Is It Worthwhile to Take a Quarterback in the First Round?
It's May 8, 2014. Roger Goodell saunters to the podium, card in hand, as he prepares to announce the fate of the Cleveland Browns.
"With the fourth pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, the Cleveland Browns select John-"
Out of nowhere, Johnny Manziel appears dressed as Meat Loaf (the singer, not the disgusting lump of sadness people call food). Manziel points his right index finger at Goodell and shouts to the tune of "Paradise by the Dashboard Lights".
"Stop right there! I gotta know right now! Before we go any further, do you love me? Will you love me forever? Do you need me?"
A bewildered Ray Farmer stumbles, disheveled, from the Browns draft room. Does he need a quarterback in the first round? Is it worth the risk?
You see, Mr. Farmer read the first part of this three-part series on drafting a quarterback in the first round and the risks associated with doing so.
Our research showed that, of the 47 quarterbacks taken in the first round since 1995, only 18 have averaged 25 Net Expected Points (NEP) throughout their careers in seasons in which they have attempted at least 200 passes. That's not a very good success rate. (If you need a refresher on what NEP is, you can click here.)
When you consider the value of a first-round pick (which Jon Bois of SB Nation illustrated beautifully here), it makes sense that Mr. Farmer would have some trepidation about gambling on a position that has had such a low success rate over nearly the last 20 years.
Then Mr. Farmer's mind drifts to images of Russell Wilson, a third-round pick, or Tom Brady, a sixth-rounder. If teams can find MVPs and Super Bowl champions so late in the draft, why should he possibly waste the number four overall pick on one?
Because the Browns won't be able to sleep on it as Meat Loaf suggests, we'll help them make the decision right now. Is it worth it to select a quarterback in the first round?
In order to investigate this question, I looked at Total NEP (which factors in rushing, just to ease the hate from Cam Newton fans) data from the last 14 years. I took the top-10 quarterbacks in NEP from each of those 14 seasons and listed them. This gave me 140 data points (10 quarterbacks each season for 14 years).
I then listed the round and pick number where each quarterback was selected in their respective draft year. For players who were undrafted, their round and draft number were one higher than there were in each category that season. For example, Tony Romo was not drafted in the 2003 NFL Draft. In that draft, there were seven rounds and 262 picks. For purposes of evaluation, I listed Romo as being selected in the eighth round as the 263rd overall pick.
If a player appeared on the list multiple times (a la Peyton Manning), each season was still counted as a separate data point. So, with Brady appearing on the list eight times in the 14 seasons, that counted as eight times where a sixth-round pick was in the top 10 in NEP in a season. This meant that the final data included the same 140 data points it started with. So, if I reference "140 quarterbacks" or "20 second-round picks" later in this article, that is referring to data points, not necessarily 140 separate human beings.
The results of this little study would appease those of you that drift off to sleep with visions of a Manziel-Farmer marriage dancing through your head. You should also probably take a break from football because that's not normal.
Of the 140 quarterbacks that have finished in the top 10 in Total NEP over the last 14 years, an overwhelming majority are former first-round picks. The table below shows the distribution of the results. Frequency refers to the total number of picks from that round that were on the list, and percentage is the frequency divided by 140.
As you can see, nearly half of all of the players in the top 10 in a given season were first rounders. It dropped off significantly from there.
Of the 67 players that were first-round picks, 26 were the first overall pick, and 46 were taken in the top six. This backs up our findings in part one of this series where we saw that only five of the 18 players that had an average NEP of 25 or higher were taken seventh or later. In fact, not a single quarterback taken 7th through 10th overall finished in the top 10 in Total NEP from 2000 to 2013. Hopefully the Minnesota Vikings, who pick eighth overall, have taken note.
In the second round, there were certainly a couple of gems, but the successes paled in comparison the the first-rounders. The two most obvious guys were Drew Brees and Brett Favre, who appeared on the list 10 and 5 times respectively. Brees was also the only guy who appeared on the list every year from 2004 to 2013.
Unfortunately, as you can see, Brees and Favre accounted for almost all of the success of second-rounders. The only others to appear on the list at all were Jake Plummer (three times), Kordell Stewart (once), Colin Kaepernick (once). While Kap certainly has more of these seasons ahead, it's safe to say that not a lot of second-round picks end up being stars.
Rounds three through five were where things really dropped off the table. There wasn't a single quarterback drafted in the third round to make the top 10 in Total NEP from 2003 to 2008. That trend shifted drastically in 2013, though. Last year, three of the top-10 quarterbacks in NEP were former third-round draft picks. I already mentioned Wilson, but he was joined by a pair of guys who were backups to start the season: Nick Foles and Josh McCown.
I will present anybody with a cookie if they can tell me who the last fourth-round quarterback was to finish in the top 10 in Total NEP. Not actually, though, because I can't afford a cookie (#CollegeLyfe). It was David Garrard in 2007. The only other two to make the list were Rich Gannon and Aaron Brooks - not exactly a murderer's row. But, hey, they still beat the fifth-rounders who appeared on the list as much as you and I did! Score!
The sixth-rounders were a lot like the second-rounders: quality over quantity. Every sixth-rounder that appeared on the list was on their a minimum of three times. Brady obviously led the way with eight top-10 finishes, but Matt Hasselbeck checked in with four and Marc Bulger had three. But that was it. Only three different quarterbacks drafted in the sixth round finished in the top 10 in Total NEP from 2000 to 2013. Guys like Brady are unequivocally the exception.
The big surprise of this study was all of the players that were either undrafted or selected after the seventh round that made the list. It was the second-most populous category after the first-rounders.
There were years in which most of the top quarterbacks were from this category. Take 2000 for example. Jeff Garcia and Kurt Warner, both of whom were undrafted, finished third and fifth respectively. Joining them in the top 10 were Elvis Grbac, Trent Green and Doug Flutie. Grbac and Green were both picked in the eighth round with Flutie going in the 11th.
Last year, however, was a bit different. Not a single quarterback in the top 10 in Total NEP was drafted after the third round. Instead, there were five first-rounders, two second-rounders and (as previously mentioned) three third-rounders. Maybe the NFL is getting better at this whole evaluation thing.
Sleep tight, Ray Farmer. You can rest assured that it's the right move to rumble with a quarterback in the first round. You know, assuming he doesn't actually dress like Meat Loaf. That would be horrifying.
The guys like Wilson and Brady provide an easy anecdote to contradict this argument. But history shows that those guys are rarities, and you should count your blessings if they plop in your lap. If you're a team in desperate need of a signal-caller, you'd better get him early, preferably sixth or higher. Otherwise you're flirting with football irrelevancy - also known as being those same Cleveland Browns.