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Has picking a QB 1st overall gotten out of hand?

Teams used to get a much better return on investment with their top overall QBs, but now it has become the default

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Cleveland Browns Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

In 2020, I probably would have taken Joe Burrow over Chase Young if I were running the Cincinnati Bengals, and the same applies to most other franchises. This is a testament to how blown away I was by Burrow’s 2019 season more than it is a statement about always needing to draft a quarterback first if there’s one in the draft who even somewhat resembles the “model” of a first overall selection.

But in most years, it seems as though Young would be bounced out of the top spot for a QB anyway.

Teams have taken a QB first overall in five of the last six years, the only exception being 2017, when Myles Garrett was the “Chase Young” of the draft and Mitchell Trubisky was no “Joe Burrow.” Of course, 2017 was also the year that an MVP/Super Bowl champion QB did go in the top 10, while the Houston Texans got a QB two picks later who seems to have the potential to also do those things.

It’s sensible. The quarterback is the most important player in football and the position’s value to a team could be more important than any other position in all major American sports. However, not every draft class is going to have someone like Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson in it (and when they do, teams often don’t comprehend which QB prospect is actually going to become elite) — but that hasn’t stopped teams from trying to force it to be true.

This is not the way it has always been. It only feels that way and now we’ve come to simply accept that when discussions start about “who is going to be first?” they now always start with the quarterbacks. You must first start to look at Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields in 2021 or another QB and any other considerations will render you a public fool.

What about the fools in hindsight though? We tend to forget about them.

Prior to these last six years, Eric Fisher and Jadeveon Clowney had been the first overall picks in 2013 and 2014. Before that, from Peyton Manning in 1998 to Andrew Luck in 2012, a quarterback went first overall in 12 of 15 years. It’s also fair to say that there’s plenty of success within those 12 picks:

  • Three Super Bowl appearances and two championships for Peyton Manning
  • Two Super Bowl championships for Eli Manning
  • Multiple Pro Bowls for Michael Vick, Alex Smith, Cam Newton, and Luck

And while players like Sam Bradford and Matthew Stafford may not have as many accolades, you can see why they were high draft picks and perhaps under other circumstances, would’ve been quite successful.

There is also Tim Couch, David Carr, and JaMarcus Russell. Maybe other under circumstances they also would’ve been better, but that was not the case. What has been the case is that since Manning in ‘98, out of 15 first overall QBs, only Peyton and Eli have won a Super Bowl. If the goal is to win the Super Bowl, and if picking a QB first overall is the best possible outcome of a draft (based on the idea that you “Suck for Luck” or “Tank for Tua” or “Bore for Lawr”) — then what evidence do we have that getting a QB first overall is such a big deal?

In the last 30 years, we’ve got Peyton Manning as the only widely acceptable answer of “What quarterback picked first overall won a Super Bowl and is a clear Hall of Famer in his own right?”

This wasn’t always the case.

Prior to Peyton, no QB had been drafted first overall since Drew Bledsoe in 1993. Bledsoe went to the Pro Bowl in three of his first five seasons, went to the Super Bowl in his fourth season, and became the NFL’s highest-paid player in 2001. He followed Jeff George in 1990, a disappointment for the Indianapolis Colts and other teams, but that was one season after the Dallas Cowboys took Troy Aikman.

Aikman was two years after Vinny Testaverde, who was four years after John Elway. Only three quarterbacks were drafted first overall in the 80s, and two of them in the Hall of Fame, with five combined Super Bowl championships, while Testaverde is 15th all-time in passing yards.

Similarly, three quarterbacks went first overall in the 70s, with Terry Bradshaw winning four Super Bowl championships. Steve Barktkowski went to the Pro Bowl twice and had a few successful seasons. Jim Plunkett never went to the Pro Bowl, but he won two Super Bowls with the Raiders.

And the QB drafted first overall before Bradshaw in 1970 was Joe Namath in 1965.

Recapping 1965-1998:

  • Joe Namath*, Terry Bradshaw*, Jim Plunkett^, Steve Bartkowski#, John Elway*, Vinny Testaverde#, Troy Aikman*, Jeff George, Drew Bledsoe#, Peyton Manning*

Recapping 1999-2019:

  • Tim Couch, Michael Vick#, David Carr, Carson Palmer#, Eli Manning^#, Alex Smith#, JaMarcus Russell, Matthew Stafford#, Sam Bradford, Cam Newton#, Andrew Luck#, Jameis Winston#, Jared Goff#, Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray

* Hall of Fame / Pro Bowl / Super Bowl (Peyton will be there)

^ Super Bowl champion

# Pro Bowl

It’s true that many players drafted since 1999 have not had eligibility to make the Hall of Fame, but I’d like to know which of those names seems on the path to the Hall of Fame to you.

