Buyer Beware: Drafting a Quarterback in the First Round is Dangerous

With the early NFL free-agent frenzy now over, our eyes drift to the NFL draft. Teams who do not make a big splash had their reasons. They might have chose not to spend a heap of money and plan to build their team through the draft. Others may own little cap space, so they’ll spend on low-level free agents and draft picks.

For the latter teams, buyer, or in this case, drafter beware. While many teams hurt their chances for long-term success because they overpay for free agents, other teams make a similar mistake during the first round of the draft. Hoping to drastically improve their failing team, they reach for, a quarterback who they believe has all the skills to transform their franchise. In reality, however, they lack the skills and characteristics to meet that team’s unreasonable expectations. Those expectations mainly involve winning.


To the quarterback’s credit, there exists two reasons why he probably had little chance to succeed anyway. First, he may have lacked the ability to be a day one starter—a must quality for most first-round talents, especially quarterbacks—or second, his team did not provide him with the proper tools to develop into that starter. While draft nightmares continue to haunt teams, there exists a way—although improbable—to solve these problems.

Let’s investigate the topic more.

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It all starts with the NFL’s culture. In general, you would think the NFL would create a culture to help increase the chance its most important position succeeds, but this is hardly the case. While the NFL has slowly and steadily developed into a passing league, its teams continue to falter in their approach to drafting and developing quarterbacks.  


How much do teams rely on the quarterback position and the passing game to win? From 1992-2001, NFL teams selected only 19 quarterbacks in the first round, but from 2002-2013, the number of quarterbacks selected in the same round increased a whopping 37 percent. In a quarterback-driven league, that percentage likely won’t drop any time soon.

In fact, that number may never drop, which further increases how important it is for a team to draft the right quarterback and provide him with the best environment to grow. According to a study by Andrew Powell-Morse called the “Evolution of the NFL Offense: An Analysis of the Last 80 years,” statistics prove the NFL has continually evolved into a passing league for a few reasons. One, since 1934, yards per pass completion has exponentially increased by 98.2 percent. Two, in the past three years, the average pass completion has yet to dip below 60 percent and three, before 2007, the average pass completion had failed to drop below 59.7 percent.


While these stats point out the trend, it begs us to ask the question: Why have teams continued to throw more; and thus, place such high value on the quarterback position? The reason is simple: Teams win more by throwing the football. The same report by Powell-Morse provides an interesting nugget of information. Dating back to 1932, an effective passing attack has helped teams win 59 percent of the time.

In any case, passing isn’t the main problem. If anything, the spike in passing has increased fan-excitement about the NFL brand. The problem is the league and many of its franchises, who are so hell-bent on relying on the quarterback and passing to promote its brand and win games, fail to take seriously the true gravity of the position and situation. Instead of changing a culture that promotes failure at the quarterback position, they stand by and accept the status-quo.

Some may argue that every draft is different. While quarterback E.J. Manuel was the only quarterback selected in the first round last year, does this mean fewer quarterbacks will be selected in the first round in the future? Likely not. According to ESPN’s Kevin Seifert, five of the top 32 players in the 2014 draft are quarterbacks. Especially in this year’s deep draft, fresh with a record 98 declared underclassman, many teams may feel comfortable selecting a quarterback early and then filling other positions later.

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Reaching for a quarterback in the first round is often a franchise’s first mistake. According to Bo Mitchell in his 2012 article, “NFL Draft: First-round Disappointment More Likely Than Success,” only 30 percent of quarterbacks drafted in the first round made at least one Pro Bowl between 2002 and 2012. During that same period, only 20 percent made multiple Pro Bowls. Or, if you believe Pro Bowls are a poor way to judge a player, this statistic may better hit home: Over the past ten years, there is only a 50 percent chance a team will find a long-term starter in the first round. For a type of player who has such high expectations, a 50 percent success rate is not good enough. In general, between 2009 and 2013, that percentage slightly rose to 57 percent, but will likely dip down to the 50 percent average in a few seasons.

In determining that percentage, one important factor was in play: it only considers quarterbacks who started in at least 56 percent of their regular season games. In coming seasons, players on the hot-seat like Sam Bradford, Jake Locker and even E.J. Manuel may decrease that 56 percent to the normal 50 percent success rate, if they are demoted. Of course, it takes a few years to judge the success of draft picks, but the statistics are trending downward in their normal direction.

After a franchise has reached for and drafted their first-round quarterback, they make their second mistake when they fail to provide their new face-of-the-franchise with the best tools, as well as proper environment to develop in. Unlike other positions, quarterbacks have little time to work their way up to game-day speed. According to Mike Dodd of USA Today, NFL head coaches last only 4.39 years with a team, which is still longer than coaches in the three other major U.S. sports, but not long when you consider the amount of time it takes to build up a successful team, as well as develop a quarterback. Many times, fans and analysts judge a player a few years after their draft. That is right around the time a head coach is walking out the back door.

Along with team-tenure, a head coach’s experience may also plays a role in a quarterback’s development. Jeff Howe of NESN sites the average NFL head coach in 2011 only had an average 4.91 seasons of overall head coaching experience. So basically, you have an inexperienced coach, who will likely be gone from the team in a few years, teaching an inexperienced quarterback, in an unstable environment. That is a receipt for disaster.

Along with working with inexperienced or short-tenured coaches, young quarterbacks face an additional challenge. Usually when they are drafted high, they must work with an untried and untalented football team.

You’ve likely seen this scenario play out countless times. A team reaches for a quarterback early in the first round with the notion the quarterback will be the franchise’s saving grace. However, the team lacks talent on both sides of the football. So now, the unfortunate quarterback must “grow” and “develop” behind an average to poor offensive line and a set of receivers or tight ends who can hardly catch the football. More so, his team’s defense might surrender an extraordinary amount of points per game, which forces the quarterback to transition from a game-manager into the next Joe Montana at an absurdly rapid rate.

To fix the above problems, teams must become more patient in teaching their quarterbacks, whether they are a top-tier talent or not. As illogical as it sounds in today’s NFL, they must allow first-round quarterbacks the opportunity to ride the bench, if necessary, and learn the team’s system for a few seasons.

The quarterback position is hard to analyze. In all, we could also make the argument that few quarterbacks, no matter the round, succeed in the NFL. However, the point here is that we often look at first-round quarterbacks as the best of the best, even when we secretly know they are not. We, and teams as well, force ourselves to believe they have no equals. We expect more from them than any other player drafted. But maybe we shouldn’t. And maybe teams shouldn’t. Doing so might allow franchises to see clearer so they can provide quarterbacks with the culture they need to develop properly, instead of hoping young, inexperienced quarterbacks will change that team’s already poor culture.  

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