Developmental Quarterbacks: The NFL Draft’s Pyramid Scheme

15 quarterbacks were selected in the 2016 NFL Draft. Jared Goff and Carson Wentz went first and second overall, before Paxton Lynch and Christian Hackenberg followed in the first two rounds. After those four players went off the board, 11 more teams invested in prospects who they hope to develop into franchise quarterbacks.

Taking a quarterback after the first two rounds of the draft is generally considered smart. If one hits, you’ve got a player at a bargain or someone you can trade away to another team for a first-round pick. At worst, you’ve got a cheap backup.

Even considering all that, 11 quarterbacks going after the first two rounds is a huge number. It’s only happened on one other occasion in the past 10 years.

Over the 10 drafts previous to 2016, 86 quarterbacks were taken between rounds three and seven. 50 of those 86 have never started a single game in the NFL. 57 have never started more than five games while 67 have never started more than 10. The average number of starts for a quarterback selected in this range is 8.6. That average is bloated by the top-heavy group of Ryan Fitzpatrick(105), Kyle Orton(82), Matt Cassel(79), Russell Wilson(64) and Derek Anderson(45).

Those five quarterbacks are the only mid-to-late round picks who have started more than 35 games. If you discount the last two classes so you cut off the quarterbacks who have only been in the league for 32 games, you still only have five of 72 quarterbacks who have started more than 35 games. Of those 72 quarterbacks, 34 have started at least one game in the NFL.

Quarterbacks are always going to be exceptions. It’s the nature of the position when each team only starts one player at the position. However, the notion that taking mid-to-late round quarterbacks is smart or even close to worthwhile isn’t one born out of solid logic.

As the above numbers show, an overwhelming majority of players who are picked don’t see the field. If you aren’t looking to play the quarterback early and you want to develop him, you don’t have a developmental league to put him in where he can get live on-field action. There is only so much you can learn in practice or sitting at a table drawing up plays. Virtual reality could advance these practices but even then the quarterback won’t have the inherent fear that comes with sitting in an NFL pocket.

Those numbers only capture the opportunities afforded to mid-to-late round quarterbacks, they don’t consider each individual’s quality of play.

It’s inarguable that Russell Wilson is the best player who fits this criteria. You can see the full list here. Wilson has won a Super Bowl but more importantly he is a quality overall starter despite his inconsistencies as a passer. After Wilson, Pro Football Reference give Ryan Fitzpatrick the nod with their statistical measurement. Whether Fitzpatrick is the best of the remaining group or not is debatable, but regardless this list isn’t full of quality starters. Wilson could easily prove to be the only one.

The other contenders are Kirk Cousins, Nick Foles, Tyrod Taylor, Kyle Orton, Matt Flynn, Matt Cassel, Derek Anderson, Colt McCoy, Mike Glennon and Charlie Whitehurst or Bruce Gradkowski(they’re basically the same).

If arguing in favor of spending mid-to-late round picks on quarterbacks, you are most likely going to go down the route of calling them cheap backups. Some backup quarterbacks in the NFL cost a lot of money and rookie contracts are constrained by the rookie wage scale. That’s a feasible argument on the surface but if this is the route you are going to take why not just take an undrafted free agent quarterback instead? Either way you will expect the same limited level of play and likely not even get that.

Until the NFL creates a legitimate developmental league for its franchises, spending draft picks on developmental quarterbacks makes no sense. The clear-cut best player on this list wasn’t actually drafted to be a developmental quarterback either, he was brought in to compete for the starting job immediately, he just happened to be selected two rounds later than he should have been. Well, “just happened” is the wrong phrase there. Wilson and the NFL’s infatuation with spending picks on developmental quarterbacks brings us back to the height problem.

It’s no coincidence that Wilson immediately stands out from his peers on this list. He wasn’t a first round pick not because he was a bad quarterback but because he wasn’t a big quarterback. The Seahawks embraced his talent, gave him a real opportunity to start and stuck with him through his early struggles. The reaped the rewards in such a way that has made the fanbase of every other team in the league desperate for their team to find a similar type of player in the latter rounds of the draft each year. Of course, even though the NFL is a copycat league it doesn’t always know what it’s supposed to copy.

Developmental quarterbacks are stereotyped as big guys with strong arms who can learn the nuances of the game. They can get better over time because you can teach them to move their feet and read coverages but you can’t teach someone to be tall or throw the ball far. In this sense Wilson was never a developmental prospect. He didn’t need the vast amount of development and refining that his peers did. He was a ready made prospect whose skill set and style of play needed to be set up for success.

In short, he’s short.

The Seahawks didn’t draft a quarterback this year. They did need to add to their stable of passers though so they signed Trevone Boykin as an undrafted free agent and gave a workout to Vernon Adams. Unsurprisingly, Boykin and Adams are both short quarterbacks who would have been drafted if they measured a few inches higher.

While the Seahawks go in search of Wilson’s backup by searching the cheapest possible option and taking on players other teams deem incapable of playing the position, the rest of the NFL continues to repeat the same mistakes in the hopes of “copying” the Seahawks’ process of building around a cheap quarterback.

