The 2012 NFL draft produced the year of the rookie quarterback. A record five of them started in Week 1, setting numerous records throughout the season. It was easily the greatest rookie quarterback class in NFL history.
So when it came time for the 2013 draft, an encore was unlikely. Instead, the 2013 draft has become the year of the offensive lineman. Only one quarterback was drafted in the first round, and it was the one no one expected.
After 12 straight drafts with a quarterback taken in the top three picks, the first one off the board was Florida State’s EJ Manuel at No. 16 to Buffalo.
We knew this quarterback class was not getting respect, but the results of the draft were shocking with the free fall suffered by the quarterbacks:
- Geno Smith, once thought to be a top-five pick, fell to the Jets in the second round (No. 39).
- Matt Barkley, once thought to be the top pick many moons ago, lasted until the fourth round before the Eagles traded up at No. 98 to end his misery. Even Mike Glennon went 25 picks ahead of him.
- Ryan Nassib, rumored to be Buffalo’s pick at No. 8, will start as Eli Manning’s backup with the No. 110 pick by the Giants in the fourth round.
- Tyler Wilson went two picks after Nassib to Oakland, while Landry “Winner” Jones is in Pittsburgh behind Ben Roethlisberger.
- Zac Dysert had a high grade, but was barely even drafted, going in the last round to Denver (No. 234) where he has no chance to do anything behind Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler.
- Tyler Bray was a mid-round prospect that went undrafted.
In a league where quarterbacks like Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker and Christian Ponder went in the top 12 just two years ago, how is it Smith and Barkley fell that far?
Part of the answer is in the question. It’s because Gabbert, Locker and Ponder were first-round picks from just two years ago. For as little confidence they exude in their franchises, it is not quite time to move on.
The 2013 draft was a case of no stellar prospects entering a quarterback market that is uniquely filled with franchise quarterbacks and high picks hoping to become that caliber of player.
As you will see, this was as much about supply and demand as it was a flawed quarterback class.
2013’s Unique Quarterback Market
About a decade ago we finished a short, but bizarre era in NFL history where the traditional guidelines for a franchise quarterback were thrown out the window.
We had Kurt Warner emerging from the grocery store to greatness. Former ninth-round pick Brad Johnson won a Super Bowl against a league MVP, Rich Gannon, who this league once thought couldn’t play the quarterback position. Tom Brady ruined the expectations for all future sixth-round picks, earning his best Super Bowl win over another undrafted player in Jake Delhomme.
But come 2004, a great quarterback class entered the league, much like one in 1983, and that shifted things back towards it being a necessity to use the first round to find your franchise quarterback.
ESPN recently had a superb 30 for 30 documentary called Elway to Marino about the 1983 draft when a record six quarterbacks were selected in the first round. Ernie Accorsi, former general manager of the Baltimore Colts, had the unenviable task of selecting John Elway, who did not want to play for the team, with the top pick.
Accorsi mentioned how he knew which quarterbacks were going to be there in the 1984 draft. Boomer Esiason was the best of a weak bunch. It is safe to say every team looks ahead to the future drafts to get a sense of what could be there relative to this year’s crop.
Sure enough, not a single quarterback was taken in the first round in both the 1984 and 1985 drafts.
When you add six in one year in a league with 28 teams, the number of job openings is just not that large. There are many positions where you can use multiple first-round picks on different players, but you only need one quarterback.
Likewise, five quarterbacks were drafted in the first round in 1999. That was followed by just one each in the 2000 and 2001 drafts.
EJ Manuel is the 97th quarterback drafted in the first round since 1967. He comes after a two-year period in which eight quarterbacks were drafted in the first round, including four each year. That only happened one other time in NFL history, and it was in 2003-04.
So when a quarter of the league loads up on a first-round quarterback since 2011, we should have expected a small number to go in 2013. Even with the new CBA providing reasonable rookie contracts, there is still a price to be paid to a quarterback taken in the first round.
