Wilson or Luck, Foles or Cousins? History Says Draft Order May Not Matter

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterSeptember 23, 2014

Getty Images

Let’s say we had a chance to redraft the Quarterback Class of 2012 right now, immediately after a Week 3 in which Russell Wilson led the Seahawks to overtime victory in a Super Bowl rematch, Andrew Luck won big against the Jacksonville Junior Varsity and Nick Foles outdueled Kirk Cousins in a six-touchdown Wild West shootout/saloon brawl. 

Our new draft board would be completely different than the real draft board:

OrderDrafted (Round-Pick)Now
1Andrew Luck (1-1)Russell Wilson
2Robert Griffin (1-2)Andrew Luck
3Ryan Tannehill (1-8)Nick Foles
4Brandon Weeden (1-22) Ryan Tannehill
5Brock Osweiler (2-57)Kirk Cousins
6Russell Wilson (3-75)Robert Griffin
7Nick Foles (3-88)Brandon Weeden
8Kirk Cousins (4-102)The Rest

You may quibble with that order a little, perhaps ranking Cousins above Tannehill based on Sunday’s sugar high, giving RG3 a little more benefit of the doubt, ranking Weeden below “the rest,” or even ranking Luck ahead of Wilson. Broncos defensive back Chris Harris would disagree with you on that last point; since he just intercepted Wilson on Sunday, he knows what he is talking about.

But no matter how many tweaks you make, the class of 2012 is topsy-turvy, with three mid-round picks clustered at the top and several first-rounders sinking to the bottom. Much of what we thought we knew 30 months ago was wrong.

OK, you’ve played the “redraft the class of 2012” game before, and you will play it again many times in the years to come. It generates interesting talking points, some of which are of dubious merit: THE WHOLE DRAFT IS A CRAPSHOOT. SCOUTS DON’T KNOW NUTTIN ABOUT NUTTIN. THIRTY-TWO GMS PASSED ON WILSON TWICE SO THEY SHOULD ALL BE FIRED. Shuffling the class of 2012 hardly qualifies as a breathtaking new sports take. Wilson’s great, Weeden was a mistake and the Redskins can screw things up 50 ways from Sunday: We get the message.

But what would happen if we redrafted the legendary quarterback class of 1983, not according to how its players rank now that three of them have reached the Hall of Fame, but how those QBs ranked three games into their third NFL season?

The results would be just as higgledy-piggledy as the revised 2012 order. Drafts are always messy; great quarterback drafts just make it more noticeable. The class of 2012 is no more jumbled or confusing than any other great quarterback class, whether judged after the early returns or decades down the road.

Here’s a look at how the class of 1983 stacked up three weeks into the 1985 season, as well as its draft order and where the players currently rank:

OrderDrafted (Round-Pick)FinalEarly 1985
1John Elway (1-1)Dan MarinoDan Marino
2Todd Blackledge (1-7)John ElwayJohn Elway
3Jim Kelly (1-14)Jim KellyTony Eason
4Tony Eason (1-15)Ken O’BrienKen O’Brien
5Ken O’Brien (1-24)Tony EasonTodd Blackledge
6Dan Marino (1-27)Todd BlackledgeJim Kelly

Don’t scream, Broncos fans: I used the Pro Football Reference Career Approximate Value ratings to rank Marino over Elway (and establish the rest of the “current orders” in this article). Elway and Marino are both Hall of Famers, and no one is taking the busts off the wall or the rings off any fingers.

Three games into the 1985 season, though, no one would question Marino’s ranking over Elway. Marino was coming off a historic 48-touchdown season and a Super Bowl appearance. His Dolphins beat the Chiefs 31-0 in Week 3 of 1985, and they blew out the Colts the previous week.

It’s only a small stretch to compare Marino to Wilson. Marino was overlooked in the draft because of college injuries and a maliciously spread drug rumor; Wilson was too short and a college transfer. Both overtook shaky incumbent veterans as rookies and reached the Super Bowl in their second seasons. Both were on the vanguard of NFL strategic shifts: Marino helped usher in the era of nonstop passing, while Wilson is proving that read-option tactics can win Super Bowls.

Elway was a lot like RG3 in 1985: the overexposed, frustrating mega-talent who provoked a zany draft trade.

Elway was controversial in 1985; he was turnover-prone and considered too big for his britches when he refused to play for the Colts. The Broncos drafted Gary Kubiak in 1983 (remember that they had to trade with the Colts to acquire Elway), and Kubiak finished a blowout victory and won a spot start in 1984. It is not a stretch to say that Kubiak was one Elway injury away from being exactly where Kirk Cousins is now.

