Rookie update: Where the first-year quarterbacks stand

Posted Aug. 22, 2011 @ 7:54 p.m.
Posted By William Del Pilar

Rookie quarterbacks mostly belong only on dynasty league rosters. I can't remember the last time a rookie came in and set the league on fire by being an elite fantasy quarterback. It usually takes a few years minimum to become an elite fantasy quarterback.

Let's take a look at some of the better rookie prospects and where they stand.

One note and an important one: I took the time to read and review Pro Football Weekly's 2011 Draft Preview — no, really, I did! Understanding a player's role, his skills and the team around him always gives you an edge over your fellow owners because you understand the bigger picture. The Draft Preview gives you everything you need on a rookie's strengths and weaknesses entering the league. 

While I've written a few sentences on the pros and cons of each rookie listed, you should check out PFW's book, as that's where I garnered the information. I've been buying the Preview every year since my career in the industry began. Surprisingly, you can still find it in some bookstores. They're also great reference books, but if you don't go that route, PFW also has a great draft prospects section on its site, as well.

 

Cam Newton, Panthers

Newton will start the third preseason game, which could decide whether he becomes the regular-season starter. While he has been impressive so far, head coach Ron Rivera says he is improving his mechanics and decision-making ability, and playing three quarters this week allows the coaching staff to see how he handles it for a full game.

Newton is big at 6 feet 5 inches, 248 pounds, with excellent arm strength that can go deep. His athleticism allows him to throw off balance while moving, he has great composure and is clutch, especially with his legs as he's a strong runner. He faces a learning curve, having come from a run-first offense that worked out of the gun. He can be too quick to run, has limited vision and inconsistent mechanics. He's also streaky, can be inaccurate, throws into coverage and relies too much on upper-body strength.

Newton's legs are what make him interesting. Many expect him to start, but even then, I don't draft him. Sure, in dynasty and large leagues with rosters of 18 or more, you can stash him as a third quarterback. Rushing yards and touchdowns can equalize and make an average NFL quarterback an elite fantasy quarterback. That's what makes him intriguing. He's a late-round pickup at best but a better waiver-wire grab as he's someone to watch once the season begins. He's currently going undrafted in most leagues, and when taken, it's as a flier pick toward the end.

 

Christian Ponder, Vikings

When the Vikings brought Donovan McNabb to Minnesota by trade, it was to start. Unless the team falls flat on its face, expect to see Ponder riding the pine while learning the offense. It's not a given who wins the backup job between Ponder and Joe Webb, but I can see Ponder in games if the team falls out of playoff contention.

Ponder is intelligent, mentally tough and has the intangibles a team likes. He does everything well: He's confident, plays through pain, gets rid of the ball quickly and understands timing. He can move with his feet, has composure to respond to pressure and is the player you want with the ball at the end of the game. He does have questionable arm strength and physical limitations. He also suffered through injuries in college and took unnecessary risks.

Ponder's well-suited for the West Coast offense, but he only has value in dynasty leagues. If the Vikings fall out of playoff contention, the team will begin to play him as he's the future, not McNabb. I won't draft him, and neither will many others, as he's going undrafted in most leagues. 

 

Andy Dalton, Bengals

Dalton and the Bengals are struggling this preseason, and they've been dreadful offensively. Dalton should enter the season as the starter, but offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is installing his West Coast offense, which everyone needs to learn. That's just the playbook, as you also have to develop chemistry, cohesion and efficiency to be successful.

Dalton is smart and plays tough with a discipline in his approach. He is confident, commanding and delivers under pressure with a quick release. He can be clutch and fits a West Coast offense. Despite decent size (6-2, 215 pounds) he does not have above-average athleticism or arm strength. He can force the ball into coverage and doesn't plant his feet at times, resulting in bad decision making.

A new offense and new coordinator with a rookie quarterback means it's going to be a long season for this team. I'm not sure head coach Marvin Lewis will survive. The West Coast offense is not the easiest to learn, and despite Dalton becoming the likely starter, I won't draft him and neither have other owners, as he's going undrafted. Making it worse, Carson Palmer and Bruce Gradkowski are still being drafted!

