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The dangerous game of drafting NFL quarterbacks: history, data and insight

A look inside the history, the successes and the many failures of teams taking quarterbacks in the first round of the NFL Draft.

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star Scott Horner/USA TODAY Network photo illustration via Imagn Content Services, LLC

As a team, the Denver Broncos had the worst passer rating in the league in 2020. The Broncos had never had that dubious distinction before then.

Quarterback is the most important position in the game and the Broncos have gotten terrible QB play since the end of the 2014 season. Many think this is why John Elway stepped down as GM as he was unable to find a QB after Peyton Manning retired.

Many think that the Broncos could draft a QB either at 9 or even trade up to take a QB earlier. Others see reports of Drew Lock working with Manning and they want to give Lock another year. This will not be a discussion of Lock. This will be a discussion of draft history.

Return on Draft Investment

I’m choosing games started, GS, as the metric to measure the success or failure of a drafted QB, particularly a first round QB. I thought about using years as an NFL starting QB, but chose GS since it’s an easier stat to run analysis on (there is less gray area than there is with whether or not a QB was the “starting QB” for a team for a season - how many games does he need to be the “starting QB”?).

So I looked at every QB drafted this century and plotted their career GS (as of now) on the Y-axis and their draft spot on the X-axis. This is what you get (some of the zero GS data points have been removed for clarity). 93 QBs drafted this century have zero GS.

Those four dots that are near or above 150 GS after the first round are Drew Brees (32nd pick, 286 GS), Andy Dalton (35th pick, 142 GS), Russell Wilson (75th pick, 144 GS), Tom Brady (199th pick, 299 GS) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (250th pick, 146 GS).

If we zoom in on the top half of the first round round we get this graph

If you want to look at the statistics, here are the averages GS, minimum GS and maximum GS from the three groupings that I have separated (picks 1-16, 17-96, and 97-258)

Draft Spot Total QBs Average GS STDEV GS MIN GS MAX GS
1-16 43 79 65 9 240
17-96 62 39 53 0 286
97-258 155 10 31 0 299

So QBs taken after the top 16 but before day three get about half the number of career starts of the guys taken in the top 16. It’s also interesting to note that QBs taken in the top 16 this century have all gotten at least 9 NFL starts, whereas there are eight of 62 QBs taken with 17th to 96th picks who have zero NFL GS. Day three QBs this century have gotten an average of ten NFL starts, but that average is skewed by Cousins, Brady and Fitzpatrick. They account for 549 of the 1542 starts accumulated by the 155 QBs taken with the 97th pick or later.

The risk is great, but the Broncos are in desperate need of improved QB play. Taking a QB at 9, even if he is the fifth QB off the board is a risk worth taking...or is it?

It is exceedingly rare for the fifth QB taken to be any good.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t get a good one though. Dan Marino was actually the sixth QB drafted in the famed 1983 draft class. 1983 is the only year where 6 QBs were taken in the first round of the draft. There is some speculation that this year we could also see six go in the first. Five are expected, but there is a possibility that Davis Mills from Stanford could sneak into the end of the first.

There were three Hall of Fame QBs drafted in the first round in 1983, but the other drafts where four or five QBs went in the first have not been anywhere close to that “talent rich”. The best career from the 1987 1st rounders was Vinny Testaverde (214 GS). The best of the 1999 class was Donovan McNabb (161 GS). The best of 2003 was Carson Palmer (181 GS). The best of 2004 was Ben Roethlisberger (231 and counting - will be HoF). That 2004 class was probably the second most talented behind the 1983 first round class. 2004 also had Eli Manning (234 GS) and Philip Rivers (240 GS). Both Eli and Rivers are borderline Hall of Famers. I expect Eli to get in based on him playing in NY and winning two super bowls. I expect Rivers will not.

2011 and 2012 had a lot of promise, but Cam Newton’s fall from grace (139 GS) and Andrew Luck’s early retirement (86 GS) have taken most of the shine off those apples. 2018 might end up being a better first round class than 2004 with Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson all looking as if they will lead their teams for the next decade or more.

2021 Draft Class

Do you believe the hype?

It would appear that there is a great “crop” of QBs coming out of college about once every twenty years (1983, 2004, 2021?). So it is possible that the five guys expected to be taken in the first round this year: Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Mac Jones, Trey Lance to all have great careers, but it is highly unlikely.

The odds say that there will be one great NFL QB, two average NFL QBs and two busts from those five. Even the famed 1983 crop of first round QBs had two duds - Todd Blackledge (29 GS) and Tony Eason (51 GS).


If the first four picks are all QBs, what do you want the Broncos to do?

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    Trade up to get the fifth pick and take the "last QB standing" regardless of who it is
    (23 votes)
  • 20%
    Trade up only if Fields is still on the board
    (214 votes)
  • 3%
    Stand pat at 9 and take a QB if the 5th guy is still there are 9, regardless of which QB it is.
    (41 votes)
  • 33%
    Stay at 9, take a QB if Fields is available otherwise take the best player left on the board
    (356 votes)
  • 9%
    Stay at 9 and take the best defensive player on the board
    (104 votes)
  • 9%
    Stay at 9 and take the best offensive tackle left on the board
    (102 votes)
  • 21%
    Trade down from 9 to get more draft capital
    (229 votes)
1069 votes total Vote Now