Quarterback Conundrum: Part I

Steve O Speak

Every year multiple NFL teams face a tough decision, to draft or not to draft a quarterback in the first round. The general consensus (aka just about everyone else but me) believes that more and more the NFL is a quarterback driven league, and a ‘franchise’ quarterback is needed to succeed. It is also the belief that ‘franchise’ quarterbacks are found by drafting them in the first round.

To the first point about the only way to succeed is with an elite quarterback, I feel like there is some selective memories going on around the league. I guess someone forgot about the great Steelers and Ravens teams of the past decade with pretty average quarterback play (Roethlisberger has become an elite QB, but he wasn’t one when they won in 2005). Or the fact when the Patriots won their first two titles, Tom Brady‘s numbers were pretty pedestrian. And if those trips down memory lane don’t blow holes in the “elite QB=success” argument, then just look at this past season when Mark Sanchez, who was one of the statistically worst quarterbacks in the league, was under center for the most dangerous team this postseason.

When it comes to the second point, that elite quarterbacks are found primarily in the first round, its hard to see where that argument even begins to hold water. The top ten quarterbacks this past season in terms of quarterback rating were as follows:

  1. Drew Brees
  2. Brett Favre
  3. Phillip Rivers
  4. Aaron Rodgers
  5. Ben Roethlisberger
  6. Peyton Manning
  7. Matt Schaub
  8. Tony Romo
  9. Tom Brady
  10. Kurt Warner

Now this might not be the exact order of top quarterbacks in the league, but all of these guys are in the top 10, and are elite signal callers. Of this list of the 10 best passers from last season, only FOUR are former first round picks (Rivers, Rodgers, Roethlisberger, and Manning). The only quarterback not on this list that deserves mention in the ‘elite’ status among quarterbacks is Eli Manning another first round pick. Even with Eli included, less than 50% of the quarterbacks we consider ‘elite’ or ‘franchise’ were first round draft picks. Yet for some reason, the prevailing logic in the league is that you must grab a quarterback in the first round to be a successful franchise, and if you pass up your chance in the first round, you will never find that top notch signal caller.

Look, I get why teams want the next Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger, but the odds are stacked against them and you can’t force it upon players. They either have it or they don’t, and trying to create a ‘franchise’ quarterback will only lead to heartbreak, for the team and its fans. Here is a look at all the quarterbacks drafted in the first round between 1999-2009.

The reason I choose to start looking at 1st round quarterbacks, is because of the 1998 draft and the impact of Peyton Manning on the rest of the league. I also chose to begin looking after the ’98 draft, because THAT draft is the perfect dichotomy of RISK (Ryan Leaf) vs. REWARD (Peyton Manning) in drafting a franchise quarterback. Since Manning was drafted, 31 quarterbacks have been selected in the first round and there has been at least one quarterback selected in the top stanza in each of the 11 years, which is the longest such streak since the NFL merger in 1970.


  1. Tim Couch – Browns – 1st pick
  2. Donovan McNabb – Eagles – 2nd pick
  3. Akili Smith – Bengals – 3rd pick
  4. Daunte Culpepper – Vikings – 11th pick
  5. Cade McNown – Bears – 12th pick

The allure to find the next Manning was quite prevalent in the first draft after his arrival. Couch, Smith and McNown were all busts and big time washouts in the league. Couch maybe had somewhat of an excuse because he was on an expansion team, but the same can’t be said for Smith or McNown. Culpepper had a couple of great seasons, but all in all ended up being a below average quarterback and not worth the money or draft pick. McNabb is the silver lining among this bunch. He maybe never achieved truly ‘elite’ status, but he has been a very good quarterback for a long time making him well worth the 2nd pick in the draft.


  1. Chad Pennington Jets 18th pick

Pennington was a solid selection for the Jets. He has had his share of injury issues, which knock down his overall value, but has been a good starter when healthy.


  1. Micheal Vick Falcons 1st pick

Even if you can ignore all his legal troubles (which did have a major effect on his on the field value), Micheal Vick has not even come close to being worthy of the top selection in the draft. Even in his prime, Vick was an electrifying player, but a bad quarterback. When you factor in his legal issues and time away from the game, Vick is a major bust. Especially when you figure the 2nd best quarterback in this class was Drew Brees (2nd round), ouch!


