NFL Analysis


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Ranking NFL's Best Rookie Quarterback Seasons Since 2000

December 24, 2011; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) celebrates after a touchdown during the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Bank of America Stadium. Carolina Panthers win 48-16. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

It can be difficult for rookie quarterbacks to succeed immediately, but it’s not impossible.

During the past two decades-plus, several passers stood out as soon as they got on the field. So as we’re approaching a 2024 season that could see at least one more quarterback join these ranks, let’s look at the best rookie quarterback seasons since 2000.

For this exercise, we will only consider quarterbacks who were passer rating qualified as rookies. That eliminates some players with great small samples and focuses on quarterbacks who took most of the snaps in their rookie seasons. 

Best Rookie QB Seasons Since 2000

10. Baker Mayfield, 2018

Baker Mayfield’s rookie season was promising, but it also offered a glimpse into his future in the NFL — greatly dependent on the coaching and surroundings around him.

During the full season, Mayfield finished with negative EPA per play, but even that should be seen as a win given the Browns' state at the beginning of the season. The team was a mess from when Mayfield took over for Tyrod Taylor in Week 3 until Todd Haley was fired in the middle of the season.

Mayfield averaged -0.20 EPA per play under Haley but 0.16 in games with Freddie Kitchens.

Unfortunately, that led to the Browns promoting Kitchens to head coach the following season, which was also a disaster. 

Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) looks to throw against the New England Patriots during the first half at Gillette Stadium. (Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports)

9. Justin Herbert, 2020

Want to have a great rookie year? Replace Tyrod Taylor at quarterback.

Justin Herbert was thrown into the starting lineup in Week 2 when Taylor suffered a punctured lung during an injection to treat a rib injury.

Herbert immediately looked great and released special throws throughout his rookie season. He had five completions of 45 or more air yards, which tied Russell Wilson for the most that year. 

While he had the big arm, his precision in the short area stood out after his accuracy was questioned as a prospect. That craftsmanship underneath still shines today, though many would like to see a few more deep throws as a regular part of the offense.

Hebert’s 31 passing touchdowns still stand as the rookie record. 

8. Andrew Luck, 2012

It can be easy to forget Andrew Luck’s rookie season since he retired early, and the 2012 rookie quarterback class' legacy is carried on later on this list. But Luck, despite taking 117 hits, put together a season that ranked eighth in EPA per play among rookies while he had the most dropbacks among rookies (694).

Without much of an offensive line to help, Luck stood strong in the pocket and commanded a vertical offense under Bruce Arians, who took over as interim head coach after Chuck Pagano underwent treatment for leukemia.

Luck’s 10.2-yard aDOT is third among rookies, behind Will Levis and Josh Allen. Those seasons were wildly different in both style and success than Luck’s. Instead of just living on deep balls, Luck lived in the intermediate area, with 24.7 percent of his throws going between 11-19 air yards. 

He was also a better runner than he was given credit for, mostly from picking his spots of when to take off. Luck had a 77.6 percent rushing success rate on 62 attempts during his rookie season.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) throws a pass against the Kansas City Chiefs. Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports.

7. Ben Roethlisberger, 2004

Ben Roethlisberger took over in Week 2 for an injured Tommy Maddux and ripped off 13 straight wins as the starter. While Roethlisberger was the seventh overall pick, he came onto a team with an excellent supporting cast, including a running game the Steelers leaned on throughout the season.

This low-volume, high-efficiency season allowed Roethlisberger and the Steelers to play to their strengths. His 8.9 yards per attempt were second in the league to Peyton Manning (9.2) that season, but Roethlisberger only threw 295 passes, which averaged 21 per game.

However, he was so efficient on his passes — 66.3 percent of his completions went for first downs or touchdowns (the fifth-highest rate for a player with 250 or more passes since 2020) — that he overcame interception and sack rates that were well below the league averages in that season. 

6. C.J. Stroud, 2023

We just witnessed this season, but putting it high on this list is not an overreaction. C.J. Stroud’s 2023 was instantly one of the best for a rookie, even as he battled some injuries near the end of the season.

Stroud’s 8.2 yards per attempt trail only Roethlisberger for the most among rookies, but he did it in a way that avoided negative plays. His 1.0 percent interception rate was second among rookies while he still had an impressive 9.0-yard aDOT, and only 42.9 percent of his passing yards came after the catch.

In a Week 18 game that decided the AFC South, Stroud went 20-of-26 for 10.2 yards per attempt and a 54.5 percent success rate. His 470 passing yards in Week 9 set a new rookie record. 

