The 2002 Quarterback Class was Better than you Think
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When given the benefit of hindsight, it appears that one of the biggest trends in the recent history of the NFL Draft is that the volatility between the quality of quarterback classes is the biggest determinant of whether a class is strong or weak. To an extent, this is the truth. There are critical variables, but generally speaking, when scouts tend to miss on the quality of a quarterback, they usually miss on the quality of an entire class. 1999, 2007, and 2009 are all examples of classes that underachieved even the most timid projections for the class. Conversely, 2004, 2006, and 2008 are all strong quarterback classes, and produced multiple franchise-type passers. 2002, though, does not appear to fit this narrative. Allow me to explain myself.
It’s a class that produced no superstars, and the three first round picks who have turned out to be ‘busts’ in hindsight, but the quality of the class is much stronger than it appears if you throw out names like Harrington, Ramsey, and Carr. A missed quarterback class would imply that the teams missed their evaluations and overdrafted middling players at the top of a draft. On the surface, that would explain Carr, Harrington, and Ramsey. But, per usual, a deeper look demands a more creative answer.
Here’s the 2002 NFL Draft quarterback class, among the players who tossed more than 250 career passes:
- David Carr, Houston Texans, Round 1, Pick 1
- Joey Harrington, Detroit Lions, Round 1, Pick 3
- Patrick Ramsey, Washington Redskins, Round 1, Pick 32
- Josh McCown, Arizona Cardinals, Round 3, Pick 81
- David Garrard, Jacksonville Jaguars, Round 4, Pick 108
- JT O’Sullivan, New Orleans Saints, Round 6, Pick 186
And that’s not really an impressive group of quarterbacks lumped into any sort of group. One pro bowl trip. One season above a 90.0 QB rating. Exactly why isn’t this a weak class?
It’s a context thing. Look at the teams making those draft picks. In 2001: the Redskins were one of the five worst offenses in the NFL and that was with an effective running game, the Lions were running out a combination of Charlie Batch, James Stewart, and Johnnie Morton, the Jaguars were two years removed from the height of their power and declining into a transition period (Tom Coughlin would be fired within a year). The Cardinals were the Cardinals back when their team nickname was an insult. The Texans didn’t even exist.
Usually in a given draft year, some teams with offensive infrastructure will get into the action near the top of the draft. But the closest thing to that happening here was the 5th round selection of Craig Nall by Green Bay. Nall would be touted as a future starting quarterback at different points in his NFL career, but here we are post-2009, and he’s yet to throw 50 career passes. The players who did play in this draft played on some of the worst offenses in NFL history, and the exceptions to the rule came when the players were backups.
This is also strange. First round draft picks who fail in their first stop as NFL quarterbacks tend to bounce around the league for awhile, and oftentimes end up somewhere without a lot of clout, but quite productive. For the class of 2002, these players got strangely pushed to the road following their initial quarterback stints.
David Carr was not a great first overall selection. Twice in his career, he posted sack rates in excess of 13%. He holds the all time record for times sacked in a single season with 76 in 2002. His sack index for that year, on a scale where 100 (percent) is average, is an incredible 44. David Carr also never really had a line in Houston, but if his ability to get rid of the football was a standardized exam, Carr would have scored in the 10th percentile.
Carr was never part of a massive offensive improvement in Houston, but when the passing rules relaxed in 2004, Carr looked for the world to be a franchise quarterback. He threw for 7.6 yards per attempt with 2nd year WR Andre Johnson leading the charge, and RB Dominick Davis-Williams leading the charge. His sack rate had risen significantly from his career low before (he led the league in sacks in an otherwise stellar season), and could have been viewed as a warning sign of the future, but no one saw what happened to the Texans in 2005 coming.
He took another 58 sacks in 2005 as the team regressed to 2-14 (most of the decline was defensive, the Texans were the league’s worst defense in 2005). Ultimately Carr was not the kind of quarterback who could play from behind without the benefit of a running game. Carr came with an amazing ability to attempt 26-29 passes a game no matter how many times the Texans actually called pass plays. If the team ran the ball 40 times a game, they could keep Carr off his back entirely, and if they threw 45 times a game, Carr would eat the ball about ten times.
Carr turned out not to be worthy of the first overall pick, but it’s safe to say that the Texans screwed up developmentally after the 2004 season, and could have had the offense they currently have with Matt Schaub two years earlier with David Carr if they hadn’t taken his development for granted. The next guy on this list, however, is even tougher to judge in hindsight.
