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Sound Investments: In Defense of Drafting Quarterbacks

We look back at two decades of how win-loss percentage has worked out for teams prioritizing QBs on draft day.

By: Ethan D. Cooperson

In a recent article, Stats Perform’s Kevin Chroust detailed how teams that selected a running back with their initial pick in a draft were the ones most likely to reap short-term rewards.

Drafting a quarterback with the first pick (regardless of round or pick number) also led to team improvement in the first season, though not as much as taking a running back.

The chart below considers each team’s first selection in each draft from 2000 through 2017 (regardless of round) and breaks down, by position, the average change in winning percentage in the first season after that selection.

On the opposite end of the scale from RBs and QBs, teams that chose receivers with their top picks saw a significant drop in winning percentage in the ensuing season. No other position produced a significant change in Year 1.

We didn’t include the 2018 and 2019 drafts, which differs from the previous article, so that we could analyze what occurs beyond the first year. By considering the second and third seasons following a draft, will we uncover different trends relating to the position of the first player selected and team improvement or decline?

Peyton Manning holds up the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

The quarterback position is of particular interest here. The top four quarterbacks of the last two decades—Super Bowl winners Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers—combined for only 16 starts in the year in which they were drafted, all of them by Manning. Brady, Brees and Rodgers combined to throw 46 passes in their rookie seasons; stardom would have to wait.

More recent QBs have followed a similar path. Patrick Mahomes was a spectator for the first 15 games of his rookie campaign in 2017 before winning league MVP honors one year later. Last season’s MVP, Lamar Jackson, took over as the Ravens’ starter in midseason 2018 only after an injury to Joe Flacco.

The reality is that many quarterbacks are drafted not with the expectation that they will be difference-makers in Year 1; but rather, their impact is measured by their performance in subsequent seasons. And even as early as Years 2 and 3, the numbers indicate as much.

After the first-year spike, teams taking running backs with their first selection quickly reverted to the form they showed in the season before the pick. The Carolina Panthers of the last three years provide a perfect example – with the oddity that the team’s success has an inverse correlation with Christian McCaffrey’s production. After a 6-10 season in 2016, the Panthers made McCaffrey their first pick (eighth overall) in 2017 and jumped into the playoffs with an 11-5 record. McCaffrey produced a modest 1,086 scrimmage yards – enough to lead the team – and seven touchdowns.

In the two ensuing seasons, McCaffrey’s numbers skyrocketed: 1,965 scrimmage yards in 2018 and a league-high 2,392 last season. But Carolina’s record dropped to 7-9 and 5-11. Similarly, the Jaguars’ improvement in 2017, after they took Leonard Fournette fourth overall, was impressive: they jumped from 3-13 in 2016 to a 10-6 division championship season and fell just short of reaching the Super Bowl. But over the next two seasons, the Jaguars returned to also-ran status, going a combined 11-21.

Christian McCaffrey (22) runs on the Saints in Charlotte.

The common thread for the Panthers and Jaguars in 2018 and 2019 was poor quarterback play. Both teams ranked in the NFL’s bottom 10 in both passer rating and yards per attempt over those two seasons – and stellar running back play wasn’t enough to overcome those deficiencies. McCaffrey’s two outstanding seasons and Fournette’s 1,674-yard output in 2019 went to waste.

Three quarterbacks of recent vintage exemplify the slightly-delayed positive impact of selecting a QB with a first draft pick. Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson saw significant action as rookies, posting a combined 10-19 record; each of their teams was sub-.500 in that season. In Years 2 and 3? Winning records for all three teams in each season, and a combined 6-for-6 reaching the postseason.

What do these numbers suggest for the 2020 draft class? Four teams selected QBs with their initial pick, with three of them – Cincinnati, Miami and Los Angeles – coming off seasons of double-digit losses. Recent history suggests that Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert won’t turn things around for their teams this fall but have a strong chance to do so in 2021 and ’22.

Burrow could be an outlier. In a league where completion percentage is critical – eight of last season’s 12 playoff teams had a QB in the top 11 in accuracy – Burrow figures to shine. His completion rate of 76.3% at LSU last season is the second highest by any QB in one year dating back to 2000, topped only by Colt McCoy’s 76.7% in 2008.

And the Heisman Trophy winner didn’t dink-and-dunk his way to that lofty percentage; Burrow’s completions in 2019 traveled an average of 7.9 yards downfield, ranking in the top 20 percent among FBS qualifiers. Burrow’s record-setting total of 60 touchdown passes last season grabbed the headlines, but his accuracy might be the trait that portends success in the NFL.

Joe Burrow throws a pass against Clemson during the national championship game in New Orleans.

Finally, a note on the one team coming off a successful season that selected a quarterback with its first pick. After going 13-3 and reaching the NFC Championship Game, the Packers traded up to make the surprising pick of Jordan Love, whose 17 interceptions at Utah State in 2019 were the most in the FBS.

Is there a legitimate comparison to be drawn to Patrick Mahomes? In his last two collegiate seasons, Mahomes threw 25 interceptions, fourth most in the FBS over the 2015 and ’16 campaigns. He then served as a backup behind Alex Smith for most of 2017, but quickly rose to stardom with 76 TD passes and only 17 interceptions in two subsequent years.

Mahomes was a backup to Smith just as Love will back up Rodgers, and the common thread between the incumbents is a very low interception percentage. Smith ranks eighth in league history in lowest interception rate at 2.04%, while Rodgers’ 1.39% is the lowest all-time.

Are the Packers stealing the Chiefs’ blueprint in having Love wait his turn as Rodgers’ understudy?

Aaron Charlton contributed. Research support provided by Evan Boyd and Sam Hovland.