Home > Draft, FNQB, NFL > Friday Night QB: The Draft, and why Your Team’s Backup QB Shouldn’t be Employed

Friday Night QB: The Draft, and why Your Team’s Backup QB Shouldn’t be Employed

Friday night quarterback is a column that is being launched at LiveBall Sports, well, tonight.  It will run weekly, and it will investigate issues in football labor markets that are creating arbitrage opportunities for smart teams.  Initially, this premise was the whole goal of starting a blog like LiveBall, but unfortunately, the time commitment issue has forced me to focus less on these ‘investigative’ issues, and more on current events than I would like.  This is a major step towards changing that.

Releasing a column each Friday night isn’t going to lead to instantaneous web hits, which is exactly the point.  I want these to be the articles that have staying power, and continued to get linked to years down the road.

FNQB can also double as a slang term for armchair analysts whose football playing careers ended after high school.  You’re more than welcome to steal that one, as I don’t even want it.

Article after the photo-jump.

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When the NFL and NFLPA ever decide to seriously consider getting down to details of a new CBA, one of the biggest points of contention between the sides will be the absence of a rookie-slotting pay scale that would protect teams at the top of the draft from having to fork over major bonuses to unproven players.  I’m generally against a rookie pay scale because of what it would do to competitive balance–essentially, teams at the top of the draft would be getting the best years of premium talent at bargain basement prices, and this will promote tanking at the end of the year once out of the playoff race–but one of the biggest changes that will happen once the top of the draft is capped (as it will inevitably be, someday) is that some top junior prospects will stay in school and complete their development without having to worry about passing up a career-making payday.

You see, what we have right now is a draft where some of the best prospects at each position are some of the least prepared for life as a professional athlete, and some of the most prepared prospects are dropping until the fourth and fifth round, and being buried.  As advancements in draft analysis have been made, the rate of busts in the first round has skyrocketed to heights that have not been seen before.  In theory, this shouldn’t be happening.  Teams should be using past data to analyze the moves they are making in search of an optimal draft formula.  But this hasn’t been happening.

Sure, sports analysis is probably not as developed as some of us would like, but the majority of the people making the evaluations and decisions aren’t idiots.  Take last year’s QB debate: Stafford vs. Sanchez, or if you wish, the 2007 QB debate (Russell vs. Quinn) or even the 2006 debate (Young vs. Leinart vs. Cutler).  Two questions we can ask in hindsight are: 1) whether or not the draft properly values it’s prospects in the right order, and 2) whether the quality of the class at the top reflects an obvious difference from the rest of the QB class.  In the case of Stafford v. Sanchez, we don’t really have an answer yet.  Both played like raw-as-heck rookies for most of the season.  If either showed a sign of anything positive, it’s that Sanchez strung together a solid three game stretch against playoff defenses.

But the 2007 QB debate offers us resounding evidence to the contrary in both cases.  Who would have been the better pick at No. 1?  Probably Quinn.  Are either Quinn or Russell going to end up being the top pick in the class?  Probably not even in the top two (I’d say Kevin Kolb has the most value, with Trent Edwards just a bit ahead of Quinn, though that could soon change).   What about the 2006 draft, did the teams get it right then?  It looks like Vince Young still has the most upside of the three first round picks, with Cutler coming in ahead of Leinart (i’d imagine) in the minds of most.  But Charlie Whitehurst, a third round pick, just got traded to the Seahawks for the price of a pick equivalent to a late second rounder, and was given a two year extension.  How many of the first three QBs could be traded for that price?  You wouldn’t get that return on Matt Leinart, most likely.  You’d probably get it on Cutler and perhaps Young, but just a year from now, that’s probably a different story.  In defense of front offices in 2006, Kellen Clemens, Tarvaris Jackson, and Brodie Croyle haven’t amounted to much, and it’s not all that uncommon.

According to the approximate value metric over at profootballreference.com, the player who has had the most college starts out of all first round quarterback in the draft class has led each year from 2002-2008, with two exceptions: 2004 where Rivers (most starts) trails Ben Roethlisberger (two more years as a pro starter) by only 3 AV points, and 2007, where JaMarcus Russell (8 AV) was able to write his name on the paper before Quinn (3 AV) was handed the test (no word on whether he nailed the spelling).  I didn’t go back prior to 2002 because only one QB was selected in the 1st round of the 2000 and 2001 drafts, but Daunte Culpepper and Donovan McNabb were the two college starts leaders in 1999, and then, of course, Peyton Manning in 1998.

