Ryan Leaf. JaMarcus Russell. Akili Smith. Vince Young. Matt Leinart. Blaine Gabbert. Jake Locker. Josh Rosen. Robert Griffin III.
Each of these once-ballyhooed quarterbacks were top-10 NFL draft picks within the past quarter century. Each fizzled out without coming close to fulfilling their pre-draft hype, some surviving as few as three NFL seasons.
Let that inglorious list serve as a dose of reality to the quarterback-hungry teams eying potential saviors early in the first round of this week’s draft. History suggests that projected top-10 picks Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Mac Jones and Justin Fields aren’t all going to emerge as franchise quarterbacks — or even as dependable starters for that matter.
Of the 42 quarterbacks selected in the first round between 2000-2015, only 16 have started at least 80 games, the equivalent of five full NFL regular seasons. Only 11 made 80 or more starts with the NFL team who drafted them.
Drafting a quarterback also looks like an inexact science when assessing the win-loss records of first-round quarterbacks. Only 16 of the 42 first-round quarterbacks drafted from 2000-2015 amassed a winning record with the team that selected them. Only seven — Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan and, yes, Rex Grossman — have ever been the starting quarterback in a Super Bowl.
Even the individual accolades are telling. Rodgers, Ryan and Newton are the only three former All-Pro selections among first-round quarterbacks from 2000 to 2015. Only 14 of the 42 even made a Pro Bowl while playing for the team who drafted them.
Of course NFL teams also misfire when targeting non-quarterbacks with first-round picks, but the league’s track record is better with most other positions.
More than half the first-round linebackers drafted from 2000 to 2015 made the Pro Bowl while playing for the team who selected them. Same with tight ends and interior offensive linemen.
The percentage declines to 18 of 41 for first-round running backs taken during that time period and to a paltry 18 of 66 for first-round wide receivers.
Teams who select a quarterback in this year’s draft have to embrace the risk even more than in years past. The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the scouting combine and college all-star games, and made it more difficult for scouts to get much live exposure to the top quarterbacks.
While Lawrence is viewed as a generational talent and the surefire No. 1 overall pick, there isn’t much consensus behind the long-haired former Clemson star.
Wilson is a swashbuckling, freewheeling creator with some true wizardry to his game, but it was only a year ago that he was considered a late-round pick. And while Wilson flashed remarkable arm talent and improvisational skills often this past season, BYU’s soft schedule is a far cry from the NFL defenses he’ll face this fall.
Lance boasts a rare combination of athleticism, intelligence and arm talent, but the team that drafts him may have to be patient. The North Dakota State quarterback made only 17 college starts at the FCS level, just one of which came in 2020. Expecting him to start right away in the NFL is a recipe for disaster.
Mac Jones is an efficient pocket passer who led Alabama to a national championship this past winter, but he lacks the elusiveness, improvisation or cannon for an arm that some of his peers possess. Is he a quarterback you can win with but not one who wins you games?
Fields may be the most exciting quarterback in this year’s class because of his ability to hurt defenses with his lively arm and dynamic feet. The former Ohio State star has the physical tools of a future star, but his decision making will have to improve for him to harness his full potential.
While there is pressure on every NFL team who drafts a quarterback to get the pick right, no one will face more scrutiny than the San Francisco 49ers. They gave up two future first-round draft picks to jump up from No. 12 to No. 3 despite the presence of incumbent Jimmy Garoppolo, a quarterback they invested heavily in not that long ago.
Do Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch covet an NFL-ready pocket passer like Jones or a high-upside project like Lance? Whoever it is, there will be pressure on him to justify the 49ers surrendering so much draft capital to nab their quarterback of the future.
If five quarterbacks go in Thursday’s first round as expected, it will be just the fourth time that many have come off the board so early.
In 1983, John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino were the crown jewels of maybe the greatest quarterback draft class of all time. In 2018, Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson headlined a class continues to show promise.
And then there’s 1999, the ultimate cautionary tale. By far the most successful of the five quarterbacks taken in the first round that year was the one showered in boos as he walked across the Madison Square Garden stage.
Donovan McNabb eventually won the respect of Philadelphia fans who originally preferred their team to select running back Ricky Williams with the No. 2 overall pick. McNabb quarterbacked the Eagles to eight playoff berths, five NFC title games and one Super Bowl appearance in 11 seasons with the franchise.
Meanwhile, Tim Couch, Akili Smith and Cade McNown all washed out of the league in five years and a 2005 catastrophic knee injury derailed Daunte Culpepper’s promising career.
Twenty-one years later, it’s a reminder to teams in this year’s draft that the search for a franchise quarterback will always be an inexact science.
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