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Blake Bortles and the NFL Redshirt

Jacksonville’s brain trust is intent on starting Chad Henne for all 16 games next year and letting the No. 3 pick in the draft watch and learn. The decision sparks up an age-old debate for first-round quarterbacks about which is better for their development — throwing them into the fire or sitting them on the bench?

(Phil Sears/USA Today Sports)

The knocks on Blake Bortles were well known (and endlessly parroted) by May 8, 2014, the date of the first round of 2014 NFL Draft.

He had the prototypical body for a pro quarterback at 6’5’’, 232 pounds, one that seemed crafted in a lab to weather the NFL onslaught, and he was mobile to boot. Bortles went from early-season afterthought to first-round lock after felling premier passers like Teddy Bridgewater and Bryce Petty on his way to a stunning 12-1 season and Fiesta Bowl title, and he suddenly found himself in contention for being Houston’s pick at No. 1 overall.

But while Bortles didn’t suffer the pre-draft fall that Manziel’s attitude concerns and Bridgewater’s pro day wrought, those in the know were quick to raise the caution flag. Bortles certainly looks the part, but Chris B. Brown pointed out just how far he is from being a polished product. He politely refers to his mechanics as “unrefined”, but those with less tact will call Bortles’ technique for what it is — a total mess. His footwork is an issue, as is his weight transfer and throwing motion; all are inconsistent, an unsurprising revelation when talking about a guy most colleges were recruiting as a tight end. Because of this randomness, Bortles doesn’t gun the ball like a guy his size should. He’s certainly no Ryan Mallett or Brock Osweiler in the pocket… although we’ve been given no reason to believe that this isn’t a good thing.

Jacksonville (and any other team that graded him as a top-10 pick) obviously thinks these issues are correctable with time, and their insistence on him being a long-term project was made apparent the day after they drafted him when general manager David Caldwell announced Chad Henne as the Jaguars’ 2014 starter and that Bortles would not see any game action at all this season. Doing so has inevitably led to a resurgence of the oldest debate in the game when it comes to handling rookie quarterbacks — sit ‘em or play ‘em? Hand him a backup’s clipboard or the keys to a car?

While advocates of the “sit ‘em” method are quick to cite success stories who sat for the majority of their rookie years before gradually taking the reins — Jay Cutler*, Eli Manning, and Steve McNair come to mind — it ignores that Bortles is a much more uncommon case. He isn’t just being brought along slowly; he is essentially receiving a redshirt despite being slotted behind a veteran who is clearly not a franchise passer. Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers sat due to the excellent performances of the guys in front of them, but Bortles has been given an exceedingly rare developmental schedule.

In fact, I can only find two examples in recent history of first-round quarterbacks that were given the same redshirt treatment — i.e., not attempting a single pass in the year that they were drafted. The decision to sit 2003 No. 1 pick Carson Palmer behind Jon Kitna produced much discussion and debate on a national level, but most have probably forgotten that Washington didn’t allow Jason Campbell on the field until mid-November of his second season.

The results bear striking differences. Palmer struggled in his first year as a starter before blossoming into a genuinely elite quarterback in 2005, perhaps the league’s second-best signal-caller that year after Peyton Manning, and it is generally agreed upon that Kimo von Oelhoffen was the only thing preventing him from being a perennial Pro Bowler.

Campbell may have sat 27 weeks before getting his first professional start, but he played like a timid rookie thrust into the week-one spotlight when he finally did replace Mark Brunell, and his reputation as an ultra-conservative checkdown specialist has followed him ever since; Campbell is tied for ninth all-time in Interception Percentage but has finished below the league average in Touchdown Percentage every season since 2006.

So did the year wait help Palmer and hurt Campbell? There’s no way of knowing. Extending such redshirt examples to all years since 1967 — the year of the first AFL-NFL common draft — produce similar non-answers.

Quarterback Year Drafted First NFL Pass Career ANY/A+
Steve Pisarkiewicz 1977 1978 75
Mark Malone 1980 1981 87
Ken O’Brien 1983 1984 102
Kelly Stouffer 1987 1988 66
Daunte Culpepper 1999 2000 107
Carson Palmer 2003 2004 104
Jason Campbell 2005 2006 97

ANY/A+ is a league-adjusted version of Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt in which a 100 is average; 105 would be five percent above the league average and 95 would five percent below it. In my opinion, it’s the single-best summary statistic we have available, accounting for interceptions and sacks while negating misleading data like completion percentage. The metric suggests that among the seven quarterbacks who matched the aforementioned qualifications, three were indisputable busts (Malone, Pisarkiewicz, and Stouffer), two were roughly average (Campbell and O’Brien, the latter enjoying a higher peak), and two were solid players (Culpepper and Palmer) who saw early primes and swift declines.

