One of the biggest dilemmas for NFL teams that do not have a franchise quarterback is whether they should use a first or second round pick on a quarterback or try to add good pieces early in the draft and wait until later in the NFL Draft to find that special quarterback. Two teams that are going through that dilemma right now are the New York Jets and the Cleveland Browns. Both teams are in the midst of full-blown rebuilding and both need to find stability at the quarterback position. The Jets have not had consistent competent quarterback play since they drafted QB Chad Pennington in the first round of the 2000 NFL Draft. The Cleveland Browns have not had consistent competent quarterback play since QB Bernie Kozar was behind center in the 1980s.
Every NFL coach, GM or scout has a formula for evaluating quarterbacks. Some people only want quarterbacks that play in a Pro Style offense in college, because it is too hard to learn the Pro Style offense at the NFL level. Some people want three years of college experience as the starter, because quarterbacks need the reps to learn the position and it is hard to give an inexperienced quarterback enough reps at the NFL level for him to learn the position. They value the correct mechanics and footwork, which comes with years of experience. Some want someone that was a winner in college and has experience playing well in Bowl games. Some people look at accuracy and arm strength and height. They want someone that looks like a pro quarterback.
The problem with all these rules is that there is always an exception to the rule. Northern Iowa QB Kurt Warner only started his senior year at Northern Iowa and went on to become a Hall of Fame quarterback after stocking groceries after college. New England Patriots QB Tom Brady was swapping snaps with freshman QB Drew Henson during Brady’s senior year. He is arguably the best quarterback in the history of the game as a sixth round selection. Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers held the ball high playing for head coach Jeff Tedford. He was a first round pick, but spent three years as the backup quarterback refining his mechanics. New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees and Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson are both under 6’ tall. They do not look like a starting NFL quarterback, but have both won Super Bowls. Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton ran a spread offense at Auburn and he has developed into a MVP quarterback at the NFL level with one year as a college starter.
What is it about quarterbacks that make some of them fit the prototype and make it and others that seem like they are cannot miss prospects that crash and burn? What is it about some guys that look like they could never play in the NFL that go on to become Hall of Fame players? There is no exact science for becoming a great quarterback and if I had the answer for every prospect, I would be doing something other than publishing fantasy articles and fantasy rankings. Here are some of the trends that I have noticed that seem to play out more often that not.
1) Hall of Fame quarterbacks are usually found in the first or second round – For all the talk that diamonds in the rough can be found as a long-term solution at quarterback, most of the scouts and talking heads identify the successful quarterbacks as being first or second round prospects. Hall of Fame quarterbacks usually do not sneak up on us, they are usually found early in the NFL Draft. I know there are people that say you can always wait on a quarterback, because Brady was found in the sixth round and San Francisco 49ers QB Joe Montana was found in the third round. Heck, the St. Louis Rams found Warner stocking groceries and he became the MVP of the NFL in 1999.
There are always stories about players that come out of nowhere to dominate the quarterback position. That said, most of the Hall of Fame quarterbacks were drafted in the first or second round. The NFL Draft has been around since 1936, but there were not as many teams back then, more rounds of drafting and the game and scouting methods were different.
Let’s just look at guys that were drafted in 1978 or later, which is when the Live Ball Era began. There are 9 quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame that started their careers after 1978. Four of them were taken in the first round (Dallas Cowboys QB Troy Aikman, Denver Broncos QB John Elway, Buffalo Bills QB Jim Kelly and Miami Dolphins QB Dan Marino). Aikman and Elway were the first picks in the NFL Draft. One was taken with the first overall pick in the 1984 NFL Supplemental Draft, because he was playing in the USFL (Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Steve Young). He went on to have a Hall of Fame career with the San Francisco 49ers. Atlanta Falcons QB Brett Favre was taken in the second round at Pick 33, which today would be the first pick of the second round. He went on to have a Hall of Fame career with the Green Bay Packers, who traded a first round pick to acquire him.
That leaves three quarterbacks that were the exception. Montana (third round), Warner (undrafted) and Houston Oilers QB Warren Moon. Moon is difficult to count as an exception, he should have been a first round pick in 1979, but he had to play in Canada until 1984, because of the racial shortcomings of that time. That is a situation that would not present itself today, I do not think there is a NFL team that would not draft a quarterback, because of the color of his skin.
Furthermore, if you look at the players that are not yet eligible for the Hall of Fame that will almost certainly make it when eligible, almost all of them were first round or second round picks, other than Brady (sixth round). Indianapolis Colts QB Peyton Manning was the first overall pick in 1998, New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees was the 32nd overall pick in the 2001 NFL Draft, which at that time was the second round. Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers was a first round pick (2005), Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger was a first round pick (2004). Of the younger players that have not played enough years to be considered Hall of Famers, the only one that I think has a chance to build a Hall of Fame resume that was not taken in the first or second round is Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson. He was a third round pick, mainly because he was not over 6’ tall, but he would definitely be an exception to the first or second round pick becoming a superstar quarterback.
