Drafting Quarterbacks

Inspired by a brief discussion and some trash-talking among friends over the Jordan Love selection, I’ve been taking a long look at quarterbacks in the NFL draft. How are these selections made? When do you take a quarterback and what should you expect?

I haven’t learned anything earth-shattering. I thought I’d share my process and use this to potentially define future discussions, should a new way of looking at the data come to light.

The scope of this study is quarterbacks who were drafted or came into the league and played from 1998 onward. Dividing the NFL into time periods is somewhat arbitrary. I generally don’t study data before 1978. That was the first year of the 16-game schedule. It was also the year a major adjustment was made to the 1974 rule change defining pass interference/defensive holding. The game was completely different before 1974.

The NFL gradually evolved in adjustment. I often choose 1998 out of convenience as the beginning of the modern NFL. Peyton Manning was drafted, signalling the impact of having a true franchise quarterback. Statistical analysis was gaining sophistication, so the importance of keeping turnovers down and the chains moving was no longer a secret. It was also the year I released Front Office Football, so my own collection of data is more robust.

The game has continued to evolve, and game-planning is giving way to play-planning with the prevalence of quarterback/receiver reads and the impact of the run-read/pass option. In the future, I’m guessing I’ll use 2021, if it’s the start of the 17-game schedule, as the definitive mark of a new era. Then again, predicting the future is often a losing proposition.

I have 322 quarterbacks in this list. This constitutes the entire set of quarterbacks who entered the player pool from 1998-2019 and were either drafted or have attempted a pass in a game. For statistics, I’m primarily using wins in games they’ve started, with a look at losses for those who have a higher number of starts. It’s hardly a perfect measure, but game planning and team philosophies lead to far more variation when using numbers like passing yards or yards per attempt. Those are more useful when evaluating impact across tighter periods or in specific comparisons between players. But for something this broad, they would only be a distraction.

Since this is a draft study, I’ve tried to collect information about college experiences. I found total college passing attempts and passer rating for 305 of the 322 quarterbacks. This includes anyone drafted in the fourth round or higher and anyone from what we call the FBS today. Only two quarterbacks who started games (each with four) were not included – Quinn Gray, undrafted from Florida A&M in 2002 and Keith Null, a sixth-rounder from West Texas A&M in 2009.

One piece of data I would have liked to include is number of wins in college. But that would have taken too much time to calculate, and with less inclusion. So I broke colleges down into four categories – power-five (194 of 305), mid-major (88), non-FBS (23) and a subset of arbitrarily the 16 most successful programs within the power-five (77 of the 194). Is the expectation of winning a good substitute for winning?

The next step was to define expectations for quarterbacks drafted at a certain level. Of the first-round picks (63), all of them have started and won at least one game and 16 of the 63 have won more than 50 games. Second round: 16 of the 22 have won a game (two more than 50). Third round: 20 of the 32 have won a game (one more than 50). Fourth round: 14 of 30, 0. Fifth round: 13 of 35, 0. Sixth round: 14 of 48, 2. Seventh round: 8 of 42, 1. And undrafted, inclusion being dependent on having thrown a pass rather than being drafted, 22 of 50, 1.

A legitimate question you can ask at this point… do quarterbacks start because higher draft picks were invested, or because they are better quarterbacks? I’m not certain how to answer this question. Exceptions exist – there have been three true franchise quarterbacks in the last 22 years who were not taken before the fourth round. Those include Tom Brady (sixth round, 2000), Matt Hasselbeck (sixth round, 1998) and Tony Romo (undrafted, 2003). The seventh-rounder with 50-plus wins is Ryan Fitzpatrick (seventh round, 2005).

Calling Fitzpatrick a franchise quarterback, since he has a 55-83 career record, is difficult. But he’s also the only Ivy Leaguer in the study and had the best Wonderlic test score (48). Which brings up other interesting questions. I found Wonderlic scores for 191 of the 305 quarterbacks. There is no correlation between score and either college pass attempts or when a player was drafted. Coaches at both levels don’t seem interested in Wonderlic-type mental abilities. But there was a 6% correlation between Wonderlic score and college passer rating and a 13% correlation between Wonderlic score and NFL wins. This is probably the most interesting piece of data I found. But beware of applying trends to individuals: Blaine Gabbert (13-35 career record as a starter) scored a 42 on the Wonderlic.

