Home > Draft, NFL > The merits of using the first overall draft pick on a quarterback

The merits of using the first overall draft pick on a quarterback

After a strong week one start by Matthew Stafford on the road in Tampa, combined with a rather lackluster effort by Sam Bradford at home against the Eagles, and Cam Newton throwing for eleventy billion yards in Arizona — in the same stadium where he struggled in the BCS National Championship last January –I got to thinking about the relative strengths and weaknesses of rebuilding your franchise around a first overall pick at quarterback.

While it’s easy to point at JaMarcus Russell as an example of why the first overall quarterback doesn’t work, the right to choose the best available QB at no. 1 definitely seems to matter.  Yes, the San Francisco 49ers picked Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers with the first overall pick.  No, that didn’t work out for them.  But, speaking generally, teams that have the first overall pick generally pick better quarterbacks than teams stuck picking from the best of the rest.

If we truly had no ability to project college quarterbacks to the pros, you’d be better off betting on the field in any given year to outperform the first overall pick.  But since the Bengals picked Carson Palmer with the first overall pick in 2003, teams picking first overall have typically destroyed the field.  This correlation strengthens greatly if you credit the San Diego Chargers with the pick of Philip Rivers at first overall in 2004, even though Eli Manning technically went off the board first at no. 1, and was traded.

With the caveat that there is not always a franchise quarterback in every draft (and sometimes there is more than one), we can go back and examine each first overall draft selection in the last five plus years and discuss what went right or wrong during the draft selection process.

2011

Carolina Panthers select: QB Cam Newton

Other quarterbacks in the discussion: Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker

It won’ t be known for a considerable amount of time whether or not the Panthers did the right thing here, but what Cam Newton did do in his first ever NFL game was have a performance much stronger than any performance Jimmy Clausen had in his rookie season, which justifies the decision to draft at the quarterback position in 2011.  And I think though even though it’s been just one game and the Panthers may someday lament the fact that they could have had Gabbert if Newton’s progression stalls, it’s hard to see any reasonable scenario under which the Panthers could have taken A.J. Green or Patrick Peterson and be as well positioned to make a little bit of noise in the NFC South as they are now.

Cam Newton passes the eye test as a first overall pick.  Whether that means he passes the eye test like Matthew Stafford or more like JaMarcus Russell remains to be seen.  But he looks the part.

Pre-draft, I was squarely in the Gabbert camp, thinking that Gabbert was worthy enough as a first overall pick.

2010

St. Louis Rams select: QB Sam Bradford

Other QBs in the discussion: Jimmy Clausen

2010 was not a deep year at the quarterback position.  There were four quarterbacks I had first round grades on, but the next best guys were Mike Kafka, Dan Lefevour, and Tony Pike.  Lefevour is on his second team.  Pike is out of the league.  Kafka might end up being the third best QB in this draft when it’s all said and done.  But the late round picks this year just weren’t very good.  They were much stronger in 2011, with Greg McElroy, Scott Tolzien, Pat Devlin, etc.

The fact that Jimmy Clausen’s rookie year as it did, and that Sam Bradford was highly overrated based on a win total increase in 2010 which he had little to do with, and what has happened to Tim Tebow in Denver (though, in my opinion, it’s hard to pin anything on Tebow — whenever he plays, the numbers are good.  Vs ones, twos, or threes, Tebow has performed adequately to date in the NFL.  He just doesn’t look the part), this class isn’t looking so hot.  Bradford should be fine in St. Louis.  Colt McCoy’s mediocre rise to starter in Cleveland may have obscured the thin ice he is on if he can’t perform in year two.  Clausen looks like a career back-up: as far as recent Notre Dame QBs go, I think Brady Quinn is closer to getting a second chance than Clausen is (and Clausen has nearly as many career starts).

Unless Bradford or McCoy goes on to become a pro-bowler, I don’t think this class is going to produce one, which is disappointing, considering how many guys in the 2011 class are close to being NFL starters.  Tebow will always have his detractors.  What’s clear is that if you’re going to throw your support behind anyone becoming a pro bowler,  Bradford makes the most sense.  It sure appears that this is not a year where picking a QB first overall was a great idea, but the team with the right to choose (St. Louis) appears to have done as well with their scouting as any team did.  McCoy was definitely an oversight by most of the league.  Tebow may still end up a value at pick 25…just not for the Broncos. (Side note: man, that Demaryius Thomas pick is tough to swallow right now).

So score one for the team with the first overall pick, even if ultimately, this was not a great year to have the first overall pick instead of a different pick in the top five.

