We think that we know, but we don’t. For months, we act like we know exactly who these prospects are and what they’ll be in the league. Of course, things never happen that way. Football isn’t played in a vacuum.
Due to the outrageous popularity of the NFL, draft season has taken on a life of its own. We now spend months talking, but all of this talk means little on draft day and even less when the actual games start.
Of course, the draft may be the single most important day in the league for building a team. The teams that are consistently strong year after year, teams like the Packers, Seahawks, Broncos, and Steelers, stay strong because of what they do on draft day. That can’t be emphasized enough.
The ability to come out of draft day with impact players out of round one and finding starters in the back end of the draft is how perennial contenders are made. Yet, the value of these draft picks has ballooned out of proportion, especially with the league's new CBA. Teams are willing to give up star talent for picks that, in all likelihood, won’t lead to players close to that caliber.
In the past years, there have been outrageous trades made in the name of draft picks. Martellus Bennett, one of the Chicago’s few impact players, was shipped off to New England last month for the Bears to move up 77 spots in the draft.
The best third-down running back in the league, Darren Sproles, was sent packing from New Orleans for just a fifth-round pick. The Chiefs acquired their franchise quarterback in Alex Smith for a pair of second-round picks. Perhaps most notably, the Cardinals traded for one of the league's top quarterbacks in Carson Palmer, albeit on the downswing of his career, in exchange for a pair of late-round picks.
Of course, there are factors at play here beyond just the caliber of the player who is being traded when compared to the one drafted with that pick. With a draft pick, a team has their choice of a player in their position of choice. That player is young, on a cheap rookie contract, and can be tailor-made for the team's scheme. Veteran players may obviously come with cap damaging contracts. Even so, the length which teams will go to acquire even low-level draft picks is remarkable.
With this is mind, I decided to look at the true value of a draft pick for each position at each point in the draft. For our purposes here, I’m going to stick to recent examples of players. I’m restricting my look at players drafted before 2014, as most scouts will say that it takes three years to evaluate a player in the league.
The goal here is to take a look at the actual value of players at each point in the draft. Throughout the month leading to the draft, we’ll look at trends for the premium positions in the last five years. This first article will take a more in-depth look at the quarterback position as much of the focus of the draft goes to the game’s most important position.
Due to the of the obvious value of the position, good quarterbacks don’t last long in the draft. It’s rare that a top quarterback prospect lasts outside the top ten picks in the draft, with the exceptions to this in recent years with Aaron Rodgers and Teddy Bridgewater.
Top Ten Picks (From 2009 To 2013)
Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Sam Bradford, Matt Stafford, Mark Sanchez
This sample paints a mixed picture of what teams are getting with a top ten pick. Luck and Newton have been game-changing talents ever since entering the league and Stafford has been a solid starter for years. Bradford and Tannehill are still question marks and the jury is out on Griffin and Sanchez. Locker is out of the league entirely after failing in Tennessee. What this suggests is that “reaching” for a prospect in the top ten, like Locker or Sanchez, rarely leads to success. The players with more success in this group have had at least some talent around them to help them develop. This appears to be the only area that has a good chance of finding quality starters. Notably, teams in the past two years have had more success in this area, with Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, and Blake Bortles all looking like franchise options.
EJ Manuel, Brandon Weeden, Christian Ponder, Tim Tebow, Josh Freeman
This list reads like a literal “who’s who” of quarterback busts of the past ten years. None of these players have found any level of sustained success in the league and all of them have washed out of their starting jobs within two years. Well-rounded quarterback prospects don’t last this long in the draft. Trying to fix a flawed, toolsy player rarely works out and players drafted in this range tend to be reaches. Manuel, Weeden, and Ponder have stuck around as quality back-up options, but Freeman is struggling to stay in the league and Tebow has already begun a second career in broadcasting.
Geno Smith, Brock Osweiler, Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Jimmy Clausen, Pat White
The list doesn’t get much better for second-round picks, either. Teams taking a quarterback in the second round are typically those with a need who missed out early, or those looking for a long-term development option. Osweiler and Kaepernick represent talented players who needed time to grow into the league. However, neither of them represent viable long-term starters in the league, despite what their salaries might indicate. Dalton has enjoyed the most success in this group, although he has still yet to show that he can win big games. This group shows that players who are taken in this range are either limited passers who can only succeed in the right system, like Dalton, or athletic guys who are a long way away from being franchise players, like Geno Smith. The odds aren’t high that a team is finding a franchise quarterback here.
Middle Rounds (3rd and 4th)
Mike Glennon, Matt Barkley, Ryan Nassib, Tyler Wilson, Landry Jones, Russell Wilson, Nick Foles, Kirk Cousins, Ryan Mallet, Colt McCoy, Al Woods, Stephen McGee
It’s a 50-50 proposition of whether or not a player in this range will take meaningful snaps in a regular season game. We don’t have any tangible evidence that guys with names like Ryan Nassib or Al Woods actually exist. Although players like Glennon and Foles have provided hope for short stretches, they haven’t been long term solutions as teams have been able to exploit their more glaring flaws. Russell Wilson is the obvious outlier in this group, as his height caused him to fall further than a player with his skills should have. Teams need to be realistic and realize that they are most likely drafting quality backups or spot starters at this point in the draft. Franchise quarterbacks don’t last this long.
The late rounds of the draft are a wasteland for quarterback prospects. If someone drafted in this range is even on an NFL roster three years down the road, it can be considered a success. Here are some actual names of actual players who have been taken in this area: Rhett Bomar, Tom Brandstater, Mike Teel, Keith Null, Rusty Smith, Ricky Stanzi, and Greg McElroy. Tyrod Taylor represents a rare success story found in this range. People will always use the anecdote of Tom Brady being drafted in the sixth round, but that is the exception, not the rule. Talented, developmental prospects that last this long almost never succeed. Teams need to be realistic. Players who are drafted in this range are backups in a best case scenario. These are essentially throwaway picks.