For passer rating, I found that draft position held a strong correlation, and that increased with each tier of quarterback. There was a 38% correlation between rating and draft position for the 77 elite-college quarterbacks. Did that translate to performance? At the mid-major level, yes. But at the major level and the elite level, correlation was only 5% between wins and passer rating. This suggests that coaches are perhaps over-estimating the value of good statistical performance in college when looking at those chosen to lead the top programs.

Some analysts suggest that the most important college statistic is simply experience. Pass attempts do not correlate at all with draft position for mid-major and lower-level quarterbacks, but at 16% for both elite and power-five quarterbacks. Did that translate to more wins? Unfortunately, the correlations with wins are a little bit lower, hardly significant at all.

This is not to say that experience or statistical excellence are irrelevant. The pool of players studied does not include undrafted quarterbacks who never played in the NFL. With about 20-30 quarterbacks eligible from power-five conferences every year, most don’t even get an invite to the Combine. A more extensive study could add those quarterbacks to the pool and draw out more information.

Without that extension, basic scouting has to be trusted. The lists we see from the draft experts invariably include any quarterback who is going to be selected in the top four rounds. How much can you trust scouting? How much room is there to give someone a chance who might otherwise be overlooked. The late Joel Buchsbaum was Pro Football Weekly’s draft expert. He had connections throughout the league and watched a ton of film himself. Every year, he put out a book that I’m sure was even used in some war rooms, at least for reference. This is what he had to say about the number-six rated quarterback in one draft (who ended up being the seventh selected, about where he was graded as a mid sixth-round pick).

“Summary: Is not what you’re looking for in terms of physical stature, strength, arm strength and mobility, but has the intangibles and production and showed great Griese-like improvement as a senior. Could make it in the right system but will not be for everyone.” Griese refers to the Hall-of-Famer’s son, Brian, who had a nice career for a third-rounder, starting just a couple of years earlier.

One could say that this player’s coach had some inkling that he would be more than the system-limited career backup the scouts projected, but any other coach potentially having that inkling would warrant a much higher selection. As we all know, 198 players were selected before Tom Brady, who turns 43 in August and will get his first look at a completely new system in 20 years as he suits up for “Tompa Bay.”

Brady was a draft boom, probably the largest one in NFL history. I also selected booms and busts from the pool. A boom being a player who produced much more than what teams would reasonably expect from his place in the draft and a bust being someone who didn’t produce nearly as much. For quarterbacks, since even expecting a starter in the second round is ambitious, there are fewer busts.

Conversely, you expect an eventual franchise quarterback at the top of the draft. However, over the draft period, those 63 first-round picks break down in a very interesting manner. Picks 15-32 are a lot like second-rounders. Only two have gone on to win 50+ games. A franchise quarterback is so valuable that teams either trade up to the top of the draft or they have suffered so much without a good quarterback that they end up drafting there anyway. Of the 68, 16 were #1 picks, 6 #2 picks and 6 #3 picks. Eight of the 16 top picks have won 50+ games, along with one second pick and one third pick. There are a few more quarterbacks who are clearly on their way to 50 wins and quite a few that are not. Picks 4-12 are less certain, with 4 of the 17 in that group with 50+ wins.

As it turns out, picks 4-6, with more attention on this range given this year’s draft, are more part of the top of the draft. Only one player has been selected for each pick from 1998-2019. Philip Rivers fourth in 2004, Mark Sanchez fifth in 2009 and Daniel Jones sixth last year. Rivers has been a great success, Sanchez not so great, but with a 40-38 record as a starter I wouldn’t call him a bust and Jones is still developing. I’m sure Miami and the Chargers are hoping for franchise talents in Tua Tagovailoa (5th this year) and Justin Herbert (6th). But is it reasonable to expect three franchise-type quarterbacks in one year when only 31 quarterbacks were selected in the top six picks in the previous 22 drafts?

