NFL Draft: How to Find Successful Quarterbacks After the First Round

Quarterbacks taken outside the first round of the NFL draft rarely pan out. But of those who have, are there any common threads we should look for in future classes?

Last week on Covering the Spread, we had The Ringer's Danny Kelly on to break down his favorite bets for the 2020 NFL draft. During the conversation, Danny brought up an interesting point.

While discussing Jalen Hurts, Danny mentioned that Hurts' scouting report had a lot of overlap with what people said about Dak Prescott coming out (that portion of the conversation is embedded below). The reports on Prescott were that he struggled with consistency and would bail from the pocket even if there was no pressure present, and it sounded exactly like a scouting report you'd see now about Hurts.

This line of analysis is super interesting. Were there certain traits of Prescott's that were undervalued or over-criticized that led to his becoming a non-first-round success story? And if so, what can we learn from that mistake going forward?

I wanted to dig into this more. So, I wrangled up scouting reports around other successful non-first-round quarterbacks, listed out their pre-draft strengths and weaknesses, and tried to look for similarities. There were commonalities, and they're worth keeping in mind as we look at the scouting reports around the 2020 class and future crops of quarterbacks.

The Success Stories

Before we get into this, we have to note that the sample on successful quarterbacks drafted outside of the first round is small. Like, really small.

Since 2000, only nine quarterbacks who didn't go in the first round have logged multiple seasons in the top 10 in Total Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is the metric we use at numberFire to track the expected points added throughout the course of the year. At quarterback, Total NEP accounts for expected points lost on interceptions, incompletions, and sacks and also adds in the expected points a quarterback adds as a rusher. It's an overall encapsulation of which players added the most value in a single season.

Having only nine players reach the top 10 twice means we always need to keep expectations low for quarterbacks who slip in the draft. For the most part, NFL talent evaluators are good at what they do, even if they do whiff pretty often.

Here's the list of the quarterbacks who have accomplished this feat. Because stats do matter when evaluating first-round picks, I've included their collegiate resumes, coming out, as well. The "age" is how old they were during their final season in college. The efficiency stats are from their final full season, and the "games played" column is the number of games in which they logged at least 10 pass attempts.

Multiple Top-10 Seasons Age Round Pick Games AY/A Pass. Eff. Rat.
Russell Wilson 23 3 73 49 11.8 191.8
Dak Prescott 22 4 135 36 8.7 151.0
Derek Carr 22 2 36 39 8.7 156.3
Kirk Cousins 23 4 102 40 8.0 145.1
Tom Brady 22 6 199 23 7.7 138.0
Tony Romo 22 UDFA 263 33 7.7 148.4
Drew Brees 21 2 32 39 7.1 132.6
Matt Schaub 22 3 90 33 7.1 141.0
Marc Bulger 22 6 168 34 5.7 125.7

This table -- unfortunately -- means we can't use efficiency stats as a way to decide which non-first rounders stand out. Only Russell Wilson had an AY/A higher than 9.1, which was the average mark of non-busts to go in the first round. So the efficiency stats are out in terms of finding later-round gems.

One area that is interesting is the experience of these guys. The average hyper-successful first-rounder had 36.4 games with at least 10 pass attempts, and five of the late-round successes above had 36 or more games coming out. Tom Brady was the only player with fewer than 33 games. So, in general, it does seem like more experienced college quarterbacks may be more likely to succeed in the NFL even if they slip in the draft.

But overall, it seems clear we need to look beyond the stats and dig into the scouting reports to see if we can find similarities between these players. Thankfully, we do get some clarity there.

The Strengths

For each of the nine players listed above, I dug back and found pre-draft scouting reports to look at their listed strengths and weaknesses. When available, I leaned on's listings so that there was some consistency in the format. For the older guys, it was basically just whatever information was still chilling in the Google machine.

Let's start things off here by looking at what attributes were often viewed as being strengths for the players who eventually exceeded expectations. Some terms had to be put into broader buckets, so this is far from a scientific exercise. But here are the phrases or sentiments that popped up most often in those profiles.

Strengths Times Mentioned
Accuracy 7
Intelligence 6
Athleticism 5
Mobility 4
Leadership 4
Ball Security 4

All other trait groups were mentioned in three or fewer of the nine scouting reports. But accuracy, intelligence, and athleticism all were listed strengths for more than half of the non-first-round successes.

The only quarterbacks who didn't have accuracy mentioned as a strength were Prescott and Derek Carr. Everybody else had that in their corner. And with Prescott and Carr, the accuracy has shown up in the NFL as both were top seven in completion percentage above expectation, according to NFL's Next-Gen Stats. Interestingly enough, three of the quarterbacks ahead of them -- Wilson, Drew Brees, and Kirk Cousins -- were also on our list of successful non-first rounders. Hello, relevancy.

This would seem to indicate that accuracy deserves to be at the top of our list when mining for under-appreciated passers. If you see accuracy or placement in the scouting report of someone projected to go a bit later, you should flag it immediately.

Intelligence, unfortunately, isn't something we can necessarily measure, so we're forced to lean on the anecdotes. Carr, for example, had intelligence listed as a pro, but his Wonderlic score was in the fourth percentile among quarterbacks, according to Player Profiler. We basically have to just trust the analysts here and hope the info they've got is correct. But if they list intelligence or the ability to read a defense as a strength, it should carry weight.

Athleticism is a bit of a different story as we actually do have ways to measure that via the combine, at least for those who participate. It was listed as a strength for five of the non-first rounders, and Brees had "scrambling" as a strength, which at least has some parallels. We've seen the NFL start to embrace athleticism more openly at quarterback, and the success of guys like Wilson, Prescott, and Carr should legitimize that trend.

