Jared Goff and Carson Wentz went first and second overall, respectively, in the 2016 NFL draft. Just a year ago, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota did the same thing. Was quarterbacks going first and second overall a unique occurrence these last two drafts, or are we in the midst of a new norm for the NFL draft process?
Looking at the historical trends, contract ramifications and pros and cons of the approach, the feeling is quarterbacks going atop the draft board is a trend that will continue well into the future. And while it's far from a foolproof plan, it's one that NFL teams may feel is a necessity to building a successful franchise.
A Look at History
NFL draft trends tend to fluctuate over the years as the league changes and smart teams adjust to the marketplace and movement in what’s working in the league. The running back trends, for example, shifted from taking the position high in the early 2000s to almost eliminating them from the first-round discussion in the early 2010s, and now we've seen Ezekiel Elliott go in the top five with an early run on running backs likely coming in 2017.
However, this jostling for position atop the draft for a quarterback is a trend that's here to stay.
Below is a list of quarterbacks drafted in the top five over the last eight drafts, and more than a few notable takeaways jump out. Twice has a quarterback gone third in the draft. In those two instances—with hindsight—the 2008 Miami Dolphins (picking first overall) should have drafted Matt Ryan instead of spending a top-10 pick on Ryan Tannehill four years later, and the 2014 Houston Texans (picking first overall) opted for Jadeveon Clowney instead of Blake Bortles before suffering through frustrating finishes in 2014 and 2015 and aggressively spending on Brock Osweiler.
Additionally, quarterbacks going first and second overall has happened three times in the last five years. Finally, the prior two times a team traded up into the top five for a quarterback, they made the playoffs in that quarterback’s rookie season.
Nearly half the league (15 teams) has a starting quarterback that was taken in the top five, with just six teams finding a first-round quarterback outside of the first five selections. The league has been moving toward valuing quarterbacks higher and higher, above all else. And while the trend may not be in full force yet (especially looking at the 2014 draft mistakes teams made in letting top quarterbacks like Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr slip), its recent successes have been building to this point.
Value of Rookie Contracts
It may seem like a minute detail, but it’s one that NFL teams have to strongly consider when drafting a quarterback prospect or, in this case, trading up to do so. Initially, the thought that a rookie quarterback who’s picked first or second overall should merit a $7 million annual contract seems high. However, in today’s NFL, with quarterback contracts rising dramatically every year, that’s good enough to rank 25th on the list of quarterback salaries, per Over The Cap.
That contract’s per-year value over a five-year deal (assuming the team triggers the fifth-year option that first-round picks have in their contracts) allows for ample flexibility in building a roster around a young quarterback. After a year or two of growing pains, the quarterback should exceed his contract value substantially, and those respective teams will be able to have a discounted player at the most important position on the field. That gives teams more flexibility to overpay on a receiver or running back over the course of the quarterback’s contract, build the defense further or stockpile quality offensive line depth.
Now consider the trade-up ramifications teams like the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles are hamstrung by when building their rosters due to a lack of available draft picks, as they were dealt to move up for Goff and Wentz. Had they made that move prior to 2011, when the rookie salary cap wasn’t installed yet, they would have been limited on draft picks and forced to take on a $13 million annual contract (if not more) for an unproven quarterback. They’d be limited on mid-round draft picks (which are far cheaper contracts) and forced to overpay for a young quarterback.
However, in today’s environment, they have a much more reasonable contract for their rookie, and $6-plus million extra per year to spend building support around that quarterback in free agency for the next four years. The Rams lost four draft picks in the aggregate from their trade, but using their quarterback cap savings to add four quality free agents is a much more reasonable task than in the pre-rookie salary-cap era.
Pros and Cons to this Approach
The most immediate pro is that selecting a quarterback atop the draft gives a franchise exactly the player it desires most. Whether that means staying put as a quarterback-needy team or moving up for a quarterback who perfectly fits the team's offense, finding a franchise quarterback is the career-saving goal that every head coach and general manager needs to accomplish before they can find stability.
Every young quarterback is different. Some need a veteran in place to let them develop for a bit, while some should play right away. Some need bigger receivers to make up for accuracy concerns, while others need speedy targets to work as run-after-catch and/or vertical threats in the offense. But to start that building process, you need to find the quarterback first. And when one fits a team's system and the staff believes in on and off the field, the prevailing theory has become “go get your guy”.
However, there’s certainly a downside to this aggressive quarterback approach, and one that may eventually slow down this trend. For one, the pressure of being a top draft pick and the rushed nature to develop can inhibit the growth of quarterbacks. Pressure on Mark Sanchez and Robert Griffin certainly played a role in their eventual lack of development and downfall as their team’s quarterbacks.
With Goff needing to assume the starting role for a Rams team that is banking on a playoff appearance and Wentz being brought into a potentially toxic situation in Philadelphia with Sam Bradford, plenty of eyes will be on their early careers. While optimism prevails in their current assessment, fans in L.A. and Philadelphia will quickly turn to frustration should they not thrive early on.
The alternate approach is to draft mid-round quarterbacks each and every year until one hits. While it may be a far more aggravating approach and likely won’t lead to immediate results, it’s a much safer, efficient and contract-saving approach.
The Seattle Seahawks picking Russell Wilson is the most obvious example of how the cheaper mid-round contract allowed them to build their entire defense into a Super Bowl contender. Even the Cincinnati Bengals, Minnesota Vikings and Oakland Raiders refusing to reach on a quarterback in order to get a more reasonably priced player have allowed those teams more spending freedom. Eight quarterbacks drafted in the last six years between Rounds 2-4 have started at least one full season, including playoff quarterbacks Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick and Wilson.
Still, the push toward quarterbacks going first and second overall, when the draft class offers two adequate passers, is real. It’s too early to project whether the 2017 draft will have the same outcome, with Clemson’s Deshaun Watson poised to be drafted first overall while a quarterback like Miami (FL)’s Brad Kaaya or a potential no-name in the Wentz model has a chance to rise up during the 2016 season to secure the other top quarterback spot.
Historically, and thanks to the NFL’s rookie wage scale, it’s proved its success over time and its cost-effectiveness is hard to underappreciate. The fact that Goff and Wentz, two good but not elite quarterbacks, emerged as the clear first and second overall pick is an indictment that this trend is here to stay. And while the totality of its merits can be discussed, it seems NFL teams of all situations have agreed to this new norm, giving it at least a few years' run as the primary method to finding a franchise quarterback.