Naturally, on the flip side, the results haven’t been great for the early declarers: Young, Russell, Stafford, Sanchez, Rex Grossman and Alex Smith have struggled immensely, while Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers have led the underclassmen in production (keep in mind that Stafford and Sanchez can both move themselves into that second class with a pro-bowl type 2010 season).  You’d expect the trend to have resulted in fewer underclassmen leaving their last year of college on the table and jumping to the NFL, but the trend has gone in the opposite direction.  The 2009 class was really weak in terms of seniors, just an awful, awful class (Pat White was the only senior drafted in the first three rounds), and so, naturally, three underclassmen made the jump and went in the first round.  The market seemingly did not adjust for this weakness in the class, and ended up just drafting the three underclassmen as if they were a strong senior class.

But because Stafford, Freeman, and Sanchez all left school early to fill the void at the top of the 09 draft, it took a naturally strong 2010 QB class, and weakened it considerably.  The top seniors in this draft are considered to be some combination of: Colt McCoy, Tim Tebow, Dan LeFevour, and Tony Pike.  That’s a pretty strong class, but imagine how strong that class would be if you added four year starters in Stafford and Freeman to it, and then also a healthy, uninjured Sam Bradford as a fourth year junior.  You think Jimmy Clausen might have stayed at Notre Dame if the draft class was that strong?  That class might have put the 1983 and 2004 QB draft classes to shame.

The point is this: college quarterbacks are in greater supply now than they have ever been in the past, but the promise of mega-bucks has created a shortage of elite prospects at the QB position, and it has also created major inefficiencies in the scouting market.  If the quarterback talent is in greater supply than ever before, and the demand is still quite high, but draft positioning is producing a weaker and weaker correlation to success by the year, which it is, why do teams continue to push the top rated QB prospects higher on their boards?  If teams were learning from history, wouldn’t Sam Bradford and Jimmy Clausen be moving towards the rest of the pack, instead of away from it?

Regardless of the fact that Bradford and Clausen are being hailed as the best prospects in the draft by people much, much smarter than myself, I am thinking that the opportunity to arbitrage in the NFL draft at the QB position is reaching the highest levels it’s ever been at.  If we go back just ten years to 1999, when the last great push by underclassmen to the NFL draft was made, the 2000 senior class had only one QB drafted in the first two rounds as did the 2001 class.  It just so happened that these players ended up being Chad Pennington and Drew Brees.  Those weren’t considered great classes — and they weren’t — but I’d take either of those guys over the cream of the crop from the 1999 draft (which we now know is Donovan McNabb with the benefit of hindsight).

Essentially, it’s this historical evidence that I’m basing my opinion that Colt McCoy is the best quarterback in this draft on.  Or even Tim Tebow: if five years down the road, Tebow is still in the league, still playing quarterback, and knows an NFL offense like the back of his own throwing hand, is there really any doubt he’ll have become a stronger player than Clausen?  You’ll have to spend a first round on Clausen, and probably only a second rounder on Tebow, but those are all of the biggest concerns with Tebow: poor mechanics that lead to sub-optimal velocity and accuracy on the football, doesn’t know a system that has any NFL components in it (and struggled with those concepts as a senior), and thusly, a team might lose patience and move Tebow to another position, he’s obviously being overdrafted in the second round.  If I had a crystal ball that said that, in 2013, Tebow had passed all those tests with flying colors, then knowing nothing about anyone elses accomplishments up to that point, you’d probably suggest to me that Tebow had been underdrafted in the second round.

What about this hypothetical?  Let’s say I have a crystal ball, and I can tell you two “truths” about Sam Bradford’s career:

  • He will win the rookie of the year award in 2010
  • He will never make a pro-bowl or all-pro team in his career

And I’ve told you nothing relating directly to his production or the successes of his teams he has played on, only what writers thought of him along the way…would you take Sam Bradford in the top 7 picks in the 2010 draft?  All you know is that the guy won a bunch of games this year and never was considered a pro-bowl caliber performer.  Maybe Vince Young’s career comes to mind.  Vince has played in two pro bowls, of course, but it’s not like he deserved either nomination.  In other words, you still don’t know a lot more about Sam Bradford’s prospects than you did before you asked me what my crystal ball said, but you can derive that there will be a bunch of people who felt that Bradford was a bust, and a bunch of people who thought he was worth the draft choice.  Even if my premises above both end up being false, what you’ve probably derived about Bradford will probably be true.  And you probably wouldn’t draft that guy above my hypothetical Tebow, even though you know nothing about what Tebow actually accomplished up to and after the point which he has mastered an NFL offense.

