Most seasons it’s pretty much a guarantee that first-year NFL quarterbacks will do little more during games than wear a hat and hold a clipboard. And while that looks to be the case again this season, there are enough wild cards among this rookie class to stimulate at least a little intrigue in terms of immediate fantasy impact.
Well, “impact” may be a bit strong of a term. After all, in most cases, if a youngster takes immediate control of a team, that squad is going nowhere and will do nothing more than drag a fantasy team down. But this season there could be a couple of rookies who could see some substantial playing time; enough to warrant at least a look during your fantasy draft.
Here’s our take on the 2006 crop of rookie quarterbacks and their fantasy prospects this season.
Matt Leinart, Arizona Cardinals
Most observers feel Leinart was the most “NFL-ready” quarterback in this year’s draft. And how can you really argue the assumption? The guy has prototype NFL size (6-4, 223) and was 37-2 at USC, guiding the Trojans to back-to-back national titles. He’s calm in the pocket, has an excellent feel for reading defenses, and, while he’s not a running threat, he has enough quickness to buy extra time.
Naysayers point to Leinart exhibiting a “Hollywood” type of attitude, somehow translating that to a lack of passion for football. Other negatives include some durability concerns (Leinart missed his sophomore season in high school due to rotator cuff surgery, and he had tendonitis surgery that caused him to miss spring practice in 2005) and a lack of “elite” arm strength.
Fantasy Outlook: The Cardinals aren’t going to pay Leinart a boatload of money to be the No. 3 guy, so John Navarre, thanks for playing. Rohan Davey probably started packing his bags the second he heard Leinart’s name called.
The fragile nature of Kurt Warner almost guarantees Leinart will see a significant amount of playing time this season. And with weapons Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Edgerrin James surrounding him, Leinart has the potential for excellent fantasy production. He’s worth a look as a No. 3 fantasy quarterback. Stow him away and he could pay huge dividends.
Vince Young, Tennessee Titans
The biggest roll of the dice in the first round landed in Tennessee, where Vince Young will be the heir to Steve McNair. But first he’ll learn the game as a No. 2 behind Billy Volek, a situation similar to that in San Diego when No. 1 pick Philip Rivers sat while Drew Brees resurrected his career. Mobility-wise, Young is a bigger, stronger version of Michael Vick, with the potential of going the distance every time he breaks out of the pocket. And in his last season at Texas Young’s passing vastly improved, as he completed 65 percent of his passes for 26 touchdowns, compared to only 10 interceptions.
The reason Young’s such a gamble is a throwing motion that, to put it diplomatically, is “unique.” This could be a serious source of friction in Tennessee, because he refused to alter his delivery while a Longhorn. Also, Young was in a rather rudimentary “read-option” system at Texas that didn’t demand the level of comprehension at reading defenses he’ll eventually have to display in the NFL.
Fantasy Outlook: Volek came out of nowhere to have an excellent season in 2004, but was little more than an afterthought in 2005. While conventional wisdom dictates Volek will be the No. 1 in Tennessee, he’ll have to show lots more during training camp to ensure him a starting position. Odds are he will, though, and Young won’t see a lot of PT in 2006, barring injury.
Jay Cutler, Denver Broncos
The last of the “Big Three” exploded into NFL consciousness after the scouting combine, even though he never had a winning record at Vanderbilt. Cutler’s biggest attribute is a strong arm that scouts believe is capable of making any sort of throw necessary. Cutler also has enough scrambling ability to make him a threat outside the pocket.
Cutler’s downside is that he has a slow release and tends to telegraph his throws. He also takes too many chances downfield and needs to work on his timing and accuracy.
Fantasy Outlook: During ESPN’s coverage of the draft, analyst (and former Bronco) Tom Jackson seemed ready to throw Jake Plummer on the first train out of town. Yeah, Plummer was, to put it mildly, erratic in the AFC Championship Game, but he had to do something right to get Denver that far, didn’t he? Cutler is obviously the quarterback of the future in Denver, but it’s likely he’ll sit behind Plummer and Bradlee Van Pelt this season.
Kellen Clemens, New York Jets
The Jets eschewed Leinart at No. 4, apparently confident in the knowledge Clemens would be available in the second round. The pick was questionable to say the least. Clemens is a tenacious competitor with excellent mobility and a strong arm. Before he was hurt eight games into his senior season at Oregon, he had completed 64% of his passes for 2,406 yards, 19 touchdowns and four interceptions.
But taking Clemens with a second round pick is the definition of a reach. He shows nearly zero patience in the pocket and doesn’t have good touch or timing on vertical routes. He also doesn’t possess the size most NFL teams covet.
Fantasy Outlook: Granted, Chad Pennington’s shoulder problems make him a huge question mark. But taking Clemens in the second and putting him on a roster with five other quarterbacks (Pennington, Patrick Ramsey, Brooks Bollinger, Kliff Kingsbury and draftee Brad Smith) stretches the limits of sanity. Clemens should make the team, but even if Pennington goes down again he’ll be buried on the roster.
Charlie Whitehurst, San Diego Chargers
It’s officially the Philip Rivers Era in San Diego, but Whitehurst has the physical tools that make him one injury away from being The Man. He has surprising mobility for his size (6-4, 223) and tremendous arm strength. But he also has great touch on both short and long throws and the ability to throw on the run – either to his right or left.
The knocks on Whitehurst include inconsistency and questions regarding conditioning – he wasn’t exactly a constant presence in the Clemson weight room. Whitehurst also needs to learn to operate from under center after being exclusively a shotgun passer in college.
Fantasy Outlook: Don’t discount Whitehurst’s potential to beat out the mediocre A.J. Feely for the No. 2 spot on the roster. And if that happens, well, you know the rest. He’ll be worth taking a flyer on if Rivers goes down for no other reason than LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates are on the same team.
The Best of the Rest
Tavaris Jackson (Minnesota), Omar Jacobs (Pittsburgh), Brodie Croyle (Kansas City), Bruce Gradkowski (Tampa Bay)
Jackson is a tremendous athlete with outstanding speed, but extremely raw. He’ll most likely be planted at the No. 3 slot in Minnesota even though he’s a second round pick. Don’t ever count out a MAC quarterback, but Bowling Green’s Jacobs will have little chance of playing, since he’ll probably be the third string guy in Steeltown. Croyle is a huge injury risk who’ll have to bulk up before the Chiefs can confidently make him their No. 2 behind Trent Green. Gradkowski (Toledo) is another MAC guy whose best attribute is his competitiveness, but will have to fight off either Tim Rattay or Luke McCown just to get the No. 3 spot with the Bucs.