Ranking the best situations for the rookie quarterbacks: Start with Michael Penix in Atlanta at No. 1

(Mallory Bielecki/Yahoo Sports)
(Mallory Bielecki/Yahoo Sports)

NFL teams break talented quarterbacks. They systematically destroy them. Rarely do we ever place the appropriate amount of blame where it belongs.

I think about that reality when I look at Zach Wilson and recall a conversation that I had with a key member of the New York Jets’ braintrust last summer.

“Zach never should have played as a rookie,” the Jets official said. “We should have redshirted him.”

Quarterback hindsight is cruel like that. In Wilson’s case, it was hard to know how deeply his confidence would be shaken as the mistakes piled up. Or that the vastly deteriorating offensive line would have him seeing ghosts in the pocket, leaving him to focus a growing portion of his attention on the five yards in front of him rather than the 40 beyond that. By the middle of his second season, Wilson was mentally destroyed and the locker room had gone from inching away from him to open abandonment. Of course, Wilson played a hand in all of it. But the totality of failure wasn’t his alone.

This is why there truly are “best situations” for rookie quarterbacks in the NFL. There’s a vast difference between an inviting port in the storm and a rocky shoreline with no lighthouse in sight. And more often than not, we can either see the failure coming or very easily process it in real time. JaMarcus Russell was never going to have a chance at fully developing with the Raiders. The organization was far too dysfunctional when it came to fitting what he needed physically and mentally. The Houston Texans obliterated the career of David Carr through the negligence of a botched offensive line build. Trey Lance? With his extremely limited résumé, the San Francisco 49ers never should have drafted him where they did. Nor any other team, for that matter. Mac Jones? Who knows what might have happened if Matt Patricia had never been his offensive coordinator. Kenny Pickett? Probably should have been redshirted, just like Wilson.

Wrong team … wrong situation … wrong timing can have lasting effects on talented quarterbacks. Usually, they fade into the ether, becoming a scorned footnote that fans continue to curse even decades later. And every once in a while, one surprises us by clawing back into relevancy to remind us who we thought they could be. Seattle Seahawks’ Geno Smith is a good example of that. Alex Smith, too.

With that in mind, we ranked the best situations for this year’s first-round quarterbacks. It’s key to note that we’re not saying the “best team” or “best roster.” Instead, we’re talking about the best confluence of factors that can outline a path for survival and then success.

Starting with ...

The upside: Penix got a gift that virtually nobody at the quarterback spot is afforded when drafted inside the top 10 — a two-year runway of pre-planned time and patience.

Historically, you were more likely to dig up Jimmy Hoffa in the Meadowlands end zone than purposely bury a top-10 drafted quarterback on the depth chart. It's a reality that has swung so hard into the realm of impatience that NFL teams are more likely to pull the plug on a quarterback after two years if he hasn't rounded a corner.

Yes, it was a remarkable oddity that Atlanta took Penix at the No. 8 overall pick after committing $100 million in guaranteed money to Kirk Cousins. It was hard to understand from the team's perspective. But it’s much less difficult to understand why this is great for Penix. Even if Cousins plays well, Penix will get plenty of run in the preseason, then spend his time learning the offense while working on his mechanics and tuning up his short to intermediate passing repertoire. Not to mention also getting physically stronger and putting more distance between himself and the season-ending injuries he suffered earlier in his college career. All the while, the Falcons' roster of young players like Drake London, Kyle Pitts and Bijan Robinson will be growing toward their prime, while the front office continues to line the team with talent.

While it’s not entirely fair to look at it like Patrick Mahomes’ patient entry into Kansas City, there are some aspects of that transition that can be mirrored. Most especially the development of the roster that Mahomes took over in his second year in the NFL. If Penix indeed sits for two years, he will have had two preseasons of work, two off-seasons of a passing program and two years in the scheme to learn. That is an amazing luxury for him to embrace.

The downside: Penix, like virtually every other quarterback who comes into the league as a celebrated college player, is going to want to play. That’s natural. So there is going to be some balancing necessary by the Falcons to continually fan his competitive flame rather than stifle it by putting him on pause for two years.

He’s also walking into a quarterback room with Cousins and that has a chance to be very awkward. Cousins has his pride and there was no indication the Falcons were drafting a QB until it happened. That reality creates underlying tension, no matter how much the two players will deny it (and they most certainly will). It also injects an oddity into the locker room given that Penix is going to need to build a rapport with players like London, Pitts and Robinson and all the other players who will be around when he’s given the reins. There’s a chance this goes sideways for multiple reasons. If Cousins doesn’t live up to his salary level and the fan base turns on him in hopes of seeing Penix, that’s going to be a very hard problem to solve. If for some reason the entire team implodes and it leads to a change of hands at either the head coach or general manager spot, that could destroy Penix’s track to fulfilling his end of this plan. And if Cousins thrives in Atlanta, he could push this plan even further down the road, as Aaron Rodgers did when Jordan Love was drafted in Green Bay.

