Great quarterbacks save coaches’ and GMs’ jobs in the NFL. Bad quarterbacks get them fired.
But every year, teams still misevaluate the position and use high draft picks on QBs who bust, who fail to sign a second contract with the team, or who simply turn out to be average.
How is this possible? Why isn’t there a more efficient formula for drafting the one position most capable of turning around organizations and setting the course for championships?
Experts say there are numerous variables, including fitting the quarterback to a coaching staff and system that develop and accentuate his traits. Human error is a factor, too, though.
With the stakes so high, desperation to find that rare star QB leads some GMs to reach and make oversights and mistakes.
“Teams become less disciplined when the pressure is on to fill a need,” former Saints and Dolphins GM Randy Mueller told the Daily News in a phone interview.
“It’s an organizational referendum, that success or failure, with quarterbacks more than any position,” added Mueller, who has worked in pro football since 1983. “It falls on how that organization surrounds that person, the scheme the coaches put in place. And also, because it’s the most important thing and the hardest to find, people sometimes force it. They try to fill that need so badly, they want these guys to be so good, and they overlook deficiencies that are there.”
The need to land a star QB is felt so acutely by GMs that one source said there is an understood “quarterback premium” that teams consider the cost of doing business — either through contracts or draft capital — in the name of finding and keeping one.
This combination of desperation and risk tolerance might partially explain how the Chicago Bears could justify a trade up to take Mitchell Trubisky No. 2 overall in 2017 ahead of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson.
It could shed light on why the Jets traded up to take Sam Darnold No. 3 overall in 2018, why the Rams and Eagles mortgaged the farm for Jared Goff and Carson Wentz at Nos. 1 and 2 in 2016.
Desperation certainly appears to have fueled the 49ers’ meteoric trade up from No. 12 to No. 3 in this year’s draft, seemingly for Alabama’s Mac Jones.
Will it be worth it? That depends on how San Francisco evaluates the players and their fit in the Niners’ offense.
That’s what quarterback evaluation should come down to, in the opinion of NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell: Strip away the outside variables and all the discussion of subjective intangibles, and evaluate the actual player.
“When all is said and done, you have to go back to the tape,” said Cosell, who has done just that for more than 40 years. “You have to watch the player play football and evaluate what the player is. Players aren’t great because they take their offensive linemen out on Wednesday night. That’s not why they made the throw.”
To Cosell, that means a team should have a “foundation” of how it is evaluating QBs before turning the tape on. And it also means understanding the full context of the tape they’re watching.
Cosell said when Ohio State QB Justin Fields had a bad game against Indiana, for example, Fields struggled against a triple A-gap blitz that the Hoosiers’ defense called about five or six times.
But why did Fields struggle? Did he call his own protections? Did the coach? What were Fields’ reads and hot routes? Any NFL team would have to learn the full context to assess the play.
“If I’m a GM and I need a quarterback, I’m sitting and watching every game,” Cosell said. “The other stuff is corollary and ancillary material. It’s not a vague thing. It’s not a feel thing. It’s an academic and intellectual exercise. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be right every time, but there have to be parameters and you have to have a foundation.”
Former Eagles scout John Middlekauff, meanwhile, said the complicated and challenging nature of the quarterback position simply builds inherent risk into picking the right one.
“A lot of other positions, like defensive end or offensive tackle, in a way are independent of scheme,” said Middlekauff, who now hosts the “3&Out” podcast. “If you get Lawrence Taylor or Khalil Mack or Aaron Donald, they’re gonna be good no matter what. Michael Strahan, Tyron Smith, Jason Peters: They’re gonna dominate.
“At quarterback, there are physical attributes you can see,” Middlekauff added. “But he also has to interact directly with the play caller. They have to be on the same page. He has to be on the same page with the other 10 guys. And it’s a lot harder: The talent they’re facing is elite every week.”
Universally, experts who spoke to the Daily News also believe that the media, fans and even teams have unreasonable expectations of these QBs to be great right away.
Perhaps the Jets gave up too early on Darnold, for example, after three years with a bad O-line, a frequently criticized coaching staff, and no weapons.
One evaluator said the differences between the college and professional games has never been greater. Many QBs show up at pre-draft showcases and don’t know how to take a snap from under center.
As Mueller said, “the evolution of that position follows a learning curve” long after a QB gets drafted. At the same time, not every team struggles with quarterback evaluations.
“People say it’s a crapshoot,” Mueller said. “I couldn’t disagree more. I think it’s more predictable. There are teams that are better at evaluating QBs than others.”
Look at Andy Reid, for instance. He drafted Donovan McNabb No. 2 overall for the Eagles in 1999, acquired Alex Smith in a trade for the Chiefs in 2013 and traded up to draft Mahomes No. 10 to Kansas City in 2017.
He also missed on Kevin Kolb in the 2007 second round, obviously. But the other three all are good to great players who won games and had teams in contention consistently under Reid. Their other common denominator is that Reid catered his offense to their strengths.
While some teams might lament the differences between the college and pro games, Reid has been assimilating college concepts into his pro schemes and evolving to fit the players.
The Baltimore Ravens have done that, too.
They can’t claim they knew Lamar Jackson was a future MVP when they traded back twice in the 2018 first round and took tight end Hayden Hurst at No. 25 before selecting Jackson at No. 32. But Baltimore appreciated Jackson’s unique skill set and built an offense around that, rather than pigeonholing him into a traditional system that stunted his strengths.
So it’s not always the prospect that’s the issue. It could also be the team.
Or it could be that missing on a first round QB pick isn’t as big a blunder as convention believes.