So how can teams avoid a situation where the best prospects in every draft aren’t actually the best prospects?  There’s clearly an arbitrage situation here.  In the financial world, you could just “short” futures in Sam Bradford today, and reap the inevitable profits later.  Well, the NFL draft isn’t a free market.  It’s a highly restricted market where each of the 32 teams controls the entire market one pick at a time, for the duration of a single player.  If you want to capitalize on an arbitrage opportunity, you need to be very creative.  This is what I propose:

If, between now and the time a slotting system is implemented, first round quarterbacks are almost always going to be a bad proposition, while quarterbacks in general, are only a slightly worse proposition than they would be otherwise, the first step is obvious.  If you’ve valued the prospects properly, and according to historical returns, you won’t but hardly ever have a first round grade on a quarterback.*

*I have mid-first round grades on Clausen, Bradford, and McCoy, because I believe this is a great QB class.  In a normal class, I might have them all in the second round.  There’s an uncertainty factor here.

This corrects the problem of drafting quarterbacks too highly in the draft, but now there’s a different problem: a lot of successful teams already have great quarterbacks.  These teams are not engaging in the destructive practice of taking a first round quarterback because they do not need a quarterback.  So they are already reaping the arbitrage benefits of the poor valuation system of the teams that require a quarterback.  The Colts and Patriots, who have had franchise quarterbacks the longest out of any team, have been drafting first round stars since 2001, and the Vikings and Eagles* have also not needed to spend a first round pick on a quarterback since 1999.

*Both have picked a QB in the second round, however.

To solve the problem, our hypothetical arbitrage team has to draft like a team that has a franchise quarterback.  But it also needs to open itself up to actually acquiring that franchise quarterback, while drafting unlike such.  This is how you accomplish it:

You structure your depth chart at the quarterback position as follows: {veteran starter, second year draft choice, first year draft choice} where all draft choices come from the third round or later.  In this case, the veteran starter is not just some whoever, but a valuable quarterback who can succeed in your scheme, and more importantly, can win games for you this year if his team is good enough to do so.  The idea here is that you aren’t sacrificing wins in the present for wins in the future.  It’s in fact critical that this part of the strategy be followed, because there’s no standard timetable for when the strategy of the present becomes the future.  It could be one year, or it could be twelve years.

There are three revolutionary ideas here.  The first is that the quarterback position should be considered a fungible position for two thirds of the NFL.  One-third of the NFL has franchise quarterbacks who are with $10-$20+ million annually in value to their franchise.  The rest of the league does not have this kind of player, and therefore, they should all be in the same boat.  The second main idea here is that, over time, the teams that are not using high picks on quarterbacks are going to be slowly outdrafting the teams that are holding the status quo, and therefore, the roster should be stronger for the team that is abstaining from drafting highly projected quarterbacks, all else equal.  Finally, there’s this point: the veteran backup quarterback on a bad team, no matter how good he is, is probably more of a hinderence on the franchise than a help.  This isn’t true of the 11 or so teams who already have top quarterbacks, but for the rest of the league, it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense to have plan B be someone other than a potential franchise quarterback.

Now, the idea is to use a draft pick on a quarterback, every year–after the second round.  By not investing in scouting for the quarterbacks with the highest projections, the teams who adhere to this strategy should have a better idea of who is undervalued among the rest of the class.  This should result in landing one undervalued prospect every year at the position, and stashing them away on the depth chart while winning games with the veteran starter, who remember, is supposed to be a good (or at least league average) player.  As for the depth chart, the school of thought with quarterback development is that the biggest leap in development comes from the first year to the second year.*  Well, the idea is to have the emergency quarterback spot tied up in a rookie developmental prospect who was taken for being undervalued in the draft, but will not ascend to the backup spot until after this second year development has been realized.  This is to prevent a situation like with 2005 Chicago that would suggest that Kyle Orton is a completely worthless player who has no developmental value.

