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If NFL teams want to reach for too many 1st round QBs again, it'll only benefit the NFC West
Once an anomaly, drafting 4-5 quarterbacks on day one has become the norm--and it's doing nothing to help those teams
Now as ever before, quarterbacks dominate the National Football League. The 2022 playoffs featured three superstars in the conference championship games—Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, and Matthew Stafford—as well as Aaron Rodgers, Josh Allen, Ryan Tannehill, and Tom Brady losing in the divisional round.
Though Brady will forever be associated with the sixth round and pick 199, six of those seven names were first round picks; five of those six went in the top-10. The 49ers had a second round player starting at quarterback, but he’s been backed up all year by a top-three selection waiting in the wings.
Spinning a narrative as I just have will only further endorse the idea that teams must always consider drafting quarterbacks early. However, the increasing likelihood that a team will draft a quarterback on day one has done nothing to increase the number of good quarterbacks in the NFL.
If anything, it’s the odds of drafting a quarterback in the first round who will turn into a bust that is on the rise and if that happens a lot in 2022—a class that may not have a single QB worthy of being called a “franchise player”—it should only benefit the teams that don’t have a first round pick this year.
Like the Seattle Seahawks. The San Francisco 49ers. And the reigning Super Bowl champions.
The 2022 NFL Draft has a lot of good prospects along the offensive and defensive lines. It should be rich in wide receiver talent once again. Starting cornerbacks and linebackers could easily fall to day two. None of which drives mock draft headlines nearly as well as “5 Quarterbacks in the First Round!” though.
That in turn can eventually inspire a GM or head coach to believe that he will draw rave reviews for drafting a quarterback in the first round who the media loves, such as when the Chicago Bears traded up to select Justin Fields a year ago.
I wonder where Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace are going to work next, by the way.
The importance of the quarterback position goes back further than the forward pass itself, as evidenced in draft classes that go back to the very beginning of the NFL in the 1930s. However, that importance has been overblown in the online media age and sometimes it feels like teams are reaching more for good P.R. than they are for the best available players and the prospects who are most likely to deliver future value to their organizations.
Though I believe that quarterbacks are more talented than ever before—Matthew Stafford, Patrick Mahomes, and Josh Allen make the game as exciting to watch as it ever has been during my lifetime—I also believe that passing the football has never been quite this easy. It is also true that wide receivers and tight ends have never been as exceptional as they are today, and that league rules have evolved in such ways as to allow for records to be broken and for Jimmy Garoppolo to become a regular in the NFC Championship game.
Football teams need talent at quarterback. That does not mean that they need to take the fourth-most talented quarterback prospect with the 11th overall pick, or that they need to take a quarterback at the end of the first round simply because they can.
The rising costs of veteran quarterbacks combined with the incredible value of quarterbacks on rookie contracts, as well as the fifth year option that comes with being a day one selection, has only further implored GMs to convince themselves that they can turn a prospect into a pro starter, regardless of any red flags in front of them. Words like “develop” and “nurture” and “system” are all reasons to think that whether you’re drafting Trey Lance for the long-term or Mac Jones for the right now, that picking a player at the most exciting position is better than picking an exciting player at any position.
If any NFL franchises want to be that team this year, selecting Malik Willis, Kenny Pickett, or Sam Howell over a number of prospects who the entire scouting community have higher on their draft boards—even the ones who agree with picking Willis that early—then so be it. I assume it will probably happen because it’s what’s been happening over the past decade already.
I just think it’s also going to keep the good teams in the running for some of the best prospects, and most of the bad teams exactly where they are. For every Joe Burrow and the Bengals, there are a countless number of coaches and GMs wondering if they’d still have their jobs had they gone with the better all-around prospect.
The History of First Round Quarterbacks
Drafting a lot of quarterbacks in the first round goes back decades. Nobody will ever let you forget the 1983 draft that featured three Hall of Fame quarterbacks (and three other quarterbacks), or that there were four first round QBs in 1987, five in 1999, and four in 2003 and 2004.
