Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Do you have to draft a QB high?

One of the topics (or, more accurately, one of the many tangents) of the most recent Pro-Football-Reference.com podcast was about the subject of "star quarterbacks" predominantly coming from very high (i.e., primarily first-round) draft picks and how teams can best find their quarterbacks. Says JKL around the six-minute mark:

The best option, I think, is to go for the elite talent at the top of the draft...Yeah, there are busts, but the upside there is just too great.

Recent busts -- Ryan Leaf, Tim Couch, Cade McNown, et al -- are well known, as are the success stories, like Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb, and Ben Roethlisberger. But are they absolutely necessary? Do you have to pick a QB at the top of the draft to succeed? After all, if you don't pick a QB with your top pick, you're picking another (probably very good) player. And even the most jaded QB-loving fan would probably admit that quarterbacks tend to be a touch overvalued and definitely overdrafted.

So, where do starting quarterbacks come from? I compiled a list of starting quarterbacks* in 2008, what round they were drafted in, and whether they were with their original teams -- in other words, a first-round pick playing for a team that he wasn't drafted by didn't help his original team in 2008, so, in a sense, that team's first pick was a "bust."

* Here's the rub, though...rather than try to pass off guys like Ryan Fitzpatrick and Ken Dorsey as "starting quarterbacks," I defined each team's "starting quarterback" by the following two rules. He is:

A) The guy the team would have started if there had been a week 18; and
B) The guy the team would have started if healthy.

Point A lets me not worry about subsequent free-agent moves, trades, retirements, and so on. Point B lets me take the guy who "should" be the starter for the team (like Tom Brady over Matt Cassel) rather than a guy forced into the role. Here's the list:

TeamQuarterbackRoundOrig. Team?
Baltimore RavensJoe Flacco1Y
Oakland RaidersJaMarcus Russell1Y
Philadelphia EaglesDonovan McNabb1Y
Atlanta FalconsMatt Ryan1Y
Pittsburgh SteelersBen Roethlisberger1Y
New York GiantsEli Manning1Y
Denver BroncosJay Cutler1Y
Washington RedskinsJason Campbell1Y
Cleveland BrownsBrady Quinn1Y
San Diego ChargersPhillip Rivers1Y
Cincinnati BengalsCarson Palmer1Y
Green Bay PackersAaron Rodgers1Y
Indianapolis ColtsPeyton Manning1Y
Detroit LionsDaunte Culpepper1N
Miami DolphinsChad Pennington1N
Tennessee TitansKerry Collins1N
Minnesota VikingsTarvaris Jackson2Y
New York JetsBrett Favre2N
Houston TexansMatt Schaub2N
New Orleans SaintsDrew Brees2N
Buffalo BillsTrent Edwards3Y
Chicago BearsKyle Orton4Y
Jacksonville JaguarsDavid Garrard4Y
New England PatriotsTom Brady6Y
St. Louis RamsMarc Bulger6N
Seattle SeahawksMatt Hasselbeck6N
Kansas City ChiefsTyler Thigpen7N
Dallas CowboysTony RomoUY
San Francisco 49ersShaun HillUN
Carolina PanthersJake DelhommeUN
Arizona CardinalsKurt WarnerUN
Tampa Bay BuccaneersJeff GarciaUN

Of the starting quarterbacks for the 32 NFL teams:

16 were first-round draft picks
19 are with their original teams
13 are "1Y" players -- first-round picks with their original teams

So, that means that 13 of 32 teams in 2008, or about 41%, found their "starting quarterback" by drafting him in the first round. That's a solid percentage, but maybe not enough to be considered as the "only" way to do it.

What about the quality of these quarterbacks, at least as compared to the later-drafted quarterbacks? The only 1Y I see on the list who might have competition next year is JaMarcus Russell. Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco could be one-year wonders, granted, but everyone else is pretty firmly entrenched as their team's starters. The list of non-first-rounders includes a Hall-of-Famer (Brett Favre), a potential Hall-of-Famer (Tom Brady), two of the best quarterbacks of 2008 (Drew Brees and Kurt Warner), and a slew of former or current Pro Bowlers and overall above average QBs (Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Delhomme, Jeff Garcia, Marc Bulger, Tony Romo). Overall, if I had to choose who the best QBs are on the list -- the first-rounders or the non-first-rounders -- I'd probably give the first-rounders the edge, but only barely.

This ignores the fact that there are two more notable 1Y players (Matt Leinart and Vince Young) lurking around who could be their team's primary starters very soon, depending on how the former first-rounder (Kerry Collins) and undrafted free agent (Kurt Warner) ahead of them play out. I also haven't taken draft position into account -- there might be a difference between being the #1 overall pick and the #23 overall pick (Brady Quinn). And, admittedly, this is a one-year sample size, though I have conducted a similar exercise, just for fun, the last few years. The list of starting quarterbacks hasn't changed too much, so it's always been around 1/2 first-rounders. Maybe I'll glance back ten years or so in a future post.

In any case, my conclusion is that, while it's not a bad idea to take a Matthew Stafford or Mark Sanchez early in the draft if your team needs a franchise QB, I don't think it's absolutely vital either. As with any position, good -- even great -- players can be found later in the draft, and quarterbacks probably aren't an exception to that rule.

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