NFL Draft: Round-by-Round QB Study
by Scott Kacsmar
"You can get a quarterback later in the draft."
That phrase is once again chic among NFL analysts thanks to Russell Wilson, a little quarterback out of the slightly obscure third round, winning a Super Bowl. Like Tom Brady before him, Wilson has involuntarily resized expectations for quarterbacks drafted in later rounds. Often when one of those players slides, it was the product of an abnormal situation. Wilson's career projection was absurdly high, yet he fell in the draft due to his height. It takes a special kind of player -- sometimes a smattering of good luck as well -- to prove the league wrong by playing like a top pick.
Wilson is the only quarterback since 1978 to be drafted after the second round and start all 16 games in his rookie year. Based on how well he's played so far, there's no reason not to believe Wilson will go down as the best third-round quarterback since Joe Montana (1979).
Whether it's Montana, Brady or Wilson, none of these hidden gems should do anything to change the expectations of what the NFL draft produces by round. We have all seen the draft value graphs that resemble exponential decay. Things start off high, but by the third round value is very hard to find and anything later than that is a real triumph.
For future drafts, Wilson may have broken the height discrimination against quarterbacks, but history still shows he will be an outlier. It's true you can get a quarterback later in the draft, but he's more likely to turn out to be Curtis Painter, Mike McMahon, B.J. Symons or that guy from The Bachelor than the next Wilson or Brady. If you want a franchise quarterback, the top of the draft is still the first place to look.
Fortunately, that's where teams are looking with 23 of them currently having a top 40 pick on the roster. That number should increase this week unless you believe certain draftniks who are trying to push Teddy Bridgewater into the third round. Then when Bridgewater, long considered the best quarterback in this class, does get drafted much lower than expected and goes on to have a good career, someone will have the nerve to go on TV one day and say "see, you can get a franchise quarterback later in the draft."
It's better to draft a guy early than to miss on him entirely. If you're sure about a player, pull the trigger, but we know sure things and the NFL draft do not go together. The following data confirms that.
The 20-Year Quarterback Draft Study (1994-2013)
I collected data for all 237 quarterbacks* drafted in the NFL from 1994 to 2013 (20 drafts). The 1994 draft is a pivotal one since it's the first of the salary cap era and features the current seven-round format. This still presents the common problem in draft studies of including active players with incomplete career data, but I think that's okay for this. In theory, the NFL quarterback climate should always consist of some old veterans with huge career numbers, some guys in their prime (best rate stats), mediocre compilers, unproven youngsters and a few guys destined for the clipboard or Cleveland. Here we also have plenty of averages and rate stats to consider instead of just focusing on raw totals.
*In my draft database, Pat White and Joe Webb are quarterbacks and Webb's 2013 season (converted to wide receiver) is excluded from his career numbers. Brad Smith, Reggie McNeal and Isaiah Stanback were considered wide receivers. Steve Bellisari (2002) was converted to safety.
This is not meant to be a earth-shattering discovery, but our first discovery is quarterbacks drafted in the first three rounds get far more opportunities to play than their rounds brethren from round four and later. That fact alone has a significant impact on all of the data to come. The higher picks cost more (resources and money), so teams must put them to use. Sometimes it backfires like the Redskins getting less out of Heath Shuler (No. 3 overall pick in 1994) than they eventually did with Gus Frerotte (seventh-rounder in that same class). That's a tough switch for any coach to make even if today's top picks are more economical.
|NFL Draft: Quarterback Games (GP) and Games Started (GS) for 1994-2013|
|Round||#QB||1+GS||0 GP||GP||GS||Record||Pct.||PO GS||PO Record||Pct.|
Teams use the first and last rounds to draft the most quarterbacks, though that's the difference in wanting a starter versus a backup/project. That's reflected well in the number of starts by round with the first round blowing all others away. All 49 quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 1994 have started at least one regular-season game (1+ GS). Everyone but Jim Druckenmiller (one fortunate start for the 49ers) has started at least 10 games.
