Reaching for Quarterbacks on Draft Day Poses Massive Risk for NFL GMs, Coaches

Christopher Hansen@ChrisHansenNFLNFL AnalystMarch 27, 2014

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

For teams that don’t have a franchise quarterback, finding one is a top priority. It’s common knowledge that a good quarterback is a requirement if a team is going to sustain success.

So scarce are franchise-altering quarterbacks that virtually the only avenue for acquiring one is through the draft. Veterans who can bridge the gap for a couple years are available every offseason, but eventually a general manager and head coach will have to go all in on a draftee.

It’s inevitable that a team will draft a quarterback early if it believes he can be a franchise-altering player. The problem is when a team fools itself into believing in a quarterback with major flaws and then drafts him in the first round.

Reaching for a quarterback adds even more risk to the already risky business of drafting. Head coaches and general managers typically don’t last long when they get it wrong at the quarterback position.

Akili Smith? Yup, bust.
Akili Smith? Yup, bust.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Although we know a reach exists, it’s nearly impossible to actually identify it with 100 percent certainty. In hindsight, it’s easy to point to busts and say they were all reaches. In reality, not every bust was a reach and not every reach is a bust.

To make "bust" and "reach" synonymous isn’t fair, but it’s the only way to evaluate the risk somewhat objectively. A bust can be judged by their ability to produce numbers and stay in the league, but a reach is almost entirely subjective.

From 1994 to 2011, just about half of the quarterbacks drafted in the first round have been total busts. This doesn’t include quarterbacks that are average starters, although some may consider them busts based on draft position.

Pro Bowl or All-Pro honors validated any of the 44 quarterbacks drafted in the first round during this period. It’s not a perfect measurement by any means, but it produced decent results.

Next was to use a general statistic to weed out all the other non-busts. Weighted career approximate value (CarAV), as calculated by, was a good catch-all statistic. If their CarAV was over seven on average for every year they were a starter, they probably had some moderate NFL success.

Give Chad Pennington a break.
Give Chad Pennington a break.Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Every quarterback also had to have a CarAV of at least six per season for their career (not as a starter), which put players like David Carr and Tim Couch back into the bust category. There were two exceptions made because they were clear outliers.

Jason Campbell had a CarAV of six, but he has managed to stick in the league for eight years. Another year as a backup and he'll likely be in the bust category. The other exception was Chad Pennington, who was clearly not a bust when he played. Pennington was harshly penalized by this method for missing so many games due to injury. 

Only the players who didn’t fit the criteria were considered busts.

First-Round Quarterbacks 1994-2011
RangeDraftedBustsBust %Avg. HC Tenure After Bust QB Drafted
1-10271244.4%2.3 years
11-219333.3%4.3 years
22-328675.0%2.3 years
All442147.7%2.6 years

In the first 10 picks, 12 of 27 (44.4 percent) quarterbacks from 1994 to 2011 were busts. That percentage dropped to just 33.3 percent from pick No. 11 to 21, but 18 fewer quarterbacks were selected in this range than in the top 10.

The highest bust percentage came between pick No. 22 and 32 in the first round, with an astounding 75 percent of them falling into the bust category. The sample was very small, and there was one major exception in Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

If teams are “reaching” for quarterbacks, it’s at the end of the first round or it’s between pick No. 5 and No. 10. Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker and Matt Leinart are examples of the former. Tim Tebow, Brady Quinn and Rex Grossman are examples of the latter. Had we extended this to include the 2012 draft, Brandon Weeden would become another bust to be drafted in the late first round.

GREEN BAY, WI - NOVEMBER 24: Christian Ponder #7 of the Minnesota Vikings passes against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on November 24, 2013 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Vikings and the Packers tied 26-26 after overtime.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Only Christian Ponder and Cade McNown are examples of busts between pick No. 12 and 21. This area seemed to present the least risk for teams looking for a quarterback. Still a few pitfalls, but not as many. Teams looking for value may consider trading back or up to this area for a quarterback if one presents the value.


Impact on Team

Missing a quarterback can set back a franchise years. Before the rookie wage scale, a miss could set a franchise back five years or more. The Oakland Raiders are still trying to find a long-term starting quarterback after they selected JaMarcus Russell back in 2007.

Sam Bradford was the last rookie quarterback to receive a lucrative rookie contract, but he’s yet to produce enough to justify his pay or draft position. Recent misses include Blaine Gabbert, Ponder and Weeden. The teams that drafted them all fired their head coach, general manager or both within three years of their drafting.

The risk is so monumental; teams would be wise to hedge their bet on a rookie quarterback with a veteran. Trades for veterans have worked for teams in recent years. Both the Arizona Cardinals with Carson Palmer and the Kansas City Chiefs with Alex Smith are happy with the results after Year 1.

Draft Busts Win/Loss Records
TimeframeQB DraftedWinsLosses
2011-2013 VikingsChristian Ponder1420
2011-2013 JaguarsBlaine Gabbert522
2011-2013 TitansJake Locker810
2010-2013 RamsSam Bradford1830
2009-2013 JetsMark Sanchez3329
2007-2009 RaidersJaMarcus Russell718

Having a veteran in place before the draft can also help a team avoid reaching on a quarterback altogether. It’s such an important decision that any team that doesn’t have a viable option at the draft is going to feel tremendous pressure to draft one. Due to the competitive landscape of the NFL, it’s only logical that such a scenario results in a team reaching.

Both the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks let their young starters fall to them in a range that presented great value. The 49ers drafted Colin Kaepernick in the second round, and he wasn’t under pressure to start right away because they still had Alex Smith.

The pressure wasn’t on Russell Wilson to start immediately, either. Matt Flynn was penciled in as the starter, and Wilson simply beat him out for the job.

The Value of Waiting
TimeframeQB DraftedRoundWinsLosses
2011-2013 49ersColin Kaepernick2176
2012-2013 SeahawksRussell Wilson3248
2011-2013 BengalsAndy Dalton23018

Another example of executing this strategy was the Cincinnati Bengals, who selected Andy Dalton in the second round in 2011. While Dalton may not be great and he was drafted just ahead of Kaepernick, he’s not terrible.

The Bengals didn’t have to invest a first-round pick to get Dalton, which is why the move was still a smart one. The decision to wait on a quarterback enabled the Bengals to get wide receiver A.J. Green and avoid Ponder, Locker and Gabbert.

CINCINNATI, OH - JANUARY 05:  Quarterback Andy Dalton #14 of the Cincinnati Bengals passes against the San Diego Chargers during a Wild Card Playoff game at Paul Brown Stadium on January 5, 2014 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Bringing in Dalton acts as a bridge just as a veteran quarterback would. Dalton also enabled the Bengals to ship Palmer to Oakland for two first-round picks, something that should not be lost.

Based on this information, you can see why the Jacksonville Jaguars re-signed Chad Henne and the Oakland Raiders traded for Matt Schaub. It’s why teams like the Houston Texans signed Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Minnesota Vikings re-signed Matt Cassel.

All of these teams are still desperate for a franchise quarterback, but the last thing they want to do is reach for one and start the clock on their job security. After Ponder, Locker and Gabbert, teams may have finally learned their lesson about reaching for quarterbacks.


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