Associated Press

“When Kubiak plays, he can do no wrong,” wrote Michael Kinsley of the Denver Post in 1985, noting that talk-radio callers pined for the backup after every poor Elway performance. “If he isn't perfect, that's all right because he's the second-string quarterback. If Elway isn't perfect ... well, Elway has to be perfect, doesn't he?”

Sounds familiar.

As for the rest of the class of 1983, Eason was about to take the Patriots to the Super Bowl, but early in 1985 he was an on-and-off starter who gutted out tight victories between injuries while New England fans demanded Steve Grogan. O’Brien had just taken over the Jets starting job late the previous year. He was embarking on a 10-win, Pro Bowl 1985 season with 42-3 and 24-3 early-season victories. Blackledge was already becoming the Weeden of his class—Bill Kenney opened the 1985 season as the Chiefs starter—but at least Blackledge was in the NFL.

Jim Kelly was still playing for the USFL’s Houston Gamblers in 1985. The league had not quite collapsed yet, and no one knew quite how to evaluate a superstar like Kelly, who beat up on questionable opponents but (like Elway) was brash and had a gift for foot-in-mouth press conferences in his youth.

In other words, if there had been Twitter in 1985, Elway and Kelly would have been considered jerks, Marino a druggie and O’Brien would probably be the Next Big Thing. Kelly’s USFL stint reminds us that we may be pushing an as-yet-unseen quarterback like Brock Osweiler up the rankings in a few years.

Let’s look at a more recent quarterback class of note. The class of 1999 was supposed to change everything. As of 2001, it looked like it still might.

OrderDrafted (Round-Pick)FinalEarly 2001
1Tim Couch (1-1)Donovan McNabbDonovan McNabb
2Donovan McNabb (1-2)Daunte CulpepperDaunte Culpepper
3Akili Smith (1-3) Aaron BrooksShaun King
4Daunte Culpepper (1-11)Tim CouchAaron Brooks
5Cade McNown (1-12)Shaun KingTim Couch
6Shaun King (2-50)Cade McNownAkili Smith
7Aaron Brooks (4-31)Akili SmithCade McNown
Note: Brock Huard and Joe Germaine were also drafted ahead of Aaron Brooks.

McNabb threw seven touchdowns to just one interception in the first three games of his third season, and the Eagles were the NFC’s rising stars. Culpepper threw 33 touchdowns in 2000, but he started 2001 slowly, so McNabb would likely rank just above him if you rated them on a Tuesday morning after Week 3. Both were front-runners to become the NFL’s next great quarterback. Meanwhile, Tom Brady had just won his first start.

The rest of the rankings of the mostly disappointing class of 1999 look unrecognizable today. King went 4-1 at the end of 1999 and 10-6 in 2000, leading the Buccaneers to the playoffs, where they lost to McNabb’s Eagles. King was a “find a way” quarterback who sometimes threw for 65 yards in 27-7 victories, so Tony Dungy benched him in favor of 33-year-old Brad Johnson in 2001. But King was still a popular talking point at the start of the season. “Shaun King Outplays Brad Johnson in Loss” was the tagline to one Tampa Tribune article about a 2001 preseason game.

Couch had not yet started climbing the all-time bust lists. He appeared to be coming around at the start of 2001, posting decent numbers in wins against the Lions and Jaguars. Smith and McNown, meanwhile, were already climbing those bust lists.

9 Sep 2001:  Quarterback Aaron Brooks #2 of the New Orleans Saints throwing the ball during the game against the Buffalo Bills at the Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, New York.  The Saints defeated the Bills 24-6.Mandatory Credit: Rick Stewart  /Alls
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Brooks was about to take the league by storm. He threw three touchdowns in the 2001 season opener and would go on to throw 26 touchdowns, establishing a pattern that would define his career: lots of stats, lots of mistakes and lots of .500 Saints finishes.

“I guess I could say that I'm the new millennium quarterback,” Brooks said after the 2001 season opener. “I'm definitely a passing quarterback with the ability to run. I offer a football team so many things. I can scramble. I can throw with accuracy. Whatever you need from me, I've got it. That's how I see myself.”

Brooks has been forgotten outside of New Orleans—Drew Brees is an effective memory wipe—but in 2001 he was known as Michael Vick’s cousin and a hand-selected-and-nurtured Mike Holmgren prospect who escaped Brett Favre’s shadow in Green Bay.

Some of those class of 1999 quarterback narratives sound like they are 130 years old, not 13; it is hard to remember a world where Buccaneers fans clamored for King and Eagles fans adored McNabb. The cautionary tale of the class of 1999 is that three of the quarterbacks reached the playoffs in 2000, and two others (Brooks and Couch) still looked like they were on their way to stardom. There was no sense that this would be a class defined by disappointment.

