Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Drafting NFL quarterbacks is a total crapshoot

As a longtime 49ers fan, I'm well aware of how the NFL Draft can make or break your franchise. Back in 1979 the team drafted Joe Montana in the third round of the NFL Draft, and he went on to become arguably the greatest QB ever. We also drafted Alex Smith with the #1 pick in the 2005 Draft. Needless to say that hasn't worked out so well. But it brings up an interesting question. Does anyone in the NFL have any clue what they're doing when they're drafting QBs? The answer is not really.

Just from a more recent perspective this seems to be true. Philip Rivers has clearly regressed as a starting QB, defenses are catching up to Vince Young who was never a good QB anyway, Matt Leinart is basically immobile, and Alex Smith is a nightmare. And just think, those four guys signed contracts that in total hover around $200 million.

Meanwhile, we have players such as Derek Anderson, a sixth round draft choice, playing out of his mind. And Tony Romo, the QB with the third best passer rating so far this year, wasn't even drafted. I'd take both those guys over Smith any day of the week.

But rather than continue to just speculate, let's look at real data. Here are the primary QBs for this year's NFL teams with winning records and where they were drafted.

Giants - Eli Manning (First Round)
Redskins - Jason Campbell (First Round)
Bills - JP Losman (First Round)
Steelers - Ben Roethlisberger (First Round)
Colts - Peyton Manning (First Round)
Titans - Vince Young (First Round)
San Diego - Philip Rivers (First Round)
Packers - Brett Favre (Second Round)
Jacksonville - David Garrard (Fourth Round)/Quinn Gray (undrafted)
Seahawks - Matt Hasselbeck (Sixth Round)
Patriots - Tom Brady (Sixth Round)
Browns - Derek Anderson (Sixth Round)
Cowboys - Tony Romo (undrafted)
Lions - Jon Kitna (undrafted)
Bucs - Jeff Garcia (undrafted)

So if you add in Quinn Gray, then we have as many Sixth Round and Undrafted QBs leading winning teams as we do First Round QBs.

But wins alone aren't the best example of whether a QB is competent or not - I'm looking at you Vince Young. A passer rating gets us closer to that. So let's find the average passer rating by draft round for the primary QBs in this year's NFL. We're using career passer ratings (not just this year's) provided by and have added Byron Leftwich, Jake Delhomme, David Carr and Vinny Testaverde to the list. Special note: Trent Green was drafted in the 8th round of the 1993 Draft. This means in total we're looking at 34 QBs.

First Round QBs: 17
Avg. passer rating: 80.05

Second Round QBs: 2
Avg. passer rating: 86.35

Third Round QBs: 2
Avg. passer rating: 81.05

Fourth Round QBs: 1
Avg. passer rating: 84.1

Fifth Round QBs: none

Sixth Round QBs: 4
Avg. passer rating: 87.48

Seventh Round QBs: none

Eighth Round QBs: 1
Avg. passer rating: 86.9

Undrafted QBs: 7
Avg. passer rating: 85.07

You don't need a linear regression analysis program to tell you that there is no correlation between career passer rating and draft round. But there are some important things to consider. One is that first round draft choices get more playing time to determine if they'll pan out while late round draft choices have to produce immediately. We all know about the Ryan Leafs and Akili Smiths. Meanwhile a bad Sixth Round pick may play one game and that's basically his career. Or he may never play at all. These scenarios will naturally deflate the first round QB avg. passer rating to a degree while boosting the late rounds. But, looking at it from another perspective, you can also make the argument with the data available that there are a fair number of pretty good QBs that go late in the draft or that don't get drafted at all. By this analysis, there are 12 current QBs who were drafted in the Sixth Round or later (or not at all) who easily surpass the 17 First Round players in average career passer rating. When you stop and think about that, it's stunning. And it also says that maybe some of those First Round picks really shouldn't be playing anymore and teams should be trying out new guys - like say my 49ers. One can only wonder how many Tom Bradys and Tony Romos weren't discovered because a higher draft pick, but inferior player, was ahead of them on the depth chart.

