Are the Second Quarterbacks Selected in the NFL Draft Statistically Inferior?
It is inevitable that quarterbacks drafted near each other in the same draft class will be compared throughout their careers. Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota went first and second overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III were back-to-back in 2012, and -- of course -- Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf were the top two selections in 1998.
Narratives abound at this point in the draft season, and one is that of the conflict between the top quarterbacks available on draft day. Seemingly, the first passer selected has traditionally flourished, while the second quarterback has often languished. Is there perhaps a curse?
Look out, Marcus.
I’m not so curious about who the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles select first and second overall as I am about comparing the consensus top-two quarterbacks in draft classes. Is there a statistical hex attached to the second signal-caller?
To properly look at quarterback rivalry comparisons, first of all, we have to give our search a bit of context. If California Golden Bears quarterback Jared Goff and North Dakota State's Carson Wentz go first and second on Thursday night, they will be just the seventh post-merger quarterback duo at the top of the draft.
The table below shows the averages of the six quarterback pairs that have been selected in the same class at first and second overall in the NFL Draft.
There's a very small precedent for this kind of head-on competition in a draft class, so there are some small sample size caveats that apply here, but it's shocking how differently the careers of the second quarterbacks end up on average compared to their first-pick counterpart.
The average of Archie Manning, Rick Mirer, Leaf, Donovan McNabb, Griffin, and Mariota have played 37.1 percent fewer games than Jim Plunkett, Drew Bledsoe, Peyton Manning, Tim Couch, Luck, and Winston. Even the rate stats of the “QB2’s” were severely dampened compared to the first passers off the board, which lends some credence to the notion that there is a significant gap between the value of the first and second quarterbacks off of the board.
We can look at counting statistics to check player value, sure, but a much more holistic way to examine the success and value of an NFL quarterback is through the value metric Net Expected Points (NEP).
NEP is an analytic helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and shows how that player or team did versus expectation. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. If Jim Plunkett completes a pass for five yards on 3rd-and-2, it means more to the game than it does on 3rd-and-10, and those plays should be valued accordingly. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.
Now, we currently only have reliable play-by-play data going back to 2000, so NEP data also only goes back a decade and a half as well. In addition, we want these players to have some track record, so we'll look at quarterbacks drafted between 2000 and 2010.
If we’re truly examining the possibility of a talent gap between the first overall selection and second-drafted quarterback drafted in any given draft, we want to know that they're both seen as equally talented by the league (therefore, drafted in roughly the same round) and that we can reduce the chances of a natural failure as much as possible (drafted highly).
Will there be a clear winner in these draft day duels, or will it all come out in a wash?
Before moving forward, the chart above shows where each quarterback was drafted, how many years they played, their cumulative NEP over their careers, their average NEP per season, and the number of elite- and replacement-level seasons they've seen. (Click here for parameters around elite- and replacement-level seasons.)
This was a very different outcome than expected for the Atlanta Falcons and San Diego Chargers. Michael Vick's off-field issues aside, the Falcons no doubt saw an athletic marvel that they thought they could shape into a dual-threat titan. The Chargers must have been simply thrilled to acquire Drew Brees for such a minuscule price, though neither of these original franchises enjoyed the fruits of their draftees peak years. Winner: QB2
In a sort of funhouse version of 2001, the 2002 quarterback competitors -- David Carr and Joey Harrington -- are universally mocked for how bad they were when they were playing. It’s worth noting that both managed to sustain careers longer than five years, despite some of the worst quarterback seasons in NEP history, so that’s a nice consolation prize. However, in every measurable way, this class goes to the Houston Texans’ favorite punching bag. Winner: QB1
The data bears out the ruling on the historic class of 2004, and Philip Rivers of the Chargers -- whose presence encouraged the team to let Brees walk -- has been by far the more productive quarterback on the field. It’s very reasonable to say that he’s carried the San Diego offense and outstripped his peers in production, while Eli Manning has had greater supports around him on the New York Giants. That said, Manning has two Super Bowl rings, whereas Rivers has none. Interesting note is that Ben Roethlisberger, the third quarterback selected in this class, also has had more production than Manning. Winner: QB2
This is my favorite story, and the data tells us all we need to know. Aaron Rodgers, having fallen to the Green Bay Packers on draft day, developed into the second coming (and improved version) of Brett Favre. Alex Smith, on the other hand, turned out to be limited physically and was Wally Pipped a few times by his San Francisco 49ers backups. Winner: QB2
2006 turned out to be a lot like 2002. Vince Young lasted in the pros for long enough, but never really developed into a competent quarterback for his Tennessee Titans. Matt Leinart bounced around for a while as well, but his seeming talent never manifested itself either. The real winner of this class? Jay Cutler was selected as the third quarterback off the board. Winner: QB1
We might bemoan Matthew Stafford for his inconsistency, but he’s still held down a starting NFL job, and had flashes of exceptionality at times. Mark Sanchez benefited from a great defense to get him to the AFC Championship with the New York Jets. Winner: QB1
Two Heads are Better Than One
So, when we tally everything up, there were four QB1 victories in this 10-year span, and four QB2 successes. Truly, the only difference that was made was found in the disparity between a first overall selection and a second overall selection. So, Carson Wentz, if you’re reading this, you need to shoot a few texts to L.A. and see if they’re still up in the air on their pick.
All of the joking aside, both Goff and Wentz should be able to thrive in the NFL, especially since we’ve now proven that there’s no second-selection curse.
Just knock on wood for good measure.