“To tank or not to tank?”
That has been the talk permeating Boston sports radio over the last few weeks as the Patriots dropped four straight games and then escaped the Meadowlands with a victory by the skin of their teeth over the winless Jets.
With apologies to Dwight Schrute, there are basically two schools of thought when it comes to tanking, particularly for the next generational quarterback.
There are those who believe that there are no sure bets – most quarterbacks, even the first-rounders, are dart throws at best. For every Peyton Manning, there is a JaMarcus Russell. For every Patrick Mahomes, a Paxton Lynch.
Others believe that one way or another, you must draft your quarterback high – first round, maybe early second. The closest you can get to the bottom of the pile, so to speak, the better.
A parallel question to that of tanking, and one probably more relevant to teams like the Patriots, (who are unlikely to pick in the top five of the draft), is how long to wait before picking a quarterback? Is it reasonable to expect that a team, even under the tutelage of a coach like Belichick, can take quarterbacks in the fourth, fifth, sixth round and turn them into a viable starter, much less a Super Bowl Champion or Hall of Famer?
Can the Brady path work as a conscious plan? Or do you need to draft your next QB in the first, maybe early second round, to have any chance of success?
The jury is always out on a handful of quarterbacks, so the debate may never end. But examining several different groups of QBs can shed some light on the answer to the age-old question, “Where do QBs come from?”
2020 NFL Starting Quarterbacks (32)
Number One Overall Picks: 6
Top-Ten Picks: 16
First Rounders: 22
Pick 100 or Later: 5
The current landscape of the league is dominated by high draft picks. Nearly 70% of the starters heading into this season were picked in the first round and half of them in the top ten of their draft.
Obviously, Tom Brady (6th round, 199 overall) and Russell Wilson (3rd round, 75th overall pick) are two notable exceptions. Once Brady and Drew Brees (2nd round, 32nd overall) retire, we could be looking at that 70% number going even higher, especially if we replace original Dolphins starter Ryan Fitzpatrick (7th round, 250 overall) with Tua Tagovailo (1st round, 5th pick).
Top 30 All-Time in Wins (30)
Number One Overall Picks: 9
Top-Ten Picks: 15
First Rounders: 20
Pick 100 or Later: 5
This is the key category for me because these quarterbacks have shown consistency, longevity, and excellence. Names like Drew Bledsoe, Peyton and Eli Manning, Donovan McNabb, Matt Ryan, and Philip Rivers are all among the winningest quarterbacks in league history, and they were all Top-Four picks.
Half of this group were picked in the top-ten. Nearly a third were the first overall selection, and two-thirds were selected in the first round. For me, this is a clear indication that you need to pick your quarterback before addressing any other roster needs.
Hall of Fame Quarterbacks (26)
Number One Overall Picks: 4
Top-Ten Picks: 9
First Rounders: 12
Pick 100 or Later: 4
This list gets a little dicey, as it includes players from as early as 1945. Bob Waterfield was drafted #42 overall by the Cleveland Rams, which that year made him a fifth-round pick.
Today’s NFL draft contains only 7 rounds. Johnny Unitas (9th round), George Blanda (12th round), Roger Staubach (10th round), and Bart Starr (17th Round) were all selected later than that due to the smaller league size.
Quarterbacks to Win League MVP (29)
Number One Overall Picks: 5
Top-Ten Picks: 13
First Rounders: 16
Pick 100 or Later: 5
This list contains a lot of crossover from other lists. Cam Newton joins Peyton, Young, Elway, and Bradshaw as the fifth quarterback drafted number one overall to win MVP.
Super Bowl Winning Quarterbacks (33)
Number One Overall Picks: 7
Top-Ten Picks: 13
First Rounders: 18
Pick 100 or Later: 6
Anyone can get hot and go on a playoff run, or fill in for one game a la Nick Foles for the Eagles. Even so, more than half of the 33 different quarterbacks that have won a Super Bowl were drafted in the first round. The biggest anomaly in this group is Brad Johnson, who was drafted 227th overall in the now-defunct 9th round of the 1992 NFL draft. Johnson led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the 2003 championship, on the back of Super Bowl MVP Dexter Johnson, who had two of Tampa’s 5 interceptions of Rich Gannon (4th Round, 98th overall).
What does the evidence tell us?
There are far more first-rounders, and even more top-ten picks, whose names keep cropping up on these lists than quarterbacks drafted further down the board. Elway, Aikman, Young, and Bradshaw were all #1 overall picks. Peyton and Eli Manning are both likely headed to the Hall of Fame, are Super Bowl champions, and are among the league leaders in all-time victories. They’re joined by fellow first-rounders Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers, also a former league MVP.
While there have certainly been plenty of first round flame-outs, the number of late-round QB’s to become elite is not overwhelming.
Unfortunately for those on the side of tanking or drafting your QB in the first round, the two greatest of all time do not support that argument. Joe Montana was drafted in the third round, 82nd overall. Brady of course went in the sixth round, 199th.
Other quarterbacks taken late that appeared on multiple lists include Kurt Warner and Warren Moon (both undrafted), Bart Starr (17th round, 200 overall), and Russell Wilson (3rd round, 75th overall).
Other factors must also be taken into consideration: How deep was the quarterback class in that year’s draft? How good is the system they are being drafted into? Who is the head coach, offensive coordinator, and quarterbacks coach? What are the weapons like around the new QB? Do they have a veteran to learn under or are they thrown into the fire right away? Where did they go to college? How good is their new team’s defense?
The great news is, there will always be quarterbacks taken first overall, quarterbacks taken in the top ten, quarterbacks taken in the first round, and quarterbacks taken past the 100th pick every year. The jury will always be out on someone from each of those groups.
So where do quarterbacks come from?
It’s a question that is always being answered, but is never answered.
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