Friday, May 24, 2024

Where Do 2024’s Rookie QBs Have Best Chance to Thrive? Michael Penix Gets Head Start in Atlanta

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It’s a sad truth that way too often, the NFL’s quarterback talents get chewed up and spit out by the very teams that draft them. Rather than carefully nurturing their young passers, franchises routinely destroy promising prospects through sheer ineptitude and mismanagement. The blame for sabotaging can’t-miss quarterback prospects rarely gets properly assigned to the negligent decision-makers.

I can’t help but think of this dynamic when revisiting the Zach Wilson saga with the New York Jets. According to one member of the Jets’ brain trust last summer, the franchise openly admitted they never should have thrust the raw rookie into the starting lineup so quickly. “Zach never should have played as a rookie,” the official confessed. “We should have redshirted him.”

In hindsight, it’s abundantly clear how detrimental it was for the Jets to thrust the utterly unprepared Wilson into the fire right out of the gates. As the mistakes inevitably piled up and the offensive line disintegrated around him, the young QB’s confidence got absolutely shattered. Wilson rapidly devolved from an exciting prospect to a player so shell-shocked he was envisioning “ghosts” behind the crumbling line of scrimmage and focusing more on the pass rush in his face than downfield progressions.

By year two, Wilson was already a lost cause mentally as the locker room turned its back on the flailing passer. Of course, Wilson deserves his share of blame for failing to overcome adversity. But the totality of his implosion cannot be placed solely on his shoulders – the Jets systematically set him up to fail from the moment they discarded the redshirt plan.

Unfortunately, Wilson’s arc is anything but an outlier when it comes to talented quarterback prospects getting derailed before they even get a fair shot at proving themselves. Too often, we can all see the train wreck coming from a mile away – or pinpoint exactly where things went awry in real time.

The Raiders’ clown show of a franchise was so hopelessly dysfunctional, JaMarcus Russell was always destined to be swallowed up by the black hole from the moment he was drafted. The inept Texans fumbled away David Carr’s career by utterly failing to build a competent offensive line early on. When the 49ers drafted the extremely raw Trey Lance at a premium slot, it was clear he lacked the experience and preparation for that lofty investment.

The wrong team, wrong situation, wrong timing – any of those factors can completely derail and permanently sabotage a young quarterback’s path and deprive them of ever reaching their full potential. Usually these failed prospects simply fade into obscurity as fans bemoan their name for decades as an all-time draft bust. Occasionally, someone like Geno Smith or Alex Smith manages to resurrect their career after finding more suitable circumstances down the road. But more often than not, poor rookie situations turn can’t-miss QB talents into what-if flameouts.

Given this sobering reality, it’s worth examining the setups that the top rookie quarterbacks from the 2024 draft find themselves in – ranking the best and worst positions they’ve landed in for potential success. Not all the new crop of rookie passers lucked into ideal locations with stacked supporting casts and well-constructed schemes to help accelerate their transition. To properly evaluate each prospect’s outlook, it’s crucial to analyze the totality of contextual factors beyond just roster talent – the offensive line, play-calling philosophy, patience from the franchise, timeline to start, etc.

With that in mind, let’s rank the most favorable landing spots for the highly-touted 2024 rookie QB class based on the full confluence of elements setting each of them up for potential early success or failure:

  1. Michael Penix Jr., Atlanta Falcons The Upside: In an extremely rare move for a top-10 pick, Penix got the ultimate gift – a planned two-year runway before even being asked to take the starting reins. While completely unheard of in this era of hyper-impatience, the Falcons’ bizarre decision to hand Kirk Cousins $100 million guaranteed buys Penix an extended redshirt runway to develop at his own pace.

Even if Cousins capably manages the offense, Penix will get plenty of valuable reps in preseason while learning Atlanta’s scheme, polishing his mechanics, and continuing to get stronger after his injury-plagued college career. All the while, the Falcons’ embarrassment of young riches like Drake London, Kyle Pitts, and Bijan Robinson will continue ascending toward their primes as the team constructs a robust supporting cast around the redshirting rookie passer.

While not an apples-to-apples comparison to Patrick Mahomes’ situation, there are shades of that patient transition if Penix truly gets two full seasons to marinate. He’d have two years of offseason programs, two preseasons of live reps, and a full two seasons immersed in Atlanta’s system before ever being asked to take over the controls with a loaded supporting cast primed to support him.

The Downside: No matter how mature Penix may be, it’s going to take immense self-discipline and competitive fire to stay engaged while riding the pine for two straight seasons behind Cousins – especially surrounded by elite skill talents entering their primes. Atlanta will have to keep carefully stroking Penix’s competitive flame and finding ways to keep him hungry rather than stagnating.