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) reacts with New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) (not shown) on the field after the game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports.

5. Matt Ryan, 2008

Matt Ryan might have had one of the strangest good rookie seasons among the quarterbacks on this list. He finished second in EPA per play and had the third-best QBR but only threw 16 touchdowns.

Outside of the touchdown passes, Ryan did everything well. He had a better-than-average interception rate and a sack rate that was 21 percent better than the league average in 2008. Sack avoidance is a skill Ryan kept throughout his career until his final years. 

59.2 percent of his completions resulted in a first down or touchdown, fifth among rookies and third during his rookie season. This was still three years before Julio Jones was drafted, and the 2008 offense ran through Roddy White, who had a 33.2 percent target share.

Ryan had positive EPA in 13 games during his rookie season, tied for the most. 

4. Cam Newton, 2011

Like most of his career, Cam Newton’s rookie season is underrated, as he carried a heavy load for the offense. He had 596 dropbacks, ninth among rookies in the 2011 season. Newton also had 117 rushing attempts for 713 yards and 0.27 EPA per rush.

Only 59.3 percent of Newton’s pass attempts were within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, which put a ton of his shoulders to push the ball downfield. Given the rate of deeper throws, his 60 percent completion rate looks more favorable, and his success rate ranks sixth among rookies. He’s the only rookie with multiple 400-yard passing games in the regular season.

Newton was also throwing to a 32-year-old Steve Smith and not much else. A 26-year-old Greg Olsen hadn’t yet become a legitimate receiving weapon. Smith had a 25.2 percent target share and accounted for 34 percent of the team’s receiving yards. 

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) takes the field for pregame warmups against the Arizona Cardinals in the first half at State Farm Stadium. Rob Schumacher-Arizona Republic

3. Russell Wilson, 2012

Russell Wilson’s rookie season was undeniable. He was a third-round pick in a year that Seattle signed Matt Flynn to a three-year, $19.5 million contract. But Wilson won the job in training camp and proceeded with one of the most impressive rookie seasons we’ve ever seen.

The Seahawks leaned on a strong run game, and the Legion of Boom on defense, but Wilson was a massive part of the team’s success, especially late in the season. Following Seattle’s Week 12 bye through the playoffs, Wilson led the league in EPA per play (0.38) and success rate (56.8 percent) with 9.2 yards per attempt.

Wilson’s best weapon — and his trait that still plays today — was his deep ball. Wilson threw 16 percent of his passes 20 or more air yards as a rookie for a league-leading 0.88 EPA per play. 

2. Robert Griffin III, 2012

Robert Griffin’s rookie season combined two things we now point to for immediate rookie success — a mobile quarterback and a Shanahan offense. Griffin had an explosive debut, including an 88-yarder for his first touchdown pass, and it didn’t slow down from there.

The Washington offense combined the danger of the zone read with the spacing we know from a Shanahan passing scheme.

Griffin’s 13 games with positive EPA matched Matt Ryan’s, and his rushing ability raised the floor in every game. Griffin had 825 non-kneel rushing yards, a rookie record, and added seven rushing touchdowns. He did fumble six times but only lost two. Otherwise, he was great at taking care of the ball, with a 1.3 percent interception rate that tied Tom Brady for the league lead.

His 8.1 yards per attempt led the league, and Washington had a league-high 14.7 percent explosive play rate. Griffin also had the second-most efficient deep ball in the league during the 2012 season but did not throw deep as often as Wilson.

As promising as Griffin’s rookie season was, he could never replicate it after a torn ACL suffered in the playoffs.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) walks off the field after losing in the 2024 NFC wild card game against the Green Bay Packers at AT&T Stadium. (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)

1. Dak Prescott, 2016

Dak Prescott came into the best situation of any of these rookies as the fourth-round pick was made the starter after Tony Romo's preseason injury, but that shouldn’t take away from how impressive that season was.

His 0.21 EPA per play was first among all rookies, and he finished third that season behind Brady and an MVP season from Ryan. His 51.4 percent success rate was second to only Ryan that year.

The Cowboys had the lowest pass rate in the league in 2016, so much of Prescott’s success came from avoiding negative plays. He had a sub-1.0 percent interception rate and only took a sack on 13.8 percent of his pressures.

Still, there were plenty of hints for the type of quarterback Prescott would become. He averaged 8.0 yards per attempt and completed 67.8 percent of his passes, tops for qualified rookies, all while he was blitzed on more than 30 percent of his dropbacks.