When will rookie quarterbacks start their first NFL games?

Eleven quarterbacks were selected in the 2019 NFL draft. Eight of them started two or more games as rookies. All told, rookie QBs accounted for a total of 57 starts, with two first-rounders (Kyler Murray and Daniel Jones) and one sixth-rounder (Gardner Minshew) each starting 12 or more contests.

It’s tough to forecast whether that level of rookie-QB contribution will happen this coming season, but there’s at least a clear path toward winning a starting job for a few of the 13 quarterbacks picked in the 2020 draft. Granted, four of those 13 QBs picked in April were seventh-rounders.

Over the past four NFL seasons, at least one first-year quarterback drafted in Round 4 or later (or undrafted) has started one or more games.

Rookie passers play, now more than ever. Here’s a look at some of this year’s draft picks and a determination of when their first start might come.

Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals

Round 1, 1st overall pick

Even before the Bengals released Andy Dalton, it felt as if Burrow was destined to take ownership of the starting job sooner rather than later. Even with the presence of 2019 fourth-rounder Ryan Finley (who started three games last season) on the roster, and even in this most unusual of offseasons, it’s a fair bet that Burrow will be out there to start the year.

Dalton had been the first Bengals rookie quarterback to start in the opening game, back in 2011. Carson Palmer, picked No. 1 overall in 2003, didn’t take a single snap as a rookie behind Jon Kitna.

Projected first start: Week 1 vs. Los Angeles Chargers

Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins

Round 1, 5th overall pick

The Dolphins landed Tagovailoa without moving up in the draft, which was a terrific result for Miami. But there is little belief that the Dolphins are going to rush him into the lineup early on.

Even in an uninterrupted offseason, the Dolphins theoretically could have taken their time with Tagovailoa, knowing that they have Ryan Fitzpatrick — who had a 15-6 TD-INT ratio, ran for three scores and averaged nearly 300 pass yards a game over the final nine contests — ready to go. Josh Rosen also remains on the roster. Both Fitzpatrick and Rosen believe they’ll have a crack at earning the Week 1 starting job.

The Dolphins’ team doctors signed off on the team drafting Tagovailoa, and he has maintained since April that he could play a game now if needed. Those doctors will have their own views on Tagovailoa’s readiness once team facilities are opened and they can reexamine him.

“Nothing is going to happen all at once,” Dolphins head coach Brian Flores told NBC’s Mike Tirico in April. “I don’t think you just jump in there and get ready to go.”

This suggests a patient approach. Believe that Tagovailoa will start in 2020. But it’s not happening in the opener.

Projected first start: A case for Week 7 could be made as a good spot to start the clock on Tagovailoa. The Dolphins have back-to-back home games that week and in Week 8, and it would allow him to get three starts prior to Miami’s Week 11 bye.

If the Dolphins wanted to be more passive — or if, say, Fitzpatrick plays well and has them in contention in a reshuffled AFC East — they could wait. That could mean rolling out Tagovailoa in Week 12 against the New York Jets. That would give him a six-game trial, with one game each versus the other three division opponents down the stretch.

We think his first start could come sometime in that Week 7-12 range.

Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers

Round 1, 6th overall pick

The Chargers, like the Dolphins, appear to be a team willing to let its veteran QB take the job out of the chute and play it by ear thereafter. Tyrod Taylor backed up Philip Rivers last season for the Chargers, and L.A. parted with Rivers knowing it could start Taylor and be fine with it. That sentiment appears bolstered by the fact that the Chargers never seemed to show interest in free agent Cam Newton.

They took Herbert sixth overall, and it’s fair to bet that he’ll be starting at some point this season. After all, the BetMGM odds on Herbert winning the Chargers’ Week 1 job (+275) are stronger than that of Tagovailoa doing the same in Miami (+350).

One reason is that Herbert has no current injury concern. Even in a shortened or altered camp or preseason, he theoretically is a quick enough study to beat out Taylor given that Herbert comes in with a wealth of college experience (42 career starts).

Right now, we’re betting on Taylor facing off against Burrow Week 1 in Cincinnati — and Herbert getting his shot down the line.

Projected first start: Week 8 feels like a decent spot. The Chargers return home from a game at Miami the week before and have two home games back to back — vs. the Jacksonville Jaguars and Las Vegas Raiders — prior to the Week 10 bye. Getting Herbert some time in those two games would allow the team to recalibrate during the bye prior to a tough finishing slate.

The Chargers close the season with four of their final seven on the road, but giving Herbert some time to acclimate prior to that might make that stretch easier to handle.

Jordan Love, Green Bay Packers

Round 1, 26th overall pick

If all goes well, Aaron Rodgers will start 16 games this season and Love will watch and learn. But what if 2017 plays out all over again? Rodgers got hurt in the sixth game of the season, and the Packers were forced to turn to Brett Hundley for nine starts that year.

Would Matt LaFleur go to Love if Rodgers got hurt at a similar point of the season? The only other quarterback on the roster with NFL experience is Tim Boyle, who has all of four pass attempts in the league. And that’s assuming the Packers keep three QBs on the roster.

