Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rookies reined in

No first-year QBs will be starting in Week 1 of the NFL season, but they will be soon enough

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Each of the NFL's pre-season precincts has reported, and none will be represented by a rookie quarterback when the real games begin next week.

But even if Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel landed with teams inclined to assign them clipboard duties in 2014, several of the league's most prominent analysts don't expect those plans will remain sustainable.

 

"I think it's inevitable that all three of these young players are gonna end up playing at some point in time during the season," CBS analyst and 1988 NFL MVP Boomer Esiason told USA TODAY Sports. "They're first-round draft picks, the guys that are playing in front of them -- while they're NFL quarterbacks -- they're basically backups who have not proven their worth as a starter or these teams would not go out and draft players as high as they did at this position.

"It's just a matter of time."

Bortles and Bridgewater were consistently stellar both physically and mentally throughout exhibition play for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings, respectively. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock suggests Jags coach Gus Bradley may struggle to keep Bortles, the No. 3 pick in May's draft, on the sideline despite the team's preference to hold him back.

"My gut tells me in the first three or four games, he's gonna end up being the starter," Mayock told USA TODAY Sports. "I think Gus knows how to protect him, and he looks like he's got the opportunity to become a special player."

Bortles may also have a few advantages, one of them being offensive co-ordinator Jedd Fisch.

"He connects with his quarterbacks," says Mayock, "he's a really good developer of young quarterbacks."

He also cites the environment Jacksonville has fostered as more conducive to early success than the one experienced by Bortles' more ballyhooed draftmate.

"Bortles is in a bubble versus the circus in Cleveland," said Mayock. "Manziel? Every move he makes is scrutinized. Bortles is just getting a chance to develop, he's better every day, much less scrutiny. I think he's in an ideal situation. He's got a great veteran quarterback in Chad Henne to learn from who also understands he's just a placeholder."

The same can be said of Minnesota's Matt Cassel and Cleveland's Brian Hoyer. That trio of NFL journeymen are a collective 53-69 as NFL starters. Their teams combined to go 13-34-1 in 2013.

Esiason believes such mediocrity leads to an obvious conclusion for their understudies.

"Given that these three teams are probably going to struggle," he said, "it will be inevitable that they will end up starting sooner than later."

Coming off knee surgery, Hoyer has already slogged through an unimpressive August. But Manziel couldn't unseat him after failing to show the poise and polish so frequently on display from Bortles and Bridgewater. So no reason to feed Manziel to the wolves in Week 1.

"When you look at Dick LeBeau's record against rookie quarterbacks in his history as defensive co-ordinator, it's wise for the Browns not to start Manziel against the Pittsburgh Steelers," Dan Fouts, a CBS analyst and former MVP like Esiason, told USA TODAY Sports.

But like many prognosticators, Fouts believes Manziel could be under centre by Week 5 when the Browns are coming off their bye week.

"He's not a gimmick. He's not a popgun quarterback. He's got a legitimate NFL arm," says Mayock, who ranked Manziel as the top quarterback prospect of the 2014 draft.

"He's got an ability to make plays spontaneously that makes him special. Yet you're trying to develop him into somewhat of an NFL pocket quarterback. He's got to be able to make that transition. And there's a fine line -- you don't want to coach out of him what makes him special."

Mayock frets over Manziel's penchant for headlong runs into the teeth of a defence, an inability to effectively read coverages at this stage, and unsettled feet in the pocket.

But he believes the transformation from Johnny Football to Johnny Cleveland is afoot.

"He's making an attempt to go through his progressions -- which is hard for him, it cuts against what he does," says Mayock.

"I would preach patience, but at some point I believe he'll be the starting quarterback."

But does pulling the plug on a redshirt year to plug a rookie into the lineup make sense over the long haul given the success players like Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers have had by watching and waiting?

"I would prefer a rookie quarterback to get significant snaps during his first year if possible," says Mayock. "The caveat is if you're not gonna get him killed, sacked 50 times, and he becomes shell-shocked.

"But I really believe every rep a rookie quarterback gets this year is going to help you next year."

 

-- USA Today

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 31, 2014 B4

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