HOUSTON, TEXAS - JANUARY 08:  Michael Penix Jr. #9 of the Washington Huskies throws the ball in the first quarter against the Michigan Wolverines during the 2024 CFP National Championship game at NRG Stadium on January 08, 2024 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Michael Penix Jr. is looking at a two-year redshirt with the Falcons. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The upside: The depth chart is stacked, from three high-end wideouts in DJ Moore, Keenan Allen and Rome Odunze, to a solid 1-2 rotation at tight end with Cole Kmet and Gerald Everett to a running back spot with some depth and versatility between D’Andre Swift, Roschon Johnson and Khalil Herbert. The offensive line also has some continuity. New offensive coordinator Shane Waldron has also shown a penchant for getting good results and expedited decisions out of his quarterbacks, which should bode well for Williams. The rookie QB also will be running an offense that is being newly installed, which puts Williams on equal footing with the rest of his offensive teammates from a learning and chemistry perspective.

The Bears were a borderline playoff team in 2023, putting Williams into a spot to succeed alongside the talent in place rather than being forced to come in and elevate things across the board. Sheerly from that perspective, no other rookie quarterback has as much to work with out of the gate.

The downside: Because of all that talent and Williams coming in touted as a franchise quarterback with generational skills, the expectations are going to be through the roof. The league has been waiting for him to arrive essentially since he was playing as a true freshman at Oklahoma. Because of that, everyone will be watching this unfold very closely — including other NFL teams that are curious to see how Williams’ personality meshes on the pro level.

The scrutiny on Williams is going to be like nothing he’s ever faced. Think: Trevor Lawrence, but with a city and fan base that carries a far more intense and critical microscope. Fans are expecting the world out of Williams. And they have turned on highly touted draft picks and quarterbacks with a vengeance when things have fallen apart in the past. Lest anyone forget, they went through spates of booing Justin Fields and the offense prior to his departure. There’s also the Fields element in all of this. He was well-liked in the locker room. He had a close relationship to Moore and others. Williams will only need to win games and feed the surrounding talent to win everyone over, but don’t make the mistake of assuming he’s going to get crowned as the anointed leader just by being a highly anticipated No. 1 draft pick.

Williams has to succeed at a fairly high level and along a very quick timeline to live up to his billing. And he has to do it in a city that has grown tired of expending patience waiting on quarterbacks to live up to their hype.

The upside: The pieces that should surround McCarthy when he steps in as a starter are fairly outstanding, particularly wideouts Justin Jefferson and Jordan Addison, and tight end T.J. Hockenson. Running back Aaron Jones can also be a superb receiver out of the backfield. Minnesota's offensive line has continuity and the talent to be a top-10 unit in the NFL in 2024 if it can remain healthy. Hockenson's return from a season-ending knee injury is going to be key in that mix, too. Head coach Kevin O’Connell is also getting a younger, better athlete to work with than Kirk Cousins when it comes to escaping the pocket and creating off-schedule plays.

And believe it or not, Sam Darnold is going to be a challenge for McCarthy in the quarterback room. He’s experienced with the offense, turns 27 in June and is approaching the stint in Minnesota as an opportunity that could get him another shot as a starter somewhere in the league again. With the proliferation of the Shanahan scheme across the league, that’s not an outrageous thought.

Bottom line: McCarthy could sit for a bit in Minnesota … or at the very least, he’s going to have to fight to get the starting job right out of the gate.

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy (9) hands off to Michigan running back Blake Corum (2) during the second half of the Rose Bowl CFP NCAA semifinal college football game against Alabama Monday, Jan. 1, 2024, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)
J.J. McCarthy, pictured handing off to running back Blake Corum in the 2024 Rose Bowl, will have a challenge on his hands in the NFL. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)

The downside: If Jefferson is back in the fold with a contract extension, there’s going to be an expectation that he will be fed. Addison is also going to want his share of the pie, as well as Hockenson when he eventually returns. So the idea of McCarthy coming in and being a throttled-down passer is farfetched.

Unlike his time at Michigan, he’s going to have to throw. To the point that it’s feasible he surpasses all of his college passing attempts at Michigan (713) inside of his first 20 NFL starts. That’s a significant ramp-up as a passer, and it comes with a significant possibility of making mistakes and going through growing pains. On top of all of it, McCarthy is still filling out in terms of his frame. The Michigan staff raved about him as being a hard worker. Well, he’s going to have to work like he never has before over the next few seasons — both mentally and physically.

The Shanahan offense is also solidly complicated, taking most starters roughly two years of being entrenched before they’re operating it at the expected level.

The upside: Daniels has a pair of skilled veteran wideouts in Terry McLaurin and Jahan Dotson. Tight end Zach Ertz and running back Austin Ekeler may both have above average seasons left in the tank if they stay healthy. And Ben Sinnott and Luke McCaffrey have a chance to surprise some people with their contributions as rookies at the tight end and receiver spots. The interior of the offensive line can be solid and steady — which is a start — and Daniels has the gifts to extend plays and get himself out of trouble when the offensive tackles break down. And offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury has had some excellent moments across his career with versatile quarterbacks who had the ability to create and a hunger to compete. He was particularly good with Kyler Murray in their first season together with the Arizona Cardinals.