Thanks to Wilson, the class of 2013 has already accomplished more than McNabb and company, but there is no guarantee that the young Seattle QB and others will someday be remembered like Elway, Marino and Kelly. There’s a whole range of success between the classes of 1983 and 1999, and years of football left to play.


Let’s have some real fun and set our Wayback Machine to 1971. For fans too young to remember the days when “mass media” meant Walter Cronkite and a weekly consultation with Dr. Z, 1971 was an exciting time for the NFL. The AFL merger was finally complete, the Super Bowl was on its way to becoming America’s most important sporting event, and a huge crop of highly anticipated college quarterbacks was about to enter the newly realigned and unified league.

Here is how those young quarterbacks entered, how they looked in 1973 and where they rank nearly half a century later:

OrderDrafted (Round-Pick)FinalEarly 1973
1Jim Plunkett (1-1)Ken AndersonKen Anderson
2Archie Manning (1-2)Joe TheismannArchie Manning
3Dan Pastorini (1-3)Jim PlunkettScott Hunter
4Lynn Dickey (3-56)Archie ManningJim Plunkett
5Leo Hart (3-59)Lynn DickeyDan Pastorini
6Ken Anderson (3-67)Dan PastoriniLynn Dickey
7Karl Douglas (3-78)Scott HunterJoe Theismann
8Joe Theismann (4-99)The RestThe Rest

The class of 1971 would win three Super Bowls and appear in another. It produced no Hall of Famers, but it did yield the first great West Coast Offense quarterback, the patriarch of pro football’s first family and a bunch of guys who were ever-present in the playoffs from the late 1970s through the mid-1980s.

But in 1973, this class was a mess. Anderson was the only quarterback experiencing any real success; an assistant coach named Bill Walsh was tutoring him in a newfangled short passing system, and Anderson would build off a 7-6 season for the 1972 Bengals to break big in 1973.

J. Walter Green/Associated Press

Plunkett was coming off a 25-interception, 3-11 season for a mismanaged Patriots team that had more in common with the modern Jaguars (except that they were also financially broke) than the New England team we think of today. Manning’s Saints, still a bumbling expansion team, finished 2-11-1 the previous season; Manning started the 1973 season 0-3, with a five-interception opener and losses of 62-7 and 40-3. Pastorini led the Oilers to a 1-11 record in 1972; the best that can be said of his quarterback play was that he led the NFL in punts (some quarterbacks still did both back then). Dickey was the Cousins to Pastorini’s RG3; he subbed for Pastorini at the end of a 36-7 loss in Week 3 of 1973.

And Theismann? The 1970 Heisman runner-up was in Canada, playing for the Toronto Argonauts instead of languishing on the bench behind Bob Griese. He would not become an NFL quarterback who mattered until 1978, seven years after he was drafted. Hunter, who led a Packers team with some Lombardi-era stragglers to a 10-4 record in 1972 while handing off 39 times per game, was the Shaun King of his era and is completely forgotten now.

All of the class of 1971 was forced to wait. Plunkett failed extended stints with the Patriots and 49ers before winning a pair of Super Bowls for the 1980s Raiders. Anderson did not reach the Super Bowl until the Steel Curtain Steelers began to fade and the pass interference rules were tightened. Dickey needed a trade to the Packers and the arrival of James Lofton to become a relevant passer. Pastorini needed Earl Campbell to start battling the Steelers in the playoffs. Manning did not become the NFL’s favorite hard-luck case until he made the 1978 Pro Bowl, when his second of three sons was still in diapers.

Note that most of those 1971 quarterbacks were already starters by 1973, so their need to wait for success had nothing to do with the “quarterbacks sat on the bench and learned for six years in the good ol’ days” myth. They had to wait for success because quarterback careers are complicated, and because top picks are often selected by mixed-up organizations (Akili Smith, Plunkett, RG3-Cousins) while mid-round picks sometimes get lucky and latch on with offensive gurus (Anderson, Brooks, Foles). Some guys have fine careers but never win much (O’Brien, Manning...Tannehill?), while others have a big-story season or two before falling off (King, Hunter, Eason...RG3?)

So this week’s class of 2012 rankings are hardly etched in stone. We may look back on them and laugh at the end of this season, let alone 13, 31 or 43 years from now. But that doesn’t make the rankings any less compelling. We still remember Theismann and Manning, Elway-Marino-Kelly and McNabb and Culpepper. Decades from now, we will still remember Wilson, Luck and probably a few of the others very fondly.

Just not in the order we list them today.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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