How valuable is an NFL bridge quarterback?

2X97KXJ New England Patriots quarterback Jacoby Brissett (14) passes during an NFL football practice, Wednesday, May 29, 2024, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

• NFL teams are sending out their rookie quarterbacks sooner: Its getting rarer for a temporary quarterback to stay atop a team’s depth chart through Week 4, if not by Week 1.

• Bridge quarterbacks tend to perform suboptimally, anyway: Of the 12 bridge quarterbacks over the past five seasons, none ranked above 12th in overall grade and none were in the top 10 in passing grade in their spans of starting.

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Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes

Now that rookie minicamps have concluded and OTAs are well underway, newly drafted quarterbacks have hit the ground running with their NFL franchises. The magnifying glass will be on the highly touted rookie gunslingers, and there’s an extra focus on when we can expect to see them on the field.

For some, like Caleb Williams, the discussion is moot: Week 1. But for others, like Drake Maye or J.J. McCarthy, there's no clear answer for when they will be handed the reins.

It’s become relatively commonplace to see NFL franchises projected to draft quarterbacks in high slots acquire some type of veteran before late April. This year’s bunch of teams that selected a quarterback with their top pick met that trend, securing “bridge” quarterbacks like Jacoby Brissett (Patriots), Sam Darnold (Vikings), Marcus Mariota (Commanders) and Zach Wilson/Jarrett Stidham (Broncos). And no, if you’re wondering, Kirk Cousins is far too qualified to fit that mold.

These transactions often feel trivial, with teams simply ensuring they have a stopgap option a) in case their rookie isn’t quite ready or good and b) to offer some type of older mentor for a player fresh out of college. But the concept of the value of the bridge quarterback is worth exploring further.

To start, how long do those quarterbacks actually last as starters, if at all? Below is a list of the first five quarterbacks drafted in each of the past five draft classes — not a complete sample per se, but a generally representative one based on how much the NFL changes annually.

Draft Year Player Pick Number First Start Debut
2023 Bryce Young 1 Week 1 Week 1
2023 C.J. Stroud 2 Week 1 Week 1
2023 Anthony Richardson 4 Week 1 Week 1
2023 Will Levis 33 Week 8 Week 8
2023 Hendon Hooker 68 N/A N/A
2022 Kenny Pickett 20 Week 5 Week 4
2022 Desmond Ridder 74 Week 15 Week 15
2022 Malik Willis 86 Week 8 Week 2
2022 Matt Corral 94 N/A N/A
2022 Bailey Zappe 137 Week 5 Week 4
2021 Trevor Lawrence 1 Week 1 Week 1
2021 Zach Wilson 2 Week 1 Week 1
2021 Trey Lance 3 Week 5 Week 1
2021 Justin Fields 11 Week 3 Week 1
2021 Mac Jones 15 Week 1 Week 1
2020 Joe Burrow 1 Week 1 Week 1
2020 Tua Tagovailoa 5 Week 8 Week 6
2020 Justin Herbert 6 Week 2 Week 2
2020 Jordan Love 26 Week 9, 2021 Week 1, 2021
2020 Jalen Hurts 53 Week 14 Week 2
2019 Kyler Murray 1 Week 1 Week 1
2019 Daniel Jones 6 Week 3 Week 1
2019 Dwayne Haskins 15 Week 9 Week 4
2019 Drew Lock 42 Week 13 Week 13
2019 Will Grier 100 Week 16 Week 16

Examining data from 2019 to 2023, it’s clear that bridge quarterbacks have not sustained starting gigs for very long once a rookie joins the fray. Seventeen of the above 25 quarterbacks had been established as starters by Week 8, meaning the majority of the signal-callers ahead of them weren’t prominent by the halfway point of the season.

In particular, there has been a general jump in rookies playing early since the 2021 draft class hit the gridiron. Eight of the past 15 quarterbacks listed in the table started in Week 3 or earlier, compared to just four of the first 10 (from 2019-20). While the 2021 class didn’t pan out as anticipated, Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones all played in their NFL debuts, marking a sort of philosophical shift in when to take off the training wheels.

