Home > Draft, Free Agency, NFL > Will Quarterback Demand Ever Flatten?

Will Quarterback Demand Ever Flatten?

It wasn’t that long ago that quarterback talent in the NFL wasn’t in great demand.  We’re not talking about the 1970’s here.  A decade makes a pretty big difference.

Over the last five years or so, quarterback demand has exploded driven by two main factors: schematic and rule alterations in the NFL that have made passing games more valuable than ever before, and the mass retirement or attrition of a generation of good quarterbacks.

While the Brady/Manning era has very much been a thrill to follow, the NFL never had a true quarterback dichotomy at the top before.  Joe Montana’s career overlapped with Dan Marino’s career which overlapped with with Warren Moon’s career which overlapped with Steve Young’s career which overlapped with Brett Favre’s career.  Never was the debate of “whos the best?” any more clear than it was over the last decade when Peyton Manning put up astronomical numbers on a year to year basis, until Tom Brady (and later Aaron Rodgers) began doing the same.  That clarity is in the past now with the latest influx of college talent, but first, lets take a step back to the early days of Manning-Brady and look at the quarterback landscape in 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002.

From 1999-2002, there wasn’t a standard of excellence that would have separated the “haves” from the “have nots” based on quarterback acquisition.  The best two quarterbacks over this timeframe were Kurt Warner of the Rams and Rich Gannon of the Raiders.  The Rams appeared in two super bowls over this timeframe, and the Raiders progressively reached each level of the playoff field under Gannon.  It’s not that Warner and Gannon werent the most valuable players in the league, but during these years, perhaps the NFL’s best player was Marshall Faulk, a running back.  By approximate value, there were three quarterbacks among the fifteen most valuable players.

From 2009-2012, during the quarterback demand explosion, that number doubles and quarterbacks occupy the top three spots.

What makes the quarterback demand situation 10-15 years ago so different is that Gannon and Warner were both freely available for any team back then, and though they eventually married wide open passing systems, only Peyton Manning was drafted to lead a franchise.  He (along with Ryan Leaf) was considered one of a kind at the time.  But in the 1999 draft, teams started to address the value of the passing game when they drafted six quarterbacks in the first round that year, headlined in the first three picks by Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, and Akili Smith.

Or did it?  The mindset of NFL teams at the time arguably hadn’t changed at all.  Back then, the quarterback bust rate was solidly 50% for first rounders.  It was a big deal when six quarterbacks got drafted in the first round for the first time since 1983, but a generational shift in the league’s quarterback talent this was not.  At least, teams didn’t treat it as such.

Let’s take a look at two prospects, one picked in the 1999 draft, the other picked in 2005.  Quarterback A posted a completion percentage about four percentage points above the league average in his first five seasons.  Quarterback B would eventually have a season where he completed more than 104% of the league’s completion percentage, but it took him until his eighth season to do so.  If you ended each QB’s career at the point where their team’s gave up on them, you’d assume they had pretty much the same career.  Which is why I’m comparing the two first overall picks in those drafts, Tim Couch (A) and Alex Smith (B).

What happened here was the talent in the league shifted dramatically over the course of Smith’s career.  During Couch’s career, QB talent was largely stagnant: a passing yard in 1999 was worth pretty much the same as it was in 2003.  By 2011, a passing yard was worth so much less than it was in 2006.  Demand for quarterbacks spiked in the late aughts, and so Alex Smith’s “development” doesn’t look any different from Tim Couch’s from a environment-adjusted perspective.  This isn’t Smith’s fault, and he seems to have made it out alright, but who knows what would have happened to Couch’s career given the two additional offseasons Smith received to develop?

Why did QB demand spike?  Well, one of the major factors that happened was that many of the quarterbacks who dominated the statistical categories ten+ years ago weren’t drafted and developed and cultivated.  Rather, they developed in a survival of the fittest league, and were then signed to winning teams.  The QB draft class of 1999 largely flopped, and the two best picks in the class Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper, benefited from weak competition.  Trent Green thrived on his third team.  Brad Johnson was pretty darn good for two different teams.  Kerry Collins made it.  Teams, by and large, couldn’t develop young quarterbacks — which was most stark in the case of the Atlanta Falcons failing to get a consistent player out of Michael Vick, a generational talent.

