Rookie NFL QBs starting in Week 1: History sets expectations for Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Mac Jones

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There haven’t been many classes of first-round quarterbacks quite like the 2021 group.

It starts with Trevor Lawrence, a generational prospect picked first overall by the Jaguars, and includes several incredibly talented QBs in Zach Wilson (second overall to the Jets), Trey Lance (third overall to the 49ers), Justin Fields (11th overall to the Bears) and Mac Jones (15th overall to the Patriots).

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But it’s easy to get lost in the hype from college and the excitement of a new face under center, and expectations quickly become too high. These are rookies, after all.

Sporting News is taking a look back at how several other first round quarterbacks since 2008 fared in Week 1 of the season in their debut to help temper some expectations a bit for Lawrence, Wilson and Jones — all of whom will be starting at QB in Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season.

Here’s a quick snap shot at what to expect from the quarterbacks:

Player Debut Completions-Attempts Passing Yards Passing TDs Interceptions Quarterback Rating
Matt Ryan 2008 9-13 161 1 0 137
Matthew Stafford 2009 16-37 205 0 3 27.4
Sam Bradford 2010 32-55 253 1 3 53.1
Cam Newton 2011 24-37 422 2 1 110.4
Andrew Luck 2012 23-45 309 1 3 52.9
Robert Griffin III 2012 19-26 320 2 0 139.9
Ryan Tannehill 2012 20-36 219 0 3 39.0
Jameis Winston 2015 16-33 210 2 2 64.0
Marcus Mariota 2015 13-15 209 4 0 158.3
Carson Wentz 2016 22-37 278 2 0 101.0
Sam Darnold 2018 16-21 198 2 1 116.8
Kyler Murray 2019 29-54 308 2 1 75.2
Joe Burrow 2020 23-36 193 0 1 66.1


Matt Ryan

DEBUT: Ryan was taken third overall by the Falcons in 2008, and immediately made an impact. In his debut on Sept. 7, 2008, Ryan handed the ball off twice on his team’s first drive before he attempted his first pass, when he found Michael Jenkins for a 62-yard touchdown to put his team up 7-0 against the Lions. It was his only touchdown pass of the night as running back Michael Turner had the big night, but Ryan held his own, completing 9-of-13 passes for 161 yards and only taking one sack.

SINCE: It’s safe to say the Falcons found their franchise guy with that pick. Ryan was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2008, has been named to five Pro Bowls and was named MVP in 2016. The Falcons have reached the playoffs six times under his leadership, though they will be known mostly for infamously blowing the 28-3 lead against the Patriots in 2016 — though his defense undoubtedly must shoulder some of that blame. Ryan did finish the Super Bowl 17-for-23 with 284 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns and no interceptions.

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Matthew Stafford

DEBUT: The Lions were so excited to draft Stafford with the first overall pick that the two sides had agreed to a contract before the day of the 2009 NFL Draft. So of course, he was sent out to start against the Saints on the opener, Sept. 13. His debut was, well, not so good. He threw an interception near the end of the first half and two in the fourth quarter as he finished his afternoon having completed just 16-of-37 passes for 205 yards and his three interceptions. He did rush for a touchdown on a 1-yard rush, but it was a disappointing day to say the least.

SINCE: Before he was traded to the Rams this offseason, Stafford had put together a solid Lions career, even if it didn’t lead to the postseason success fans would have hoped for. He was the fastest QB to reach 45,000 career passing yards — and several other milestones along the way — as he posted seven straight years with at least 4,000 passing yards. His best year came in 2011, when he led Detroit to a 10-6 record with a 63.5 percent completion rate, 5,038 passing yards and 41 touchdowns. Now, he’s hoping for a career resurgence in Los Angeles.

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Sam Bradford

DEBUT: Bradford used a stellar sophomore campaign that saw him lead Oklahoma to the 2009 BCS National Championship Game and earned him the Heisman Trophy. An injury-plagued junior year wasn’t enough to keep the Rams from taking him first overall in 2010. His debut was unspectacular, as he completed 32-of-55 passes for 253 yards with three interceptions and just one passing touchdown as the Rams lost to the Cardinals 17-13 on Sept. 12, 2010.

SINCE: Injuries, injuries, injuries. Bradford was plagued with them throughout his career. He started more than 10 games in a season five times in nine years in the NFL. Bradford was out of St. Louis after five seasons, was mediocre as the Eagles starter in 2015, had a breakout season with the Vikings in 2016, lost most of the 2017 season to injury and was released a few months into a two-year deal signed with the Cardinals in 2018 after logging just three games for the team.