Finally, if you look at the starters in the league right now, 20 of the 32 quarterbacks that opened Week 1 of the 2016 season as the starting quarterback were first round picks. Four other quarterbacks were second round picks. Also, since 1997 there have been 40 participants in the Super Bowl. 23 of the 40 participants have been quarterbacks taken in the first or second round. The 17 that were not first or second round picks are as follows: Tom Brady (seven appearances), Kurt Warner (3 appearances), Russell Wilson (2 appearances), Brad Johnson (one appearance), Matt Hasselbeck (one appearance), Chris Chandler (one appearance), Rich Gannon (one appearance) and Jake Delhomme (one appearance). The only one of those one appearance quarterbacks that won the Super Bowl was Johnson in 2002 with arguably the best pass defense in the history of the NFL, the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
This myth that a NFL team can wait until the third round or later and find a great quarterback is laughable. Brady is being coached by the best coach in NFL history, Bill Belichick. Montana was also coached by Hall of Fame coach an offensive innovator, Bill Walsh. For a team to think they are going to duplicate that result is probably not realistic.
Most of the starters in the league that compete for Super Bowls are found in the first or second round. If a team wants to draft a quarterback that is going to put them in a position to compete for a Super Bowl, that is where they should be looking in the NFL Draft. That does not mean reaching for a quarterback that does not deserve that draft grade, nor does that mean never taking a quarterback after the second round. It means that a team’s draft day strategy should not involve waiting until Day 3 to find a starting quarterback, because the chances of finding the next Brady are slim to none. That is what makes his story so compelling, it is something we hardly ever see.
2) A great NFL quarterback needs to be a quick decision maker – The trait that I find separates the Hall of Fame quarterbacks from the rest of them is the ability to read a NFL defense quickly and make a decision with the football. Some can use their mobility to buy time, some have a rocket release and operate from the pocket, some have a canyon arm with above average accuracy and some have an above average arm with exceptional accuracy. The one trait they all seem to have in common is making the correct decision correctly and executing it. They are also able to make the correct decision quickly whether there is a three man rush or a seven man blitz. All quarterbacks are affected by pressure, but the great ones know where the blitz is coming from before the snap and they are able to make the correct read, even when a hit is imminent.
In college, a quarterback can wait until the receiver becomes open. If a quarterback waits that long in the NFL, the result is a sack or an interception. In the NFL, a quarterback needs to throw the ball to the receiver where he is going to be open. That requires an ability to be accurate with the football and an ability to read a defense and know where and when to deliver the football.
That does not mean that every quarterback knows how to do that when he enters the league. Favre did not know what a nickel defense was when he entered the league and it showed. In 1992 he made the Pro Bowl, but once people understood that he did not understand NFL defenses, he regressed in 1993 with 19 touchdowns, 23 picks and a QB rating of 72.2. Only after he was able to read NFL defenses was he able to win the MVP of the league and become a Hall of Fame quarterback. Even one of the strongest arms in the NFL was not able to be a consistent performer until his mind was able to process the game.
It is hard to come into the league knowing how to read a NFL defense and it is hard to master it in just a year or two. New England Patriots QB Tom Brady is the most accomplished quarterback in NFL history and he still spends hours studying tape and perfecting his craft. If a quarterback does not show the willingness and ability to watch tape coming into the league and he wants to rely on his natural ability, I would not draft him. Nobody in the NFL succeeds long-term on just natural ability, especially at the quarterback spot. A great quarterback needs to be a step ahead of the rest of the league and the only way to do that consistently is watch film and understand what opposing defenses are doing before the play starts.
3) A great NFL quarterback usually needs a great build – I know people will point to Brees and Wilson, but there is always an exception to any rule. For the most part, a good NFL quarterback is going to be somewhere between 6’ 2” and 6’ 6” and he is going to be at least 225 lb. Quarterbacks take a lot of sacks and a lot of hits, even if they are playing on good teams with good offensive lines. It makes sense that a quarterback needs a frame that can withstand those hits and see over the offensive line. An offense cannot roll out a short quarterback on every throw, so if a short quarterback is going to be able to play in the league, he has to be able to operate from the quarterback sometimes. Wilson and Brees move around quite a bit, especially Wilson, but each of them can throw from the pocket when needed.
Again, that does not mean a quarterback cannot do well in the NFL at less than 6’ 0” or under 200 lb. It just means it is not the norm. If a team is going to take a quarterback that is on the smaller side, they need to tailor the offense to fit that players strengths and minimize the size limitation. Seattle and New Orleans have been very good at designing an offense that fits those player’s strengths without changing the offense to the point where it is a gimmick offense that cannot be run at the NFL level with any consistency.