Eli could get in for his two Super Bowls, but I still doubt it. Either way, you know all you need to know based on the fact that he’s the best candidate to go to the Hall of Fame out of this group. Palmer, Vick, Newton, and Luck certainly had their moments, but for whatever reason didn’t stick on the same trajectory as their counterparts in 65-98.

One of the reasons for that would appear to be quality vs quantity. It’s the “Daniel Day-Lewis” model vs the “Samuel L. Jackson” one.

10 quarterbacks in 34 years as compared to 16 over the last 21. As expected, this is also true of QBs going 2nd and 3rd overall, which is also more frequent. Did you know that the first QB ever drafted 2nd overall (Sid Luckman, 1939) and the first ever drafted 3rd (Bobby Layne, 1948) are in the Hall of Fame? And that only one other QB drafted 2nd or 3rd since (Y.A. Tittle, 1951) has made the Hall of Fame?

Since 2012, six quarterbacks have gone 2nd or 3rd, and they’ve combined to make three Pro Bowls: one each by Robert Griffin, Carson Wentz, and Mitchell Trubisky. In the last 50 years of going 2nd or 3rd, Matt Ryan, Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb, and Wentz are the standouts. Take that for what it’s worth.

I know that this is a ‘passing league” and all that, but didn’t quarterbacks always matter? Isn’t that why Terry Bradshaw and Joe Namath and John Elway and Troy Aikman are so well known and in the Hall of Fame as the “leaders” of their Super Bowl teams? But teams didn’t treat quarterback as if it was the only position and while we aren’t likely (nor should we) go back to seeing running backs go first overall, other positions seem to be falling out of serious contention for the top overall pick.

And teams picking first seem to continue picking high year after year.

Among non-QB players selected in the top three who have made multiple All-Pro rosters are Von Miller, Ndamukong Suh, Joe Thomas, Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson, and Julius Peppers. Plus Larry Fitzgerald, Gerald McCoy, Joey Bosa, Nick Bosa, and Marcell Dareus. That’s just in the 2000s.

Bosa went after Goff and Wentz. Miller went after Newton. Suh went after Bradford. Megatron and Joe Thomas went after Russell. None of which sounds unreasonable to us because we’re living in a world where the narrative is that you have to take a potential franchise quarterback over just about any other position — and I’m just not so sure it’s ever a good strategy to live in a world of “have-tos.”

“You have to take Cam Newton over Von Miller and only an idiot would pass up the chance to get a quarterback prospect of his pedigree!”

So the goal is to win the Super Bowl. The Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos were picking 1st and 2nd in 2011. The Panthers took Newton, the Broncos took Miller ... and four years later, Denver beat Carolina in the Super Bowl. Why again did the Panthers have to take Newton?

Of course, the Rams are involved in this after taking Bradford and Goff first overall in those respective drafts. Both cases made logical sense. St. Louis was 1-15 in 2009 and no quarterback on the team had more than five touchdown passes. Bradford had the consensus behind him in spite of not playing much at all during his final season because of injury and his first two campaigns were enough to convince most people that he’d work out. His rookie season was more than encouraging.

But 5, 6, 7, 5, 2, 3 is the number of Pro Bowls that the next six players taken after him have gone to so far in their careers.

The team then traded up for Goff in 2016, another sensible and logical move (taking the QB, not necessarily trading up) given the needs and he went to the Super Bowl in his third season. What happens next, we’ll see, but:

1, 2, 3, 3, 1, 1 is the number of Pro Bowls the six players drafted after him have been named to so far in their careers.

I look forward to following the careers of Burrow, Murray, and Mayfield in the next one to two years to see how they develop. Goff has less development on his curve it would seem but could still completely change his narrative. The quarterback who went first overall the year before him, Jameis Winston, has already seen his narrative change.

Will the NFL ever change the now 20-plus year narrative that a QB must go first?


How often (on average) should a QB go first?

This poll is closed

  • 25%
    Virtually every year (like now)
    (40 votes)
  • 3%
    Every year
    (6 votes)
  • 11%
    Every other year
    (18 votes)
  • 7%
    Every 3 years (like pre-Manning)
    (11 votes)
  • 52%
    Only when very obvious
    (82 votes)
157 votes total Vote Now