Death Of The Undrafted Starting Quarterback

While Jared Goff and Carson Wentz get all the press leading up to the draft, there are plenty of quarterbacks who will not be drafted that could make an impact. However, recent trends point to these signal callers not getting a chance. Dave Archibald explains why the NFL may be witnessing the death of the undrafted starting quarterback.

Through NFL history, undrafted signal-callers like Warren Moon, Dave Krieg, Tony Romo, Kurt Warner, and Jeff Garcia have helmed playoff teams and earned Pro Bowl appearances. But with Romo turning 36 in April and coming off a season where he played only four games, the undrafted quarterback might be a dying breed. Undrafted quarterbacks threw for only 5,922 yards in the 2015 season, the lowest mark since 1983. Since 1984, undrafted QBs have averaged 12,916 passing yards per season, but in four of the last six years they’ve failed to crack 10,000.

A year-by-year chart of passing yards by undrafted QBs suggests a temporary dip:Passing Yards by Undrafted QBs

Passing yards by undrafted quarterbacks has actually risen over time in the Super Bowl era, culminating in the 2007 high-water mark of 21,736 passing yards by undrafted QBs. That season, Romo, Warner, Garcia, Jon Kitna, and Damon Huard each made at least 10 starts, with undrafted QBs as a whole combining for 89. Since then, the graph shows a fairly steady decline.

Two factors are important to keep in mind when looking at this trend. One, there are a lot more passing yards now than there were in 1970, as passing has increased in frequency and efficiency league-wide and expansion franchises have joined the NFL. Two, the NFL draft is much smaller than it used to be. The draft ran 17 rounds until 1977, when it dropped to 12, and since 1994 it has only been seven rounds. If we consider passing by undrafted quarterbacks as a percentage of overall passing yards and include quarterbacks drafted in the eighth round or later in our analysis ﹘ presumably, those players would not have been drafted under the current model ﹘ the trend is clearly downward for the undrafted:Percentage of Passing Yards Unheralded QBs

Over time, quarterbacks drafted in the first seven rounds have tallied an ever-increasing percentage of the league’s passing yards, while contributions from undrafted or those drafted in the eighth round or later have been minimized. One possible explanation is that NFL teams are doing a better job identifying talent and draft accordingly. However, by at least one measure, teams have shown very little improvement in their ability to grab the right signal-caller via the draft:QB Draft Miss Rate

This methodology is based on work by Cade Massey, a professor at University of Pennsylvania and a pioneer in draft analytics. For purposes of this analysis, a “miss” is defined as a team drafting a quarterback with a lower career Approximate Value (a heuristic providing a rough estimate of a player’s value) than the next quarterback selected. For instance, Michael Vick (the #1 overall pick in 2001) is considered a “miss” because the next quarterback selected, Saints quarterback Drew Brees, bests Vick in career AV, 147 to 93. The chart above shows that teams are no better at identifying the better of two QBs than they were in 1970. That holds true even if we control for the number of rounds by limiting the sample to only players chosen in rounds 1-7 or 1-3.

If teams aren’t doing a better job drafting quarterbacks on the whole, why are undrafted quarterbacks producing less and less? The answer may come down to economics: With how much teams have invested in quarterbacks around the league, both in salary and in draft capital, it is difficult to turn the keys over to an undrafted player, and it is easy to move from an undrafted player if he struggles, as young quarterbacks tend to do. Perhaps undrafted quarterbacks can’t make as much of an impact because they simply aren’t being given chances.

If that is true, one has to wonder if teams ﹘ especially those who have struggled to find competent starters for years ﹘ are doing themselves a disservice by not giving undrafted QBs more of a shot. In addition to the undrafted players who have found success in the past, Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks Johnny Unitas (ninth round), Roger Staubach (10th), George Blanda (12th), and Bart Starr (17th) were all drafted in rounds that no longer exist. It is difficult to imagine the history of the NFL without those players, but if recent trends are any indication, it will be a long time before we see their likes again.

Follow Dave on Twitter @davearchie.

Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.

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