A Guide to Drafting a Franchise Quarterback

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistApril 4, 2013

18 Apr 1998:  Second overall pick Ryan Leaf (L) poses alongside first overall pick Peyton Manning (R) during the first round of the 1998 NFL Draft at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, New York. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Squire  /Allsport
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Chad Pennington, Giovanni Carmazzi, Chris Redman, Tee Martin, Marc Bulger and Spergon Wynn. 

In the 2000 NFL draft, those were the six quarterbacks chosen ahead of Tom Bradywho—in the 13 years since the New England Patriots selected him with the 199th pick—has become one of the most legendary pivots in NFL history.

All 29 teams passed on two-time MVP Kurt Warner a total of 222 times in the 1994 draft, but Heath Shuler and Trent Dilfer were Top 10 picks.

Three-time Pro Bowler Matt Hasselbeck wasn't drafted until the sixth round in 1998, with Ryan Leaf, Charlie Batch, Jonathan Quinn and John Dutton going off the board before a team called Hasselbeck's name.

I know what you're thinking (in addition to "Who the hell is John Dutton?"): Drafting quarterbacks is a really freakin' hard thing to do.

Unfortunately, there are two undeniable realities to face in this regard.

First, unless you get extremely lucky, you can't win championships in the National Football League without a capable starting quarterback leading your offense.

Joe Flacco is the only recent example of a non-"elite" quarterback winning, but it's hard to argue that he didn't become elite with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions in the 2012 playoffs. Before that, future Hall of Famers quarterbacked the previous nine Super Bowl-winning teams (Brady, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees). 

In fact, Flacco is the only Super Bowl-winning quarterback from the last 25 years—and only the third in NFL history—who has never been elected to a Pro Bowl.

Second, the absolute best way to find a franchise quarterback is the NFL draft.

As with most rules, there are exceptions here. But generally, the odds are greater that you'll find said QB on the final weekend of April than in the free-agent-signing frenzy that takes place six weeks prior. The trade market isn't much better, because quarterbacks like these are so rare that you'll have a hard time finding teams willing to part with them.

The Denver Broncos signed Peyton Manning, but his situation was extremely unique and a definite anomaly. The Kansas City Chiefs, Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks weren't as lucky with Matt Cassel, Kevin Kolb and Matt Flynn, respectively, all of whom have already moved on after failed efforts to become reliable starters in those destinations. 

So while lucking out with a Manning or a Brett Favre (a la Minnesota or New York) or finding a Rich Gannon or a Matt Schaub is always possible, history indicates that the draft is likely where you'll find your next franchise-leading signal-caller.

The problem—and this, of course, is no secret—is that there might not be a more difficult position to evaluate in all of professional sports. Making a good quarterback requires a dizzying number of qualities, and the criteria—some of it tangible, most of it intangible—seem to change on the fly.

We can, however, attempt to use case studies from offseasons past in order to set some soft guidelines for how to go about drafting a franchise QB.


Swing the damn bat

If you lack a franchise quarterback, you have to be unabashedly desperate about finding one. It has to be priority No. 1, period. At this very moment, more than one-third of the league's 32 teams operate without stud quarterbacks on the roster, but history indicates that only between zero and three great quarterbacks actually exist in each year's draft.

That's why a lot of quarterbacks see their value skyrocket in the lead-up to the draft. In the 13 years since the turn of the century, more quarterbacks have been selected in the first round than the next two rounds combined. Approximately half of those first-round selections have been busts, but teams still have little choice but to reach.

The Jacksonville Jaguars take heat for their inability to land quality quarterbacks, and they deserve some of that criticism. From my perspective, Jacksonville is the only team in the league that has drafted two first-round busts since 2000. But at least the franchise understands that it has to swing for the fences. 

The Miami Dolphins, on the other hand, have approached this process exactly the wrong way—at least until this past year. Instead of pouncing on potential franchise QBs in the first round, Miami kept trying to get value in Round 2, which is a tougher spot to find these guys.

The Dolphins passed on Matt Ryan at the top of the 2008 draft, selecting offensive tackle Jake Long instead before drafting the disappointing Chad Henne in Round 2. They also took John Beck in the second round in 2007 and Pat White in the same round in 2009. 

The 'Phins finally gambled on a first-round quarterback last year, and now it looks like they've found a potential franchise leader in Ryan Tannehill.

In the baseball world, guys like Roberto Clemente and Ichiro Suzuki found that they produced more value hitting for contact than swinging for moon shots. That philosophy doesn't work in the world of drafting quarterbacks.


A high pick isn't necessary, but it helps

It's no surprise that higher picks generally fare better than lower picks, but does that mean it's worth it for a quarterback-needy team to trade up into the top five or top 10? That depends on the draft class and myriad other circumstances.

For instance, the Washington Redskins certainly feel good about their decision to move up four spots to take Robert Griffin III last April, but Griffin and Andrew Luck were the clear-cut top-two prospects in that draft. 

This year, with no obvious blue-chip pivots on the board, it would make less sense to leap forward for, say, Geno Smith. 

The pie chart and the success-vs.-bust chart embedded in this article reveal that your odds of finding a franchise quarterback in Round 1 are about 50 percent, and that percentage predictably drops at a swift rate starting in Round 2. Since the turn of the century, only two second-round picks—Andy Dalton and Drew Brees—have gone on to make a Pro Bowl. 

Don't sit back and hope to land a Brees in Round 2, a Brady in Round 6 or a Tony Romo after the draft (Romo is the league's only undrafted quarterback currently in a starting role). But do keep in mind that Aaron Rodgers went 24th overall, Flacco went 18th overall and Jay Cutler and Ben Roethlisberger went 11th. 