TOP THREE OR BUST?
Pro Football Focus senior analyst Steve Palazzolo doesn’t think that taking a bust first-round quarterback is a mortal sin. He sees it as worth the risk.
“I would change the question,” Palazzolo said. “I would not look at picks as hits or misses. I would look more through the lens of how they’re necessary and that there are ranges of outcomes. Drafting a quarterback, you’re hoping for the best outcome, and if you don’t hit that, you move on and find the next one. And that’s OK.”
PFF’s data analysis of quarterbacks drafted between 2006 and 2019, for example, shows that the probability of landing a star quarterback drops dramatically after the top three picks of a draft. This supports the idea of teams taking more swings at QBs with high picks, despite the inherent risk.
Per PFF, if teams want 6-to-1 odds at landing a stud quarterback in the 90th percentile of NFL passers, their chance of hitting on one in the top three picks is 20.7%.
That probability plummets to a 6.6% success rate in the second round, 3.2% in the third and 1.8% in the fourth.
If a team wants the same odds of finding an average starter in the 65th percentile of passers, it has a 56.4% on finding one in the top three, followed by a 36.3% chance in the second, 27.4% in the third and 22.2% in the fourth.
Obviously there are glaring exceptions, including Tom Brady (Patriots, sixth round, No. 199), Drew Brees (Chargers No. 32, second round, 2001), Aaron Rodgers (Packers No. 24, 2005) and Russell Wilson (Seahawks No. 75, third round, 2012).
But PFF’s data would seem to support the 49ers’ charge up to the No. 3 pick from an analytical perspective. And if the 49ers draft a QB who fails? That’s OK, Palazzolo said. It happens when you take a chance at the most important position in sports and you play the odds.
“Like I think Washington’s process drafting [Dwayne] Haskins was right,” Palazzolo said. “I didn’t love Haskins, but I thought he was worth a shot in the first round. That doesn’t make me a guy who believes in a bust, but what’s the alternative? If they draft Brian Burns or Dexter Lawrence,” he said of two d-linemen, “that’s a good player, but the importance of QB is so high, you have to take that shot.”
“Look at Arizona a couple years ago, they got Josh Rosen at 10,” he added. “He didn’t work out. Then they made the right move to go to Kyler Murray the next year” with the top overall pick. “We don’t have to sit here and build around him just because we drafted him. You keep picking until you find the guy because it’s worth it and it’s that valuable.”
Palazzolo also challenged one more premise: “You have to keep taking chances. That may be why the ‘miss’ rate is so high … Though do teams actually miss more at QB than other positions? I don’t know that it’s egregious at QB compared to say offensive tackle or safety.”
Funny he should say that. He’s partially correct.
For consistency’s sake, ESPN Stats & Information recently decided to measure first-round pick ‘hit’ rates on whether players signed a second contract with the team that drafted them.
From 2000 through 2016, teams hit and missed on first-round picks overall (42.9%) at the same rate they hit or missed on quarterbacks (42.2%).
The stats show that 232 of 540 first-round picks (42.9%) in that time span reached their second contracts, or 42.9%. For quarterbacks, 19 of 45 first-round QBs (42.2%) made it to their second deal with the same team.
That is a much lower hit rate than offensive linemen (33 of 55, 60%) and linebackers (23 of 42, 54.8%. But the quarterback hit rate is higher by this metric than first-round corners (35.5%), defensive tackles (35.3%) and wide receivers bringing up the rear (19 of 70, 27%).
That said, the 19 quarterbacks who reached their second contract include Goff and Wentz, who have since been traded. And nine of those 19 QBs were top-three picks.
Evaluating whether a QB pick became a success or failure can be complicated, too.
Despite their recent trades, Goff’s Rams reached a Super Bowl, and Wentz’s Eagles won a title with Nick Foles at the helm after Wentz played MVP-caliber ball for much of the regular season. So those teams didn’t come out empty-handed.
AN IMPERFECT PROCESS
Former Giants assistant VP of player evaluation Marc Ross said on The Ringer Football podcast last week that if he had one mulligan for his career, he would have fought harder to draft Wilson in 2012.
Ross said former Giants scout Ryan Jones said in a meeting that “this guy’s the next Drew Brees.” But the Giants and the rest of the league — including the Seahawks, who had paid Matt Flynn big money that offseason — passed until Seattle’s third round selection came up.
Middlekauff said the Eagles also “loved Wilson” that year and in hindsight regret not taking him in the second. The real lesson learned, though, again, is that if you think a quarterback can be great, take him in the first round.
“That’s how Gettleman justified the Jones pick” at No. 6 overall in 2019, Middlekauff said. “If you think he’s gonna be good, who cares where we picked him?
“But,” he added, “he’s got to be good.”
There is always the chance that a GM spends too much time on the data and the probabilities, however, and overlooks that the players’ talents might not match their hype.
“I think it’s a little bit of a product based on need,” said Mueller, who worked in the NFL for 35 years, including as a Chargers senior executive for football operations from 2008-18. “Depending on who you ask, most people say it’s a five-quarterback first round. I don’t know about that. This is a risky draft especially if you’re giving up stuff to get in there.”
And as these GMs sift through their evaluations, Mueller said not to overlook the pressure they’re under to get it right.
“In general we have more experts and more people who think they know everything that’s best for you, and that pressures decision makers,” Mueller said. “It’s hard to block out external pressure. I think that’s more so than ever before. It’s built on public perception, and the heat has never been at this level.”
Not as easy as it sounds, then, finding and picking the player at the most important position in the sport.