I was pretty confident that Bradford should be picked over Clausen, but I did not necessarily think Bradford was a better pick than Colt McCoy.  If forced to use the first overall pick on a QB, I would have taken Bradford.  But because of the depth of the class, I would have taken Ndamukong Suh with the first overall pick, which is a move I think the Rams will regret in the long run.

2009

Detroit Lions select: QB Matthew Stafford

Other QBs in the discussion: Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman

The Lions were 0-16 and had to do something to turn the tide, but this was a pretty horrible draft in terms of the production it has provided.  My number one guy was B.J. Raji, who probably has been the best player in this draft to date, at least if not for his teammate Clay Matthews.  So while the Packers made out like Bandits, and the Redskins did pretty okay, this draft was notable because it had four top fifteen offensive tackles in it…and none have really panned out.  The Lions didn’t have a lot of better options here outside of the quarterback position.  Would Raji have been a better pick than Stafford?  Perhaps, but we’re stretching it to put anyone else ahead of Stafford.

My favorite quarterback in this draft was Nate Davis of Ball State, who hasn’t been able to hold down a job because of a learning disability and is not currently on a roster, though all the talent that made him a steal for San Francisco in the draft is still there.  Aside from Davis and also Graham Harrell, currently developing as the Packers third stringer, I didn’t see anyone else in this class who seemed to provide better upside than Stafford or Freeman.  I wasn’t that high on either coming out, but both are big, pocket athletes who were drafted at a very young age and offered plenty of upside.  My preference, by a hair, was Freeman.  Both seemed like much better (if flawed) pro prospects than Sanchez, who I had a fourth round grade on.  Sanchez has his moments, but I do not regret the grade I had on him.  If you put Mike Kafka in the Jets offense tomorrow and cut Sanchez, you’d have pretty much the same team.

There is no obvious solution to Freeman vs. Stafford debate anytime soon.  Stafford is going to look better going forward because of the high powered nature of the Detroit offense (they’ve built around him rather quickly and impressively), and Freeman is still leading a brigade of young, mistake-prone (but talented) backs and receivers every week.  But never forget what Freeman made us believe in last year when Stafford was hurt: that matters too.  You could say Freeman was working with smoke and mirrors, but that’s not entirely true: he was working with his own skill set, a powerful ally.

Did the Lions make the right call here?  For themselves, they probably did.  It’s not without conditionals, but they had a plan, and they’ve executed it well.  And unlike the Rams a year later, they did not miss a generational talent to take the QB.  They actually landed Suh a year later, in no small part because they got Stafford in 09.

2008

Miami Dolphins select: OT Jake Long

Quarterbacks in the discussion: Matt Ryan

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Jake Long is a better player at his position than Matt Ryan has been at his through 3 NFL seasons plus one week.  And while Ryan has certainly been the best quarterback in this draft through three seasons, the 2008 draft class has remained so strong though the length of the rookie contracts that Ryan is no guarantee to be the best quarterback in this class when it’s all said and done.

Joe Flacco and Chad Henne have endured more than their fair share of criticism through their first three NFL seasons.  But 2011 is a new year.  And in 2011, Chad Henne opened up in Week 1 throwing for more than 400 yards while being battered by the pass rush of the Patriots and receiving sub-par blocking.  And Joe Flacco was nearly flawless in leading a 4 touchdown rout of the hated Pittsburgh Steelers.

In a deep quarterback class, the Dolphins opted to pass over the “right to choose” and took the top rated player on their draft board despite a quarterback need that wasn’t dissimilar to the one faced by the Panthers in 2011.  They had a holdover second round pick on the roster (John Beck), but weren’t planning on moving forward with him.  They needed to take a top quarterback, and taking Jake Long first overall cost them a shot at Ryan.  Both the Dolphins and Rams passed on Ryan.

Long has hardly made Chad Henne’s career, and he hasn’t turned the Dolphins into perennial winners.  I’m not sure Ryan would have either.  I had two quarterbacks rated above Ryan in the 2008 draft: Henne and Brian Brohm.  Brohm has proven to be my only true “bust” projection at the QB position in the last four years, though this doesn’t count a plethora of my mid round projections who never did anything (Pike, for example).  Henne may never be Matt Ryan, but I think he’ll get close enough to earn an extension with the Dolphins.

Ryan has proven himself more than worthy of the first overall selection.  But consider that the top five in this draft have all panned out: Long, Chris Long, Ryan, Darren McFadden, and Glenn Dorsey, and it’s not obviously clear that the Dolphins should have spent the first overall pick on a quarterback who completed just under 60% of his throws in college, and less than that as a senior.