Joey Harrington was one of the least successful passers in the history of professional football. He also, depending on who you ask, might not deserve any blame for a mess created by Matt Millen. For Harrington’s sake, he was grossly underrated in his first two years the league, when in a stripped down version of Steve Mariucci’s offense, Harrington was the least sacked QB in the NFL. Both years.
Harrington’s ultimate failures these first two years were undeniable. He had thrown for only 5.3 yards per attempt and completed a paltry 54% of his passes. Not taking sacks is one thing, actually being productive is another entirely. Harrington was not productive in his first two years in the league. In 2004, the Lions drafted Roy Williams with the 7th overall pick, and suddenly, Harrington became productive. He threw 19 TDs to only 12 picks, and posted a QB rating of 77.5. In the first half of the 2004 season, Carr and Harrington were both among the league leaders in passing yards. The 2002 draft class was slow to develop, but on pace to be just fine.
Then again, it was the Lions. Harrington needed to take the next step to reach his draft potential, and in 2005, the Lions offense was horrendous. Tai Streets and Az Hakim gave way to Mike Williams and Scotty Vines. Harrington managed to improve his completion percentage again (Joey Harrington never actually regressed in completion percentage in his career), and probably never regressed, but the Lions weren’t going anywhere fast. The Bears picked off Harrington five times in a Week 2 game, and he lost his job five games into the season.
Harrington was probably a bust. You can look at his completion percentages and his yards per attempt over his career, and suggest that he got way more opportunities than he actually deserved. But you can also look at it this way: after escaping Detroit in 2006, Harrington went on to start double digit games for the Dolphins in relief of Daunte Culpepper, and then the Falcons in relief of Michael Vick. In both years, the improvement in the offenses was instantaneous. By simply adding a degree of professionalism to the offense, teams that were starting Joey Harrington began to produce. And by 2008, both teams had gone from rags to the postseason by bringing in new quarterbacks–players who were better than Harrington, but in the same mold. The Lions had the timing/rhythm offense the whole time, and couldn’t get to mediocre. And a lot of that’s not Harrington’s fault, even if he’s ultimately a draft bust. The Lions, meanwhile, have not made it to the postseason since Harrington was drafted, and their best quarterback seasons since have been from Jon Kitna. Glad they figured it out.
Now, here’s the part where the class gets odd. Patrick Ramsey was considered by the Washington Redskins to be the best quarterback in the 2002 draft, and was drafted by the team to be Steve Spurrier’s fun n’ gun passer of choice. And in his case, the results were instantaneous. He only completed 51.5% of passes as a rookie, but he led the league in yards per completion, and his 6.8 yards per attempt were more than respectable for a rookie.
[picapp align=”right” wrap=”false” link=”term=patrick+ramsey&iid=5924245″ src=”f/5/c/e/Cincinnati_Bengals_v_8f11.jpg?adImageId=10429580&imageId=5924245″ width=”234″ height=”351″ /] One thing that is really not debatable is that the talent of the Redskins declined from 2002 to 2003. The team added Laveranues Coles and G Randy Thomas in the offseason, but they got rid of RB Stephen Davis who went on to enjoy an excellent year with the Panthers, giving Trung Candidate the job. Ramsey seemed to make his receivers better, but the decline was pretty inevitable. No one ever really found out if Steve Spurrier offense worked or not in the NFL. Ramsey had been the most productive player of the entire QB class to this point, but had just as many questions to answer as any other quarterback.
The Redskins offense was embarrassingly bad in 2004. This was hardly Patrick Ramsey’s fault as he had been forced to the bench by Joe Gibbs in exchange for Mark Brunell, who the team traded for. Ramsey started the team’s final seven games in relief of an ineffective Brunell, and was really playing in a professional system for a first time. The team was terrible, and Ramsey was below average, but significantly better than Brunell. Mark Brunell would go on to have a great season and a half as a Redskin, but we never would find out if the team would have been better off with Ramsey. The best offense Ramsey ever played with was the 2002 Redskins. He was excellent in relief of Brunell in 2005, but what does that really mean? His only start was in week one against Chicago…he didn’t finish the game, and that team went on to intercept Harrington five times the next week.
Ramsey has seen the field only one other time since leaving Washington. He relieved Jay Cutler in a game in Detroit in 2007, and was quite good in relief in a losing effort. There’s nothing really definitive you can say about Ramsey’s career, even now. His performance as a passer is inversely related to the playing time he received. The better he performed, the less he played. Such was life in Washington in the middle of the decade. Ramsey probably wasn’t a bust, but no team wanted to take him on as a QB of the future. Not even, you know, the team who spent that first round pick on him.