4) College success and college statistics do not matter – I think one thing people become to fixated on is whether the quarterback has good numbers in college or how he did in the college bowl games. At the end of the day, that really does not matter. I think the reason those things come up is because of some of the all-time greats that had memorable college experiences. Joe Montana won the Cotton Bowl in what is know as the Chicken Soup Game. Montana led a 23-point comeback against the Houston Cougars in the fourth quarter after eating some chicken noodle soup to help him battle the flu. Brett Favre beat Alabama five weeks after having surgery to remove 30” of intestines. That does not mean every Hall of Fame quarterback does that and it doesn’t mean that every player that has a memorable moment in college goes on to play well in the NFL.
The best individual performance by a quarterback in a Championship setting was QB Vince Young leading the Texas Longhorns to a 41-38 win in the Rose Bowl against arguably the greatest team in college history heading into that game, the USC Trojans. He became the fourth player in college history to win back-to-back Rose Bowl MVP awards and he finished the 2006 Rose Bowl with 267 yards passing and 200 yards rushing. It propelled him to the third pick in the NFL Draft and he is widely regarded as a bust that never translated to the NFL.
One of the gutsiest performances I ever saw in college was Marshall QB Byron Leftwich scoring 17 points in a failed comeback while being carried by his offensive lineman, because he had a broken shin against Akron. He did become a first round pick after that season, although he never had much success at the NFL level and he was a career backup. These clutch moments and gutsy performances only seem to matter when they matter. I do not think one big play or one big game is enough of a body of work to indicate that a quarterback is going to do well at the next level. A great comeback or gutsy performance in college does not seem to be an indication that will carry over to the professional level, mainly because the body of work is too small.
Stats really do not matter either. Of the Top 10 career passing yardage leaders in college since 1956, the only one that went on to have a good career was North Carolina State QB Philip Rivers, whose 13,484 yards is 10th in NCAA history. The only other ones in the Top 50 that have a chance to make the Hall of Fame are Fresno State QB Derek Carr (18th), Purdue QB Drew Brees (36) and North Carolina State / Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson (38th). Carr and Wilson are very early in their career, but have started out their NFL careers very well. While it is too early to put them in the Hall of Fame, they have done nothing early in their career to say they are not Hall of Fame worthy.
I could not find one number that carried the day in college. It certainly was not passing efficiency, because Florida QB Tim Tebow and Texas A & M QB Johnny Manziel are in the Top 10 since 1956 in career passer rating. Passing touchdowns did not seem to matter, nobody in the Top 10 went on to become a decent NFL starter. I have heard that experience matters, but if you look at the players with the most career plays, the second ranked quarterback in career plays is Houston QB Case Keenum. That did not seem to matter one way or the other.
Winning really did not seem to matter either. Stanford QB John Elway went (5-6) as a senior, (4-7) as a junior and (6-5) as a sophomore. He never led his team to a Bowl win, but he won 148 games in the NFL and appeared in five Super Bowls, winning two of them. He definitely was not prepared to lead “The Drive” in the 1986 AFC Championship Game against the Cleveland Browns by anything that he did in college. In fact, he was on the losing end of his iconic college game, the Stanford Band Play that prevented his team from qualifying for a Bowl game that season.
QB Peyton Manning won a lot at Tennessee, but he could never beat Florida and never won a National Championship Game. That did not stop him from winning two Super Bowls in four appearances and setting league records for passing yards and passing touchdowns.
Conversely, the three best winners at BCS programs of the last 20 years are Miami QB Ken Dorsey (38-2), USC QB Matt Leinart (37-2) and Alabama QB A.J. McCarron (36-4). They were the starting quarterbacks for dynasties that dominated college football while they were under center and none of them went on to have good careers. Dorsey was a seventh round pick and career backup, Leinart was a first round bust and McCarron still has a chance to become a starter. He is an upside backup under his rookie deal, but Cincinnati has handed him a starting job to date after being in the league for three seasons.
I think all of this talk that a college player needs to be a winner, have great numbers, and make great plays in big moments is great for media talking heads. I just do not see where it really translates into being a good NFL quarterback. I think the last thing I would look at when evaluating a quarterback is how successful he was at winning games in college or the statistics that were put up throwing the ball, especially with so many teams playing spread offense and Air Raid offenses that do not translate to the NFL.
What does that mean for the 2017 NFL Draft – I do not think this class is loaded with star NFL talent, but there are a couple quarterbacks that I do like. Of the four first round prospects that most people are mocking as first round talent, the player I like the most is Clemson QB Deshaun Watson. He is not a slam-dunk prospect and I think it will take the right team designing an offense that takes advantage of his mobility and playmaking while he refines his footwork and mechanics. Time will tell if he can do that, but he is the one player I think could develop into a good NFL starter. If you had to ask me to take one player outside of the first round and try to develop him into a NFL starter, I would probably try to take Pittsburgh QB Nathan Peterman in the second round and see where his upside takes him.
