In the NFL, it’s hard to win without a good quarterback. The game has become so complex that many good quarterback prospects are completely ineffective in the pro game. NFL teams build in the draft, and if they find a good quarterback, they hold on to him. You’re not going to find a good quarterback in free agency.
What’s positive about quarterbacks is if they stay healthy, they’re decent for about 12 years on average, and the great ones for 14-15 years. The average projected starting quarterback in the NFL for 2015 already has 5 1/2 seasons of starting experience. That means an average of three starting-caliber quarterbacks need to enter the league in a given year.
Who are those three quarterbacks? Eight of the 32 current projected starters were the first pick in the entire draft. Four more went in picks 2-4, four more in picks 5-16 and another three in the bottom half of the first round. So that’s 19 of 32 in round one. Another five came in the second round (all in the first handful of picks). Add two threes, two sixes, one seven, one undrafted and two uncertain situations, and you have your set of 32 starters.
The 2015 quarterback crop is considered a shallow one, but it has two prospects – Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota – who are considered great prospects. Winston seems prepared to step in and run an NFL offense immediately. Tampa Bay, which drafts first, will probably take him. Mariota is a little less prepared, but is a phenomenal athlete, a top-character guy, and has the skill set that suggests a short learning curve for the position. Given how many teams need quarterbacks and the importance of the position, either Tennessee, which picks second and doesn’t seem convinced of its future with last year’s sixth-rounder running the show, will take Mariota or get overwhelmed with a trade offer.
No offense to defensive end Leonard Williams, who will be an impact pass rusher and effective run defender at a position where many teams get very little rush, but the quarterback position is worth too much.
There are analysts out there who can break down tape far better than I can. They will write a lot about the quarterbacks between now and May, and it’s usually a good read. But the position is hard to break down and the bust rate of top picks is very high. In my own analysis, I take what others write and form opinions based on what has happened in past drafts and past NFL seasons. From that, I expect Winston and Mariota to go 1-2. They seem like relatively solid picks.
What happens next? There are maybe a dozen other quarterbacks who might be worth drafting. None of them carry a first-round grade. Could one be the next Tom Brady? Of course. And any GM is lying to you if he tells you he doesn’t dream of watching some tape with his coaches and seeing Tom Brady in some guy who’s flying under everyone else’s radar.
Problem is, out of the dozens of guys who have been drafted as project quarterbacks, very few ever show enough to start, and maybe once or twice a decade, you find a franchise quarterback in the later rounds. Brady and Tony Romo (who was actually undrafted) are the only two current examples – Brady will be 38 this season, Romo 35. Scouting quarterbacks, as difficult as it is, has improved in recent years, and the numbers show that a higher percentage of starting quarterbacks are being drafted earlier than in past years.
That’s why the quarterback draft curve is so unusual compared to that of other positions. You have that initial rush, and then quarterbacks have to take a back seat to likely starters at other positions.
While about a dozen quarterbacks will be drafted, they’re all projects after Winston and Mariota. I’ll outline the ones who seem to have the buzz right now. Some team might work one of these guys out and become convinced he’s an NFL starter. It only takes one of the 32 teams to fall in love, and you get a second rounder who had a fourth-round grade.
Colorado State’s Garrett Grayson (who sounds like he’s a part of that ridiculous ABC nighttime soap where the girl from Everwood becomes a ninja warrior) heads the list of quarterbacks who someone might fall in love with and take out that second-round lottery ticket. Grayson has pro-style experience, which is quite important because it means he’ll have less to learn in the NFL. There’s more relevant tape to watch on him, so scouting will be more accurate. Grayson didn’t work out at the Combine because of a minor injury, but he has NFL size.
UCLA’s Brett Hundley is a phenomenal athlete who also might get a reach into the second round. The question on Hundley is whether he can read defenses. He also played in a spread offense that doesn’t translate well to the NFL. Definite boom or bust here.
Baylor’s Bryce Petty put up magic numbers in a spread offense. He’s also has NFL size, good athleticism, and a strong arm. He has accuracy issues, however.
Southeastern Louisiana’s Bryan Bennett was once Mariota’s backup at Oregon. He has enough size and athleticism to play in the NFL and he has a very impressive arm. He’s probably a little more likely than Petty to make a huge jump up someone’s draft board.
Oregon State’s Sean Mannion is tall and an accurate thrower, but he’s not as good an athlete as the other prospects, and he has tiny hands.
My guess is that these five are very likely to be on NFL rosters in 2015. One of the five will probably get some starts somewhere.
Other names include ECU’s Shane Carden and Prairie View A&M’s Jerry Lovelocke. You might hear these names toward the end of the draft, but each is probably only 50/50 to make it through training camp this summer.
Next, I’ll divide NFL teams into their need to draft a quarterback.
Category 1: Desperate need – would start a rookie even if the rookie wasn’t fully ready.
Tampa Bay (drafting 1st overall), New York Jets (6th).
Category 2: Very strong need – maybe some desperation this year and probably looking for a new quarterback. A starter in place, but might start a rookie even if the rookie wasn’t fully ready.
Tennessee (2nd), Chicago (7th)*, Buffalo (50th – the 19th went to Cleveland as part of the deal that allowed the Bills to draft Sammy Watkins last year).
Category 3: Strong need – some urgency to get a promising rookie on the roster. He wouldn’t start unless he was ready, but he’d probably be on the clock. To point out the obvious – Cleveland’s two firsts and second have the approximate combined chart value of Tennessee’s #2 pick… just sayin’. They might still be sold on Johnny Football ™.
St. Louis (10th)*, Cleveland (12th and 19th), Houston (16th), Philadelphia (20th).
Category 4: Definite need – these teams need to get a good prospect into the system. Any team in this category or higher could spend a second-round pick on someone who isn’t worth a second-round pick. These teams could mortgage the future to trade with Tennessee if they’re convinced about Mariota.
Washington (5th)*, New Orleans (13th), Miami (14th), San Francisco (15th), Detroit (23rd)*.
Category 5: Some need – these teams would have some interest in developing a late-round pick, probably just as a backup, but they won’t reach for a guy.
Atlanta (8th), Kansas City (18th), Carolina (25th), Dallas (27th)**, Denver (28th), Indianapolis (29th), Green Bay (30th), New England (32nd).
Category 6: Little need – these teams have an established starter and youth already at the position. They might take a late-round development pick, but not if there’s a more important need at another position.
Arizona, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Jacksonville, Minnesota, New York Giants, Oakland, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Seattle.
* – indicates teams where the current starter is on shaky ground, but he was a very high pick and will likely have the opportunity to make his coach fall in love again. Chicago is truly a unique case even here. Jay Cutler’s career is one of the strangest in NFL history.
** – Jerry Jones makes Jay Cutler look normal by comparison. Who knows what he’ll want to do?