How can you rank the first round quarterbacks in the 2002 class. You just have two cases of questionable management, and one case of “what the f*ck.” Carr had the two best seasons of the bunch. Harrington had the third best season, Ramsey the fourth and fifth, Carr the sixth, Ramsey the seventh, and Harrington and Carr enjoyed the worst five seasons split evenly. Was Ramsey a better player than Carr? Was Carr a better player than Harrington? It seems obvious on the surface that Ramsey was more productive than Harrington, but how much of that was the Lions being the Lions? I’d rank them Ramsey, then Carr, then Harrington, but maybe I’ve got it completely backwards. After all, Harrington kept getting the chances after being released, while Ramsey got basically nothing.
These weren’t poor prospects, but there were two clear overdrafts, and three cases of horrendous management.
The rest of the class is pretty standard with other years. David Garrard was a fourth round choice of the Jaguars. When he was taken, he was taken to be Mark Brunell’s backup and potential successor. As it turned out, the Jags took Byron Leftwich to succeed Brunell, and Brunell then…ended up taking over for Ramsey, while Leftwich WON with Jacksonville, only to be replaced later by Garrard. I’m telling you, the teams that took QBs in 2002 really had no idea what they were doing.
Garrard was basically irrelevant until 2005, which happens to be when Leftwich was just getting good. Leftwich couldn’t finish a full season, so Garrard gave the Jaguars league average performance off the bench for two years. Average performance is valuable, in fact, it earned both Matt Schaub and Garrard starting jobs in 2007 when the Jags unceremoniously dumped Leftwich. Garrard responded with a career year and one of the best quarterback seasons ever in 2007 (QB rating: 102.2!), kept it going into 2008 although maybe without the WOW factor of the prior year, but after 2009, 2007 appears to be a flash in the pan.
It wasn’t until 2009 though that Garrard became the most successful passer in the class, surpassing Carr who was the unquestioned starter of his team for five seasons. The advantages to being the first overall pick, now a highly underrated backup quarterback. The difference of course is that David Carr was never at any point a league average starter while Garrard is still about league average. Statistics are excellent for describing our narratives without using words: David Garrard, the 108th pick in 2002, has enjoyed the most success in the class. Joey Harrington, the 3rd pick, has enjoyed the least. That’s pretty conclusive. Can we just go and say that Garrard was a better player than Harrington? While that’s probably accurate, Garrard’s successes and Harrington’s failures do not prove that Garrard would have been a better pick than Harrington.
And furthermore, there’s a David Garrard in EVERY draft class. Brian Griese, Aaron Brooks, Marc Bulger, Sage Rosenfels, Kyle Orton, Derek Anderson, Matt Cassel, Bruce Gradkowski, Tyler Thigpen, etc. Not one of those players is going to wind up the best QB in their class. This is because few players take the career path of David Carr or Patrick Ramsey, and for two players in the same class to not-succeed-without-failing is pretty much exclusive to 2002.
As far as first overall picks go, Carr clearly exceeds Alex Smith and JaMarcus Russell in value while failing to reach Carson Palmer and Eli Manning. Then there’s Tim Couch and Michael Vick, who never made it as passers. Most observers would take Michael Vick’s career over David Carr’s and I think I would as well, but Carr was the better passer. Carr was simply one in a long line of quarterbacks to go first overall in a class where there was no good first overall type.
Not having an elite stud that everyone can agree on doesn’t ruin a class. 2004 might be the best quarterback class ever, and the best player in the class (excluding JP Losman, for a moment) is the only one without a ring. Can you tell me who the best quarterback in the 2006 class is? Probably not.
David Carr is probably one of the best 40 quarterbacks in the league right now, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to place Ramsey or Harrington in the same class if they were still in the league. David Garrard is one of the best 25 quarterbacks in the NFL. That’s four quarterbacks who, if they were all active, could being among the best backups or back end starters. The 2003 class wasn’t that deep. The 2001 class wasn’t as deep. Certainly not 2007.
The 2002 NFL Draft QB class was stronger than at least a third of the classes of the decade, and will perhaps represent the median if the 2009 class fails to live up to expectation. All the great passers in the NFL came from other classes, and that includes the fact that Drew Brees and Carson Palmer came from classes I consider to be worse. But that doesn’t address what could have been if the teams who had taken players in this class could have actually developed them. And I suspect that this will remain a problem for teams in the future.