Granted, the 2022 quarterback class didn’t align very well with that concept, with Desmond Ridder not taking a snap until Week 15. However, we can likely chalk that up to a historically poor group of prospects rather than a bucking of the trend. The NFL was clearly much lower than the consensus on that bunch, and that’s mirrored in how early those players got a shot.

Another development: rookies outright beating bridge quarterbacks for QB1 status to begin a season. All three of 2023's first-rounders (Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud and Anthony Richardson) did it, fending off Andy Dalton, Case Keenum and Gardner Minshew, respectively.

A higher draft pedigree tends to correlate with early playing time, too. Of the 15 quarterbacks to be selected in the first 20 picks of their draft, 12 were starting by Week 4, and eight were Week 1 starters.

To put it concisely, it’s getting rarer for a temporary quarterback to stay atop a team’s depth chart through Week 4, if not by Week 1.

Another worthwhile question: How well do bridge quarterbacks tend to perform? The answer, not shockingly, is not too well.

Year Player Weeks Starting Overall PFF Grade Rank* PFF Passing Grade Rank*
2023 Ryan Tannehill 1-6 15 12
2022 Mitch Trubisky 1-4 13 11
2022 Marcus Mariota 1-14 29 31
2022 Ryan Tannehill 1-15 16 16
2021 Jimmy Garoppolo 1-22 22 20
2021 Andy Dalton 1-2 12 19
2020 Ryan Fitzpatrick 1-6 16 21
2020 Carson Wentz 1-13 31 33
2019 Eli Manning 1-2 26 27
2019 Case Keenum 1-8 28 28
2019 Joe Flacco 1-8 20 22
2019 Kyle Allen 3-15 31 31

*Minimum 100 dropbacks for more than two weeks

Of the 12 bridge quarterbacks over the past five seasons, none ranked above 12th in overall grade and none were in the top 10 in passing grade in their spans of starting. In fact, a meager three posted both overall and passing grades that ranked 16th or higher.

The sole quarterback among the group who really even played above average was Mitch Trubisky with the Steelers in 2022, but even then, his rankings don’t tell the full story. Trubisky was excellent in Week 3 at Cleveland, earning an 80.3 overall grade and a 77.6 passing grade. Yet, in his other three starts, Trubisky didn't eclipse a 62.0 overall grade, meaning his standings were a bit skewed by his stellar primetime performance.

Effectively, recent history indicates that these short-term options under center tend to not be very good. Hence, it’s no coincidence why they often last until the season’s midway point — or are yanked prior.

Ultimately, what purpose does a bridge quarterback serve in 2024 and beyond? The position’s superficial value — as insurance and a resource for a rookie — is still important, a tangible qualitative metric that can’t be concretely measured. For instance, the more raw Maye having the opportunity to learn from a well-respected veteran like Brissett could prove monumental in his development.

However, this research also sheds light on the fact that there’s little point in starting a veteran over a rookie, especially for long periods. These older quarterbacks rarely, if ever, perform well, so sticking with the status quo seems suboptimal. If anything, it’s a shrewder move to play a rookie early to extend the sample size and see what type of player an organization has on its hands. After all, mistakes inevitably will happen, so why not accelerate the developmental timeline and give greater room for growth over a full year?

As for the consequences for this 2024 rookie quarterback class, Williams and Jayden Daniels feel like no-brainers to get Week 1 nods, with Williams already QB1 and Daniels competing against a waning Mariota. For Maye and McCarthy, it seems more probable that the veterans — Brissett and Darnold — will operate as early-week starters, but probably not beyond Week 8 or 9. And while Nix is more of a wild card, the fact that Denver liked him enough to select him at 12th overall, plus Wilson’s very poor play over the past few years, is a strong indication he should start no later than around Week 4.


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