Quarterback Drafts More Bust than Boom

by J. M. Pressley
First published: December 14, 2007

With three picks in Canton, the 1983 draft ranks as one of the best first rounds for quarterbacks in NFL history. How have first-rounders fared since? Not so well.

In the 1983 NFL draft, six quarterbacks went in the first round. All of them became starters for their respective teams. Three of them—John Elway, Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino—are in the Hall of Fame after lengthy and productive careers. This marks 1983 as one of the best quarterback drafts of all time. How have first-rounders fared since? Not so well.

Taking a look at quarterbacks drafted over a 20-year period from 1985-2005, the return on first-round investments is underwhelming. NFL teams drafted 242 quarterbacks overall during that time; of those, 43 were first-round selections. The average career for a first round pick through last year (2006) was 6.5 years and 70.3 games played with a 72.9 passer rating. The average league-wide passer rating was 77.3 during that same timeframe. Only 15 of those first-round quarterbacks (34.8%) have a career passer rating better than that mark. Only four of them have led the league in passer rating; only one of them—Peyton Manning—has done it more than once. Meanwhile, 12 have retired with fewer than 30 game appearances, and 11 have retired after five seasons or less.

It's said that championships are the true measure of greatness. Among this group, only nine have appeared in Super Bowls, with six wins to show for it. Three of those wins are from the only current Hall of Famer among that group, Troy Aikman. Which means that sixth-round pick Tom Brady has as many Super Bowl victories (3) in the past five years as 42 first-rounders not named Aikman have achieved in the past 20.

The 1990s was not the decade to pick a first-rounder, as the average passer rating among that group is 68.4, thanks to some spectacular flops including Todd Marinovich, Ryan Leaf, and Jim Druckenmiller. Out of the 20 quarterbacks selected in the first round during the 90s, only four entered the 2007 season as active players with career ratings over 80: Peyton Manning (94.4), Daunte Culpepper (90.8), Donovan McNabb (85.2), and Steve McNair (83.2). In contrast, nine of those 20 quarterbacks retired after playing in fewer than 35 games, with an average passer rating of 55.7 among them.

How do the other rounds stack up between 1985 and 2005? Entering the 2007 season, the remaining 199 lower-drafted quarterbacks averaged 5.6 seasons and 33.8 games played with a passer rating of 53.0, although they've managed to account for 12 Super Bowl starts and six championships. That's not even accounting for the performance of undrafted free agent quarterbacks, who have three starts and a championship in that span. Although a first-rounder might be slightly more likely to experience success, the high selection is hardly reason to think that a team's problems are solved.

Just look at the Chicago Bears. Between 1985 and 2005, the Bears drafted nine quarterbacks, including three in the first round, and saw 24 different quarterbacks make starts. Only twice in that span did a quarterback start all 16 games in a season. And until the Bears defense managed to propel Rex Grossman into Super Bowl XLI last January, the post-1986 Bears managed to win precisely three playoff games over two decades. And this season, the Bears saw quarterback no. 25 when Grossman lost his starting role in mid-season to third-round veteran Brian Griese.

Aside from underscoring the point that success is difficult to come by in the National Football League, it leads the layman to wonder how collegiate quarterbacks get evaluated, much less developed. Overall, teams seem much more likely to miss than hit. The 20-year crop of quarterbacks selected between 1985 and 2005 will ultimately produce at least four Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Aikman, Brady, Favre, Manning) out of 242 picks, which is impressive. It's also produced an average quarterback profile of 5.7 years, 39.0 games played, and a 55.9 passer rating. Nearly a third (32.6%) of all quarterbacks drafted in this timeframe have retired with career numbers that fall short in all three categories. That includes six first-rounders, which magnifies their failures—as well as the time wasted upon them by their respective teams.

The problem isn't likely to correct itself in the near future, either. The days of drafting a quarterback low and developing him within a team's system to groom him as a starter are largely gone. Teams—and fans—expect an immediate, positive impact coming out of training camp, or they expect little or nothing at all. Those extremes are reflected every year in the draft. Maybe the rookie classes of 2006, 2007, or 2008 will reverse the trend, but the draft will continue to be a quarterback crapshoot.


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