In the first two rounds, 69 out of 71 quarterbacks have started at least one game. Brock Osweiler still has plenty of time to do that, though it may never happen in Denver if Peyton Manning feels like playing out his contract. Pat White never completed a pass in Miami and was the third straight second-round pick the Dolphins used on a quarterback in 2007-09. White did at least see the field as a gimmicky Wildcat player. In the first three rounds, Giovanni Carmazzi and David Greene are the only two quarterbacks (out of 95) to never play a regular-season game (0 GP).
Eventually you get to the last three rounds and those quarterbacks are about as likely to never see the field as they are to start a game. In rounds 6-7, 43.0 percent of the quarterbacks have played zero games. The sixth round having the best cumulative win-loss record (in games started) can be explained in two words: Tom Brady. "Mo Lewis" is another acceptable answer, since we'll never know if Brady would have had the opportunity without Drew Bledsoe's injury. Not many teams are dying to start the sixth-round pick.
The late-round quarterbacks rarely get opportunities, but when they come around, have they taken advantage like Brady has? Here are the passing stats for the average quarterback by round:
|Average Quarterback's Passing Stats by Round (1994-2013)|
For a lot of these numbers, we see a general pattern where the first round is the best and the numbers taper off as you advance a round with the fifth round being the worst (more on that later). But then the numbers go back up in the sixth round (again, strong Brady factor) and down for the final round.
I collected rushing data too, but it was not worthy of a table. The first-round quarterbacks again have the best production, shocking no one. Great athletes are always going high in the draft and players like Cam Newton, Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick and Robert Griffin III have certainly boosted those rushing stats.
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Speaking of rushing, I was able to collect Total DYAR (rushing and passing) for every quarterback's career. I also calculated a weighted average for passing DVOA, much like in this postseason article. Citing the average DYAR or especially average DVOA of a sixth-round quarterback can be more misleading than other metrics. It's not so problematic for the earlier rounds since most of those quarterbacks play. Without playing, the quarterback really has no DYAR/DVOA, which of course can have a negative value for poor performance. So giving him a "0" and using that in the average would not be fair. Not even Andrew Luck (-0.5% DVOA) has a 0.0% DVOA in his early career, thanks in part to the "Gee, do I have to do everything around here?" factor that defines the current Colts offense.
Technically, a quarterback who never throws a pass does not have a completion percentage either, but we can still calculate his round's completion percentage with him omitted. We have to omit him from DVOA too; it's not like we can just use replacement level (roughly -13.3% DVOA) since we're weighing things by number of plays, and these quarterbacks have none. On a small sample size, which is expected of a poor, late-round quarterback, the DVOA can be frighteningly bad.
For example, Joe Hamilton was a seventh-round pick in 2000. He had one career dropback on which he was strip-sacked on fourth-and-8 in the red zone. Granted, it was at the two-minute warning with Tampa Bay leading 27-7, but his passing DVOA is -2,167.2%. This does get weighed based on the number of plays (one in this case), but players like that are why we need to take a different approach for the following table.
The solution was to weigh all players in the round equally. This can raise eyebrows for the early rounds where the first pick has much different expectations than the 32nd pick, but they were not the problem since almost everyone plays. In the later rounds, it's really just a marginal difference at best in value, so that should not be a problem. To get the average passing DVOA by round, I weighed each round's quarterbacks with at least one pass play equally to get the average DVOA.
For example, the sixth round has 39 quarterbacks, but only 23 had a dropback and calculated DVOA. I multiplied each quarterback's DVOA by 1/23 and the sum was the sixth round's DVOA (-24.71%). That feels much better than the 2.07% DVOA that was calculated without the weights. That would have been the highest of any round, proving that Brady was skewing the results too significantly.
|Total DYAR and Passing DVOA by Round|
|Round||#QB||AVG Total DYAR||Total DYAR/Game||AVG PASS DVOA|
This makes the seventh round look really terrible, but it's hard to disagree with that conclusion. The closest thing to a notable quarterback with a positive DVOA was Steve Matthews, who only had 44 pass plays in his career. If we used replacement level (-13.3% DVOA) for the 21 quarterbacks without a dropback, then the seventh round's new DVOA would be -68.21%. I'll stick with the triple-digit number, but this may be a case where DYAR is more telling. The first-round quarterback is averaging nearly 1,975 Total DYAR, or roughly two very good seasons. The rest of the rounds combined average 1,627 Total DYAR.
