- Chris Sprow, ESPN Insider
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On March 18, the Seattle Seahawks traded the 40th overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft to the San Diego Chargers for the 60th pick and the rights to the Chargers' third-string quarterback, Charlie Whitehurst.
San Diego GM A.J. Smith couldn't hide his elation while addressing the media afterward. "We presented them a deal we thought was good for us, and we are thrilled it was accepted," Smith said. Local papers agreed, with one columnist noting: "It can be argued the Chargers bought at least the possibility of steak by bartering with a scrap."
Perhaps they had; the 40th pick has a lot of value, overall (one example: in 2000, the Denver Broncos drafted Ian Gold there; he became a Pro Bowler; Tracy Porter, who sealed the Super Bowl with a pick of Peyton Manning, was also a No. 40 pick). This is a draft many are calling the deepest in years. Additionally, six-time Pro Bowler Donovan McNabb was traded for the 37th overall pick just weeks later.
Whitehurst is a strong-armed, long-haired Green Bay native who last threw a regular-season pass in 2005 as a senior at Clemson. He threw 11 TDs against 10 INTs that year, after throwing seven TDs and 17 INTs the year before. He never made first-team All-ACC.
Of the 128 quarterbacks drafted since 2000, 43 got their first start in their first season in the NFL. This data -- courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information -- shows that among this large group, the longer a QB waits to start, the better he performs once he does. In fact, completion percentage, TD/INT ratio and yards per attempt all rise over the course of his career the longer a QB sits to begin it.
Drafted QBs who didn't get to start until their third or even fourth years have TD/INT rates nearly 50 percent better, and complete passes at a rate a full five percent better than rookie starters. But that's not just in the first season; that's for their careers. Check the chart here.
Naturally, the contention will be this: The lower a QB is drafted, the less of a push there is for him to start immediately. That's just politics (politics often correlates to money). When Matthew Stafford was granted the starting job by the Detroit Lions last season, he may not have been better than Daunte Culpepper, but he was already guaranteed more money than the Redskins had promised Albert Haynesworth.
Jim Mora Sr. started Peyton Manning from Day 1 in 1998, but that was in a dire situation for the Indianapolis Colts.
"It was kind of unique," Mora said this week. "It was my first year. It was Bill Polian's first year with the team. There wasn't any pressure on myself or Polian to win right away -- and we didn't."
The Colts went 3-13, and Manning had "some pretty bad games," Mora said. The young QB had zero commercials and 27 INTs in 1998. But, Mora says, the team knew early on it wanted to give Manning the reins, and didn't go and get a QB it felt was better; Manning was an easy choice. As Mora says, "I went with the guy who gave us the best chance to win," but, he admits, "we knew it would be a struggle."
In 2003, the Cincinnati Bengals took a different tack.
The Bengals picked Carson Palmer with the No. 1 pick, brought him into camp, saw the potential, the huge arm, the Heisman credentials and cool head -- and gave him zero snaps all season.
"I don't think you want to start a rookie, because you know the realities of it, but it's a situation where you ask, 'Can I survive this startup period?'" says Ken Zampese, who was a first-year quarterbacks coach for the Bengals during Palmer's rookie year. Zampese says Palmer's year on the bench was invaluable, partly because he was able to draw knowledge from a seasoned pro. "The value of those games sat has everything to do with the player. Does he prepare like he's a starter even when he knows he's backing up? Does he break down film and approach game days with the seriousness of a starter? Carson did, but he also learned that from Jon Kitna, who was a great mentor."
A who's who of the best quarterbacks of the past decade is also a tale of professional incubation. Aaron Rodgers didn't start until his fourth year, Philip Rivers his third, Chad Pennington his third, Marc Bulger his third, and Palmer and Drew Brees in their second years. The draft circumstances of Matt Cassel and Vince Young couldn't be more different, but each benefited from thousands of practice reps between starts. Cassel didn't start until his fourth year, but has largely succeeded, and Young went back to the bench for a prolonged break before returning to the starter's role with great success.
Draft position doesn't seem to matter.
The average draft position of QBs who didn't start until their fourth year, for example, was 155.7. The average for guys with first-year starts is 82.2. Yet those on the four-year plan had 46 percent better TD/INT ratios, better completion percentage and yards per attempt. Since 2000, nine first-round picks started within their teams' first three games. Only Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger have a positive TD/INT ratio in their career.
The wait worked. Across a wide range of data.
Recent draft picks who started early, such as Stafford, Mark Sanchez, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco, seem to be ready to help the reputations of top picks who start as rookies -- a realm dotted with failures like Tim Couch and Joey Harrington, or recent cases like David Carr and Alex Smith. Unfortunately, Stafford and Sanchez combined for 25 TDs and 40 INTs as rookies. And based on the data, only confidence in their talent should assure fans they figure to get much better. (Sanchez, for one, built those numbers behind one of the game's best offensive lines.)
The numbers say the question shouldn't just be how good a QB can become because he started as a rookie. It could be: What part of his potential was damaged because he did?
Last year, Malcolm Gladwell authored "Outliers: The Story of Success" and concluded that data points to 10,000 hours of practice as the barometer by which we can measure true mastery of a subject. He also wrote about the seemingly impossible art of projecting quarterbacks, concluding: "There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they'll do once they're hired."
But maybe "once they're hired" is too soon to measure. Maybe a few years -- or four, in the case of Rodgers -- is better. Maybe it's not the meat, it's the marinating.
"Perhaps," said Gladwell via e-mail earlier this week, "the learning curve for game performance is much steeper once someone has done the intellectual preparation first. That's certainly the pattern for surgeons. They spend a good portion of their time standing and watching and doing only the most rudimentary procedures, before getting actual 'game-time' preparation."
In looking at this draft, that could bode well for Tim Tebow. Our own Todd McShay says Tebow will need at least a couple of years on the bench before he could be NFL-ready. Scouts believe the Florida star all but needs to re-invent himself before he'll find NFL success. The idea also certainly bodes well for Whitehurst. Just consider the guy he'll back up in Seattle. Matt Hasselbeck was a sixth-round pick and didn't start a game until his third year, when Seattle recognized his talent and exchanged draft picks with the Packers to get him.
Aaron Rodgers and Matt Hasselbeck both became Pro Bowl quarterbacks, their greatest similarity being a shared view from the sidelines, watching and waiting behind Brett Favre. If forced to wait behind more experienced surgeons before wielding your own blade, you could do far worse.
Chris Sprow is an editor with ESPN Insider (archives here). Research provided by Jason Paradise of the ESPN Stats & Information Group.