ASHBURN, VA - APRIL 26: Quarterback Jayden Daniels speaks at a Commanders press conference at Commanders Park in Ashburn, VA on April 26, 2024. (Photo by Craig Hudson for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Jayden Daniels' scrambling ability was a strength in his collegiate career. (Photo by Craig Hudson for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The downside: Like Williams in Chicago, there are going to be instant pressures and expectations on Daniels as a Day 1 starter. And his offensive tackles are a big problem for a player who does not have the kind of frame as a rookie to take a massive amount of punishment. Sam Howell got pummeled last season behind this line, although he created a lot of those problems for himself. Daniels is a much better passer and has the requisite feel to create and operate out of structure when things go sideways. That said, it’s not hard to envision Daniels running a lot his first season behind these offensive tackles. And every time he does, there’s going to be a tidal wave of prayers that he doesn’t try to go the extra mile and occasionally get nuked on some of his scrambles. Fans who have seen the LSU tape of a few of Daniels’ train crash moments know where this statement is coming from. He cannot afford to get hurt, and that’s going to put a lot of pressure on Kingsbury to adjust the scheme as the season moves along. That wasn’t his strong suit in Arizona. Kingsbury is going to have to show growth in this respect, as well as rely on the running game far more than some might be expecting. If that doesn’t happen and Daniels is forced to shoulder the kind of load that Murray did when things went bad in Arizona, it’s going to push the injury risk into the red very quickly for Daniels.

The upside: Head coach Sean Payton has his chosen quarterback to build around, and it’s not the typical rookie who lacks seasoning. Nix has a stunning 61 games of college experience under his belt and no shortage of adversity on his résumé. He arrives as a mature player who has seen a lot in college. It’s hard not to draw comparisons to how Brock Purdy was able to function at a high level so quickly with the San Francisco 49ers. Similar to the learning environment that Nix will be dealing with in Denver, Purdy had a very demanding coach who prized a quarterback who could go out and execute the offense in the manner it was presented to him. If Nix listens to Payton and follows his instruction consistently and efficiently — which is the expectation — he will gain Payton’s confidence quickly. And that would be a major hurdle to have cleared.

The downside: The offense around Nix still feels like it’s in a state of fluctuation, largely because there’s still retooling going on. The offensive line has talent, but the pass-catching pieces are an odd mix that appear to lack a definitive go-to player, even with Courtland Sutton having a rebound season in 2023. It remains to be see what wideout Marvin Mims Jr. can be or if tight end Greg Dulcich will ever be a useful player in Payton’s scheme. Tim Patrick can’t be counted upon, and Josh Reynolds is a rotational piece. And while running back Javonte Williams has talent, he’s yet to turn a corner in both health and development.

All in all, it’s a lot of “we’ll see” scenarios on offense that will continue to be sorted out as the team gets beyond the dead money incurred by the release of Russell Wilson. And while Nix is certainly the quarterback who fits what Payton wants in his scheme, that comes with a demanding nature, too. Like Purdy in San Francisco, Nix needs to be efficient and limit his mistakes. And with far less talent anchored around him.

Foxborough, MA - April 26: New England Patriots QB Drake Maye at his introductory press conference at Gillette Stadium. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
The Patriots hope they've found an answer at QB with Drake Maye. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The upside: There is a template for Maye to succeed, and it happened inside the same division.

Six years ago, the Buffalo Bills selected a high-end athlete in Josh Allen, who arrived with a big arm, needed significant patience and a sprawling injection of talent across the offense. What the Bills didn’t know at the time was that Allen had the right offensive coordinator in place to guide him in Brian Daboll, and the right front office to retool the roster around him. The offensive line changed quickly and by Year 3 of the build, the pass-catchers had been completely overhauled around Allen. The key to all of it was Allen’s talent, which showcased a rare blend of talent, improvisational skills, competitive fire and an ability to learn and quickly raise his floor.

It appears Maye has some of these same traits, and the Patriots have already gone to work on the talent end, spending five of their eight draft picks on a pair of wideouts, a tight end and two offensive linemen.

The downside: New offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt has been inside some different schemes and worked with some successful quarterbacks. But he had a curious ending with the Green Bay Packers, which saw then-head coach Mike McCarthy refuse to renew his deal despite Van Pelt being a favorite of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. His tenure with the Cleveland Browns also ended with a thud, with Van Pelt getting fired at the end of last season despite having an offense that fared reasonably well amid a deep spate of injuries.

Van Pelt will run his own show in New England, without offensive-minded head coaches looking over his shoulder. More than anyone else on the Patriots' staff, Van Pelt’s handling and education of Maye will be critical. You could argue he has never had more riding on the line than what he’ll be asked to create with Maye as a centerpiece. The expectation is that Maye will be eased into the lineup behind veteran Jacoby Brissett, but it’s likely that he ends up starting the majority of the season, just like Allen did for the Bills in 2018. That’s going to induce plenty of white-knuckling behind an offensive line that is not a good unit right now, and a set of pass-catchers that are either unproven or proven to be middling. Like the Bills in 2018, there is a lot of work ahead. And the odds of the developmental stages getting pulled off as well as it went in Buffalo with Allen are extremely challenging.