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The NFL's schedule shines a light on a historic rookie QB class. Is the next C.J. Stroud among them?

Three games.

That’s what it took for the NFL to sit up and collectively recognize that C.J. Stroud and the Houston Texans were going to be something different than what we expected during the 2023 season. Specifically: Two solid passing games in losses to the Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts in the first two weeks of the season, followed by a commanding statement road win over the division-rival Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 3. And just like that, Stroud was off and running as one of the most exciting rookie quarterbacks in the history of the NFL.

That's an important string of games to remember on the heels of the league's schedule release on Wednesday, which gives us our first look at the path ahead for a record-setting — and hotly debated — rookie quarterback class. A collection of players that could conceivably feature five Week 1 rookie starters, while adding a building sense of intrigue into some pivotal training camps.

With that in mind, we looked over the league’s 2024 schedule and how it’s framing up for the six quarterbacks taken in the draft’s first 12 picks. Each will have their own unique path to being a rookie starter — whether it happens in Week 1 or Week 18 — not to mention a key game on the schedule that will tell us something about where they’re headed at the next level.

Starting with …

Caleb Williams, Chicago Bears

The first three weeks of the season should be an entertaining showcase on where the league is heading at quarterback, pitting Williams and the Bears against the Tennessee Titans’ Will Levis, the Houston Texans’ C.J. Stroud and the Indianapolis Colts’ Anthony Richardson. Throw in Week 5 against the Carolina Panthers’ Bryce Young and you’ve got Williams facing the top four quarterback selections from the 2023 NFL Draft. If the plans of the respective franchises actually work out, those four games could be a window into what the next decade and beyond looks like in terms of top-tier quarterback rivalries. For a league built on showcasing the “next big thing,” the schedule-makers did a great job with this one.

Williams' must-watch game: It will be early in the season, but it's a neck-and-neck race between Week 2 against Stroud and the Texans and Week 3, featuring Richardson and the Colts. We'll give the edge to Week 2, since it features Williams going against the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year in Stroud, who put up the best rookie passing season in NFL history. Williams has that type of ability, too, not to mention the surrounding pieces to make it happen. Williams faring well against a fast-rising Texans defense would be a strong statement in this year's Offensive Rookie of the Year race.

Jayden Daniels, Washington Commanders

There are quality quarterback matchups all over the place for Daniels, including two games apiece against the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Hurts and Dallas Cowboys’ Dak Prescott, along with single-game matchups against the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow, Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson and Arizona Cardinals’ Kyler Murray — which pits Daniels against the quarterback who delivered a sliver of NFL success to Commanders offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury when he was the head coach of the Cardinals. There’s also the Week 8 game against the Bears and Williams, which gives us the pleasure of seeing the first two picks in the draft face off in their rookie seasons.

Daniels' must-watch game: It has to be the Week 6 tilt against Jackson and the Ravens. While their body types are not the same, Daniels' elusive running style at LSU drew very favorable comparisons to Jackson's repertoire. The big difference? Jackson is a bigger player who rarely got nuked when running the football in college, but Daniels comes out of college as the far more polished passer. Seeing Daniels go up against a very stout defense — as well as a player that mirrors a significant part of his skill set — could be a wild fireworks display. Not to mention a preview of what's to come for the Commanders and their most important cornerstone.

Drake Maye, New England Patriots

The lineup of quarterbacks on the slate for the Patriots in 2024 is simply insane. You could easily argue that only one quarterback on the slate (one!) falls outside of the league’s top 15 players at the position. Consider the veterans on the schedule. You have the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen, New York Jets’ Aaron Rodgers and Miami Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa — all twice. Then you have single-game matchups with the Bengals’ Burrow, Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Rams’ Matthew Stafford, San Francisco 49ers’ Brock Purdy, Jacksonville Jaguars’ Trevor Lawrence, Cardinals’ Murray and Seattle Seahawks’ Geno Smith. Beyond that group, there is also a slew of fun matchups against young talents, including the Texans’ Stroud, Colts’ Richardson, Bears’ Williams and the Tennessee Titans’ Levis, who we currently wouldn’t put into the league’s top 15 quarterbacks. From the standpoint of playing talented quarterbacks, it’s hard to find a tougher schedule than the one facing New England. The only question now is how many of those quarterbacks will see Maye starting for the Patriots?

Maye's must-watch game: There's a bit of projection here, since Maye still hasn't been named the starter for the Patriots and might not get the nod until the franchise is somewhere in the middle of the regular season. That said, I'd argue that if Maye is going to get the starting reins at some point in the season, it would likely happen by at least November. That would mean Maye potentially running up against the Chargers' Herbert in Week 17 and the Bills' Allen in Week 18. Both of those players were teased as potential comps to Maye in the draft process. But we're still going to tap the week 10 game as the Maye's "must-watch" moment, when he runs into the Bears' Williams. For more than a year, Williams and Maye were touted as a generational pair of quarterback draft picks coming out together in 2024. Seeing them on the same field in their rookie season would be special, even if the Bears clearly have the edge in offensive talent.

