Generally a team picking in the top three is doing so because they were terrible the season before. There are rare occasions where they have that pick because of a trade and they weren’t terrible the year before, but it is the general trend. For example in 2021, the top three picks were all quarterbacks, and they went to teams that finished the previous season 3-14 (Jaguars), 4-13 (Jets) and 10-7 (49ers). The 49ers moved up to take Trey Lance by giving the Dolphins their 2021 first-round pick (which they traded to the Cowboys, who took Micah Parsons), a 2022 first and third-round pick, and a 2023 first-round pick. That’s a great deal of draft capital to move up from 12 to 3.
The 2022 draft was a quarterback drought year. So much so that the first QB wasn’t taken until the 20th overall pick; there were six wide receivers taken before the first QB came off the board. This got me thinking about the value of using a really high draft pick (first three picks) on a QB. How often has this been a strategy for team success since the merger?
First we need to define what success is in this context. I am going to define success as that QB “leading” the team that drafted him consistently to the playoffs and occasionally to the Super Bowl.
There have been 49 QBs taken with one of the first three picks since the merger, 26 of them were taken with the first overall pick. Most of them had three or more years as a starting quarterback in the NFL, but a few didn’t. Those are Jack Thompson, Heath Shuler, Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith, and JaMarcus Russell. The entire lot is shown below with some analysis that I found insightful.
Now, for clarity, I am counting John Elway and Eli Manning is if they were drafted by the Broncos and the Giants respectively (instead of being traded after being selected by the Colts and Chargers). That is the reason for the asterisk by draft team for the two of them.
First we should note that only three of these QBs have won a Super Bowl for a team that did not draft them. The three QBs are Jim Plunkett, Peyton Manning and Matthew Stafford. Only Plunkett did it twice, but Stafford could still tie Plunkett with two in the latter part of his career.
I focused on how often these QBs have led the team that drafted them to the playoffs. To date, not counting the 2021 draftees, there have been 15 of these 49 who never led the team that drafted them to the playoffs. If you use making the playoffs half of the time as your cutoff, only nine of these guys have done it for the team that drafted them. That’s a fairly poor record, particularly when you think about how many chances some of these quarterbacks were given to prove that they were not very good at playing quarterback in the NFL.
Make no mistake, with the exception of Trey Lance, who hasn’t been given his shot yet, every single one of these QBs had at least one season where they were the primary starting QB for the team that drafted them.
Of course, some times the “failure” of these teams to make the playoffs consistently with these highly drafted QBs was much more of a factor of the team and less a factor of the QB, but that’s the topic of another discussion.
I should note that since the merger, among these 49 QBs, John Elway stands alone in that he led the Denver Broncos (ostensibly the team that drafted him) to five Super Bowl appearances. While he may not have had the same level of playoff consistency (making the playoffs) as Peyton Manning (with the Colts), Troy Aikman or Terry Bradshaw, none of those three guys took their drafting team to five Super Bowls. And before you even think it, we are not discussing Voldemort, the current QB for the Bucs, since he was not drafted in the top three as any Patriots’ fan will tell you incessantly given the slightest chance to do so. I swear to you that I am trying to find that last of Tom Brady’s horcruxes so that he will finally retire.
Back to the discussion of success as consistent playoff appearances, since only nine of 42 (we’ll leave out the 2021 guys) have been successful, does this look like a viable strategy for an NFL team to succeed? At least from that number it would seem to suggest the answer to that question is no. A 21% success rate is terrible (even in baseball), so why do teams keep taking quarterbacks with some (or all) of the top three picks?
The answer lies in three places:
- The QB is the most important player on the team and to win consistently you need at least an above average starting quarterback. While you can find teams making the playoffs and even winning the Super Bowl with poor quarterback play (e.g. the 2015 Broncos and the 2000 Ravens) it is generally not sustainable like teams with elite QB play.
- The NFL is a copy-cat league and “every” team thinks that they are going to be the 2020 Bengals picking Joe Burrow and not the 1999 Bengals picking Akili Smith. The success of the Colts taking Peyton Manning first overall in 1998 tends to make some teams forget about the failure of the Chargers using the next pick on Ryan Leaf.
- The “modern” NFL thinks it has all of the data to avoid the Ryan Leaf, Tim Couch, and Jamarcus Russell’s of the draft. There is an analytical arrogance to many front offices that presumes the terrible busts from QBs taken in the top three are a thing of the past. However, Jameis Winston and Sam Darnold beg to differ.
The teams that get this wrong (I’m looking at you Cleveland) tend to spend years wandering in what I have called the quarterback desert. Which goes like this:
They pick a QB in one of the top three picks.
That QB fails to lead them consistently to the playoffs.
The team performs poorly enough to be in position to draft in the top three some time during that first QB’s rookie contract and the team takes another QB in the top three.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Ok, Ok. So this study fails to look beyond the top three picks, but that is by design. Why? Because the top three picks are the most valuable picks in the draft and the drop-off is quite substantial regardless of what valuation system you use (see the tweet).
How NFL teams used to value draft picks (for trades) and how some do now. When nerds and football collide... pic.twitter.com/yxfJlx1dGE— Joe Mahoney (@ndjomo76) April 6, 2022
I know that there generally much deeper issues that lead to team failure that go well beyond the play of the quarterback (front office ineptitude, idiot head coaching, terrible player development, etc.) but plenty of teams still think that Sam Bradford or Tim Couch or Baker Mayfield is good enough to lead them to consistent success and so they take those guys with the first pick. In doing so, many of these teams that wander in the QB desert for years neglect other areas of their team that could be significantly upgraded in order to draft these QBs in the top three.
As a thought experiment, think back to the last time that the Broncos had a pick in the top three - 2011. The Broncos ended up taking Von Miller with the second overall pick, but they could have very easily taken Jake Locker (who went 8th overall). Many teams will reach to get a QB with one of these top three picks because they think it is the best path to success. I shudder to think where the Broncos would be if we had taken Locker (who was the second QB picked in 2011) or Blaine Gabbert (10th pick) or Christian Ponder (12th pick) instead of Von. We could play revisionist history all we want, but without Von and Tim Tebow (who the Broncos traded up to take with the 25th pick in 2010) the Broncos don’t get Peyton Manning or win SB50. (We can argue this in the comments if you wish.)
I would like to think that in trading for Russell Wilson, the Broncos have a four to seven-year window where we really won’t have to think about drafting a QB. With so many QBs showing that they can still play at an elite level even as they near (or pass) the age of 40. My hope appears to be well-founded.