The quarterback is always the most important player on a football field. No other position has such a strong influence on the outcome of every single play. Finding the right QB is the top priority for every NFL team. It’s why top-tier coaches like Sean Payton and Jim Harbaugh are fighting over the chance to coach raging dumpster fire that is the Denver Broncos. It’s also why teams have to mortgage their entire future to trade for a proven QB. Most of the time, this doesn’t work out. Not everyone can be the Rams. Instead of paying that exorbitant price, most teams try and draft their quarterback of the future. It’s seen as the safer bet, but is it? Drafting in general is a crap shoot. On average, over half of each year’s first round picks will never make a Pro Bowl, which is a relatively low bar. Is there anything a team can do to improve their chances of selecting their franchise savior? The past fifteen years of data can provide the answers.
Since 2007, there have been 65 quarterbacks drafted in the first two rounds. Eight of those were drafted in the past two years, seven of whom haven’t played enough to be fairly judged, so they won’t be considered. Zach Wilson has already been benched multiple times by the Jets, so I think it’s safe to say things won’t pan out for him in New York. That leaves 58 total quarterbacks. Another important note, I’m only looking at how each player performed for the team that drafted them. Jimmy Garoppolo playing in a Super Bowl didn’t help the Patriots in any way. Determining whether a pick turned out well or not is obviously somewhat subjective, but I think I was relatively fair with these, and you have to use common sense. Essentially cutting the first overall pick after four years is a sign of failure, no matter how good their stats might look.
The 30,000-foot view shows that yes, drafting a quarterback is about as random as drafting any other player. About 44% of the first round picks have ended up working out well. That rate drops significantly in the second round, where only one in four QBs work out. In fact, three second round picks didn’t start a single game in their career, and ten of the seventeen never started for a full season. Unsurprisingly, that number gets higher the earlier the pick is. Picking in the top 10 offers odds around 50/50, whereas 70% of the first overall picks have turned out well. In the same vein, those odds drop significantly outside the top ten, where over two-thirds of the picks have ended up being busts. All of the attention we give to first round quarterbacks might distort how we view them, but they tend to provide the value you would expect with where they are picked.
Why do we expend so much energy debating whether every quarterback turns out to be a great pick or a bust? Mainly, because the cliche about QB draft picks is true. General managers really do tie their job security to their quarterback. The difference between a good QB and a bad QB is stability. Having “The Guy” under center gives a GM the freedom to build out the rest of the roster needed to compete for a Super Bowl, instead of focusing all of their energy on finding the quarterback that can take them there. All of the busts over the past fifteen years started an average of 25 games for their teams, or about a season and a half. Meanwhile, the good QB picks started an average of 86 games, or about five and a half seasons, a full four year difference. Picking the right quarterback can buy any executive a few extra years before they’re fired, which is all they really care about.
So what about the Super Bowl? That’s what this is all about anyways. Let’s look back at the past ten Super Bowls, as that’s the first game involving a quarterback out of this group. Two of them were won by quarterbacks drafted in the first round by their original team (Joe Flacco, Patrick Mahomes), and another was won with a QB who came in as the backup for an injured pick (Carson Wentz). The last Super Bowl was won by Matthew Stafford, who was drafted first overall but traded to the Rams. If these numbers seem a little low, it’s because of Tom Brady, who won four out of these ten games, because he’s not human. In fact, three of those four losing QBs all fit into this group (Mahomes, Jared Goff, Matt Ryan). Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, and backup Nick Foles are the only quarterbacks to start in the Super Bowl who were drafted later than the second round in the past decade. Half of the players who have started in those games were drafted in the top ten.
I know that was a huge chunk of stats you probably didn’t read, but it boils down to this: If you want to make it to the Super Bowl, you better draft your quarterback as early as possible, or sign Tom Brady. It’s really that simple.