The Weaknesses

Looking for accuracy, intelligence, and athleticism gives us a solid checklist of things to seek out. But perhaps more important than the positives are the negatives.

The negatives allow us to see why players fell in the draft to begin with. If we see overlap here, it could give us a glimpse at which traits may be overrated by evaluators, allowing us to see which prospects are being pushed down lists for faulty reasoning.

The lone issue here is that there wasn't as much overlap in the weakness category as there was with the strengths, meaning our blueprint won't be as clear. But these are the phrases or sentiments that cropped up most often as negatives in the scouting reports.

Weaknesses Times Mentioned
Arm Strength 5
Height 3
College System 3
Mobility 3

More than half of our non-first rounders had "arm strength" listed as a negative on their pre-draft scouting reports. Both Brady and Tony Romo were guys with perceived issues around their arm talent, but they turned out just fine.

Naturally, with arm strength listed a negative so often, it was rarely a positive trait for these passers coming out, popping up only three times there. The ratio for accuracy was as a strength seven times compared to two as a weakness.

Every team would love to have someone like Patrick Mahomes who can sling it deep with ease and make any throw on the field. If you want to duplicate what the Kansas City Chiefs have there and get the truest upside at the position, arm strength is a must, so it's easy to understand why it's such a buzzword this time of year. But being an outlier in that category isn't necessarily a prerequisite for success, at least based on what we've seen from this group. Accuracy, though, does seem to be a borderline must.

The height argument was used against both Wilson and Brees, who are among the biggest boons in this discussion. It seems that NFL teams have gotten over using that as a crossoff given that Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield have been the past two first-round picks. Still, it's worth noting that a player's frame may be unnecessarily used as a mark against him within these scouting profiles.

Carr, Romo, and Brees were all dinged for having run either a spread or shotgun-heavy system in college, which may have helped lead to their relative falls. This is another category where the NFL seems to be coming around, and Mahomes' success has likely helped ensure that will persist. This one might not be as big of a concern going forward.

We can also discount mobility a bit, given that athleticism was so prominent among the strengths and that mobility, itself, was a strength more times than it was a weakness. At the end of the day, the negatives really seem to boil down to arm strength.

If you see something such as height or collegiate system cited as being a weakness, it's wise to be skeptical about those concerns. We've seen players succeed despite those concerns in the past. But with the NFL seemingly acknowledging this, arm strength may now be the top attribute that sticks out as being overvalued.

Combining the two sections together, we get a good blueprint for pinpointing potential values. We want them to have some combination of accuracy, intelligence, and athleticism. They don't need all three, but they should check at least a couple of those boxes. If they do that and have arm strength listed as a concern, we might be able to identify why they're likely to slip out of the first round.

Having this blueprint allows us to turn our focus toward 2020 and see if anybody fits the mold. There are at least a couple of prospects who stick out there.

Looking for Value in 2020

For this exercise, we're going to lop off all of Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, and Jordan Love. They seem likely to go within the first round, making this conversation moot.

After them, has 12 other quarterbacks as being something more than just practice-squad fodder. So, I went through all of their profiles to see who hit on the things discussed earlier. It shouldn't be a surprise that Hurts fit the mold, at least to an extent

Hurts' athleticism is a known strength, which helps boost him here and continues the aforementioned parallels to Prescott. He was also lauded for his leadership, something that appeared as a pro on four of our nine non-first-round success stories.

Accuracy was not a major positive for Hurts, and there were questions about some of his decision-making abilities. Still, it seems as if he has the upside you'd want, and he's unlikely to cost you a first-round pick to get it. He doesn't fit this blueprint completely, but there are enough positives here to draw us in.

The player who fits this profile best is Jake Fromm. His top attributes are consistently listed as being his intelligence and ball security, and's Lance Zierlein praised Fromm's placement and accuracy, especially from his sophomore season. The arm strength is the reason he won't be a top-end pick.

The discussion around Fromm centers around that word we discussed earlier: upside. He's unlikely to be a superstar because that generally requires a cannon of an arm, and he'll never have that. Still, he had two quality seasons at Georgia against the nation's stiffest competition, and he checks the boxes of our non-first-round success stories. It would seem wise not to count him out as being a future competent starter in the league.

While on the subject of Fromm, it's worth noting that his former teammate, Jacob Eason, is the polar opposite of past later-round boons. Arm strength is his biggest positive, and he struggles making proper reads and delivering the ball on the money. The upside discussion is different if he figures those things out, but Eason's odds of hitting seem slim.

Outside of those three, Anthony Gordon is another who fits out blueprint. His ability to lead receivers and hit them in stride was touted as a plus, as was his anticipation. The biggest negatives were a slender frame and mediocre arm strength.

Gordon has massive red flags. He had at least 10 pass attempts in just 13 collegiate games, and Washington State's offense kept him with an average depth of target of just 7.2 yards, according to Pro Football Focus' draft guide. Only 8.9% of his throws traveled at least 20 yards downfield, more than 6.5 percentage points lower than any of the class's top quarterback prospects. But, as we saw, we shouldn't cross a quarterback off just because of the system in which he played, and Gordon does check some of our key boxes. It at least makes him someone to monitor once his name is called on draft day.

It's important to reiterate that no quarterback who falls out of the first round should be expected to pan out in the NFL. Most successful quarterbacks are highly regarded coming out, so the odds are stacked against everybody on this list. But if we're looking for overlap with past successes, Hurts, Fromm, and Gordon seem to best fit the description.