*(and the Jets, Lions, and Bucs can only hope…)

By eliminating the importance (and existence) of a veteran backup, we get a situation where either the team is highly competitive in any given year, or it’s second (or in some cases, third) year developmental prospect gets to play in the offense, and can be evaluated as such.  The concept of a veteran starter that doesn’t have contractual security from his organization is the key.  It may seem like a foreign concept for teams to have a player that they would feel comfortable going to battle with week after week, while maintaining the idea that he might not even be on next year’s team.  A cynic might even refer to this as a “lame duck” spot on the roster, and might argue that the very notion of not having contractual security might negatively affect the performance.  In a multi-billion dollar business with millions of fans, this is a pretty dumb suggestion, but it could be argued anyway.

As long as their remains a steady diet of veteran players who can be acquired for little to no organizational cost and can win games on a team with good talent around them, the process can sustain itself until a franchise quarterback is discovered and developed.  This might produce a high variance of year to year wins (as the volatile post-super bowl Buccaneers attempted to do just this, while ranging between 11 and 4 wins for a period of about 5-6 years), but if you draft well (which is key, Bruce Allen), you’ll sustain yourself long enough to eventually find that franchise quarterback.

****

Speaking of Bruce Allen, let’s take the Redskins as an example, while comparing them to the Bucs.  In this analogy, Jason Campbell is your Brad Johnson.  Rex Grossman is probably your Brian Griese.  Colt Brennan is…Shaun King?  Flip those two if you like.  Mike Shanahan is your super bowl winning coach with plenty of job security.  Bruce Allen is Bruce Allen.  He’s taking over a franchise that had a recent history of trading all it’s high picks to the team that used to employ it’s current head coach (so far so good!).

Now we start to jump between years to make the analogy fit.  As a first year GM, you inherit a top five draft choice, and invest it on the offensive side of the ball, in this case, that means: Russell Okung, Trent Williams, or Cadillac Williams C.J. Spiller. In the middle rounds, you draft a quarterback from Texas by the name of Chris Simms Colt McCoy.  By year #2, you’re starting the season with one veteran on the roster (Grossman and Campbell’s contracts both expire after 2010, so pick whoever), and McCoy basically a poor throw or cut-above-the-eye away from assuming the lead role in season two.  You’ve taken over a pretty strong team, and you’ve added some nice pieces in the draft (hey, Michael Clayton once one offensive rookie of the year!), so you should be expecting playoffs.  And McCoy, who starts 10+ games, delivers that division title while completing 61% of his passes and throwing more TD’s than INTs.  Those aren’t franchise QB numbers, you suspect, but it’s sustainable enough to open year three with your third year quarterback as your veteran starter.

Even more picks go into the offense in the third year, and McCoy becomes the club house leader on a team expected to accomplish big things offensively, but even with big improvements on the offensive line (finally), the defense (which has been ignored in the draft since you took over) drops off sharply, and McCoy is knocked out for the year in September with a ruptured spleen achilles’.  Suddenly, the season is lost, and McCoy isn’t a prospect anymore.  The back-up who played all year didn’t show much, so the team is back to square one.

For the Redskins, like the Bucs, things hardly went as planned, and they hadn’t found their franchise QB, and yet again they are picking high in the draft.  This can happen.  The good news is that, if you’ve drafted well, you haven’t spent much money, people still believe in your super bowl winning head coach who brought a division title, and the roster is still stacked with talent.  The team needs to go get a veteran starter at quarterback for 2013, but there’s no reason to believe that they can’t make a playoff run.  Eventually, you’ll find that franchise quarterback.

***

Perhaps a legislative change will come first, and once again, first round quarterbacks will come with first round value.  As I suggested at the top, we’re probably not that far off from a slotting system that will do just that.  In the mean time, it’s the team with the best rest-of-the-team that is going to join the teams with franchise quarterbacks like San Diego, New England, New Orleans, and Indianapolis in the playoffs.  The whole idea with a franchise quarterback is that it’s much easier to pay one great player rather than have a great team, but it’s probably easier and less costly right now to have a bunch of great players than one great quarterback.

Until that changes, teams are best off not competing for the services of a select few unprovens, and rather, grabbing the top athletic talent regardless of the position they perform at.

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