Quarterback demand spiked because of rule changes and copycat effect, but also because of the failures of developmental prospects.  Teams who were going to win by throwing needed a higher grade of prospect, a more polished type of talent.  This, I believe, is why so many teams in that era won with veteran talent.  The problem was teams that won with veterans like the Rams (who got about five good seasons from Marc Bulger following Kurt Warner’s MVP years), Raiders, Redskins, Steelers (pre-Roethlisberger), Chiefs, Titans (post-McNair), Panthers, and 49ers all fell off the map at some point or another and ended up at the top of the draft.  Meanwhile, the Colts and Patriots and Eagles and Giants won year after year.

The veteran quarterback market died (and is now incredibly undervalued — the league has swung too far the other way).  Young, skilled quarterbacks roughly doubled in total value, measured by trade compensation.  In 2004, the Chargers were able to get two firsts and a third for Eli Manning (one of the firsts became Philip Rivers).  By 2012, the Rams got three first rounders for Robert Griffin III.  Twenty years ago, 37 year old veteran Joe Montana commanded a first round pick.  Now? Position players return basically nothing in terms of draft picks.  Young quarterbacks return a treasure trove of picks.

Now the question becomes: is this demand going to flatten anytime soon?

I don’t forsee a rule change swinging things back towards the running game and defense, and away from the passing game.  Instead, we see instances of teams looking to add athleticism to quarterbacking as a job requirement.  Of course, the same trend appeared the tame ten years ago with McNabb, Culpepper, and Vick, coaches just never took advantage of the athleticism offered to them ten years ago, and dual-skill sets quickly died off.

However, while demand for QB talent doesn’t show any sign of letting up, supply of young, talented passers have never been greater.  You see the effects of this by the fact that Colin Kaepernick and Andy Dalton made it out of the first 32 picks in 2011.  Then Russell Wilson made it into the 3rd round in 2012.  This year’s class isn’t quite as deep, but the overall supply of quarterback ability is putting roughly 5 starter quality prospects into the talent pool on a yearly basis.  It wasn’t anything ten years ago to expect to get one per year.

One of two things is going to happen to the quarterback market with increased supply: either quarterback cost (in terms of draft picks) will begin to drop, or quarterback skill sets are going to get so highly specialized that it will become much harder to separate quarterback from coach (because those teams that don’t marry systems to players will not be able to compete with those who do).  We saw a bit of that from the Redskins and 49ers this past season, but as of right now, we can’t know for sure if it’s a long term trend.  It’s possible that a quarterback in 2015 will simply be cheaper to acquire than one in 2012, and that teams will start to pay to keep proven commodities (i.e. the Flacco trade) instead of paying to acquire new talent (i.e. every first round of every draft for the previous six years).

In the short term, it is clear that demand is going to continue to rise as opposed to flatten.  Teams like the Jets, Bills, Cardinals, Browns, and Chiefs cannot compete with the perennial contenders at all, not to mention the ones having great years.  Quarterback performance is reaching the critical point where having one simply isn’t enough to compete, because there aren’t enough wins to steal from teams that don’t have quarterbacks.  The Patriots can continue to steal wins from the Dolphins, Bills, and Jets, but as Ryan Tannehill develops and the Jets and Bills can address their QB situations, those divisional wins will be tougher to get, and as Tom Brady ages, they might not come at all.  End dynasty.

Teams that don’t have quarterbacks are going to have to get talent efficiently, while teams that do are going to have to build at a faster rate than other “haves.” If the current crop of coaches cannot win with the available talent supply, expect an influx of coaching talent from the college ranks to force out the current coaches.  QB supply and demand remains an endless struggle.  Now it’s just a struggle over-flushed with talent.

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