Of the 15 quarterbacks taken in this year’s draft, nine measured 6’4 or taller. Three more measured 6’3″. None measured below 6’1″. The only quarterback who was selected outside of the firs two rounds who is expected to compete for a starting spot like Wilson did in Seattle is Cody Kessler. Kessler is a 6’1″ prospect out of USC who was taken in the third round by Hue Jackson and the Cleveland Browns. Kessler and Brandon Allen, a sixth-round pick, were the only 6’1″ passers taken in the draft.

This might not work for the Browns. Kessler’s tape isn’t close to what Wilson’s was when he was coming out of college. But the Browns are at least drafting mid-to-late round quarterbacks in the right way. Every other team that took a quarterback is doing what the St. Louis Rams and New York Jets did last season, drafting developmental quarterbacks who won’t play unless disaster strikes. Drafting a quarterback who they will still have no clue about if they ever do step on the field in later seasons.

The Rams and Jets valued Sean Mannion and Bryce Petty so much that they made aggressive moves to acquire quarterbacks in this year’s draft. The Rams traded the farm for Goff while the Jets spent a second-round pick on Christian Hackenberg while remaining open to re-signing Ryan Fitzpatrick as their starter.

So what is the actual line of thinking for these teams that are investing in mid-to-late round quarterbacks who can’t start this year.

If you have long-standing starting quarterbacks established atop the depth chart, are you going to allow Kevin Hogan, Brandon Doughty and Jake Ruddock to actually compete with them for playing time? looking at you Kansas City, Miami and Detroit. Does Connor Cook offer an upgrade over Matt McGloin on the field or are you adding a character concern to the locker room behind a young quarterback for no reason, Oakland? Jacoby Brissett could compete with Jimmy Garoppolo as Tom Brady’s backup so he could get a better vantage point on the sideline each Sunday.

The Cowboys aren’t going to pass on a quarterback when Tony Romo retires because they drafted Dak Prescott and he’s unlikely to offer significant value over cheaper options from other avenues as a backup if he is forced to fill in during the season for Romo. In Buffalo, the Bills made a somewhat similar move as they prepare for the potential departure of Tyrod Taylor. If Taylor leaves, they theoretically have Cardele Jones in position to assume his starting spot. Theoretically. In practice Jones will just offer a distraction this year, giving the fanbase someone to divide them whenever Taylor struggles, before being forgotten next year when the Bills either re-sign Taylor or take a quarterback high in the draft.

How do we know that this is what will happen? Because it’s always what happens.

Even if you’re the exception. Even if you’re lucky. If the quarterback you draft plays over the course of his rookie contract. You’re still landing in a problematic situation. Washington found that out this offseason with Kirk Cousins. They don’t know if Cousins is good or not, his sample is too small to commit to. Yet the volatility of the free agent market forced Washington to use the franchise tag on him. Brock Osweiler, who was actually a second-round pick, highlighted the problems with developmental quarterbacks as he actually hit the open market and was met by a tsunami of dollar bills despite not being a proven commodity.

Developmental quarterbacks make some sense in the first or second round. Rarely do you take a player that high unless you love his potential and are only asking him to sit for a short time behind a bridge quarterback or an ageing starter. While making more sense, the hit rate there is just as flimsy. Aaron Rodgers is the obvious counterpoint but look at the list of first-round prospects with fewer than eight starts as rookies who were drafted since Rodgers was.

Johnny Manziel – His off-field issues masked his poor play on the field for the Cleveland Browns.

Jake Locker – The Tennessee Titans quarterback was a physical talent who never came close to being a good quarterback.

Tim Tebow – All that time on the bench and he couldn’t learn how to throw a five-yard out route.

Jamarcus Russell – Apparently spent his time with Lil Wayne since there weren’t games that he had to play in as a rookie.

Brady Quinn – Just never looked capable of being an NFL player.

Jay Cutler – The star of this group by a huge distance.

Jason Campbell – Sat until November of his rookie year but never established himself as a quality starter before becoming a journeyman backup.

Developmental quarterbacks aren’t worthwhile draft picks. If you believe a quarterback can become a quality starter, then he should be good enough to compete for your starting job right away. If you have a quarterback who is so good that you don’t need someone to compete for the starting spot, then you should prioritize veterans or the cheapest possible options for backup spots.

Cheap doesn’t just mean finances, it means capital too. You only have so many ways to improve your roster and even the best rosters in the league have major flaws. Spending picks on developmental quarterbacks is essentially burning money.



3 Responses to “Developmental Quarterbacks: The NFL Draft’s Pyramid Scheme

  • You have a point but you haven’t said why do you think they do it. Is just that all those other guys are stupid?
    I think the question is getting a guy with at least a slim chance of win some games if disaster strikes your QB. So if you wait for undrafted free agents those guys supposedly won’t be available.
    Congrats for your work. I like your analysis.

  • Tom Brady says hi.

    • Ah Yes, the biggest anomaly in NFL history. It’s not like he had a chance to win the job his rookie year and develop into a star. He was expected to be a backup because of his lack of athletic upside. He worked to be QB2 in 01 but Drew Bledsoe was still entrenched as the starter. Brady took over the job after the injury to Bledsoe and the rest you can say is history. It took an injury to an expected starter for Brady to prove his worth. I can’t imagine possibly having a greater career period. But for all the Brady’s and Wilson’s of the world, there will be 100 Charlie Whitehursts scattered in to the realm of late-round qbs.

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