Here is a graph that shows the year-by-year number of quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 1967:
Every year from 1990 through 1995 a total of two were drafted, but mostly it follows an up-and-down pattern with an increase in recent years. Only five drafts (1974, 1984-85, 1988 and 1996) included zero first-round quarterbacks. That last one, 1996, was a notoriously bad quarterback class as Tony Banks and Danny Kanell were the notable selections. Enough said.
When you look at what each team has at quarterback, we may be lucky to have had one drafted at all in the first round in 2013.
This chart shows the (projected) top quarterback asset for each team in 2013 (AFC on the left, NFC on the right). The “Rnd” is the round the player was drafted regardless of which team he currently plays for. You can also see how the team acquired the player, whether by the draft, a trade, a draft-day trade (Dr-Tr) or free agency (FA). His age is based on the 2013 season.
Here’s the big stat: a total of 16 teams (half the league) have a quarterback they drafted in the first round on the roster.
All but three of those players are 28 or younger. Amazingly, it is eight in each conference.
Now this does not include the draft-day trade in 2004 that sent Philip Rivers to San Diego and Eli Manning to the Giants. If you wish to count that, then it is 18.
Technically, the Jets have a first-round pick in Mark Sanchez still on the team. But with the selection of Geno Smith, it is unsure what his future is there. If you wish to count Sanchez too, then that would be 19.
It’s a staggering number of drafted first-round picks either way.
Of the 32 players, 23 are first-round picks while Drew Brees, Colin Kaepernick, Andy Dalton and Geno Smith all went early in the second round. That means just Tom Brady, Matt Schaub, Matt Flynn and Russell Wilson were the only players not picked in the top 40.
Tony Romo is the lone undrafted quarterback, only playing for Dallas in his career.
Peyton Manning and Drew Brees are the two big prizes in free agency, while Michael Vick’s free-agent signing with the Eagles obviously came under unique circumstances.
When you study these assets, it is easy to see why only a few teams would have even considered a quarterback in the first round this year. Those teams should have been Buffalo, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Cleveland, Kansas City, New York Jets, Oakland, Minnesota, Philadelphia and Arizona.
But even some of those 10 teams were a major stretch:
- Brandon Weeden is going to be 30 years old in October, but he deserves more than one season in Cleveland.
- Technically, Christian Ponder did quarterback the Vikings to the playoffs, so let’s see if his third year shows any improvement.
- Philadelphia has put big bucks into Vick and drafted Nick Foles in the third round last year.
- Arizona did make the move for Carson Palmer, though that reeks of a stop-gap plan.
- Jake Locker only started for one season, so let’s give him another shot in Tennessee.
- Alex Smith is still young (29) and seems to be a good fit for Andy Reid in Kansas City.
- Oakland could give Terrelle Pryor a shot, but did make the trade for Flynn.
- Blaine Gabbert…is Blaine Gabbert, but would any of the rookies really be that much better?
Even the two teams that did eventually bite, the Bills and Jets, had plans in place.
Sure, you can laugh at Sanchez’s play, but he’s going into his fourth year and they spent a lot to get him No. 5 overall in 2009. David Garrard is also getting back to being healthy and is there, meaning there is no rush to put Geno Smith on the field in 2013.
Who knows? Maybe the Smith pick will light a fire under Sanchez the way it did for Brees in 2004 when San Diego acquired Rivers. Okay, you can stop laughing now, but such things are possible.
Then the Bills signed Kevin Kolb, who could easily have been a stop-gap in the way Palmer will be in Arizona, who dumped Kolb.
Still, it was likely someone would take a chance on a 2013 quarterback, but Buffalo going EJ Manuel midway through the round is still hard to believe. That is a boom-or-bust pick for sure.
You have to wonder how much the dominance of Tom Brady and the Patriots in the AFC East played in these two teams being the ones to take quarterbacks in the top 40.
