Why Trading Up for a Quarterback in the NFL Draft Is Almost Always a Bad Idea

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistApril 17, 2021

FILE- In this Jan. 24, 2020, file photo, San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch, right, and head coach Kyle Shanahan, left, watch as players practice at the team's NFL football training facility in Santa Clara, Calif. The San Francisco 49ers have agreed on a one-year contract with free agent tight end Jordan Reed,  Lynch announced Monday, Aug. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar, File)
Tony Avelar/Associated Press

The San Francisco 49ers have already done it this year, and there's speculation that quarterback-starved teams like the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, Chicago Bears or Washington Football Team could try to do the same.

I'm referring to the classic trade-up for a potential franchise quarterback.

Such deals are often incredibly costly—San Francisco parted with two extra first-round picks and a third-round selection merely to move up nine spots atop this month's draft—and they rarely pay off.

In fact, most first-round trade-ups for quarterbacks turn out to be crippling mistakes.

In the last 12 drafts, 16 of the 37 quarterbacks picked in the first round were selected following trade-ups. Ten of those 16 were top-10 selections. Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen have been success stories for the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills, respectively, but the same can't be said for Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Mitchell Trubisky, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Robert Griffin III, Blaine Gabbert and Mark Sanchez. 

Rich Schultz/Associated Press

All eight of those quarterbacks have to be considered busts by the teams that drafted them. None remains with his original team, and only Darnold, Goff and Wentz remain NFL starters. The jury's still arguably out on those three, but they were all traded this offseason by teams that essentially gave up on them.

Darnold and Rosen might have served as cautionary tales in 2018. Since then, six quarterbacks have been drafted with top-25 selections, but none of those picks were made following trade-ups. The only first-round trade-up for a quarterback since the New York Jets missed on Darnold and the Arizona Cardinals missed on Rosen? The Green Bay Packers' move up for Jordan Love late in Round 1 of last year's draft.

How does that 80 percent bust rate for trades into the top 10 for quarterbacks compare to the general bust rate in the top 10? The jury's still out on 2020 top-10 selections Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert, but Burrow, Herbert and top 2019 pick Kyler Murray are off to strong starts.

The only clear-cut bust among the seven quarterbacks drafted by teams that didn't trade up in the past four drafts is Dwayne Haskins, who is already a former member of the Washington Football Team.

Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

In addition to Burrow, Herbert and Murray, top 2018 pick Baker Mayfield appears to be on the right track, and we're still waiting for clarity on Tua and Daniel Jones.

Prior to that, it's complicated and somewhat ugly regardless of whether we're looking at trade-up scenarios.

Including Mayfield, between 2009 and 2018, nine quarterbacks were selected in the top 10 by teams that didn't trade up for them. Five (Mayfield, Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill, Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford) should be considered success stories to various degrees, while four (Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Blake Bortles and Jake Locker) absolutely should not.

Now, you're probably thinking Mayfield still has a lot to prove; Luck didn't actually pan out for the Indianapolis Colts as a result of his sudden mid-prime retirement; Tannehill has experienced most of his success since leaving the Miami Dolphins; and neither Newton nor Stafford was consistently successful with the team that drafted him.

Depending on your standards, you could legitimately look at the list of 25 quarterbacks selected within the top 10 in the last dozen drafts and conclude that the only truly successful ones are Mahomes and Allen. 

Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

And that's really the point. While the Chiefs and Bills did trade up for those young superstars, those are outliers. Early-first-round quarterbacks have not regularly panned out in general in the past 10-15 years, which is why trading up for one is especially silly.

What's the alternative if you're a team without a top-10 pick? It's not as though the Bills look like geniuses for trading down and drafting EJ Manuel in the middle of the first round in 2013, and the Minnesota Vikings and Cleveland Browns won't brag about waiting to take Christian Ponder and Brandon Weeden, respectively, outside of the top 10.

There's a "damned if you do and damned if you don't" dynamic at play, but most recently, the Los Angeles Chargers "settled" for the third quarterback to come off the board in the 2020 draft, and Herbert was the Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Here's the key: If you're rolling dice regardless, why pay extra to roll? Precedents indicate that doing so is no more likely to pay off, and if everyone loses, you're out more than everyone else at the craps table.

Why do teams keep making this mistake? For starters, it reeks of hubris. They're convinced they see something others don't in a particular quarterback, or they become so obsessed with a passing prospect that they develop tunnel vision.

But there's plenty of evidence that the best way to build a winner through the draft crapshoot is to acquire as many dice as possible. With all due respect to scouting departments and team executives, it's a numbers game more so than an evaluation game.

The glass-half-empty take is that quarterback evaluations have failed so often that they can no longer be trusted, while the glass-half-full perspective is that it's unlikely one team's scouting department is going to notice something that others don't, at least when it comes to deeply studied first-round quarterbacks.

Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

And yet the 49ers now own the third overall pick, likely because they became so infatuated with Alabama's Mac Jones, Ohio State's Justin Fields or North Dakota State's Trey Lance that they couldn't bear losing one or all of them by standing pat at 12. And another team might join them in the top five if the Atlanta Falcons or Cincinnati Bengals decide to trade down for a king's ransom.

That despite the fact that in modern NFL history, a team has never traded into the top five and landed a quarterback who became its primary starter for more than six years.

In 1983, the Denver Broncos moved up within the top five (four to one) for the rights to John Elway, but they already had a top-five pick, and that deal had more to do with the fact Elway refused to play for the Baltimore Colts. And in 1975, the Falcons made a deal to move up from the third spot to the top slot for Steve Bartkowski. But nobody has ever traded into the top five and walked away with a quarterback who lasted. Mike Phipps (1970), Bert Jones (1973), Sanchez, Goff and Wentz are the closest cases.

In other words, wait. Bide your time. Maybe that won't pan out either, but at least you'll keep your draft capital. And who knows, maybe you'll wind up with an Aaron Rodgers late in Round 1, or a Drew Brees in Round 2, a Russell Wilson in Round 3, a Dak Prescott in Round 4 or even a Tom Brady in Round 6. 


Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter, @Brad_Gagnon.