  1. David Carr – Texans – 1st pick
  2. Joey Harrington – Lions – 3rd pick
  3. Patrick Ramsey – Redskins – 32nd pick

Carr and Harrington were two more top 5 busts. Neither ever showed any ability to be a quality starter, much less a franchise quarterback. Ramsey didn’t fare much better at the end of the first round, getting pushed out of DC by another future first round quarterback, Jason Campbell. 20o2 was not the ‘year of the quarterback’, with three picked and three busts to show for it.


  1. Carson Palmer – Bengals – 1st pick
  2. Byron Leftwich – Jaguars – 7th pick
  3. Kyle Boller – Ravens – 19th pick
  4. Rex Grossman – Bears – 22nd pick

’03 wasn’t much better of a quarterback year, Leftwich, Boller and Grossman all washed out with their respective teams (though they do remain in the league as backups). Palmer initially showed flashes of being an elite franchise quarterback, but had a really down year this past season. Palmer might never be a great quarterback, but could end up with a similar career path of McNabb, which makes him worthy of the top selection.


  1. Eli Manning – Giants (t/Chargers) – 1st pick
  2. Phillip Rivers – Chargers (t/Giants) – 4th pick
  3. Ben Roethlisberger – Steelers – 11th pick
  4. J.P. Losman – Bills – 22nd pick

Now 2004 was a fantastic year for quarterbacks, with 3 elite starters coming out of round one (not to mention Schuab was drafted in the 3rd round). A 75% success rate is unheard of for the first round, what’s even more impressive is how successful these quarterbacks have been. All three are top notch, and so far look to be true ‘franchise’ quarterbacks.


  1. Alex Smith – 49ers – 1st pick
  2. Aaron Rodgers – Packers – 24th pick
  3. Jason Campbell – Redskins – 25th pick

Smith so far has been a major disappointment, though he did have some good starts down the stretch this season for the 49ers. Rodgers had trouble seeing the field his first three seasons, but since then has worked his way up to ‘elite’ quarterback status. Campbell has been solid and a quality starter, but is by no means a ‘franchise’ quarterback.


  1. Vince Young – Titans – 3rd pick
  2. Matt Leinart – Cardinals – 10th pick
  3. Jay Cutler – Broncos – 11th pick

This draft class was supposed to produce 3 franchise quarterbacks, but so far that hasn’t been the case. Young got off to a great start in his rookie season, but came crashing down to earth in year two. He has started getting his career back on track, but it remains to be seen if he can be a good starting quarterback in the NFL. Leinart lost his job to Kurt Warner, and hasn’t shown too much in spot duty these last couple of years. He will now have the reins of the team with Warner’s retirement, and 2010 will be a make or break year for him. Cutler has been called a ‘franchise’ quarterback plenty. And the Bears even thought enough of him to give up multiple first round picks, additional selections and Kyle Orton before last season, but he has failed to show he is worthy of the ‘franchise’ label. While its too early to say any of these picks were a outright bust, its fair to say that their teams have all been disappointed with their investment (except for what the Broncos got in return for Cutler).


  1. JaMarcus Russell – Raiders – 1st pick
  2. Brady Quinn – Browns – 22nd pick

There is not much to pin your hopes on in this draft class. Russell has been downright awful so far, and Quinn hasn’t fared much better. Russell hasn’t shown that he grasps the nuances of the position yet. As for Quinn, the glimmer of hope isn’t completely gone, as part of his problem has been the fact the Browns coaches have inexplicably not allowed Quinn to see the field.


  1. Matt Ryan – Falcons – 3rd pick
  2. Joe Flacco – Ravens – 18th pick

So far, so good from this draft class. Ryan had a very impressive rookie season, though had a bit of a sophomore slump. I’d expect him to rebound and potentially put himself in the ‘franchise’ class within the next year or two. Flacco had an average rookie year, but really began to come into his own this past season. If he continues to develop, he shouldn’t be too far behind Ryan in joining the ranks of elite quarterbacks.


  1. Matt Stafford – Lions – 1st pick
  2. Mark Sanchez – Jets – 5th pick
  3. Josh Freeman – Buccaneers – 17th pick

The early returns on the 2009 draft class aren’t pretty. While few rookie quarterbacks find any or much success, the numbers this trio put up were particularly awful. While hopefully one or two of these guys can be good starters in the NFL, they all have a long way to go. In fairness its too early to begin to proclaim any of these guys as a bust after one season, but some of the warning signs are there.

Later we will take a more indepth look at drafting quarterbacks in the first round and what teams can do to make their investment successful.

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