The most recent example is Derek Anderson. Romeo Crennel named Charlie Frye (a third round choice) as his starter at the beginning of the year, then traded him after Week 1. It's only because of that trade that Anderson saw significant playing time. Imagine if Crennel had stuck with Frye until week 8 or 9. He might have just inserted Brady Quinn by then, effectively shutting the door on Anderson's career. Instead, the trade was made, Anderson began starting, and another late round gem was found.

Year after year scouts and coaches drool over players with great arm strength (see: Boller, Kyle), or family genes (see: Manning, Eli) or God only knows what (see: Smith, Alex). And after they fail - although Eli appears to maybe finally be headed in the right direction - you hear excuse after excuse. He's an idiot; he didn't play in a pro-style college offense; he's slow; he doesn't get rid of the ball quickly enough. Well, if all that's so noticeable now, why didn't you notice it before? And why didn't you notice Tom Brady, Tony Romo, Derek Anderson, and Kurt Warner? Obviously something isn't working in terms of scouting.

Certainly more analysis needs to be done - as in looking back year after year - but there does seem to be a bit of a trend. And that is that there are a ton of first round QB busts along with a surprisingly high number of good QBs available late in the draft or who were never drafted at all. Which pretty much means one thing. The draft is frequently a total crapshoot when it comes to drafting QBs.



Anonymous said...

the biggest problem is, nearly all 1st round qb draft picks start at some point, but probably a huge number of lower round picks never start more than a few games. it seems likely that the lower round picks that go on to do well manage it in part because they've stayed afloat on the depth chart where some of their peers have failed. in other words, the late round qbs who are actually good get more chances to start and thus more chances to succeed.

Loren said...

Aren't you only looking at the QBs that eventually do make it in the NFL? I'm sure if you included the QBs that were drafted, but never amounted to anything, counting their career passer ratings as 0, the earlier picked QBs would be highly favored.

For example, if it doesn't matter where the QBs are picked in the draft, then why are over half of the starting quarterbacks right now former first rounders?

100% Injury Rate said...

There are so many first round starters because teams will go the extra mile to try and at least get something out of the $30 million in gauranteed money they're paying the guy. Although that doesn't necessarily mean he's better than the Sixth Round draft pick on the bench.

Also keep in mind that more than a third of the league is also comprised of 6th Round or lower (including undrafted) starters. That's only five fewer players than selected in the First Round.

And it's also not fair to give lower drafted players who didn't do anything in the league a rating of 0. Yes there's a bit of a hole in the argument. What about all the late draft round picks who failed and hardly played? It's a problem, yes, to quantify those players who basically did nothing, but you can't give them an arbitrary value of 0. You have to say hey, these guys didn't get the same chance as first round guys BECAUSE they weren't on the hook for as much money.

Again, admittedly a hole, but there's no efficient way to calculate it.

Also, only a fool would think there hasn't been at least one or two more Tom Bradys in the last 20 years who never got the chance to shine because some overpaid loser was ahead of him.

Anonymous said...

I know most people have a QB fetish but...

Football is a teamsport and drafting top talent at QB helps very little if the rest of the offense is poor, mainly the offensive line and the recievers.

I'd rather have a mediocre QB behind a good o-line than a top tier QB with bad or no blocking.

Anonymous said...

There's a problem with the logic of this article:

1. High first round QBs are selected by awful teams, and are expected to play right away. It's no surprise then that most QBs in this situation fail to develop.

2. Lower round QBs, in contrast, have much more time to develop IF they show enough talent to justify a roster spot.

3. QBs almost NEVER run the same system (or anything like it) than the one that made them succesful. It is a very common mistake to try and make a QB something he is not.

100% Injury Rate said...

Look, there's no question that there's a problem with this argument on some level because first round picks get more playing time because of where they were drafted and the $$$ they're getting paid. That's definitely true and difficult to account for against late round picks who never play or play one game and suck.