I still think there would be five elite quarterbacks today if it wasn't for Kimo von Oelhoffen -- Brady, Brees, Manning, Rodgers, and this guy. (John Capella/Sports Imagery/Getty Images)

I still think there would be five elite quarterbacks today if it weren’t for Kimo von Oelhoffen — Brady, Brees, Manning, Rodgers, and this guy. (John Capella/Sports Imagery/Getty Images)

If there’s a trend here, I don’t see one. If we are to define a bust as being anything average and below, the bust rate here — 71.5 percent, or five out of seven — is exactly on par with that of Chase Stuart’s findings among all first-round quarterbacks between 1990 and 2009, albeit with an agonizingly small sample to extrapolate from.

(I have some qualms about labeling O’Brien as a bust since he was able to remain an NFL starter into his age 32 season, but the guy did only have one great year [‘85], one decent one [‘86], and a whole lot of below average play after that. It isn’t his fault that the Jets took him over Dan Marino, but … c’mon, they took him over Dan freakin’ Marino.)

For comparison’s sake, here are the career marks of first-round quarterbacks that started the season opener of their rookie years in the same span, representing teams and brain trusts that had very different plans in place for their franchise investments. Robert Griffin, Andrew Luck, EJ Manuel, Ryan Tannehill, and Brandon Weeden were omitted from this sample, as I do not believe two years or less is enough time to judge a career on**.

Quarterback Year Drafted Career ANY/A+
Greg Landry 1968 101
Greg Cook 1969 127
Terry Bradshaw 1970 107
Jim Plunkett 1971 97
Archie Manning 1971 96
Bert Jones 1973 108
Steve Bartkowski 1975 101
Doug Williams 1978 108
John Elway 1983 107
Troy Aikman 1989 106
Jeff George 1990 101
Drew Bledsoe 1993 99
Rick Mirer 1993 80
Peyton Manning 1998 122
Ryan Leaf 1998 68
David Carr 2002 86
Kyle Boller 2003 82
Matt Ryan 2008 107
Joe Flacco 2008 98
Matthew Stafford 2009 102
Mark Sanchez 2009 87
Sam Bradford 2010 92
Cam Newton 2011 104

Likely due to its more robust sample, the talent here falls along more of a natural bell curve and represents several different career trajectories. There are Hall-of-Famers (Aikman, Bradshaw, Elway, Peyton Manning), phenoms who dealt with injuries (Cook, Jones), longtime franchise faces (Bartkowski, Bledsoe, Landry, Archie Manning), unexpected Super Bowl MVPs (Plunkett, Williams), and as usual, a smattering of unmitigated disasters (Boller, Carr, Leaf, Mirer, Sanchez).

Again, a mixed bag without a clear trend, but can anyone look at these lists and definitively say that redshirting your first-round investment for further seasoning has actually produced superior results? Throwing guys like Aikman, Elway, and Peyton into the fire on day one didn’t stop them from sculpting their spots in Canton, and all three originally started on moribund teams. In fact, most of these early birds did.

It's easy to forget that the Cowboys went 1-15 in Aikman's rookie year, a mere three seasons before the begin of Dallas' dynasty.

It’s easy to forget that the Cowboys went 1-15 in Aikman’s rookie year, a mere three seasons before the begin of Dallas’ dynasty.

Furthermore, the narrative makes no sense for redshirts like Culpepper and O’Brien, two kinda-sorta success stories. Culpepper had a historically great season in 2000 at the age of 23, throwing for 33 touchdowns and almost 4,000 yards while finishing fifth in the league in ANY/A, but his career deteriorated due to injuries and Randy Moss’ departure from Minnesota. O’Brien posted his best season by far in his second year as the Jets’ starter, never coming close to matching the efficiency he notched in 1985. Aside from Culpepper’s dominant campaign in 2004, both appeared to regress from their early career triumphs, refuting the popular logic that sitting youngsters on the bench would lead them to sustained primes and veteran consistency. O’Brien threw just 14 more touchdowns than interceptions after turning 25.

