NFL: The Low Success Rate of Drafting Quarterbacks

The 2021 NFL Draft is set to begin tomorrow, and like every other draft, all the hype is surrounding the quarterbacks. With a possible five going in the first round this year, many teams are looking for the next franchise quarterback who can lead their team to a Super Bowl. 

Playing quarterback is the hardest job in all of sports. Evaluating quarterbacks prior to the draft may be a close second. It’s almost impossible to be competitive in the NFL without a quarterback though. In many cases teams will pass on better overall players at other positions especially in the first round because quarterback is so important. But at what cost?

In the 12 years from 2006-2017, teams selected 32 quarterbacks combined in the first round. Multiple were selected in all 12 drafts except for the 2013 draft where EJ Manuel was the only selection. The three most recent drafts weren’t used because the deadlines for fifth year options hadn’t been reached yet.  But let’s examine the success rate and longevity of those 32 quarterbacks. 

The success of the pick is all relative to the team that drafted the player. These franchises are using very high draft capital and either reap the benefits, or eat the loss of the pick. How many quarterbacks got a second deal with the same team? How many were cut? Did they have their fifth year option exercised? There’s a lot to break down and most of it is not good.

The success of the picks is based largely on receiving and playing out a second contract with the team that drafted them. 20 of the 32 quarterbacks, or 63%, did not receive a second contract with the same team. Six of those 20 were released or cut within three years of being drafted. That’s a very significant unsuccessful rate.

The new NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2011 instituted the fifth year option on first round rookie contracts. There were 20 quarterbacks taken in the first round from 2011-2017. Nine of them had their fifth year option declined. Johnny Manziel, Brandon Weeden, and Paxton Lynch were all released after just two seasons.

So that means 12 of the 32 did receive a second contract with their team. That means there are 12 successful picks, right? Not exactly. 

Four of the 12 quarterbacks found themselves no longer with the team within two years of signing their extension. Blake Bortles and Mark Sanchez received shorter extensions. The Jaguars released Bortles after one season and the Jets released Sanchez after two. Neither team fully believed long term in their quarterbacks.

The other two were the top of the 2016 draft class. Jared Goff and Carson Wentz signed massive extensions and were both traded this offseason. The Rams no longer wanted Goff despite making a Super Bowl appearance in 2018. Wentz did help the Eagles on their Super Bowl run but did not play in the playoffs that season due to injury. His play completely fell off the past few years and he was traded to Indianapolis. 

That leaves eight successful picks. Well, maybe not. Sometimes outside factors come into play that the franchises have no control of. This could be the case for two more quarterbacks.

After suffering multiple injuries, Andrew Luck shocked everyone by retiring just before the 2019 season after only seven seasons with the Colts. The announcement came just three seasons after signing, at the time, a record breaking deal. Luck missed nine games in 2015 and the entire 2017 season as well. It was a good pick by the Colts but ultimately did not work out in the end.

The other situation that never could have been predicted is the legal troubles surrounding Deshaun Watson. Watson has over 20 different sexual assault lawsuits. This is on top of Watson demanding a trade this offseason. Either way it appears the Texans will be moving on from Watson one way or another.

That leaves six solid picks. Just under a 19% success rate. The successful picks include Patrick Mahomes, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Matt Stafford, Joe Flacco, and Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill was a tricky one but he did play out most of his second contract with the Dolphins.

Mahomes, Ryan, and Newton have all won league MVP and made at least one Super Bowl appearance. Mahomes and Flacco are the only two to win a Super Bowl.

First round quarterbacks currently take up 19 of the 32 of starting spots across the NFL. That doesn’t include the Jaguars and Jets who will likely start first round rookies immediately next season. It also doesn’t include Jameis Winston possibly starting for the Saints next year.

Ultimately picking the right quarterback is tricky and it has to be a perfect match with the franchise. Some teams, like San Francisco, feel they are only a quarterback away. But the likelihood of going all the way with a rookie quarterback is very slim. So the team may actually be two or three years away, but rosters can look significantly different by that time.

For teams that have multiple needs, they should strongly consider building the rest of the team first. Especially on the offensive line. If a team can’t pass protect, then that will stunt the growth of a young quarterback and they find themselves starting all over again.

It is such a slippery slope when drafting a quarterback. For the most part, if you want a quarterback, it has to be in the first round. But there is such a low success rate at a very difficult position. Teams need to be very confident in taking a quarterback and not talk themselves into it.

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You can follow Tyler Samsel on Twitter @tylersamsel.

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