But that said, are you telling me that despite Alex Smith getting three years at the helm for the 49ers he hasn't been given time to develop? That's ridiculous. If anything, first round picks who play for three years are given more of a chance to develop than anyone else in the game. Sure they play for bad teams, but saying they don't develop or at least show something over three years - and should have instead spent those years learning on the bench - is not the answer. Besides, Derek Anderson has been in the league three years, and look how he's doing. You can't tell me more time has gone into developing Derek Anderson than Alex Smith. Because that isn't true at all.

Anonymous said...

I didn't say 1st rounders don't develop because of lack of playing time, repetitions or opportunities. They don't develop because their teams are shoddy, they are given too much to absorb in a short period of time, and are generally beaten up physically.

A moderate learning period is best, I think, for the most difficult position in sports to play.

OnSolThree said...

The Bills' primary QB is really a 2nd round pick, since they've had time shared between 1st rounder Losman and 3rd rounder Edwards. On top of that, Edwards has gotten most of the wins, so one who's actually gotten them a winning record is kind of a 2.75 rounder :)

James Harrison will taste Manflesh said...

The reason it doesn't seem to matter when the quarterback is drafted, is because unless the quarterback is a complete idiot (see: Boller, Kyle; Manning, Eli; Grossman, Rex) has shell-shock and bad habits from years of no blocking (see: Carr, David; Frye, Charlie) or has some quality that allows him to make plays no other QB will make (see: Manning, Peyton; Favre, Brett; Roethlisberger, Ben) it doesn't even matter WHO the quarterback is. Quarterback performance is largely determined by three factors: pass protection, offensive system, and receiver skill, in that order; the rest is determined by a quarterback's possession or lack of idiocy, bad habits, and exceptional traits. Trent Green, put in the same position as Tom Brady, would look an awful lot like Tom Brady. Anybody forced to play for Miami would look terrible, except for maybe a young Brett Favre.

Anonymous said...

I think Jon makes some good points, but I must disagree with what he describes as "lack of idiocy." I prefer the term "good judgment," as in throwing to the right guy during your multiple reads. And the ability to that very fast. And maybe add in a little deception to freeze the safeties. And maybe be just mobile enough to avoid the rush. And maybe have a sufficiently accurate arm to actually hit the open guy. Come to think of it, you may actually need a lot more than "lack of idiocy" to be a great quarterback.

Unknown said...

In the interest of furthering this discussion, I've made another list of my own. See below for modern-era Hall of Fame quarterbacks, and the round they were drafted in.

Personally, I think at least two should be discarded for purposes of this argument.

Roger Staubach was drafted in the 10th round, but would have been higher---possibly the 1st round---if he didn't have a 5-year military commitment from 1964-1969.

Warren Moon was undrafted, but most people attribute this to the fact that he was a black QB who refused to change positions in the NFL. Looks like he may have had the right idea.

Without further ado:

Troy Aikman - First Round
George Blanda - Twelfth Round
Terry Bradshaw - First Round
Len Dawson - First Round
John Elway - First Round
Dan Fouts - Third Round
Otto Graham - First Round
Bob Griese - First Round
Sonny Jurgensen - Fourth Round
Jim Kelly - First Round
Bobby Layne - First Round
Dan Marino - First Round
Joe Montana - Third Round
Warren Moon - undrafted
Joe Namath - First Round
Bart Starr - Seventeenth Round
Roger Staubach - Tenth Round
Fran Tarkenton - Third Round
Y.A. Tittle - First Round
Johnny Unitas - Ninth Round
Norm Van Brocklin - Fourth Round
Bob Waterfield - Fifth Round
Steve Young - First Round

Unknown said...

I wanted to say I appreciate your analysis on this. I used your article for reference in a debate on a KC Chiefs website I linked your site. Here's the link of the thread if you'd like to contribute. I'd appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

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