Finding the quarterback to lead your franchise isn’t an easy task for any NFL executive. For most teams, franchise quarterbacks are acquired by miserably finishing with the league’s worst record. Others are fortunate enough to fill the position by hitting on the rare 3rd or 4th round pick. Yet, for the unlucky teams that find themselves without a franchise quarterback and somewhere between the classifications ‘unbearably horrible’ and ‘playoff contender’ other means of action are required to draft the quarterback of the future.
This often means NFL executives taking matters into their own hands and trading up for a top selection. We witnessed this fairly recently with the New York Jets trading the 6th overall pick and three 2nd round picks – 37, 49, and a 2019 2nd – to the Indianapolis Colts for the 3rd overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft. Now, there is no doubt that the Jets gave up a lot to move up three selections. The Colts rightfully capitalized on already having their franchise QB in place and were in an enviable position for a team in need of a QB. According to the somewhat outdated draft chart the Jets lost 340 points of value without including the 2019 2nd round pick into the equation. NFL teams are not using the values verbatim, but it is said to set the initial framework for deals.
While the Jets gave up a lot to move into a top 3 selection it might be justifiable despite some of the backlash the deal has taken in recent weeks. First we have to assume that teams are not operating on the same draft value system when trading up for a QB. The position is not like any other in terms of importance. Previous draft trades are supportive of this line of thinking.
In 2016, the Rams and Eagles both made trades to move up and select QBs Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, respectively. Los Angeles traded two firsts, two seconds and two thirds to the Titans for the 1st overall pick, a 4th and a 6th. According to the draft value chart the trade resulted in a loss of 852 points of value. Philadelphia traded two firsts, a second, a third and a 4th to the Browns for the 2nd overall pick and a future 4th. A difference of 538.5 points in value. I’d imagine neither the Rams or Eagles regret trading all of that draft value for their franchise QB.
The same could be said for the Chicago Bears, Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans in the 2017 NFL Draft. All three teams traded up to select their franchise QB and paid a hefty price to do so. Houston’s value lost is a bit skewed because if DeShaun Watson, the player Houston traded up for, wasn’t injured mid-season the team would not have finished with the 4th worst record in the NFL. Yet, all three teams are confident in their QBs and have real games played in the NFL to backup that confidence.
Now, just because teams are trading significant value for QBs doesn’t mean it’s definitively the best way to go about obtaining a quality franchise QB. However, it does speak to how teams value current draft picks compared to future ones. And for good reason – as teams are never assured where they’ll be slotted a year from now. Not only that, but teams are not sure of who will declare for the draft a year from now. Gambling the future on the chance that next year’s crop of QBs are more talented or what redshirt sophomore may or may not declare is not sound advice for an NFL executive attempting to sustain a long career in the league.
To determine if the decisions being made to trade up are worth it I examined what the cumulative success rates of QBs by round are. I’ll be defining a successful selection as: “a QB that lasted beyond his rookie contract with his original team”. That means the QB was franchise tagged and/or extended by one season counts as a successful QB. By definition, a player like Jimmy Garoppolo is not considered a successful selection while a player like Blake Bortles is. These are the outliers in the sample and they essentially negate themselves. The premise behind defining a successful pick as “a player playing past his original contract with the team that drafted him” is that the franchise liked the player enough to invest more resources past his inexpensive seasons. It’s not the perfect method, but it’s sensible enough.
Generally, when a QB doesn’t live up to expectations, teams move on rather than retaining them even if they provide solid ability to become an NFL backup. There are also outside pressures like new management in the front office and strong pushes from the fanbase to move on from what is deemed a “failed” selection of a QB. A clear example of this is E.J. Manuel in Buffalo, who is now a backup in Oakland, but the Bills moved on from him after his contract expired.
I also had to project for the most recent draft classes. For this exercise we can assume Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott are on their way to earning a second contract with the team that drafted them. It gets more foggy when projecting the 2017 class. I personally would project Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes and DeShaun Watson to earn a second contract, but I’m not confident saying they’re definitely going to earn a second contract. For this reason I included percentages with and without the 2017 class.