While the average first-round quarterback's DVOA (-10.07%) would put him just above Brian Hoyer in 2013, there's no denying where most of the best quarterbacks of the last 20 seasons come from. Here's a weighted career passing DVOA leaderboard of the top 25 quarterbacks to debut in the NFL since 1994 (also included Total DYAR):
|Leaders in Weighted Passing DVOA (1994-2013)|
|Rk||Quarterback||Round||Total DYAR||PASS DVOA|
|Only includes QBs who debuted since 1994 (min. 1,000 passes)|
The cream really rose to the top here and 13 of the top 20 quarterbacks were first-round picks, not counting Brees who would be a first-rounder in the current draft (he went 32nd overall). We'll stick to drafted players for the rest of this article, but four undrafted guys cracked the list with a surprising appearance from Jay Fiedler.
Finally, I also collected the Weighted Career Approximate Value (AV) from Pro-Football-Reference for every draft pick along with the number of Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro selections.
|NFL Draft: QB AV, Pro Bowls & All-Pro Selections (1994-2013)|
|Round||#QB||AVG CarAV||CarAV/G||Pro Bowlers||Pct.||Total PB||PB/QB||AP1 QBs|
For the umpteenth time, the first round provides the best results. We'll spend the second half of our draft study by going over some of the drafting dynamics in each round.
Once upon a time, the NFL believed a highly drafted quarterback needed to sit on the bench and learn before taking reign. That instant control was reserved for the saviors drafted first overall like Terry Bradshaw, Jim Plunkett, John Elway, Troy Aikman and Peyton Manning. This has changed a lot since Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco had so much success in 2008 as Week 1 starters. Prior to that, Manning, Rick Mirer (1993) and David Carr (2002) were the only three quarterbacks to start all 16 games as rookies. Since 2008, it's happened nine times with several more rookie quarterbacks starting in Week 1 only to miss some starts due to injury.
Since the 2011 CBA introduced a rookie wage scale, you would think teams might show more caution in when they threw the rookie to the wolves now that he's not such a financial burden. Instead it's been the opposite and the league has loaded up on these first-round quarterbacks. Eight were drafted in the first round in 2011-12 alone. Would potential duds like Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker and Christian Ponder have been drafted in the top 12 in 2011 had there not been a rookie wage scale? That's hard to say, but we know those teams can move on much easier in today's game. The Jaguars have already traded Gabbert to San Francisco and should be a team targeting a quarterback early in the 2014 draft.
For any team finding a very good quarterback these days, the contract extension will be massive no matter which round he was found. That's the market and for as much of a bargain as Russell Wilson has been so far, you can bet on him commanding a deal around $100 million in the near future. But it is nice to know that teams no longer have to cough up ridiculous money up front for someone unproven like Sam Bradford.
Now I am not a fan of doing bust/success rates with the draft due to the subjective and difficult nature of that process. What I will provide is a tier format of how I view these quarterbacks in May 2014.
|Tiers In My Eyes: 49 First-Round Quarterbacks|
|The Good||The Undecided||The Mediocre||The Ugly||The Winning Ugly|
|Peyton Manning||Sam Bradford||Byron Leftiwch||Josh Freeman||Trent Dilfer|
|Aaron Rodgers||Ryan Tannehill||Kerry Collins||Matt Leinart||Vince Young|
|Ben Roethlisberger||Jake Locker||Jason Campbell||Patrick Ramsey||Tim Tebow|
|Philip Rivers||EJ Manuel||Joey Harrington||Mark Sanchez|
|Matt Ryan||Christian Ponder||Rex Grossman|
|Andrew Luck||Cade McNown|
|Eli Manning||Tim Couch|
|Steve McNair||Kyle Boller|
|Chad Pennington||David Carr|
|Matthew Stafford||Brandon Weeden|
|Donovan McNabb||J.P. Losman|
|Carson Palmer||Brady Quinn|
|Daunte Culpepper||Heath Shuler|
|Cam Newton||Blaine Gabbert|
|Robert Griffin||Akili Smith|
|Joe Flacco||Jim Druckenmiller|
|Jay Cutler||JaMarcus Russell|
|Michael Vick||Ryan Leaf|
Considering Alex Smith could realistically fit into any category here, the number of good is just about equal to the ugly and that scares many people away from drafting a first-round quarterback. However, can anyone find another spot where the odds of landing a quarterback are this good? Those names at the top of the good list are why you take the chance over and over. There are a handful of potential Hall of Famers listed.