The Dolphins haven’t turned around as a team in the same way that the Lions, Bucs, and Rams have, but this is not the fault of a very good 2008 draft.  It’s the fault of a number of awful decisions on the offensive side of the ball that do not involve Jake Long, Chad Henne, or Matt Ryan.  The Dolphins really should be further ahead right now than they are.

2007

Oakland Raiders select: JaMarcus Russell

Other QBs in the discussion: Brady Quinn

The Russell pick was wrongheaded from the beginning, and likely would not have been made if someone other than the Raiders (or the Vinny Cerrato Redskins) would have been picking.  I would have taken Brady Quinn with this pick and Quinn’s skill set would have been far more manageable.  When you consider what totally derailed Quinn’s career: limited game reps created bad decisions related to the speed of the game around him, and a change in the regime that drafted him in Cleveland, I’m not sure he would have worked out in Oakland.  But under Lane Kiffin, he would have certainly had a fighting chance that Russell never did.

With that said, the best pick the Raiders could have made would have been Calvin Johnson, now a central piece in the new look Lions offense.

Of course, the 2011 Panthers opened themselves up to similar criticism by taking Newton over A.J. Green.  Though Newton was a much better college player than Russell was, the Panthers could have easily have missed the obvious solution in terms of upgrading their passing game, much like the Raiders did in 2007.

The best QB in this draft thus far has been Kevin Kolb.  That says more about the awfulness of the class than anything else, but with Quinn still bouncing around the league five years later, and Kolb on a mega contract in Arizona, and with John Beck firmly established as the apple of Mike Shanahan’s eye, the ‘horrible’ 2007 QB draft class — which lost Russell preposterously early, even for a bust — actually has a decent chance to outperform the 2010 QB class, which seemed unfathomable a year ago.

2006

Houston Texans select: DE Mario Williams

Quarterbacks in the discussion: Vince Young, Matt Leinart, Jay Cutler

One of the rare chances to credit a team for being unconditionally right to not take any QB at first overall.  Cutler is an NFL starter.  Young has been in the past and likely will be again.  Leinart has a future as a system guy and injury insurance.  That’s a bit disappointing overall, but it’s not that much worse than will be expected.  What we know about this group five years later is that their were no superstars.  The best players taken at the top of this draft were Mario Williams and D’Brickashaw Ferguson.  Secretly, this draft was the Jets equivalent of the Packers 2009 draft where they had two first rounders that bolstered their front seven.  These two picks made the Jets line what it is today.  They knocked this draft out of the park, while the Houston Texans are the team they are today because of players like Williams, Demeco Ryans, Eric Winston, and Owen Daniels, all 2006 draft choices.

The Texans chose to avoid, giving the Saints (who had just signed Drew Brees to a contract that amounted to a one year deal with a five year option) the choice, and they went with Bush.  The Titans opted for Vince Young over Leinart and Cutler, to massive internal conflict that ultimately set the demise of Jeff Fisher in Tennessee.  This was never a year where there was an obvious choice.  I would have taken Leinart first overall if I was the Texans and had their opinion of Reggie Bush (the consensus no. 1 player), and it wouldn’t have worked out nearly as well as their actual draft has.  But because there was still decent enough reason to buy David Carr as a long term starter, the Texans had other ideas.

Conclusions

Easily, this case study could have gone back further, but 2,500 words is not an insignificant read.  What I’d like to conclude, based on a relatively small sample with a limited number of data points, is that having the first overall pick matters because the first team generally does a good job selecting the best quarterback in a year where there in fact is a best quarterback.  Having something beyond the first overall pick means that you’ll have to take a flawed player and develop him.  The best non-1st overall picks at QB over the last six drafts have been Matt Ryan, 3rd overall to Atlanta in 2008, Josh Freeman, 17th overall to Tampa in 2009, and either Colt McCoy, Joe Flacco, Chad Henne, or Kevin Kolb, three of whom were not first rounders.

This may debunk the myth of the first round quarterback: if you don’t have the first overall pick, there’s no reason to conclude that you have a better chance of picking a top QB in the first round than any other round.  The reason first rounders are statistically better at the QB position than all other rounders is because of the first overall quarterback.  For every Alex Smith, there are two Sam Bradford’s.  And that, more than anything else, is why the team with the first overall pick turns around so much faster than teams who consistently miss out on the first overall pick (like Buffalo, Kansas City, Jacksonville, or Washington).

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  1. November 1, 2011 at 4:33 pm

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