Perhaps because of those anomalies, that is why I seem to be one of the only people overly interested in the fact that the NFL is wasting more first round picks on quarterbacks in the last decade than ever before.
Because we don’t talk about the fact that no quarterbacks were drafted in the first round in the three years after the ‘83 draft, signaling again how unique the Elway, Kelly, Marino year was in its era. The four quarterbacks drafted in the first round in ‘87 were all major disappointments. The five quarterbacks in ‘99 feature Donovan McNabb, then a wide gap, then Daunte Culpepper, then an even more massive gap before you get to Couch, Akili Smith, and McNown.
The ‘04 draft gave us three borderline Hall of Fame quarterbacks, but the ‘03 draft left much to be desired after Carson Palmer at one.
But then sometime in the previous decade, NFL general managers and owners seemed to start drafting quarterbacks in the first round more often than ever before—not because there were more potential starting quarterback prospects to be had but because “Everybody loves a first round quarterback!”
The asterisk to that quote being: Between draft day and Week 1.
Everybody loves a first round quarterback… until he starts to underwhelm those first round expectations even slightly.
We are seeing a higher rate of first round quarterbacks entering the league today than ever before and to some people that means that we now have more “exciting” players at the most fascinating position than ever before—but to me just means that we will have more first round busts than at any point in NFL history.
First NFL Draft
The first NFL Draft was held in 1936 at the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia. There were nine teams, nine rounds, and 90 players in the draft pool. With the first pick of the first draft, the Eagles selected halfback Jay Berwanger out of the University of Chicago, the same person who also won the first Heisman Trophy (at that time called the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy) and who once left a scar on President Gerald Ford’s face from what I can only imagine was him going “BerwangerMode” on him.
The second player in the first ever draft, and the first player to actually sign with a professional football team (Berwanger chose to work at a rubber factory over playing in the NFL because it was more lucrative to make footballs than it was to run footballs), was a quarterback.
Like many Alabama quarterbacks who would follow him in the decades after, Riley Smith was not known for throwing the football (which I think was still illegal at the time, like all bootlegging was at the time) but he is no less the first instance of a signal-caller getting drafted with a team’s first pick. There were 79 picks made after Smith—none of them were officially “quarterbacks”.
Then in 1937, when there were now 10 teams, Hall of Famer Sammy Baugh went sixth overall. Two years later, Hall of Famer Sid Luckman went second overall. Then five years after that, Otto Graham, arguably the greatest player prior to the Super Bowl era, went fourth overall.
Quarterbacks getting drafted in the first round is nothing unusual, and there are massive differences between the drafts of the 20th century and those of the 21st century, but let’s add up the number of them taken per decade anyway:
1950s - 20 first round quarterbacks
1960s - 21 first round quarterbacks
1970s - 16 first round quarterbacks
1980s - 18 first round quarterbacks
1990s - 20 first round quarterbacks
2000s - 26 first round quarterbacks
2010s - 30 first round quarterbacks
2020s - 9 first round quarterbacks (2 years)
Some people will look at the 2021 NFL Draft and think “Well, there were five quarterbacks in the top-15 picks, but so what? There were five quarterbacks in the top-12 in 1999!”
Except that in the context of 1999, we know that the number of highly-regarded prospects at that position was unusual. People were like, “Wow! Five quarterbacks in the top-12!” (Here’s an interesting oral history of the 1999 NFL Draft by ESPN Senior Writer David Fleming.)
In the context of 2021, there was no such amazement. Most of what I saw from the media and fans was that this draft had four “great” quarterback prospects—and maybe Mac Jones would get in there too. My personal feelings on last year’s QB prospects are inconsequential to the point I’m making, but what will never surprise me is if four of them turn out to be bad players.
I would think that at least two of them certainly will be (I’m not saying two specifically, just generally) and one year later Jones is the only one who has done anything in regular season games to inspire confidence that he could at least string together some not-terrible outings.