It's been the least utilized round for getting a quarterback with only 22 selections since 1994.
|Tiers In My Eyes: 22 Second-Round Quarterbacks|
|The Good||The Undecided||The Failed Replacements||The Ugly||The Drowned Dolphins|
|Drew Brees||Charlie Batch (AVG)||Shaun King||Quincy Carter||John Beck|
|Colin Kaepernick||Geno Smith||Marques Tuiasosopo||Tarvaris Jackson||Chad Henne|
|Andy Dalton||Brock Osweiler||Brian Brohm||Tony Banks||Pat White|
|Jake Plummer||Todd Collins||Jimmy Clausen|
|Kordell Stewart||Kevin Kolb|
As noted earlier, Drew Brees was drafted 32nd in 2001, which was the last season with 31 teams in the league. Colin Kaepernick (36th) went one pick after Andy Dalton in 2011. In theory, the best picks here are likely to be high in the round since the bad teams are getting their second crack at the draft and are usually the teams most in need of a quarterback. Brett Favre predates this study, but he was the 33rd pick in 1991 and would really boost the numbers here. Calling Kordell Stewart "good" makes you think I forgot about 1998-00, but his 1997 and 2001 seasons were quite impressive up until the AFC Championship failures at home.
What stands out here, besides Miami's horrific 2007-09 run, are all the failed replacement plans. I feel like Osweiler will one day be added to the group, because these plans almost never work. Todd Collins did not admirably replace Jim Kelly in Buffalo. Kevin Kolb might have made Philadelphia fans miss Donovan McNabb. Kellen Clemens was not good insurance for Chad "I'm hurt every other season" Pennington. Drew Stanton has done nothing in the NFL. Brian Brohm was a downright bizarre pick that must have been insurance in case Aaron Rodgers failed. Marques Tuiasosopo was not Rich Gannon's successor in Oakland. Shaun King probably had his best moments as a rookie in Tampa Bay when Trent Dilfer was injured in 1999, but he was not the long-term answer.
That's too many wasted picks by teams who should have been building pieces around the quarterback they still had at the time. That's why I despised the Osweiler pick and just imagine if John Elway chose Russell Wilson instead. The Seahawks probably are never a 2012-13 juggernaut and the Broncos might have a championship now, but one decision set the league on a much different course. That's the power of the draft.
At this point we start to see teams not necessarily target starters or even future starters.
|Tiers In My Eyes: 24 Third-Round Quarterbacks|
|The Good||The Lovie Situation||The Backup||The Ugly||The "Why, Belichick?"|
|Russell Wilson||Mike Glennon||Chris Redman||Andrew Walter||Ryan Mallett|
|Matt Schaub||Josh McCown||Dave Ragone||Kevin O'Connell|
|Nick Foles||Charlie Whitehurst|
|Brian Griese||Jonathan Quinn|
Setting last year aside, Matt Schaub's had a good career and it's even better given what a third-round pick usually does. He was never drafted to be the starter in Atlanta, but after the Falcons went 5-11 in 2003 due to a serious Michael Vick injury in the preseason, a capable pocket passer was needed. Schaub probably made himself a lot of money by attacking the putrid secondary of the 2005 Patriots, so he can thank Vick for his lack of durability, just as Nick Foles can in Philadelphia. If Foles can come anywhere near repeating his 2013 success, that 2012 third round where he went 13 picks after Wilson will go down as one of the best ever.
Brian Griese failed to replace John Elway in Denver, but he'll always have the 2000 season when he made the Pro Bowl with 19 touchdowns to four interceptions. He ended up switching teams four times, but had a solid career in retrospect.
This season the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will likely start a third-round quarterback, but will it be the gigantic Mike Glennon in his sophomore season or does Josh McCown get a chance to prove his ridiculous 2013 numbers in Chicago weren't a fluke? Given it's now a Lovie Smith team, they'll probably both play and lead a subpar offense.