The odds are much worse for Green Bay, which took Jordan Love with the 26th pick. If he ends up being a great quarterback, that’s 25 opportunities to grab him missed. The Packers may be the one franchise that believes most in that story. Aaron Rodgers, well on his way to Canton, was selected 24th in 2005. The other major success from picks 15-32 is Joe Flacco (18th in 2008). Lamar Jackson (32nd in 2018) seems on his way as well. You can also include Drew Brees (32nd in 2001, but in the second round since there were only 31 teams then) in this group, though the Chargers let him go because of an early arm injury.

What about busts, then? If you’re expecting a second- or third-round pick to become a dependable starter and he doesn’t, you’re not being realistic. But you should have someone who can hold a roster spot and play a bit in case of injury. I found 13 of the 54 quarterbacks drafted in rounds 2-3 didn’t reach that level. For the 15-32 picks in round 1, you’re hoping for a starter, but should at least have a solid backup who can hold up a bit longer. Six of the 18 quarterbacks drafted in those positions didn’t fit that category, though by varying degrees. Only Johnny Manziel (22nd pick in 2014) completely failed. The others had more experience as backups. Only Tim Tebow (25th in 2010) was out of the league quickly and the jury is still out as to whether Paxton Lynch (26th in 2016) will be able to get his career going.

With picks 7-12, five of the 14 picks warrant bust consideration. Jake Locker (8th in 2011), Matt Leinart (10th in 2006) and Cade McNown (12th in 1999) were never able to stick as starters. Christian Ponder (12th in 2011) and Gabbert (10th in 2011) saw more starting time, but settled into backup roles. In all, that’s about a 1-in-3 bust rate for first-round picks after number 6. These hurt, because you should be able to find a solid starter at any other position with a pick that high.

The 1-in-3 bust ratio holds true for the top picks, as well. Though these should be franchise quarterbacks because you’re missing out on a true impact player otherwise. Some, like Sam Bradford (1st in 2010), David Carr (1st in 2002), Tim Couch (1st in 1999), Robert Griffin (2nd in 2012), Blake Bortles (3rd in 2014) and Joey Harrington (3rd in 2002), saw a lot of the field, but simply failed to win much. Griffin and Bradford even had a good season or two, and calling them busts may be too harsh.

But the other three on the list were much bigger failures, and are usually mentioned among the biggest draft failures in league history. Ryan Leaf (2nd in 1998, 4-17 career record), JaMarcus Russell (1st in 2007, 7-18 career record) and Akili Smith (3rd in 1999, 3-14 career record) were all out of the league quickly, and those misses had huge impacts on their teams.

Taken as a whole, are there any common links connecting the bust list? They seem very close to the average in terms of college pass attempts and quarterback rating. I found a little over-representation from the elite programs (10 of 33) while there was under-representation from elite programs in the surprise boom list (6 of 44). At these sample sizes, hardly conclusive. Wonderlic scores? Interestingly, for those with scores reported, the overall average for quarterbacks is 27 and both the boom list and the bust list have averages of 28.

This is all meant to be more the start of a discussion than deep analysis. I didn’t come away from this study feeling that I had discovered anything important. Perhaps coaches are a bit too impressed with the quarterbacks of very successful college teams, but, then again, the most impressive boom pick in the history of the league is probably a quarterback with a mediocre scouting report from an elite program. Maybe there’s too much emphasis on impressive college stats at top programs, but that’s not a huge factor. And maybe you should take a flier on an otherwise unimpressive guy who has an great Wonderlic score.

I come away from this brief study, most of all, thinking that taking a quarterback between pick 7 and the end of the second round is almost never a good idea. But understandably, the Ravens and the Packers feel very differently.

The bottom line is this is all about scouting, and whatever Indianapolis did in 1998 when choosing Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf is what this is all about. You’re not going to make that decision based on numbers alone and you’re not going make a smart choice without spending a lot of time looking at the decision from many angles. The Colts did, and it changed their future.