While this season presents challenges unlike any in league history, the common trend among first-round quarterbacks is that they become starters during their rookie season.
In 2018, all five first-round quarterbacks were starters by Week 11 despite Sam Darnold being the only one to start in Week 1. Last year, three rookie quarterbacks went in the first round with Kyler Murray starting in Week 1, Daniel Jones taking over for the New York Giants in Week 3, and Washington handing the reins over to Dwayne Haskins in Week 9.
The 2020 NFL Draft produced four first-round quarterbacks. Let’s examine the most logical point in the season for each to become their respective team’s starting quarterback.
Pick No. 1: Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals
There’s nothing to predict here, we know that Burrow is going to be the Week 1 starter for the Bengals and will make his NFL debut at home against the Los Angeles Chargers. Burrow enters this situation with no legitimate competition on the roster with his backups being Ryan Finley, Brandon Allen, and Jacob Dolegala.
While Burrow enters the NFL with a skill set and makeup of a Day 1 starter, it is fair to consider if the Bengals have properly surrounded him for starting duties right away. The only sure thing on the offensive line is center Trey Hopkins. Xavier Su’a-Filo and Michael Jordan form arguably the worst guard tandem in the NFL, while left tackle Jonah Williams has yet to play a down in the league. Bobby Hart is a total liability at right tackle. These aren’t the types of concerns up front that a rookie quarterback should be facing, on top of not being supported by a meaningful veteran backup quarterback to assist with his development.
Williams and Hart face a massive challenge in edge rushers Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa in Week 1. To the Bengals’ credit, his wide receiver and running back situation is formidable, but that offensive line is suspect at best.
Pick No. 5: Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins
With Ryan Fitzpatrick in place as the bridge quarterback, Miami should be patient with Tagovailoa, who has a bright future with the Dolphins and is a perfect scheme fit for the style of offense Chan Gailey wants to run. Given Tagovailoa’s injury history and that he’s relatively fresh off clearance from his hip injury last November, there’s no reason to rush him into the lineup, especially considering the question marks along the offensive line for the Dolphins.
The earliest sensible opportunity on the schedule for Tagovailoa to take over as the starter comes in Week 8 when Miami hosts the Los Angeles Rams. At that point in the season, the offensive line will have had time to gel and the Dolphins clear a stretch in the schedule that includes games against the San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos, and Chargers who are all loaded with defensive talent. Tagovailoa’s first stretch of games will come against the Rams, Arizona Cardinals, New York Jets, and Bengals—all, on paper, are much more manageable defenses to handle.
If Week 8 doesn’t work out, Miami could turn things over to Tagovailoa in Week 12 coming out of the bye. That would allow extra time to prepare and make the switch at quarterback and it comes between consecutive contests against the Jets with the bye week sandwiched in between.
Pick No. 6: Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers
I like Herbert, but he’s a pick that worries me, which I detailed shortly after the draft. He has a legitimate chance to be the answer for the Chargers at quarterback. He's got the size, athleticism and arm talent to be a dynamic passer in the NFL. But there are reasons to be concerned about Herbert at the next level.
He showed a lack of comfort when his first read isn’t available, often locking in and tardy when working through his progressions. His accuracy has exciting moments but his ball placement has plenty of inconsistency. Herbert struggles under pressure and doesn’t appear to have a natural sense of where his protection is light and speeding up his process. For a player who has such an exciting physical skill set, he doesn’t find much success working off-script and throwing on the move.
The Chargers can certainly scheme around those deficiencies early on with spacing, run-pass options, timing, and horizontal passes, but there is considerable growth needed for Herbert to become the catalyst for success in Los Angeles.
With Tyrod Taylor in place as the bridge quarterback, there shouldn’t be a rush to force Herbert into the lineup. He’s the type of player that you want to make sure is ready to play and not trust that he can fail forward. From reads and progressions to cadence and commanding the huddle, Herbert has a big jump coming from Oregon to the NFL, and the unusual offseason is far from ideal for making that jump quickly.
While so much depends on when Herbert is ready, the schedule lines up perfectly for the Chargers to start him when they believe that is the appropriate time. The most daunting stretch of defensive opponents comes starting in Week 11, where the Chargers face Denver, the Buffalo Bills, and the New England Patriots in consecutive weeks. Even though that is the first three games coming out of the bye, Los Angeles should avoid that being Herbert’s first three starts.
If Herbert is ready earlier in the season, Week 6 against the Jets appears favorable with it coming after contests in Tampa Bay and New Orleans. If later is better for Herbert, Week 14 against the Atlanta Falcons would provide a four-game opportunity for him to gain valuable experience entering Year 2, where expectations should be for him to be the guy.
Pick No. 26: Jordan Love, Green Bay Packers
In Year 1 under Matt LaFleur, the Packers won the NFC North with a 13-3 mark and Green Bay should be viewed as a contender with Aaron Rodgers still running the show on offense. Trading up for Love in the first round sent a clear message that Rodgers’ days in Green Bay are numbered but he’s still the guy for at least 2020.
Should Green Bay be unable to improve its playoff positioning, Love should see the field in Week 17, much like Patrick Mahomes did in 2017. Short of an injury to Rodgers, 2020 is a redshirt year for Love.