Nick Foles, Russell Wilson: What Does History Tell Us About Mid-Round QBs?
The 2012 NFL draft was as deep at the quarterback position as any draft in league history. Seven of the 11 quarterbacks selected in April are starting for their teams this week. That is simply amazing.
But history tells us a story that isn't too friendly to quarterback prospects taken in the third and fourth rounds, despite the ascension of Russell Wilson and Nick Foles to starting roles this season. As much as the media talk about how selecting a quarterback early in the draft is a hit-or-miss proposition, that is the safest way to go if you want to find a franchise player at the position.
Even some of the best quarterbacks in recent history who weren't considered top prospects weren't drafted in the middle rounds. Tom Brady was a sixth-round pick in 2000. Tony Romo and Kurt Warner weren't drafted at all.
The idea is that you either go early at this position or take a flyer on someone late. For the most part, the mid-round picks at quarterback have been busts of epic proportions.
Is the 2012 NFL draft going to break that mold? Let's attempt to answer that question. But first, a little history.
Matt Schaub is the best mid-round quarterback prospect to enter the NFL in generations. He had a stellar career at Virginia before going pro, but there were concerns about his ability to transition to the next level.
Stuck behind Michael Vick with the Atlanta Falcons following his selection in the third round of the 2004 draft, Schaub was sent packing to the Houston Texans in exchange for a couple of second-round picks.
It took Schaub a couple of years to get comfortable as the starter in Houston, but once he did, the quarterback was lights-out. He earned a Pro Bowl berth in 2009, leading the NFL in completions, attempts and total yards.
Schaub has now thrown for nearly 20,000 yards and 111 touchdowns in less than six seasons as Houston's starter. This season, he's led the Texans to a 10-1 record and put them in prime position for the first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
But such stories are far and few between.
More typical is Kyle Orton, who was selected in the fourth round of the 2005 draft and had limited success as a starter for the Chicago Bears and Denver Broncos.
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Orton won 10 games and led the Bears to the postseason in his rookie season. But more recently, Orton has lost 15 of his last 21 starts playing for Denver and Kansas City. He is now the primary backup to Tony Romo with the Dallas Cowboys and may not get another shot at starting.
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David Garrard was selected in the fourth round of the 2002 draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. He was eventually able to beat out former first-round pick Byron Leftwich for the starting job.
He led Jacksonville to the postseason in 2007 and actually made the Pro Bowl in a down season for AFC quarterbacks in 2009. But after suffering a rash of injuries, Garrard was released by the Jaguars.
After catching on with the Miami Dolphins this past offseason, Garrard hasn't played a regular-season snap due to another injury issue. After just four seasons, his once-promising career could be over.
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Players such as Aaron Brooks (fourth round in 1999) and Brian Griese (third round in 1998) had limited success as starters in the NFL, but fizzled out relatively quickly. Other than that, you have to dig deep into the history of the draft to find any success from mid-round picks.
Neil O'Donnell parlayed a Super Bowl appearance with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1995 into a $25 million contract with the New York Jets the following season. Maybe the Jets should have gotten the memo that the third-round pick in the 1990 draft wasn't much more than a serviceable backup after he was picked off three times by the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl. He started 20 games for the Jets in parts of two seasons.
Despite playing pretty well as the backup to Steve McNair with the Tennessee Titans for parts of five seasons, it became apparent that O'Donnell was nothing more than a backup in the NFL.
This story has been repeated over and over again. While late-round picks and undrafted free-agent QBs have had some reasonable success, those selected in the middle rounds just haven't been able to prove themselves to be viable starters.
Some of this has to do with the idea that not only are they not "good" enough to be top picks, they're also not too far under the radar to be considered late-round steals. Somewhat of a tweener, I guess I would say.
When the Kansas City Chiefs selected Steve Fuller late in the first round of the 1979 draft, they passed on Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana. Many scouts had come to the conclusion that he just didn't have the size or arm strength to be a starter at the next level.
Montana went on to win four Super Bowls in a nine-year span with the San Francisco 49ers, while Fuller won 13 games in four seasons with Kansas City. This might not be on par with the whole Sam Bowie/Michael Jordan scenario in the NBA, but it is pretty close.
Despite not being considered a prototypical NFL quarterback, Montana is now on a short list as one of the all-time greats at this position. It reminds us that scouts and a majority of teams can actually be wrong about a QB prospect.
Today, another third-round pick is looking to make a name for himself in the NFL. He also doesn't have prototypical size and wasn't highly regarded entering the annual event at Radio City Music Hall.
In no way am I comparing Russell Wilson to one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time after just 10 NFL starts—but there are similarities. Wilson would have easily been a top-10 pick if he stood a few inches taller.
At just 5'11", there were many questions about Wilson's ability to see over taller NFL defensive linemen and make an impact at the next level. Some believed, maybe rightfully so from a scouting perspective, that his other talents would be held at bay because of his size.
That being said, if you watched as much as one of his games at either North Carolina State or Wisconsin, you most likely came to the conclusion that he could play at the next level.
One specific game caught my attention a few years back. North Carolina State was hosting a 16th-ranked Florida State team on Thursday night. Wilson impressed me a great deal with his ability to actually see the field despite being small in stature. In the end, it was his athleticism that won the day. Wilson ran for three touchdowns against what was a stout Florida State defense, outplaying Christian Ponder in the process.
That one game put me on "prospect" alert. Once learning about his transfer to Wisconsin following the 2011 season, I made a conscious decision to watch as many Badgers games as possible. At that point, it was becoming pretty clear that Wilson had a future in the NFL. He led Wisconsin to an 11-3 record and a Rose Bowl appearance.