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Cam Newton

DEBUT: One of the most anticipated debuts, Newton donned his Panthers jersey on Sept. 11, 2011, for his first NFL game after a standout college career that saw him earn a Heisman Trophy in 2010 and two national championships, leading him to be taken first overall in 2011. Newton lived up to the hype from Day 1, going 24-for-37 for 422 passing yards, two passing touchdowns and an interception, while he rushed eight times for 18 yards and another score, though Carolina lost 28-21 to the Cardinals.

SINCE: Newton defied the stigma that dual-threat quarterbacks couldn’t survive in the NFL. He won the 2015 MVP as he led Carolina to a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl appearance, though the team lost to the Broncos. In his career, he has 31,698 passing yards with 190 touchdowns and 118 interceptions, while he has rushed for 5,398 yards and 70 touchdowns on 1,071 carries. He holds the record for the most rushing TDs by a QB in a season (14) and in a career (70). Newton played in at least 14 games in all but one of his nine years in Carolina. He left Carolina after 2019 and joined the Patriots in 2020.

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Andrew Luck

DEBUT: Luck was considered one of the greatest QB prospects coming out of college and was seen as a slam dunk to go first overall in 2012. He did, and debuted on Sept. 9, 2009, against the Bears. Colts fans hoping for the next Peyton Manning were likely not encouraged by the debut as he went 23-for-45 with a touchdown and three interceptions and 309 passing yards.

SINCE: But that’s why debuts aren’t everything. Luck delivered on his considerable hype, leading the Colts to three straight postseason appearances, capped off with a stellar 2014 season in which he threw for 4,761 yards with 40 passing touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Then the injuries started coming in. He lost several games to core injuries in 2015, fought through a shoulder injury in 2016 that ultimately caused him to miss all of 2017. He returned to win the Comeback Player of the Year in 2018 when he threw 39 touchdowns to 15 interceptions with 4,593 passing yards on a career-best 67.3 percent completion percentage. He stunned the NFL world before the 2019 season by announcing his retirement at 29 due to his injuries and said he was not living the life he wanted to live.


Robert Griffin III

DEBUT: Luck was considered the better pro prospect in the 2012 class, but Griffin certainly had more hype from college after winning the 2011 Heisman Trophy that capped off an impressive career at Baylor. Washington’s pick at second overall in the draft, Griffin wowed fans by out-dueling Drew Brees in a 40-32 win on Sept. 9, 2012. He went 19-26 for 320 yards and 2 touchdowns and rushed nine times for 42 yards.

SINCE: That season unfolded like a storybook for Griffin. In 15 games, he threw 20 touchdowns and just five interceptions with 3,200 passing yards on a 65.6 completion percentage. He also rushed 120 times for 815 yards and scored seven touchdowns. He played 13 less exciting games in 2013, and then was beset with injuries over the rest of his career. He has appeared in 27 games since 2013. After backing up Ravens’ QBs for three seasons, Griffin went unsigned out of free agency in 2021 and has signed on to be an ESPN analyst with the option to leave should a playing opportunity arise.

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Ryan Tannehill

DEBUT: The 2012 QB class looked incredibly strong at the time. After Luck and Griffin went one and two, Tannehill was drafted eighth overall by the Dolphins. His debut, coming on Sept. 9, 2012 against the Texans, was the worst of the three quarterbacks. He went 20-for-36 with 219 passing yards and threw three interceptions as Miami was blownout 30-10.

SINCE: Things didn’t get much better from there. Tannehill started 88 games for Miami, but largely struggled as he failed to lead the team to a winning record in his first four years. He lost a few games over his remaining two years to injuries, but finished his Miami career with 123 touchdowns and 73 interceptions. However, he has completely turned his career around since coming to the Titans. He started 10 games in 2019 and threw 22 passes to just six picks and was even better as the full-time starter in 2016, when he had a 65.5 percent completion rating, threw 33 touchdowns, had just seven interceptions and tallied 3,819 passing yards as he helped lead Tennessee to the AFC Championship Game.

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Jameis Winston

DEBUT: Winston won the Heisman Trophy and national championship as a sophomore, but even as a junior, his pro-style QB profile made him the most likely pick to go first overall. He did, and found himself matched up against his Heisman successor and 2015 No. 2 overall pick Marcus Mariota (more on him later). Winston was out-dueled in the matchup as he went 16-of-33 with two touchdowns and two picks and 210 passing yards.

SINCE: That debut certainly hinted at what was to come in Tampa Bay. Winston racked up plenty of passing yards, including a 5,109-yard season in his final campaign in 2019, and had success throwing touchdowns as he twice threw more than 28 in a season, but interceptions plagued his career, particularly in 2019, when he threw 30. Rather than backup Tom Brady with the Buccaneers in 2020, he went to New Orleans and backed up Brees, a decision that looks to be paying off as he looks poised to have the starting role in 2021.

