2022 NFL Draft: Is the Quarterback Class as Bad as Perception?
I gotta admit: I feel bad for this year's crop of quarterbacks in the NFL draft.
These guys are just trying to flex their muscle and earn a promotion to the next level. And all they hear is how bad they are relative to other quarterback classes.
If these little chats were happening when I was trying to get a job in sports media, and all I heard about was how small my hands are, I'd be buying consolation Ben and Jerry's regularly.
Thankfully, these guys are mentally tougher than I am. They're going to be fine.
But that doesn't mean we shouldn't find a way to quantify whether the criticism is valid. Is this class actually bad, or are we prisoners of the moment after a rockstar-level 2021 class?
We've got some tools that can help us do exactly that. As discussed in this week's statistical ranking of the top quarterbacks in the class, I've built out an NFL draft quarterback model that takes each player's statistical resume coming out (their efficiency numbers, age, and experience level) and tells me how they compare to other prospects invited to the combine since 2010.
In that piece, we found that the average "successful" first-round pick since 2010 was in the 82nd percentile of my model prior to the draft. The less successful picks were in the 62nd percentile on average. So, even if there are massive whiffs (here's to you, Josh Allen), the numbers can at least give us an idea of a quarterback's quality.
Let's use that model today to test this year's quarterbacks versus previous draft classes. Unfortunately for our much-maligned friends, a lot of the narrative is correct.
Looking for Upside
The key criticism of this year's class has been finding a well-rounded prospect. Someone who checks every box. We can use the model to determine if that's true.
Throughout the piece, we're going to focus on just the top five quarterbacks in each class (based on draft capital). What scouts think matters a lot. If we didn't account for it in some way, the 2012 class would look great because it had Kellen Moore, who went undrafted. Obviously, that'd be flawed.
For this year's class, we'll use Todd McShay's rankings to determine who the top five are, meaning we've got Kenny Pickett, Malik Willis, Matt Corral, Sam Howell, and Desmond Ridder in the mix.
To determine upside, I looked at the top five quarterbacks each year and found which of that group ranked highest in my pre-draft model. And generally, there was at least one gem each time.
The lowest-ranked top quarterback came in 2013. That was Geno Smith, who ranked in the 86th percentile of my model entering the draft. That was the year where E.J. Manuel was the lone first-rounder, widely considered one of the worst quarterback drafts of the recent era.
This year, Pickett leads my model among that group of five. He's in the 79th percentile, 7 percentage points short of Smith. It's the first time since 2010 that no top-five quarterbacks are in the 80th or 85th percentile of my pre-draft model.
To make matters even worse, this is just the third draft class with no 90th-percentile quarterbacks in the pre-draft model. The other was in 2017. In that one, Patrick Mahomes was at the top, sitting in the 86th percentile, and Deshaun Watson was second in the 82nd. So, that draft did produce two stars despite not having anybody super, super high in the model, but even those two were a decent chunk ahead of this entire class.
I think this means we can definitively call the "low-upside" criticism of this draft class fair, at least based on the numbers.
More Acceptable Depth
The other way to look at this is measuring the top five in this class versus the top five in other classes. Not every eventual stud quarterback has a great grade in the model, so we could dig in and see what things look like beyond the tippy top.
So, I ran the averages of the top five quarterbacks in each class for where they ranked in my pre-draft model. This method does look better for the 2022 class.
The chart below shows the average pre-draft model percentile rank for the top five quarterbacks in each class (again, with the top five being the five taken most highly or the five with the highest anticipated draft capital this year).
|Year||Top 5 QB Average|
Before we get to this year: my goodness, was 2021 sick.
All five first-round quarterbacks last year were in the 83rd percentile or higher of the pre-draft model. Two guys (Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson) were in at least the 95th percentile. If you're a team like the Carolina Panthers or Denver Broncos who kicked the quarterback can down the road to this year, ya done messed up. Mac Jones (88th percentile) and Justin Fields (87th) were available outside the top 10 and still grade out much better than anybody in this year' class.
If you ignore 2021, though, this year doesn't look too bad. That's in large part because nobody in this year's top five is outrageously low in the model. Lowest is Willis in the 36th percentile, and as discussed in our rankings piece, he's got upside that the numbers don't capture. So, the depth is better than the starpower.
This method, too, has been decent for identifying poor classes. The lowest-ranked class based on the full top five was in 2011. That class had Cam Newton (93rd percentile) and Andy Dalton (82nd) in the top five. But it also had Christian Ponder (20th), Jake Locker (19th), and Blaine Gabbert (14th), and we know how that went.
Nobody near the top of this year's class grades out quite that disastrously. In fact, four of the top five by expected draft capital are in the 66th percentile or higher in the pre-draft model. There are several good options, especially if you're not dumping a top-five pick to get them. There just aren't any great ones.
What This Means
To me, there are two big takeaways from the data.
The first is that the overall perception that this class is lackluster is fair and justified. The average successful first-rounder is in the 82nd percentile of my model, and nobody here hits that threshold. There aren't any no-brainer options here.
The second, though, is that there are guys here who at least have quality play in their range of outcomes. It might not be their most likely outcome, but they're not prospects we should fully dismiss.
That's why it's hard to get your feathers too ruffled if a team decides to take a swipe at this group in the middle of the first round or later. There, you can afford to take swings if the player can be a difference-maker. You're taking on risk, sure, but at quarterback, the downsides of that will almost always be worth giving yourself a chance at one of the league's next elite options.