The dynamic also creates some awkwardness and potential tension within the quarterback room and broader locker room that could fester over time. There’s no indication the Falcons were planning to draft what amounts to Cousins’ potential successor when they signed him to that rich deal. Cousins has major pride in his own game after grinding for years, so being branded a glorified two-year bridge starter can’t sit well. Key Atlanta players like London and Pitts will start building chemistry with one QB only to have it disrupted when Penix eventually takes over.

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If Cousins underperforms and fans turn on him, pressure could mount to accelerate the transition to Penix ahead of schedule. Conversely, if Cousins exceeds expectations, he could delay Penix’s ascension beyond the two planned seasons or push the organization to re-think its long-term plans. A coaching change or front office regime shift could completely disrupt the carefully charted succession plan the Falcons mapped out.

  1. Caleb Williams, Chicago Bears The Upside: More than any other 2024 rookie passer, Williams lands in by far the most stacked situation from an offensive talent and supporting cast standpoint. His receiving corps is absolutely loaded, featuring three alpha No.1 options in DJ Moore, Keenan Allen, and rising star Rome Odunze. He’s got a solid 1-2 tight end tandem with Cole Kmet and Gerald Everett. Even the running back room boasts multi-faceted talents and depth between D’Andre Swift, Roschon Johnson and Khalil Herbert rotating.

Williams also benefits from the Bears hiring offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, who’s adept at creating clearly defined reads and simple progressions to maximize his quarterbacks’ strengths. The former USC star enters an offensive system being installed anew, so he’s on the same blank slate learning curve as his teammates rather than playing catch up. He inherits a unit that flirted with the playoff picture last season, so he doesn’t need to singlehandedly elevate the entire operation.

The Downside: Williams arrived in the NFL with more hype and greater expectations than any quarterback prospect since Trevor Lawrence. Those stratospheric expectations will now be magnified under the microscope of Chicago’s ravenous fan base and media market. The Bears’ followers have quickly turned on highly-touted quarterback acquisitions in the past when things didn’t immediately take off.

With so much proven talent around him, the bar will be set at not just reaching a baseline level of productivity and success, but becoming an elite-level distributor keeping all of his weapons consistently fed and putting up enormous numbers right out of the gates. It’s a massive amount of pressure heaped on any rookie quarterback, even one as heralded as Williams coming out of Oklahoma.

The former Sooners star will also have to overcome any residual locker room politics stemming from Justin Fields’ prior tenure in Chicago. While Fields flamed out, he formed close bonds with players like Moore that Williams will need to develop his own chemistry and rapport with. It’s one thing to be handed the coaches’ full endorsement as the new franchise passer; it’s another to get the incumbent players to fully buy-in.

In summary, while the Bears certainly assembled an ideal supporting cast on paper, the weight of lofty expectations in the nation’s third-biggest media market combined with subtle franchise dynamics present their own unique challenges for the rookie to navigate.

  1. J.J. McCarthy, Minnesota Vikings The Upside: Whenever McCarthy eventually takes over as the Vikings’ starter, he’ll inherit an absolutely loaded arsenal of pass-catching weapons. Wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Jordan Addison form one of the league’s most explosive tandems. Tight end T.J. Hockenson is a matchup nightmare when healthy. Even veteran running back Aaron Jones remains a reliable receiver out of the backfield.

Minnesota’s offensive line has solid continuity and the talent to be a top-10 unit in 2024 if it can avoid injuries. Head coach Kevin O’Connell’s scheme seems ideally suited to take advantage of McCarthy’s mobility and ability to create off-script, utilizing his athleticism in ways Kirk Cousins’ limited physical tools could not.

Speaking of Cousins, his presence means McCarthy may not immediately be rushed into the starting lineup from Day 1. Veteran Sam Darnold is only 27 years old and could push McCarthy for the starting job out of camp, taking some pressure off the rookie to be an instant starter.

The Downside: If the Vikings elect to extend Justin Jefferson this offseason as expected, immense pressure will exist to not only keep feeding him the ball, but make him the clear-cut focal point of the passing game. Both Addison and Hockenson (once healthy) will demand their own heavy target shares as well. So any notion of Minnesota significantly limiting McCarthy’s passing volume as a green rookie is pure fantasy.

The former Michigan star may very well exceed his entire four-year college passing attempts total (713) within his first 20 NFL starts alone. That’s an immense volume increase for any young quarterback – going from a highly conservative, run-heavy college offense to suddenly being challenged to sling it 30-40 times per game at the pro level with the receivers expecting their share of targets.

For a slender 6’3″ passer still working to fully fill out his frame, that represents an incredible physical and mental jump in the sheer workload and offensive burden being heaped upon McCarthy’s plate. The Vikings coaching staff raved about his insane work ethic in college, but even McCarthy will need to take his preparation to an entirely new stratosphere in order to properly digest all the schemes, protections, progressions, and pure passing volume coming his way.

