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Start the Rookie

Should the Vikings go forth with the plan they’ve been signaling to the media at large about their quarterback situation, they’ll happily start journeyman Matt Cassel over rookie Teddy Bridgewater to begin the season in order to spark the Mike Zimmer era in Minnesota. It's not worth it.
Image courtesy of Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Barring an unforeseen collapse in the preseason, the Vikings should instead slot Bridgewater as the starter instead of Matt Cassel.

The debate over whether or not a rookie should start sooner rather than later is unresolved. Successful quarterbacks seem to exist as case studies, but not definitive proof by any means of one approach over another. Peyton Manning took very little time to become an elite quarterback after starting Day One, but Aaron Rodgers took the path at the other extreme: sitting for three years before starting a single game.

It would be impossible to say that Rodgers would have done poorly if started right away while Manning would have taken longer to become an elite passer had he sat the season. Anecdotally, Rodgers was asked to change his ball carriage and tighten his throwing motion, while Manning was seen as mechanically sound.

In the middle are Tom Brady and Drew Brees, who both started in their second year under different circumstances (Brady was a surprise due to injury and Brees was the heir apparent in San Diego). Brady didn’t really start throwing at an elite level until his fifth year in the league, while Brees had to wait until his fourth year.

The next tier of passers—the Ryan/Rivers/Romo/Roethlisberger group (which arguably includes players like Flacco, Wilson, Kaepernick, Newton, Luck, Eli Manning or Cutler, depending on who you ask) is similarly mixed, with rookie starters (Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger) and quarterbacks who rode the pine for two years (Philip Rivers and Tony Romo). Jay Cutler didn’t start until late into his rookie year and Colin Kaepernick had to wait until late into his second year to start regularly—but Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck all started right away.

The only common thread between Rodgers, Romo, Rivers, Kaepernick and Cutler seem to be a reputation for questionable mechanics (and for most of them, some impressive mobility) that needed to be fixed. Drew Brees and Tom Brady evidently needed to improve upon their arm strength, which to their credit, they both did.

On the other hand, there is no common thread among the quarterbacks who started early. Some of them were already refined (Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson) and some were left to figure it out as time went on (Cam Newton and Eli Manning). Some of the late starters never ended up with solid mechanics (Philip Rivers and Colin Kaepernick) while some are models of efficiency (Tom Brady and Drew Brees).

All of that together tells us there’s very little evidence that starting a quarterback earlier rather than later hurts (or helps) him. We don’t know that Christian Ponder would have been a good quarterback had he been allowed to wait a year or two. But a detailed history of scouting and scouting reports suggests that some problems are not fixable no matter the timeframe—like how a quarterback reacts under pressure, a problem Christian Ponder had.

Teddy Bridgewater very likely doesn’t have this issue—it’s a strength of his identified from several extensive scouting reports. Moreover, if this problem was going to be a persistent issue, it would be better for the Vikings to find out sooner rather than later. He’s a pro-ready quarterback whose strengths all point to him having the ability to start right away, without the “rawness” projected for fellow first-round quarterbacks Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel.

Further, a lot of reasons for why it is qualitatively better to start a rookie late instead of early break down with critical analysis. There’s no better learning environment for being an NFL quarterback than playing quarterback in the NFL, and confidence is rarely manufactured by being forced into a position of “second-best” while watching a poor starter ruin a season. Young players get used to the speed of the game by playing it more than anything else, and there are no other positions where it makes sense to sit a rookie for reasons other than talent.

It would also be difficult to produce a player worse than the Vikings likely will start at quarterback. 29 quarterbacks have thrown at least 800 passes in the past three years, and the presumed starter (Matt Cassel) ranks 27th in adjusted net yards per attempt—a measure that gives bonuses for touchdowns and penalties for sacks and interceptions.

It should be noted that the Vikings did produce such a quarterback in Christian Ponder (29th), but the odds of starting a rookie who did worse than either Cassel or Ponder is low. In fact, in that time span, only two of nine first-round rookie quarterbacks did worse than Cassel did last year—Ponder and Gabbert. The others all flourished (relatively).

In short, there’s very little evidence that sitting Teddy Bridgewater will help his development, and the Vikings can only get better by starting him.

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