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NFL kickoff weekend features three starting rookie QBs

That’s tied for second most since the merger in 1970, and bettered only in 2012 when five rookie QBs started in Week 1

Bryce Young
Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young points to the sky as he takes the field prior to an NFL preseason football game against the Detroit Lions, Friday, Aug. 25, 2023, in Charlotte, N.C.Brian Westerholt (AP)

Bryce Young is ready to roll in Carolina.

C.J. Stroud is set to let it fly with Houston, while Anthony Richardson will get his shot right away in Indianapolis.

The 2023 NFL season begins with three rookie quarterbacks — all taken among the first four picks in the draft — starting the season opener. That’s tied for second most since the merger in 1970, and was bettered only in 2012 when five rookie QBs got the starting nod in Week 1.

Young, Stroud and Richardson are part of a growing NFL trend of rookie QBs being thrown into the fire right away.

In the 1980s, only five rookies throughout the decade got the start in Week 1. Same for the 1990s. That number nearly doubled to nine for the whole of the 2000s, then jumped to 18 rookie QB starters opening a season over the previous decade.

Already this decade, seven rookie QBs will have been pressed into starting duty from the beginning.

“When you draft these kids, you want to get them out there,” Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer said.

Fitterer said today’s “year-round” quarterbacks are better prepared coming into the NFL because they’ve had extensive offseason work and quality coaching at the college level. He also said many NFL teams are no longer in a position where they can afford to wait to see a return on their financial investment.

The Panthers, for instance, gave up four draft picks to move up eight spots to get Young at No. 1 and then handed the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner a four-year, fully guaranteed contract worth nearly $38 million. “Fully guaranteed” are the key words.

Panthers coach Frank Reich said it was an easy decision to start Young right away.

“In this salary cap era we’re in, you want to get that quarterback going and you want to make some progress while he is on his first contract,” Reich said. “There is nothing like experience.”

It hasn’t always been that way for NFL teams.

When Reich first came to Carolina as a quarterback in 1995 at the tail end of his playing career, he started the first four games for the expansion Panthers ahead of Kerry Collins, the No. 5 overall pick that year.

Eli Manning was the No. 1 overall pick in 2004, yet he didn’t break into the starting lineup for the New York Giants until the 10th game of his rookie season. He spent the better part of that year holding the clipboard for veteran Kurt Warner before eventually going on to win two Super Bowls as the starter.

“The NFL game and the offenses and the schemes are pretty similar to what guys are running in college,” Manning said of the reason more rookies QBs are starting right away. “Twenty years ago, the NFL and college were two different ball games. The defenses with the schemes, the offense with the play calls you had to make, there was just a little bit more of a learning curve.”

Manning said the high school and college games have matured to the point where quarterbacks are more prepared to play when they turn pro.

Starting right away doesn’t necessarily translate into immediate success for rookie QBs — either in Week 1 or their first season.

Rookie QBs are a combined 17-32-1 in Week 1 games since 1970, and only 13 of them have gone on to reach the playoffs in their first season. None have won a Super Bowl.

In 2012, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, Washington’s Robert Griffin III and Seattle’s Russell Wilson all reached the postseason, but in the past 10 seasons only the Dallas Cowboys with Dak Prescott in 2016 and New England Patriots with Mac Jones in 2021 have made the playoffs.

Colts first-year head coach Shane Steichen said the hardest part about starting a rookie like Richardson is not knowing what to expect when they step on the field.

“You’re going to get some looks that you probably haven’t seen on tape,” Steichen said. “You’re going against new bodies, new personnel. I think a lot of those guys that have played in the league for a long time, they’ve went against a lot of these guys and seen a lot of different looks. I think that’s the biggest thing – just understanding what you’re going up against and being ready for the unknown.”

Young and Stroud will open the season on the road as the Panthers travel to Atlanta and the Texans visit Baltimore on Sunday. Richardson and the Colts are home against Jacksonville.

Stroud acknowledged that being the Week 1 starter “isn’t the easiest thing to do,” but said he’s confident knowing his coaching staff has faith in him.

Patience will be key for all the coaches.

Reich, for one, knows that heading into the season, Young will become only the 12th No. 1 overall pick at QB to start in Week 1. Of the previous 11, only David Carr came away victorious, leading the then-expansion Texans over the Cowboys in 2002.

The previous 11 combined to throw 16 TDs and 22 interceptions in Week 1 games.

But the Panthers, like the Texans and Colts, have their eye on the long-term future.

“Obviously, we think very highly of him, but this isn’t going to be a cake walk,” Reich said of Young. “This is going to be fight and scratch every step of the way.”

Said Young: " I’m super excited and it’s definitely a blessing, but it’s a results-based business.”

The Panthers could easily have begun the season with Andy Dalton at quarterback and brought Young along slowly, similar to what the Green Bay Packers have done with Jordan Love.

But Reich said Young “gives us the best chance to win.”

“There’s nothing like jumping right into the fire,” Fitterer said with a smile.

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