Made by the Draft, Broken by the System: The Growing Generation of Lost QBs

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterMay 17, 2016

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon (8) and quarterback Jameis Winston, right, sit on the bench during the second half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in Tampa, Fla., Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015. The Panthers won 37-23. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

NFL teams are paying kings' ransoms for young quarterbacks, and why not? In today's NFL, a good young signal-caller can secure the future of a team—and a general manager—for a decade.

The Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles gave up breathtaking draft-pick value for the rights to draft Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, respectively. Yet there was more discussion about whether Ezekiel Elliott was worth drafting No. 4 overall than whether Goff was worth two first-, second- and third-round picks.

It's understood: If Goff becomes a Pro Bowl quarterback, he's worth all that and more.

But what if he doesn't? This is the second time in seven drafts the Rams have taken a quarterback No. 1 overall. In between, they traded out of a No. 2 overall pick so a different team could, yes, draft a quarterback. If Goff fails, the Rams will have wasted a decade riding the quarterback merry-go-round.

They aren't the only marks at the carnie; the entire league is caught up in an ever-quickening cycle of drafting, starting and discarding rookie passers.

The result: a lost generation of young NFL veterans who've shown some ability to play, all languishing on the bottom of depth charts. Jimmy Garoppolo, Mike Glennon, Zach Mettenberger, Tom Savage and even Geno Smith are all players who had starter potential before the draft, were talked about as potential starters last spring and now can't get an opportunity.

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

"It's just asinine, to be honest with you," Ted Sundquist told Bleacher Report. Sundquist, former general manager of the Denver Broncos, has been watching teams give up far too early on promising quarterback talent over and over again.

"All these guys are not that long in the tooth in the NFL, and all of us—including the teams, the media, those of us who used to be in the game—were talking about them the exact same way we're now talking about Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Paxton Lynch," Sundquist said. "We hear it every single year. You can go all the way down to Connor Cook; my bet is three or four of those guys never pan out."

RICH SCHULTZ/Associated Press

"Everything now is on a fast track," Phil Savage agreed. Savage, former general manager of the Cleveland Browns and current executive director of the Reese's Senior Bowl, knows how little time decision-makers get to build a team. "The patience of the fans, the media, the ownership is so limited compared to 10, 15, 20 or, good night, 30 years ago when you wouldn't even dream of putting a rookie quarterback on the field." 

"It's all about perception," Savage explained. Betting the farm on a top rookie quarterback, and hitting it big, cements an executive's legacy as an evaluator. "There's a perception you're getting a franchise quarterback—with the emphasis on you're getting him. He's your pick, he's your choice for your organization, and I think there's some pride and ego involved in that. You're going to get more credit if you draft one of these franchise quarterbacks."

Rams executives might have seen pushing all their chips onto Goff as their only option.

Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press

"They're in a do-or-die, yet no-lose situation," Savage said. "Jeff Fisher and Les Snead, who haven't had a winning season in four years—if this works, they may stay another decade. If they don't do this, then they're probably going to be out of there in one or two seasons, at most."

On the veteran market, though, the picks they gave up for Goff might have landed them a Pro Bowler. As Savage pointed out, giving a shelved talent an opportunity can just as easily prove successful: Former Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf trading for Brett Favre was "the signature moment" of Wolf's Hall of Fame career.

"People tend to trust their own judgement, their own evaluations, on these college players more than anything else," Savage said. "And in three years, we'll be talking about all the kids that missed, didn't make it, flopped or whatever else. But on draft night, it seems like the best move you can possibly make."

"A lot of this circles back to, what is the overall goal of the organization doing this?" Sundquist said. "Teams that don't have quarterbacks are usually losing. So the question becomes, 'What are you trying to accomplish here?' Do you want this guy to come in and immediately turn this around?" If so, surrendering a huge stack of draft picks works against the goal. Any decision-maker who gives away as much young talent as the Rams or Eagles did had better have a very good blueprint for supporting the young passer.