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Marcus Mariota

DEBUT: The Heisman Trophy winner after Winston and 2014 national champion runner-up, Mariota went second to the Titans and immediately made them look smart. On that Sept. 13, 2015, matchup against the Buccaneers, Mariota had a dynamic debut as he completed 13-of-15 passes for 209 yards, four passing touchdowns with no picks as his team won 42-14. Among quarterbacks making their first-ever start in Week 1 of their rookie year, Mariota’s 158.3 quarterback rating is the highest all-time (yes, even better than big names like Jim Kelly, Peyton Manning and Troy Aikman).

SINCE: The Titans would have liked Mariota to be a Kelly, Manning or Aikman. They might’ve even taken Winston’s Tampa Bay career. Mariota showed glimpses of promise, especially in his second NFL season when he threw 26 touchdowns and only nine picks with 3,426 passing yards. But the following year, he threw 15 interceptions and 13 touchdowns. He lost the starting role to Tannehill in 2019 and signed on to be the Raiders backup before the 2020 campaign.

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Carson Wentz

DEBUT: Jared Goff was the first overall pick in 2016, but it was Wentz that started Week 1 after going second overall. Facing another No. 2 overall pick in Griffin and the Browns, Wentz completed 22-of-37 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers as the Eagles won 29-10.

SINCE: Is there a more complicated legacy to evaluate than Wentz on this list? He certainly ranks up there. He played at an MVP level in 2017 when he threw 33 touchdown passes and had just seven interceptions, and helped lead the Eagles to the Super Bowl, which they eventually won, though Nick Foles was the quarterback after Wentz went down with an injury. Wentz had 48 touchdowns to just 14 picks over his next two years with more than 7,000 passing yards, but struggled in 2020 and lost the starting gig to Jalen Hurts. He finished his career with a quarterback rating of 89.2, 16,811 passing yards, 113 touchdown passes and 50 interceptions. He also rushed 258 times for 1,061 yards and eight more scores. Now, he’s a Colt. Was Wentz a success for Philadelphia?

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Sam Darnold

DEBUT: Like Wentz, Darnold didn’t go first overall — that distinction goes to Baker Mayfield — but he was the only first round QB to start Week 1 that year. Darnold and the Jets throttled the Lions on Sept. 10, 2018, with Darnold completing 16-of-21 passes — two going for scores — for 198 yards and one interception.

SINCE: But as Jets fans know all too well, Darnold wasn’t the answer. He labored on a bad Jets team for three years, finishing his New York career with just 45 touchdowns and 39 interceptions. He racked up 8,097 passing yards with a 59.8 completion percentage, and the Jets finished 13-25 in his 38 starts. Darnold now finds himself with the Panthers hoping that the talent that saw him drafted third overall in 2018 is still present enough to allow the 24-year-old QB to thrive in a new system.

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Kyler Murray

DEBUT: Oklahoma churned out its second straight Heisman Trophy winner and first overall pick when Murray followed Mayfield in going first overall in 2019, this time to the Cardinals. Arizona fans might have been ready to see him run, but instead, he threw … a lot. He attempted 54 passes, connecting on 29 of them for two touchdowns and an interception. He ran just three times for 13 yards as his debut ended in a 27-27 tie with the Lions.

SINCE: Murray has been a thrilling quarterback to watch with the Cardinals, however, and he looks primed to lead the next playoff-bound Arizona team. He won the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2019 when he completed 20 touchdown passes to just 12 picks with 3,722 passing yards, while rushing 93 times for 544 yards and four scores. Kliff Kingsbury turned him loose on the field in his second season and he tore it up, rushing 133 times for 819 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. He also completed 67.2 percent of his passes for 3,971 yards, 26 touchdowns and 12 picks as the Cardinals finished 8-8. Murray enters the 2021 season with a stout receiving group and an improved line. The 24-year-old dual-threat QB might just be scratching the surface of his NFL potential.

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Joe Burrow

DEBUT: The third straight year a Heisman Trophy-winning QB went first overall, Burrow was hailed as a savior coming to Cincinnati after a historic season at LSU that ended in a national championship. It took him under 13 minutes in the first quarter to thrill the home crowd with his first touchdown, scrambling 23 yards for a rushing score. He finished the game having gone 23-for-36 with 193 passing yards and an interception with 46 rushing yards on eight carries as his team fell to the Chargers 16-13.

SINCE: Burrow was crushed behind a terrible Cincinnati offensive line, absorbing 32 sacks in 10 games before he was hit Week 11 against Washington and tore apart his left knee. He had surgery to have everything repaired and will enter the 2021 season hoping to stay healthy and post his first full Bengals season. Cincinnati fans can take solace in the fact that while on the field, he looked like the real deal as he had 13 passing touchdowns and three rushing to only five interceptions, while he rushed for 142 yards on 37 carries and completed 65.4 percent of his passes for 2,688 yards.

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