Chris Redman had a brief, but respectable (by Baltimore standards) starting stint with the Ravens in 2002 and he was really solid as a backup and spot starter with the Falcons. Unlike his "Ugly" counterparts, including "Clipboard Jesus" (Charlie Whitehurst) and "Captain Checkdown" (Trent Edwards), he held his own when he played.
Good talent can still be found in the third round, so I am not a fan of getting a backup quarterback here. I especially hate it when your team has Tom Brady, who was still expected to play many more years in 2008 (Kevin O'Connell) and 2011 (Ryan Mallett). O'Connell and Mallett have combined to throw 10 passes, so it's no stretch to say the Patriots have made two of the very worst third-round selections. For the cherry on top, in 2008 Mario Manningham went off the board one pick after the Patriots drafted O'Connell. Cue the Super Bowl XLVI ending.
Now we start to scrape the barrel for quality and scramble to remember just who some of these guys were. Believe it or not, one was projected to go No. 8 overall to Buffalo last season.
|Tiers In My Eyes: 28 Fourth-Round Quarterbacks|
|The Good||The 2013 Rookies||The Ugly||The Fun|
|David Garrard||Landry Jones||Danny Kanell||Rob Johnson|
|Kyle Orton||Tyler Wilson||Stefan LeFors||Seneca Wallace|
|Aaron Brooks||Ryan Nassib||Pat Barnes||Kirk Cousins|
|Matt Barkley||Rohan Davey||Sage Rosenfels|
Last year I wrote that David Garrard was the best fourth-round quarterback since Rich Gannon (1987). Obviously there's not much competition for that title. Aaron Brooks and Kyle Orton could put up some numbers, but would make baffling mistakes as well. Orton may have never caught on in Chicago if Grossman wasn't so brittle.
Based on what we saw from the 2013 rookies last year (preseason included), it's only a matter of time before they slide over to the "Ugly" pile, headlined by Danny Kanell from those lousy Giants offenses of the mid-90's. Stephen McGee actually did not play that poorly with Dallas, but he also hasn't played since 2011.
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There's a lot of NFC East here with Kirk Cousins being part of a "Fun" four-pack I threw together. Cousins has had a few big games in relief of Griffin, but any trade stock he was trying to grow probably crashed with two miserable games to end 2013. Rob Johnson had solid passing stats except for his unmatched ability to hold onto the ball and take sacks (career sack rate: 14.8 percent). While not a sack -- don't worry, he coughed it up three plays later -- the Sage Rosenfels "Rosencopter" holds a special place in NFL lore.
How to explain Seneca Wallace? It's as if someone in Seattle opened up a R&D lab, started with him as a prototype, and the finished product was Russell Wilson several years later.
Remember all those horrible fifth-round stats from earlier? They even took me by surprise, because I am used to referring to this as "Mark Brunell's Round." The file I started with years ago went back to 1990 and Brunell was drafted in 1993 as the first of the notable Favre backups in Green Bay. So after removing his stats from the fifth round, it's a barren wasteland of terrible quarterback play. Teams should just wait for the last two rounds to get a backup.
The tiers would just be levels of who sucks more, so instead I will post the stats for each player and you can argue over who is the best: John Skelton, Troy Smith or T.J. Yates? (Ingle Martin shows up with all zeroes because he did actually see the field... but only to kneel at the end of the game.)
|2003||Brian St. Pierre||33||15||45.5||185||5.61||2||3||45.6||0||-150||-88.8%|
|2008||John David Booty||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||0||-||-|
Craig Nall took his garbage-time opportunities in Green Bay very seriously.