Green Bay drafting Jordan Love has some folks wondering when he might take over. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Green Bay drafting Jordan Love has some folks wondering when he might take over. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Still, Rodgers has played 16 regular-season games four of the past five seasons, and injuries are impossible to predict, so we’ll assume that Love is shelved this year with an eye on the future. If the Packers are in contention with something to play for late in the season and Rodgers remains healthy, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Love sees the field outside of late relief.

Projected first start: Sometime in 2021

Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles

Round 2, 53rd overall pick

The Eagles’ selection of Hurts sent shockwaves through the virtual draft, and it led to many questions about the team’s QB plans. After all, the Eagles signed Carson Wentz to a contract extension last year, brought back Nate Sudfeld and appeared to have more pressing issues.

Hurts could end up being a fine insurance policy — and provide value in other ways — over the next few seasons. It will be fascinating to see how they employ him, either as a true backup QB or whether they implement a package of plays designed to take advantage of Hurts’ unique skills.

Projected first start: There’s a bit of a trick-question element to this one. What happens if the Eagles open in a two-QB look to throw off an opponent? It wouldn’t be shocking. (Of course, if Hurts was lined up anywhere but behind the center, he’d be credited with a start at another position, for you specifists out there.)

Even so, it would not be stunning to see Wentz get hurt, thus forcing Hurts into the lineup earlier than anyone hopes. We’ll just throw a dart here: How about Hurts getting his first start as an injury replacement Week 11 at Cleveland? That could pit the two former Oklahoma quarterbacks who both transferred into Norman.

Jacob Eason, Indianapolis Colts

Round 4, 122nd overall pick

The Colts signed Rivers to be their starter this season, and they still have Jacoby Brissett (and Chad Kelly!) on the roster. So Eason isn’t in need of a crash course to get ready; the team can take its time grooming him.

Then again, general manager Chris Ballard also warned the media to “slow your roll” when it comes to projecting Eason as the quote-unquote quarterback of the future. Drafting a player in Round 4 means there were questions about him, so by no means are the Colts wedded to him nor precluded from picking another QB in 2021 if they see one they like.

The Colts might want to give Eason a shot in 2020, even if it’s a brief one, to see what they have in the talented but flawed passer.

Projected first start: We’re fairly bullish on the Colts’ chances this season, so we’ll say that they win a big game at Pittsburgh in Week 16 and enter their season finale at home against Jacksonville with their playoff fate sealed. (Yes, this is all highly hypothetical.)

And yes, the Jaguars would appear to be a good team to start a rookie QB against.

James Morgan, New York Jets

Round 4, 125th overall

Sam Darnold is the starter, and Morgan must pass (noted Adam Gase favorite) David Fales and Mike White on the depth chart to get on the field. It’s unlikely, although Darnold has had injuries — and some weird ones — the past few seasons. Last year alone, he suffered from mononucleosis and strep throat (concurrently), lost a toenail at New England and sprained his thumb. The Jets also have sniffed around some veteran QBs this offseason, so that also must be monitored. Their eventual backup might not even be on the roster now.

Projected first start: Wouldn’t it be completely Jetsian for Darnold to get hurt on a Monday night at Foxborough in Week 9 and have to turn around in a short week and give the ball to a rookie? So we’ll say that, barring the Jets adding a veteran at the position, Morgan will be called on for the injury-replacement start Week 10 in Miami, where he played his college ball.

Jake Luton, Jacksonville Jaguars

Round 6, 189th overall pick

We needed a late-round flier here, and Luton is our guy. Maybe Minshew Mania wears off, Mike Glennon is injured in a bizarre gardening accident and the Jaguars are fully into their tank-for-Trevor mode. It wouldn’t shock a single person, of course, if that’s how it goes.

Luton played some solid ball last season for Oregon State, is experienced enough and has toughness and smarts for the position. He’s the perfect QB to throw out there to not embarrass your team, while doing so under the auspice of “evaluating our young QB” at the end of a season.

Projected first start: We’re giving Luton the Week 17 start, which would mean — in our finely tuned, scientific approach — that he’d be facing fellow rookie Eason in their respective debuts. Two Pac-12 guys facing off in the middle of Indiana. How about that?

When they faced off last season, it was a terrible game. Eason completed 16 of 32 passes for 175 yards, no TDs and two picks. And his team won! Luton had maybe his worst game of last season, completing 19 of 28 passes for a mere 88 yards with one interception.

Luton completed one pass longer than 10 yards that game. His team lost 19-7. This matchup might carry similar excitement, even if the Jaguars’ 2021 draft fate could be on the line.

Other 2020 QB draft picks not projected to start a game as rookies: Jake Fromm, Buffalo Bills; Cole McDonald, Tennessee Titans; Ben DiNucci, Dallas Cowboys; Tommy Stevens, New Orleans Saints; Nate Stanley, Minnesota Vikings.

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