While Wisconsin eventually went down to Oregon 45-38 in Pasadena, Wilson's performance was a coming-out party of sorts. He was finally able to show a national audience that he could elevate his game on the biggest stage. Wilson completed more than 75 percent of his passes for nearly 300 yards and two touchdowns against the Ducks.
Still, it was all about his size and ability to hit the deep pass. This continued to be an issue for the talented quarterback throughout the postseason scouting process. He didn't help himself with a somewhat lackluster performance in the Senior Bowl.
As we all know, Wilson ended up falling to the Seattle Seahawks in the third round last April. He was the sixth quarterback off the board, behind Brock Osweiler of Arizona State, a questionable pro prospect.
Of course, scouts salivated over Osweiler because he was eight inches taller than Wilson and had all the physical tools to be a starting quarterback in the NFL. This despite the fact that Wilson had a far superior collegiate career.
Through the first 10 games of his rookie season, Wilson has done everything to prove skeptics wrong. He has led Seattle to a 6-4 record and has the Seahawks in the thick of the NFC playoff race. He is second behind only Robert Griffin III with a 90.5 quarterback rating among rookies and has accounted for 15 touchdowns compared to just eight interceptions.
While statistics are fine and dandy in fantasy football, they don't tell us the entire story about Wilson. He is a rookie playing like a seasoned pro.
Wilson goes through audibles at the line, reads defenses like he has been in the league for a decade, and has absolutely no issues getting to secondary reads when his initial receiver isn't open. He doesn't get flustered in the face of pressure. Instead, he relies on his athleticism to utilize a solid side-step to create more time to throw.
His accuracy is nearly as good as any young quarterback in the league, and he possesses surprising arm strength for such a small player.
What impresses me the most about Wilson is that he is able to see over the offensive and defensive line while standing just under six feet. We all knew this wasn't a huge issue for Wilson in college, but the NFL is an entirely new game with much bigger individuals on the field.
But this has not impacted the way Wilson plays the game. I won't pretend to know what the future holds for this rookie. What I will say is that he has everything that you look for in a promising young quarterback. Look for him to have a long and successful career, breaking the mold of mid-round picks who fail to pan out.
I am expecting big things from this impressive young quarterback.
The story of Nick Foles couldn't be any different. He began his playing career at Michigan State in 2007, but transferred to Arizona following his freshman season. He became the starter at Arizona just two games into his sophomore season. The rest is history.
Foles immediately caught national attention by beating No. 9 Iowa early in the season. He completed 28-of-39 passes for more than 300 yards and two touchdowns. Immediately, scouts and skeptics were impressed with his arm strength and prototypical size (6'6" and 243 pounds). Foles was mentioned as a possible early first-round pick entering his senior season at Arizona in 2011.
While he did go on to throw for a Pac-12-best 4,334 passing yards and 28 touchdown passes, there was skepticism about his ability to be a solid starting quarterback at the next level.
These questions were widespread. Foles didn't have the mobility to escape the pocket. He lacked the field vision to get to his second or third read and was prone to throwing interceptions.
In the end, Foles fell to the Philadelphia Eagles in the third round, 14 picks after Wilson. For the Eagles, it was a win-win situation. Foles wasn't going to be ready to start, but they had Michael Vick firmly entrenched as the starter.
The plan was for Foles to spend a year or two on the bench honing his skills before becoming a starter.
That all changed when Philadelphia lost five consecutive games after starting the season 4-1. Vick then went down with a concussion in Week 10 against the Dallas Cowboys. Foles ended up finishing that game and did a pretty good job, completing 22 of 32 passes for 219 yards and a touchdown in a 38-23 loss. He also threw an interception.
Foles was Philadelphia's starter against the Washington Redskins last week in a game the Eagles lost 31-6. That being said, the rookie quarterback is the last player you could blame for the dreadful performance. While he did complete less than 50 percent of his passes and throw two interceptions, Foles was the least of the Eagles' worries that day.
Now that the Eagles have lost six consecutive games and are completely out of the NFC playoff picture, Foles could get a five-game audition for the starting job next season.
Don't expect the same type of success we have seen with Wilson in Seattle. First, Philadelphia's roster is filled with a bunch of veterans who haven't lived up to expectations. Second, those veterans are playing out the string for a team that has lost seven of its first 11 games. In short, it is a completely different dynamic in Philadelphia than it is in Seattle.
I will say that Foles does still have that rare combination of size and arm strength to be a solid starting quarterback in the NFL. His fundamentals, however, leave a lot to be desired.
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A good long-term comparison for Foles would be Joe Flacco with the Baltimore Ravens. A better short-term comparison would be how Christian Ponder performed for the Minnesota Vikings as a rookie in 2011. Foles will have plenty of ups and downs for the remainder of the season, but he will gain invaluable experience.
The quarterbacks taken in 2012 NFL draft represent one the deepest classes in league history.
In a normal year, Wilson and Foles would have been drafted much higher. The only reason Wilson fell out of the first round was his lack of size. He is going to be a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback in the near future.
Meanwhile, Foles still has a lot of work to do to get to that point. It also remains to be seen whether Philadelphia will go into full-scale rebuilding mode following its disastrous 2012 season and stick with Foles, or sign a veteran quarterback and try to win immediately.
Either way, these two quarterbacks figure to have more success than the vast majority of QBs taken in the middle rounds of the draft.
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