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On top of the escalated passing stress, Minnesota’s version of the Shanahan system is notoriously complicated and nuanced – typically taking veteran starters 1-2 full seasons just to feel fully comfortable operating all the scheme’s intricacies. McCarthy may be walking into a situation requiring him to not only make an astronomical personal leap in his pure passing responsibilities and execution, but also master one of the sport’s most challenging offensive systems for young quarterbacks.

  1. Jayden Daniels, Washington Commanders The Upside: While lacking an obvious alpha No.1 option, Daniels does inherit some useful pieces to work with in his receiving corps. Veteran wideouts Terry McLaurin and Jahan Dotson can be reliable starters. Tight end Zach Ertz has some tread on the tire if he can stay healthy. Rookie tight end Ben Sinnott and second-year receiver Luke McCaffrey could surprise as complementary targets.

In the backfield, veteran Austin Ekeler should have at least one more productive season left if he can avoid injuries. Washington’s interior offensive line has a chance to be solid if unspectacular. Perhaps most importantly, new offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury has proven adept at maximizing mobile, versatile quarterbacks like Daniels who can create off-script. Kingsbury got instant results in his first season with the ultra-athletic Kyler Murray in Arizona.

The Downside: Like Caleb Williams in Chicago, Daniels steps into a situation with immense pressure to produce quickly and capably operate the full offensive game plan from Day 1. Unlike Williams, however, Daniels does not inherit an abundantly stacked supporting cast to make his transition any easier.

Of bigger concern, Washington’s offensive tackle situation appears to be an unmitigated disaster heading into 2024. Sam Howell spent his entire rookie season last year running for his life behind this sieve of a offensive line. While Daniels offers far more mobility and improvisational ability than Howell could ever dream of, he’s still undersized for the position coming out of Kansas as a rookie. He absolutely cannot afford to take the kinds of crushing hits that inevitably come when you’re forced to constantly create off-schedule.

Kingsbury’s offense has a tendency to put a lot of passing burden on the quarterback’s plate, something his scheme with Murray often bogged down under when the offensive line play cratered. If Daniels gets exposed to anywhere near the level of punishment that Howell endured, the Commanders’ plans could quickly go up in flames – either through Daniels getting injured or the coaches having to dramatically restrict the aggressiveness of their scheme to compensate.

Unless the front office can somehow solidify the offensive tackle spots, or Kingsbury makes major scheme adjustments to protect his quarterback, Daniels’ rookie season could devolve into a weekly example of how poor line play alone can sabotage the development of even the most talented young passer.

  1. Bo Nix, Denver Broncos The Upside: For better or worse, new head coach Sean Payton clearly viewed Nix as his hand-picked quarterback to build around after the Russell Wilson debacle. While still a rookie, Nix arrives with invaluable experience after starting a staggering 61 games across his college career at Auburn and Oregon. He’s also faced more than his fair share of adversity over that seasoned tenure.

Nix profiles as a mature prospect further along the mental curve than most rookie quarterbacks. If he can quickly grasp the intense system and high demands of Payton’s offense, he could have a Brock Purdy-esque path to getting early schematic mastery and on-field productivity. Purdy’s quick and efficient grasp of the 49ers’ scheme is exactly what allowed him to be so immediately successful as a rookie.

Supporting Cast Around Nix:

  • WR Courtland Sutton (59 rec, 772 yds, 10 TDs in 2023)
  • WR Marvin Mims Jr. (22 rec, 377 yds, 1 TD in 2023 as rookie)
  • TE Greg Dulcich (returning from injury)
  • WR Josh Reynolds (40 rec, 608 yds, 5 TDs in 2023)

The Downside: While Sutton re-emerged as a legitimate No.1 receiver last season, the rest of Nix’s projected receiving corps doesn’t exactly jump off the page as an overwhelming group of proven playmakers. Mims Jr. flashed potential as a rookie but needs to prove he can become a consistent threat. Dulcich has yet to stay healthy and productive for any extended stretch as a pro. Reynolds was merely a complementary rotational piece in 2023.

Even the running back position features plenty of uncertainty, as Javonte Williams has been unable to solidify himself as a true lead back through a combination of injuries and ineffective play to this point in his career.

In other words, while Nix won’t be stepping into a complete Offensive talent void, the overall supporting cast pales in comparison to the firepower being assembled around the other 2024 first-round quarterbacks. Payton will have his work cut out constructing a sufficient Offensive ecosystem around Nix, especially after the team shed so much dead money from the Wilson disaster.

Perhaps of bigger concern is the demanding, intense nature of Payton’s offensive scheme and coaching demeanor. Just like with Purdy in San Francisco, Nix will be asked to immediately process, absorb and efficiently operate an extremely comprehensive and complicated system from Day 1. Any struggles with the mental hurdles or lack of pinpoint execution could quickly land him in Payton’s doghouse in a way a more patient quarterback developer may have shown more grace.