 

Jake Locker, Titans

The plan is for Locker to sit behind Matt Hasselbeck and learn. He's had his moments and was solid in his first preseason game yet shaky in the second. Knowing he's not starting, the team is happy with his progress and indicate he's having a solid camp. He'll see some time on the field to give him experience. Don't forget, Hasselbeck has missed time over the years because of injury, so the odds are Locker will get some playing time this year. 

Locker has great arm strength, plays tough, is athletic with quickness and speed and can come through in the clutch. At 6 feet 2½ inches, 231 pounds, he has excellent feet, can avoid the rush and move the ball with his legs. However, he struggles with his reads, forces the ball and is not accurate (54 percent completion mark in college).

I envision Locker seeing time but with the team picking his spots depending on the score and situation. They will not make the mistake of putting him on the field too soon, especially if RB Chris Johnson (holdout) is not around to help take pressure off the position.

It's his legs that make him a difference maker in fantasy football. If he does get an opportunity, he'll provide fantasy points rushing as Vince Young used to do. Despite this, I won't draft him but watch him once the season begins. Owners agree: He's rarely drafted, and even if he is, toward the end of the draft.

 

Blaine Gabbert, Jaguars

Gabbert may have the best chance of the rookie quarterbacks to see the playing field this year, other than perhaps Newton. He's in a battle with veteran David Garrard and looked solid in the first preseason game but ordinary in the second. He lacks the experience needed to assume the starter's job right now. Everything equal, you go with the veteran who's been to war, and good or bad, Garrard's a veteran unless you are in complete rebuilding mode. The Jaguars believe they're not, though some would disagree. Unless Gabbert blows by Garrard for the remainder of camp, it's Garrard's job to lose. 

Gabbert's big at 6 feet 4 3/8 inches, 234 pounds. He has a strong arm, quick release and is able to deliver it from various angles. He can throw on the move accurately, is mentally tough, plays through pain and is a team player who cares about winning more than his own stats. At times he can throw sidearm, he worked only out of the shotgun and struggles through his reads. He can also lose his poise and get rattled.

Gabbert seems to have a long learning curve, but the team is happy and feels he's ahead of its expectations. I view him as raw but with great upside. Yet, if Garrard begins to struggle, I could see the team giving Gabbert a shot. Garrard would probably have to completely collapse or the team fall out of contention. This team goes through RB Maurice Jones-Drew, counts on a strong defense to keep the scoring low and has untested wideouts. Too many fantasy negatives to consider, and thus, I'll pass on Gabbert. He's currently not being drafted in most leagues.

 

Colin Kaepernick, 49ers

Kaepernick has played well in the first two preseason games, and head coach Jim Harbaugh has heaped praise on him in camp. He's still a rookie, and the praise is more about his progress than playing lights-out football. Although veteran Alex Smith hasn't played particularly well in the first two preseason games, Harbaugh will stick with him as long as he doesn't regress. He'll let Kaepernick adjust to the NFL in the form of a clipboard. Why? It took Harbaugh a few years before becoming a legitimate NFL quarterback. I believe he understands the bad situation he's inheriting and how raw Kaepernick is.

Kaepernick is a sponge, absorbing all the knowledge he can. He's a hard worker and competitor who can avoid the rush, does not panic and can run. He has good size at 6 feet 4 5/8 inches and 233 pounds but is slender, lacking upper-body strength. He did come from an offense that didn't require reads as in the NFL. At times he doesn't realize he puts too much velocity on the ball and needs to learn to soften his throws. He palms the ball when moving, creating potential turnover scenarios, and posted inflated numbers without facing top-level competition.

Smith has his own issues, but he's never had great coaching and played in too many different offenses, struggling along with everyone else. Barring bad play, Smith will be the every-week quarterback, relegating Kaepernick to the bench. I don't see Kaepernick playing much this year as Harbaugh is installing a new offense and will rebuild this team. It's better for Kaepernick to learn how to play in the NFL. Once this team has a stronger nucleus, it can help someone raw like him succeed. I'll pass on him as other owners are. He's not being drafted in fantasy leagues.