I love Zach Wilson, but he was insanely bad as a rookie. Other people love Justin Fields, and he was at least as bad as Wilson. Trevor Lawrence may have been the worst rookie quarterback of them all.
What is most fascinating to me though isn’t just the growing number of first round quarterbacks but the expanding circle of wasted first round picks used on quarterbacks. It’s a list that rationally speaking, we all know exists. Rationality seems to be a shrinking commodity these days however, because we are doing everything we can to ignore the reality that what we think of a QB prospect pre-draft has often turned out to be wrong and harmful to the franchises that reach for them.
We never look back at the ledger and report that the majority of first round quarterbacks in this century have been busts. The vast majority.
Why haven’t I ever seen this headline before: “First round quarterbacks are a bad, bad bet”? It can’t only be because an editor would re-write that headline into something better.
Is it because of Joe Burrow and Patrick Mahomes? Probably. But let’s see…
First round QBs of the 2010s - a graveyard of high picks
2010 - Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow
2011 - Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder
2012 - Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden
2013 - E.J. Manuel
2014 - Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater
In the first half of the last decade, there were 14 first round quarterbacks selected. You could argue that the three number one picks were not “bad” by any means, but ultimately all three were benched or out of the NFL before they were 30. Ryan Tannehill has probably had the best all-around career of the bunch, and certainly among the active remaining starters from this list. RGIII made sense too.
But overall, names like Tebow, Ponder, Manuel, and Weeden all scream of “reach”—then and now. There were efforts to fill a need or to gamble that maybe you’d find the next Joe Flacco or Ben Roethlisberger or Aaron Rodgers with one of these mid-to-late first round picks. And maybe that would be the case. (Though Rodgers could have gone first overall in 2005 and nobody would have found that unusual either.)
2015 - Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota
2016 - Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Paxton Lynch
2017 - Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson
2018 - Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, Lamar Jackson
2019 - Kyler Murray, Daniel Jones, Dwayne Haskins
In the latter half of the 2010s, there were 16 first round quarterbacks and that includes two of the biggest stars of the 2021 season: Mahomes and Allen.
It also includes the 2019 NFL MVP, plus Watson, Murray, and Mayfield. However, these players are all still so young that we have no way of knowing if Lamar Jackson will be starting for the Ravens in two years, if Watson will triumphantly return to the NFL or not, if Murray is a true franchise quarterback, or if Mayfield is even capable of starting in the long-term.
I’ve now named all 30 quarterbacks drafted in the first round in the previous decade and the top five names on that list are probably Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Ryan Tannehill, Cam Newton, and Andrew Luck.
What we imagine when we think of “First Round QB”: Mahomes and Allen.
The odds of finding Mahomes or Allen at this current rate of drafting 3+ QBs per first round? About 1-in-15. Roughly 6-percent.
Maybe we expand that out to say Mahomes, Allen, Tannehill, then expand it for best case scenarios on Murray and Lamar Jackson… Now your odds are 5-of-30, or roughly 16-percent.
Now consider that your 6 to 16-percent odds are not if you draft the first overall quarterback—those guys aren’t doing so hot (Bradford, Newton, Luck, Winston, Goff, Mayfield, Murray)—but just if you randomly pick a guy and believe he’s the one. Because Josh Allen was the third QB drafted, Mahomes was the second quarterback and went 10th overall.
Most teams had no idea how special they were.
Teams aren’t getting better at drafting-they’re getting worse
The 1936 NFL Draft had no scouts, no scouting departments, and they culled together a list based on random reports and newspaper clippings—anything they could find at the time, which wasn’t much. However, despite decades of opportunities to improve their odds of drafting the best players, the NFL has consistently failed to increase their likelihood of making the right choices and avoiding the busts.
Because in 1937, Sammy Baugh was a top pick and a great player. It’s not like teams had no idea who the potential Hall of Famers were, even 80 years ago.
They could also make massive mistakes, like underestimating the allure of the rubber industry. Just like they make mistakes today by underestimating the rawness of Jordan Love, the flaws in Tua Tagovailoa’s game, and the advantages had at Ohio State for quarterbacks like Dwayne Haskins, etc.