By now every team is just looking for a backup. Since 2002, some may be holding out hope they snatched the next Tom Brady, but that's so unrealistic. It should be noted that Brady was not the only notable sixth-rounder from the 2000 draft. Marc Bulger went 31 picks ahead of Brady to the Saints, but eventually wound up in St. Louis where he was able to find instant success in 2002 with the remnants of the Greatest Show on Turf. Mike Martz might not have known much about protecting his quarterbacks, but he knew how to design big plays. Mike Holmgren was another great offensive mind who brought Matt Hasselbeck (another Favre backup) over to Seattle to start in 2001. Those three are really where the sixth-round's success ends, but it took the right coaches in the right places at the right times to get things started.
|Tiers In My Eyes: 39 Sixth-Round Quarterbacks|
|The Good||The One-Year Wonders||The Ugly and the Forgotten|
|Tom Brady||Derek Anderson||Andre Woodson||Jim Sorgi|
|Marc Bulger||Jim Miller||Andy Hall||Joe Webb|
|Matt Hasselbeck||Chuck Clements||Brooks Bollinger|
|Colt Brennan||Bruce Gradkowski|
|Dan LeFevour||Craig Whelihan|
|JaJuan Seider||Curtis Painter|
|Jeff Smoker||Tony Pike|
|Jerry Colquitt||J.T. O'Sullivan|
|John Dutton||Tyrod Taylor|
|Josh Booty||Ryan Lindley|
|Josh Harris||Keith Null|
|Josh Heupel||Rusty Smith|
|Mike Cawley||Spergon Wynn|
|Mike Teel||Jordan Palmer|
|Spence Fischer||Tom Brandstater|
|Todd Husak||Drew Henson|
|Kliff Kingsbury||Mike Cherry|
Derek Anderson's remembered as a one-year wonder now, but it was really a half-season wonder that took advantage of an easy schedule and two big receiving targets (Kellen Winslow Jr. and Braylon Edwards) in 2007. He was not very good in the second half of that season. Jim Miller rode the Bears defense in 2001 in one of the most unlikely 13-3 seasons any team has ever had.
A total of 25 quarterbacks have been drafted in the sixth round since 2001 (post-Brady). Even after combining all 25 careers, the comparison to Brady is a joke. Given that only three quality starters have come from the sixth round in 20 years, it may be that way for a long time.
We have reached the end. Our 47 seventh-round quarterbacks are about as good as 47 Ronin starring Keanu Reeves. You've been warned.
|Tiers In My Eyes: 47 Seventh-Round Quarterbacks|
|The Notable||The Recent||The B.J.'s||The Ugly and the Forgotten|
|Matt Cassel||Sean Renfree||B.J. Coleman||Casey Bramlet||Glenn Foley|
|Gus Frerotte||Zac Dysert||B.J. Daniels||D.J. Shockley||Tony Graziani|
|Ryan Fitzpatrick||Chandler Harnish||B.J. Symons||James Kilian||Ken Dorsey|
|Matt Flynn||Brad Sorensen||Jeff Kelly||Matt Mauck|
|Tim Rattay||John Walsh||Moses Moreno|
|Koy Detmer||Jon Stark||Jarious Jackson|
|Kyle Wachholtz||Greg McElroy|
|Ronnie McAda||Gibran Hamdan|
|Sean Canfield||Chris Greisen|
|Seth Burford||John Navarre|
|Tony Corbin||Levi Brown|
|Wes Pate||Bradlee Van Pelt|
|Zac Robinson||Scott Covington|
|Jay Walker||Cody Pickett|
|Steve Matthews||Wally Richardson|
|Michael Bishop||Joe Hamilton|
|Tyler Thigpen||Alex Brink|
There's really not a "Good" to be found here, but we do have a few guys who did not completely struggle or have a career of irrelevance, which is likely the outcome for the seven guys in the second and third columns.
Matt Cassel has put up the best seasons out of anyone on this list. Matt Flynn looks somewhat competent as long as he's in a Packers uniform. Koy Detmer's fascinating if only because he played 103 games with just eight starts. The only other quarterbacks to play 100-plus games with no more than 10 starts are Gary Kubiak (119/5) and Jeff Rutledge (117/10). Being a holder still beats never seeing the field.
It's the toughest position in the game, so just getting to play quarterback in the NFL is a major accomplishment. Even some of the guys I may have put down here had a few moments of brilliance. But to do it with any level of consistency? That's tough to find.
After studying 20 drafts featuring 237 quarterbacks, I only pegged 34 (14.3 percent) players as good starters. That's a lot of ugliness, but when it comes to a quarterback, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and you have to take what you can get until you find better. Very few drafts have an Elway, Manning or Luck as the top prize or a Montana, Brady or Wilson hidden deep inside.