In short, there appears to be zero historical precedent to support the notion that Bortles will have a better career by sitting rather than starting. The examples once can cite as a baseline are few and far between, and the success stories aren’t even that successful, to be blunt. If Bortles comes close to 2004 Culpepper or 2005 Palmer in his prime, then the Jaguars are likely going to be annual playoff contenders; however, both saw rapid declines in production soon after shredding a knee***.

But as is the case with all conclusions drawn from an admittedly shallow pool of data, I think it is important to acknowledge some of the possible counterpoints to this analysis.

The obvious one is that excluding long-term clipboard-holding protégés like Rivers and Rodgers from the study can be framed as disingenuous; like Bortles will be, their butts were firmly rooted to aluminum benches as rookies, and including them as success stories for the sit ‘em mantra would certainly be examples in Jacksonville fans’ favor. But Bortles’ case — drafted to a team with a veteran placeholder at the top of the depth chart — has much more in common with Campbell and Palmer, who were very clearly being groomed to take over Kitna and Brunell’s spots as soon as their coaching staffs deemed them ready. Rivers was supposed to win the job outright from Brees, but an ill-fated holdout in training camp cost him the starter’s role before it even began, and Brees flat-out beat Rivers in 2005. This gave him two years on the bench, an unlikely development for Bortles, and provided Rivers with a first-row seat to watch and learn from a Pro Bowl quarterback. Rodgers took that a step further, waiting in storage for three seasons behind the NFL’s touchdown and yardage king. It seems reasonable to predict that Henne will play the part of Kitna instead of experiencing a Brees-like resurgence.

But there is an argument that I readily accept — these quarterbacks are individual cases and should not even be grouped together. Caldwell and Co. probably aren’t hinging much of their decision on past outcomes; they’ve examined Bortles’ current skill set and have determined that a year on the bench and in the film room would be best for his future, as his mechanics are not ready to be tested against NFL defenses. That’s fine. While I’ve always leaned towards the “You are what you are” evaluation of talent — a Hall-of-Famer like Rodgers was going to succeed regardless of situation or developmental schedule, in my opinion, while a bust like Kyle Boller never had the mental makeup to match his physical tools — there is no denying that Bortles is less ready to succeed as a rookie than technically proficient prospects such as Troy Aikman or Matt Ryan.

But in a perfect world, we would realize that these “trends” aren’t really trends at all and see that they aren’t worth debating over; contradictions can be found in every subset. A pro-ready, fifth-year senior like Rick Mirer failed spectacularly in Seattle after being handed the starting job on draft day, while a pro-ready, fifth-year senior (and four-year starter) such as Palmer flourished after his redshirt. A read-option “project” like Cam Newton was a runaway Rookie of the Year for Carolina two years after another Auburn product in Campbell was sent packing from Washington despite being given a season-and-a-half on the sidelines to hone his craft. The massive Drew Bledsoe was named to four Pro Bowls and the 6’8’’ Dan McGwire saw the field for just 148 passes as a pro; Jeff Tedford groomed Trent Dilfer and Akili Smith in college before giving the NFL Aaron Rodgers. Brady Quinn’s fall on draft day seems prescient in hindsight, though Marino’s slip to the end of the first round now seems laughable. Bazooka-toting workout warriors like Boller, Jeff George, and JaMarcus Russell tricked scouts with their arm strength into shooting them up big boards, but throwing the ball a country mile sure seemed to work out for Super Bowls MVPs like John Elway, Joe Namath, and Doug Williams.

Blake Bortles is going to succeed or fail based on how Blake Bortles develops as a passer, not because of how teams in the past handled their blue-chip investments. I look forward to watching his progression in the big leagues … while being sure to tune out those who try to draw parallels that aren’t there.

* Cutler is a mercurial figure among fans and media members alike, but he just received a $126.7 million contract from Chicago that several teams would have been willing to match on the open market. He’s viewed as a valuable commodity around the league.

** However, I think it’s safe to say that Brandon Weeden won’t be earning a spot in Canton.

*** I have seen some blame Culpepper’s drop-off solely on that ACL tear, but he was off to a dreadful start before the injury. Culpepper threw eight interceptions in the first two weeks of the 2005 season with Moss in Oakland and sported a dreadful 3.95 ANY/A after seven games.

Brandon (@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky and will begin attending the Gatton College of Business and Economics in June.

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About Brandon Magner (19 Articles)
Brandon (@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky and is currently enrolled in the Gatton College of Business and Economics. He plans to earn his MBA before attending law school in the fall of 2015.

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