Michael Penix, Atlanta Falcons

This one is a little tougher to peg, because the Falcons are planning on sitting Penix behind starter Kirk Cousins during his rookie season. With that in mind, there’s no use picking apart his potential matchups on the 2024 schedule. But that doesn’t rule out a “must-watch” game, either. Because …

Penix's must-watch game: OK, we'll project a tiny bit here and say that we think it will be intriguing to see if the Week 18 game against Young and the Panthers comes into play — which it absolutely could. On one hand, if the Falcons take care of business and lock up a playoff spot but don't have positioning to play for in the final week of the season, it's feasible that Penix makes his one and only rookie start in Week 18 against the Panthers. That would give Cousins a chance to sit back and avoid an injury in the finale, while also giving the Falcons a game to see where Penix is at in his development. Basically, the same scenario that played out for Patrick Mahomes during his 2017 rookie season with the Kansas City Chiefs, when he played in the season finale against the Denver Broncos and then took over as the starter in 2018. On the flip side, if the Falcons' season crashes and burns, it's possible that Atlanta shuts down Cousins in Week 18 if there's nothing to play for, allowing him to preserve his health heading into the offseason passing program. The bottom line? If Atlanta has nothing to play for in Week 18, in either the positive or negative sense, it's the right spot to sneak in a game of regular-season work for Penix. Especially against a Panthers team that should still be in a rebuilding phase.

J.J. McCarthy, Minnesota Vikings

Like Maye in New England, there is some projection here with McCarthy. As it stands, he hasn’t yet won the starting job and there’s a feasible chance that his learning curve is steep enough to keep him behind Sam Darnold for a while. If McCarthy isn’t the starter coming out of the preseason, the game that will get circled on the schedule is Week 7 versus the Detroit Lions. That’s the game coming out of Minnesota’s Week 6 bye, which follows the Vikings Week 5 game in agains the Jets in London. From the standpoint of finding an insertion point for McCarthy, the Week 7 spot makes the most sense, especially if Darnold hasn’t been exceptional enough to make a switch. It would give the Vikings a full two weeks between games to get McCarthy prepared for Detroit, and plenty of games left on the schedule to measure where his timeline stands in head coach Kevin O’Connell’s offense.

McCarthy's must-watch game: Again, this is built on some projection, but if McCarthy plays at all in 2024, we assume he's going to be on the field by December at the very least. That would roll him out in time for a very intriguing game against the Falcons and Cousins in Week 14. Due to how this quarterback draft shook out, the Vikings and Falcons are tied together through a couple quarterback storylines. First is the obvious "revenge" game for Cousins, who plays the Vikings team that effectively let him walk, favoring a future with a rookie quarterback. But the second storyline is that Atlanta very intentionally drafted Penix over McCarthy, which should give McCarthy some added motivation when the two teams meet. Indeed, you could easily argue that from a grooming standpoint, Atlanta should have chosen the much younger McCarthy to sit and learn behind Cousins (who McCarthy was sometimes compared to in the draft process) for the next two seasons. Instead, it went for the older Penix, creating a space for career comparison between the two players if and when they both become starters. But even with that comparison on the back burner for at least a year or two, the Week 14 game could feature McCarthy going up against the guy he replaced in Minnesota. And that likely won't be lost on him or Cousins.

Bo Nix, Denver Broncos

Nix hasn’t won the starting job yet in Denver, but there’s far less projection when it comes to his path when compared to Maye and McCarthy. Make no mistake, Nix was drafted to be the Week 1 starter in Denver. If he isn’t, it means something went very wrong between now and September. And what he’ll face as a starter in Denver is daunting, staying within the division with four games against the Chiefs’ Mahomes and Chargers’ Herbert, then an out-of-division slate that runs into the Jets’ Rodgers, Ravens’ Jackson and Bengals’ Burrow. Aside from the Bears’ Williams, Nix is really the only quarterback that seems guaranteed to start a full 17 games, if he’s healthy. Which means the Broncos should have a very good handle on the player who was hand-selected by head coach Sean Payton.

Nix's must-watch game: When you're in the AFC West and you're a rookie quarterback selected to lead the next decade or more, there's no avoiding what the first big matchup is on your schedule. It's always the first game against the Chiefs and Mahomes. This is the dragon every NFL quarterback has to slay if they want to be a Super Bowl contender. But it takes on an added level of expectation inside the division, because the AFC West crown is seemingly destined to run through Kansas City for a long, long time. For that reason, the Week 10 road tilt against the Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium should have been circled on Nix's calendar the second his name was called on draft night. While it's not fair to consider Nix's first game against Mahomes as a referendum of sorts, people certainly sat up and took notice of Herbert in 2020 when he seized on his first start as a rookie to take Mahomes and the Chiefs into overtime (despite an eventual Chargers loss). Nix might not have to come out and beat Mahomes in his first shot, but if he goes into Arrowhead and shows the kind of fight that the Broncos are banking on, it could be a significant exclamation point in his rookie season.

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