For the teams that do select quarterbacks in the first round, hoping to fill a need while savings tens of millions of dollars in contract fees by landing them on a rookie deal, what’s their alternative?
Well, in 2014, the Jaguars could have selected Sammy Watkins, Khalil Mack, Jake Matthews, Mike Evans, Anthony Barr, Odell Beckham Jr., Taylor Lewan, or Aaron Donald instead of Blake Bortles. It’s not as simple as saying: “But Bortles was the best player on the board!” because we all knew—then and now—that he was not. Not even close.
It was called a pick-for-need at the time, as if what the Jaguars needed was anybody who could play quarterback. Not necessarily a great quarterback.
There weren’t many people who felt that Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota were the best prospects in the 2015 draft, but this didn’t stop them from debating “Winston or Mariota?” for the top two picks. The Bucs and Titans could have opted to go for one of the prospects ranked at the top of people’s big boards, like Amari Cooper or Brandon Scherff.
What was so discombobulating about the Rams and Eagles trading up for Goff and Wentz in 2016 was mostly the idea that these are the guys who you’re desperate to have? I remember most analysts being far more enamored with Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott, Jalen Ramsey, and Laremy Tunsil at the time.
The Bengals ran to the podium for Joe Burrow and even with millions salivating over the pro career of Chase Young, there was never a doubt about Burrow. The same could be said for Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson in 2021. These are understandable first round picks being used on quarterback prospects. (I still don’t quite understand why Justin Herbert wasn’t a lock for a top-two spot but five teams nonetheless passed on him so I can’t argue that he was a no-brainer.)
It’s almost always the next wave of quarterbacks after the no-brainers that is overloaded with questionable decisions to take a player only because he plays the most important position over ones who have much greater odds of becoming NFL starters.
The 2022 NFL Draft will feature between 0 and 5 first round quarterbacks, which is only the first sign that it’s a bad class
The 2022 NFL Draft sits somewhere on the edge between the 2013 class that featured “only” one reach and the 2021 class that saw five quarterbacks go in the first round based on what seems to be momentum for a movement to give the fans day one excitement.
Drafting four quarterbacks in the first round used to be something that was so rare, it drew headlines.
It has now happened in three of the last four years. Delivering such immediate busts as Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, and Dwayne Haskins. As well as players currently living on the edge like Baker Mayfield, Daniel Jones, Jordan Love, and Tua Tagovailoa.
When you consider the value of young players recently, such as Ja’Marr Chase, Micah Parsons, Rashawn Slater, Jaylen Waddle, Patrick Surtain II, Tristan Wirfs, Justin Jefferson, and so on, it makes it all the more dangerous to cross your fingers on an iffy quarterback selection…
I have little doubt that multiple NFL teams are going to convince themselves of doing just that on April 28, 2022.
The 2022 NFL Draft class features zero quarterbacks who are in the same echelon as Burrow, Lawrence, Luck, or Newton. Or even Mayfield and Murray. However, you might see that in the process of the scouting combine and pro days that somebody rises up like a Goff or Wentz.
Reading mock drafts a year ago, I distinctly recall a lot of “X number of QBs selected in first round!” in many headlines. Headlines. Headlines.
Do you see why I’m emphasizing the word “Headlines”?
Even today, you’ll see that a good number of sites will continue to push a pro-QB narrative on the draft, which might only further convince several GMs that this class has a number of first round-worthy (or at least acceptable to the public) quarterbacks.
Malik Willis at 3 (Panthers trade up)
Kenny Pickett at 9 (Broncos)
Sam Howell at 10 (Steelers trade up)
Matt Corral at 11 (Commanders)
Desmond Ridder at 32 (Lions)
If the real draft were to play out like this then we would automatically set new expectations for all five of these players based solely on one thing: at what overall selection they were drafted.