To achieve a large enough sample as a baseline I determined if any QB drafted in the 1st round since 2008 fit the criteria of a success. A total of 27 QBs have been taken in the first round in that time frame and I deemed 14 to be a success. The results of this method would mean that hitting on a QB in the first round was roughly 50% since 2008.
But the game has changed a lot since then and I wanted to attempt to capture the recent successes of this era of passers. There are major stylistic differences between the Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco types in comparison to the dual-threat QBs that are more abundant in the college ranks now. Or at least more accepted as “pro-style” QBs now. I figured the 2012 NFL Draft defined that the best with Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson leading the way as the next generation of great NFL QBs.
The with or without 2017 success rates are encouraging. A 62.5% rate is relatively high for the QB position. However, after the 1st round the percentage begins to take a decline. With projections for the classes that have yet to negotiate a new contact – there are only four QBs outside the first round that fit the criteria to be considered a success since 2012. Those four are: Russell Wilson (3rd), Kirk Cousins (4th), Derek Carr (2nd) and Dak Prescott (4th).
Focusing on the most recent draft classes – since 2014 – we can say the success rates are very encouraging. Obviously a lot is inflated by the projections as the sample decreases. The positive results can purely be optimism about the recent picks – which is what I’d call it as of now – or it can be innovative schemes creating a higher hit rate. It’ll be interesting when it’s possible to properly assess how successful these QBs turned out to be. As of now this is purely projection.
I do think there is an impact that innovative schemes and tailoring offenses to a QBs strengths have had in recent seasons. Dak Prescott excelled as a first year starter in 2016 in large part to the Dallas offense calling smash and sail concepts, similar to his college days at Mississippi State. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan also incorporated more play action plays into the Cowboys’ playbook once Prescott became the starter. The Dallas offense increased their play action percentage from 15% – 30th in the NFL to 24% – 3rd in the NFL from 2015 to 2016. Another recent example includes Texans’ rookie QB DeShaun Watson. Watson thrived in Bill O’Brien’s offense prior to his injury. O’Brien created favorable looks for his QB using the Yankee Concept to high-low the free safety of opposing defenses. Like Prescott, Watson also excelled running sail concepts and play action passes as Ryan Dukarm excellently detailed here. Pairing QBs with the right systems may create a higher success rate in the future. As my colleague Mark Schofield said in his Defendant’s Reply Brief on Louisville QB Lamar Jackson…
The second way to address this line of thinking is by again, pointing to coaching and development. The paradigm shift in offensive football, in my opinion, is at hand. Not only do we have more and more quarterbacks coming into the league with experience running spread-based systems, or Air Raid-based systems, or have experience running RPOs, but we also have more coaches working their way into the league that are familiar with these concepts and believe in them. As such, there’s a chance that Jackson’s future coaches will believe in an offensive system that is tailored to his skill-set. Strip away everything you think about NFL offenses and remember this point: Pro-style offenses are whatever you want them to be. The Philadelphia Eagles were not docked style points in Super Bowl LII for the plays that they called.
We can already see the impact the Eagles‘ Super Bowl victory is having on the entire league. Quite a few Andy Reid/Doug Pederson disciples have been promoted to major positions this off-season. Matt Nagy and Frank Reich have become head coaches of the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts, respectively. Former Eagles QB coach John DeFilippo was promoted to offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings. DeFilippo should be one of the more popular head coaching candidates next off-season.
As Mark elegantly posits – with the paradigm shift in offensive football and with more coaches open to innovation there are more opportunities for players like Jackson and Baker Mayfield now than ever. Depending on who you ask, there are 4-5 QBs in this year’s draft that can be quality NFL starters when put in an offensive systems that suits their strengths.
In the Jets’ case the inherent risk involved in trading up for a QB is worth it. Assuming the Cleveland Browns select Sam Darnold, the Jets will have the opportunity to select at least three of the following QBs depending on who is selected 2nd overall… Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson or Josh Allen. Teams don’t like to trade their drafts away, but it’s a necessary risk for those who do not have their franchise signal caller. The Jets made the correct decision to trade. Now they better make the right one on April 26th.