Playbook: Five rookie QBs on display Sunday

As the season moves along, quarterbacks labeled “rookies” step closer to being a plain quarterback. Challenge-by-challenge, success or failure, every learning experience just shows whether they might become a great quarterback or not.

On Sunday, we saw five rookie quarterbacks try and bring their teams back from behind –- and failed. Nonetheless, they continued to make strides in their NFL journey.

For Cam Newton, his highlight reel only expands a bit after a back-and-forth bout with the Lions. We saw more from Christian Ponder, who brought more balance to the Vikings’ offense (before Adrian Peterson went down).

Andy Dalton, Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker also played interesting roles for their respective offenses. Here is what we saw watching them on tape:

Andy Dalton vs. Ravens

In Dalton, the Bengals have a smart, timing-and-rhythm passer. Of Dalton’s 47 drop backs versus the Ravens, 37 were three steps or less and ball out. While he doesn’t have the arm of the quarterbacks taken before him in April (Newton, Locker and Gabbert) he has proven to Cincinnati’s coaching staff that he can be trusted with NFL throws because of his ability to anticipate where his receivers -– and opposing defenders -– will be at any given time.

Most of Dalton’s success came on quick throws to the sideline –- stick throws that require velocity or can be picked by pro corners -– with 18 targets to receivers on out routes and comebacks. He completed nine for 95 yards, which isn’t a great percentage, but we counted a handful of drops straight through receivers’ hands.

At the same time, the most impressive aspect of Dalton’s game has been his command of the offense. With his team down 31-14 early in the fourth quarter, the Ravens showed Dalton eight-man pressure. Dalton switched up his protection, recognized Baltimore was playing man-to-man on his receivers outside -– with no safety over the top –- and hit Andre Caldwell in stride for a 49-yard touchdown.

Blaine Gabbert vs. Browns

Gabbert has all the tools. That’s why he was picked 10th overall. But after we watch him, one question remains: Can he stand in the pocket, under pressure, and deliver a strike?

Against the Browns, Gabbert made arguably one of his best throws of the year on a dig to Jarrett Dillard off of play action for 19 yards. It was an absolute strike.

On the next play, however, with 1:05 left in the second quarter, he had a free rusher coming at him. Instead of stepping into the throw, he threw the ball backward and ducked out of the way.

From that play forward, Gabbert looked skittish in the pocket. He had a 71.4 percent completion percentage before that play. After? He hit 44.4 percent of his passes. Gabbert missed open receiver after open receiver and was just 2-of-13 versus pressure. With a clean pocket, he was 20-of-28 with 6.79 yards per attempt.

We love Gabbert’s tools -– when he’s protected. Moving forward, we’d like to see him stand in, step into a throw and consistently display his arm strength.

Jake Locker vs. Falcons

We only saw a small sampling of Locker after Matt Hasselbeck’s injury, but he threw two touchdowns and made the Titans interesting to watch at the end of the game.

At the same time, he was under 50 percent completion (9-of-19) and we would like to see him clean up his footwork. Locker sailed a few passes high and toward the sideline because he opened his stride up.  The ball goes where your lead foot points it –- and he opened up straight toward the sideline on several throws.

Otherwise, Locker showed some mobility (11-yard scramble) and an ability to throw on the move. We like how he handled being thrown into that situation.

“Playbook” — the ultimate football Xs and Os show — airs Friday at 8 p.m. ET (AFC) and 9 p.m. ET (NFC) on NFL Network. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.

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