with the Jets, there’s a lot less patience in Chicago, where one quarterback after another with inviting potential has stumbled under Nagy.

“It’s like the old coaches' saying, ‘Son, your potential is going to get me fired,’ " Billick said. “You can only take that so far. So, you’ve got to be patient, but there’s a threshold here.”

Call it urgent patience. For a rookie quarterback, it’s another component of the survival test.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL rookie QBs have experienced a brutal initiation period