Now we have seen the current market, the historic number of first-round quarterbacks taken, but we could still use a basis for comparison. Maybe first-round picks had more success in the 1980’s. Maybe a league being filled with them is nothing new.
Comparing the Quarterback Markets of 1989 and 1999
First, let’s look at the 1989 season.
This was a time when Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers ruled the league. The AFC had the best quarterbacks, mostly thanks to that 1983 class (Dan Marino, John Elway and Jim Kelly), but the NFC had the best teams. Troy Aikman was the No. 1 pick in the draft, but his time was yet to come.
This chart is the same as the 2013 edition, but note that two players were chosen in the supplemental draft. There were also 28 teams in the league at the time.
Let’s just say some liberties were taken in selecting the top quarterback asset for each team in 1989.
Tony Eason started the first three games of the season for the Patriots, but was benched and traded to the Jets during the season. New England actually started four quarterbacks that season.
Jim McMahon joined San Diego as a stop-gap in 1989, but the team did use a second-round pick on Billy Joe Tolliver that year. He started five games as a rookie.
Jim Harbaugh would not take over as the full-time starter in Chicago until 1990, but he was a first-round pick by the Bears in 1987 as McMahon was rarely healthy.
Go figure the Lions were a mess at quarterback. First-round bust Chuck Long (1986) was still on the roster, but threw five passes. Long-time backup Eric Hipple started one game. Veteran Bob Gagliano actually led the team in passing, but it was sixth-round rookie Rodney Peete making eight starts so he gets the nod here. He would start 11 games in 1990 for the Lions.
Finally, the Cardinals brought in veteran Gary Hogeboom for 13 starts, but Timm Rosenbach was supposed to be the future of the team, taken No. 2 in the 1989 Supplemental Draft. He never panned out.
Three of the more successful undrafted free agents make the list in Warren Moon, Dave Krieg and Bobby Hebert.
You can see only nine of the quarterbacks were first-round draft picks by the team. That does not include the infamous Elway draft trade, nor does it include Rosenbach and Bernie Kosar’s placement in the supplemental drafts.
But by using some form of a draft pick, 23 of the 28 players were acquired that way.
Even Jim Everett could be argued to be included in that, as he was drafted No. 3 overall by the Oilers in 1986, but after being unable to agree on a contract, the Rams made a blockbuster trade to acquire him. They even had to beat out the 49ers, who were offering a mint in light of Joe Montana’s back surgery.
Could you imagine Aaron Rodgers breaking his back next June and the Packers offering multiple first-round picks, a second-round pick and a starting nose tackle to get Teddy Bridgewater from the team that drafts him?
But let’s move on to 1999 and an even different quarterback market, as it was the start of that bizarre period.
Why so bizarre? A big part of it was the changing of the guard. John Elway just retired. The other Hall of Fame quarterbacks were either soon leaving the game or on their last legs too. Free agency also began to have a big impact on team-building.
The 1999 draft was supposed to refuel the league with five quarterbacks taken in the first round, but let’s just say it did not work out too well.
Here is the top quarterback asset for the 31 teams at the time:
Again, some liberties were taken here.
Buffalo had an infatuation with sack-taker Rob Johnson, though it was Doug Flutie leading the team to the playoffs in 1998. In 1999, at age 37, Flutie would get 15 starts, but it was Johnson taking over at the end of the season and getting the playoff start. The result was the loss in the Music City Miracle game, and Buffalo has yet to return to the postseason.
Minnesota was hoping for Randall Cunningham to maintain his incredible season from the previous year, but that did not happen. Fortunately, they had a backup plan in Daunte Culpepper with the No. 11 pick.
Tampa Bay fans may remember 1999 as Trent Dilfer’s final season, and with second-round rookie Shaun King making it to the NFC Championship Game. That did happen after an injury to Dilfer late in the season. One could argue King was the best asset moving forward as the Buccaneers did not re-sign Dilfer, but that may not have been so obvious if we were doing this in May of 1999.