While Nix’s extended experience gives him better preparation than most rookies, it’s still a massive ask for any first-year passer to immediately become the point guard of such a intensive and nuanced system. Unless he’s truly further along the development curve than anticipated, Nix could quickly find himself getting buried by the overwhelming standards being placed upon his shoulders.

  1. Drake Maye, New England Patriots The Upside: There are shades of Josh Allen’s developmental pathway from Buffalo in the longterm blueprint the Patriots seem to be drawing up for Maye’s arrival. Like Allen’s situation, New England spent their first six picks in the 2024 draft resetting the talent base around their new quarterback – nabbing two receivers, a tight end, and two offensive linemen.
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Much like the Bills did for Allen’s first two seasons, the Patriots can afford to bring Maye along extremely patiently while continuing to rebuild the offensive infrastructure around him. Veteran stopgap Jacoby Brissett can handle starting duties early on, alleviating immense pressure on the rookie to be an instant savior.

If the plan comes to fruition as envisioned, by Year 3 Maye could find himself surrounded by a revamped receiving corps and offensive line finally tailored to fit his individual strengths, similar to how Buffalo constructed the perfect ecosystem around Allen. The flashes of elite size, arm talent, and athleticism Maye showed at North Carolina hint at a similar sky-high ceiling worth patiently unlocking.

The Downside: For as promising as New England’s longterm outlook may be, the immediate reality is Maye joins a Patriots team with one of the least inspiring receiving corps and offensive line situations in the entire league entering 2024. Outside of solid tight end acquisition Dalton Kincaid, there is a striking lack of proven pass-catching talent currently on the roster.

This means Maye will likely be blocking for his life in Year 1 whenever he does get inserted into the lineup. While the influx of rookie blockers should improve the line down the road, there will inevitably be major growing pains early as they acclimate to the pro level. It’s a situation ripe for the confidence of a young passer to be shattered taking constant abuse.

Perhaps of even bigger concern is the individual tasked with overseeing Maye’s development – new offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt. While he’s had some success elevating quarterbacks in the past, Van Pelt was also abruptly fired by both the Packers and Browns after Aaron Rodgers soured on him and his system grew stale in Cleveland.

Van Pelt will be installing his own offense for the first time as a play-caller in New England. There are major questions about how effectively he can mold an impressionable young quarterback like Maye after butting heads with veteran alpha personalities like Rodgers in recent years. His ability to nurture Maye’s skills while constructing a scheme and supporting cast to accentuate them will make or break the rookie’s path.

The best-case scenario is Van Pelt helps Maye follow the Josh Allen model of an extremely patient development plan behind the scenes, resulting in a breakout season once all the pieces are finally put in place around him. But the worst-case is Van Pelt proves to be in over his head, leaving Maye to languish and stunt his growth behind a shoddy line with subpar receivers and play-calling holding him back.

It’s an archetype we’ve all seen play out before in New England, with highly-touted quarterback prospects like Drew Bledsoe and others struggling mightily with a lack of support before eventually getting discarded when the team’s patience runs out. Only time will tell if Maye ends up being the latest addition to that disappointing legacy.

In summary, while the six quarterbacks from the 2024 draft class landed in varying circumstances, the reality is none were provided an absolute perfect situation to step into and produce at a high level immediately. As we’ve seen with countless prospects before them, poor planning and negligent roster construction can completely derail even the most talented young passers from the moment they enter the league.

For Michael Penix Jr. in Atlanta, the two-year redshirt period buys him an incredibly rare luxury of patience and time to properly develop before being thrust into the lineup. However, that plan is littered with potential pitfalls and awkward dynamics that could splinter apart and undermine everything at any point.

The polar opposite is the immense strain being placed on rookies like J.J. McCarthy in Minnesota and Bo Nix in Denver to shoulder enormous offensive responsibility right away by operating complicated systems without sufficient supporting casts around them. It’s an immense mental and physical burden heaped upon players who have barely tasted the pro level.

Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum are rookies like Caleb Williams, Jayden Daniels and Drake Maye – all of whom are being set up to at least have a moderate runway to grow into larger roles at differing paces, for better or worse. While patience is preached, the clock on developing is always ticking in the NFL’s win-now environment.

There are certainly degrees of favorability in each situation. But history has proven time and again there are no perfect blueprints when it comes to properly grooming and cultivating a young quarterback’s prodigious talents at the pro level. As the 2024 season unfolds, we’ll see which franchises avoided critical missteps and provided sufficient support systems for their latest crop of rookie QBs to potentially reach their ceilings. The fates of these half-dozen passers’ entire careers could hinge on those successes or failures.

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Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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