Sundquist working the 2007 draft with Mike Shanahan.
Sundquist working the 2007 draft with Mike Shanahan.ED ANDRIESKI/Associated Press

Many of this lost generation of quarterbacks have fallen victim to this Catch-22: They've been drafted too high, quickly inserted into a flawed lineup and then benched for someone else. Other teams' pro scouts then watch the film from those dire situations and write the quarterback off for good.

"Football has got a major problem," Sundquist said. Baseball teams long ago realized good pitching is the key to winning; teams stuff their farm systems and rosters with a disproportionate number of pitching prospects. "There's a process to give these guys a chance to develop. In football, we don't have that."

From eliminating its European development league to scrapping the emergency-quarterback roster rule, the NFL is going in the opposite direction. Sundquist points to the New Orleans Saints as a perfect example of how counterproductive this is.

"They invested a third-round pick in Garrett Grayson last year, but the process does not give them enough reps to even find out what they have [in him]," Sundquist said. As a result, the Saints were rumored to be considering Lynch in the first round, as floated on Twitter by NFL Media's Ian Rapoport:

Ian Rapoport @RapSheet

As storylines develop for Thursday, one to keep in mind: The #Saints had talks about moving up to No. 1 for a QB. Will they do it for Lynch?

"I can find you a bunch of second- and third-team quarterbacks who can tell you what they need to do," Sundquist said: players able to parrot the right answers to classroom questions. But the mind-body connection required to read and react on the field can only be built with seeing the field and reacting at game speed.

"We don't have a way to recreate those situations in football without 21 other players out there so you can get the feel of what's going on," Sundquist said. "So at the most important position in football, there's no way to develop young prospects unless they are the starters." And if these young players are starting for perennial losers with no foundation in place, soon their struggles will be all anyone can talk about.

"'Oh, I saw him against the Saints and he pissed down his leg,'" Sundquist said, in sarcastic imitation of scouts who can't see past a young player's adverse circumstances. "But just 18 months ago, you were saying this guy's the greatest thing since sliced bread!" He lamented the teams wastefully "starting over, starting over, starting over" at football's most important position.

"It's hurting the game," Sundquist said. "In 2015, the 32 teams spent $441 million in cash, not in cap but in cash, on the quarterback position." Though not every quarterback under contract is going to be rostered come September, Sundquist says over $497 million is committed to the quarterback position for 2016.

Could VR solve the NFL's quarterback development problem?
Could VR solve the NFL's quarterback development problem?Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press

This is why Sundquist is launching a virtual football training system, Sports VTS, that uses "military-grade, NASA-like, state-of-the-art VR technology" to give young quarterbacks the virtual reps they can't get in the real world anymore. There are similar products on the market already, such as STRIVR, but Sundquist says these are essentially "fancier ways of watching film."

Sundquist, who both played and coached for the U.S. Air Force Academy, wouldn't throw the term "military grade" around lightly. His system could be a huge step forward, and an invaluable tool for NFL teams letting their most valuable human resources wither on the vine.

Ultimately, though, there's more at play than just the failure of scout-team reps to prepare fourth-rounders for the first string.

James Kenney/Associated Press

There's the failure of pro-personnel scouts to evaluate young veterans with as much of an eye for upside as college scouts evaluate draft prospects—and the equal failure of college scouts to be realistic about how high a rookie's ceiling is, or how fast he's likely to get there.

There's the weakness of NFL decision-makers trying to put their definitive stamp on a franchise rather than find the surest path from where a team is to where it wants to be—and the equal failure of ownership to commit to a long-term plan for sustainable success.

Perhaps most of all, NFL teams' many failures in developing the quarterback system come from the gamified nature of the NFL draft, where the intoxicating promise of "pick value" never directly correlates with on-field worth.

In the end, it's not about winning the draft, it's about winning games—and there are too many quarterbacks good enough to win games who won't be starting any come autumn.

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