The 1999 Saints definitely had the worst quarterback situation of the 91 teams studied. This was the year Mike Ditka traded his entire draft (as well as first- and third-round picks in 2000) to get Ricky Williams. He was then fired after a 3-13 season, and he can look at his quarterback situation as a big reason for it.
Ditka got freaky with the Billy Joe’s that year.
That would be Billy Joe Tolliver and Billy Joe Hobert. Both went 1-6 as a starter, and Hobert only gets the nod here since he was the Week 1 starter. He was a third-round pick by the Raiders in 1993, then was cut by Buffalo after admitting he spent more time with Playboy magazine than his playbook. Ditka still scooped him up.
There was also Florida great Danny Wuerffel, who was a fourth-round pick in 1997, but he didn’t get a chance. Jake Delhomme was an undrafted player who would later became a big name in Carolina.
If only Williams could have played quarterback. Fortunately the team quickly moved on to Jim Haslett at coach, Jeff Blake and Aaron Brooks at quarterback and won the first playoff game in team history in 2000.
Some may wonder why Trent Green is in Kurt Warner’s spot for the Rams. Remember, Green was Dick Vermeil’s intended starter after the Rams gave him a four-year deal as a free agent from Washington. But after that preseason injury on a hit by Rodney Harrison, the ball was put in Warner’s hands and the rest is history.
So without Warner, Jon Kitna in Seattle is the only undrafted free agent. He took over for Warren Moon.
Kitna aside, a total of eight quarterbacks were acquired as free agents from other teams. That’s quite different from the other two years we looked at.
Finally, you have to notice the lack of succession plans in place for the game’s best. Troy Aikman and Dan Marino really had nothing behind them. That’s not good when 1999 was Marino’s final season. Maybe Ryan Tannehill will finally be the answer.
Then you have Steve Young in what would become his final season. Jim Druckenmiller was drafted in the first round in 1997, but he was a bust and traded before the 1999 season even started. After Young was injured one last time, Jeff Garcia emerged as a surprise free agent out of the CFL to carry the torch in San Francisco.
Here is the summary of the three different years. For the “Drafted by Team” row, supplemental picks did count. Note that free agents are split up for those that were signed from another team compared to the five undrafted free agents that started in the NFL with their team.
The ages may not have changed much, but the means of finding a quarterback have clearly shifted to the first round.
What Does This Mean for 2014 Quarterback Market?
After a lackluster quarterback class, you can count on some interesting names to enter the market next season. However, they will be facing some of the same problems in regards to finding a starting job.
Of the 10 teams I pinpointed earlier, we can obviously remove the Bills and Jets. That leaves a quarter of the league, but a few of these teams may actually be satisfied with what they have.
That leaves us to figure out which other teams may enter the market.
Josh Freeman will be a free agent after the 2013 season. Should he not deliver this year, Tampa Bay may be looking for the next guy, though they did just use a third-round pick on a very similar player in Mike Glennon.
Other than that, it is hard to suggest another team except for the Rams should Sam Bradford take a big step back in 2013.
Maybe this means a team likely to be lousy, like Oakland, could use a No. 1 pick on a quarterback (again), taking Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater next April. The Raiders have no significant commitment to Matt Flynn.
If Ponder fails in Minnesota, that may be a good spot for Clemson’s Tajh Boyd.
Perhaps the Browns feel like they have put together a solid team, but the oddly-aged Brandon Weeden is the disaster holding them back. Cue Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron to be the “winner” the team has continuously failed to find.
You could even look to players already in the NFL entering the market.
Should Robert Griffin III not be ready to start the season for Washington, backup Kirk Cousins could shine and become the next Matt Schaub, earning the Redskins nice trade value from a team wanting to go with proven NFL success.
As history shows, quarterbacks can be found in a variety of ways. But it’s the recent history that suggests the first round of the draft is becoming the preferred method by almost every team.
That does not mean every draft will be loaded with first-round picks, but if a good supply is there, you know there’s always a demand for the most important position in the game.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.