Keep in mind, too, that David Carr, Joey Harrington, JaMarcus Russell, Vince Young, Mark Sanchez, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Matt Leinart were all Top 10 picks.

Only two of the last seven Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks went in the top 10 of the draft, but only one was selected beyond the first pick of Round 2.


Accuracy over arm strength

I've never understood the emphasis some talent evaluators place on arm strength. I do understand that teams want a quarterback who can make all of the throws, but we're comparing prospects that have already proved they can do that. If they couldn't, they wouldn't be potential first-round picks. 

You don't want Captain Checkdown, but you don't need a guy who can throw it 100 yards in the air. 

There are more than a few famous examples of strong-armed quarterbacks who dazzled scouts and front offices but never panned out in the NFL, with JaMarcus Russell serving as the poster boy for such dangers.

Supreme arm strength is a nice quality. It's a bonus. But quarterbacks can't get by on it, and it won't compensate for poor accuracy, lackluster mechanics or mediocre decision-making skills.

You will find the odd exception to this rule (Colin Kaepernick beating out Alex Smith in San Francisco), but I've rarely seen a supremely strong-armed quarterback beat out a supremely accurate quarterback with a similar overall skill level.

They said Peyton Manning had a weak arm. Remember? Ryan Leaf had the rocket launcher. He had Manning beat on tape. Bill Polian and the Indianapolis Colts went with Manning instead of Leaf at the top of the 1998 draft anyway, and now Manning is on his way to the Hall of Fame.

Leaf retired 12 years ago with 14 career touchdowns and 36 career interceptions. 

John Elway had a cannon, but there was more to his game (smarts, mobility and quite a lot of accuracy). Terry Bradshaw didn't fit this negative mold, but some great teams compensated for his sloppiness. Plus, the game has changed a lot since then.

I've spent the last 1,500 words explaining how hard it is to identify talented, NFL-caliber quarterbacks from the rest of the crop, but this is the least mysterious factor in evaluating pivots. The Jake Lockers and JaMarcus Russells of the world don't work at this level, and anyone who removes their rose-colored glasses should be able to see that without requiring the kind of hindsight that infuriates Raiders fans and will soon do the same to Titans fans.

Top-of-the-line strength is a plus, but not an absolute necessity. How often, though, do quarterbacks succeed in this league without being extremely accurate?

Mechanics can be improved, but it's a lot more difficult to augment strength and/or accuracy. These are tangible attributes that have to be recognized before quarterbacks are drafted.


He doesn't need to be a supreme athlete

Some will make the argument that this is changing as offenses evolve. Option-oriented packages and schemes have obviously paved the way for mobile quarterbacks like Kaepernick, Griffin and Russell Wilson to put their respective stamps on the league of late. 

But defenses almost always adjust when new offensive trends invade the game. While the pistol and related schemes might not be fads, the reality is that the NFL will always be dominated first and foremost by quarterbacks who possess the ability to control games from the pocket. 

The next wave of potential franchise quarterbacks is fully aware of that, even those mobile QBs with experience running the read-option. 

"In the NFL, the only way you're gonna have long-term success is when you drop back and throw the ball," Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel told a Cleveland radio station last week, per Sports Radio Interviews. "You have to beat a team with your mind and within the pocket."

That leads me to another critical attribute that has nothing to do with athleticism—intelligence.

Both Mannings, Brady and Brees have a lot in common. They're slow and lack mobility, and they don't strike you as superb athletes in street clothes (Peyton looks like my dad without a shirt on). But they're all considered extremely smart.

The smarter you are, the better you'll be at mastering technical skills such as footwork. More brainpower equates to an ability to read defenses and identify open receivers at a faster rate. It also equates to stronger anticipation skills, which helps with pocket presence.

That's why, despite molasses speed and mediocre pass protection at times, those quarterbacks are sacked less often than almost all of their peers on an annual basis (see the chart to the right).

Yes, a kick-ass athlete with the ability to run would be nice. But that player is worthless if he can't make pocket passes on a consistent basis while avoiding hits. Otherwise, he'll present too much of an injury risk and won't have the ability to adapt to defenses that catch on (and they will).

A prospect who has succeeded in a pro-style college offense with his arm first should take precedence over one who hasn't.


Cater to him

He's that important. If you're going to put all of your eggs in one quarterback's basket—and nowadays, you don't have much of a choice—then you might have to be willing to make some schematic changes in order to support him.

When Chip Kelly joined the Eagles in January, he kept saying that the personnel would dictate the scheme, and that's the proper approach. Kelly is famous for his zone-read scheme, but even he admits that the players have to fit the system first.

The most important of those players is your new franchise quarterback, so he should play a large role in dictating what you do. Don't be stubborn.

Additionally, he'll need support in the literal sense. Don't let what happened to Carr in Houston in 2002 happen to your franchise quarterback. Nobody deserves to be sacked 76 times. It's extremely difficult to come back from that, both physically and emotionally.

If you attempt to draft a franchise quarterback and start him from the get-go, be ready to add reinforcements, and be open to big changes.


Hope and/or pray

Sadly, there are guys on that list of busts who seemed to possess all of the positive attributes and few or none of the negative attributes we've cited in this analysis. That's why you always gamble to some degree.

Even quarterback-evaluation superheroes such as Ron Wolf, Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick have been wrong. There isn't a foolproof scientific formula for determining which quarterbacks will succeed and which will fail.

A unique and sometimes random set of skills is required, but there are times when the criteria let coaches and general managers down. The best you can do is reach for the closest match within your grasp, swing the bat and hope like hell that the wind carries the ball out of the park.


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