Some people like UNC QB Mitchell Trubisky as the top prospect, but I am not a big fan. As a junior, he could not beat out QB Marquise Williams and he played in a spread offense out of shotgun, which means he is going to have to completely rework his mechanics and footwork to play in the NFL. He has a very limited body of work and I do not care about his college stats in the ACC enough to invest a high first round pick on him. My guess is whoever selects him will not exercise his option five years from now.
Texas A & M QB Patrick Mahomes II has a system problem for me. I do not think he played in an offense that prepares him for the NFL. The Air Raid offense may put up video game numbers, but a NFL team cannot run Air Raid in the NFL and have any long-term success. Scouts have said that he has a problem playing in a system and his instincts are to revert to playground football. That worked for Green Bay Packers QB Brett Favre and Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo, but it has not worked well for anyone else in the league over the last 25 years. I would not want to invest a first or second round pick in a player that relies on his playground instincts and played Air Raid football at college. I think he is going to require a ton of development and I never see him possessing the decision making needed to succeed at that position.
Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer needs to stop talking, I have some concerns if he is in the right state of mind to put in the work that is needed to be a great NFL quarterback. ESPN.com quoted Kizer as calling himself a mix of Tom Brady‘s mind and Cam Newton‘s body. He went on to say he has the ability to be “the greatest quarterback to ever play.”
I am all for confidence, but this guy has not played a down of football in the NFL and he was (12-11) as the starter at Notre Dame. If he wants to sell himself to teams, that is one thing, but I am not a fan of players talking to the press like this, especially when the player talking is a borderline first round pick. According to ESPN.com, Kizer also said, “Name a college quarterback who goes into the game-plan meetings on Monday and throws his notes at the coaches,” Kizer said. “No one else game plans the way I do. No one else prepares the way I do. No one else knows football the way I do. No one else is as big as I am. No one else is as powerful a runner as I am. Pat Mahomes might throw the ball 80 yards and I can only throw the ball 72, but I guarantee he can’t throw an out route the way I can.”
No thank you, I will pass. He has no idea how other players are preparing, he is not in other team’s practices or in their video rooms watching tape with the other quarterbacks. He has no idea what coaches are taking their quarterbacks suggestions into account and which ones are not doing that. He may have a great arm and a NFL body, but one thing a NFL quarterback needs to do is be coachable and have the respect of his teammates.
Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton had some of these issues early in his career, he also had 2,854 yards passing, 30 passing touchdowns, 1,473 yards rushing and 20 rushing touchdowns his junior year while leading the team to a (14-0) record and a National Championship. Kizer did not do enough in college to justify this type of public confidence entering the league. I would not want a player like that on my football team at the most important position. Confidence is a necessity to play quarterback in the NFL, overconfidence can be a detrimental quality and Kizer is definitely overconfident at this point.
Watson is not a perfect prospect and I would not use a Top-5 pick on him, but he is good enough to take a chance on in the first round. He has enough height; size and natural ability to warrant first round consideration. I am concerned about his arm strength and accuracy and he played in a system that did not require him to make the reads he will need to make in the NFL. I am also concerned that some of his success is attributed to the players he played with at Clemson that will also be in the NFL.
However, with the right coaching and an offense that allows him to play outside the pocket, I think he can succeed in the NFL. NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein compares him to Tennessee Titans QB Marcus Mariota. I somewhat disagree with that comparison, because Mariota was a better prospect due to his stellar accuracy, but I can see the physical ability and size comparisons between Watson and Mariota.
As for Peterman, he is not a perfect prospect. He transferred from Tennessee to Pittsburgh and he had 47 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in two years for a team that was (16-10) his two seasons there. The advantage to him is that he has played in a Pro Style offense. ESPN’s Jon Gruden thinks he is the most NFL ready starter, which does not mean he will develop into a great NFL quarterback. He may have already hit his ceiling, but if I were going to take a chance on a player in the second round, I would rather take a chance on a player that is ready to play rather than one that is not ready to play and who does not have the physical gifts to be a first round prospect either.
Overall, I think this a pretty mediocre quarterback class and teams that are not able to find a quarterback in this draft class will be happy that UCLA Josh Rosen and USC QB Sam Darnold. Depending on how those guys do in 2017, they may end up being the top two picks of the 2018 NFL Draft class and give teams that have been searching for a quarterback the chance to finally find their franchise changing player. Time will tell if the 2017 NFL quarterback class is a great class or one to forget. If I had to guess now, I would say this is going to be a class to forget, unless Watson goes on to have a great career as a starting quarterback in the NFL.