Malik Willis would have to live up to the billing of going third overall—even if the real billing for going third overall is that you are now joining a group that includes Trey Lance, Sam Darnold, Blake Bortles, Matt Ryan, Vince Young, Joey Harrington, and Akili Smith going back to 1999.
However, if you were to take a logical look at Malik Willis today, it would seem hard to justify him as the third overall pick and as the “best quarterback of 2022.”
Willis, who will turn 23 shortly after the draft, transferred out of Auburn and only ever had college success at Liberty. Even there, he had a lot of interceptions and wasn’t much of a rushing threat against any competent competition.
You have to really BELIEVE in Malik Willis. You have to have faith. You can’t go off of evidence. This could comp him to Josh Allen in the best case scenario or to (pick someone bad) in the worst case, but already at pick three we have a team not only drafting Willis off of faith alone—they trade up for him.
This would be just one year after the 49ers used three first round picks out of a belief that Trey Lance will develop into a star one day.
From picks 9-11, Reuter has a run on quarterbacks based on obvious present day needs at the position for Denver, Pittsburgh, and Washington. Nothing could seem to be a better comp for the Locker-Gabbert-Ponder draft of 2011 than this trio of Pickett, Howell, and Corral.
And I even like Kenny Pickett. A lot!
But all three should be considered reaches at this point in the process. Especially when you consider what types of prospects the Broncos, Steelers, and Commanders will be passing up for them if this plays out. In this case, it would leave Treylon Burks, Trevor Penning, and Charles Cross available to the next three teams in Reuter’s mock, followed by George Karlaftis, Jordan Davis, and Sauce Gardner.
Maybe any or all six of those non-quarterbacks could turn into disappointments, but there is no projection or measurement that won’t tell you that they have greater odds of success than reaching on quarterbacks who weren’t good enough to get selected at the top of the first round.
The Ridder pick for the Lions is simply a justifiable way to get another quarterback in the mock draft. Detroit needs a franchise quarterback. That is rarely found with the fifth quarterback in a given class, but especially in a class that almost everyone can agree is well weaker than the average. Ridder would not be the equal to Mac Jones or Lamar Jackson because those players had some good-to-great QB prospects ahead of them.
How this helps the NFC West
The Lions, like most teams, will be looking ahead to the 2023 NFL Draft as their opportunity to find the next Joe Burrow. That’s another reason why I don’t expect there to be four or five quarterbacks in the first round this year—but if it does happen, it will be of some benefit to the NFC West.
The 49ers, Rams, and Seahawks are all without first round picks this year, and while Arizona’s situation with Kyler Murray seems tenuous, we shouldn’t expect the Cardinals to be looking at quarterback on day one.
I believe there should be 0 first round quarterbacks in 2022. Others are saying that they believe that there should be at least five. That obviously means that if they’re right, it leaves five “first round prospects” falling to day two. In Reuter’s draft, you could argue that it pushes names like Chris Olave, Nik Bonitto, Roger McCreary, Jahan Dotson, and Kenyon Green from day one into the second round.
That’s potentially five great prospects that are getting closer to the Seahawks (41st), Cardinals (55th), and 49ers (61st). (The Rams don’t pick until their first compensatory selection at the end of the third round.) Even if the Seahawks don’t get Olave, Bonitto, or McCreary, for example, then it just means that they’re selected and a different position prospect falls a little further.
All because of quarterback prospects that almost everyone universally agrees are lower on their draft boards based on projection and imaginary value in the best case scenario of development and positional importance. Quarterbacks are the most important players in football and in winning. They are also that special because they are rare and no matter what the league does to give players like Garoppolo, Tannehill, and Derek Carr good stats, it won’t change that there are only a tiny handful of franchise-altering quarterbacks like Mahomes, Allen, and Burrow.
If the game is that much easier for Garoppolo and Tannehill, then it should be having the opposite effect in draft: Fewer first round quarterbacks. Instead we are seeing more than ever before… and the franchises that keep falling for it will continue to be like the first pick in NFL history.
Burning rubber and regretting it forever.